The Photographer’s Choice

Not necessarily young, falling short of pretty, she was still the photographer’s choice. What beauty she had was of the pragmatic type: nothing more than a product of sensibility and symmetry. A vague intellect is evident in her level brows, unexciting thoughts ruminate and press against the lines of her temples, like sheep.

Even though they had hopefully dressed her as an odalisque, her body could not oblige. She possessed no animal seduction, no curves suffused with incense, none of the golden mystery of the voluptuous harem. The tapestries in the studio did not hide a flock of jealous concubines, nor a battalion of incorruptible eunuchs. All that kept her company was a blue parrot, balanced on its perch and staring down at its mistress, a graceless combination of experienced housewife and wishful concubine.

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They chose her because she was willing to pose for an hour or two, for the payment of a meal, or a handful of coins. She was their clumsy Scheherazade, willing to wear the cheap trappings born from the fancies of a western world mesmerized by dreams of the Far East. A bolero embroidered with pearls of yellowing luster, dull jewelry that stained her skin, scarves hemmed with false bullion. One arm awkwardly balances a tambourine waggishly trimmed with scarlet tassels. The other is bent so that the hand, clenched in a nervous fist, is pressed against her head. The dark smudge showing in the exposed armpit is evidence that this was a century when a lady was not supposed to manicure herself too assiduously.

The nudity of her torso is implied, rather than advertised: a startled exposure half expected and only half welcome. Her femininity is stolid and respectable – she does not belong in this dusty seraglio.

But she tried. She really did. Her assumed posture was foolish yet gallant. Her knees – daringly yet shyly – are apart. But her ankles are crossed. And she has refused to remove her sensible shoes.

Neptune’s Beard

Tendrils of Neptune’s beard

Rising in ivory coils

And covering the sea like a veil of marble

To reach through the weeping breakwater

Like mischievous fingers

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The pale curiosities

The mermaids breathless fans

Busy explosions of salt and light

Wink beneath the seaweed like drowned irises

Amidst the blu-eyed scallops

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Cast across the waves like nets

That stretch over pelagic miles

And pull at the chin of a submerged god

Who lies beneath the wandering patterns

To watch the ocean’s lively tapestry

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The Clean Sweep

“I can give you only a scattering of some of the crumbs of one man’s year, and the penny music whistles. Any memory, of the long, revolving year, will do, to begin with.” – Dylan Thomas

Not long ago I was reminded of one of my favorite Dylan Thomas pieces, “The Crumbs of One Man’s Year”. It is a soft, elegiac piece – its reflections scented lightly with rain and gentle regrets. The words are contemplative and full of understanding.

Whenever I read it, I seem to follow the writer on a journey through woods that are eternally harvest-colored, listening to the sibilant rustling of a river, watching the thoughts sailing across it like lost ships. I walk through cold air that is colored in muted pearl and infused with memories.

I thought of this essay when I was engaged on a task that was far less sentimental. I was, in fact, clearing the last remnants of my holiday cooking from the kitchen table. Pecan pieces, sprinkles, sweepings of flour and sugar: all the crumbs of my holiday were brushed away. But I did not lament – save for the poor job of cleaning I had done mere days ago – nor was I sad.

Yet the homely act of wrapping my hand in a faded kitchen towel and passing it over the tired, wooden table made me think. As the crumbs trickled towards me I recalled the year’s Thanksgiving, steeped in expectation and golden, buttery smells. As the scraps vanished into the folds of the cloth I was briefly reminded of Christmas and the flock of cookies that descend on my home like frosted and sweetened clouds. I saw the ropes of silver beads that held aloft the cards and caught once more the coy smell of pine which greeted me like a long-awaited friend for so many weeks.

They would be washed away, vanishing in a vague spiral down the drain. But fleetingly, the crumbs had caused me to remember, and to be thoughtful. And to take comfort that in a year’s time I would be performing the same chore again, and reminiscing – deeply, wistfully – about another year: its promises and its spent possibilities.

Temptation

“The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it.  Resist it, and your soul grows sick with longing for things it has forbidden to  itself, with desire for what its monstrous laws have made monstrous and unlawful.” – Oscar Wilde

I finished all the leftover Christmas cookies.

