Monday, July 16, 2018

THE CHATTANOOGA TRAIN TERMINAL



I’ve been working on a book of poetry about trains and have decided to stop where I am and publish it as is, thinking it’ll probably be the caboose of my poetry. However, that decision included one last tour of a historic train site — the Chattanooga Choo-Choo Train Terminal in downtown Chattanooga, which we visited last Friday. This visit remains the highlight of the series of tours we’ve enjoyed during our half-year stay at Sewanee, Tennessee. Vickie Sullivan’s photo of the interior of the terminal will probably become the cover illustration for my “caboose book.”

The Chattanooga terminal was designed by the architect Don Barber and was built in 1906 for 1.5 million dollars. In 1909, the first trains served as many as 50 passengers per day on the old Southern Railway, but by the 1960’s, railways had declined, and the “Birmingham Special” of The Southern made its last run in 1970. The terminal was set for demolition when investors stepped in and poured four million dollars into its restoration in 1973. Today, the old terminal has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is a 24-acre complex that includes a museum of train models, a hotel, a rose garden, shops, and sleeper cars that attract train enthusiasts. The poem that I came away with says more about the Chattanooga Choo Choo song that Glenn Miller and his orchestra made famous than it does about the structure of the old terminal, but my memories of the visit to this beautifully-restored terminal have been in my thoughts for several days.



We ate lunch at Stirs Restaurant, just two doors from the main terminal entrance, where oysters from New Brunswick were offered at a peak price of $3 per oyster. My friend Vickie ordered two as an appetizer and decided that the food in this restaurant matched the elegance of the terminal. She also ordered crab bisque while I munched on a ciabatta sandwich because I’m allergic to shellfish. Oysters from Louisiana were also featured on the menu, and the manager told us that all oysters are guaranteed to be fresh as they are flown in daily. 

The hotel within the terminal offers rooms, starting at $180 a night, or we would’ve spent the night to further inspire atmosphere for the “caboose book” of poetry; however, my budget doesn’t include that kind of luxury. And I enjoyed free visual inspiration sans an overnight stay.


My Tourist Trains Guidebook contains 450 train rides and dinner trains, museums, trolleys, and depots, and if I’d continued to write about this favored subject, I’d still be riding when the Great Train pulled into my terminal to take me beyond… but I've traveled over some historic tracks and depot sites while pursuing material for Destinations, the title of this latest book of poetry. However, Whoo, whoo… Chattanooga Choo-Choo Train Terminal is the top attraction on my list of sites!

Photographs by Victoria Sullivan




Friday, July 13, 2018

PINYON REVIEW #13


Today is Friday the 13th, good fortune day, and good fortune appeared in the mail this morning — the 13th issue of Pinyon Review published by Gary and Susan Entsminger in Montrose, Colorado. 

The work of the Friebert family, (Steve, Eddie, and Stuart) is featured in both original and translated poetry, highlighted by the wonderful cover and title page art by Steve Friebert — an arresting piece called “Moon Art.” The royal blue background with scattered small red splashes in the design is accentuated by a moon with black branches overlaying it and, at first glimpse, I thought I was looking at the crown of thorns of the Crucifixion. I’ve looked at the work at least five times and still perceive the work as having spiritual form.

However, not to be eclipsed by Steve Friebert, Stuart Friebert offers another of his translations of German poets: that of Ute Von Funcke’s poem entitled “Twilight,” a succinct poem of five couplets: “the small horse/of twilight/day’s waning/in its mane/it paws at the/sills of night/atremble, its play of muscles/cuts a hole in the fence rails of time/night’s already resting/in the saddle of silence.” Ute Von Funcke wrote plays for children before her debut as a poet and has now published four collections of poems. For me, the minimalist style reflects her background as a children’s playwright and is also reminiscent of poems recently published in Bayou Song by Margaret Simon, a book by a New Iberia, Louisiana writer I recently reviewed this month that reflects Simon’s background of working with gifted children in Louisiana.

Fabric Poussin, a writer and photographer, whose work has appeared in more than 200 art and literary magazines in the U.S. and abroad, contributes a three-page display of “Frozen Dreams,” which includes an impressive piece, “Next Creation.” The artwork contains two open books that suggest Scripture is being re-created against the backdrop of a paintbrush and vivid patches of color — an unusual still-life that conveys the idea of co-creation.

