Thursday, October 28, 2010


I rarely discover contemporary novels that combine intellectual ideas with intriguing human relationships, written in a readable fashion, but I recently read an intriguing novel by Gary Entsminger and Susan Elliott of Pinyon Publishing which combines science and mysticism with the story of humans struggling to work out their destiny in our mysterious universe. OPHELIA’S GHOST (2008) was written by the publisher and designer of CHANT OF DEATH (a mystery co-authored by me and Isabel Anders, published this year).

I was fascinated from start to finish with this compelling read which features an anthropologist, Eva, who goes missing from her camp in the southwest U.S. while she’s researching the Anasazi, a native American culture that disappeared from the U.S. during the 14th century. Her tracker, Joe Hill, with the aid of a field notebook, takes us on an incredible journey that includes UFO’s, Einstein, parallel universes, Shakespeare, Jung, the lost continent Atlantis, astronomy, and psychic consciousness, woven into a complex mix of disciplines and written by authors who are expert at capturing intellectual ideas without lapsing into pedantic prose. These ideas are presented within the construct of a broken relationship between Joe, the tracker and his former wife, Esperanza, a healer who used native-grown herbs to do her work, and his devotion to their daughter Nina who performs in "Hamlet" ( a fitting enactment by the immortal Shakespeare in this story of eternal ideas).  Nina introduces the reader to ghosts and questions about reality.

The authors use the device of Eva’s field journal to carry us into the world of divine knowledge, astronomy, and memory work, interspersed with speculations about the moon’s control over earth dwellers, and pictographs. Their prose is highly accessible and suspenseful as they convey the abovementioned complex ideas, and the reader is beset with moments of wonder and wondering.  

This is speculative fiction/mystery at its zenith, plunging the reader into other worlds where the physicists are desperate for something to believe in. Their theories have gone haywire since Einstein… The story takes place on Anasazi terrain, the Land of the Ancients, in Hovenweep (deserted valley), and the descriptions are as haunting as the mysterious disappearance of Eva and her search for the unknown: She heard the spring more clearly now and decided to search for the source of this water music. Pack on back, she carefully let herself down into the steep canyon. Violet swallows dived above her, while a fat horny lizard scurried at her feet. She watched the lizard a bit too long and forgot where she was; she lost her footing and slid. Her fingers dug into the ground to break her fall. …Once she was out, Eva rested on a boulder. A small blue butterfly fluttered into the patch of silvery lupines. Although only May, the lupines had already begun to produce hair seedpods. The butterfly flitted nervously around the remaining indigo blooms…

I liked the form of dialogue in OPHELIA’S GHOST – Joycean style, rendered without the impediments of quotation marks and “he saids,” “she saids” that often halt the action of most novels, e.g.:

--You’re saying that the Egyptians believed in spaceships?

--Nope. I’m not saying that exactly, but I’m also pretty sure that no one in our lifetimes, at least in mine, will ever be able to convince everyone about what went on with ancient cultures. Some historians think the Pharaoh journeyed to a launch site. And that’s not my claim, but a prestigious scholar’s who studies these things very seriously.

--Another reliable specialist?

--Yep, he says the Pharaoh would go into subterranean complexes, which seemed to be every which way you looked in that time, somewhere between 3000 and 10,000 B.C. So down he goes into this oddly vented underworld. I’ve seen some of the pictures. And in those recluses for oblivion, lit only by lanterns and reflected sunlight and moonlight, the Pharaoh was treated like the royalty he was and prepared for his trip to the next world…

Tantalizing? Yes, and at the conclusion of OPHELIA’S GHOST, we’re left still wondering about Eva’s disappearance, pondering the idea of ancestral control and just how far the Collective Conscious can take us in this life where we pass from world to world in a breathless spin via “ghosts.” We close the book, asking with the authors, how long have we been here? (p. 94 of OPHELIA’S GHOST).

