Indie Monday

Today’s guest: Jordan Scavone

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On occasional Mondays, I’ll be featuring other authors on my blog—authors who produce quality work outside the boundaries and strictures of the traditional mass-produced, mass-marketed commercial publishing world and traditional bookstore shelves.

Today I’m delighted to feature Jordan Scavone. After receiving his undergraduate degree in Children’s Literature and Theater for the Young from Eastern Michigan University, Jordan began working on his first picture book. In April of 2016, Jordan received his M.A. in Children’s Literature from Eastern Michigan University. Currently, he lives with his wife Chelsea, their cat Lizbeth, and soon-to-arrive baby boy (June 2020!).

Jordan is the author of five books. Four are books for children: Might-E (2017, illustrated by Caitlyn Knepka), The Mud Princess (2018, illustrated by Monica Guignard), A Girl Named Adam (2019, illustrated by C.N.J. Zing), and Turtle Day (2019, illustrated by Monica Guignard). His latest publication is a young adult novel, Night Warrior, newly released last month and already getting rave reviews.

Recently I posed some questions to Jordan. Here’s what he told me.

DL: Welcome, Jordan. Could you tell us a little about yourself?

JS: I am an author with four children’s books out and one brand-new young adult novel! I am a infant/toddler teacher and strive to bring as many new books into my classroom as possible. I like video games, movies, unicorns, and playing Dungeons and Dragons!

DL: Tell us about your latest book and works in progress. Where did the ideas for those works come from?

JS: My latest book is called Night Warrior and it follows a high-school-age girl who is a wannabe fantasy author. However, after some magical shenanigans the characters in her book start to enter her world. Sword and magic adventure in an urban setting! It’s a bit of a contrast from writing children’s picture books, but it was a blast to do and people have been receiving it really well. This book pulls inspiration from playing Dungeons and Dragons, and I even used a campaign to help build the lore of the book.

DL: Why do you write? What do you hope to accomplish with your writing?

JS: I write because I get too much creative energy and I need to get it out. My brain generates stories and I write them down. I used to just do it for myself so I could experience the stories in a better medium, and then I found out people liked them, so, books! I hope to do my best to allow everyone to find themselves in a character I one of my works. I want to be inclusive and welcoming to as many people as I can.

DL: Please talk a little about your writing process. What is your favorite part of the process? Least favorite?

JS: My writing process is strange, at least I think it is. My favorite part also happens to be my least favorite part. I’ll sit down and write for hours on end and get a lot done, but then find issues with being able to write regularly. So, I love that I can sit and write for hours on end, but I also kind of hate it as it really takes up a whole day! My writing process is very unorganized…

DL: Could you reflect a bit on what writing or being a writer has meant for you and your life?

JS: Deep down I always wanted to write for others and I think I knew that when I was a kid. I remember we had a program called “Storybook Weaver: DELUX” when I was in elementary school and I would write bad fantasy books with the stock images and characters they had in the program and then show them to everyone in my class. As I got more self-conscious, I stopped showing people my writing as much. I’m still self-conscious about my writing but am more willing to let people see it…clearly. At the end of the day writing has brought me new friends, new experiences, and so much fun. I think the thing that brings me the most joy is when people get happy when they read something I write. When I go to a school and do a reading for 400+ kids and they are silent during it then want me to read more books, it means a lot.

DL: What are links to your books, website, and blog so readers can learn more about you and your work?

JS: Between these links, all the links to my books and contacts can be easily found:
Website: www.jordanjscavone.com

Facebook: www.facebook.com/MightEBook

Email Contact@JordanJScavone.com

Twitter @RealJScavone

“The plague full swift goes by”

Like most other people in the world today, I’ve been thinking a lot about the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s been taking me back to the time in the 1980s when I worked as speechwriter for the commissioner of the Department of Health in New York City. At that time, the prevention of AIDS/HIV was the main public health concern in the city, followed closely by tuberculosis.

There were, of course, many other problems, some particular to NYC (window falls by children, for example) and some more common everywhere (dog bites, drug abuse, the diseases associated with poverty, and so on).

The commissioner at the time, Dr. Stephen C. Joseph, was very active across the five boroughs, speaking on public health problems. He strongly believed that public health was a political process, and he spent a good deal of time out of the office, explaining and garnering support for the department’s policies across the city and in Washington.

(One policy was the necessity for widespread testing for infection by HIV, which exactly parallels the discussions over testingor lack of testing, I should saythat we are hearing today.)

It was a wonderful job for me . . . I felt I was contributing to the most important health issues of the day in the best way that I could, though my words.

Sometimes I wrote up to eight speeches a week, along with op-ed pieces and articles for medical journals signed by the commissioner and other physicians in the department. And whenever the Mayor’s Office needed something for Koch to say or write about public health, I was often tapped to write that, too.

Afterwards I calculated that I wrote roughly four hundred speeches about AIDS/HIV in my five years there.

