Review of Early Occult Memory Systems of the Lower Midwest by B.H. Fairchild

To be honest, I have no idea how I came across this book. Was it the title that caught my eye, or had I seen a friend mark it as “to read” online? Either way, I’m thrilled it passed into my life. The collection is full of beauty and delves into the worlds of blue collar life, masculinity, the ebb and flow of life in the Midwest. I find writing about poetry collections to be difficult. It’s a shotgun blast of poems and ideas, some of which are similar, but mostly they vary to a degree that it’s impossible to be general. Instead, I’ll point to some poems that stood out for me.

From “The Potato Eaters”

They unwrap the potatoes from the aluminum foil
with an odd delicacy, and I notice their still blackened hands
as they halve and butter them. The coffee sends up steam
like lathe smoke, and their bodies slowly relax
as they give themselves to the pleasure of the food
and the shop’s strange silence after hours of noise,
the clang of iron and the burst and hiss of the cutting torch.


From “Weather Report”

The divorcée coming from the laundromat
knows the cycles of laundry and despair:
back then, the towels they shared, but now a basket
filled with someone else’s underwear.


From “History”

Wired tight on No Doz and coffee, I’ve cut iron
for two straight days and nights, and the white cowbird
drifting down the sun blurs through my rankled eyes
and the grease-smeared windows above my lathe. There,
toward the vanishing point where the cowbird dips
and hovers, is history: a ghost town, the least of all

untitled poem 3

It’s not laziness, there is effort
in remaining still
legs not locked but loose
arms rested but ready, unconsciously
shifting weight, absorbing shocks
like a sailor out to sea, or a commuter
jostled over steel rails
with a pulse steady as the beat
before a dancer springs from a pose
steps into motion as eyes
track the action, movements link moments
fractions of time forgotten in the grace
of limbs pushing against gravity
a gentle geometry no more complex
than the heart’s cadence
at rest, the rise of lungs,
or pupils dilating with the dark
as an afterimage flares from retinas
translates the inverted into the language
of our bodies, a cascade of nerve signals

[Early draft – was captivated by the idea of stillness, or the inherent effort required to be still, both physically and mentally. Got sidetracked toward the end, but might be onto something interesting.]

To Creve Couer Park

After days at the gym, playing tennis, and cycling I had one request for this weekend’s ride. Keep it short. When I scoped out the trek, it seemed like a nice route biking north on Midland and following it all the way to the park. Maps and reality do not always go well together. The road turned into highway with no shoulder, lots of traffic and single lanes. For the most part it was okay, but not that pleasant. The bright side was making it to the park; it’s a large amount of land and offers a lot to see and do. We biked around the lake, had flashbacks to the 90’s due to the number of rollerbladers and nearly hit a few small children weaving around like drunks on their tiny bikes. Be prepared for slow, congested riding on the trail around the lake. In the end, I won’t be repeating this ride again, the traffic is annoying and biking past strip malls, gas stations, and fast food places lacks the aesthetic I usually go for (giant Jesus signs and adult novelty shop billboards are a popular addition to most Missouri roadways). What made the trip exciting though is that I tested out my road tires. Speed rules!

Route Map

— Mobile post

West County Ride

Meant to post this much sooner and actually have a compelling write up involving lightheadedness, jerks in a Porche honking and giving us the finger, the smells of fresh cut grass and diesel gas, never ending ascents, fast descents, spasmodic quads, beautiful weather, the taste of lemon-lime Gatorade on a parched throat, sprawling strip malls and gated communities, followed by downing water on my front porch, laying down in the sun with the breeze blowing and exhaustion solidifying my muscles. But all you get is this short description and a map of our ride. Next time will be better.

Riverfront Trail – Completion

This Sunday I revisited the Riverfront Trail. It was gorgeous weather, nothing like last week, and an all around fun ride. Biking from U. City we covered roughly 43 miles and crossed the river into Illinois. There are a few spots full of debris, and some ugly crossings over the roads, and this delightful obstacle where the path washed away. Made me think of Shel Silverstein and Where the Sidewalk Ends.

Review of the Woman in the Dunes by Kobo Abé

There’s an appeal to disappearing, a romantic idea of starting all over again, leaving a shared past for others to interpret and understand while new possibilities stretch out. What would it be like to step from the restraints of one’s identity? Kobo Abé approaches some of these ideas in The Woman in the Dunes, but from a perspective that is more Hitchcock or Poe than anyone else.
The novel opens with a middle age teacher out collecting insects for the week along an obscure coast of Japan. He’s told no one his plans in an attempt to cause jealousy among his co-workers and so that they will fall into the bland trap of gossip. Nobody knows where he has gone. He’s kept it from his mother, and from the woman with whom he is in a relationship. The teacher has decided to search this area for insects because it is remote and he has also developed a theory of the shifting nature of sand, which appeals to his world view. It’s along these dunes that he discovers a village in struggle with the sand. The people are poor, isolated, and mistrustful. The dunes threaten their small village and pile around the perimeter. Looking for shelter, the teacher is taken to a place where he can spend the night. The night turns into days and weeks.