This is cosmic mystery at its best, and it makes me even prouder that CHANT OF DEATH was published by the two intelligent authors with eclectic interests who created the magic of OPHELIA’S GHOST.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010


Ten days ago, after leaving Sewanee, Tennessee, I celebrated an auspicious anniversary in my life. On October 16, 2008, following my retirement, I became an associate of the Order of the Sisters of St. Mary, a religious community based at Sewanee that has made a significant difference in my life on The Mountain. It is there that I was given the space to worship and pray freely without worrying about church program and organization and my place in the hierarchal order of ordained clergy. I didn’t become free from responsibility because in order to become an associate, a candidate must follow a discipline created after the example of the Benedictine order, adhering to it for a year before being installed as an associate – regular prayer, attendance at chapel services, participation in the life of the community, charitable giving…a discipline that covered two pages of my personal rule.

I miss Tuesday Morning Prayer and Eucharist (held at 7 a.m.) and the wonderful Sunday services with a community of approximately 30 – 40 people on Sundays, the community breakfasts with eight Sisters who have become my spiritual sisters for life –The Rev. Sr. Lucy, Sr. Miriam, Sr. Elizabeth, Sr. Mary Zita, Sr. Martha Mary, Sr. Madeleine Mary, Sr. Margaret, and The Rev. Sr. Julian. And then there’s the formidable presence of The Rev. Dr. Susanna Metz who delivers Tuesday morning homilies – a tall woman dressed in swirling silk dresses who celebrates Eucharist in her bare feet – and, I am pleased to add, who is a candidate for bishop in the Episcopal Diocese of Northern Michigan. Each of these people have influenced me profoundly with their individual ideas about the contemplative life and have challenged me to evaluate how well I’m living my life according to the purpose for which God created me. And they’ve done this, not with false piety, but amid much laughter and table talk, as well as within a silence as deep as that of the gray stones of the chapel walls. Some Sundays I preached and assisted on the altar at St. Mary’s, and I’ve also preached at one of their “missions,” Grace Fellowship Church, which is located near the Convent.

I’ve written a lot of “Sisters and Susanna Poems,” as I call them, some of which appear in my poetry chapbooks, RISING WATER and OLD RIDGES. At present I’m working on another book of poetry, and in reading back over it this morning, I find that the poems reflect a heightened appreciation of the natural world. I attribute this expansion to the deepening of my contemplative life, inspired by the Sisters. Here’s one of the poems in the new book:

In this dry month of August
deer enter the woods of the Cumberland,
foraging among dead branches,
pilfering our berry patch,
brazen creatures following the sound of silver
clinking against china on our porch table.
They are absent of grace
in the shadowy face of hunger,
graze on leavings,
glaring at us across the yard,
eying our full plates,
ears raised at each forkful.
We feel their resentment
curdling a glass of milk,
blueberries withering in the bowl of breakfast,
the admonition “feed my [deer],”
a red-letter line spoken
by the world’s best activist
stirring in the sycamore leaves,
spurring us to shop for corn,
before the cullers come with bow and arrow,
before the autumn deaths,
leaves twisting and falling
into bloodspills of the hungry,
those shuddering hearts
and doe eyes glittering with His message:
“you have done it to the least of mine.”

Thursday, October 21, 2010


After spending several days on house repairs and yard maintenance during resettlement in New Iberia, the urge for a change of scenery overcame us, and my botanist friend Vickie decided to drag me along on a search for a plant that grows in nearby St. Martin Parish. She has included a write-up about this plant in her book WHY WATER PLANTS DON'T DROWN, which Susan Elliott of Pinyon Publishing is now illustrating. After lunch, we boarded the Honda and set out for Lake Martin where she had collected specimens of this plant during her career as a professor of botany at the University of Louisiana in Lafayette. I’ve written about Lake Martin in other blogs, but the subject of hydrilla plants has never come up.

The drive through the lowlands in St. Martin Parish in the October sunshine was pleasant, and when we arrived at the lake, we found several trucks parked near the boat landing where fishermen, truant from work, had put in their aluminum Joe boats and pirogues earlier in the day. One returning fisherman, reloading his boat in the 86 degree weather waved me over to see his catch of eight small bass, big enough for a mess, but not large enough to brag about. “I’m staying up here on the dock,” I told him, “because I know how many ‘gators populate this lake.”