A New Year’s Thought

If all millineries were distilleries, we’d never be dry.

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To all of my pretty friends (I have no other kind), do have a well-coiffed and suitably hatted New Year.  And remember that the world can be saved by the fabulous, by the shiny and by kittens.

And potato salad.

 

The Bulb

The bulb can be a homely thing.  Graceless and lazy, it hibernates in the warm earth for an amount of time that is as unwieldly as its body.  It waits for the tickle of spring, for its delicate awakening, before it decides to rouse itself.  Then, in its airless cocoon, the petals unfold in thick pages, their margins tinted with yellow, pink and purple.  After years spent curled and hidden, tulip, iris, daffodil, hyacinth, crocus and anemone stretch and yawn beginning their slow ascent through the dirt and towards the pastel-colored air.

Its growth is slow and indolent.  It turns into a rich and unsubtle flower which begins to blossom below the ground before raising itself through the froth of fresh and nascent soil.  It is the product of a season of growth and gentle progression.  Nothing happens overnight:  instead, we are given the opportunity to witness the myriad phases of Nature’s tender evolution.

Later in the year, however, there is another type of bulb.  This bud looks down on the earth, blooming overnight from the branches of trees, appearing fully formed like roaring Athena bursting from the forehead of Zeus.  Thin-skinned and metallic, its quickening isn’t gradual or patient:  it bursts out of the tree’s holiday skin, scintillating in the winter air.

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These bulbs mock the dullness of their earthly brethren.  Their colors and textures yearn for the cold season when snow and stars glisten like frozen tears.  They give no warning – they seem to flourish overnight, beckoned by the moon’s harvest encouragement.  Then in the morning they cling to branches like ornamental fruit, an edible parure of luscious gems.

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They last for only a few weeks – and then just as suddenly disappear.  Evaporating into the pale air, or dissolving into the tree’s dormant flesh – the holiday shards floating through its dense veins.  It would take months before the trees revive, when their next crop of blooms will be verdant and lush:  a pretty generation.  The winter bulbs will return in a year, when the chill curls like a shiny filigree in the air and winter beckons with promises of tinsel and silver.  It will whisper promises of shining with equal fervor both by day and by night. They will shiver with frost, with the delicate sparkle of nacreous ice. And when they are delighting in the holiday’s brittle alchemy, they will then be able to celebrate the year’s greatest season once more.

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Sea Horse

When the crescent of the Armada broke in the late summer of 1588, it scattered splinters and bodies across the North Atlantic and along the northern islands in a macabre embroidery.  Flags and riggings decorated with holy families and the Five Wounds bled into the sand.  Gold and armor lay untended and frosted with rust.

In the initial panic, the towering Spanish galleons leaned into the wind like rooks on a chessboard, eager to return to the hinterland of its ranks and the shadow of their king.  These were bulky assassins, and in order to lighten their load and so increase their speed, all that could be jettisoned was:  crates, food, drink, guns, cannon, ammunition.  And then – possibly as a last, pained resort – the horses.   Andalusians, Barbs, jennets were thrown overboard into the sea thick with salt and hypothermia.  In the months following accounts came from the outskirts of guilty Scotland and Ireland of the looted remains of soldiers and the sight of horses, either lying dead on the shore, or still swimming – the crescent of white in their eyes echoing the battle formation of Spain’s ‘Great and Most Fortunate Navy’.

Out of the 30,000 soldiers, sailors, priests, shanghaied criminals and farmers who sailed with the Armada, less than 10,000 returned.   Many horses were lost, but no one knows how many.  Some washed up onto the sand, dead or dying.   Some floated on the water, their fiery blood quenched forever.

But there were a few that sank.  Not to die, but to live – to feel the abyssal cold and pelagic molecules wind around their equine DNA, to be transformed, to swim, to forage for the particles of air that lurked inside the seaweed and water.  Their equine flesh became tinged with brine and a maritime sentiment.