And yet, the job had its consequences.

When I started, they found desk space for me in a cubicle in the Office of Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs). Every day when I came in to work, I passed full-color posters of chancres, rashes, warts, and all the other lesions that STIs can cause.

I certainly don’t mean to make light of any of thisbut in the beginning, writing speeches every day about the effects of AIDS/HIV and tuberculosis, and spending my days among public health workers who spent their days tracing contacts of people who might have been infected with STIs without knowing it . . . all had an impact on me.

Riding on the subway to and from work each morning, I began to imagine the city as a vast sea of infection and all the people I passed as unknowing vectors of disease.

Not a healthy outlook.

I got over it, of course, but I’ve been reminded of that time a lot lately. The same issues that the city faced thenthe critical need for testing to stem the spread of HIV despite (at that time) there being no treatment for itare issues now.

When I began to write poetry seriously, infection as a metaphor was one I came back to time and again, due in large part to my time at the Department of Health.

Today’s blog entry includes two poems about infection. The first one, “Serial Killer,” is based on a story an office mate of mine years ago once told me about a job he had infecting mice in a vaccine development lab. It seemed a particularly gruesome occupation when he told me about it, and it stuck with me until I tried to exorcize it in the poem.

As you think about labs trying madly to develop a vaccine for COVID-19, give some thought to the little creatures who give their lives to the effort.

The second poem, “Influenza,” uses the idea of infection as a metaphor for how we respond to other things in our lives.

As always, please enjoy. And stay healthy!

Serial Killer

So the god swooped down, descending like the night.
                                    ─Homer

They weighed next to nothing, their bones
more fragile even than a bird’s
when I reached into the cage and
cupped one in my palm, tenderly.

Tenderly, too, the needle, filled
with what poison, what rare
killing toxin tested on these
small creatures, deftly slipped between

their brittle shoulder blades, the fur
bunched in my thumb and forefinger,
a move I learned the first week, saving
time and wasted motions.

They all died. Before injecting
my day’s subjects, I harvested
stiff tiny corpses from the
night before. Or else collected

those I had to sacrifice with
another kind of shot. How like
a god I was, reaching in and
randomly selecting this for

Vaccine Beta, that for Toxin
Alpha, this for a quiet end
in its sleep, that to be rudely
snatched away from the life it knew.

How they feared me, feared the shadow
of my hand as it moved into
position, nudged the cage door open,
and plunged down with unconcerned

speed to snap up the unlucky
and slip in my fatal point,
forcing them to yield up, squealing,
all of their terrible knowledge.

© Donald Levin, 2002. A version of this poem first appeared in Delirium, November 2002.

Influenza

All language is vehicular and transitive.
                           ─Emerson

The vehicle of
a moving tenor

catches us unaware.
When it first appears

we try our best to
ignore its urging

but when it makes its
presence felt, we take

some certain pleasure
in surrendering

to it. At the end
it makes us feel so

awful we wish we
had never been born

though after, we are
better protected

against its striking
again. People the

vehicle with the
rider of your choice:

love, death, sadness, joy,
or even the flu.

© Donald Levin, 2005

The Return of Toby

Last week I did an interview with Jeff Milo from the Ferndale Area District Library for his new podcast, “A Little Too Quiet.” We had a relaxed and wide-ranging conversation, including taking about my writing and background. As you might expect, we spent some time talking about my series of mysteries, the Martin Preuss mysteries, set in and around Ferndale.

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As I write this, the show is scheduled for the end of February 2020. You can listen to all the episodes of the podcast here: https://alittletooquiet.podbean.com/. Jeff’s conversations with other local authors (including Josh Malerman, Kathe Koja, and Michael Zadoorian) are thought-provoking and enjoyable.

Jeff and I also talked about my more recent writing. The last pieces I’ve published have been in a different genre from the mystery novels: they are a pair of dystopian novellas. One, “The Bright and Darkened Lands of the Earth,” appears in an anthology, Postcards from the Future: A Triptych on Humanity’s End (Quitt and Quinn Publishers and Whistlebox Press, 2019) along with the works of two other fine writers, Wendy Sura Thomson and Andrew Lark.

My other novella is a stand-alone sequel to “The Bright and Darkened etc.” published separately as The Exile (Poison Toe Press, 2020).

Writing dystopian fiction—or really post-apocalyptic fiction, as my two recent works are—turned out to be more taxing than I thought it would be.

I have to admit, at first it was fun.

I had published six Preuss mystery novels in a row from 2011 to 2019, and I felt like I was getting stale. I thought turning to dystopian fiction last year in response to an invitation from Andrew Lark (who spearheaded the Postcards project) would be a good change. It would let me take a break from mysteries, and indulge one of my long-time pleasures, post-apocalyptic fiction and films.