“You’re right,” he answered, casting an eye at Vickie standing too close to the edge of the lake, twisting a plant around a stick. “I just ran over one a few minutes ago.”

“It’s a wonder it didn’t turn your boat over,” I said, and he shook his head.

“Lucky, I guess,” he answered. He looked quizzically at me standing there on the dock with the sun turning my white hair even whiter, dressed in pedal pushers and a t-shirt, and asked, “You from around here? “ The question was more like “What are you doing out here?” but I wasn’t offended. I did look out of place.

“For about 45 years,” I told him. He looked relieved that I wasn’t a “come here,” and showed me how his trailer tires had become entangled in “some kind of seaweed” as he pulled it out of the water and onto the boat ramp. At the time I didn’t know that it was hydrilla, the plant for which Vickie had been searching.

Hydrilla is an aggressive water weed that invades water systems and drives away all native and introduced aquatic plants. It survives under lower light conditions than any other species and grows beneath other plants, making it able to live at greater depths. Because it can use low light, it starts photosynthesizing earlier in the day than other plants and captures most of the carbon dioxide that enters the water during the night. The plant is 93-95% water so it can make large volumes of biomass using very few resources. In the summer, it grows rapidly, doubling its biomass. Then it branches as it approaches the water surface and fills the water column up to 20 feet deep, shading out other plants. In California, hydrilla infested an irrigation canal so densely that the water backed up over the banks and ran down a hillside. Hydrilla mats can damage dams and power plants, and interferes with boating and fishing. It can also decrease fishing stocks. In the case of the fisherman to whom I talked, his truck tires spun on the water plants washed up on the boat ramp. Only with the help of another fisherman did he get his boat out.

Among the sights I saw: a mosquito as large as a small dragonfly that landed on the rearview mirror of the Honda; a yellow/gold willow tree glistening in the sunlight, a grove of lotus, and muddy water surfaces covered with duckweed and mats of large yellow flowers called burr marigolds.

As we followed the dusty road to the end of the lake, we saw a long Joe boat filled with eight people who had been cruising on a swamp tour – they’d probably been looking for ‘gators, one of which Vickie spied (and I urged her on) as we sped away with a plastic bag filled with hydrilla specimens.

We got lost on the way home. As a school bus passed, we saw “St. Martin Parish” painted on its yellow side. “Hay la bas,” I hollered, “we’re near St. Martinville. “ And suddenly we emerged in St. Martinville, no thanks to the old Louisiana map I had unearthed that had a hole smack center in the area we were traveling. That’s the way we usually travel – lost – but we find serendipity along the way.

And the hydrilla? It was still green and perky when we reached home; however, I am advising Vickie not to throw it in the coulee behind our house or the drainage ditch will be overcome by this plant, which looks like an ominous caterpillar that lured us outdoors today. Right now, it‘s drifting in a small white cereal bowl in the kitchen. Did I say that it captures most of the carbon dioxide during the night? And what about our oxygen?

Tuesday, October 19, 2010


As we drove along Main Street for the first time after returning to New Iberia, and I saw the columns of The Shadows on the Teche, a National Trust antebellum mansion, my spirits lifted. Back in the 80’s, my good friend Morris Raphael wrote a biography of Weeks Hall, the man who restored this antebellum mansion and left it to the National Trust so that it would become the town’s principal treasure.

During the 80’s, I reviewed Morris’s book in an issue of “Louisiana History,” and the morning after viewing The Shadows again, I began to read the review about WEEKS HALL; THE MASTER OF THE SHADOWS. I had forgotten that Morris began studying the life of Weeks Hall as a pastime, and the pastime soon became a full-blown passion that resulted in a biography about one of Louisiana’s most colorful characters. Hall spent a lifetime restoring The Shadows-on-the Teche, often living on meager means so that the old mansion would not “fall on hard times.”

To capture the essence of Weeks Hall, Morris interviewed many of Hall’s relatives and friends, including nonagenarian Mrs. Anna Schwing who died before the book was published in 1981. Morris claimed that if he had waited a few months longer to interview people who knew Hall, many of the anecdotes in WEEKS HALL would have been lost, and the book would have failed to be authentic.