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Their journey was deep, and the pressure of the sea’s embrace increased.  They became small and toy like, and like mermaids their legs disappeared, submerged beneath a skin of scales and luster. They curled around shrouds of kelp far below the splintered ships and bloody riggings – floating through oceanic slipstreams and prisms of fish the color of silken horizons.

Centuries have passed since this incarnation, when the Armada’s herds escaped from their rancid bodies.  Neptune had long fancied a team to pull his chariot of pearl and blue-eyed scallops; his decision made, he pointed with his trident to the dying animals above him. He pitied their beauty.  Their drowning spirits offended him, for he was a sympathetic god, despite his brawn and salty humor.

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There is little of the sea horse now that would recall its origins.  But riding along their backbones there are spikes that are still as sharp as the quivers of pikes carried by the invading navy.  And their curious skin is patterned in subtle plates, as if they wore the remnants of the armor once worn by the foolish and unprepared sailors.  Many are as bronzed as Spanish gold and occasionally dappled with scarlet, to show that they had not forgotten the distant invasion that had punctured the sea with drops of blood.

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House Rules

Thanksgiving is a unique and marvelous day, one in which every person is given carte blanche to eat however much he or she wants.  There is a Thanksgiving celebration in the United States as well as Canada, and I do hope everyone else does not envy us too much.

However, it is also a very Easy day, easily adapted, easy for all to enjoy.  All one has to do is follow three simple rules.

Do not be greedy:

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Do not ignore your family:

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And do not question your good luck, your wonderful bounty, no matter where you find it:

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Lest We Forget

“We can bear almost anything. But now the sweat breaks out on us. We must get up and run no matter where, but where these cries can no longer be heard”

Erich Maria Remarque’s ‘All Quiet On The Western Front’ was published in November, 1928, nearly ten years exactly since the end of the war it documented. It was a rich time for the publication of manuscripts, diaries and novels from the war: written perhaps out of a sense of delicacy, when the pain of the survivors was just beginning to wane. Or perhaps they were written out of fear: that a topic of great monetary potential was being passed over – that a calamity that had been called ‘great’ was about to be forgotten.

Before it had been two years in print, it had sold 2.5 million copies and had been translated into 22 languages. Its coarseness and vulgarity was taken by some to be mere attention-getting for its schlock and shock value. For its ugly realities ‘All Quiet On The Western Front’ was one of the first degenerate books to be publicly burnt by the Nazis in 1933.

The novel opens with a statement which is a declaration of honesty and distance, that it is “neither an accusation nor a confession”. The author’s intent is only to describe the experiences of a single platoon of German soldiers, whom “though they may have escaped its shells, were destroyed by the war”.

Specifically, it is the story of Paul Bäumer whom, along with the rest of his class, was urged by his professor to join the army. His classmates were eventually scattered throughout the trenches that had just begun to circulate, branching like veins, from Belgium to Switzerland. Battles were never mentioned by name, but retained a shroud-like presence in every chapter, a destructive force even when the guns are silent or when the soldier is on leave.

Paul endures the filth and boredom of trench life that was never mentioned in his professor’s idealistic tirades. The stress and fear which makes a soldier long for home is relieved only by the detachment he feels when he gets leave to visit that haven, wary of describing experiences no one could understand. It creates a sickness of mind (‘shell shock’, ‘neurasthenia’) that would only be recognized, and just barely, later in the war.

Towards the end of the war, all of Paul’s friends are either missing or dead. Despite the rumors of peace he only sees a future that is empty, trapped within a generation that will be perpetually misunderstood. On the day of his death, the report from the front to headquarters was “all is quiet on the western front”.

And it is there that the novel ends; a harrowing journey that ends in the worst way, with a death that means nothing, that symbolizes nothing – a single, blank, unrecognized effort among millions.

In 1930 the book became a film of the same name. Screenings were besieged by Nazi-organized protests; there were mob attacks on theater goers: proof that the war was not over. But for all the ugly attention, the film won the Academy Award for Best Picture and its lead actor, Lew Ayres, became a star.

