Tuesday, October 27, 2015


When you spend spring/summer seasons in one state of the U.S. and fall/winter in another state, transitions from one place to another are often difficult. However, every time that I move back to Louisiana for the fall and winter seasons, I go through a little exercise that helps me “settle in.” I dust off my shelf of Louisiana books and find one that records the color and culture of my native state and sit down amidst the upheaval of moving to read.

This return trip I picked up one entitled Hoorah Plantation by New Iberian Al Landry. Al published the memoir several years ago for his children and grandchildren, and, as Al says, “the children and grandchildren of my friends and relatives so they might have some knowledge of their background and heritage.” The memoir covers the years from 1930-1945, a time that I’ve been writing about in my last two books of poetry — the era of no computers, televisions, central AC, cell phones, and other modern conveniences, but as Al writes, “we did have… one telephone in the house used almost exclusively by adults, ten or fifteen cent movies…a large console radio, good school clothes…”

Al explains that Hoorah Plantation is about the ethnic and cultural differences and relationships among the various peoples of New Orleans, the River Road, and Acadiana. His father was one of the descendants of the original Spanish settlers of New Iberia, and his mother a descendant of the Acadian exiles. One of his ancestors, Raphael Segura, built a home on the southern shore of Spanish Lake west of New Iberia and lived to be 98 years old. Al is a descendant of one of Raphael’s three marriages, described in New Iberia as a descendant of “the first bed.” (Can’t beat that for homespun aptness!)

Al is known as one of New Iberia’s outstanding raconteurs and in Hoorah Plantation, he provides amusing glimpses of the local French culture; e.g., a chapter entitled “Wad He Say?” This chapter is defined as a section that explores the misuses of vocabulary in south Louisiana. He records a few colorful examples: 

-I had to put my wife in the hospital — she was full of Noxzema — but they gave her an epidemic in the rectory and she’s getting better.
-I don’t know why I’m gaining weight, I just eat one French bread for breakfast and put skin milk and sacrament in my coffee.
-He’s so rich he must be a typhoon.
-Well, you’ve buttered your bread, now you have to lie in it.
-My aunt died of a cerebral hemorrhoid.
-I got nothing but seer-sucker vines growing on my fence”
Hoorah Plantation was the name of Al’s Grandma’s house, and his recollections of his grandmother are hilarious. He recalls that his Grandma spoke entirely in French, except for the phrase she used when Al and his family arrived or left: “I can’t believe.” Al described his grandmother to me one night when I had dinner at Lagniappe Too, the café he and his wife Elaine owned on Main Street of New Iberia. Al often acted as the host of the café, moving among tables and entertaining local patrons, as well as visitors from throughout the world. He later included this description of Grandma he had related to me in Hoorah Plantation: “We could never sit on her lap because it began at her chin and ended at her knees, one enormous, softly-rounded mass. She usually wore black, shapeless, full-sleeved, long dresses, with her important keys fastened to a white rope around her middle. She was only 4’9” tall. When the servants needed a key to unlock the pantry or a storage room, they would have to search for the collection of keys somewhere around Grandma’s middle. This intense search would tickle Grandma, and she would giggle like a school girl until the keys were found…”

Al Landry, who graduated from Tulane University with a Bachelor of Architecture degree, practiced architecture in New Iberia for many years and painted pictures of local characters, night life, and social activities in Acadiana. His wife Elaine taught private piano lessons and created soft sculpture dolls called “Grunchkins.” The couple opened Lagniappe Too Café in New Iberia in 1986 and operated it for over 25 years before retiring. I understand that Al is still playing the role of a raconteur at Garden View, just down the road from the point where his ancestors landed in flatboats and established Nueva Iberia.

From the above excerpts, readers can see how such reading provided my immediate re-immersion into the culture of Teche country. I am one of those who tasted bayou water 51 years ago and was destined to always return, despite the mosquitoes dancing on my window panes, the mud and flood week-end, and the humidity that enveloped me after I descended from The Mountain at Sewanee, Tennessee.  

Monday, October 19, 2015


front cover of Corner of Birch Street
Back in 2008, Border Press published a verse retrospective of the 1940’s by me entitled Grandma’s Good War, a collection of poems reminiscent of a time when people felt that WWII was a “good war” because it would end all wars. I enjoyed writing the rhyming verse that I called “doggerel” —rhyming verse that I haven’t felt the need to write again, since free verse is my preferred way of expressing poetry.

