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Responding to the suppression of an historic event barely recalled today--5000 Madrid civilians executed for revolting against the invading Napoleonic French army--Goya painted a monumental canvas. The painter depicts fear and defiance in the enlarged white eyes of the patriots still alive, some shielding their eyes and faces with their hands. Profuse blood seeps from the dead lying in groups all over the ground as the firing squad of well-equipped professional soldiers massed together (only their backsvisible to the viewer), shoot at alarmingly close range unarmed, shabbily dressed peasants.
Strong light from a single lantern illuminates the face and body of one white shirted condemned man on his knees, eyes wide-open, leaning forward, arms outstretched, Christ-like, at the moment he is being shot. The powerless, innocent and grieving victims, next to be sacrificed, are hemmed in by a barren hill behind which looms the outline of barely visible city buildings, including a church.
En route to the way to the Trojan War, warrior Philoctetes, wielder of the bow of Heracles, is bitten by a poisonous snake at the shrine of the goddess Chryse. The infected wound becomes so painful that Philoctetes’s screams of agony repel the Greek commanders, who order Odysseus to leave him on the island of Lemnos. Ten years later (the time of the play’s opening scene), Odysseus returns to Lemnos with Neoptolemus, son of the now-dead Achilles, to retrieve Philoctetes’s bow. It has been prophesied that only with this bow can Troy be conquered.
Promising him glory and honor, Odysseus convinces Neoptolemus to win Philoctetes’s trust and take the bow. Philoctetes, delighted to see any human and especially another Greek, shares his story with Neoptolemus, begs him to take him back to Greece, and entrusts him with the bow when he is overcome by a spasm of pain.
Deeply moved by witnessing Philoctetes’s misery firsthand, Neoptolemus confesses the truth to him, but tries to persuade Philoctetes to accompany him to Troy. When Odysseus appears, Neoptolemus returns the bow, declaring that only with Philoctetes himself wielding it will the prophesy be fulfilled. He asks forgiveness, and invites Philoctetes to come back with him to be healed and then on to Troy to contribute to the battle. The only thing that ends Philoctetes’s refusal is the sudden appearance of Heracles, who announces that Philoctetes and Neoptolemus must join together to take Troy.
Late in 1918, the "Iolaire," a Royal Navy yacht carrying several hundred soldiers home to the Scottish islands of Lewis and Harris, sank in a storm off Stornoway Harbor. Over 240 were drowned, a crushing blow to an island community that had already lost 800 men in the Great War. The "Iolaire" tragedy served as the stimulus for this fictional account of friendship and love in the Hebrides islands during the War of 1914-1918.
At the book's center are three characters who form an emotional and spiritual triangle: Iain, a young poet who survives the European battlefields only to die by drowning in the "Iolaire" on his way home; the beautiful and vivacious Mairi, pregnant with Iain's child, but in reality in love with Callum; and Callum, a small town newspaperman whose disability keeps him out of the army, and who falls head-over-heels in love with Mairi.
Mairi leaves the island and travels to England to have her baby, planting the seeds of a future that we learn about in stages as The Dark Ship moves back and forth in time from 1916 to 1939 to 1996, and the fates of the characters are gradually revealed. In particular, we learn that after his death Iain Murray became world renowned as a soldier poet. Iain, whose friends never knew that he was a writer, left at his death a manuscript of poems, which his friend Callum Morrison arranged to have published in 1919. On the basis of that book, in MacLeod's fictional world Murray has come to rival such great first world war poets as Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen. (Murray's famous collection, called "A Private View," is appended to the novel.)
Christ stopped at Eboli, say the southern Italians, meaning that they are "not Christian," uncivilized, forgotten, and deprived. Physician, writer, and painter, Levi was arrested and 'exiled' from his home in Turin for opposing Fascism during the Abyssinian war (1935). This is the memoir of his life as a political prisoner under house arrest in a malaria-ridden village in Lucania (Basilicata).
The peasants immediately seek his advice for their ailments, but the two local doctors are jealous, as well as incompetent, and they have him stopped. Grinding poverty, illness, superstition, and despair work on each individual in different ways; but the peasants move with the cycle of seasons and religious festivals. The feast of the black Madonna (Chapter 12) and an unforgettable pig castration (Chapter 19) are vividly described. In the 'atmosphere permeated by divinities' (p. 151), the animal, human, and spiritual spheres combine (Chapters 8, 13, 15).
