Sideways

I wrote this poem sideways because I

Couldn’t see straight enough

To know the lines on the page

And if they were running

North, south, east or west;

They turned out to be mere guide-ons

Along this journey in a world

Structured by contradiction

Escape recognized as

Dereliction;

Or maybe I could rhyme

And lay down a beat

In perfect time –

But to do so would recognize

The stricture of my

Education, it’s failure

In my homogeny;

Lay down the sonnets and

villanelles

Forget even the bop –

All are well in time

But tonight…

These lines

they

are Mine.

red and white

I can still smell the red and white

they linger in the air

staining the hand

while its accomplice

on my palate lingers.

 

I choke back the cough-

push down the bile-

it’s all I can do-

minus virtue.

 

A boy among men

five years old

a father’s gift on

his day, to me-

a can of suds

and a pack of reds

teaching me how

to be a man

in the red and white

carton –

and can.

 

Descent

We spiraled down the thousand stairs to the river shore. Our arms floated alongside, separated from our bodies by the currents of air rising from the warm waters below. The air was heavy. It gave lift to our arms but slowed our descent, keeping our feet from escaping us.

Not too fast. We were certain not to make our way too fast. Haste was always met with disdain. But it was something against our will as children—slowing down was antithetical to being a child. Carefree and full of aplomb were our true natures. Still we held our emotions and our raw energy in check, careful not to disturb the peace.

It was a peace that didn’t happen often. But when it did it we were made to abide.

I turned back to see Robert coming down the stairs in unison with my steps. The shaded spiral of stairs was hewn from flagstone slabs shingled like fallen dominoes. On their surfaces colonies of moss crept, claiming squatter’s rights. They defended their territory with ferocity—one misplaced step and the moss would grab the underfoot and push it away, sending its victim tumbling to the rocky shore below.

We were keen to the moss. We tread the stairs by its rules. It slowed us down, maintaining the balance between our world and the adult world: the same world we fled every morning. The stairs were our escape to the one place we were allowed to go and just be kids. As long as we played by the rules—no running, no speaking on the stairs, and return home at our assigned times—it was the only freedom we would know. It was school for the summer, scheduled play to remove us from the adult world, where we were nothing more than in the way.

The moss was quiet. It never spoke, but only listened to our approaching footfalls.

Robert’s stride had a sense of hesitance. On his face was a lack of reassurance with the placement of his steps. Still he continued, not slowing, although it was not of his own will. He did all he was told: he spoke nothing and held his feet in abeyance to his arbitrary speed limit. It was too late to avoid the fall, guided by an unseen hand.

His body sounded off like a balloon releasing its pressure, the wind expelled from his lungs by the hardened stairs. His face was full of fright; it ignored me. I watched as it slid by in slow motion, passing beneath the banister, and fading from memory. He slipped into the darkness below and was swallowed by the maelstrom of waves gnashing at the shore like hungry teeth.

I stopped and planted my foot. The moss caught my sole.

I never saw Robert again.

Reminiscing of Hardy Country

river-frome-dorchester
River Frome, Dorchester.

There is nothing quite like bringing a story to life by walking in the footsteps of its characters, taking in the sights that they too would recognize. I had the fortunate opportunity to do just that not too long ago, touring Hardy Country, the area surrounding Dorchester that English author Thomas Hardy called home. Better known as “Wessex” in his writings, the area provided the back-drop to many of his stories.

hangmans-cottage-dorchester
Hangmans Cottage.

 

 

The literary tour of Dorchester proper highlighted various landmarks used by Hardy. At the site of the old prison, I learned of how a young Hardy witnessed the hanging of a woman. Later, this woman would serve as inspiration for Hardy’s character, Tess, from Tess of the d’Urbervilles. Many other references to Hardy’s works could be seen throughout Dorchester, including the Hangman’s Cottage which appeared in “The Withered Arm.” Viewing these sites was more than a backdrop to the works of Hardy; it gave perspective. In such a bucolic setting, it was hard to imagine the traumatic events often written about by Hardy. This is in part his genius, I suppose, underscoring that beneath the surface there is always a dark side waiting to be exposed.

Nestled in a small valley outside Dorchester, I happened upon the Hardy family cottage where the author spent his youth. The location was remote even by modern standards; in Hardy’s childhood it must have felt as if it were one thousand miles from anywhere. The simple thatched roof structure, with its low ceilings, clung to the valley as a morning fog, melting in with the surroundings. More than just a great example of Hardy’s humble beginnings, it also delineated the progress of technology in his lifetime. From a simple cottage in 1840 to his home at Max Gate, the effects of technological change were very clear. In essence, the trips between Hardy’s childhood cottage and his home at Max Gate showed the dramatic changes in society witnessed by Victorian England.

max-gate-garden-from-hardys-study
Hardy’s study overlooking garden at Max Gate.