WEEKS HALL contains rare photographs of Weeks Hall, his paintings, scenes of The Shadows’ gardens and the old home, as well as family portraits. Morris captures the spirit of a man who “earned for himself the right the right to be called ‘The Master of the Shadows’”. Although many tales still circulate about Hall’s outrageous behavior as a prankster, Morris chose to include only the anecdotes that he could corroborate in the biography.

The white-columned brick plantation home called The Shadows was built between 1831-1834 by David Weeks who had made a fortune in cotton, indigo, and sugar. The Shadows was one of three brick structures built in Classical Revival style with eight columns on the front (an imposing structure when viewed from the street, but it is a narrow home, much smaller than tourists anticipate). Before the home was completed, David Weeks went on a sea voyage to New Haven, Connecticut seeking a physician for an unidentified disease and died while in Connecticut, never having lived in The Shadows. However, his wife, Mary, and her family enjoyed living there until the “late great unpleasantness,” the Civil War, occurred and Mary Weeks died, sequestered in a room on the top story of the old home.

Weeks Hall and his Aunt Pattee, descendants of David Weeks, inherited The Shadows in 1918 and when Aunt Pattee died, Hall became its sole owner. After living abroad for a few years, Hall returned to New Iberia in 1922 and found the old mansion in deplorable condition. Hall was an alcoholic, an eccentric, and a prankster, but he was adamant about the preservation of his mansion. Morris published the remarks Hall made about his restoration efforts in THE MASTER OF THE SHADOWS: “I have lived on this place, attending to it and building it. Nothing in life has meant, or will mean, more to me than this garden on a summer morning before sunrise. At all hours, no place is more tranquil nor more ageless. Its inherent charm to me has been in its placid seclusion from a changing world, and in that will be its value to others. This quality must be preserved…”

THE MASTER OF THE SHADOWS by Morris Raphael remains in print and is a valuable historical document about New Iberia’s most famous property. Several years ago I wrote a novel about Hall entitled SILENCE NEVER BETRAYS, which will probably never see the light of day, but I had fun writing it, and Morris’s book provided a lot of ideas for the fiction piece.

By the way, Morris is the author of at least 13 books and is presently working on a book about Civil War battles and anecdotes about Teche country which should be available in 2011.

Saturday, October 16, 2010


Because I wanted to record a vivid picture of Tennessee that I could take with me when I returned to Louisiana this month, we ventured over to Nashville to see the famous Cheekwood Gardens, 55 acres of lovely gardens and an art museum. The estate was built by the Cheeks, who established their fortune through Maxwell House coffee at the turn of the century and includes a 30,000 square foot Georgian-style mansion with formal gardens and a museum of art with collections of American and contemporary painting and sculpture.

I had seen the work of Chihuly, a glass artist, at the Hunter Museum in Chattanooga last year and loved his work, and the added draw to Cheekwood was an exhibition of his glass art that was installed throughout the grounds of the estate. Chihuly has had a lifelong affinity for glasswork within botanical settings, and at Cheekwood he juxtaposed organically shaped sculptural forms with landscape that showcases nature and art.

One picture is worth a thousand words, and the glass pieces that were installed on the beautiful grounds tell the story of the integration of art with nature more eloquently than any of my travel pieces could. The photographs we took in the gardens appear below.

One of my favorites was a grove of cattails, rendered in slender orange glass, waving from the ground above a purple ground cover, which reminded me of the cattails that grow in Louisiana coulees.

Another installation of bamboo stalks intrigued me, particularly the story of their creation. In order to create the long, tubular shape of a reed, a glassblower was elevated in a mechanical lift while blowing through the pipe to make the form stretch, and another glassblower pulled the red glass toward the ground to form the beautiful bamboo trunks.

The Walla Wallas installation consists of multicolored beach ball floats that have long glass tips and are said to resemble eastern Washington State’s Walla Walla sweet onions. Visiting children were fascinated with this display.

And, of course, the silvered purple herons waving like cobra heads in the herb garden enchanted me. The herons are a product of Chihuly’s experimentation with blowing different shapes and using new techniques while he worked in Finland.

