Stopping by the Woods: A Review of A Year in Weetamoo Woods

I’ve never written a poetry review before, so perhaps I’m doing this all wrong. Perhaps I should talk of meter and rhyme, cadence and word choice. But I’m not going to do that. I shall leave such things to those better versed in the criticism of poetry.

Instead, I shall approach these verses as a reader. For, though I’ve studied its creation and taught its analysis, I am simply a reader when it comes to poetry. From time to time my thoughts present themselves in poetic structure, but such is a rare occurrence. More often I find myself going to poetry as a devotional experience—my favorite poems being those which consider the things of this earth, the things of heaven, and the age-old wrestling match between them.

I shall have to add some pieces from Christopher Yokel’s new book of poetry, A Year in Weetamoo Woods, to my collection of wrestling poems. As the title implies, it is a book of nature poetry, primarily. For a year, Yokel walked in the woods and wrote his poems and then collected them by season in a book. And honestly, if you had woods nearby named “Weetamoo,” wouldn’t you be moved to use their name in a title?

I like the pictures Yokel presents of his creation process throughout these poems. In “Arden” he writes, “Here I come/ where Adam’s curse is felt/ less cruelly, . . . / Here there is space to think/ to be,/ to draw out poetry from trees.”  In “The Price of Art” he writes, “I have flung myself over/ tree and trail,/ rock and stone,/ in payment for what I have come to take.”

Overall, what stood out to me about Weetamoo Woods were the pictures. Yokel is gifted in painting with simple words images of what he sees (or smells, or hears, or feels)—both in physical reality and in his imagination—and making them clear to his reader.  Leaves, branches, paths, stones, water, earth, wind. All are seen, felt, smelled, heard, touched: the rush of a breeze in “Stirring,” when he says, “All the trees stir together,/ as God passes/ through the midst of the garden”; the fluttering summer leaves  in “Flags,” when he writes, “The sun glinted and glimmered through/ a hundred spear shafts standing to the sky/ their bright green banners snapping in the breeze”; the frozen fields in “Tinidril,” when he says, “The fields are laid to rest/ stiff with winter’s embalming.”

Perhaps it is because I read these poems in the short, dark days at the turn of the year that those in the section titled Winter stood out to me most vividly. “The Barren King” was a favorite poem of the collection; its images of a frozen stream and the snow-covered forest bring to mind memories of hushed walks through winter woods in northern climes. Yokel captures precisely what I’ve always thought of those days in his final stanza:

Snow glorifies the branches of winter,
covers over their naked shame,
and makes them kingly for a day,
with memories of greening leaves.
The monarch in winter is a monarch still.

The images of “Ghosts of the Old Year,” also stood out from the rest—“dead leaves creak/ like ribs rubbing together,/ quiver and vibrate/ like frozen cicadas.” I love the idea of the old leaves as ghosts of the old year—what is gone is not forgotten in its lifelessness. There is a solidity to that season that looks like death, though we know it will give way to resurrection in the spring—as Yokel writes in “Awake O Sleeper” looking at the “corpses of trees” he hears “the sound of the/ robin, singing the first/ notes of resurrection.”

In this, you see, there is that wrestling of heaven and earth—and of the New Heaven and Earth with this one that will pass away. Yes, I shall have to add some of these poems to my collection.

And perhaps, after mulling them for a while I will find myself where Yokel does at the end of his year—looking back to where he set off, “another person ago.” I will be changed, like a tree in a wood from season to season changes, and I may not know myself at the far end. But perhaps, to paraphrase Eliot, that is where I will know myself for the first time.

The End

When you come to the end,
to the place where the light is
you will look back and see
the weight of your soul,
how the journey has given you
more than you carried
when you set off another person ago,
how you traded your cheap wares
for precious possessions,
ingots of memories,
experience in folds,
to arrive like a beggar in guise
but your treasure
all carried inside you
where it cannot grow old.

A Year in Weetamoo Woods was released on January 6, 2014. More from Chris Yokel can be found at his website: chrisyokel.com. Yokel’s book of poetry is available for purchase from Lulu, Amazon, and B&N.

A Year in Weetamoo Woods Book Trailer

Review of Walking Song Published at Curator

Ron Block's Walking SongA few weeks ago, WORLD magazine published a review of Ron Block’s new album, Walking Song. While, in essence, the review was positive, it was, quite possibly, one of the most dismissive I’ve ever read. The reviewer seemed to be saying that the promotional material for the album, which talks about the process of creating it, should be ignored and the album enjoyed on its own merits. Perhaps not bad advice, except it was said in such a way, with such a tone, that it just irked me.

It irked me enough to make me keep thinking about it, niggling it over again and again in my mind, trying to figure out what bothered me so much.

