Poetry Friday: “Afternoon Swim”

green and blue water in some kind of reservoir, surrounded by dark sides. the water is lit up by the reflection of trees. The play of grammar has always lured me. I’ve wondered: why do English sentences take the shape they do? So when I reached line 4 of Lance Larsen’s “Afternoon Swim”—with its bold announcement that he was switching from second person to first—I was hooked. Play with grammar is this poem’s medium. I laughed out loud at the course of Larsen’s sentence about another sentence: “a sentence in a Victorian novel fallen against the belly // of a pregnant somebody dozing on shore, turning now / to devour a delicious direct object.” Yet soon—surprise!—the direct object being devoured is the loaves that Christ multiplied, and the poem’s play turns theological as well as grammatical. And metaphysical, too, by the poem’s end, as it moves into pondering why words have the meanings they do—and how our very self is constructed.

—Peggy Rosenthal [Read more…]

Epiphany in the Memory Unit

Image of a profile of a person's face with light illuminating the cheeks and forehead, the face is shrouded by a round blurry object in the foreground.The priest’s wife handed me her half full can of beer. It was Christmastime, and the beer she was offering was a Texas IPA, sweating seductively on the table between us. I brought the can to my lips and the slightly bitter taste of the half-warm beer filled me with relief.

I needed a drink. It was 7 p.m., and I’d arrived late. We would be heading out to sing carols at the Alzheimer’s unit of a local nursing home, a well-appointed facility near the neighborhood in Houston where I am a music minister and where the priest’s wife’s husband is rector.

The nursing home smelled faintly of Clorox and overcooked vegetables—as I suppose all nursing homes do—but I had been unprepared for the regret that hit me with that smell. [Read more…]

Anne Fontaine’s The Innocents

two nuns walking through an empty alleyway into light.After World War II devastated eastern Europe, the Red Army pushed into the countries allotted to them as spoils, such as Poland. There, they continued the destructive work that the Nazis had begun. Among those hardest hit were the women religious of Warsaw.

French Red Cross physician Madeleine Pauliac, sent to find and repatriate the French who were still in the Polish countryside, discovered that whole convents of nuns had been gang raped by pillaging Russian soldiers. Some of the women were molested thirty to fifty times each. Unsurprisingly, a good number died in the process, and those who survived often fell pregnant. Lives of avowed purity were changed forever into lives of violent desecration.

Pauliac, who herself died in an automobile accident while still on duty in Poland, wrote of these women in her diary. That work formed the inspiration for Anne Fontaine’s 2016 film, The Innocents. The movie provides a careful, respectful, and convincing portrayal of the emotional array that comprises such a tragedy. For nuns do not stop being women when they take the veil, nor are women who have not consecrated their lives to God any less called to the courage that nuns must possess. [Read more…]

Weddings, Women, Sweets, and Wishes

Still life of a white cake on a blue tablecloth, messy painting, warm colors. My heirloom cookbook was born during a Washington D.C. snowstorm in February of what was then called “The Year 2000,” in my final months of singlehood before I was to be married in July. That storm barely registers in the city’s memory now: it was neither the Blizzard of 1996, with its eight-foot-high snowbanks, 2003’s freak President’s Day storm, nor was it the incomparable Snowmageddon of 2010 (which I wrote about on Good Letters).

However, the storm in 2000 was significant enough—knee-high drifts under a gunmetal sky and the threat of more on the way—that work was cancelled for two days, and my roommate Paula and I lounged around the apartment filled with snow-glare-white light, drinking wine, ordering pizza (somehow Domino’s still delivered), and watching the first season of Survivor with her boyfriend Johan, who had crashed at our place for the fun.

The second night we were housebound, Paula—a tall, raven-haired engineer originally from Bogotá—announced that she was going to bake a cake. Not just any cake—I, for one, was raised on Betty Crocker—but her Colombian grandmother’s homemade white cake. She went into the kitchen, and once she ascertained that, amazingly, we did have the many eggs and flour and baking powder and mountains of sweet cream butter required, began to separate eggs with the acumen she brought to technical drawing.

Paula beat a sweet yellow cake batter that, once it was poured carefully into floured cake pans, smelled high and sugary in the heat of the oven. The remaining egg whites she beat into thick stiff peaks, to which she added sugar until she’d beat a glossy meringue frosting—her grandmother Sophia’s treasured batido blanco—that held its shape when twirled with the back of a spoon. Once the layers were out of the oven and safely cooled, she sandwiched a layer of jam between them, and spread this thick luxuriant icing all across the top.

We ate. And we ate and we ate and we ate. I have had wonderful cakes in my time, but never one as purely delicious as this. It amazes me that the tight bodice of my ivory jacquard wedding dress still zipped up so easily at the next fitting, the skirt snug over foamy layers of tulle. [Read more…]