A few years ago, I lived for over two years in a rooming house in Jersey City, as I daily ruthlessly crawled my way to literary fame. The person in the room next to me was a devout Muslim from Pakistan.
He was a handsome young man, beaming with health and well-being, and with an impressive stock of rich looking black hair; that often made me reluctant to take off my hat in his presence. No point in embarrassing myself.
His father, I was to soon learn, was a high ranking General in the Pakistan army; and that bold confidence on my new young friend’s handsome face was always reminding me of that.
One day, as we stood in the shared kitchen, me cooking pork chops, which he didn’t blink from, but would never take a bite, but seemed to enjoy the smell, I got up the courage to ask him what he thought of all the fuss going on in the Mideast and the attack on America on 9/11.
“That’s not Islam!”
In many ways, I found this novel, the first of the well-known The Islam Quintet, highly interesting, mainly because of remembering the strong reaction of my young friend from Pakistan. For those who know little about Islam, what we hear often is “That’s not Islam.” Even our President says that what is happening in the Middle East is not Islam.
It turns out that this has been a long, centuries-old struggle to define just what is Islam, if we are to believe Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree.
This novel, a reissue for Verso, was first issued by them it in 1993.
There were some novelistic conventions I found distracting, and it was mostly all talk, and strange names, with different names for the same person, much like you will find in a classic Russian novel. Still, I found it hard to put down, and couldn’t wait to get back to it when I awoke. And I read every page.
Part of the reason was because we see an entire, proud society now forced to choose between religious conversion, exile or the sword.
Here is the real bare bones history behind Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree, courtesy of Wikipedia:
The Spanish occupation by the Moors began in 711 AD when an African army, under their leader Tariq ibn-Ziyad, crossed the Strait of Gibraltar from northern Africa and invaded the Iberian peninsula.
The Moors, ruled Spain for 800 years. The Moors called the territory Al-Andalus, which at its peak included what is today most of Spain and Portugal. The differences in religions and cultures led to a centuries-long conflict with the Christian kingdoms of Europe, as they tried to reclaim control of Muslim areas,
The Moors were initially of Arab and Berber descent at the time of the Umayyadconquest of Hispania in the early 8th century. Later the term covered people of mixed ancestry (including black Africans), and Iberian Christian converts to Islam (the Arabs called the latter Muwalladun or Muladi)
As the novel begins, we are now near the end of what Christian Spain called “The Reconquista.” Under the leadership of Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand, Muslim and Jewish subjects were offered conversion, exile, or death.
The last Muslim Sultan had fled to North Africa, a place where neither he, nor members of the prominent, prosperous, upper class family at the center of this novel, have only imagined.
Spain was their home. They knew little else. What should they do?
At the heart of this novel, author Tariq Ali, gives us a long, philosophic conversation of what went wrong for the Muslims, after so many years of ruling over Al-Andalus. For example, this early passage sets the stage for the rest of the novel in many ways:
The old uncle’s mocking voice was still resounding in Umar’s head. ’You know the trouble with your religion, Umar. It was too easy for us. The Christians had to insert themselves into the pores of the Roman Empire. It forced them to work below the ground. The catacombs of Rome were their training-ground. When they finally won, they had already built a great deal of social solidarity with their people. Us? The Prophet, peace be upon him, sent Khalid bin Walid with a sword and he conquered. Oh yes, he conquered a great deal. We destroyed two empires. Everything fell into our lap. We kept the Arab lands and Persia and parts of Byzantium. Elsewhere it was difficult, wasn’t it? Look at us. We have been in Al-Andalus for seven hundred years and still we could not build something that would last. It’s not just the Christians, is it, Umar? The fault is in ourselves.’
Near the end of the novel, another character echo’s this: “Our own fault,” declared Ibn Hisham without a shadow of a doubt. “We always look for answers in the actions of our enemies…Our Prophet died too soon, before he could consolidate the new order. His successors killed each other like the warring tribesmen that they were. Instead of assimilating the stable characteristics of civilizations which we conquered, we decided instead on imparting to them our own mercurial style.”
Shades of Pat Roberson!