We didn’t stay late enough to see the glass pieces illuminated at night, but we lunched at the famous Pineapple Room Restaurant before leaving “the house and gardens that coffee built.” This visit to Cheekwood was a spectacular finish to our Spring and Summer sojourn in Tennessee.

Monday, October 4, 2010


This morning I received an e-mail bulletin from the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities which included an announcement that Darrell Bourque’s term as Louisiana Poet Laureate would end in May, 2011. The announcement caused my heart to drop a beat or two in a sudden whoosh of regret that this talented poet and friend will no longer serve in this prestigious position. Darrell Bourque is the star of Louisiana poetry. Last year when I returned to New Iberia, I visited with Darrell and his wife, Karen, several times and was privileged to read with him at a poetry reading in “The Berry” (AKA New Iberia) at Paul Schexnayder’s A&E Gallery on a cold January evening. Darrell has also written an elegant review for my latest book, THE CHANT OF DEATH, co-authored with Isabel Anders. The review is another expression of his constant support for over thirty years.

At the poetry reading last January, I introduced Darrell and because of time restraints, I was unable to deliver the entire introduction – I had to omit an anecdote about my semester as a student in Darrell’s Creative Writing class that is worth reporting here. At this time, we were asked to swap our latest poetry with each other in class and to write a critique of the swapped poem. An 18-year old freshman (and I was 54 at the time) attacked my poem about my great-grandmother, which happens to be a poem that is very close to my heart, since she was also a poet and made a literary transfer by dying the night I was born. This boy’s comments weren’t in the least helpful as literary criticism. They centered on the subject of my poem. “I wish that you wouldn’t write about your relatives,” he said, “they are so boring to me.” Needless to say, I was taken aback, even though the classmate was only 18 years old, and you and I know how wise 18-year olds can be. I sat with the criticism for a moment, then stood and addressed him and Darrell by reading the entire criticism aloud, something the attack dog hadn’t expected.

Darrell was shocked, but he spoke to the attacker in his gentle, softly-accented voice, “We must never criticize a poet’s subjects for they are precious and sacred to the poet.” Later, when I went into Darrell’s office to whine about the incident, he said to me, “you know how long that would have bothered me, Diane?” “No.” “About ten seconds. Just remember that you must have faith in your own gifts and work and let remarks like that be a failure in response that spurs you on. Just let it pass over your head.” Both of Darrell’s remarks were made in his caring way, and, of course, they’re not only personal remarks, they’re universal guidelines for struggling poets when they write and when they speak as critics.

That incident has remained in my memory for over thirty years. It’s obvious that Darrell Bourque is my mentor, and he’s also mon cher ami, a gracious, bilingual poet about whom I‘ve written in several blogs. He has read in every corner of the U.S. and supports the wonderful art of poetry at readings from Poet’s House and the Small Press Center in Manhattan to Significant Voices, a series in Lafayette featuring Louisiana African-American writers. He travels and writes in bayou country, as well as in Europe, speaking to us in perfected lyrics, convincing us at our deepest level that poetry is life; life is poetry, and he is the ultimate poet. I speak of him as a poet who records the very old voice of French Louisiana and his experience of living in this compelling culture.

I look forward to renewing my friendship with Darrell and Karen, who does her own form of poetry in glass art. Karen was recently commissioned to do a stained glass piece for the upcoming opening of the new Ernest Gaines Center at ULL in Lafayette, Louisiana, and Darrell will read the commemorative poem for this event. I have read the poem, which Darrell kindly sent to me and have wanted to publish it in a blog but that would be pre-empting the performance, so I’ll pass on one of my favorite poems from Darrell’s The Blue Boat instead:

LA TOUSSAINT (after Sei Shonagan)

It was on a cloudy morning on the first day of the eleventh month.
On my morning run, twice the sun broke through
and then the clouds filled the sky again.
The leaves on the trees in the forest were losing their green
but they would never turn gold and red and purple
in this part of the world.
I was stopped suddenly by a red pine snake
that had made its way from the edge of the road
in this unseasonable heat.
As I left a beauty that I still feared there on the ground,
my father came to me through the clouds.
I asked the old monosyllabist how it was up there
in his heaven.
“The good thing,” he said, “is that you don’t have to speak.
Something within you, large before it ever shapes itself
as a simple yes or no, is sufficient here.
The bad thing is that everything is tending toward something else.
It is like living in air.” – Darrell Bourque –