The survival of the town depends on these homes beyond the perimeter where the poorest villagers live in the bottoms of steep bowls shaped from the winds. Each night the men and women must dig out the sand while the villagers haul it up. The teacher has become a slave. He resists, he plots his escapes, he lashes out at the woman with whom he lives and questions his life and identity.

From a creative perspective, this is an interesting novel. As a fan of Haruki Murakami, I wondered if The Woman in the Dunes influenced his writing at all. Following the vein of magic realism or the bizarre, it is an easy progression from writer to the next. Granted, this is the first novel I’ve read by Abé, so my ideas may be completely unfounded. Full of tension and terror, the reader begins to question what their own actions may be in similar situation (think kidnapping alone, and not kidnapping and life living in the bottom of a strange, shifting, dune village). The writing is not full of beauty, but this may be because it is a translation. It is a quick read though, and if you are looking for something a little different, this book will provide a haunting narrative.

Review of Eventide by Kent Haruf

Eventide follows the lives of the people from Holt, Colorado three years after the happenings of Plainsong. Haruf again demonstrates his ability to describe the relationships and worlds which old and young people share each different and nuanced in ways that do not always make sense to someone outside that age. It’s the overlap that is beautiful, those moments of friendship shared by children and adults. This novel picks up with the McPheron brothers, and follows their lives as tragedy strikes.

Added to the mix of characters are a disabled married couple dependent on social services, and trying to raise their children as best they can. This family is taken advantage of by a dead-beat relative who abuses the family and manipulates them into taken care of him. While this was well written, the antagonist is heavily painted as an ugly, despicable man. There were complaints of that in Plainsong, but to me this characterization was on display to a wider degree in Eventide. There is nothing redeemable about this character, and while it may speak more to my own view of the world,I found it short sighted and false. There was not a single scene where the character is portrayed in anyway other than evil. Perhaps, Haruf has difficulty with the ambiguity of people. Most of the other characters are full of goodness and their negative actions often don’t seem to bad, or at least do nothing to make the reader call into question their moral integrity. Among the McPherons, Victoria, Tom Guthrie and Maggie Jones, moral standing is a shared quality and though they might occasionally let go of their tempers, they become a little bland as the reader rarely sees any inner thoughts and when those thoughts are shown they don’t dwell on the doubts, or hypothetical situations that plague richer characters. Survival is the key, and it seems that the people on Holt have a bunker mentality.

One new character that best bridges this gap, is a young mother who has been abandoned by her husband. In the start of the novel, things are fine and the woman does her best to help out a young boy who lives with and takes care of his grandfather. Throughout the novel, her life descends into alcohol abuse and a dead end relationship with a local man. She goes from being a great mom to one that has trouble taking care of herself, let alone her children. As the novel ends, she takes control over her life again, and the reader is left with the image that she will pull through.

If you read Plainsong and enjoyed it, then you should read this book. It goes fast, is enjoyable and fills that craving to know more with which Plainsong leaves a reader. However, keep in mind this is a sequel that seems driven to tell a little more while not being all that original. It is a lesser work and Haruf follows some of the same patterns in writing the narrative. The instance that stands out is the character of Rose Tyler, who seems to be this novel’s version of Maggie Jones, a female character who is never fully focused on yet seems to navigate between the worlds of people whose stories would tend not to overlap. Haruf is able to pull together a sense of landscape and the affect that landscape has on people. His writing is full of beauty and heartbreak and that tends to outshine the narrative failings.

Along the Riverfront Trail

I’ve heard the words, you should know better, often in my life and I’m sure I will hear them through the many stages I have yet to go through – marriage, fatherhood, aging, and death. These words have been spoken mostly from a place of love, so I harbor them no ill will, but more a grudging acceptance. You’re right. I should know better.

