Poetry from a Favorite Novelist

I didn’t know that one of my favorite novelists wrote poetry until I received Lynn Sharon Schwartz’ new book of poems, No Way Out But Through (University of Pittsburgh Press.) Ms. Schwartz’ novels include Leaving Brooklyn, which tells of the life-changing experience of a teenage girl from Brooklyn making her first forays into Manhattan (where the sky looks bluer than in her own home borough), and Disturbances in the Field, that follows a group of Barnard graduates into their later lives.

Her poems have the wit and grace of her prose, and one of them, “Collecting Myself,” got me laughing out loud. The poet asks what “flawed vision” prompted her to buy a book of bilingual Russian stories –

. . .page three turned down
a year now, something by Gogol –
traveler, inn, horse, the rest a blur. . .

Those few lines seemed to sum up for me every story written by a 19th century Russian – Gogol, Gorky, Turgenev, Chekov – all their stories seemed to have those elements. I also recognized the books I’ve bought that I thought would “be good for me,” or  “improve my mind,” or “teach me more about writing,” or some other noble goal, but I never finished.

There are also insightful and witty poems about relationships, as in “First Loves,” when she tells of marrying the first boy she met who read books and could converse about them, and later thinks “It was like buying the first house that you see. . .”  Happily, she realizes  “. . .sometimes that works out quite well,” and concludes that there are times when “it seems a stroke of luck, miraculous.”

There is real wisdom in these poems, though they are never didactic and always entertaining, holding you in the spell of language, each word sounding the right note. The title of the book is itself a meaningful message, reminding us that in every challenge, no matter how we try to skirt around it, in the end, there is “No Way But Through.”




Hopeless But Optimistic

Last summer I took my God Daughter to see Whiskey, Tango, Foxtrot (not even knowing that the words were G.I. code for “What The F. . .”.) I figured Tina Fey would be funny and I would be interested in whatever the movie said that sounded real about Afghanistan, while my God Daughter would like the humor and the explosions. Turned out we both liked the movie – it seemed to me a brutally honest and insightful portrayal of what’s going on there, and plenty of laughs and explosions were worked into the credible plot.

A month or so later I read a book that also seemed like an honest and insightful portrayal of our effort in Afghanistan, with the ironic title Hopeless but Optimistic: Journeying Through America’s Endless War in Afghanistan by a journalist who had recently been embedded with the troops there for the second time. I asked the author, Douglas Wissing, if he felt the WTF movie was a good reflection of that complex scene and he said he indeed thought it was.

Wissing came on my WFYI – (PBS) radio show in Indianapolis, “Uncle Dan’s Story Hour,” to talk with me and my Co-Host, Will Higgins of The Indianapolis Star, about “Writing from Dangerous Places.” (Will had written from Iraq a few years ago, I had written from Israel and Jordan in 1956.) It turns out that Higgins had offered to loan Wissing his body armor when he went on his first tour to Afghanistan, but Doug has a larger frame than Will and it didn’t fit. I learned that all reporters going to our Middle East wars are required to have body armor, which costs about $250 and feels like it weighs a ton (I tried it on and almost sank to the floor.)

After reading the personal, up-close account of politics, battles, American soldiers and Afghanistan citizens in Wissing’s book, I could easily understand the “Hopeless” part of the title, but it was difficult to discern the “Optimistic” aspect. As best as I could judge, the greatest optimism expressed by the people of Afghanistan was that the American troops would soon be leaving.  That was also the most cause of optimism among the troops.

An anecdote Wissing shared on the radio show seemed to sum up the irony of even our efforts to understand what’s happening in Afghanistan. Both Higgins and Wissing remarked on how well fed – maybe even over-fed – the G.I.s were in these foreign wars. Both remarked that they had gained weight on their tours of reporting duty from the good and plentiful food the troops were served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In an effort to capture the feelings of soldiers, Wissing noted graffiti on the walls of latrines in G.I. camps. He recorded in his journal one chilling message scrawled in an army latrine: “I am going to die.” Returning to the men’s room in that same camp a few months later, he looked again for that haunting message, and this time he realized he hadn’t seen all the letters in the final word. On closer examination, he saw that the message said “I am going to diet.”

Some die, some diet, some are wounded in body and mind and soul. The main source of optimism I found in Wissing’s thorough and engrossing first-hand report was the hope that our seemingly endless war in Afghanistan war might finally end.


A Book for Our Times!

April Smith, accomplished novelist and TV screenwriter, has published a new novel that is unsettlingly relevant for our time. Home Sweet Home (Knopf) tells the story of suspicion leading to tragedy in the era when Senator Joe McCarthy was spreading fear of Communists in our midst. A family of liberal Democrats from New York go west in hopes of getting a new start in a place of wide open spaces and friendly, supportive neighbors who respect the old values of hard work and honest dealings. They pick a town in South Dakota because the father’s old Air Force buddy lives there and will help them get started. Things go sour when it turns out the old Air Force buddy has lied to the locals, puffing up his war stories to sound more heroic, and the newcomer calls him out.

A dark stain of mutual distrust runs through the story of newcomers from a different background making a success of their lives in the new landscape, and the family is smeared as “Reds.” Showing how prejudice and hatred can be carried down through successive generations, it is the family of the children who are senselessly murdered. The novel was inspired by a true to life case of the “Red Scare” era of the 1950s.

As passions mount and divisive politics trouble our own time, this book is a dramatic warning of what can come of overly-aroused feelings on sensitive national issues. Simplistic labels that denigrate whole categories of humans – not only based on skin color and ethnicity, but even because of political beliefs, can lead to personal tragedy and national disgrace. This novel is a family story, a mystery, and a warning.

– Dan Wakefield

Dan Wakefield

Dan Wakefield