Terence Hawkins

CLIFFORD BROOKS' ATHENA DEPARTS: THE RIGHT STUFF from A NEW SOUTHERN POET

Clifford Brooks’ Athena Departs: Gospel of a Man Apart is the latest work of a poet rising to deserved prominence.  Incorporating much of his earlier Exiles of Eden, it---as both works’ names suggest—addresses issues of belonging and separation, home and departure, in ways that are paradoxically rooted in place and at the same time universal.

First, rooted in place.  This is clearly a Southern poet’s work.  Explicitly so: One poem is titled “An Ode to Southern Sons,” and another, “Sex and Sweet Tea,” mentions the “soft red Southern sky.” The prose poem “The Last Wispy Gypsy” says “no one keeps watch on the dirt road leading back to pavement,” a line that will immediately resonate with anyone who’s actually spent time on a dirt road. 

More importantly, universal.  Brooks is not afraid to tap into myth---—again, as his title suggests.  Athena is present in many pieces concerning relationships, adored but soon to be abandoned.  But Odysseus is everywhere, visibly, as a man or not quite, as an impulse--the simple inability to stay put, regardless of consequence,  He appears explicitly in “A Noble Death”---“oh, to have my own Ithaca!”  And as noted earlier the eroticism of the relationship poems is tempered by a sense of imminent loss—hers, of him, to the road.  “Even if I told you/ how alone/ loving me leaves a lady/you’d stay,” he says in “Hypothetical Date with Calypso.”  The drive to aloneness is undisguised in “As My Mind Wanders”—“a better, solitary existence.”

But don’t think for a moment that this is a freeze-dried once-over of Ovid.  Brooks blows the doors off with “Orpheus and Eurydice,” a prose-poem account of the myth informed by the roadhouse.  “Hades had, and has, a gambler’s stare, and hears a hanged man’s last prayers. . . .The house always wins.”   “Eurydice smiled behind the veil that fit like tinfoil over cold rock.”

Brooks is not afraid of emotion, but his diction is consistently masculine and taut.  He is an old-school poet of the first order nevertheless part of his place and generation.  This is the right stuff, and not to be missed. 

Buy the book at Kudzu Leaf Press.  Brooks' exploits can be followed at the Southern Collective Experience.

           

 

FROM the CYCLONE BOMB: DAVE'S TRUE STORY

Yes.  It's snowing, all righty.  

An opportunity to stroll down memory lane in the magical kingdom without copyright.  

Dave's True Story was an exceptionally literate post-modern jazz-vocal trio active in those heady '90's, when moustaches were sad rather than ironic and artisanal was just a kind of wellwater.  (Okay, artesian.  I know.  Don't bother.)  In addition to "When Kafka Was the Rage," linked above, some of their brainier works include "Last Go Round" and "I'll Never Read Trollope Again"--no kidding, really.  I saw them twice, for free, a business model that no doubt explains their disappearance in the early part of this century.  But while they were around they were musically gorgeous and intellectually engaging.

Just the thing for a snowbound afternoon.

 

BOOK REVIEW: GOLDEN HILL by FRANCIS SPUFFORD

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I took up this book with a sense of anticipation that was--almost--entirely rewarded.  Set in  New York--then a small city at the tip on the island of Manhattan--in 1746, its protagonist, Richard Smith,  is a well-mannered and cosmopolitan young man.  Versed in languages that extend to Turkish, the London stage, and conjuring tricks, he arrives bearing a letter of credit in excess of a thousand pounds charged on one of the infant City's largest financial concerns, an amount that, if honored, is so huge that it will exhaust its cash reserves.

If honored.  Much of the plot concerns the mystery--which our hero cultivates--as to his origins and intentions and New York's consequent suspicions of his legitimacy. As the City awaits confirmation of the validity of the debt by the next ship from London, in a few months, Smith finds himself embroiled in a series of adventures and misadventures that will not be entirely unfamiliar to readers of Tom Jones.  Or anyone who's just seen the movie.  Smith pursues a romantic interest in a well-born but difficult young woman, but consummates one with another man's wife, with predictable results.  In another episode he is saved at the last minute from certain death in a midnight sprint across the City's rooftops.  And speaking of last-minute escapes, he is twice spared the hangman's noose.  

Many reviewers refer to a startling plot twist.  While there is an entirely unexpected fact dropped two-thirds of the way through, once it is revealed, you can see the "twist" coming from way up the road.  