On Sunday, there was no one to speak these words to me, which is not a justification because if a family member or girlfriend spoke them, there are strong odds I would have ignored them. Stubbornness is one of those qualities that cuts across the grain. Tasks are accomplished, goals are achieved, but not everything that can be done should be done. These thoughts weren’t in the forefront of my mind on Sunday. Instead, I was thinking about the scrapped bike ride on Saturday because it rained for an hour and the roads were slick. I was thinking of being out on my road bike, feeling the wind against my face and the motion of my legs propelling me over the cement through neighborhoods in decay, among the canyons and cobbles of downtown St. Louis and along that wide meandering waterway, the Mississippi. Afterwards, there would be the sore legs, wobbly and light from use, exhilarated to have logged twenty-five to thirty miles. These were my thoughts. Forecasts and weather patterns predicted by excitable men in ill-fitting suits often turn out incorrect or caution us against the outdoors. Without television or Internet, I looked out the window and thought it looked alright out.

We biked through the Delmar Loop, the skies grey overhead and followed the road east toward the river. Storefronts transformed from buildings bustling with people to boarded up windows, vacant lots, signs weathered from years of humidity, freezing winters, and neglect. Somewhere we hung a right, turned again and caught Washington, passing the shell of a church it’s interior open to the sky as if it had been transplanted from a French village after World War II, the Contemporary Art Museum, the Fox Theatre, then the moment passed and the vibrant spike of life dipped back towards the melancholy trough of poverty and disuse. We climbed a long, slow hill, broke the top of it and descended into downtown where people packed the streets on a Sunday to participate in the festivities of the All-Star game, their cash spent on beer, mini-helmets, and baseballs for the kids. It began to drizzle, but we were so close.

The trail was paved and began among a cast of old industrial buildings along the waterfront. Rusted, corrugated, and looming, the buildings don’t let you forget this is an urban area even as the Mississippi crawls by on the East. We began to cycle on the trail, a smooth surface of asphalt separated with a painted line down the middle. The trail danced with the floodwall, a huge concrete barrier well suited for keeping out water or invading hoards from across the river. Passing through the flood gates, there was an ominous feeling, what if those gates were to close? It was easy to imagine. Sirens would wail. Lights would flash. Metal would grind in slow motion. Water full of tree limbs and debris would breach the banks; cyclists would be swept down toward Memphis, the Gulf, a warm flux caught between islands and cruise ships.

As we pedaled, the warm rain continued lightly, leaving our skin damp. We topped a berm, the earth piled against the wall, and paused. To the west stretched a storm-front gusting in from the plains. The wall of clouds appeared flat, a cross section of greys with a highlight of muddy yellow, perhaps from the sun edging along the outskirts. Beneath these clouds, the city sprawled in shadow. We pedaled on.

In the long run, maybe I did know better. That voice came from within this time. We should turn around. Continuing on with the mindlessness of nature the storm roiled nearer, we looped around, the sounds of the river shifting from right to left. Within moments the heavy rain started. A downpour opened over us. Then the wind hit. With the added speed, the water felt like hundreds of needles driven into our exposed skin. Trees thrashed. Leaves swirled. Water pooled on the trail, soaked into our clothes and shoes, forced us to tilt our heads against it and squint. Still, we pedaled on. Urgency fueled with fear. When we topped the berm again, we were thrown into the full force of the storm. The wind swept up over the weedy grass of the exposed hill, visible by the spray of water which flicked with the contours of the earth. It hit me and I felt fear. Not of closing flood gates, but of riding a metal frame through a thunder storm, of blowing off my bike and breaking an ankle or hearing the crack of a collar bone. I shifted into the wind. My body pitched at an angle, the drops popping on the plastic of my helmet. Gusts blew and I counterbalanced. Should I get off my bike and jog it off the hill? This idea was overridden by the desire to escape the storm as quickly as possible. I pushed myself. Hoped my friend was behind me, because looking back would have been one action too many. We rode down the hill, passed through a floodgate and were on the other side of the wall. An older man, much smarter than us stood in a niche, sheltered from the wind and rain. We passed by him, his gaze tracking our movements. Life on this side of the wall was different. The wind broke against concrete and steel, barred, it offered us a brief respite though the rain still managed to drown every inch of our skin. Our clothes heavier from the water stretched on our limbs.

At last, we ended up along the landing back in St. Louis. An emergency sign informed that the area was closed. We pedaled up the steep hill into the city, and stopped at the first bar we saw. With little deliberation, we locked the bikes, walked into the dark room. The Cardinals were losing to the Cubs in Chicago, the scene sunny and removed on the TV. We sat at a table near the door, thankful the floor and stools were solid wood as puddles formed from our dripping clothes and shoes.

We ordered beer and a platter of fries, our money soggy but still good. Nasty out there, the waitress said, made it in just in time. Yeah, we replied, shaking our heads as the scene replayed for both of us, and lightning cracked between the buildings. I drank my beer, thankful for a roof over head, for a friend with whom to toast my glass, thankful for a tomorrow when a loved one once again tells me the words I should heed.