Monthly Archives: December 2014

On Passive Voice, Adverbs, and Generally Writing Like a Weasel: Own Your Ideas

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Don’t Be A Weasel: Own Your Ideas. Let me start didactically (before backing off just a bit): Weasels use the passive voice. Weasels use adverbs.

“Mistakes were made.”   Wow. If ever there were a transparent evasion of responsibility for screwing up, this is it. I googled the phrase to identify who said it, and found an entire Wikipedia entry on the subject, with far too many politicians quoted as cheesing out with this phrase than I can devote space to identifying. The phrase is classic evasion in the passive voice. While it acknowledges error (almost always under circumstances in which error is undeniable), it deflects blame from the speaker. Now, this is not the place for me to expostulate on my belief that almost every politician who has used this phrase would have gotten into a whole lot less trouble simply by fessing up. That is a matter of public relations, not writing. My point here is to you as a writer. If you believe in what you are writing, write it. Write it directly, not passively.

The passive voice is a bête noir of writing stylists everywhere.   I’m not necessarily jumping on the bandwagon that condemns the passive voice for, well, its passivity. Sometimes passivity is what you want. I’m more concerned here with your communication. If you use the passive voice to express your thoughts and opinions, it will be unclear to your reader that in fact these are your thoughts and opinions.   Try this one: “There is an argument that the earth is round.” (OK, flat earthers, step aside.) What is a reader to make of this? It certainly posits the existence of an argument. But whose argument? What does the writer think, what is he or she trying to convey about the argument? Its mere existence? Well, in some circumstances it might be adequately revelatory to identify the existence of an argument. But if I’m reading a paper on the shape of the earth, I would sure like to know what the writer thinks. Passive voice deprives me of this.

Verbs unmodified. And while we’re on the subject of weasels . . . .   What is with adverbs? Generally I don’t like them. Truthfully, they don’t usually add a whole lot, at least expressly, to the meaning of a sentence. Candidly and frankly speaking, they tend to be ways of softening what you are trying to say. And that, absolutely, is really a problem. It’s a problem in writing and in speech that I think translates to our social and interpersonal relations: People don’t like to be direct.

Why not? Because they don’t mean what they say? If that’s the case, they shouldn’t say it at all. More likely, I think, adverbs are used as a means of conflict avoidance. Soften the opinion, soften the directness, and you are less likely to invite disagreement and debate. But is that actually useful (especially if you are writing and – in a rare difference with speech – physically removed from your readers, so conflict – at least immediate conflict – is impossible)? Adverbs drive me nuts. (OK, I frequently use them myself, but I have been trying really hard to give up that habit.) And they drive me nuts because their common use obscures the strength of a writer’s (and speaker’s) thoughts. Adverbs keep the reader guessing.[1]

It’s worth reiterating my main point in Chapter One; speak well, write well. If you use a lot of adverbs in your (weaselly-, conflict-evasive) speech, this tendency, like all of your other oral tics, will find its way into your writing. [2] So as you work to improve your speech that will improve your writing, perhaps you should consider stepping up to your opinions and stating them directly.

Now look. There are plenty of times when you want to qualify what you write, times when you want to soften an assertion, provide for the possibility of alternatives, give space for other points of view. If this is what you meant to do, say it! There is nothing wrong with writing: “This is what I think, except for . . . .” Or: “This is what I think. Other people think differently. Here is why I think I’m right.” Or: “This is what I think based on my research so far. Further research might lead to different conclusions.” In each of these cases I, the reader, can know precisely what the writer thinks, how strong the writer’s beliefs are, and as a result can determine whether I agree or disagree. Straightforward qualification is just that – it is not weaselly. I, as reader, cannot know what weasels think.

Adjectives Are Like Caviar: Use Sparingly. In the beginning was Hemingway. OK, maybe not in the beginning. But Hemingway really created the modern spare and direct kind of writing I’m advocating here. Read A Farewell to Arms. Count the adjectives. Or, again to quote Mark Twain: “When you catch an adjective, kill it.” Adjectives are the cockroaches in the dark corners of your writing.   They are crutches. They fill space. They distract. They attempt to deprive the reader of independent thought. They clutter. They strain to infuse the vapid with meaning. Phew.