And then I landed on it. I’ve read about the creative process behind this album. Ron partnered up with Rebecca Reynolds as a lyricist, and magic happened. And I know that it was something new, something Ron had never tried before. And I know that Ron himself would say that the creative process that made the album what it is; in fact, he has said as much, “Rebecca came along and said, ‘Let’s just be kids creating again.’ It’s more like what I was doing when I was 17, 18 years old, even though the stuff I was doing wasn’t as developed. It was just a kid sitting there experimenting, having a good time.”

I wanted to respond to the WORLD review, but I probably wouldn’t have been able to say what I really wanted in a letter to the editor, so instead I decided to just write my own. It posted yesterday over at The Curator. Here’s a snippet:

My love of American folk music has nostalgic tendencies to be sure. However, as I look at the growing popularity in recent years of bands like The Civil Wars, The Avett Brothers, The Lone Bellow, The Lumineers, The Vespers, etc. (and of course the meteoric fame of the non-American-American-folk-rock band Mumford and Sons), I realize I’m not alone in my love for Americana.

There is something about American folk music that speaks to us, something in its essence that keeps us asking for more.

Here’s the thing, though. As much as I love all those bands listed above and latch on to nearly every new album that seeks to generate the Americana sound, it’s rare for me to find an album that fully captures what I found under that patchwork quilt. It’s not often contemporary musicians strike the same chords in my soul as “Down in the Valley.”

Enter Ron Block’s “Walking Song”.

So hop on over and check out the rest, and then get your hands on a copy of the album and listen. ‘Cause it really is that good.

Jenny Youngman’s The Girl With Good Intentions: A Consideration

Jenny Youngman's The Girl With Good IntentionsA few weeks ago, my friend Julie asked if I’d be willing to listen to Jenny Youngman’s new album, The Girl with Good Intentions (released August 1, 2013 on iTunes and for sale on her site) and write about it somewhere. I agreed, and then ran into some existential angst and general busyness that delayed my doing so.

A note on the existential angst: I’ve toyed with the idea of reviewing things – music, movies, books, visual art, etc. – for ages. From time to time I’ve done so, both here on this site (or its previous iteration) and elsewhere, like Story Warren and The Curator. But my dabblings have been rare and unformed enough that I have trouble calling myself a “reviewer.” Besides, I often get off topic and end up sharing whatever the work of art made me start thinking about, rather than checking off the typical boxes of a typical “review.” So I’ve made a decision: I will continue to examine works of art that catch my fancy and share them with you, but I shall no longer call those examinations “reviews.” I hereby dub them “considerations.”

So here you have it, my first try:

Jenny Youngman’s The Girl with Good Intentions: A Consideration

A caveat: know from the start that while I have a whole playlist in my library devoted to the genre I call “Boy and Guitar” (which I interpret fairly broadly to include other instruments and even duets with female voices, but is in essence male-acoustic-singer/songwriter-based), I don’t listen to many “Girl with Guitar” or “Girl with Piano” or “Girl with Anything” music. I generally prefer the male voice to the female.

That said, The Girl with Good Intentions is beginning to break down my barriers. I’ve been listening to it on and off for the past couple of weeks and Jenny’s songwriting and lyrics are catching on in my brain. She has a lovely voice and uses it in partnership with piano-driven instrumentals produced by Andrew Osenga.

Many of Jenny’s songs are challenges and reminders to the North American Christian. Songs like “The Girl With Good Intentions” or “The Half of It” raise complex matters for those of us in North America who see the needs of the world and hear about all the organizations doing good things around the world in the name of Christ – there is a tension in our response to these calls for help: real needs exist and we have been blessed with the ability and the freedom to help; but on the other hand, we cannot do everything, either financially or physically. We must make choices, invest wisely, and seek justice and the spread of the gospel around the globe: for the glory of God, not just to feel good about ourselves.  Jenny is an artist-partner with International Justice Mission, and wants to raise awareness and support for the fight against human trafficking.

The two songs that stand out to me particularly on the album are “The Preacher’s Wife” and “The Places You Will Go.” In “Preacher’s Wife,” Jenny is clearly speaking from personal experience about the expectations we tend to have of our church leaders – and their wives, particularly. The song is funny, “Everyone who meets her comes to Jesus /…And no one knows how she keeps it all together/ But they expect no less from the preacher’s wife.” I grew up in a ministry family. I remember the shocked looks on my friends’ faces when I disabused them of some of the mythical perceptions they had of my missionary parents. I have great parents. But they’re not perfect. And they would be the last people to want anyone thinking that of them. Jenny captures this in a gentle satire that all of us – both the preachers’ wives and those watching them – need to hear.