If I seem dismissive of the plot--and I'm not, to be clear; Spufford acknowledges his debt to the eighteenth-century novel-- my admiration for the setting is unbounded.  Spufford's mastery of the detail of life in eighteenth-century New York is astonishing, and his learning is lightly worn.  What he communicates most clearly is just how small, and how isolated, this largest of American cities was only thirty years before the revolution.  It was a town huddled on the very edge of a hostile continent, separated from the imperial capital by three thousand miles of seawater.  It was a scary place to be, and Spufford shows us that.  Equally compelling is the sense of the chaotic and ad lib nature of political and commercial life--a Governor hanging on by his fingernails, business conducted in the currencies of the dozen other colonies, other countries, or just bartered goods.  And some of the details are truly startling--just what "due process" meant three hundred years ago, for example, or the perils of a same-sex interracial relationship.

Though I didn't think the book quite lived up to the hype, it is nevertheless richly rewarding and not to be missed.

REVIEW: THE DEEP by JOHN CROWLEY

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The well-deserved attention  paid to John Crowley's most recent book, Ka, merits a fresh look at his earliest work.  The Deep (1975) is a richly imagined, dark, and lyrical novel that prefigures much of what was to come.

Into a war between Black and Red factions in a semifeudal other world drops the Visitor in a silver egg from the stars.  A genderless android with memory gone, he is discovered by the Endwives, nurse-coroners who attend every battle.  He is adopted by the Red faction and rises rapidly through their ranks.  He foils an assassination attempt by a woman of the Just, a secret guild headed by the tarot-reading Neither-Nor.  The Visitor compels her to take him to the edge of the world, where Leviathan reveals its history as a colony peopled by human seed in light-driven sailships.  Their tiny circular world is no more than the peak of a tower with its foundations thousands of miles below in the depths of a gas giant.  The Visitor returns in  his silver egg to whoever sent him, and the Just assassin returns to her world as the Woman in Red, a messianic figure preaching the cosmology she learned from Leviathan.

Have I given away too much?  Not at all.  The book's great pleasures are to be found in the intricate machinations of the warring factions--based on the Wars of the Roses but familiar to fans of Game of Thrones--the deeply imagined details of a Celtic medieval society, and Crowley's rich language.   One detail that will never leave me is the "war viols," the stringed instruments that accompany every skirmish.  This is a book to be enjoyed not only by admirers of Crowley's later work, but followers of Ursula K. LeGuin, Mervyn Peake, and--no kidding--George R. R. Martin.

 

GUEST POST by PENN RHODEEN: AN IMAGE FROM THE HOME FRONT

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Penn Rhodeen is the author of Peacerunner, an account of a former Connecticut congressman's participation in the Good Friday Accords that ended decades of violence in Ireland.  A shorter version of this essay appeared in Smithsonian Magazine in September 2017.

 

The headline said “Bravery Wins Bronze Star” but it was the picture that grabbed my attention shortly after I entered the University of Wisconsin Law School, never to let go. It was in the local news section of the Capital Times, Madison’s afternoon paper, on September 29, 1967. It recounted--and memorably showed--the presentation at the American Legion post in nearby Sun Prairie of the medal for combat valor to the family of Thomas Broome, an 18-year-old killed in Vietnam the previous June.

 

          The photographer was David Sandell. His masterly composition, with its mix of expressions complex and pure, thrust this eternal ceremony of heroism and loss full force into the turbulence of that time and place.  Conflict over the war was already intense at UW and demonstrations over plans for Dow Chemical, manufacturer of napalm, to recruit on campus would soon ratchet it higher, convulsing university, city and state. But this captured moment, this gathering of family and community, seemed far beyond all of the roiling hawk-and-dove arguments. 

 

          The man receiving the medal, is Stanley Broome, Tom’s father. He maintained the boilers for Wisconsin Porcelain. He loved his job so much that he was buried in his bib overalls and engineer's cap. Someone slipped a can of Schlitz in there too. The officer gently placing the medal in his hand is Lt. Ron Weindel, soon to return to Vietnam and win his own Bronze Star; he died in his fifties from lung cancer that doctors at the VA told him was probably caused by Agent Orange, the forest defoliant used extensively during the war. 

 

          The man in the Legion cap is Post 333 Commander Victor Ward. He took pride in his World War II service and his post responsibilities, but for him this event was personal: the Broome family lived just a few houses away from the Wards. He knew Tom from birth.

