Space (a prose poem)

Son and Earth-2

©2015 by Jack A. Urquhart
(for Dillon from Dad)

I dreamt of us again last night:
You, sullen and scowling,
opting for deep space;
Me, drawn to your furtive luster,
wondering how, from where we began,
we’d opened this gravity-bound distance—
supernal son and earth-bound father,
lovelorn and locked
in opposing orbits,
forever pushing and pulling,
pushing and pulling each other.
Never breaking apart.
Never making contact.

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Haiku for Dillon

Blue SpruceHaiku for Dillon
Lost two years ago today
Alive in my heart

Blue spruce ‘neath March snow
Bends to heavy summer rains
Too soon the bough breaks



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Short Fiction: A Beautiful Economy of Words

©2015 By Jack A. Urquhart     1117 words

Economy of Words photo-7

Here is a brief testimony, the kind one offers years after the fact for no reason other than compelling need—the need to speak of something larger than an ordinary life lived into three-score and counting years. Something like the wonder and the curse of falling in love. Like how one never really gets over the blissful anxiety of that tumble.

Be forewarned: there is nothing new in what follows here. No unexplored territory; no new lessons. Nothing, in fact, that the story of life hasn’t muscled up previously.

And yet, the need persists.

So, to the telling.

Long ago, I fell in love with my best friend, Chris. He was my roommate at university. And yes, he was a man. Like me.

There, I’ve said it.

I loved Chris—longed for him body and soul in spite of a childhood chock full of indoctrination; in spite of all those Bible verses in Leviticus chapters 18 and 20; in spite of every Baptist Revival that had ever summoned hellfire to my imagination.

He was that beautiful, everything that I wasn’t: accomplished, confident, popular, possessed of an understated elegance. It didn’t take long for him to become as necessary to me as breath—a risky enough business, mind you, given this was Nixonian America, J. Edgar Hoover yet surveilling from his federal throne. More particularly, the setting of this already wordy declaration was a small university town deep in the Bible-belted South. Need I say more?

Thus, for nearly a year, I kept my unorthodox yearnings well bottled. But I was young then, just twenty and untutored in the arts of love, vulnerable to displays of affection.

So it was that my idol found me out one afternoon.

We’d had a warm spring that year with temperatures unseasonably hot weeks ahead of summer break. I remember we’d been swimming that day, long, lazy fifty-meter laps made effortless by the youth surging in our muscles.  Afterward as we walked to our dorm, the sun-baked breeze like a hot breath on our shoulders, everything seemed easy and natural between us.

That is when it happened.

To this day, I can recall Chris’s smile, like an unexpected gift, when he turned to me.

“We’ll remember these days,” he said. And then, prophetically, he threw his arm around me and curled me close.

Chris was direct, spontaneous that way. A man of simple responses matched to the occasion. And yes, doubtless that bear hug was just an expression of friendship, another small kindness thrown onto an already heaping pile.

Nevertheless, his hold broke me.

My heart, my mind went spilling, the words pouring as from a shattered vessel.

He listened to me gush, enduring in stunned silence my torrential regard—how magnificent I thought him, how deeply my feelings ran. How badly I wanted to be with him. Everything, I expect, save the physical lengths—still not well understood by me at the time—that I would happily have undertaken in proving my affection.

It must have seemed an embarrassment of devotion, my rantings puddling at his feet that way. And yet, I couldn’t stop—until finally there was nothing left to stammer except this: “Can you relate to any of that?”

Chris was a man of few words, so he must’ve seen no reason to break form in responding.

“Oh friend, I’m sorry,” he said, his arm sliding heavily from my shoulder. “I can’t.”

Six words to cover all the bases; just those six added to an Oxford Dictionary of regret registering on his face.

I remember distinctly how Chris looked that afternoon. Like a bronzed and brilliantined God in form and feature, One who knows His edicts—pronounced for a subject’s own good—are bound to cause pain, certain to leave scars.

“It’s okay,” I remember replying.

How could I not? His sorrow was so stunningly heartfelt.

“It’s okay,” I stumbled on, “because you’re the only person I’ve ever loved from whom I knew I could expect nothing.”

I remember that he smiled at me, even blushed at what must’ve seemed unnecessarily dramatic explication.

“It’s just that we need different things,” was all he said.

Days later, it would hit me that in ‘pardoning’ him, my reply had been atypically unrehearsed. Not a rehash of one of those self-indulgent speeches spun during a wee-hours fantasy meant to feed a desperate heartache. Rather, the words had bubbled up from an unaffected place. The place where the truth waits in hiding.