My final stop was at St. Michael’s Church in Stinford, where Hardy’s heart (sans body) is interred. The parish graveyard was small; enclosed by a stone wall it was quiet and demanded respect. This old cemetery felt hallowed by the age of the tombs and those buried there, and in some respects has its own Poet’s Corner of sorts – buried within feet of Hardy is Cecil Day Lewis, former Poet Laureate of England and father of Academy Award winning actor Daniel Day Lewis. Hardy chose to be in the same grave as his first wife, and his second wife was later buried atop both of them, an eerie ménage-a-trois for the afterlife.

Dorchester and its surroundings are alive with the life and foils experienced by Hardy and his characters. As I turned my back to the town, I felt a bit of passing nostalgia knowing that I may never return, much as the Mayor of Casterbridge must have felt as he enacted his exile from the town that came to disregard his existence. But a visit there is no further away from the bookshelf. When I read Hardy, I’m taken back to Dorchester, the imagery of his words bringing the town and its people to life again, my memories resuscitated with each turn of the page.

Alder Mystery

With roots entwined in the musty

Earth

a being is brought forth

Breeding

the emotions of humanity

Bleeding

when cut as we

Impervious

to the floods but let to

Rot

when exposed to elemental

Furies

burdening existence upon the

Landscape

that can be raiment and shelter

Nourishing

our physical needs while giving

Homage

to the spirit within that

Subsides

bringing awareness of all we’ve

Rained

upon the land and our kin

Foregoing

religiosity’s dire consequence with

Myth

grounding into our

Conscience

the collective notion of

Responsibility

turning the mind and heart to

Recognition

of a fluted pair bearing

Promise

their golden glory crystallized in

Winter’s

permafrost bearing

Witness

to the eternal hope of

Spring.

#Amquerying

If I were to tell you that the query process has been pure fun, I would lose all credibility. In the moment, it was anything but an enjoyable process. The business side of writing is tedious work. Somehow I endured, through countless revisions and rejections, endless edits to my synopsis and multiple versions of my query letter. Still, no matter how prepared I felt, there was always a sense of dread after hitting send, releasing my work out into the world to be judged.

And there were many judgments made. Slowly they trickled in to my inbox, each highlighted in red on my spreadsheet, mocking me each time I opened the document. There was also the apprehension of how my work would be received, the horror stories of other writers warning me of the cold and impersonal nature of the query process. There were also the tragedies—yes—the offer that I never received, which I learned of long after the fact, and had been rescinded for lack of a response. Somewhere out there it became tangled in the web and siphoned of all its promise.

But there was one thing no one mentioned to me about the query process. Sure, it is daunting to approach established agents and publishers, knocking at their doors and asking for a moment of their precious time. The reception I received from many agents and publishers was far from cold, in fact it has been quite the opposite. There have been many rejections, but the feedback has also been generous. Many have been kind enough to offer a personal response, even compliments. I won’t mention any names, but to all the agents and publishers who responded, I give you wholehearted thanks. Each one of you made the process that much easier and offered a glimmer of hope during the process.

Are you still scared to query? Don’t be. Remember that writing is a people business. Today’s rejection and your response could open the door to tomorrow’s acceptance. Follow-up with your submissions when allowed, be professional and courteous, and always remember you are asking someone to invest in you and your writing.

It’s the people that make the business side of writing the pleasure it can be. As writers, we are always working to build relationships with our readers but shouldn’t neglect those relationships that bring us to our readers, namely those we develop with other writers, literary agents, and publishers. If you’re reading this, chances are that you’ve already surrounded yourself with fellow writers. It’s the first step in getting your work out there, and the solid support group needed to survive the wilderness of querying.

Querying isn’t easy. It’s not supposed to be—it’s the step in the writing process that separates the writer from the hobbyist. It’s the first step in opening your work to criticism and learning how to accept that criticism—and the surest way to grow as a writer. Put your work out there. Forget the horror stories and prepare yourself to be amazed by the all the talent that exists within the world of writing and publishing.

As for my queries? Let’s just say it’s come to a happy ending. But that is another post all its own.

Happy writing,

H.A.

 

Quandary

Autumn leaves turn their backs
to another frontier of the eulogy
that’s one more summer past
and never to be forgotten

except

in the minds of those mired
in the worries of the future
struggling to reconcile fortune
against a stubbornness to

accept

change in all its forms and
its irascible determination to
forge ahead disregarding the past
laughing at the future and all its

pretense.

