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Retreat reading reviews and meditations continued

I forgot to post these reviews of retreat reading material. So here's the other two books I completed while away from Asheville.

[ 3 ]

The Venetian Vespers
While miles from home I finished reading Anthony Hecht's The Venetian Vespers. I enjoy Hecht's poetry because of the depth of vocabulary used. For American readers who only read one language, as myself (well, actually I read two languages), he challenges my education and forces me to learn words outside my comfort zone of understanding. For example, the poem "The Deodand" (the title alone needed a definition -- "a thing forfeited or to be given to God...") includes lines like "In the swank, high-toned sixteenth arrondissement?" and "Those pillars of the old haute-bourgeoisie,". The poem concludes with five lines in French (which is not the second language I read). The poem is a recreation of a scene inspired by a Renoir painting and is written, as many of his poems, in formal lines.

"The Short End" is not a short poem and contains at least 400 lines divided into five parts. My analysis of the poem would be inadequate but its formality and narrative quality is something I plan to study.

The Venetian Vespers" is twice as long as "The Short End" and for obvious reasons is the centerpiece of the book. It begins "What's merciful is not knowing where you are,/What time it is, even your name or age,/But merely a clean coolness at the temple--/That, says the spirit softly, is enough/For the mind to adventure on its half-hidden path"

Somehow that opening line resonates with me. The poem explores Venice ("I have chose Venice for its lights,") but also Lawrence, Massachusetts. To call this poem a narrative does not properly describe it. To say that it is a poem about an expatriate in Venice would be to miss its rich texture. In a way, it would be like claiming America is about New York. There's more to America than New York just like there's more depth to this poem than a character "Who was never even at one time a wise child.” The last part of the poem reads: "I find myself frequently at the window,/Its glass a cooling comfort to my temple./And I lift up mine eyes, not to the hills/...but to the clouds."

The book includes two poems by Joseph Brodsky "versions by Anthony Hecht." I am not sure if this means they are translations, but I very much enjoyed reading "Cape Cod Lullaby" -- a poem in 12 parts; each part includes five stanzas.

Without a doubt The Venetian Vespers will be referenced much in my ongoing education in the dark art of poesy.

[ 4 ]

What Men Live By
My brother-in-law introduced me to an antiquarian bookstore which contains more than 100,000 volumes of books in literature, history, philosophy, Greco-Roman studies, foreign languages plus rare books, mediaeval manuscript leaves and engravings. Like most stores of this character, the poetry books were located in the darkest corner of the labyrinth of bookshelves. Since I had little fundage I only selected the previously mentioned book.

As I wandered toward the cashier I came upon a collection of Russian language books. There I discovered a small and affordable hardcover of Leo Tolstoy's What Men Live By. What struck me immediately was that this small hardcover book was a product of the old linotype technology. The words were not merely printed upon pages but quite literally stamped (or embossed) upon each page of the book. The binding is sewn with thread and for its age holds together nicely. For a graphic designer who is developing book projects, the entire book design was judged and found good -- and I purchased it.

Now that I had judged it by its quality packaging, I read the two long short stories (a novella is 20,000 to 40,000 words and these short stories were less than 20,000 words) contained in the book. What Men Live By is a story about a cobbler named Simon who opens his house to Michael an angel (though Simon does not know he is an angel until the end of the story). Michael is to learn three lessons: what is in man, what is not given to man and what people live by. The spoiler is the epigraph, which is 1 John 3:14-18; 4:7-20. Tolstoy's didactic narrative is a bit heavy at times. However, in some regards I found it quite refreshing in comparison with what passes as short story literature currently published in today's lit journals. Actually, I have a hard time imagining Tolstoy ever being published in the current climate of American literature. I guess that's why the contrast was refreshing.

The second story, Where Love Is, There God Is Also, is about a shoemaker named Martin who comes to embrace Scripture and how he meets "The Lord Himself" through a number of people that enter his simple, quiet life. Again, the story is homiletic -- almost predictable. Tolstoy pulls the reader through the story with no subtly but excerpts Scripture passages as a pacing device. At first I thought the story too simple too straightforward, but that is exactly what a short story is supposed to do. Even in 10,000 words, the author really only has time to developed the main character.

Another point of interest -- the protagonist is not a jaded, diminished hero or anti-hero, which is, predominates in today's literature. Both Simon and Martin are quiet heroes. At first doubtful or skeptical, they embrace love and commitment. In a crass comparison, it is the way comic books were written 75 years ago. Hero faces dilemma or bad guy (or both). Hero solves dilemma or defeats bad guy (or both). Good and evil were portrayed as distinctly opposite. Though Tolstoy's writing maybe a bit moralistic, I found it nice to read well-written short stories of high literary quality.

[ 5 ]

The book I did not finish while way from Asheville is Killing the Buddha. I'm only a few chapters into it. So far the book is engaging on many levels. It is written for "people both hostile and drawn to talk of God."

Basically, it is an anthology irreverently organized as a "heretics bible" which features creative non-fiction from writers exploring religion and spirituality as well as fictionalized books of the bible and essays.

I will provide a review of it when I'm done.

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