Michael Miller, the new bard of Amherst, reminds me of Emily Dickinson, minus the dashes, and with usual self-awareness, he speaks of aging and dying in his concise style. In his poem, “Seven in the Morning,” he writes of blurred vision and cataracts where “Reality draws me/to diminishment…With my fountain pen/I draw a feather for you./I might never see/A bluebird again.” Pinyon has published two of Miller’s books of poetry: Lifelines and In the Mirror; his work is also reminiscent of W. H. Auden’s direct style and suggests ease within his language — watchful and re-envisioned.

Gary and Susan Entsminger, publishers and editors of Pinyon Review, have added a further dimension to their journal with poems that feature mixing guns and whiskey… how suddenly the world/changes with a shot…” (Gary’s “Counter-Intuitive”) and a train ride through “wide white mountains stretch[ing] like taffy/round the high horizon,” (Susan’s “Zephyr”). An artistic team, the Entsmingers write, mountain climb, garden, compose and play music, draw, paint, and are dedicated to promoting writers and artists who often deluge them with works that celebrate the arts and sciences.” 

Charles Cantrell’s work, twice-nominated for a Pushcart Prize in poetry, attracted my interest with his quote by Charles Simic, one of my favorite poets: “Infinity yawns and keeps yawning.” “Infinity Blues” refers to Simic’s use of the word “infinity,” and Cantrell pens a verse, a la Simic style: “At one edge of the paper, nothing/but the black of space, and past that,/deeper space. And past that?/True to form, the poet always juxtaposes/something clear and solid with any abstraction/like infinity or eternity…” 

Two of my poems appear in Pinyon Review # 13, and I’m always honored to be included among the many award-winning poets and artists in this artistically created journal. Outstanding writers also featured: Rob Walton, Rebekah Bloyd, Debra Bacharach, Neil Harrison, John Miller, Bruce Lader, Edward J. Rielly, John Abbott, Ed Meek, Thomas Els-on… and artist Sharon Johnson. 

Pinyon Review #13 is a thought-provoking compendium of poetic voices and forms — a tour de force and a joy to read. I’ve been connected with the Entsmingers on this literary journey for nine years and am always amazed at the excellent quality of their productions. 


Pinyon Review is available from Pinyon Publishing, 23847 V66 Trail, Montrose, CO 81403


Saturday, July 7, 2018

BAYOU SONG


Margaret Simon has hit the G7 octave (the highest octave in music) with her latest book of poetry, Bayou Song. Her explorations of the Bayou Teche, using poetry and art to showcase plant and animal life in this fecund part of southwest Louisiana, reflect a clear voice, accessible style, and a naturalist’s love of bayou country.

This is a workbook for young people who are interested in writing poetry and contains forms of poetry ranging from tercets like “Bayou Fairy Tale,” to Welsh poetry forms (clogyrnach) represented in “Weeping Wisteria.” Poems accompanied by whimsical illustrations of Anna Cantrell and the masterful photographs of Henry Cancienne, which resemble landscape painting, take the reader on a vivid journey through fragile Louisiana wetlands.

The author’s style is often playful and spontaneous, reminiscent of two books for young people in my personal library — A Light in the Attic and Where the Sidewalk Ends by poet and songwriter Shel Silverton; e.g., Simon’s “Bayou Fairy Tale:” “Spanish moss twirls/Like Rapunzel’s hair curls/In ghostly gray swirls.” The imagery in this three-line rhyme is accentuated by the capricious illustration of a young girl with a Raggedy Ann face and tangled long hair.

Simon has a voice both whimsical and serious; and I was especially drawn to “There Is Always,” an insightful poem about a bald eagle, deserving of repeating here: “There is always/a light/flowing through leaves/creating stained glass/on a duckweed carpet./There is always/an altar/emerging as a pyramid,/fans of needles pray/in the sanctuary./There is always/a cathedral/rising near the bayou/where bald eagles nest/in a bell tower.”

Simon’s explanations of the sample poems create a valuable reference guide in notebook form for students like her own gifted students in Iberia Parish and represent her long-time professional experience as a talented teacher. Cantrell, her illustrator, has perfectly synchronized the art with poetic imagery. 