 

          Standing behind Ward is Tom's brother John, just turned 17 on September 21 and leaving for the Army in 10 days. He promised his mother that he wouldn’t go to Vietnam—a choice available to a surviving son—but later went because he thought it would somehow connect him to the brother and best friend he missed so much.

 

          The girl in the pretty dress is Fannie Broome, 13 in May. Her gaze is direct and she looks ready to say exactly how she feels. Her life was never easy: long before losing her brother, she got polio and had to be in an iron lung; neither of her marriages worked out and she died of cancer at 52. But she was spirited, always ready to laugh (it was Fannie who slipped the Schlitz in with her dad) and her friends were many. 

 

          Sun Prairie mayor Clarence Severson, looking distressed, stands behind Fannie. Tom was the first one from town killed in the war. Streets were named after him and the other two killed over there. 

 

          In her unalloyed grief, Tom’s mother Alice is like a figure in a Renaissance painting. Her eyes seem focused on nothing visible to us.

 

          Only John Broome remains today. He lives Poynette, Wisconsin and retired on New Year’s Day, 2012, after a long career in power plant operations. He struggles to fully comprehend his youthful decisions to join the Army and go to Vietnam, and confesses that it took him 30 years to understand how hard those decisions were on his parents. When he came home before leaving for Vietnam, Alice knew right away that he had broken his promise. But all she said was, “You’re going over there, aren’t you?” The night before he shipped out, she wanted to get a drink with him, even though she never drank. They walked over to the tavern on Main Street; she asked him what to order but barely touched the screwdriver he suggested. In Vietnam he was a senior crane operator on major construction projects all over the country and won his own Bronze Star for meritorious service in a combat zone.

 

          “It’s important to remember,” John says, “that we weren’t the only family that went through this. We were just one of many, in Vietnam and in the wars before and after.” True, of course, but because David Sandell made a work of art from their Bronze Star moment, those who gathered on that late September day 50 years ago will always stand for those who were lost and for everyone they left behind.

 

 

 

THE CAMBRIDGE FIVE: RUSSIAN MEDDLING, OLD SCHOOL

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If the notion of a Russian plant with three passports at the head of a major-party presidential campaign--a Republican presidential campaign, no less--strikes you as a little hard to swallow, buckle up.  Because that's what the Russians do.  And it's nothing  compared to the Cambridge Five.

At least, we think there were at least five.  At first they were just two.  Then a third.  And then a fourth was confirmed, and we're pretty sure about number five.  Some say there were a six and maybe even a seven. 

But whatever their number there's no doubt whatever that in the early 1930's the Russians--then constituted as the Soviet Union--recruited a number of disaffected upper-class undergraduates at Cambridge University to penetrate the highest reaches of British politics and pass its secrets back to Moscow.

And boy, did they.  Despite their known Communist affiliations--in the 1930's, Marxism was an accepted,  rational response to the rise of fascism, one shared by Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the American nuclear arsenal--the boys from Cambridge rose fast.  By the time war broke out they were deeply entrenched in the distinctly English intersecting worlds of journalism, diplomacy, and intelligence.   (Unlike the distinctly American intersecting world of money and everything else.)  Guy Burgess, despite his obvious alcoholism and open homosexuality--then a criminal offense--bounced back and forth between the BBC and the Foreign Office, as did the more discrete Donald MacleanAnthony Blunt, whose background as a preeminent historian of French Rococo art somehow qualified him as a counterintelligence agent, joined the security service, MI5 John Cairncross, who'd started out as private secretary to a member of the Cabinet, managed to get himself  assigned to nothing less than Bletchely Park--the hypercerebral, hypersecret codebreaking operation recently dramatized in "The Imitation Game."

The most prominent was  H.A. R. "Kim" Philby, so nicknamed not because he was cute or something, but because he early reminded his friends of Kipling's fictional boy-spy in the Great Game between Britain and Russia.  He parlayed his role as a correspondent for the Times into a major position with MI6, the UK's legendary Secret Intelligence Service.  Through the course of the war he and his fellow spies--and as I said while we've confirmed five there may have been more---used their incredibly sensitive positions to pass the most highly classified British and American intelligence along to the Soviets--rationalizing away manifest treason with the justification that the Russians were, after all, on our side in the war against fascism.