“The Places You Will Go” is lovely – mostly vocal and piano, with very little accessory. It’s the cry of a mother for her child. At its heart, it is the words of my sisters, the words of my mother, the words of every mother who wants to see her children rise and go forth in the lessons they’ve learned, walking with the Savior hand in hand.

Go all the places you will go.
See all the things your eyes will see.
The God who called your very life into being
Is everything you need,
Lights the path along the road
of all the places you will go

From Jenny’s Bio:
Jenny Youngman is a Nashville-based singer/songwriter who is making her way on the scene with her second studio album. With themes of justice-seeking, the search for significance in the mundane, intentional living, extending grace to ourselves and others, and discovering bravery, The Girl With Good Intentions takes the listener on a journey from simply having good intentions to getting our hands in the dirt and doing something good in the world.

The Girl With Good Intentions is available to download from iTunes and physical CDs are available from www.jennyyoungman.com

By Design: Book Review (ish)

By DesignAlmost a year ago I began working with Dr. Martha MacCullough, Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Cairn University to shape her manuscript on educational philosophy into a book. I learned a lot about the editing process, educational philosophy, page layout, and the awesome name pairings of educational scholars (seriously, “Chubb and Moe”? “Long and Frye”? “Bigge and Shermis”? I came to the conclusion they should either open pubs or start law firms). It’s been a long, crazy journey, and once or twice I wasn’t sure we’d ever get this thing done in time…

But last week, just in time for the first classes to use it, By Design: Developing a Philosophy of Education Informed by a Christian Worldview showed up from the printer, looking all spiffy.

The educators who have reviewed the book are singing its praises already. I’ll let you read their notes rather than giving you my own, as I put too much work into this one to be objective, but I think we can look forward to it being useful and helpful for Christian educators around the globe in the future. For now, though, it’s a matter of getting the word out. By Design is available for sale now from the Cairn website and will be available in other venues soon. Check out the first chapter on the site, and tell your Christian friends who teach – whether it be in a Christian school, home schooling, or even in public schools – that this is a resource for them.

Book Info:
By Design: Developing a Philosophy of Education Informed by a Christian Worldview
by Martha E. MacCullough, Ed.D.
Cairn University, 2013
ISBN-13: 978-0-615-74352-3

The Gospel According to Eliot

This winter, I’m taking part in a virtual reading group hosted by Greener Trees. We’re going through the book The Art of T.S. Eliot, by Helen Gardner. I adore Eliot’s Four Quartets, so Gardner’s examination of Eliot’s work through the lens of that great work has been right up my alley.

I was asked to write a guest post for Chapter Three of Gardner’s book, “Poetic Communication.” In the chapter Gardner looks at the methods Eliot used to communicate ideas through his poetic medium. I was struck by the artful way Eliot uses words to examine spiritual concepts, without ever being “churchy.” He wrestles with and through the difficulty of finding the right words for his ideas. An excerpt:

“And in spite of all this, Eliot chooses to write. He attempts to use words to communicate. Not only that, but in Four Quartets Eliot attempts to communicate ideas which are spiritual, deep, broad, and resonant. He compounds his own struggles, reaching – as those of us too timid to try it might say – perhaps higher than he should. Helen Gardner puts it this way: “He is not intentionally writing obscurely in order to mystify, or to restrict his audience to a few like-minded persons with a special training, but is treating a subject of extreme complexity, which is constantly eluding formulation in words.”

You can read the rest at Greener Trees.

Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes: Book Review

“Adventure ho!” reads the author’s inscription on the first page. Jonathan Auxier is a friend of a friend who lent me her signed copy of Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes for a read. Auxier wasn’t wrong. From the first page, Peter Nimble rollicks forward through adventure with barely a missed beat along the way.

Peter Nimble is an orphan, blinded by a raven, found as a baby floating in the river by sailors, who turn him over to the town magistrates, who name him and leave him to fend for himself. He takes up with a family of cats under the porch of an alehouse until the whole lot are found by the tavern owner, scooped into a bag, and tossed in the river. There Peter’s innate skills as a thief show themselves when he looses the knots and swims to safety.
And that’s in the first two pages.
Even better, this line comes at the end of it: “Until this point, you have been witness to Peter’s rather typical infancy—probably not unlike your own.”
Peter’s career as a thief takes off, and by age ten he’s well-known enough to capture the attention of those who know that goodness is not the same thing as following the law, but something much deeper and much greater altogether. His encounter with them sets him on the journey of the story – with a cursed knight, Sir Tode, as a sidekick – to find the vanished kingdom and answer the plea for help they sent out.
A giant dogfish named Frederick, thieves and criminals in deserts, an unkindness of ravens, a king who keeps children for slave labor and makes their parents forget about them, an army of gorillas, sea serpents, and a ten-year-old princess with a temper fill in the rest of the pages of Peter’s adventure.
Auxier’s writing style is extremely clever, with comments throughout that parents will probably find as funny as their children. Comments like these and the fact that he does not shy away from portraying real violence and real evil probably skew the book slightly older than its ten-year-old protagonist, but smaller children could enjoy it being read to them. There are complicated relationships between children and adults, but in general, once all enchantments are broken, there is mutual respect and love on both sides. Peter is a delightful hero – one who does not think too highly of himself, except once, and then he finds that working without the aid of his friends is much more difficult than working with them.
The book itself is gorgeous, with cover illustrations that hint at the adventures within without giving away too much. Auxier himself drew the illustrations at the start of each chapter. The text is set in a font that’s easy to read and lovely to look at. The effort put into book design makes holding it in your hands an honor.
In the end, the reader is left with a sense that all is well and a hope that perhaps, if the fancy strikes him, Jonathan Auxier could tell us more about Peter’s adventures.
By Jonathan Auxier
Amulet Books, 2011
ISBN: 978-1-4197-0025-5