OK, so perhaps I’ve overstated the case. I don’t say that you can’t ever use adjectives. What I will say is that, when you do use them, think about them as you would any other word, and consider why you are using them and whether they are necessary, by which I mean, whether they add to what you already have written. Adjectives are the refuge of the bad writer precisely because they come so easy.

As a practical matter, I would advise that you write your first draft without adjectives. This will take some thought and self-monitoring. When an adjective creeps in, as inevitably it will as the words flow from your fingers, stop and delete it. Or go back and delete all of your adjectives once you have finished your first draft. (Don’t worry – you won’t forget them. One of the problems with adjectives is that, like an annoying tune, they remain stuck in your head.) Read your work adjective-free.   You now have nowhere to hide. You will readily see if you have said something worth saying.

When In Doubt, Keep Them Out. You may start to add some adjectives back – carefully, intentionally, and sparingly – only after you engage in the rewriting exercise that follows, on a second or third rewrite at the earliest. And, when you do, be mindful of how you use them. Make sure they add something to what you are writing, something that the reader would not otherwise understand from what you have written. If they don’t, keep them out. If you’re not sure whether they add or not, they don’t. Really. I have yet to hear a reader of anybody complain about the absence of adjectives (except perhaps in bad Hemingway imitations.)

Avoid Quotations. “I hate quotations. Tell me what you know.” Well, I’m not always in agreement with Ralph Waldo Emerson, but he was spot-on here. Quotations are the refuge of the cowardly and the lazy. Cowardly, because using someone else’s words lets you avoid owning your ideas (weasly, again). Lazy, because it precludes you from having to take complex ideas and present them in your own words. Probably for these reasons, a lot of really poor writing is characterized by the overuse of quotations.

Now, I never say never (or at least almost never). There are certain times when quotations are necessary or desirable. You will note that I (ironically) began this admonition to avoid quotations with a quotation. But you have also seen quotations – often extensive – throughout this book. These quotations serve as examples, and it is perfectly ok to use quotations when you are using them to exemplify or illustrate a point. Related to this is the analysis of quotations – which I’ve also done. It would be difficult, if not impossible, for example, to engage in a literary critique without using some quotes.

Quotations are also acceptable when you are telling a story that requires the use of somebody else’s words. In Chapter [ ] I will give an example from Robert Caro’s biography of Lyndon Johnson. Johnson’s own words (and the words of contemporaries) were necessary in order for Caro to develop the characters and show them as they were. This is why novelists write dialog – it more powerfully expresses their characters than mere description could. Nothing that Caro could have made up would have been as powerful as the quotations.

Finally, quotations are fine if they are famous – or at least uniquely appropriate – and you are using them for color. That’s how I use the Emerson quote at the beginning of this section. But, again, this should be done sparingly or your writing will look silly and mannered.

[1] There is a parallel in speech about which I shall rant for a moment. How many times have you asked somebody a question to receive the answer: “I’m not sure.”? Literally, that means that the speaker is not certain of the answer. But what does he really mean? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. Why doesn’t he say “yes” or “no?” Perhaps because he thinks the answer will make you unhappy. So he dissembles. Does this help answer your question? No, of course not. The same uncertainty with which you began remains. Is it communication? Obviously not, except for the possible conclusion that the speaker doesn’t want to communicate. Conflict-avoidance phrases tend not to further the enterprise of communication.

[2] Sorry – another rant on misuse. When did ”verbal” and “oral” come to mean the same thing? People regularly use “verbal” when they mean “oral.” Get it straight.

Lawrence Mitchell

Write to the Music: Rhythm and Writing — Some Examples

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Today’s post is a bit long, but the length is necessary I think to provide appropriate examples of my topic, rhythm, in writing.