You see, I’d known all along that my friend was unavailable. I’d known that Chris’s warmth, his regard ran a different course from my feelings. Deep down, I’d known that the person who would win him (a New Englander, I learned years later; a physician, I believe; a woman, naturally) would be a better match than I. More poised. Less verbose. More intuitive of his needs. And better able to fulfill them. After all, didn’t the Gods flock together in telepathic communion descending from Olympus only occasionally to fraternize with mortals?

So, I’d had my ‘occasion,’ my moment with divinity. Time to accept that heaven rarely lingers on earth.

That is as far as my understanding extended back then.

Thankfully, such insights as this usually evolve. Time can be a great amplifier of meaning, and a great eradicator of grief.

The term ended. Summer arrived. And then Fall. Two new roommates in quick succession soon took my friend’s place. Then, graduation.

We drifted apart, Chris and I.

The thing is, I understand something now that I could not embrace back then: that my friend and I had arrived simultaneously where we’d been headed all along—at one of those moments when one abandons willful obliviousness. A moment when one cannot ignore how stubbornly resistant and injudicious is the human heart and how much a millstone is hopeless, unrequited love. A moment otherwise known as the simple truth.

Given how much that knowledge is apt to sting, is it any wonder we humans cling to blindness as long as possible?

“Hurting you is the last thing I wanted,” my friend said to me that day before turning away, his distress a testament to how overrated is eye contact in a moment of truth. “I’m so sorry,” he said.

And that was the end of it.

I remember that I caught my breath when he spoke, rendered speechless by his beautiful economy of words. But as I’ve said, Chris was astonishingly straightforward. Much like the truth in those rare moments when we are willing to see it.

Much like the certainty that came to me that long-ago quiveringly present-tense afternoon: the certainty that I would never again know the warmth of my friend’s embrace.


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Book Review: Kate Atkinson’s “Life After Life” and “A God in Ruins”

©2015 by Jack A. Urquhart   (Twitter @EvryManJac)         1580 words

When we read a story, we inhabit it. The covers of the book are like a roof and four walls. What is to happen next will take place within the four walls of the story. And this is possible because the story’s voice makes everything its own.
John Berger (b. 1926), British author and critic

I don’t particularly enjoy writing book reviews. What can one reader—let alone one functioning as an obscure blogger—say to another that is likely to influence his or her reading experience? Book reviews—even the most intelligent—generally boil down to opinion, which, as the saying goes, is the cheapest commodity in the world. And yet, I can’t help thinking that occasionally some books, and some authors, deserve a shout out from ordinary readers like me, book junkies who, unlike professional critics, do not receive comp copies (and are not remunerated for their time and efforts) and thus, have a real investment in the work they praise or pan.

I believe that Kate Atkinson is a writer who deserves as much praise as she can get; likewise, her latest novel, A God in Ruins, and its predecessor, Life After Life. Both novels present the reader with such an engaging, well-constructed—and challenging—literary abode that it is difficult to vacate the premises on the last page.

That said, I should confess that prior to a recent NPR piece featuring Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn’s enthusiastic take on A God in Ruins, I had never heard of Kate Atkinson. I expect that is because I do not often read detective stories, which, prior to the novels that are the subject of this review, had been Atkinson’s oeuvre. Indeed, I have since learned that her “Case Histories” mystery series, featuring Detective Jackson Brodie, has long been a worldwide best seller.

I suppose, then, it is understandable that some critics have deemed Life After Life and A God in Ruins dramatic authorial departures. However, to my mind, there is something of the sleuth’s energy in both of these works. That is because in both novels, Atkinson weaves a mystery—the mystery of what shapes a human life. In Life After Lifeand to a lesser extent in A God in Ruinsmetafiction is the literary device employed (and even manipulated) in scattering a trail of clues for readers to follow.

Screen Shot 2015-06-10 at 7.50.18 PMLife After Life
Atkinson’s protagonist in Life After Life (Little, Brown and Company, 2013) is Ursula Todd, the product of a rather ordinary upper middle class British family, circa early 20th Century. But there is nothing ordinary about Ursula’s life, and that is because Atkinson has given her more than one—more than one life, that is.