As a child, I teethed on Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verse, and Simon’s poems took me back to verses I learned at my mother’s urging at age three, a lighter time when poetry inspired curiosity and interest in the natural world. I think the imagery in each poem will inspire feelings of nostalgia and a sense of wonder in adults, as well as young people.

Henry Cancienne’s photographs of the bayou and critters that abound in the wetlands — cypress trees and knees, the meandering Bayou Teche itself, alligators in the marshlands — interspersed with explanatory texts, add another dimension to Simon’s creative explorations.

Readers are invited to sketch, write, photograph their own creative explorations in interactive pages placed after each poem, and, as former Louisiana poet laureate, Ava Haymon, writes, creative writers and artists will feel restored to their own creativity.

Over twenty years ago, when Simon was a member of a Creative Writing Group, Reflections, at the Episcopal Church of the Epiphany in New Iberia that I led, her creative essays in Meditations Of My Heart showed exceptional talent and exhibited her playful spirit that is now at its zenith in Bayou Song. C’est Magnifique, Margaret!

Margaret Simon lives on the Bayou Teche in New Iberia, Louisiana with her husband Jeff. She’s a native of Mississippi who is a Louisiana transplant, teaches gifted students in Iberia Parish and has published in The Aurorean, Today’s Little Ditty, Poetry Friday Power Book Here We Go and in National Geographic’s The Poetry of US. Border Press published a collection of her poems with her father’s Christmas card art entitled Illuminate. Blessen, a novel for young readers, was also published by Border Press. She has a Masters degree in Gifted Education and certification by the National Boards for Professional Teaching Standards. 

Anna Amelia Cantrell is a freelance illustrator based in south Louisiana who “collects stories, moss, and rocks.”


Published by the University of Louisiana at Lafayette Press.


Thursday, July 5, 2018

A TOWN OF ENTREPRENEURS

Mercier Orchards, Blue Ridge, GA

We’re in Blue Ridge, Georgia: population 1290, a town that turns into a crowded metropolis on July 4. I’ve been here before, but on this trip, I dug a little deeper into information about the commerce of the area. First stop: Mercier Orchards, owned by Bill and Adele Mercier since 1943 when Bill, a former Agricultural Extension agent for Fannin County, established a thriving industry that has the earmarks of a forward-looking entrepreneur. 

“The ideal spot for a proposed orchard is gently sloping and high,” wrote Jacob Biggle in his guide to orcharding, The Biggle Orchard Book, published in 1906. The Merciers, reading the guide years later, must have been encouraged by this idea. They've grown a fruit industry that has borne out all of Biggle’s aspirations described in his little treatise on fruit and orchard gleanings “from bough to basket, gathered and packed into book form.” I picked up this book in the vast Mercier market, best known for its over 20 varieties of apples, cider, fried apple pies, as well as peaches, blueberries, blackberries, and other produce.

From the photo above, readers can see that the “gently sloping hill” leading to the market would have been a climb were it not for the wooden walkway the Mercier entrepreneurs built for shoppers. Along the walkway, we discovered the plant that is in the area of study of my botanist friend, Dr. Vickie Sullivan: Eupatorium capillifolium — or dog fennel, a plant we rarely see growing in “civilized sites.”
 
Vickie beside dog fennel

Hundreds of busloads of tourists visit the Mercier Orchards each year, particularly during the holidays, and July 4 was no exception. We tarried long enough to buy a basket of peaches, a jar of mayhaw jelly, and my Biggle book, then returned to Blue Ridge to hunt for fairy crosses, or crystallized stones.

In the Pezrock store on East Main Street, I found a small specimen that satisfied my envee for a staurolite that symbolizes a story I had heard about the Cherokee tribe during my trip to Bryson City, North Carolina. I’d been intrigued by the ancient legend about Cherokees weeping over the loss of their homeland and moving west and their tears falling on the earth to crystallize and form fairy crosses. Nowadays, the crosses are used in meditation because it is said that their energy evokes lucid dreaming, even causes astral travel. 