The Cadence of Sentences and Paragraphs. Among the attributes of really good writing that most writing teachers don’t talk about is rhythm.   Speech has a cadence. You know this even if you don’t think about it. If you are excited, your sentences and words might be short and choppy. If you are pensive, you might use longer sentences, drawn out at a slower pace, perhaps more attention to your vocabulary. If you are bored, you might employ monosyllabic sentences. Think about this during your next conversation. How do you feel? What are you trying to convey? How does the rhythm and cadence of your speech contribute to this? Or not?

The same factors are at play in writing. Recall the passage from David Foster Wallace’s essay I analyzed in an earlier post. There I parsed the paragraph by number of words in each sentence, the comparative length of sentences as the paragraph grew and receded, and even the way words were used and repeated. There I wrote of the way Wallace uses this syntax to convey a sense of the anxiety he is feeling as he is driven to the Illinois State Fair. It is precisely the rhythm of the paragraph that helps to create and convey this anxiety. Try this:

“I am anxious.”

“I. Am. Anxious.”

Do you see the difference? Remarkable, really, how just a little punctuation can completely change the way a sentence feels, and thus the “volumes you mean” to convey without using any more words. Or maybe you do want more words. Perhaps you are somebody who deals with anxiety by talking a lot. That is your style, and you may well be able to convey the same feeling differently. I’m not prescribing here any particular way of doing it. Only that you be mindful of the way your syntax – your rhythm – can be a potent tool in your writing kit.

Rhythm in writing may be more typically associated with fiction and poetry than with non-fiction, but I’m here to argue that it is just as important in the latter. (Wallace’s essay is non-fiction.) You may not be developing a fictional character but there are characters in non-fiction writing, even if the only character is you. Remember, writing is self-presentation, and even if what you are writing is a research paper, something of who you are inevitably comes across.

Let’s take an example from a speech written by one of America’s greatest speakers (which meant he was also a pretty great writer), Martin Luther King’s 1963 address at the Lincoln Memorial, “I Have a Dream.” Let’s take a paragraph from relatively near the beginning:

We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rocks of brotherhood.

The opening sentence tells us of the urgency of the matter before the audience. How do we get this feeling of urgency? Read the paragraph aloud. Do you see what happens when you recite the last three sentences, each of which begins with the phrase “now is the time?” It’s like a drumbeat. Now is the time. Now is the time. Now is the time. And on. And on. A drumbeat. Insistent. Compelling. Urgent. The first sentence is a little more than half the length of the next two, but each of the sentences is fairly short. Perhaps more to the point, only 14 of the 52 words constituting those three sentences exceeds one syllable, and only 7 are as long as three syllables. Rhythm? You bet.

Now let’s look at a passage about two-thirds of the way through the speech, immediately before King builds to its stunning climax with his description of his dream, the part of the speech that everybody knows. King has just acknowledged that many of the listeners have come to Washington (or to the speech) from terrible experiences – -trials, tribulations, police brutality, discrimination. He knows they are damaged. He knows they have suffered. Yet they must return home, they must return to face the same horrors that brought them to Washington in the first place. What can King do to comfort them? What can he do to give them the strength to return? He admonishes them:

Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive. Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to South Carolina, go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums and ghettos of our Northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed. Let us now wallow in the valley of despair.

First, the message, grounded deeply in theology. But then the rhythm, then the feeling, then the even terser, shorter, sharper drumbeat. Go back. Go back. Go back. There’s a reason that military bands and drum corps were used for so long to drive soldiers into battle. King is employing the verbal equivalent of a drum corps to instill in his listeners the spirit, the will, the courage, and the strength. Yes, his words matter. But imagine if he had said the following:

Go back to Mississippi, Alabama, South Carolina, Georgia, Louisiana, and the slums and ghettos of our Northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed.

Reads kind of like a lecture, right? The emotional impact of the rhythm is gone, merely be reconstructing the sentence. Why is this? I’m not a psychologist, so cannot identify the specific mechanisms at work here. But I am an empathic person who can identify the way in which certain patterns of speech and writing affect most people. King’s empathy was huge, and he got it spot on. So use that empathy – -use everything about which I have been writing – to your advantage in your writing (and in your speaking).   Rhythm is a key instrument in engaging it.