Recently, I expanded the idea of a Forties retrospective in a collection of poems that is a mini-memoir of a close-knit southern neighborhood during the 1940’s. It’s entitled Corner of Birch Street and was intended to inspire feelings of nostalgia for young love, games of marbles, paper dolls, five-cent Hershey bars, and Mom and Pop groceries in readers who grew up during this period of American history. Inevitably, the poems also show social changes brought into focus by laws forbidding segregated movie houses, bullying among children, and child molestation.

Poets often mine their dreams for subjects, and many of the poems emerged from dream consciousness. They showcase memories of growing up on a city street where “gangs” of the offspring of blue collar workers instigated outdoor games that had nothing to do with drug wars and street murders.

An excerpt from “Birch Street:”

We were an elemental diversity
Stuck on a plain of asphalt,
Street urchins bonding during WWII,
Security and chauvinism operating
In the shadow of the Big Bomb,
Incaution riding the waves
Of a cold war headed our way.

The artwork on the cover of Corner of Birch Street was designed by my grandson, Martin Romero, and depicts the infamous Ford coupe that carried my family off to Diddy Wah Diddy (California) with … “one last look in the rearview mirror/at a street I will not walk again.”

Available on amazon.com or by ordering from Border Press, P.O. Box 3124, Sewanee, TN 37375, borderpress@gmail.com.

Monday, October 12, 2015


Years ago, Ruth Lefkovits, my good friend who was a Reformed Jew, shared with me a poem written by Pavel Friedmann, a 21-year old man who was born in Prague and died during the Holocaust. The poem dealt with the last butterfly he saw while imprisoned at Terezin, a Nazi concentration camp. Friedmann later died at Auschwitz in 1944. I thought about this poem last week when I attended a Friday evening candlelight service entitled “The Wonder of Butterflies” at the Convent of St. Mary, Sewanee. Although Friedmann’s poem was not among the poetry read, I left a copy of it with a friend who read a Native-American story during the service.

“The Butterfly” is preserved in the National Jewish Museum as a typewritten copy on thin paper in the collection of poetry by Friedmann and is dated June 4, 1942. A few lines from the poem will suffice for readers to see why any mention of literature about butterflies would bring up an image of Friedmann’s butterfly: “The last, the very last,/So richly, brightly, dazzlingly yellow./Perhaps if the sun’s tears would sing/against a white stone…/Such, such a yellow/Is carried lightly ‘way up high./It went away I’m sure because it wished to/kiss the world goodbye…/The dandelions call to me/And the white chestnut candles in the court./Only I never saw another butterfly…That butterfly was the last one…”

The uplifting butterfly service at the Convent contrasted with the stark poem that I’ve just quoted and was probably one of the best Friday evening experiences I’ve enjoyed in quite a spell. Sr. Madeleine Mary had engaged a quartet to play in the background as we entered the candle-lit chapel, and they played at intervals during the hour-long service. In silence, we enjoyed a video presentation of butterflies Sr. Madeleine Mary had photographed, followed by a lecture that focused on the importance of butterflies as pollinators. Sr. Madeleine Mary emphasized the decline of the monarch butterflies, including “the destruction of breeding habitats in the U.S. through use of toxic herbicides and genetically-engineered crops and illegal logging in Mexico’s fir forests, as well as ecotourism, extreme weather, and diversion of water.” An arresting quote by Paul Erlich on the back of the program folder underlined Sr. Madeleine Mary’s reflection: “The fluttering of a butterfly’s wings can effect climate changes on the other side of the planet.”

Sister Elizabeth read three poems about butterflies, including one about the metamorphosis from caterpillar to butterfly, and the poems, as I said, were in sharp contrast to the stark one written by the poet who was a victim of the Holocaust. One of the highlights of the service was a reading by Alice Ramsey, a story entitled “Butterflies – Papago” by Buck Conner, a member of the Turtle Clan of Lenni Lenape Society, a Native-American Society commonly known as the “Keepers of the Earth.” Alice, reading in her soft Alabama drawl, told the story of how the Creator gave butterflies their myriad colors and, at one time, had given them the voices of songbirds, but birds complained that their own singing should be exclusive, and the Creator had already given the butterflies these brilliant wing colors and patterns… so the Creator took away the butterfly’s voices. But what short-lived creature with such fluttering beauty needs a voice?  

At intervals, the quartet played classical music that helped us come down a tone or two, followed by either prayers or hymns. Programs of this quality were initiated last year at the Convent, and they focus on raising spiritual consciousness about environmental concerns and the natural world through music, prayer, meditations, and visual presentations.

After 30 minutes or so of engagement in the service, I got very quiet inside and realized that I was again in the “thin place” that is the Convent of St. Mary and that I’m blessed to live and worship in this sacred space part of every year.