The closing chapters are a political meditation. Deprivation and isolation make the south an irrelevant and different country to the powerful middle class that runs the Fascist party. In return, Fascism finds no supporters here other than corrupt, petty officials. Levi contends that "the State" of any political stripe will never solve the problems of southern Italy until peasants are involved.
This collection continues the work of mourning that characterized Hall's collection, Without (see this database). Hall's wife, poet Jane Kenyon, died of leukemia in 1995, at age 47. Hall, considerably older than Kenyon, was married to her for more than 20 years; they wrote their poetry at home, in the farm house that he inherited from his family. The painted bed of the book's title is their marriage bed, as well as the sick bed where Hall nursed Kenyon, and the bed in which she died.
The book is divided into four sections. The first is a six-page poem, "Kill the Day," a detailed rendering of the huge absence so present in Hall's daily activities during the month and even years following his wife's death. The poem is rich with expressions of loss and the daily effort to continue living, and, as time passes, the need to remember a fading presence. "When she died, at first the outline of absence defined / a presence that disappeared." "There was nothing to do, and nothing required doing." " . . . her pheromones diminished. / The negative space of her body dwindled as she receded . . . ."
The second section, "Deathwork," is a series of short poems about the final period before Kenyon died--during which Hall and Kenyon both knew that she was dying--the period after her death, Hall's recollections of earlier times together, the painful process of disposing of Kenyon's belongings ("Throwing the Things Away"), of letting her garden go untended, of "letting go" ("Her Garden," "The Wish"). There are many striking lines: "You think that their / dying is the worst / thing that could happen. / Then they stay dead." ("Distressed Haiku") "Now I no longer . . . call her 'you' / in a poem" ("Ardor"), and, indeed, Hall in this book refers to his dead wife as "she," and "Jane," in contrast to the direct address he used in Without.
Section 3, "Daylilies," is a long (13 page) chronicle of life in the family farm house, reflecting back to Hall's childhood and moving forward to his adult ownership of the house. This poem evokes the life cycles of nature, the march of generations, the repetition of birth and death, the farm house in New Hampshire as a microcosm of the universe, and seems to mark the beginning, in Hall, of some renewed joy in life. In the final section, "Ardor," Hall writes of re-awakened sexuality.
This book contains 47 poems about the accidental drowning of the author's son, Andrew, when he was almost six years old. This cycle of elegiac poems begins with the author's memory of Andrew's birth, then quickly plunges into the specifics of his drowning and the details of his family's daily life and survival since. All of the poems are excellent--direct and well crafted.
Outstanding poems include "The Boxes," which recounts how the police searched the author's house when she first reported her child missing; "Wet," in which Andrew's grandfather comes to his house for a blanket with which to cover his newly-discovered body; "The Limousine" and "Thomas Birthday" which describe the funeral and the birthday party held the day after the funeral for Andrew's older brother, showing how grief and happiness collide; "The Pearl," in which the author laments all things undone and not said, yet recognizes that "The pain that has come between us / will someday be our pearl"; "Faded," which expresses a common fear: that if grief fades, so will memory of the loved one; "Communion," in which, on the first anniversary of Andrew's death, the author mimics the religious ritual as she eats peanut butter and jelly at her son's place at the table, drinks from his plastic cup: "When I finished, / I wiped my eyes with your napkin, / gave thanks, / ate the bread and drank the milk."
Other important poems are "Dust," "In Our Beds," "Again," "Foxes," "The Dance," "Your Questions" (a long poem in which she speaks to those who wonder how she can bear such loss), "To My Parents," "Driving" (a stunning poem in which the author, years after Andrew's death, thinks she sees him in a passing car), and "I Thirst." In this last and final poem, the author's lines might well be taken to heart by all caregivers: "Fear of loss / and walls of self protection / will kill me / long before a broken heart. / I pray, / let every death / break me so."
Please note that in order to provide a useful analysis of this novel, it is necessary to reveal the novel's ending in the discussion below. It is England, 1935. Briony Tallis, 12 years old, decides to become a writer. Her first experiment in novelistic technique involves narrating from three different points of view an odd incident she witnesses from her bedroom window: her sister Cecilia undresses and steps into a fountain in the presence of Robbie Turner, the son of a family servant. Robbie has been educated at Cambridge under Mr. Tallis's patronage, and intends to become a physician. He and Cecilia are in love.