 

Errant Release

In the riparian edge to the glen the hollow met its terminus, its darkness collapsing to the green carpet granting its welcome. Hushed silence thundered from the hollow to be swallowed by the songs of sparrows flitting to and fro, evading its advance. There was a lightness to the air, a gurgle in the stream, and light shattered by the canopy above, its shards littering the stream’s edge only to be refracted back to the heavens from where it had come. A deep breath takes it all in, only to be stunted in release, then swallowed by the hollow.

The reeds surrendered to the weight of it all, only to resurrect themselves to conceal their new-found treasure. Around it they kept silent vigil, the crickets’ rising chorus adding dramatic crescendo to a private affair. Down to the loam of their circumstance they celebrated this offering, born of lust and sent their way by a false cupid’s errant shaft adorned with plumage of a foreign land.

With the mistral of the mountain the hollow shuddered, its being cast out into the light of the glen, batting the reeds and rippling the current at their edge. An errant catkin made its freedom from that which it adorned, bestowing upon the current a promise of life yet to come. All this done in exchange for the gurgle of the creek, replaced now by pierced light that fled from the hollow to rest among the reeds. Peace, again, with this offering made, the chalice on its side, foam running over and spilt to the ground.

Shards of shattered light bounced off the beam made wide by time, finding their way above the canopy, repaired and intact, gracing the pastoral beneath its filtered glow. No man’s trophy, escaping instead to solemn decay, its light releasing itself, returning borrowed nourishment to the glen.

 

Grave Matters

It’s October, and Halloween is edging around the corner, soon to embody all that is fall. I also see it as perfect timing for a post that is a bit more on the lighthearted side, and still literary in its theme.

Graveyards: they are places of quiet solitude by day, but as night falls, become haunting in their appearance, attaching themselves to our innate fears of mortality and the other-world. These are themes that loom large in literature, and coincidentally, led me to think about some of my favorite such places.

By far, the graveyard that is most memorable to me is the quaint churchyard cemetery at St. Michael’s in Stinsford, just outside Dorchester in the United Kingdom.

graveyard
St. Michael’s churchyard, Stinsford, UK.

It’s a quiet place, whose old, moss and lichen-enhanced tombstones stand testament to the perpetuity of human mortality.

thomas-hardy
Thomas Hardy grave, St. Michael’s churchyard, Stinsford, UK.

It’s also the final resting place of two literary greats: Thomas Hardy (his heart only – the remainder of his earthly vessel is interred at Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey) and poet-laureate Cecil Day Lewis. If you’re a writer, it’s amazing company to spend the after-life with.

There are many other graveyards to consider of course. Poet’s Corner is a must-see for the literary-minded. But I tend to prefer those that are tucked away from view, offering scenes that have melted into the past from which they came. It is the timelessness of these places that sends the chill down my spine as my feet fall upon hallowed ground made even more venerable by the history framing its existence.

Some of my local favorites include Philadelphia’s famed Laurel Hill Cemetery (renowned for the architecture of its memorials), and the Old Pine Street Church, also in Philadelphia, which dates back to our colonial past. There are many more – too small and quaint to list out of respect for these places – that harken back to colonial days or even earlier. Many of these sites dot my local woods, from homesteads that have since receded back into the earth to join their previous occupants.

What are your favorites? Graveyards abound in literature and are all around us. It is the dead’s way of lingering on in the land of the living. With Halloween fast approaching, take the time to find those unique hallowed spaces that stir your intrigue and get you in the spirit of the season.

 

Riverine Paramour

There he sat, alone, his bronzed patina enhanced by the sun’s charging rays.  Mindfully at task, he read the water, and knew it personally.  Every riff, run and eddy, the children of this great river, had personality.  Like their mother, the barometer was the only true indicator of their vacillating moods.

This was his river.  No, he did not own the rights to her waters.  Nor did he hold title to the land which embraced her form.  He had grown to love her and her fickle ways.  Her currents, like her emotions, flowed without remorse.

She flowed through him, capturing his soul like no other woman.  Her kiss moistened his parched lips.  Occasionally she yielded to his advances, allowing him to plunge into her depths.   She bore him fruits from deep within, bringing nourishment to both his body and soul.

river

He shared her beauty with those willing to accept her ways.  To know her was to live, to accept the unknown and to love unconditionally.  She could be harsh, her emotional torrents exploding in manic episodes, lambasting only those closest to her.  Weathering the rapid cycling of her tempestuous moods was rewarded by brief, intimate encounters with her placid and nurturing alter ego.

Because of him, others came to love her, and to respect her frenzied passions.  Her cool waters sustained life, while her voluptuous swells brought forth sustenance from deep below.  In her own narcissistic way, she loved in return those who loved her.

There is no impediment to her will.  She is not to be trusted, but respected in her raw and untamed power.  He was drawn in by her enrapturing trance, and committed to her shores.  There he sits, attending to her whims, led only by her capricious manifestations.