Just to finish up, look at the rest of the paragraph. After the cadence of states, he hits a rim shot – “knowing.” Knowing what? That things will be changed. He brings an abrupt end to the cadence, and then concludes with the same kind of faith with which he began. A powerful setup. And one which concludes the speech but for King’s immortal description of his dream.

By the way, the order of the speech is terribly effective, too. King ends the speech before he really ends it, for the paragraph I quote above really ends the speech. Then comes all the dream stuff. Had King submitted the speech for editing to an average writing teacher, he likely would have told him either to cut the dream stuff entirely or to move it up before the conclusion.

But imagine if King had delievered the “I have a dream part,” and then concluded by telling his followers to go home? The remarkable, ringing, historic sounds of “I have a dream” would have dissipated. The power of the vision, the sound of the speech, would have ended on a very different note. By concluding the speech before his final flourish, King brilliantly allowed for the speech finally to end in a swirl of vision, beauty, and emotion, leaving his listeners charged, and his place in history confirmed.

Rhythm on a Larger Scale — the Rhythm of Your Essay.  Here’s another example, this one drawn from the work of biographer Robert Caro.[1] I mentioned Caro in an earlier post as one of three writers who have profoundly affected me. Frankly, I think there is no better writer in the English language. I’m not one who indulges in hero worship, but Caro is a writer in whom I stand in simple awe. Now look, I’m a normal human being, and sometimes – often? – when I read the work of some celebrated writer, I feel a bit of jealousy and think that I am just as good. Not so with Caro. No jealousy. No envy. And I know I could never be as good. To me, reading Caro is looking at the Mona Lisa, listening to late Beethoven Quartets, observing the beauty of a sunset. Really, I think he’s just that good.

So this example comes from the third volume of Caro’s biography of Lyndon Johnson, Master of the Senate which, quite deservedly, won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. Caro is telling a story of the way Johnson firmed up his political support in Texas. Oilmen had not wholly been comfortable with the liberal Johnson. And of course oilmen – and their money and influence – were extremely important in Texas politics. Johnson found an opportunity to gain their trust and support by successfully opposing – and being credited for opposing – the renomination to the Federal Power Commission of a liberal, New Deal democrat, a man committed to oil and gas price regulation for the benefit of working people and, in Caro’s account, a public servant of selfless dedication and integrity – Leland Olds.

The story takes a dense 70 pages to tell. It is highly detailed, complex and, while engaging, can lead the reader to lose sight of the point. But I want to show you three places where Caro – using very short paragraphs in an essay of otherwise long ones – keeps the reader focused and very effectively nails the point home.

The first is the opening paragraph:

Another quality that Lyndon Johnson had displayed on each stage of his marge along the path to power was an utter ruthlessness in destroying obstacles in his path.[2]

Wow. That one-sentence paragraph certainly throws down the gauntlet. That is a big accusation, and one that requires real proof. You have no indication when you begin this series of three chapters how long, detailed, and comprehensive it will be. Caro sets you off with a verbal punch in the gut, one that sustains for some time.

But the story is not quite enough. About 20 pages in, after writing what in another context might be considered a hagiography of Olds, Caro quotes a contemporary as to how much the oilmen hated Olds.   Caro then quotes John Connally, then a Texas lawyer for the oil interests, at some length, describing how by defeating Olds’s renomination, Johnson could “get in with dozens of oilmen – to bring very powerful rich men into his fold who had never been for him and were still suspicious of him. So for Lyndon this was the way to turn it around: take care of this guy.”

And Caro simply writes: “And Lyndon knew how to take care of him.” [3] Before another 30 dense pages on how he did it. It is an ugly 30 pages. Johnson didn’t simply defeat a nomination – he destroyed a man, engaging in character assassination using old and unsubstantiated rumors, implying things about Olds that simply weren’t true, taking aspects of Olds’s life out of context and displaying them in the most ugly light possible. Johnson wins. Olds loses. Everything. And then, after this long, detailed story, Caro gives us this:

One other incident connected with the hearings [on Olds’s renomination] perhaps deserves mention. It occurred during a brief recess. Leland Olds was standing in the corridor outside the hearing room, talking to his wife and Melwood van Scoyoc, when Lyndon Johnson emerged and started to walk by. Then he stopped, came up behind Olds, and put his hand on his shoulder.“Lee,” he said, “I hope you understand there’s nothing personal in this. We’re still friends, aren’t we? It’s only politics, you know.”[4]

 I’ve taken you through a fair amount to get to this point, but this is brilliant writing in every possible way. Start with rhythm, but this time the rhythm of the whole story. Long, detailed, complex. But at key points in the story, Caro slips in a zinger. And look how it conveys the point. We start with Caro’s assertion of Johnson’ ruthlessness. We reach a point where Johnson has an opportunity to get something he wants. We see him destroy another human being in the process. And then Caro shows us Johnson as utterly oblivious to the evil he has done.

The last paragraph quoted above is particularly skillful. Caro begins it coyly – he’s playing with us: “One other incident . . .perhaps deserves mention.” Seriously? Perhaps? Caro’s been waiting for two and half volumes to give us this little vignette For it captures pretty much his entire attitude toward Johnson. I can’t imagine anybody reading that paragraph after the preceding story and failing at least to begin to despise Johnson with the depth of Caro’s dislike. And yet all Caro has done is present the facts.

Now, most of us won’t have a character like Lyndon Johnson about whom to write. But the point remains. You can employ rhythm and syntax to make your point emotionally and forcefully.

[1] It really is only coincidence that I follow King’s speech with excerpts from a biography of the man perhaps most responsible for the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

[2] Robert A. Caro, Master of the Senate (New York; Vintage;2003) p. 232

[3] Id., pp. 247-8.

[4] Id., p. 303.

Lawrence Mitchell

My Coffee, My Grandpa

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Grandpa was a coffee man.

I was thinking about him and the business after reading a report in The New York Times that Starbucks has concluded six dollar lattes don’t make it upscale enough.  So it plans to open — what? — super super super premium coffee shops focusing, as small new shops around the city do, on specific regions, beans, roasts, etc.  (OK, I’m not a coffee gourmet, but I kind of thought that Starbucks already did that.)

I think of him often, of course — he was my grandpa — but as the coffee craze has grown from gas station cappuccino in Seattle thirty years ago to what it is today, I have wondered what he would make of it.  I know he would be amused by the plaid-shirted, pierced, and heavily tattooed baristas (who are going to regret it when they’re my age), lovingly crafting each cup of coffee as the line at the register grows.  I think he’d be amazed and perhaps a bit bewildered at the coffee shop proliferation.  And I’m pretty sure he’d find the prices ridiculous.  I know he wouldn’t pay them.

My grandpa’s business was coffee.  To him, it was just coffee. It was a small business in Brooklyn, Mitchell Coffee.  Uncle Jess, whom I remember as pretty quiet, managed the books.  Grandpa — whom everybody loved — was the outside guy.  Mitchell Coffee was a restaurant supply house (except for the constant supply my parents and my aunt and uncle received), and I think it’s fair to say that Grandpa knew every Greek, at least in Brooklyn and Manhattan.  That’s where I remember going on deliveries with him.  We may have hit Queens (I can’t recall), but I’m pretty certain we never reached the Bronx. And Staten Island was only for ferry rides on days we didn’t go to Buddy’s Amusement Park down near where King’s Plaza is today.

Sometimes, when I was off from school, I would go down to Brooklyn and stay with my grandparents.  I went to work with my grandmother (a bookkeeper at St. John) and it was fun to ride the train with her and go to the Automat for lunch.  But going to work with Grandpa was the best.  I would sit on burlap sacks, chewing on coffee beans fresh out of the roaster, while Grandpa got ready to make deliveries. (I can pretty well assure you that I was thoroughly buzzed by the time we left.)  He didn’t have ten different roasts.  He didn’t have two.  He had one, labelled RS-15.  I remember once asking him what that stood for.  “Rat shit,”  he told me. That was the first and perhaps the only time I heard him use profanity.  I thought it was wonderful.  And I worried, just a bit, that the pellet-like bean I had just put in my mouth was, well, I was only about nine years old.