In fact, Ursula is given multiple contingent lives and destinies, each set in motion by happenstance or a sometimes seemingly offhand choice. The reasons for employing this literary device are surely open to debate. One might wonder, for instance, if Atkinson means to evoke the contingent nature of evolution (à la Stephen Jay Gould?) in creating Ursula’s many lives. Whatever her actual reason(s), it seems to me that Atkinson is content for her readers to sleuth out for themselves the meaningful summation of Ursula’s multiple incarnations.

A few examples: In an early chapter set in 1910, Ursula Todd is stillborn, the umbilical cord wrapped around her neck; and yet, in a subsequent chapter, the family doctor arrives in time to cut the cord and grant Ursula a chance at life. In another chapter, Ursula is dispatched by drowning; in still another, “darkness falls” when she plummets from a rooftop. Indeed, Atkinson displays considerable imagination in killing off her protagonist. Influenza, an abusive husband, suicide, and the WWII Blitz bombing of London, among others, are called into play. This, then, is the novel’s format, with Ursula dying only to be reborn to an alternate destiny—a destiny often determined by the smallest detail: the presence or absence of a pair of scissors or a pet dog, a chance encounter that happens or doesn’t, the choice to walk alone or with a companion.

In the hands of a less gifted writer, this strategy could prove tedious, even alienating. Yet Atkinson pulls it off (life after life) by constructing a completely believable, and more importantly, engaging space for the reader to inhabit—four walls and a roof, if you will, within the confines of which it is easy to keep suspending disbelief. The wonder of Atkinson’s talent is that she is able to maintain this suspension even when she (repeatedly) tears down walls to expose the artifice of her creations.

But what does it all mean?
Inevitably, the bag of clues collected in living with Ursula through each incarnation provides enough evidence to suggest an answer to the mystery Atkinson poses—i.e., how is a human life, any human life and destiny—shaped? To my mind, the obvious conclusion would seem that our destinies hang on the thread of our collective individual choices—that we are all participants in a kind of cosmic game show. A show that requires us to self-select from doors A, B, C, ad infinitum, and that guarantees, as it does for Ursula, that we will be shaped by the prize or disappointment of each choice. Not exactly a rocket science notion, I’ll grant. But as with so many works of art, it is the artist’s method, her process and technique, that makes the masterwork—not necessarily the message conveyed. So it is with Atkinson’s wonderful Life After Life.

Screen Shot 2015-06-10 at 7.50.55 PMA God in Ruins
This reader couldn’t help but regard Atkinson’s most recent novel as a companion piece to its predecessor, Life After Life. Some of the evidence for this conclusion is obvious. For example, in A God in Ruins (Little, Brown and Company, 2015) Atkinson returns to upper middle class WWII British society and the well-to-do Todd family first encountered in Life After Life. This time, however, she resurrects Teddy Todd (Ursula’s brother, killed off in the earlier novel) to be her protagonist.

And yet, I believe there are other reasons to think of the two books as compadres. Both novels play with time; but rather than fashioning multiple lives for her god-in-ruins protagonist (à la Life After Life), Atkinson chooses to alternate between the various eras of Teddy’s one-and-only life. It is a literary strategy akin to moving between the rooms of a house.

Atkinson’s Teddy becomes a WWII RAF pilot responsible for carrying out dozens of bombing missions deep into Hitler’s Germany—missions in which tens, possibly hundreds, of thousands of civilians die. The novel tracks between Teddy’s nightmarish war-time experiences (often rendered in bloodily graphic detail) and his post war life as faithful husband (to wife Nancy), befuddled father (to unlikable daughter Viola), doting grandfather (to Bertie and Sunny), and decidedly unambitious small-town journalist. What is remarkable about the various ‘rooms’ of Teddy’s life—each of which the reader visits in separate but adjacent chapters—is that Atkinson sees to it that her ultimately passive, almost overly virtuous protagonist inhabits a space that the reader wants to share.

Again, for this reader, there is something of the mystery writer’s magic in this—skills that Atkinson surely honed via her previous detective novels. Why, for example, the curious reader may begin to wonder, does Teddy—whose WWII life was marked by adventures of the most bellicose variety—opt in his post war years for a life of quiet passivity? Why does he seem inclined to settle quietly into an old age home and death? What is behind Teddy’s unwillingness to explore the rooms where his daughter’s open hostility resides?

And speaking of Viola, what mysterious force drives her cruel treatment of Teddy, her blatant dismissal of a man so obviously good—and for that matter, her equally disparaging treatment of Bertie and Sunny, her own children?

Atkinson scatters her clues liberally, sometimes tossing them out (never casually or clumsily) whole chapters in advance. And again, it is left to the reader (as it should be!) to piece together the significance of the stories behind the story—which, as in every great mystery, turns on death.

