Thursday, March 27, 2014


I was first introduced to Dabney Stuart's work through Gary Entsminger, publisher of Pinyon Publishing, an independent press in Montrose, Colorado, and was impressed by Stuart's metaphysical musings in Greenbrier Forest, which I reviewed in 2012. His new book, Time's Body, a collection of new and selected poems, 1994-2014, is the work of a mature voice, resonating with both eloquence and humor. It is a voice filled with formal seriousness and unhurried playfulness, not wholly committed to the canons of intellectualism or confessionalism—the voice of an aging troubadour who quotes Andre' Viette in the preliminary pages of the book: "Nothing's going to grow if it's not there."

Everything is here in this multi-layered collection—from spare poems in the Chinese tradition to longer ruminations about characters like William Shakespeare and about controvertible black holes in the universe. The book's stark cover, a photograph of an annular solar eclipse by Stan Honda, could imply a certain darkness within the pages, but contrarily, Time's Body is dazzling with sensual dramas, encounters with the natural world, and lyrics about lightness and energy.

As a former clarinetist, I'm partial to woodwinds, and the poem that exemplified that sense of control needed to play music or write enduring poetry is that of "Solo," one of Stuart's newer poems. The description of an oboe player's effect on the listener is masterful, a beautiful solo in itself...

"Her music, /sinuous as swallow flight, /emptied the mind, too. /Nothing became/the way it floated, its local air, swallowed by nothing./She followed a trail of notes,/but her listeners/went off into myriad lost/meanders, keeping/almost no time. They knew/nothing, did not think/about form and void, /or anything/on the face of the earth/or moving upon its waters. /Instead they took heart/from this wind blowing them away." 

You can almost see the black notes rising in this acknowledgement of the musician playing a wind instrument and giving lift to the listener. 

In "Yucca Mountain," readers hear the echoes of a metaphysician as Stuart describes the mountain over Ghost Dance Fault and the ghosts that haunt the fault, "vibrations... crazing the music to which their bodies ribboned." Unfettered by sentimentalism, Stuart speaks of giving his father away to open mesas and leaving echoes behind, assuring the reader that 

"...if you go there/you can breathe them. Our heels click a joy/together. Our motions give a pattern/to their air anyone can join, /invisible leaves from a notebook flying, /ghosting our dance, feathering its voices."

This is a buoyant aria linking myth and the poet's memory in a spiritual refrain.

Stuart contributes a bit of sensual whimsicality in "Staying in Touch," a poem about falling in love with the same woman living "in the blind/hole at the center/of my left eye," who gives him the "big ecstasy" of lovemaking. It is told with the wryness of a poet who recognizes the body's limitations and describes the aftermath of coming together as "...beached walruses /drifting..."  

Time's Body is a collection of poems that helps readers accept the temporal state of the human condition, to see both the here and now while probing the light beyond. It is somber, meditative, and forthright about the terrors and the consolations of life in "time's body."

Dabney Stuart has published eighteen previous volumes of poetry, is a former resident at the Rockefeller Center in Bellagio, Italy, has held a Virginia Artists Fellowship, two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, and a Guggenheim Fellowship. In 2006, he was awarded the Library of Virginia Poetry Prize. His work is housed in the audio and video archives at the Library of Congress. He lives with wife Sandra in Lexington, Virginia.

Time's Body is available from Pinyon Publishing, 23847 V66 Trail, Montrose, Colorado 81403.  

Tuesday, March 25, 2014


On our return to The Mountain, our first glimpse of the yard at Sewanee revealed yellow and white daffodils nodding in the sun. When we walked around the side yard, we discovered scattered clumps of wild violets surrounded by an accumulation of leaves heaped there by winter winds. Spring is trying to emerge, but the woods in front of the house are still bare, and none of the trees have begun to green. Inside the cottage, we found ladybugs swarming, hunting for warm shelter. We must have vacuumed up a few hundred of these unwanted visitors who sneaked in while we were in Louisiana, many of them clinging to the ceiling in a bedroom.