After I wrote the first novella, I had an experience that I’ve never had before, even with the Preuss series . . . an entire world sprang up in my brain as I thought about the characters, their situations, and their world, and I could see possibilities for continuing to write about them in several more novellas. My plan evolved into writing The Exile and maybe two or three more installments set in that world, and then combine them all into one large work.

I took to thinking about the different pieces as part of The Dry Earth Series—so called because the action takes place in a world devastated by climate catastrophes.

And here’s where it starts to get depressing.

I think of these novellas as “speculative fiction,” to use the term that Margaret Atwood uses: fiction that begins with current conditions, and then engages in a kind of thought experiment to project forward in order to imagine how things might turn out, given where we are starting from. She’s a master of it in works like The Handmaid’s Tale, Oryx and Crake, and most recently The Testaments.

Several current trends came together in “The Bright and Darkened Lands of the Earth—not only the climate disasters that we are starting to see already (vide Australia burning), but also emerging global pandemics (vide the coronavirus), the breakdown of our lawful democratic system and the failure of the American experiment (vide your news today), looming failures in agriculture leading to widespread famine (vide Monsanto’s latest annual report) . . . all of these converged to create the nightmarish hellscape of “The Bright and Darkened Lands of the Earth.”

And I continued to explore their impacts in The Exile.

And not by simply discussing the problems themselves, of course, but rather by showing their devastating effects on the desperate lives of individual characters.

Without getting into spoilers, it’s not a pretty picture.

The more I wrote about the world of the Dry Earth Series, the more all the problems I was writing about—climate devastation, cultural suicide enacted daily in the political sphere, an uninhabitable earth, mass extinctions of plants and animals, violence released into the air along with lingering radiation—began to seem so possible.

Even, unfortunately, so likely.

As this country seems to be embracing its own apparently inexorable dystopian future, thinking seriously about the kinds of nightmares the future holds became more and more difficult and disheartening for me.

My mental state, already reeling and fragile from the corruption and mean-spirited, willful stupidity spewing nonstop out of Washington, began to decline even further.

I decided I need a break from my break.

The solution was simple: for my next project, I’m going to return to the world of Martin Preuss and his son Toby.

After I finished “The Bright and Darkened Lands of the Earth” and sent it off to the editor, I launched into the seventh Preuss book and finished about 13,000 words on the draft. I stopped when the novella came back from the editor, and then I found one of the characters in the novella to be so compelling that I began another manuscript that turned into The Exile.

Talking to Jeff Milo about the Preuss series made me realize how much I missed the characters of Martin Preuss and most especially Toby.

Toby, who brings so much light into his fictional father’s life, does the same for me. Profoundly handicapped, he is an accurate and loving portrait of my grandson Jamie. Toby is a source of enormous comfort, joy, and wisdom for his father, as Jamie was for those of us who knew and loved him.

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Jamie Kril, the model for Toby Preuss

Regretfully, Jamie is no longer with us. But while we were privileged to have him, Jamie taught us so much about love, patience, the necessity for presence in one’s life, and what is really important in a world that seems crazier and more out-of-control by the day.

Writing about Toby, and showing how sweet and loving he is and how important he is in his father’s life (and, indeed, the lives of everyone he touches), gives me the chance to celebrate his great gifts, and by extension the gifts of all the children and people like Toby and Jamie.

We need that now, more than ever.

So that’s what’s next for me. I’m shelving the harsh, nightmarish, disintegrating world of the Dry Earth Series, and returning to the world of Martin and Toby—which is harsh and nightmarish in its own way, but at least tends toward order and social reintegration. Crimes are solved, mysteries are cleared up, criminals are held accountable.

And at the end of each day, a regenerating visit with his dear Toby always awaits investigator Martin Preuss.

My sabbatical from dystopian fiction might turn into a “Mondical and a Tuesdical,” as folksinger Lee Hayes said about The Weavers’ enforced break from music during the McCarthy hearings in the 1950s. Right now it’s hard to tell.

Regardless, look for the next entry in the Martin Preuss series in the fall of 2020. I can’t give out any details of the plot just yet—except to say that due to overwhelming demand from my readers, Martin Preuss may—just may—finally get a girlfriend.

Stay tuned.

In the meantime, when you have a chance, please have a listen to Jeff Milo’s podcast at https://alittletooquiet.podbean.com/.

 

Indie Monday

Today’s guest: Joe Spraga

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On occasional Mondays, I’ll be featuring other authors on my blog—authors who produce quality work outside the boundaries and strictures of the traditional mass-produced, mass-marketed commercial publishing world and traditional bookstore shelves.

I’m delighted that today’s featured guest is Joe Spraga. Joe is the author/illustrator of two books for children, The Snitch, the Witch, and the One Who Was Rich (2015), and Phrebbel The Phrongol’s Vacation Pictures (coming soon).

Recently I posed some questions to Joe. Here’s what he told me.

DL: Welcome, Joe. Could you tell us a little about yourself?