The novel goes on like this, always pointing to the bickering among Muslims about just what did the Prophet Mohammed really say, and how should it be interpreted. This first book was published in 1991. All hell had not yet broken out in the Middle East between Muslims. This is a thoughtful book that explains much of what we witness almost every time we turn on the news.
Let’s get my street cred out of the way: in ninth grade, Mme. Guerin informed me that acing my French tests alone would not get me far. I needed to work on my accent. Perhaps I took her gentle reprimand too much to heart! I double majored in French (and English) in college, studied in Normandy for my junior summer, then met a Frenchman in graduate school a few years later, quelle folie!, and ran off to live with him in Mexico and Paris.
We married and the entirety of our brief marriage took place in Paris (four years) and culminated in the birth of our child and our eventual separation and divorce. Quelle horreur.
It was all extremely romantic, has given me lots of great material to write about, and of course, a charming son. I would seem to be an ideal reader for Downie’s book in many ways: I’ve read the greats of French literature: Baudelaire, Flaubert, Balzac, Victor Hugo, George Sand. I’ve walked the streets of the Marais, lived steps from the Bastille, know my way around French pastry, know that of which he speaks. And yet . . .
Downie’s book is beautifully written; he’s an excellent stylist with a distinctive voice of his own. An American, he’s done a staggering amount of research into French history and literature (much of it on foot) and spent more than thirty years living in France. Not only does he operate a tour company, Paris Tours, with his wife, but he’s managed to pen a dozen non-fiction books, several of them about Paris, and a thriller or two. “Passion” in his title is not to be taken lightly. I would say he is possessed, but in a good way. Listen:
“No one is allowed to use the back stairs to the Hugo museum except in an emergency. But when the weather is hot, a guard sometimes opens the doors and occasionally, in a slack moment on a sleepy August day when visitors are rare, if you happen to be standing nearby and are as curious and possessed as I am, you might step over the threshold onto the landing and glance up and down and then spend months or years afterward speculating, Was this the escalier derobe [hidden stairway]?”
“As I stood before the heavy stone sepulcher of Victor Hugo, tears welled in my eyes . . .”
So the reader of A Passion for Paris is with the ultimate guide, the one who knows not only where the literary greats lived and dined and hung out, but who they were sleeping with and why, and how this affected their writing. He’s irreverent, funny and pretty convincing about his thesis: “Adultery is the national pastime in France.” Ah, so that’s why the French don’t get too upset about the sexual peccadilloes and liaisons of their political leaders, seeing them as irrelevant, and wish that Americans would do the same!
Downie goes into great detail about the loves of Victor Hugo, the secret stairways into illicit love nests, the way he seamlessly juggled several mistresses at once. And yes, he was really in love with some of them.
Everybody else, including the women, seemed to be doing the same. But he sees the great Victor Hugo as the one responsible for ushering France into the Romantic Age in the early 19th century, while its roots go back to the 18th century writings of Jean Jacques Rousseau. “There are those, however, who look beyond dates and ages and believe the Romantic spirit never died, that it overflowed, spread, fractured, came back together again like the Seine around its islands, morphed into other isms, changed its name and address dozens of times as Nadar and Balzac did and, like a phantom or vampire or other supernatural invention of the Romantic Age, it thrives today in billions of brains and hearts. The mother ship, the source, the living shrine of Romanticism remains the city of Paris.”
What is romanticism exactly? I’m still not sure Downie defined it. It’s more a case of you know it when you see it. Walk down a street in Paris—it’s in the air for you to breathe in and absorb.
This comprehensive work, so erudite and entertaining, has negative as well as positive effects. I realize I know nothing about Paris, that I am a lazy shirker, ignorant and non observant. Did it ever occur to me to lurk in stairways, sneak into someone’s garret apartment because a literary great had once lived there? Why did I never take the time to sort out the sexual liaisons of Paris’s literary greats? Who thought to bother learning the history of Paris’ great edifices, her grands boulevards, her cathedrals?
The bright side of this revelation is that Downie has shown me the way. Now I need to return to Paris (great excuse) and show a little more gumption and curiosity. And you would do well to follow suit!