Pezrock Store, Blue Ridge, GA
I like the idea that if a person keeps a fairy cross in his/her pocket or near the center of the body, stress is relieved. According to Mark Thomason, staurolites have been carried by President Teddy Roosevelt, Charles Lindbergh, and Thomas Edison, so you’re in good company if you carry one of the blackish stones. The Pezrock Store was another example of entrepreneurial effort and has a dazzling display of fossils, gems, jewelry, carved driftwood, petrified wood sinks and tables, teak wood, and home decor. I daresay that members of The Shark Tank group on television missed an opportunity by not buying into this enterprise!

Fairy Cross
At lunchtime in Blue Ridge, we could pick among six top notch restaurants owned by entrepreneurs Danny Melmar and Michelle Moran: Harvest on the Main, Cucina Rustica Italian Restaurant, La Pizzeria, The Blue Ridge Fry Shop, Blue Smoke BBQ, and Masseria. These energetic chefs grow a lot of their own produce and in their Italian restaurant, they make their own pasta. In addition, they often serve dinner at The Cook’s Farm, and, as one of the waitresses in Harvest on the Main said, “they seem to never sleep.”


Blue Ridge is a bustling mountain town that offers the best of north Georgia and the Appalachians amid lakes and trails open to outdoor enthusiasts. If you have a yen to scale heights, just up the road, Brasstown Bald, at 4800 foot elevation, offers higher adventure.


Tuesday, July 3, 2018

IN THE BUBBA ZONE




  • "ON THE OBSCURITY OF WORDS AND CLARITY OF THINGS." - CHARLES SIMIC -

It all started with a visit from Brenda Lowry and Bubba (Joshua) Murrell a few days ago. Brenda arrived on the heels of a trip to Washington, DC where she was honored with a first place award for composing music and lyrics to a song entitled “America’s Story in Art,” in a contest sponsored by the national DAR. Bubba, a Grammy award winner in music, showed us his video digital images he had created using Planet Coaster made by a UK enterprise named Frontier Company. These talented New Iberians perform in a religious program they wrote and produced called "Women at the Well," and in a blues music duet, "Blue Merlot."

We lunched with the Sisters at the Convent of the Order of St. Mary, Sewanee where we started a conversation about creativity and the proliferation of artists in south Louisiana, particularly in New Iberia, site of my winter residence. We continued this conversation as we drove down the Mountain into the valley and pulled into the railroad museum at Cowan, Tennessee. I was collecting information about the Cowan Pusher District and Cumberland Mountain Tunnel built by the Nashville and Chattanooga Railroad in 1849. This small museum wasn’t totally air-conditioned but we had to drag Bubba away as he’s attracted to all things technical and is always collecting data about “What makes this thing work?” 


Later, we had dinner at the new Octo-π (Octopi) Pizza and Wine Bar Bar in Sewanee where gourmet pizza has been perfected, revisiting the subject of creativity over Cthulhu and Blue Ring Sting pizzas. Once we re-entered this subject, Bubba went into something the four of us call “The Bubba Zone,” a zone in which he moves from anecdotes about quirky characters to origins of music, aerodynamics, and interpretations of the Bible. He’s a genius, and Brenda is the only person I know who can stop him when the hour grows late. He also grows a lush garden in Loreauvile, Louisiana and is the one friend I have who might be able to converse with higher mathematicians about the origins of the zero.

A day after my friends’ visit, we drove to Blue Ridge in North Georgia where I love to visit when peach season is launched. Also, the town lays claim to pursuits in art, music…even has a playhouse. It’s located in Fannin County, Georgia, known as the gateway to the Blue Ridge Mountains, with the Cohutta Ridge rising in the west and the Blue Ridge to the south and east.The Cherokees called the Cohuttas “the poles of the shed” holding up their sky, and they farmed in the Blue Ridge Mountains in the warmer months, leaving the area in the winter for the Cherokee village of Aska.

At one time, the town of Blue Ridge was a health resort because it featured pure mineral waters. One hundred thousand acres of the land in Fannin County is managed by the US Forest Service, and during the 1940s, the wonderful CCC boys reforested acres and acres across Fannin County.

On the way to Blue Ridge, we stopped for lunch at the edge of Ellijay where we had a real country meal — fried chicken, turnip greens, green beans, mashed potatoes, and cornbread. The restaurant was crowded, even at 1 p.m., and we had to wait a spell for lunch, but we felt like we had entered the Bubba Zone when a man sitting at a table close to us took off his outer shirt and, dressed in his white undershirt, began telling a story. It seems that he knew a man he said was such a champion fisherman, he could catch fish in a mud puddle in the middle of the road. The friend had serious mental problems brought on by age, but the guy in the white undershirt actually saw this apparition fishing in the middle of the road, picked him up, and took him to his girlfriend’s house… sans fish. 