Strange how many articles about killing wild violets appear in gardening columns—these reports about ridding yards of spring's loveliest flower seem outrageous to me. But entries about sod cutters and chemical weed killers (I didn't know the wild violet belonged to the family of weeds!) abound—and they're such bad press for the beautiful flower that attracts butterflies and is even an edible plant. The wild violet also contains salicylic acid, which can be used to soften tough skin, and to treat corns and warts.

No less attractive is the yellow daffodil that surrounds a bird bath in the front yard, a bright flower that can also be found in orange, pink, red, and, more recently, lavender hues. Although, the golden daffodil has been immortalized in Wordsworth's poem of that name, and the Chinese have adopted it as a symbol of their New Year, its beauty is deceptive for it contains an alkaloid poison called lycorine which, when ingested, can cause bodily harm. Also, I'm careful when I cut these bright flowers to bring indoors because the plant has been known to cause daffodil itch on the hands.

Actually, as we drove in yesterday, the first glimpse of our Sewanee property was at the entry to our
drive and included the view of a skeleton of apartments being constructed for students at the University of the South. The huge building overshadows our retreat, but we're fortunate to have a privacy fence around the back and one side of our property. The sight of this structure isn't a surprise as we received word, months ago, that the building would be constructed while we sojourned in Louisiana. However, we're still shocked when we look out the kitchen window and see this building rising a little higher in the sky each morning. The construction reminds me of e. e. cummings' succinct poem, "Pity this busy monster, manunkind," in which he writes: "Progress is a comfortable disease...plays with the bigness of his (mankind's) littleness...

I can always sit on the front porch of our retreat, look out at the emerging daffodils, and wait for the wildlife to appear in the woods. My contemplative hour will probably include pondering the words of another poet, Robert Frost, who reminds me that "good fences make good neighbors."

P.S.  Just to warn us that spring is not ready to spring, snow flurries have begun to veil the high rise construction, and the weatherman says that temps will dip to 21 degrees tonight.  While shopping for groceries, we saw three friends who teased us about our lack of timing in returning to The Mountain while a freakish winter wind is still blowing out of the North.

Photographs by Victoria I. Sullivan

Saturday, March 22, 2014


We always leave New Iberia, Louisiana in the spring when Teche country is at its most lush. Sunday morning, we're bound for The Mountain in Sewanee, Tennessee where the weather forecasters report that there'll be several nights in the low 20's yet to come. I look out at the Japanese magnolia putting out deep lavender blooms and wish that I could take the entire tree with me. A few days ago I featured this lovely tree in the last poem of a new book I've written entitled Departures. Departures is a book I hadn't planned to write this winter while still in south Louisiana but was inspired to complete through corresponding with Darrell Bourque, former Louisiana poet laureate who's working on a new chapbook about a famous Cajun country musician.

Darrell has inspired and influenced my writing since the day I walked into a Creative Writing class at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette twenty-five years ago. He has a generous spirit and always finds something "precious" in the expressions of poets he mentors, and when he critiques your work, you find that the gentle shifts he suggests for certain lines of the poems only make you feel as though you're discovering how to develop the confidence needed to help you spring forward.

Several months ago, Darrell gifted me with the one book of his poetry that I didn't have on my shelves, an earlier work entitled Burnt Water Suite, published in 1999. To me, this book shows the full range of his poetic abilities and honors his appreciation for places further afield than his native south Louisiana—Sarajevo, Russia, France...I'm always impressed by Darrell's cosmopolitan views. He knows as much about music, art, and philosophy as he does about poetry—a visit to his home in Churchpoint, Louisiana is like a tour of an art gallery, and he says modestly that had he not become a poet, he'd have taught art history. He also speaks with easy familiarity about Bach and Mozart, and about the music compositions of Olivier Messiaen and Arvo Part, two composers I had to research when he mentioned them to me!

In the endnotes to Burnt Water Suite, Darrell explains that the "burnt water" in his title is: 
"a reference to the opposition that engenders all creation and to the created thing itself. It is at once both the phenomenal and the pervasive Urge that creates all being. It is then flower, sex, poem, person as well as the necessitating force or desire that resides in all matter...cities and civilizations are founded on an image: the union of opposites, water and fire, and was the metaphor for the foundation of the city of Mexico..." 

This is a difficult passage, perhaps, but it explains the metaphysical inclinations of Darrell's work.