A lifelong obsession, a short run on Broadway. Chita Rivera glided onto the stage as if she were walking on water, which she was in a sense as Claire Zachanassian, the richest woman in the world, coming back to her hometown, a fictitious Swiss village called Brachen, now a desperate place where everyone was broke.
Anton, the boy she loved in her youth, played by Roger Rees, was just one of the ragged townspeople hoping her visit would make a difference in his fortunes.
John Kander and Fred Ebb’s musical adaptation of The Visit with book by Terrence McNally —based on an often-adapted 1956 satirical play by Friedrich Dürrenmatt called Der Besuch der alten Dame—opened at the Lyceum Theatre on Broadway in April of this year and closed in June after struggling with grosses and winning no Tonys in spite of several nominations, including one for Rivera as Best Leading Actress in a Musical. It will surely be back someday, somewhere, however. The essence of the story is too irresistible not to stage again and again.
Claire was a beautiful gypsy girl in her youth (yes, there were gypsies in Switzerland, with a long history of persecution), naïve enough to imagine Anton would do right by her when she became pregnant. Instead he subjected her to a humiliating trial in which two friends testified, for a small fee, that they’d also slept with her. She fled Brachen in disgrace and became a prostitute with a keen nose for marrying outrageously rich old men.
In her return visit, knowing her money is everyone’s last hope, she announces she will bail them out. Just one concession: they must kill Anton. Of course, that’s insane, they all agree, at first. Weeks pass and Anton watches as his neighbors, his friends, his children and his wife ease into a buying binge—all on credit. Spoiler alert here: in the play, the townspeople lynch Anton and call it a heart attack. After which Claire departs with his coffin; finally, in death, he’s hers.
This is obsessive love of operatic proportions, and therein lie the limitations of the Kander and Ebb version: their music fell far short of operatic. For a more successful twist on vengeance, the 1964 movie starring Ingrid Bergman and Anthony Quinn delivered an ending that has haunted me ever since I caught in on late night television sometime in my teens: Claire announces at the very end that the villagers don’t have to kill Anton after all. She just wants him to spend the rest of his life amongst these people who were willing to kill him for a price.
As is well known to anyone who’s ever become obsessed over a case of unrequited love—I think that takes in pretty much the entire population of the planet—you are rarely able to become the richest person in the world and use your money to make the person who spurned you very, very sorry. That’s why I prefer the Ingrid Bergman movie, depicting Claire (or Karla, as she’s called in this version) as a woman of exacting vengeance rather than a murderous harridan with an obsession of necrophiliac proportions—an obsession that would have been moving only if she’d sung an aria that shook the whole theater with the pain she’s suffered.
But what do you do about unrequited love when it doesn’t end with a grand finale and applause, but is just an ordinary knife in your heart that makes you wonder if you’re going to make it through the day? That’s the subject of Lisa Philip’s eclectic but mostly-delightful meditation on the subject, Unrequited: Women and Romantic Obsession, which, as the title suggests, examines whether obsession is different from a woman’s perspective.
Phillips, a journalist, observes that throughout most of history women didn’t have the right to establish careers as troubadours, turning their unrequited love into immortal ballads. Dante Alighieri first met Beatrice when she was eight and he was nine, and his love for her shaped his life’s work. When, in The Divine Comedy, Beatrice becomes an angelic Christ-like martyr figure who guides him through heaven, it’s a revelation that his love was really about “devotion to an ideal, a way to glimpse the transcendent.” In short, Phillips says, his love was “all about what extreme feeling for another can do to transform the self.”
Phillips set out, in part, to liberate the idea of obsession, unmasking it as something that can still be transcendent in the 21st century. For women, she says unrequited love can even be a form of rebellion thanks to its stubbornness and “unbridled conviction of rightness.” She puts a certain amount of stock in the antiquated but persistent idea that women are supposed to let men chase them.
Think of The Rules—a best seller 20 years ago and a franchise that keeps on giving. In recent years authors Ellen Fein and Sherrie Schneider have come out with The New Rules: The Dating Dos and Don'ts for the Digital Generation, which tells millennial women “don’t answer the phone after 10.30pm,” “do place an online dating ad but never answer a man’s ad”, “do not respond to late-night booty calls.”