This story led to the raconteur’s tale about finding a vertebrae in a cave that had an arrow deeply imbedded in it, which he brought to the attention of experts who identified the arrow as the point of a spear probably thrown by an atlatl but couldn’t identify the huge vertebrae. This raconteur left before I could approach him for an interview, so I settled for strawberry cobbler that my friend Vickie kept urging me to order, exaggerating my southeast Louisiana drawl. However, I wouldn’t have received any notice because the Georgia accent around me was so thick my drawl wouldn’t have impressed anyone.

More about the Bubba Zone later. Also, when I arrive back in Sewanee this week, I hope to review New Iberian Margaret Simon’s new book, Bayou Song.

Photographs: selfie of Brenda and Bubba and train engine by Victoria Sullivan





Wednesday, June 27, 2018

THE TRUNK



In a sermon I delivered Sunday about the story of Christ stilling a storm that threatened his life and that of the disciples, I mentioned Hurricane Lily, a big wind slated to hit New Iberia in 2002. At the time of the anticipated storm, the word went out that there wouldn't be enough body bags for victims of this hurricane when it hit New Iberia. But when the hurricane did hit, it seemed to come right up to New Iberia’s door and just stopped, a dead wind totally rebuked. It was a miraculous event and faithful Roman Catholics in the city declared: “That wasn’t the wind you heard from Lady Lily, it was the sound of Rosary beads clacking.” They took credit for their prayers stopping the awful wind at the door of the town. It was no small miracle and one that locals said probably rivaled Christ rebuking the wind in Mark’s Gospel.

But the story about faith and miracles listeners seemed to enjoy most on Sunday centered on a trunk that came across the ocean from Sicily. This past week I visited with a friend who had moved from Lafayette, Louisiana after retiring from her work as an English professor at the University of Louisiana, Lafayette to live near her son and his family in LaGrange Georgia. She had bought a beautiful home in a wooded area there and furnished it beautifully. But what attracted me in her carefully-appointed study was a huge trunk that served as a coffee table in the spacious room. The wood and the leather straps on this trunk had been restored, and it stood out among all the trappings. “It belonged to my grandparents,” my friend said. “All they owned was in that trunk when they left Sicily and arrived at Ellis Island. They never forgot the crossing and their early settlement in Bessemer, Alabama where my grandfather established a Mom and Pop grocery. It’s a reminder of how blessed my family is today because of their courage and faith in crossing over the ocean.” 

I kept eying that trunk, and the thought came to me that it was one of the metaphors for the sermon I’d preach on Sunday. Those Italian immigrants, who were devoted Roman Catholics, must have endured many storms and possessed strong faith when they crossed over and became rooted in this country. They must have believed that the struggling neighborhood in Bessemer would become a refuge for them… and it did. To that family, becoming established in this country was a miracle not unlike the one in Mark’s Gospel, one wrought by faith and symbolized by the huge trunk which held their faith and was passed on to several generations. However, as the poet Anne Porter wrote: “[perhaps] all their desperate long journey [had been] lost in joy and utterly forgotten…”

After I arrived home in Sewanee on Tuesday, I wrote the sermon and, then, this poem that will probably be included in a new volume of poetry I’m writing entitled Tracks.

THE TRUNK

She finished her morning prayers,
stepped down the gangplank 
and bent to kiss the earth.
She knew how it was to speak with God.

She had watched olives and grapes grow,
sitting in a courtyard beside a stone house
just large enough to hold her dreams
before she left the warm air of Sicily.

She recalled how she’d become bound,
heavy, like branches laden with fruit,
gazing out at dust and shadows,
finally making life inside a dream

and packing it away in the wooden trunk,
shutting it against pretending
there was no purpose for her.
Surely, she had thought, there was more.

I would like to see inside the trunk, 
imagining green bottles that had held olive oil,
wine corks, worn shoes, hardened and toes up,
fringed shawls of hope… and hopelessness,

visions of a world where her children 
would become less restless,
could live where freedom
had built a village exceeding the old one

and she could make good soup
because her pantry held all the ingredients,
not like the Old World
and scarcely enough to make scent.