For this reader, the gist of A God in Ruins boils down to how death—especially death encountered viscerally and in close quarters—impacts and shapes the living. And yes, this is an old trope—one well rehearsed and/or executed in countless works of fiction. But perhaps what makes Atkinson’s treatment so compelling is that she makes death the story within the story—within the story of life, that is.

Nowhere is this made more stunningly and movingly apparent than in the brilliant conclusion to A God in Ruins.

To say too much about how Atkinson manages this would be to spoil the beauty and the thrill of its discovery. It is enough to say that in exploding the walls—and indeed, blowing the roof off—of her creation, the author reveals its shared lineage with Life After Life.

That Atkinson can so thoroughly destroy and then restore the mystery and magic of an extraordinary work of fiction is part of what makes A God in Ruins such a marvelous literary construct. The novel is exactly the kind of place the serious reader (and writer) should want to inhabit—a place where the architecture is as magnificent as the architect’s skill in creating it.





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For All I Care, a prose poem

ForAllICarePhoto©2015 by Jack A. Urquhart               

(For Dillon)

In another dream
You return to me,
arms outstretched,
a child again
asking to be held.
The weight of you
against my quickening heart
is like coming home;
all those other lives,
mere shadows,
might have beens,
for all I care.
It is enough to hold you,
enough to cup your head,
its unbroken yolk
beneath a still soft shell,
yet unscrambled.
You are whole again,
son, moon, stars,
the center of everything
for all I care.
You are alive anew,
flushed as a sunrise,
unburdened as a lullaby;
your baby-fresh scent,
a garden of sweet talcum,
soap and spilled milk.
Sultry as a summer day,
your breath, dreamy
against my cheek.
You could drowse
in my arms a lifetime,
sleep safely there for eternity,
For all I care.

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Tinnitus (a prose poem)

© Sangoiri | - Tinnitus Photo

© Sangoiri | – Tinnitus Photo

©2015 by Jack A. Urquhart
Listen a moment
and you will hear it,
the universal jingle—
electric, crepitating,
omnipresent in your head.
Barely a hearbeat’s respite
before here it comes again—
the tympanic soap opera;
the static Plop, Plop, Fizz, Fizzing
across dissevered nerves.
it whoops, wheezes, whistles.
The contrapuntal ditty
spans infinite octaves,
and the rest of your life;
boasts a closed-circuit libretto
scrubbed Cleaner than Clean
to Double Your Pleasure:
it Snaps, Crackles, Pops.
Truly, never was trumpeted
A more Bubblelicious
For surely you’ve divined it—
that there is no escaping
the Juicy-Fruity madness,
that you are audience-bound,
Starburst to Starburst
to finite attention;
a peon mortally obliged
to listen, and listen, and listen?


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Review: Fathers and Demons; Glimpses of the Future, by Lorinda J. Taylor: Telling tales of fathers, sons, demons and deities

Screen Shot 2015-04-27 at 2.42.36 PM

©2015 by Jack A. Urquhart     1127 words

Lorinda J. Taylor, the talented author of several engaging and imaginative works of literary science fiction, does an excellent job of telling her potential readers what to expect from her latest independently published novel, Fathers and Demons; Glimpses of the Future.

In the author notes section of her 116,000 word tome, Taylor makes it clear that her newest work is no ordinary novel.

Writes Taylor, “[Fathers and Demons] is not exactly a novel, since it starts and stops in medias res with only enough explanation of what has gone before to make it comprehensible.”

This reader found in Fathers and Demons (F & D) a mix of brilliance and beauty interspersed with passages of momentum-squelching exposition. Indeed, readers who favor a more traditional narrative would be wise to download the vendor’s sample for an initial perusal. That is because F & D is actually a prequel to the novel that Taylor eventually intends to release—The Man Who Found Birds among the Stars, the story of the first interstellar mission to discover extraterrestrials. That story, several times referenced with enthusiastic fanfare in F & D, is only weeks from launch when the reader commences Fathers and Demons.

But before allowing her readers to embark on a light-speed trip to the stars, Taylor apparently believes it necessary to prime them for the journey. Hence F & D’s perambulatory (de)tour, one of the purposes of which (the author tells us in her introductory notes) is to depict “the history and state of Earth’s future civilization…” as well as “the future history of religion in general,” including “recounting what had become of certain remnant elements of society…”—specifically, the Jews.