But what if you’re a woman obsessed with someone and that person never calls you? Phillips also set out to ponder what turns otherwise sane women into pursuers and stalkers. It’s happened to most of us. It happened to Phillips herself. On a certain level the book is a memoir of her own bizarre transformation when she was 30. She was a college lecturer and radio reporter, an accomplished woman. She fell in love with a guy she calls B. She saw him for a while but he made it clear he wasn’t interested in a serious relationship.
“He wasn’t with me, not this minute, not the next. And he was supposed to be.”
So one gray November morning, buoyed with memories of summer nights when they’d drunk bourbon on his roof together, she went to his apartment in Boston, knocked on the door, and when he didn’t answer she kept knocking. She puzzled in her mind over “who would reject this kind of desire, desire that walks through security doors and knocks and knocks and knocks, refusing to go away? Isn’t this what we all dream of, feelings so strong they allow us to flout the rules?”
When B. did come to the door he had a baseball bat in one hand and a phone in the other. He told her to get out or he was going to call the cops.
From there, Phillips tries to figure out what came over her. This is a book that it’s approximately equal parts grand tales of obsession and sober insights. It’s hard to pull off both feats. But her stories of historical, contemporary and fictitious women who’ve chased men to remote places, one of whom even dragged her husband along, will make readers who’ve been discreetly obsessed feel sane and reassure those who’ve been insanely obsessed that at least they’re not alone. The psychological takes on the nature of obsessive love might help stop the bleeding when you’re in that state.
The scariest revelation, however, comes when Phillips notes that some present-day psychologists see obsessive love as a pathology. True, this is after she’s discussed myriad stalkers, both male and female. Still, if you love obsessively and can turn your thoughts away from physical pursuit toward your own psyche, you might write an immortal ballad or at the very least gain some helpful insights. “If we dismiss romantic obsession as nothing more than as a tumor to be excised from our psyche, we’ll see no reason to heed what our longing might be trying to tell us,” Phillips writes.
Because, although it isn’t the stuff of opera and poetry, if we really analyze a case of obsessive love it usually turns out to be about something beyond the person we’re fixated upon. Phillips did see B. again, after she was married and able to reflect soberly on why she’d done something so unlike her. She concludes that in her mind she was lost at the time, and at first B. saw her as she so badly wanted to see herself: smart, desirable, strong.
At best, writes Phillips, “the impossibility of really experiencing romantic oneness gives the lover a strange advantage when it comes to creativity. ...It leaves them to dwell on the imagined perfection of ideal love.” It can, for those who channel it beyond their beloved, give an epic scale to life and art.
Take Mary Wollstonecraft, whose unrequitted love for Gilbert Imlay drove her to several suicide attempts. Imlay refused to marry her, but what he did do was send her off on a trip to Scandinavia to take care of his business interests—and conveniently get her out of his hair.
But she viewed what was then a dangerous journey for a woman as an opportunity. She kept a journal about the trip. There were miserable years after that, when she returned to England to find that Imlay had taken up with yet another lover, and she tried to kill herself again. But eventually she published a book about the journey that was a tremendous commercial success. And history would have forgotten Imlay if not for his relationship with Mary Wollstonecraft.
“Unrequited love can be a highly meaningful state of mind, offering us insights into what we really want in life and love,” Phillips writes. A thought that is probably no comfort at all when you’re in the thick of crazy love, but give it a few days, or years. If I may offer some advice to the heinously spurned, it’s this: get on a plane so that you’re too far away from your beloved to present any immediate danger, and lock yourself in a room with Phillips’ contemplations on why you might be harboring this idea that you can’t go on living unless this particular person wakes up and realizes that the two of you are meant to be. You might hear celestial cymbals calling you to a creative pursuit but at the very least the book might help you resist the urge to call your beloved and make a fool of yourself.
Then, when you’ve finished reading, stream the Ingrid Bergman version of The Visit and plot the revenge you’ll wreak someday when the time is right.