JS: I was raised in the Detroit Metropolitan area. I’ve always been artsy and I’m a graduate of Western Michigan University, with a Bachelor’s of Arts in English (Creative Writing) and a Minor in Philosophy. I’m a former musician who had to reluctantly retire and became legally disabled in 2015 due to health problems. I enjoy spending time with dogs, as should all right-thinking people.

DL: Tell us about your latest book and works in progress. Where did the ideas for those works come from?

JS: I wrote my first book, The Snitch, the Witch, and The One Who Was Rich, because the chorus of the book popped into my head one day while in a painting class in college. It had been an ear worm for me for many years. I knew then that I had to make a story out of it.  My writing style for my children’s literature is verse. However, I make sure to be as didactic as I can be with overtones of social commentary while still keeping it entertaining.

My new book, Phrebbel The Phrongol’s Vacation Pictures, will be out in a couple of weeks. It is a “brain game” style book that promotes critical thinking in a fun and interactive way for children. STAY TUNED FOR THIS ONE!!!

DL: Why do you write? What do you hope to accomplish with your writing?

JS: I knew I was a writer in college, but I did not start taking it seriously until many years later. I have always observed life, and read books. Seeing the connection between the two is a very natural and important thing for me. I write because I want to make the world a nicer place with quality ideas that can be fun and entertaining for children and adults. I also write because it comes naturally to me and it’s fun!

DL: Please talk a little about your writing process. What is your favorite part of the process? Least favorite?

JS: Well, let’s see here . . . I honestly don’t know if I can explain this clearly, but I’ll give it my best shot. I feel my books are more “written through me” than writing them myself. I have a very “sing-songy” type mind, and things just pop into my head. I feel the universe is using me as an antennae to receive these ideas. Once I have the ideas, my process is very structured. I lay everything out ahead of time, visually, like a story board. Then, I make the words and pictures as entertaining as possible for the reader while being didactic and stimulating at the same time. That’s easy to understand, right? HA!

DL: Could you reflect a bit on what writing or being a writer has meant for you and your life?

JS: Being a writer has given me a purpose. With all of my health problems, being disabled is a constant struggle. Being a writer gives me a reason to get excited about something and get out of bed in the morning. It is also cathartic for me. I understand my place in the universe better, and it helps me work through my own personal issues. I hope my writing helps my readers do the same.

DL: What are links to your books, website, and blog so readers can learn more about you and your work?

JS: My website is https://joespraga.com/ All of my social media links are on my website. I can also be reached via email at the bottom of my website. My email is joe@joespraga.com.

The First Chapter of THE EXILE

 

Exile finalI’m releasing a new book this week . . . a novella, The Exile (Poison Toe Press).

I’m calling it Book 2 in the Dry Earth Series. It’s a self-contained, stand-alone companion to Book 1, The Bright and Darkened Lands of the Earth, which appears in an anthology of three dystopian novellas, Postcards from the Future: A Triptych on Humanity’s End (Whistlebox Press and Quitt and Quinn Publishers, 2019).

Also included in Postcards are excellent, gripping, and thought-provoking works of dystopian fiction by Andrew Charles Lark and Wendy Sura Thomson.

The Exile describes eight days in the life of one of the characters from Book 1, an elder named Mae. She’s a secondary character in the first book, but I found her story compelling enough to want to continue it.

The Exile follows her banishment from the underground settlement where she lives with her tribe in a bleak post-apocalyptic future. It’s not a pleasant world (post-apocalyptic realities usually aren’t). I like to think of it using the term that Margaret Atwood uses, speculative fiction. Like her Handmaid’s Tale, Books 1 and 2 of my Dry Earth Series take current events and circumstances and speculate on what they might evolve into.

The Exile takes place in the same world as The Bright and Darkened Lands of the Earth, and contains a few references to events in that first book, but nothing that will spoil your enjoyment of it. If you’re a fan of dystopian fiction, I hope you enjoy The Exile, and if you do then I guarantee you’ll find Postcards from the Future impossible to put down (as many reviewers have noted).

Like Postcards, The Exile is available for purchase in print and Kindle versions from Amazon; you may also order the paperback version where ever books are sold. It’s literally brand new, so if you can’t find it on Amazon then give it another day or so.

 

The Exile, Chapter 1

And she’s awake.

A muffled noise, a whisper of rag-wrapped feet on the dirt floor, some words of murmured instruction: these pull her from sleep. In a sweat, heart pounding. The sounds are not loud, but she has always been a light sleeper; even with only one good ear, she could be awakened by the echoes of distant noises in their underground settlement back when she was a child, imagining monsters.

Now Mae is an old woman and she doesn’t have to imagine the monsters. They are real, and already here. Wandering in the Upground.

And sometimes down below, in her underground settlement, too.

Sitting up, she is surprised that she has even fallen asleep. After the meeting of the Council of Elders, of which she is part, she had lain awake for most of the night, worrying over whether to tell Odile about what had happened.