But then all of a sudden they weren't.  With the war over, our gallant Soviet allies became the Red Menace.  And to be fair, acted like it, seizing any opportunity to evade NATO security, especially atomic.  And though Philby and Co. were by this point no longer on the cutting edge of the penetration operation, they had been careless in the past.  So much so that Burgess and McLean--tipped off by Philby, who unbelievably had survived internal investigations into Russian collusion to rise to be head of the British intelligence station in Washington, and to be mentioned as a possible future director of the service--had to flee Britain in the dead of the night.  And even more unbelievably, after their abrupt departure, Philby was cleared of involvement with the Russians.

But there's more.  Even though the public outcry temporarily derailed Philby's intelligence career, within a few years he was using journalistic cover to act as an agent in the Middle East.  When renewed suspicions grew too hot even for him, he boarded a Soviet freighter and surfaced again in Moscow a few months later--where he died decades later, a colonel in the KGB and a decorated Soviet hero.

Cairncross evaded official attention and found his way into a career in academia in the United States.  His involvement in  the spy ring was only confirmed after his death. 

And the fifth man?  Blunt?  He went on to become the Queen's official art historian--Surveyor of the Queen's Pictures was his official title, I kid you not--in which capacity this former Soviet spy received a knighthood.  Though he confirmed his treason after he was exposed by a Soviet defector, the terms of his confession kept it secret for fifteen years and also allowed him to keep his knighthood, his academic honors, and the royal job.  He wasn't publicly outed until 1978, and is the only member of the ring to have suffered the shame of disclosure in his own lifetime and country.  

So why is any of this important?  In part because of consequences that went far beyond wartime involuntary information-sharing.  Philby was close friends with James Jesus Angleton, the CIA's  chief of counterintelligence.  Angleton was so shaken by his friend's betrayal that he came to see spies everywhere, especially within his own agency.  Periodically our own intelligence apparatus was paralyzed by Philby-inspired, Angleton-ordered "molehunts" during which half our agents wre watching the other half and as a result, no one got much done.  Angleton's paranoia, collateral damage from the Russian penetration operation, crippled the agency until his retirement in the mid-seventies--a gift that just kept on giving.

But even more critically, this episode  demonstrates that the ambition of Russia's intelligence operations is exceeded only by its patience.  The Soviets recruited five young men while still undergraduates and cultivated them over more than a decade so that when the opportunity came, they would occupy sensitive roles in the highest levels of British government.  Whatever facts the Mueller investigation may uncover--and for the sake of the Republic let's all hope that our worst fears are unfounded--history teaches us that when the Russians see a chance, they take it.  And once they've taken it, they stay with it.

And most importantly, we should never forget that before he entered politics in a collapsing Soviet Union, Vladimir Putin was a high-ranking officer in the KGB--the same service that recruited and ran the Cambridge Five for thirty years.  So it is neither fantastic nor paranoid to believe that Russian reach could extend to the highest levels of our politics.  It may, however, be optimistic to believe that it stopped with one party, or with politics. 

As I said, buckle up. 

 

 

 

GEORGE ORWELL: A LIFE IN PICTURES

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Astonishingly, there exist neither audio nor video recordings of George Orwell--despite his having worked for the BBC.  Here that selfsame network fills that void with a collection of entirely invented newsreels and TV interviews with Orwell, linked here, acted with what would seem to be eerie precision.  It not only brilliantly imagines Orwell's speech and manner, but shows how a child of Empire and Eton grew into a committed democratic socialist who slaved alongside Yorkshire coalminers and took a bullet in the throat fighting fascism in Spain.  Not to be missed. 

 

REVIEW: KASPER MUTZENMACHER'S CURSED HAT by KEITH FENTONMILLER

Okay, that's a lot of title.  But worth it.

This is an amazing debut novel--wildly imaginative, powerfully written, funny, and deeply humane. However mythic his characters--they include a Nazi interrogator with the power to make women incapable of seeing their own faces and a talking wish-granting hat once owned by the god Hermes--Fentonmiller renders them fully and credibly. Equally impressive is his deft handling of a broad range of time and space--from Weimar Germany to sixties Detroit. This is a book not to be missed. 

 

US EDITION of EMILY HAUSER'S 'FOR THE MOST BEAUTIFUL' AVAILABLE

The first installment of Emily Hauser's trilogy based on the myth of the Golden Apples is now available in the US.  This is what I said when it first appeared in the UK:

"A brilliant re-imagining of the Iliad, faithful to the original yet completely accessible . . . the two young women at the centre of the drama are faithfully representative of their time and place yet feel compellingly contemporary . . . Emily Hauser has given us a lively new take on a classic."

Go buy it now--don't let hipster sophisticates sneer at you through their ironic facial hair!