He’d have the car loaded up with the brown and white Mitchell coffee bags by around mid-morning.  That’s when the real fun started.  He managed to park at every diner on every street.  We’d get out, he’d carry in the cases, greet the owner, introduce me and then we’d sit at the counter where he’d have a cup of coffee with the owner.  My grandpa had a titanium gastrointestinal system, because we made a lot of deliveries and he drank a lot of coffee.   Sometimes we’d go in the back.  That was fun. In addition to Mitchell Coffee my grandparents owned a small luncheonette, and I was allowed to go in the back there, too.  Leaving aside the time I thought I was locked in the walk-in refrigerator, it was great.  But I digress.

My grandpa sold the business shortly after the New York blackout of 1977.  That event seemed to bring out the worst in Brooklyn, and he and grandma moved to Jersey and later Florida for the winter.  I recall the name of the buyer — Brooke Bond Foods.  And that was that.  It took my parents, who had never had to buy a pound of coffee in their lives, at least a decade to find coffee they liked.   And my grandparents enjoyed a wonderful and deserved retirement.

Grandpa died, too young, at the age of 91, just two days after 9/11 and within sight of the rising columns of smoke.  Not long before that, he had been playing cards with friends, and a fellow he didn’t know.  When introduced, the man said:  “You’re Dave Mitchell?”  My grandfather — a deeply modest man — was puzzled.  “Did you know,” the man said, “that Brooke Bond sold your recipe to Dunkin’ Donuts?”

Now, I’ve never verified the facts.  But I’ll take it.  Each time you drink a cup of Dunkin’ Donuts coffee, you’re drinking RS-15.  And my wonderful memories.  I doubt that Howard Schultz can match that.

 

Lawrence Mitchell

Poetry: Central Park

My suite of poems, Central Park, has just been published in the November 29, 2014 issue of the journal, New York Dreaming.  As is my practice, I present them here.  I do apologize – WordPress does not allow for more compact spacing (or, if it does, I don’t know how to do it).

                                                                       

Central Park

 I

Prelude

The path that pulls me through the park,

stained macadam, sometimes stone,

mortar bound to climb down stairs,

winding past a grass clean field,

a clique of trees,

a man who plays the violin,

he stands there every day

vainly hoping that

his instrument’s sarcophagus

will green like leaves,

bends around a massive crop,

Manhattan schist,

the bedrock of my life,

conquering kids crest its peak

arms stretched down and uptown,

straddling the world.

I have spent my life

in wanders such as these,

the paths seem always to lead

somewhere,

and I suppose they do,

if you know where somewhere is.

Resigned, I rest upon a bench

until the spruce green slats

annoy me up,

but I must stretch,

for pausing only ossifies

a body used as mine.

Before too long, I’m off again,

let landscape lead me where it may.

A straight and wider boulevard,

grand paving stones and sentry elms,

a saber arch of leaves,

announce its majesty.

I am pulled, striding solemnly,

as such monuments demand,

and then it stops.

Spread far beneath,

parade ground breaks at deep green lake,

my eyes are pulled to rise.

This is where it ends.

This is where it starts.

II

Bethesda Terrace

 Angel of the waters,

cascading robes embrace

the house of mercy,

compassion, lovingkind.

Your far-drawn fountains pour

healing music on a sultry afternoon.

You are the respite and the pause,

your plaza a fermata

holding still the winding tunes,

the point and counterpoint

of twisting paths,

the resting place of weary melody,

pulled together by your flat green lake,

arches harmonizing hold the highest note

and shade the brooding bass of catacombs,

the great sonorous chord before the music breaks

and scatters once again through paths of counterpoint

and coloratura warbling the far-flung fields.

Filled again with pure vibration,

I sing along my way.

 

 

III

Remember the Maine

Remember the Maine.

Do you?

I’m sitting here below her gilded scallop chariot,

borne by waves that wash ashore

the water graves of those who served,

much as time has washed

the names inscribed upon the

sandy plinth between the seas,

lofted high above the park,

fading into anonym,

two decades more, they’re gone.