Odile is the chief elder of the Council, as well as her companion. The other members of the Council did not let Odile know about the meeting, and made Mae swear she would say nothing to Odile until the Council as a body could speak with her.

It was a brutal, unfair request to make of Mae, and what the Council decided was equally unfair. After agonizing about it for most of the night, Mae had decided she needed to let her companion know about it, regardless what she had promised.

Mae looks over at Odile’s mat. Her friend is still asleep, a small bundle with a grey head protruding from her tattered cover. It is cool and airless in their underground settlement, but Odile is old—older than Mae—and gets chilled easily.

Mae watches the rise and fall from her companion’s breathing. The sound that woke her did not come from Odile.

Mae looks around the room where they sleep. In the dim light from the lantern out in the tunnel, all seems quiet.

She lies back, adjusts her aching bones on her sleeping mat, and closes her eyes.

She tries to calm herself. Whatever dream she had been having (now dissipated entirely) and the tense Council meeting of the night before have left her with a deep feeling of unease.

She opens her eyes and stares at the support beams crisscrossing the rock overhead.

Now fully awake, she begins to feel the familiar pressure in her bladder, and decides she must find her way to the sanitation chamber to relieve herself before she can try to get back to sleep.

She makes her way down the tunnel outside her room to the foul-smelling chamber, where she squats over the trench in the dark. She rinses her hands in the water standing in a bowl carved into the rock walls, and goes back out into the tunnel. It is lit, as all the corridors are at night, by the flickering light of a small lantern.

That’s where they take her.

Someone comes up from behind and pins her arms in a bear hug. She struggles, but she is held fast.

Someone else—she can’t say who because they approach her from behind—ties a rag over her mouth and throws a hood over her head. The material of the hood is threadbare, like most of what they own in the settlement, and it lets in some of tunnel dim light but not enough for her to make out who her attackers are.

One of them strikes her over the head with a heavy object, not hard enough to knock her out but with enough force to make her old legs wobble and let go from under her. The arms that pin her release her and she is allowed to fall to the ground, heavily and clumsily.

The fight goes out of her, along with her breath.

Dazed and winded, she feels hands grasping her roughly and half-carrying, half-dragging her down the tunnel away from the sanitation chamber and her own sleep chamber. She is too confused to figure out which direction they take her.

At last, she feels her attackers pushing her up an incline. She panics. It must be the passageway to the Upground.

Why are they taking her there?

She tries to shout, but with the rag across her mouth she can only emit a high screech. She tries to shake herself free but the hands that hold her are too strong.

Can anyone hear her?

Can anyone help her?

Her shins bang and scrape against the rocks on the ground as they pull her up the passageway. She is still barefoot and wearing only the nightshirt she sleeps in.

She can feel the air warming as they drag her up from the underground and rise to what was once the entrance of the nickel mine where they have made their settlement.

Finally, they bring her to the opening. She can feel the full heat of the above-ground world through her thin clothes and the flimsy hood on her head.

She hears her attackers exchanging words with the entrance guards. Their voices are low and urgent, but she can’t make out what they are saying.

She is pulled over the rubble that surrounds the entrance. The jagged old concrete blocks, bricks, bent and burnt wood slats join with the remnants of old weeds and branches from the dead trees to cut and scrape her bare feet and legs as they pull her away from the settlement.

Disoriented, she has no idea how far they drag her. At one point, her attackers pick her up off the ground—she is old and malnourished and does not weigh much—and she feels them begin to trot with her.

They go on like that for what feels like hours.

When they finally stop, they let her fall to the ground and pull the hood from her head. It is still night, but the sun never sets in the far north where they live, so the sky is a dim golden color. The sun of early morning makes her squint so she still can’t tell who has taken her, but she hears them panting from the exertion of carrying her.

She lies on her back. Someone unties the rag from around her face. Her mouth is dry, cottony, bitter with the oily taste of the cloth. She tries to scream, protest, call for help, but her tongue doesn’t work and all that comes out is a hoarse croak.

A face looms close to her own. She sees it is Cyn, one of the security squad. Cyn cradles her head and holds a container of water to her mouth. Thankful, Mae drinks. It loosens her tongue enough for her to rasp, “Cyn, why do you do this?”

“Sorry, elder,” Cyn replies. She lets Mae’s head down and sets the water container on the ground beside her.

“Come,” another woman barks. “Leave her!”

Cyn gets up but Mae grabs at her cloak. “Wait!”

Cyn gently pries Mae’s hands free. The other woman now looms over Mae. Mae recognizes her as Meela, the leader of the security work group. In the light of early morning, Meela’s eyes are black, the color of pitch darkness underground.

Glowering down at Mae, Meela says, “Know this, elder Mae. You suffer banishment from the settlement by order of the Council of Elders.”

“No,” Mae protests, her voice still rough from the rag that was wound around her mouth. “That would never happen. Odile is the chief elder. She would never—”

Meela holds a hand up to cut Mae off. “Nay appeal,” she says, “nay protest. If you return, you will be dragged up.”