Friday, October 1, 2010


Yesterday morning, my oldest daughter Stephanie called from New Iberia and asked me what I planned to do that day. I told her that I was searching for blog material, and we were going over to Collegedale, Tennessee near Chattanooga to see the Little Debbie factory. “You’re kidding me, you don’t ever eat anything like that,” she said. “I know, I know,” I answered, “I had to take your sister to a fat farm in Texas one summer because she ate her way through cartons of chocolate Little Debbies, but I’ve run out of subject matter.”

“Why don’t you write about your great-grandchild to be?” she suggested. “Martin is going to the doctor with Kristin today, and he’ll do an ultrasound. It has to be screened though – he doesn’t want to know the sex of the child.” I refrained from asking why. I guess it’s some kind of superstition that harks back to either a Cajun traiteur or a Scots preacher lurking in our family background. In any case, the family is bent out of shape not be able to plan for color coordination of the infant’s wardrobe. Sure enough, I received an ultrasound via e-mail yesterday afternoon, (shown above, with the arm waving at the world) and here I am, writing about the birth of “it” that will occur in February. Kristin and Martin say that it looks like E.T. but I do hope an extraterrestrial isn’t going to be added to our family eccentricities.

Martin, my first grandson, was born on my birthday and has been special in my life for over 30 years. He’s a handsome, black haired fellow who is losing his hair (but wait until the infant terrible arrives and the Time of the Midnight Colic strikes – then we’ll watch him slowly become bald!). He practices landscape architecture in Madisonville, Louisiana and has appeared on my blogs several times with and without his charming wife, Kristin.   Martin also designs my book covers and does a great job of showcasing my work.

And now he’s making me a great-grandmother at the age of 75 ½! My last grandchild isn’t even eight years old! It’s great to have something in common with Queen Elizabeth as she is expecting her first great-grandchild in December. It’s also nice to become a “great” something or the other, but I’m wondering if I’ll fit the image of a white-haired sage exuding sweetness and wisdom for the newest addition to the family, or if it will have to put up with the iconoclast that I am, secretly wishing that I’d look like a regular great-grandmother instead of showing up for birthday parties in my blue jeans and polo shirts.

Another concern I have is whether I can come up with a name that fits the role – like Gaggie or Big Mama (sometimes called Memog in French) – maybe Grand Mom or Grand Dame which hints of stellar qualities and Super Mom characteristics. I’m hoping it can speak of me in the same way that Ellen DeGeneres speaks of her grandmother: “My [great] grandmother started walking five miles a day when she was 60; now she’s [76], and we don’t know where the [hek] she is…”

Martin and Kristin’s offspring will probably think that I’ve been around as long as model T autos and that I belong to the era when dishwashers, washers, air conditioning, two bathroom houses, and central heating were non-existent, which means that I just missed being in the age of dinosaurs.

Today, however, I saw a group of cartoons on the internet in which some old granny woman is dishing out advice that is fairly contemporary, and I’m going to pass on some choice sayings to this infant whose father won’t let the doctors identify its sex:

Never go to bed angry, stay up and plot your revenge.
You’re not yourself today, I noticed the improvement immediately.
Did you eat an extra bowl of stupid this morning?
If you have something to say, raise your hand.
Would you like cheese to go with your whine?
Don’t let your mind wander…it’s too small to be let out on its own, etc.

All levity aside, more poetry than wisecracking comes to my mind at the thought of the birth of the one to come, and I hope Kristin is saying to it in the womb: “You run in me/a tang of salt in the creek waters of my blood,/you sing in my mind like wine. What you did not dare in your life/ you dare in mine.” (From MY MOTHER’S BODY by Marge Piercy). As for you, Martin, you need to stop horsing around and find out whether we should order a carton of  blue or pink diapers. As that old grandma I quoted above would say, “Don’t believe everything you think.”