I've always loved Darrell's "odes" to his mother, and in "My Mother's Foot," he is at his lyrical best, particularly in the lines: 

"I am trying to say beloved/I am trying to keep the baskets from spilling... I am calling blessed the arc of blood/I am saying this story is not about to end." 

Readers may be moved to say, "And I hope your stories never end," for these elegies are as transporting as the sacred music he appreciates.

Darrell once dubbed me a metaphysician, but he's the poet whose metaphysical gifts are represented in "Night Prayer On Returning from Tuscany:" 
"O sweet little room flanked by others/ just like it where my friends lie/like elder monks drifting to another world/on day thoughts/-the problems and the progress of the acolytes, /-the weeds in the herb garden, /...where next year's lavender seeds will come from..."

I read this praiseworthy book again and again, and it speaks to my condition, as the Quakers say. Darrell's communications to fellow poets and sharing of his work are salutes to the spirit of art and play impulse within all of us. He's a writer who knows every word matters when you engage with other poets and writers...and what you say to the world should be true but uplifting. This outstanding south Louisiana poet is one of the major personas I will miss as I move forward to another sojourn on The Mountain.

Saturday, March 15, 2014


Raphael building, Natchez, MS
This week we took a short road trip with Helen and Roseanne Raphael, wife and daughter of Morris Raphael, (now deceased) to Natchez, Mississippi where Morris, a well-known southern author, spent his early life. Roseanne and I were also on a mission to find the site of the "Goat Castle" that I had written about in a mystery novel several years ago. Rosanne recently wrote an adaptation of my book, Goat Man Murder, for the theatre, so we had a mutual interest in locating the site.

Unfortunately, all that remains of the renowned Goat Castle, home of the famous couple accused (but not convicted) of the murder that rocked Natchez in the 1930's, is a street sign and a handsome brick home that had been built on the property where the Goat Castle stood for over 100 years. We viewed several thickets, one of which may have hidden the bullet-riddled body of the murdered Natchez woman on a humid August day in 1932.  This thicket is mentioned several times in my book and in Roseanne's play based on the much-publicized murder.

The Goat Castle case was a bizarre one, and the couple accused of the murder was just as bizarre. The eccentric pair had been prominent members of Natchez society but their social prominence and lifestyle had deteriorated during Reconstruction days. They lived together in a decaying mansion with a herd of goats that wandered in and out of the home and fed on antique furniture and books once treasured by the prominent antecedents of the "Goat Man." The couple lived near the murdered woman and aggravated her because of their decadent style of living, the goats often wandering onto her property. The murdered woman had also been an eccentric recluse who received "no visitors at her gate," and her stinginess had frequently been gossiped about in Natchez circles. This famous murder case was solved to the satisfaction of local authorities, and the Goat Castle couple was cleared but the story about them continues to shock visitors who come from throughout the world to enjoy the annual Natchez Pilgrimage or Tour of Homes. 

We traveled from the street site of the Goat Castle to a more pleasant site, the former home of Roseanne Raphael's grandparents, a white brick structure built by the Spanish government in 1786 and occupied by the parents of Roseanne's father, Morris, during his childhood and teen years. Morris's father, Khalil Monsour Rafoul (who later changed the family name to Raphael), migrated to the U.S. from Lebanon and sold general merchandise out of a Model T Ford, traveling to rural areas and to many of the old plantation homes in Natchez, selling wares from door-to-door. He was also a correspondent for the Arab newspaper, Al Hoda, published a book in Arabic, as well as articles that the Raphael family has never translated. "Monsour," as he was sometimes called, influenced Morris's love of books and writing and inspired his son to become a newspaper editor and author of many colorful books about Louisiana culture and history. The Raphael family story is chronicled in Morris's book, My Natchez Years, available at many bookstores throughout the South. 