Killed.

“How can this be?” Mae asks. She is an elder herself, as well as Odile’s companion—when did the Council take this vote? She was present at the last secret meeting, and this never came up. How would Odile ever agree with it?

Mae tries to sit up, but Meela puts a foot on Mae’s shoulder and kicks her down flat onto the red dust of the ground.

“Come,” Meela orders Cyn.

“Cyn,” Mae cries, “nay go!”

The two women ignore Mae’s pleading. They jog away without looking back.

 

The Mysteries of Time Passing

I’m reading a book now called The Order of Time by an Italian theoretical physicist named Carlo Rovelli. Its subject is time (duh), and more specifically what contemporary physics has to say about our received notions about time.

Rovelli asks questions like, why do we remember the past and not the future, do we exist in time or does time exist in us, and what does it really mean to say “time passes?”

He talks about the ways in which modern physics has basically upended everything we thought we knew about time. Our beliefs that it flows uniformly, runs in a measurable course from a fixed past to an open future, and so on . . . all our assumptions about time are provably false, Rovelli claims.

The book examines how our ideas about time have crumbled, and what we are left with.

Fascinating stuff.

And yet, I think it’s fair to say that most of us still abide by those old verities of time. In this season particularly—when we count down the final days and hours of one year and look toward the beginning of a new year and the promises we hope it holds—we seem to be called to reflect on time. Not as an abstract concept of contemporary theoretical quantum physics, but in its more human aspect . . . we are drawn to think about how we used the time we had, what it meant for us, what we might do differently when we have the chances that (again, we hope) the coming year will allow us.

I’m especially fascinated by what I can only call the mysteries of time passing. I regret I don’t have a more nuanced vocabulary to describe what I mean here. This past year I turned 70, which has been more of an “uh-oh” milestone for me than I thought it would be. This year I’ve also been in touch with some friends whom I haven’t seen in decades, and even though I know intellectually that people age, it’s still a surprise to see how thirty or forty or fifty years turn dark hair white, expand thin waistlines, corrugate smooth skin . . . and seem to turn people I knew in their teens and twenties into their own grandparents.

One of my favorite photographers is a man named Milton Rogovin, who was an optometrist in Buffalo until he lost his profession when he was discredited by the House Un-American Activities Committee in the ‘50s. Then he became a social documentary photographer of people whom he called (as the title of one of his books says) “the forgotten ones” . . . working people whose lives were overlooked, as well as the poor and marginalized and immigrant communities who lived on the lower west side of Buffalo.

His genius was not only to focus his camera on those groups and reflect back to them the meaning of their own lives, but to return several years later to photograph them again, and then return years after that to photograph them once more.

His photos therefore take on an added temporal dimension. They become enormously moving documents that invite us to reflect on, among so many other things, what time does to people.

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One of the photos of his that I find most intriguing is the photo used for the cover of the book, The Forgotten Ones.

I love this photo. It’s  endlessly fascinating for me. I love the people and actions and setting it portrays; it continually invites me, as a writer, to enter into it imaginatively. It’s a partner to another photo of the same two men that Rogovin took years later, and the difference between the two is striking: youth and age, hope and despair, promise and failure.

I don’t have permission to post either the early or the late photo, but the one on the cover of the book is the early photo, so I feel pretty secure in posting that. My continued engagement with the photo resulted in the following poem, “Time Lapse.”

As I said, I don’t feel like I have the vocabulary to do justice to my thoughts and feelings about the mysteries of time passing, but in this poem I try to use language to catch something.

 

Time Lapse

(after a photograph by Milton Rogovin)

How is it possible to capture
a moment in a life—
and not just any moment, but
the instant before everything changes,
youth goes to age, future goes to past,
might do goes to have done?—
because here are Johnny Lee Wines
and his friend Ezekiel Johnson
paused on the cusp of their lived lives
caught in a black-and-white photograph
in a lower west side Buffalo bar
in their hats and cut-rate disco clothes
after working all day at the ice factory
doing the Kung Fu Fighting
in nineteen-seventy-three, at
eleven twenty-six p.m. exactly
(how do we know that, you ask?
so says the Genesee Beer clock
cocked between two crooked Genesee signs
on the painted particleboard wall
preserving this moment forever)
with Johnny the hopping happy one
the one with personality
saucy untroubled face looking off
cigarette in hand pointing out to
the future where they both head
and Zeke, he’s the quiet one
behind his square shades, grooving
in his own cool way but without
Johnny’s sassy pop in the reek
of cigarette smoke and old beer
though in the next jolting second
time will change them both forever
when Johnny shifts his willowy weight
from right foot to left, right-angled ankle unbends
and the dancer turns away, all put-on cheek still,
and Zeke (he’s still the cool one)
shifts his hips on the tawdry
checkered linoleum bar floor
where they dance in nineteen-seventy-three
(Everybody was kung fu fighting
Them cats was fast as lightning
)
and their short-lived convexity
will alter and propel them forward
into what future awaits them,
where two tired and portly men
will stand in the bleak Buffalo snow
years from now in another photo,
after all the fights, reunions,
exiles, returns, mistakes,
regrets, chances lost, found, and lost again,
Johnny’s face sad and bloated with woe,
Zeke’s youthful cool now equally absent
in his worn-out and broken body
two casualties of the mysteries of time passing
that release their power in the instant
after Johnny and Ezekiel
jumped into the upcoming.