My late husband Ned used to refer to “the great unknowns,” by which he meant artists whose work is worthy, but who remain unknown to the general public. Some of them were friends of ours. (To be sure, we live in times, as the novelist and essayist Kurt Vonnegut so correctly ascertained, when there are a few superstars, who receive no end of adulation and money—the Brad Pitt’s and George Clooney’s of the world, if you please—while, the rest of us are nobodies.)
One of the great unknowns is our friend, the poet, book designer, and publisher, Brett Rutherford.
I met Brett at a poetry reading in New York City during the 1980’s. Not only is Brett a fine poet, he created and has maintained The Poet’s Press for the past 40 years. And, that being the early days of personal computers, he was then also a computer entrepreneur. Shortly after we met, we began working together.
In the early days of computer technology, people were needed to teach and write about programs, so, we wrote pamphlets on word processing, which were published and distributed by Economics Press of Fairfield, New Jersey.
Then Brett made a living working in the printing industry in various capacities—as an editor, journalist, printer, and consultant, but his first love was poetry. But, he also knows a great deal about typography and book design, which he has put to use to design and typeset his many publications.
In 1971 he founded The Poet’s Press and since then has published 213 books! He has published 15 books of his own work and many on the work of the excellent but also other great unknown poets—Emilie Glenn, Barbara Holland, Annette Hayn, and others.
In 1985 he moved himself and his press to Providence, Rhode Island—his first book upon relocating was Poems of Providence.
Recently, through Facebook we reconnected, and Brett sent me a couple of his books. My favorite is Tribolite Long Song.
Every book Brett publishes is a work of art. (I acquired my love of typography from him.) The end pages comment on the book’s design: “The body text for Trilobite Long Song is Plantin Schoolbook. Several attractive modern fonts, including Galliard and Plantin, are based on typefaces originally designed by Robert Granjon (1513-1589), a prolific type designer and founder active in Paris, in the shop of Christopher Plantin and later in Rome at the Vatican…. Poem titles are set in Schneidler Black. The book is also decorated with several 18th century Dutch borders and ornaments. The Trilobite illustrations are from the work of Joachim Barrande.”
If Brett were to be classified as a poet, I think he would be called a Romantic but one who takes great delight in the macabre, decrepitude, and horror, and he has a wonderfully outrageous sense of humor.
In case you don’t know, a tribolite is any numerous extinct Paleozoic marine arthropods (having their shells on the outside) having segments of the body divided into furrows on the dorsal (top) surface into three lobes. Brett comments that, “Tribolites were the dominate life form on earth for hundreds of millions of years.”
The title poem begins:
My thousand eyes are upon you.
Even when I molt, when others would dream
in an agony of pain denial, I stay alert.
I watch for your every passing.
Everything I sense about you
from infrared to ultraviolet
is in perfect focus at every distance.
Not even a feeding cave or a narrow crevice
can hide you from me: I know
the subtle song of your feet and feelers.
The mottled markings on your thorax
Make me go rugose:
A few verses later our Tribolitan lover says:
When I was younger, I traced
lewd messages on the sand floor,
wiping them out as fast as I wrote them—
oh, things that would embarrass you,
one typical juvenile verse went something like:
I want to hold my click-click
against your click-click-ack-click
until we grrrr-te-te
He ends the poem with:
Thou, greater than me, and whom I love:
I lay my eggs at your feet.
The image brought to mind by Alexander Pushkin’s verse novel, Eugene Onegin, is that of a sleigh being pulled across the snowy, Russian tundra. Brett’s poem, Alexander Pushkin: the Demons, elaborates:
The clouds whirl, the clouds scurry.
The moon, unseen, lights up
from above the flying snow.
Gloom-ridden sky, gloom-ridden night:
on my life, I can’t find the way.
We have no strength to go onward:
there, look, our tracks again:
we have gone in a full circle!
The little bell is suddenly silent,
in a fog so thick it cannot tremble.
The horses stop. What’s that in the field?
To this poem he has added the driver’s exclamations of “Bozhe moi” (My God!) as well as the sound of the ringing sleigh bell.