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Ayres work on the film did something more important than inaugurate a career. It made such a profound impression on him that in 1942 he was registered as a 4E conscientious objector and sent to a CO camp. He eventually served in the Pacific as a medic, setting up evacuation hospitals and providing care to soldiers and civilians in the Philippines and New Guinea, winning three battle stars. All of the money he earned during the war he donated to the American Red Cross. When Ayres resumed his career, he continued his work in film, but never attained the peak he attained when he played a soldier suffocating in mud and despair.

I have seen the film, and it is an honest, honorable effort. Hollywood however could not help but tie too neat of a bow on an ending which was supposed to mirror war’s hopelessness and desolation. Towards the end, Paul – who counted butterfly collecting amongst his civilian hobbies – sees a butterfly alight on the soil and wire of No Man’s Land. He is off screen, but the viewer sees his arm outstretched towards the creature. Suddenly, there is a crack of a sniper’s rifle, the arm stiffens, and then is still.

Before the screen is dark, there is an image of white crosses, marking an expanse of German graves. It fills the screen. Superimposed on the crosses is another image: that of a group of young soldiers clad in gray and wearing their pickelhaube helmets. One by one, each looks over his shoulder towards us: his expression full of disbelief, distrust, confusion, fear. It is a vision that is hard to forget.

Remarque’s bleak and realistic depiction of war struck a chord with the survivors – of the warfront and the home front – and commentary around the world was passionate, whether it was positive and negative. Critics accused him of denigrating the German war effort, of exaggerating its horror and sins. They insulted his endeavor. In short, many of them did not believe him.

I began this piece with a quote from the novel. The cries referred to are not from the men, but from the horses – terrified, eviscerated, their eyes rolling upwards in white-eyed panic. The sound is not human, but it is not quite animal. The horses haven’t the wit to wish for death, to pray to God or beg for help. All they know is an agony that is unexplained and inescapable.

The men heard these soul-destroying cries and one, named Detering, – who had been a farmer – is particularly appalled. Before the all clear is sounded and the wounded men could be gathered, he tries to bolt from their trench to shoot the animals and put them out of their misery. But he is stopped, lest their current position be revealed. In disgust, he says “It is of the vilest baseness to use horses in the war”.

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For me, this one episode puts the lie to all the claims that ‘All Quiet On The Western Front’ was nothing but a fantasy published to demean the German army and cash in on the new pacifism. Simply said, no one could make something like this up. This is another vision which is hard to forget.

And this could be war’s saving grace. That the dreadful memories will one day lead to a universal disgust and leave us only with a collection of histories that can’t be forgotten.

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The Old Souls

The draft horse gets its forename from Old English, from the Dutch and German languages. The guttural appellations meant “haul”, “draw” and “carry” – indicators of distant blood lines that partnered with the working man in long-forgotten fields and roads.

The muscles of the draft horse are broad and patient. They are built for slow and tedious jobs. They are not curving and shapely, like a Baroque violin. The bodies of the Frisians and Lipizzaners are coiled and sturdy, but their blood is a heady mixture of draft and Andalusian, Barbary or Destrier. Frisians were dark and made of muscular silk; the Lipizzaner dated to an 18th century studbook as exclusive as any gentleman’s club; Andalusians were compact vessels of barely contained fire; the Destrier quartered its ancestry with the crests of knights it carried into war or the jousting stage.

In the competitions at fairs I enjoy watching the draft horses pulling coaches in tandem with shine and power, pockets of dust raised around the steel crescents of their hooves. The earth shakes with the buried energy pounded by over 1500 pounds of domesticated flesh. They move with a substantial, physical grace. Bridles and harness shake in dainty, metallic tremors – the teams of workers detached from their plows to go on holiday.

Later, I’m able to visit these gentle laborers in their stables. I admire their serene nobility, and I tell them so. I brush my hand against the lavender velvet of their muzzles, and place it against their cheeks, carefully tracing the spiral tread of hair. Usually their mane and tails are unraveled, but sometimes they are still wound with ribbons and flowers. But no treatment affects their dignified calm, their dark, evocative eyes.

However, when they shake their heads with a rare bout of impatience, and I hear their feathered ankles rustle the straw like restless birds, I know that it’s time to move away. But I always wait, hoping for another visit.

Because they are old souls, evocative of a loving history. And it would be an honor to speak with them again.

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