The Martian Chronicles, by Ray Bradbury

The other day I walked past the house where we lived until I was five and was surprised all over again. No matter how many times I've visited it as an adult, I always forget that it is green now, not the white I remember. And the back yard that stretched an unimaginable distance now seems no more than a patch of grass with a few bushes around the edges. Even the tree that once held the bees that stung all of us during a memorable picnic lunch is gone. I remember my mother hanging sheets in that yard and how I dodged between the damp fluttering walls that made up an interminable maze. This afterthought of a yard could hardly have contained such imaginings. Could I be mistaken? Perhaps I turned down the wrong street. Perhaps my childhood never happened that way.

I experience the same trepidation when I reread books I loved when young. Bradbury met some critical need in my teenaged heart, his stories full of the ache and longing that swamped me. If the emotions were sometimes over the top, well, I knew all about that. Many of his images became part of my personal iconography: carnivals and October nights, Ohio fireflies, and lightning rods with curious markings. And, inevitably, the Mars as he imagines it to be before the men from Earth arrive.

I was afraid, coming to this book decades after my last reading, that I would find it too childish in its language, too obvious in its satire, too unrestrained in its passions. But I did not. It may be all of those things, but I did not notice, caught up as I was in the world of Bradbury's imagining. Even the smell of the pages brought back memories of another cold spring.

The story which affected me most deeply back then was the one about Spender, a member of the Fourth Expedition who found on Mars a civilisation he admired and wanted to preserve from the incursions of the loud and violent Earthmen. I finished Spender's story sitting in the back row of my English class, the paperback hidden in my grammar text. Nostalgia for a lost civilisation, a past preferable to our present, overwhelmed me and I was so moved that tears ran down my face and blotched my uniform, startling the teacher who wondered what tragedy lurked in diagramming sentences. A few years later, reading Tolkein, I found the same nostalgia, the same shimmer of the past (as Tolkein called it) adding depth to the present.

Reading it now I did not cry, but I was still moved. What most surprised me, though, was that Bradbury, writing this book that was first published in 1950, set his far-distant future in what is now for me the recent past: 1999-2005, though the last few stories take place in 2026. I found it disconcerting to think that Spender made his stand in 2001, a year I recall as devoid of manned expeditions to Mars.

Also disconcerting, and of course always a danger when predicting the future, is how far off some of Bradbury's predictions are. Not just the lack of regular taxi shuttles to the red planet, but the idea that by 2005 the Moral Climates people would have banned all literature except for the most realistic and unimaginative. Poe, the Grimm brothers, Lewis Carroll, any books deemed escapist—“All the beautiful literary lies and flights of fancy“—are destroyed, and filmmakers are only allowed to make versions of Hemingway stories. The idea is laughable now when the entertainment juggernaut seems unstoppable.

But then I recalled the attempts to ban the Harry Potter books for being about magic. Bradbury recognised the Puritan streak in American culture, the intrusive, I'm-going-to-decide-what's-best-for-you attitude that has become only too familiar. In contrast, his books open the mind. They are certainly worthy of being pulled off the shelf for another read.

You may not be able to go back to your childhood, but you can bring the past into today. All week I have been conscious of the shadow of my younger self, of how my life now would appear to her. It's more than a different point of view; it's a stretch that exercises an imagination grown lazy.

The Forest of Sure Things, Poems by Megan Snyder-Camp

I ended up reading this collection four times. The first time I just enjoyed the words, the sound of them, the flow. I ignored that nagging, rational part of my mind that is always demanding to know what things mean. I just shut it up in a closet and let it rattle around and fuss while I let the words slip through my thoughts.

Lonely whitecap limpet, days are not true. You stand on one foot,

and we brush past. To live a life is not to walk across a field.

The second time I read for images, lingering over each poem and letting resonances collect in the space between them. Some images move seamlessly into the next, while others leave gaps, crevasses for the imagination to fill.

Above her

a hummingbird pivots, unsure.

Inside the girl a field of reeds, a year of hinges,

her father's boat crossing the wide water.

For the third reading I let the demanding creature out of the closet and read for meaning. The book is in two parts. The first is about a young family in an isolated town in the Pacific Northwest, about the writer learning and imagining about this family. As in a fairy tale, this family has the first child born in the town in a century, but their second child is stillborn. Precise sensual images anchor the way grief dismantles the small family.

A dictionary of smells. The kitchen of the year she'd left, scrub pines,

sassafras from the schoolyard and mossy tennis courts.

The second part takes the authors personal experiences of pregnancy, birth, work, marriage—all those essentials of life. Some of the poems are acrostics, and many have allusions to children's books and fairy tales, unsurprising fare for a new parent. The imagery here is less dense, occasionally playful. Still, even the lightest poems are informed by the images and emotions of the earlier section, the threat of loss, the awareness of just how tenuous a construct this family life can be.

The first person in recorded history

struck by a comet slept on her couch

across the road from the Comet Drive-In

The fashion these days, or so I'm told, is to construct poetry chapbooks and collections as narratives, so that the entire group falls within a single story arc. I prefer the tension that Snyder-Camp creates, where each poem stands alone, but takes on new meaning within the context of the other poems in the book.

I let everything go for my fourth reading, allowing words, images, meaning to merge into an extraordinary experience. I've found Tupelo Press to be a reliable source of outstanding poetry, and this book is no exception. I highly recommend it.