In “Old Poet Glimpsed on the Subway” Brett writes:
At 5 p.m. on a Monday night
on a subway car at Wall Street,
amid the pack and crush of crowds
I glimpse once more the old poet.
One arm bent round upon itself—
a stroke had crippled him.
his suit and tie, though loose and rumpled
sags everything: serf now
to a fiefdom of profit-taking
The great light of his eyes
had gone out.
There was no more panther in him,
and the shrill gulls
had taken his words.
Brett’s interests include classical music and opera, Latin American music, Chinese art, history, literature, bicycling, graveyards, woods, horror films, intellectual history and crimes against nature. In all these areas he has some degree of expertise. In this volume he has included “Four Poems of Li Yü.”
“Li Yü was the last emperor of Southern Tang (7th – 10th Centuries AD.) He lost his kingdom and went into exile. The first Sung emperor, a poet himself, was so jealous of Li Yü’s poems that he sent a messenger with poisoned wine, which he was ordered to drink on the spot. The intensity of loss and longing in the exile’s writing rise to an intensity not commonly found in Chinese poetry. These are my loose adaptations. In the last poem, ‘Assignation,’ the poet assumes the voice of young girl or concubine.”
The flowers were bright
(and the night have lit my way like lanterns)
but the moon was diffused in light mist.
Cool, but not too cold,
that was the best night to go to my lover,
Trembling I trod the perfumed stones,
step upon step amid the night-blooms.
I held in one hand the golden-threaded shoes,
In the other his scroll of urgent summoning.
Not included in this volume but one of my favorite of Brett’s works is a poem play that he wrote based on the life of Carlota, the mad wife of Maximillian, the Emperor of Mexico, who, after his assassination in 1867, spent the rest of her life in seclusion in various European castles.
I wish I had the answer about how to bring the work of the “great unknowns” to the general public but I do not. Therefore, much worthy work is enjoyed by a few but neglected by most, and therefore the artist does not receive the recognition he or she so richly deserves. Alas, it’s a shame that such a fine poet and mind as that of Brett Rutherford falls into this category.
More information on the books published by The Poet’s Press can be found at www.poetspress.org.
Dennis Mahoney’s (Fellow Mortals, 2013) recently released second novel, Bell Weather, is a fantasy novel set in a world that is a distorted mirror image of the 18th century. The novel begins in Floria, the new and mysterious continent where people travel to endure hardships and forge new lives in the pursuit of something better.
Floria is in the wake of a war between two of the major powers in the old world, Bruntland and Rouge. We meet Tom Orange, a tavern owner and war hero (we later find), on a foggy morning as he rides from his hometown of Root to check on the rising waters of the Antler River in early spring. It’s tough to tell with swells of flowers floating on the tumultuous waters, but Tom swears he sees a woman clinging to a tree amidst the floral tide. When he is sure of what he sees, Tom races to the ferry to rescue the young woman before she is swept from reach and downstream to the deadly Dunderakwa Falls.
Risking his own life, Tom rescues Molly from the river and gains a small level of the mysterious and secretive young woman’s trust. Molly dares not expose her past to just anyone.
As the readers, however, we are privy to the secrets that will lead to death and deception. Molly Smith, as she claims to be, is really Molly Bell, the daughter of Bruntland’s champion who defeated the Rouge.
Her brother, Nicholas, was always Molly’s other half from the night she was born. He complimented her free spirit with self-restraint, her strength of will with his mental acuity. She loved her brother but her path to arriving in Root without him weighs on her.
As a fan of back-story I enjoyed the build up, the revelations, the adventures, and adversity Molly endured before arriving in Tom’s arms. Mahoney delivers a thrilling, twisted horse chase through the woods as Molly’s past catches up with her.
Bell Weather is full of curious and wonderful phenomena that invite the reader to walk in this realm of fantasy with the characters as they catch bird crabs, or watch the light of St. Verna’s Fire through a window, close but not too close.
Mahoney has created unique and delightful characters that fit archetypical roles like a pair of Brett Favre’s Wranglers, comfortably and with room to play in the story. I enjoyed Bell Weather as a fun, exciting, and enthralling fantasy novel.
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