She hardly recognizes the loss,
the shift in landscape that much past, 
except when she opens the trunk…

and lets someone out to tell her story.


Monday, June 25, 2018

OLD RIDGES


Some mornings I get up wanting to write and feel a certain fogginess of mind and absence of subject matter that reminds me of E. B. White and his essay of “Writer at Work.” In March of 1927, he wrote that Edna Millay was contemplating a trip to Washington, D.C., and he quotes a Washington news story: “to have this tender poet here in cherry blossom time and to hear her version of this glorious spectacle [would be great].” E.B. White, who is obviously struggling to create his essay for the day, remarks that “Even the theme is laid out for her, like clean linen.”

E. B. White says that a writer is always straining his eyes, peering ahead and around so that when the moment of revelation comes, his eyes are poppy and tired and his sensitized mind has become fogged by the “too frequent half-stimuli of imagined sight…”

I sat here, reading those lines, waiting for my mind to clear, and wondered if there were new ridges there that prevented clear thoughts. What appeared to me was an actual vision of ridges —chenier ridges south of the Intracoastal Waterway in Louisiana. I could almost smell the marshy air and see oak trees in the distance — old beach ridges or cheniers. The sand in the ridges is above the marsh so that oak trees abound in the dry soil there. According to an entry in Roadside Geology in Louisiana by Darwin Spearing, the ridge, Little Chenier, marked the position of a beach 2800 years ago. The town of Creole is strung out along another chenier where Chenier Perdue, 2500 years old, and Pumpkin Ridge, 2200 years old, merge.

The largest beach ridge plain in Louisiana is near the Caminada-Moreau Coast with as many as 70 sandy beach ridges that began to grow about 700 years ago. Of course like much of Louisiana coastland, the Caminada-Moreau coast continues to erode.



I’m more familiar with the ridges near Creole, Louisiana because I explored that territory when I was writing my book for young adults entitled Kajun Kween. Those ridges provided the setting for this tale about a young girl named Petite Marie Melancon who wasn’t so petite and who became the heroine in a comic strip. I have an envelope of photographs showing scenes of cheniers that includes a beautiful one which Dr. Sullivan snapped, and I framed for a wall of my study. There’s even an alligator in a corner of the photo, and it’s a scene that has not only inspired me while I was writing Kajun Kween, it became the cover of a book of. poetry entitled Old Ridges in which the opening poem describes the scenery I encountered back in the early 2,000s. 


Although the theme wasn’t “laid out for me, like clean linen,” as E. B. White wrote, my nostalgic thoughts sent me to the bookcase where I found Old Ridges and began to read:

OLD RIDGES

Writing a story of persiflage
I found a place of legend,
a station of shade 
cool enough to wade in,
no voice, no sound,
an alligator hiding on the bank
sliding into murky water,
breaking the silence and the shade.

Further back, I could see ancient ridges,
oak groves, wild grapevines overarching
marshmallow, yucca, and oleander,
some distance from the Intracoastal Canal
where I once rode in a boat
bound for Cheniere au Tigre,
weaving through a network of canals
and anchoring at a wooden dock
that may have been near the old town.

We climbed an old-fashioned stile
astride a barbed wire fence,
searching for an abandoned hotel,
and found: the bones of a cow,
the feather of a crow,
the leaf of a toothache tree --
mystery.

Old oaks stood sentinel, asking:
Do you think it’s too late?
I haven’t forgotten how it is
to die before dying,
consider my age,
consider this shade,
no voice, no sound.

What was I looking for?
The corpse of a cowboy lying
among bones of Brahma and Charolais?
a chest of Lafitte’s treasure?
the old watchtowers of WWII?
the tiger that mauled a boy a century before?

Hackberry trees grew among stands of oaks
and in the center of one grove,
a house of silvered cypress, 
torn screen on the sagging porch,
door ajar, as if someone had just departed,
the abandoned house among trees
buffeted and twisted by Gulf winds.
Like the trees, it seemed to say
I haven’t forgotten how it is
to die before dying,
consider my age,
consider this shade,
no voice, no sound

and a tiger lurks over the ridge.