Armed with this agenda, Taylor commences F & D with an elaborately staged Jewish wedding. The year is 2768, the locale of the nuptials, one of the few remaining religious enclaves still in existence in her predominantly secular-humanistic future world order.

Employing exhaustively researched detail, Taylor introduces a host of wedding guests, Jewish and secular, several of whom are slated to crew the impending mission to the stars. These include the mission’s super inquisitive (some might say annoyingly so) Captain Robbin Nikalishin and co-crew member, Com Officer Avi Oman (the groom), as well as Avi’s bride, Mercedes Tulu, a member of the mission’s ground command. The groom’s hospitable parents, Chaim and Naomi Oman, the amiable Rabbi Ely Kohn, and the Jewish enclave’s irascible Chief Rabbi, Ben-Ari, are also on hand—ostensibly to play an important role in establishing F & D’s thematics.

Readers apt to tire from prolonged exposure to dialogue are forewarned that Taylor’s account of the matrimonial gathering encompasses 10 chatty chapters and some 70,000 (count ‘em!) words. This section of F & D, arguably too long by half, is marked (or marred?) by a crowded cast of guests and their hosts who sit and talk, and eat and talk, and drink and talk their way through a series of stories personal and epic—e.g., a page-hungry history of the Jewish people and their nameless G-d (Who must be referenced by the epithet, HaShem) and the tale of Rabbi Ben-Ari’s domestic tragedies, including the untimely death of his only son.

In short order, Taylor—who admits to being a teacher at heart—uses these chapters to instruct the reader. More specifically, the author’s penchant for exposition and second-hand-after-the-fact storytelling (as opposed to real-time story showing) often robs her tales—and by extension, the characters and populaces to whom they belong—of their emotional and dramatic impact.

In her introductory notes Taylor tells us (there’s that word again) that the first 10 chapters play a key role in her novel—namely, to introduce “The theme of fatherhood and the connections between fathers and gods … the mesh that will bind the book together”.

Doubtless, that was Taylor’s intent; even so, F & D’s initial chapters do not pique a particular interest in thematics so much as inspire an almost irresistible urge to scan ahead. Only the fact that Taylor can actually write—and that with occasional bursts of disarming eloquence—kept this reader anchored on the page.

Fortunately, chapters 11 through 14 afford a much-welcomed respite from the novel’s loquacious first section—not that there isn’t a fair amount of dialogue in these chapters too. The difference is that the story of Ian Glencrosse—Chief Engineer for the upcoming interstellar mission, and a man wrestling with his own demons—unfolds in real time. Nothing second-hand about it.

Burdened by a prolonged estrangement from his parents and plagued by (delusional?) forebodings of a mysterious, malevolent interstellar God intent on the destruction of the upcoming mission, Glencrosse undertakes a pre-launch excursion to make a final peace with his progenitors. The end result of this journey is Glencrosse’s decision to make, when the moment presents, the ultimate sacrifice to his mysterious Star God. The fact that Taylor makes us wait for her next novel to learn if Glencrosse actually places himself on the sacrificial altar is, for this reader, more than a little frustrating. Even so, the chapters devoted to Glencrosse showcase Taylor at her best.

A master of dialogue (when she doesn’t’ let it eat up reams of page space), Taylor ensures that Glencrosse’s interactions with his parents crackle with real emotion and nuanced, character-revealing details. In addition, the author’s prose is sometimes given permission to soar so that the reader begins to understand what makes Taylor a writer worth staying with—even when nothing much but talk is happening on the page.

F & D’s final two chapters feature a foray into epistolary form—a detour that provides much-needed closure, as well as a strong dose of humanity, to the story of Rabbi Ben-Ari (who in the novel’s first section condescended, often quite rudely, to the wedding guests—particularly the goyim).

These final chapters also provide additional insights into the character and leadership qualities of Captain Robbin Nikalishin, a man given in the novel’s first 10 chapters to frequent aw-shucks exclamations and expletives the likes of Holy cry! and Bloody Hell! Here we finally get a glimpse of the commanding eloquence and empathy that (Taylor keeps telling us) has made Nikalishin a global hero.

In conclusion, F & D provides ample evidence of Taylor’s authorial gifts and potential, as well as an occasional appetizer for her next offering, The Man Who Found Birds among the Stars. Hopefully she won’t keep us waiting long.


Other works by Lorinda J. Taylor:

The Termite Queen: Volume One: The Speaking of the Dead

The Termite Queen: Volume Two: The Wound That Has No Healing


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