 

"Every Creation Myth Needs a Devil."

I finally saw The Social Network yesterday. Yes, I know I’m well behind the times. But, you know, these things happen. There were many fascinating aspects to the film. I see why they have continually pointed out that this is an unauthorized version of events, and that these are characters based upon the real people, not representations of the people themselves. I see exactly why it has been winning awards left and right. There are great things I could mention about the writing, the directing, and the acting – but those are all well-discussed elsewhere. I don’t need to.

Instead, I’ve been dwelling on one line that caught in my memory, which in the context of the story being told is directed at the main character, Mark Zuckerberg: “Every creation myth needs a devil.” The phrase is stated to Zuckerberg at the end of the film, following the depositions which have been used as the framework device to communicate the tale of the origin of Facebook. The character speaking is saying that Zuckerberg himself will play the role of the devil in that particular creation story – that is, the version that arose from the depositions. But what fascinates me is the layering of this creation story throughout the film.
Aaron Sorkin, the screenwriter, and David Fincher, the director, have managed, in a single film, to tell at least two creation myths for the phenomenon which is Facebook. Atop the myth that reveals itself through the depositions in the film, casting Zuckerberg as the devil, is the myth revealed by the film overall, in which identifying the devil is more complicated.
In the film’s version of the creation story, Zuckerberg certainly is one candidate for the role of devil. He begins the film by eviscerating an ex-girlfriend in a blog; he promises three other students that he will build a website for them, and instead builds Facebook for himself; he begins the company with his best friend, and then dissolves his friend’s ownership share in it down to nearly nothing, while keeping his own share absolutely intact. There’s plenty of evidence for the deposition version of the creation myth.
But there are enough nuances throughout the film which raise doubt about Zuckerberg’s role. When he meets the girl he wrote about in the blog later in the film, he goes to speak to her. He does not apologize, per se, but the audience is not quite sure whether he would have had he been able to. His attitude is such that we think he might truly regret his actions. When he reneges on his promise to build the website, there’s a certain amount of understanding we have for him. He was 19 years old. He talked with some guys who had a great idea for a website. He said he’d help them out. Then he started thinking more about it, and came up with a better idea – yes, inspired by the first, but bigger and broader – and got excited about it. Perhaps the fact that he didn’t follow through on his promise was not, after all, deliberate perfidy, but rather the immaturity of a teenager who has a brilliant idea. The betrayal of his best friend is, perhaps, the hardest element of Zuckerberg’s devil-role to poke holes through, but the film brings in other characters whose influence over him could be the reason for it.
It is one of these characters, Sean Parker, the founder of Napster, who is, in the end, the other best contender for the devil role in the film’s version of the creation myth. I was reminded every time Parker came on screen with Zuckerberg of a snake fascinating its prey before it strikes, weaving to and fro before it, beautiful and dangerous. The character Zuckerberg is on the one hand, lured into a world he doesn’t really care about.
But here’s the thing about humankind: even when they are archetypes in a creation myth, they don’t stop being human. Zuckerberg is not innocent. While the character is portrayed as not caring about the money his new company will bring him, he is consumed with a desire for prestige on his own terms. We see that he was not deeply involved in the dissolution of his friend’s shares in the company, but we also see that he allowed them to be dissolved. While Parker fascinates him, he buys into the fascination, because he sees in Parker something of what he wants to be.
In the end, the film leaves us with a creation myth that needs a devil, and Zuckerberg is probably the best option for the role. But it also leaves us with questions about the nature of mankind, about brilliance without guidance, and about the idea of influence and power.
And, finally, we’re left with a character who could be any one of us: a young man who had a great idea and was capable of accomplishing it. And we’re left asking what the cost was for him to do so.