© 2019 Donald Levin

still inside

The college in Detroit where I taught for twenty years is closing for good this week. As I’ve been reflecting back over my experiences there—twenty years is a long time—one event in particular stands out.

It concerns a sequence of eight poems I wrote, titled “still inside.”

I originally wrote these back in 2007. Every so often when I give poetry readings, I bring these out to read because they’re among my favorites. After all these years, I still find them tremendously moving, and my audiences usually do, too.

The poems are monologues written in the voice of a little girl who suffered, as the poems describe, every kind of bad luck a child can have.

The sequence is based on the situation of an actual little girl. The basic events in the poems are true—a baby was born as a twin, but suffered life-altering hypoxia because the medical staff didn’t know there were two babies and she stayed inside her mother too long. She was born into a world of poverty and disregard.

That much is true. The rest is “truly imagined.”

(As Marianne Moore said, poets should create “imaginary gardens with real toads in them.”)

My stepdaughter is an attorney specializing in rights of the handicapped, and she’s the one who told me about this girl. The third poem in the sequence mentions an attorney who steps in because the little girl’s regular lawyer wouldn’t release enough money for her proper care; my stepdaughter is the one who intrudes to help the child. (The other attorney said to her, “What are you, an avenging angel?”)

The story of this little girl affected me for a long time, until it moved and saddened me to the point where I felt compelled to give her a voice that the circumstances of her short life had denied her.

I felt I had to bear witness to all she endured.

But I didn’t just want to focus on her sadness. My grandson Jamie was also born with a number of severe handicapping conditions, and everyone who came into contact with him during his own shortened life was profoundly transformed by his loving nature. I wanted to imaginatively imbue the little girl with some of Jamie’s indomitable spirit as a way of counteracting all the misfortunes of her life.

I had always thought these pieces could form the basis of a multi-media project consisting of words, music, art, and dance. I showed them to one of my friends and colleagues, Geoff Stanton, when we were both teaching at the college. Geoff is a phenomenal composer and musician, and he jumped at the chance to compose music for them.

StantonFriends2 copy 2The result was a stunning series of eight songs using the poems as lyrics set to music for two voices, piano, and cello. We presented them as part of one of Geoff’s annual concerts, and I was thrilled with the way they turned out. I’m including the poster for the event, left.

(As I write this, I don’t have a recording of the music available, or else I’d include a sample of that, too.)

As these things go, I haven’t moved my multi-media plans forward. Perhaps at some  point in the future they will come to pass.

Until then, I offer this sequence in the hope the pieces will affect you as much as they continue to affect me.

 

still inside 

by Donald Levin

i

another one

 

no doctor saw my momma

before we came

no exam no test

no money no thought

for another waiting

when it was time

it happened so fast

at the poor people’s hospital

my sister came quick

but after she was born

nobody knew

i was still there

awaiting my turn

quiet as i ever was

they turned away

to bathe and weigh the new one

and while i was waiting

i ran out of air

in the dark channel

of my momma’s narrow body

and it wasn’t till later

when she started screaming

that the nurses and doctors

caressing my sister

ran back

and discovered another one

still inside

and they did what they could

but the story of my life

was written by then

 

ii

absence of air

 

hypoxia

the doctors called it

to explain why my sister was good

and i was the bad one

right from the start

which meant no walking

or talking for me

though i could understood

what people would tell me

if only to hum in reply

and i did try to smile

if i thought it would help

which wasn’t often

though i cried at the seizures

that made me go stiff

and roll my eyes

and afterwards whimper

till i fell asleep

the medicine made me so

dizzy and tired

couldn’t see either

no sight in my eyes

except shapes and shadows

and the flashing lights of seizures

the only things i could see

retarded, they said

which probably i was

since i couldn’t learn

the way my sister did

who was always quick

even when she was born

she was the first

and i was last

 

iii

the house we lived in

 

momma bought with the money

they gave her for me

at first a lawyer handled the money

but wouldn’t give us enough

till another one made him

we never could have had

such a big house

there was supposed to be

a ramp and special bath

but momma never had it made

used the money for sofas

i was not allowed to sit on

so i couldn’t ruin them

by drooling which

i couldn’t stop

and she bought the other children

clothes there were two more

after me and my sister

so i stayed inside

for most of the time

and when a nurse came

to care for me

which wasn’t often

i was clean and dry

but when nobody came

i had to wait for gramma

who watched me when momma was out

but she didn’t always remember

so i stayed in my diaper

till it got so heavy with wet

she couldn’t lift me

or turn me over

when she finally remembered

so i had to stay still

inside my room

in pants that were heavy and wet

till someone remembered

and came to take care of me

but i was patient because

i was already such trouble

my momma told me

 