Sentry of the circle,

staring clear across,

the circle’s eponym,

his back displayed.

You’d think that as himself a sailor

he could at least bother

to turn his face,

to grace defiant victory that crests the prow,

perhaps he just resents the slender pedestal

on which he stands,

and so prefers to cast his eyes away from grander stone.

Forgive the bombast for those lonely men

were just tools to start a war,

to build careers and dreams deferred.

 

IV

Different Strokes

The painters array on a swatch of green

beneath sporadic trees

before a massive stone,

more white than gray,

that breaches the surface with its back.

 

Elderly they are, white hats, white hair,

white pads,

some on laps, and

one or two lurch out on makeshift easels.

 

And they brush.

They dip and they brush,

struggling to capture the elusive uncatchable.

One with bold dramatic strokes,

another, almost pensive,

one precision-like to thrust

the sounding stone upon the page.

 

Their art will never lure

the rock to paper,

but who cares?

The end is in the brush

that makes tangible what goes behind the eyes.

V

A Great Day in Harlem

Flat beneath the rocky heights,

cathedral towers pulling high

the ground that holds

the sanctified of God and man,

baking in the summer sun,

the land gives way to water,

just as flat and dusty as the grass,

turtles collect on a broken log,

their nostrils peer from the brown of the pond.

 

I stroll along that uncertain shore

and see a boy, beautiful, glistening,

whose wonder world this nature is.

He lifts his pole,

a crappie dangling from the line,

glowing in the warmth of day.

 

His pride as vibrant

as the shimmer of the heat that

rises from the path,

he smiles at me,

salutes me with his fish,

and humble, I defer.

VI

Sunday Morning

A wailing erhu struggles just to pierce the air,

an improbable regatta, waves laconic,

ripples lazy up the lake unfolding, rolling,

brushed against the coaming framed so perfectly,

reverberates a beat or two and spreads again,

the pastel notes of children follow trippingly.

 

Shaded in an alcove lined with trees, I settle,

the benches form my sanctuary’s inner wall,

absorbing deep the ancient sound and childrens’ calls,

they are the only tunes except the snoring man,

Sunday Times spread out, innocently sonorous

harmonies arise as the Chinese music fans.

 

Another sits a bit apart, a bit aloof,

slumping wearily and peering past his folio,

expression sort of dour for one so bronzed as he,

the tunes he pipes are rather of a darker piece,

entrancing, not enchanting like the wonderland,

vibrations merging motivate grim fantasies.

 

And so I daydream pondering this fairy tale,

stupor swaddled in a blanket damp with summer,

listening for melodies that cannot reach me,

reaching for refrains buried deep in echoes past,

my soporific sanctity cannot hold on,

and struggling for escape I have to sing my song.

 

I open wide my heart to let the music flow,

but oily air compresses breath before it billows,

chokes it down beneath the surface of my spirit,

strangles still the beauty of my barbaric yawp,

surrendering I slowly sprawl my ecstasy,

asphyxiating in the lushness of the day.

VII

 Benches (The Names)

Swirling around like a jazz riff,

paths and perimeters sweeping,

along hidden byway and bold cliff,

sounds joyous, pensive, or weeping.

 

But while their melody never stops,

it often lulls behind daydreams,

blankets of snow or the leaves that drop,

or faintly buzzing moonbeams.

 

And yet each strikes out a silver tone,

like saxophone or like trumpet,

reminding me that it’s just a loan,

each dying note must confront it.

 

Many are named who have loved this place,

but most remain unacknowledged,

sounds once degraded don’t leave a trace,

sounds never heard can’t pay homage.

 

Beautiful music that’s passed is past,

new rhythms won’t come ‘till tomorrow,

the sounds that embrace me won’t hold fast,

music, like time, can be callow.

 

Each bench that I pass shall stay nameless,

and yet records lives beyond count,

though grateful I am, for the noblesse,

a moment depletes each account,

 

And so I shall sing for the moment,

without much regard to the tune,

denying the need for atonement,

since harmony ends much too soon.

 

Lawrence Mitchell