My Sister, My Love, by Joyce Carol Oates

I thought about Diane Arbus as I read this book. Arbus’s work forces me to look at and pay attention to people I might otherwise avoid, my eyes sliding away, consigning them to the crowd. Having to recognise the subject as an individual is unsettling and sometimes unpleasant, but ultimately edifying as it compels me to acknowledge the person’s humanity and appreciate his or her difficulties and concerns.

Oates’s work affects me the same way. Here, she has taken the JonBenet Ramsey case as a springboard for exploring the dynamics of a family caught up in a similar maelstrom: a personal tragedy turned into a media circus. Normally I avoid such distractions, preferring not to waste my time on the viral coverage of some self-indulgent celebrity heading to rehab or some non-public figure jockeying for fame, so I didn’t follow the Ramsey case. But Oates is too good a writer to let me off the hook.

Now 19, Skylar Rampike narrates the events around the death of his younger sister almost ten years earlier. At six, little Bliss Rampike—born Edna Louise Rampike—is already an ice skating prodigy with several local titles on her resume and a promising future, when she is found murdered in the furnace room of the family home in a prosperous New Jersey suburb. Although a convicted pedophile confesses to the killing, Skylar himself is widely suspected of being the culprit.

Skylar does not spare himself. He was an unattractive child, with fly-away fawn-colored hair, and an even more unattractive adolescent. In his desperation to please his demanding parents, Skylar injures himself in a gymnastics class, leaving him with a permanent limp and a tendency to wear what his parents criticise as “his pain face”.

I would like to think that Betsey and Bix are parodies of awful parents. Betsey’s obsession with Bliss’s career is rooted in her own frustrated dreams of glory. Although an outline description of Betsey’s actions would sound like the stereotype of the worst of stage mothers, or the recently celebrated Tiger Mom, Oates fills in this image with emotion and self-deception. Bix may be idolised by his young children, but he cannot be trusted, reneging on promise after promise to his son and daughter, even as he swears that they are what matter most to him. Behind Bix’s bluster, too, are shadows of uncertainty and baffled regret, as he consistently mispronounces clichés and foreign tags.

Betsey and Bix are not parodies, unfortunately, in spite of some reviewers' complaints that they are not sufficiently complex. Too many parents believe they can lie to children and control their futures without repercussions. Such parents don’t see their children as independent beings with their own hopes and fears and dreams, but rather as extensions of themselves. Their tragedy, then, is when these parents find that the love and devotion they assumed was theirs by right is not, in fact, forthcoming.

Skylar’s voice as narrator is perfectly pitched as a small child describing outings with his mummy and daddy, as an awkward pre-teen at boarding school experiencing friendship and romance for the first time, and as a thoroughly alienated adolescent. This is Skylar’s story and it has to do with what connection such a damaged soul can find in our fractured and selfish world.

Mad Dogs of Trieste, by Janine Pommy Vega

We have a poetry discussion group that meets once a month. Members take turns leading the discussion, which can mean presenting a brief introduction to the chosen poet or simply identifying a selection of poems to be discussed. As you can imagine, our tastes vary widely, and we often differ in our assessments. This disparity has been helpful to me as a writer: seeing how one person can love a poem and another hate it, learning what appeals to various people. Some of our members are poets, but not everyone. The group has also been helpful to me as a reader, introducing me to new poets, forcing me to look harder at work I might have skipped over, providing new insights into poems I thought I’d plumbed.

For this month I selected Janine Pommy Vega who was unknown to nearly everyone in our group. Since Vega passed away recently (December 2010), it seemed like a good time to look at her body of work. Also, a couple of our members teach in prisons, as Vega herself did for many years. As a teenager, Vega ran off to Greenwich Village where she met Gregory Corso, Allen Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky, among others. Her early poetry reflects this Beat influence while her later poetry often seems centered upon her work in prisons and upon the spiritual quest that took her around the world. Mad Dogs is her twelfth collection of poetry and includes work selected from earlier volumes.

As one member of our group remarked, Vega’s work is uneven: some poems are transcendent while others seem flat. The poems I selected naturally reflected my taste, which is for unexpected images knocking up against each other, leaving lots of room for ambiguity. Consequently, a few people found the poems too vague. One that many thought remarkable though obscure was “The Traveler”. With references to Plato—cave, tunnel and sky—the narrator goes “on an outing in the home/of myself”. The poem is filled with images of things that do not work and the sound of things breaking. The ending is strange and ominous: “No snow crackles under the traveler’s feet/out walking without the body, sense peeled like/an apple to the deer nibbling down the sky.”

We all liked “Re-entry” which is about the difficulty of coming back from being away. She says, “One night the body went out to find/its darkness”. It doesn’t matter where the person has been, although that didn’t stop us speculating about possibilities—prison, sleeping, a drug trip. What matters is the inability to return: “you look at photos, memories of the mind/and can’t return to the places/you might have been”. Everything seems strange: “What will you do with your hair/your nails and eyebrows/what will you do with your hair?”

“May Day”, which examines the narrator’s relationship with her mother and their shared legacy of anger, sparked a long discussion. Some of us thought the anger the two women expressed was an inchoate rage without a specific target or rationale: “ancient woman/of the earth who comes up/howling, red, her hands running with lava”. Others thought the rage was at each other and talked about women’s anger with their mothers. If that is true, the ending moves to a reconciliation: “I can’t disown her/every shred of her dress is mine”. We disagreed as to whether anger can lead to regeneration, like forest fires enabling new growth, but were united in our appreciation of the title’s resonances with pagan rituals, S.O.S. calls, and revolution.

I’m grateful to the members of our group for their insights and suggestions which led me to a deeper appreciation of these poems and Vega’s particular talent.