Briony's reconstruction of the incident is inaccurate, but she fails to recognize the lesson of her exercise in multiple perspectives: her version is sufficiently coherent for her to mistake it for reality. She jumps to further conclusions and causes Robbie's wrongful conviction and imprisonment for rape and Cecilia's permanent estrangement from her family.
The rest of the novel both elucidates and unravels the opening sequence. It is 1940 and Briony is becoming both a nurse and a novelist. Both roles represent her efforts to atone for her disastrous narrative misconstrual. As a nurse, she learns a new humility and cares for the appalling injuries of soldiers who, like Robbie, are suffering the war in France.
A more metaphysical atonement lies in her work as a novelist: we realize that we have been reading Briony's own rewriting of the initial events and her careful imaginative reconstruction of Robbie's experiences in the Dunkirk evacuation. She tells of her discovery of the actual rapist (if a rape it was), her decision to retract her accusations and her efforts to make amends with Robbie and Cecilia.
In a final section, set in 1999, the aging Briony, now a successful novelist, learns that she is developing progressive vascular dementia. Soon, her ability to remember and grasp reality will desert her. But she has finished writing her latest version of Robbie and Cecilia's story, the novel we have just read, and can rest.
Her atonement seems complete until we learn that Robbie died in France and Cecilia in the Blitz, and that the (relatively) happy ending we read was simply made up by Briony. Devastatingly, we learn that atonement for an error of fiction has been limited to fictional reparation. The lethal damage it has caused in the actual world is beyond mending . . . unless, of course, we accept the vertiginous truth that the damage described in this novel is itself also no more (or less) than a fiction.
In this poem, dedicated to his brother, Stephen Dunn reflects back on childhood (and childish) parent-child relationships. The first stanza concerns the dead and the stories that keep them alive: parents who "died at least twice, / the second time when we forgot their stories . . . " The transitional second stanza asks, "what is the past if not unfinished work," prefacing the last stanza, in which the adult poet recognizes how self centered children are--"the only needy people on earth"--and wonders what his parents "must have wanted . . . back from us." But, he concludes, "We know what it is, don't we? / We've been alive long enough."
The novel begins with a prologue in which the author reports that, while repairing an old chateau he had purchased in the north of France, he discovered a manuscript ("La Tendresse") hidden in one of the chateau's chimneys. Dr. Alain Hamilton, the manuscript's author, had hidden it there, as the German army approached the chateau in 1940. "La Tendresse" was a collection of writings that described Hamilton's early life, especially his experience as a battlefield surgeon in the British army during the First World War. The 80 short chapters that follow, Strauss explains, are an edited and annotated version of Dr. Hamilton's story.
We first meet Alain Hamilton as an adolescent, during an episode of sexual awakening with a girl his own age. Later, we see him as a medical student in Vienna and then as a young married surgeon in London, who has a tender affair with a married nurse. But most of the story takes place at a British Army field hospital, where Dr. Hamilton encounters the senselessness, devastation, and absolute terror of war.
His colleague in this tragedy is Elizabeth, a nurse whose brother and fiancé have died in the fighting. Alain and Elizabeth develop an exquisitely tender, yet unconsummated, intimacy, which ends tragically. After the war, Alain searches healing and consolation, eventually finding a measure of peace in the chateau where he and Elizabeth had once worked together.
A woman lies in her bed, dying of cancer. Several family members have gathered in the room around her, including her son Bruno. From the age of 11 Bruno had wanted to be an artist, but had become a doctor instead because it was easier to make a living. "And medicine at one point--when he was nineteen or twenty--had seemed more humane than the humanities, more artful than art." Yet four years earlier, Bruno gave up his medical practice in Rome to devote his life to painting. But now he is back to medicine, helping to coordinate the efforts of his mother's physicians.
The dying woman sips an opium solution to ease her pain. She teases Bruno about the many times she had embarrassed him as a child, by acting funny or assertive or eccentric, behaving very differently from the other children's mothers. She would always make people laugh. Likewise, she was never confused about what she wanted. Even now, tipsy with opium, she remains in charge, a rock among the gathered family members, deflecting their sadness with her good humor.