We also visited historic Jefferson College in Washington, Mississippi, nine miles north of Natchez. The college has the distinction of being the oldest institution of learning in Mississippi (chartered in 1809) and was a prep school from 1866-1964, but it's now owned by the Mississippi Department of Archives and History. Washington is the site where Aaron Burr was arraigned for treason in 1807, as the village was the capital of Mississippi Territory from 1802-1817. In the small gift shop at Jefferson College, Roseanne discovered a copy of her father's book, My Natchez Years, and her delight at the discovery exonerated me because I had insisted that we visit the old site before we left the area. I had visited it years ago and had been impressed with the peaceful ambience of the old school surrounded by stately oaks. We talked about how the peacefulness seemed strangely antithetical to the fact that the site had been a military boarding school from the beginning of the 20th century until 1964—military drills and tactics had been part of the daily routine there.

Fig tree in winter
We also toured the "Oriental Villa," Longwood, which is the largest octagonal house in the U.S.; dined at Monmouth Historic Inn; and ate southern fried chicken and biscuits at the Carriage House in downtown Natchez. But the highlight of the trip was the walk around the old Raphael property, which led to the discovery of a huge fig tree, its bare, gray branches devoid of sweet fruit, that Khalil Monsour Rafoul had planted in memory of his beloved Lebanon during Morris's childhood.

Monday, March 3, 2014


Every February in south Louisiana, we're inspired to anticipate Spring when we see the camellias blooming everywhere. Camellias must be hardy plants because the lone bush in our backyard continues to thrive, despite the fact that we neglect to fertilize or spray it for leaf blight. It has been creating pink blooms for nigh on 25 years. My godfather, Markham Peacock, who lived in the apartment beside my home in New Iberia for a brief time, planted this triumphant bush. The day that he put his plant in the ground, I followed behind, planting two more small bushes near the coulee, and they died not long after his demise at age 99 1/2. He did not pass on his green thumb to me.

Each year I think about the planting and the harvest we make because of Markham's green thumb. I reach the conclusion that the camellia bush is godfather's way of telling us that he's still around, sharing his stories about growing up in the Delta of Mississippi and his Polaroid photographs of his travels as far afield as Africa and India. An Elizabethan scholar, he also shared his literary expertise and entertained us with a fount of jokes that sometimes bordered on the risqué but always amused us. An old-school gentleman, he believed in dressing for dinner and often appeared at my table in a three-piece suit, a white shirt and tie. We didn't respond in kind, but he took no notice of our jeans and sweat shirts, and if he appeared only in shirtsleeves, he'd put a scarf around his neck and tuck it into his shirt as if he were English royalty wearing an ascot.

Markham lived beside us for six months of the year, approximately thirteen years, before he decided to reside the full year in Virginia where he had spent most of his life teaching English at Virginia Polytechnic Institute. In an assisted living home, he became known as the "flower man," as his job was to deliver flowers to each resident on their birthdays, and he also invited people to dine with him at the Home's cafeteria table as if he were playing host in the grand style in which he had entertained while his wife, Dora, was alive.

When a VIP who represented Hollins College visited us one year, Markham used our living room to entertain her and referred to the apartment we had built for him as a "lean-to." The 600 square ft. apartment is actually a brick dwelling that I designed, and I cringed every time he referred to it as a "lean-to." I refrained from labeling him an equally disparaging name even though he often hung his aging, holey underwear on a line strung at the entrance to my carport for all the world to see!

In February, when the camellias bloom profusely, I especially miss Markham. However, I feel better after I've walked down to the coulee and stolen a few camellia blossoms from the bumblebees. Settled in a small vase, the blossoms bring forth his presence at my dinner table, sans the three-piece suit. Here's one of several poems I've written about Markham and the camellias. It's this year's salute to him:


They turn brown within a day
'though we think we're cutting them free,
removing them from crowded clusters.
But their tarnish reminds us
they belong on the bush,
can only make a short visit.

The pink camellias bloom despite their age,
their longing for nurture and water,
the large faces still showy after February frost,
bees in the nose cones,
leaves pocked with blight,
dark spots marking green boundaries
but leaving us showers of pink,
the way his age suddenly fell away
as he turned the soil of a better disposition...
those last days.

Pink camellias at the edge of the coulee
now confront us each day,
showing us something
we had not realized while he lived,
a story he could not tell:
he planted them deep
before he returned to the stiffening earth
so they could flower in wavering light,
so their beauty could prepare us
for the thing he could not name.

Photographs by Victoria I. Sullivan