iv

school

 

when the bus came to take me

every morning

they would strap me inside

in my wheelchair

so i wouldn’t bounce

on the trip to school

with the driver and an aide

who cleared my throat

if i needed it

and when i got to school

my teachers were so happy

to see me

when they rolled me off the bus

they’d take my coat

and change my pants

and my teacher who is very tall

held my hands to say hello

and later they all sang

good morning to you

good morning to you

and sang about

my bright shining face

which i had because

i was so happy to see them too

every morning i also saw

my friend zach

who was in my class

and who liked me too

our teacher wheeled us together

so we could sit and hold hands

even though we couldn’t see

we felt each other’s hands

which were both crooked

because our muscles were so tight

but the touch of our fingers

twisted together

kept us warm

till it was time to go to music

which i also loved

 

v

momma always wanted

 

to be where she wasn’t

before we bought our house

we lived in different places

and she always wanted to be

someplace where we weren’t

when we moved to the city

from the town we were born in

she wanted to go back

to our old home town

and when she went back

at night to meet friends

she wanted to be back

inside our new big house

and when she was with us there

she yearned for jamaica

where she came from

she said she never was happy

since she left jamaica

if she had stayed there

she said her life would be

completely different

she must have been right

because i never remember

seeing her smile

or hearing her laugh

except when her friends were around

and i thought she must have

lots of friends

in jamaica

to miss it so much

 

vi

on valentines day

 

one year i got to eat chocolate

which i never had before

i never ate by my mouth

always got formula

through the button in my tummy

when i tasted the chocolate

i couldn’t breathe

gramma called an ambulance

momma wasn’t home

and gramma had to stay

with the other children

so I went by myself

to the hospital

they said i couldn’t breathe

because i was allergic to

peanuts in the chocolate

they gave me medicine

which i was also allergic to

the doctor gave me something else

that worked this time

and i could breathe again

so he sent me home

but i couldn’t breathe again

at home my throat closed

so i had to go back

in the ambulance

the doctor wanted to put

something in my throat

a little hole

an always open o

so i could keep breathing

but he couldn’t do it

without momma’s permission

and nobody knew where she was

so the doctor called the lawyers

in charge of my money

they must have said sure

go ahead then the doctor said

well you know

this will be permanent

it’ll mean round the clock care

from now on

it will mean a nursing facility

it will be pretty expensive

i just wanted you to know

he listened

and hung up

and told the nurses

who were holding my hand

her trust won’t fund the care she’d need

let’s try something else

he sent me home

with a machine

to suction my throat

and now when the mucous

collects in my throat

i get suctioned

if anybody’s there to do it

the lawyers must have said

they would pay for it

but somebody has to remember

to suction me

which doesn’t always happen

and i wind up coughing

until i can spit out the mucous

and sometimes i can

but sometimes i can’t

and i just have to lay there

and cough and cough

 

vii

sailing

 

my momma didn’t want

nursing care for me

didn’t want people around

telling her how to take care

of her daughter

but once when a nurse came

her name was nancy

she took care of me for a while

brought a big boat

and hung it from the ceiling

i couldn’t see it

except as a blur

but she described it

it was different colored ribbons

like a rainbow

with sails so big

when the breeze blew in

when the windows were open

in the warm weather

nancy said the boat would float

back and forth like a real boat

sailing on the waves

of the ocean

and after the company

nancy worked for took her away

to care for another child like me

who they said needed her

more than i did

she left my boat

hanging in my room

and when i laid in bed at night

waiting to be turned over

i would think about the boat

waving in the breeze

and pretend i was the captain

sailing around the world

on my boat of colored ribbons

and everywhere i went

people would wave

and clap as i sailed by

 

viii

still, inside

 

though everyone did

the best they could

i was not to live long

scoliosis twisted my spine

like a cane’s bent handle

in my fifth year

and as it curved around itself

my organs compressed

till one day

my lungs couldn’t move

enough air

and all my spit pooled

in the back of my throat

and i inhaled it

and got pneumonia

a speck of mucous

was all it took

hidden like a grain of sand

in my chest

the bright red ring of sickness

pearled around it

and because i couldn’t rise

or blow it away

the infection overwhelmed me

and the fever

made my seizures so bad

i couldn’t breathe at all

and before anyone knew

to call the ambulance

i died

but at my funeral

everyone came to say goodbye

momma my sister my gramma

the rest of the family

the lawyers and doctors and nurses

who took care of me

and i could feel them all

standing crying

over my coffin

as i lay still

inside

 

©2019 Donald Levin