“We are torn between nostalgia for the familiar and an urge for the foreign and strange. As often as not, we are homesick most for the places we have never known.” ~ Carson McCullers, from “Look Homeward, Americans”


“She was afraid of these things that made her suddenly wonder who she was, and what she was going to be in the world, and why she was standing at that minute, seeing a light, or listening, or staring up into the sky: alone.” ~ Carson McCullers, The Member of the Wedding

Sunday afternoon, cloudy, 49 degrees.

Wednesday was the birthday of American novelist, playwright, and poet Carson McCullers (February 19, 1917-September 29, 1967). Granted, I came to McCullers late in the game, not reading my first book by her until grad school—Reflections in a Golden Eye, written in 1941 (go here to download an e copy of the novel). However, once I had read that book, I was hooked, reading almost everything that she had written in quick succession. When I was still teaching, I always included something by McCullers on my literature syllabi, my favorite being her first novel, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (1940).

Most often, McCullers is classified as a Southern Gothic writer, in the same vein as Truman Capote, Flannery O’Connor, William Faulkner, and Tennessee Williams. Southern Gothic literature is so named because of its similarities to the Gothic genre, which arose in 18th century Britain. Key elements of Gothic literature include bleak, dark settings, and mysterious, sometimes supernatural plots filled with psychologically complex and damaged characters. Well-known examples of the genre include Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897).

Gothic literature continued to flourish in the 19th century, influencing the works of Edgar Allan Poe (“The Tell-Tale Heart,” 1843), Robert Louis Stevenson (The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, 1886), and Nathanial Hawthorne (The House of the Seven Gables, 1851), all of which incorporated the Gothic motifs of suspense and horror, as well as characters with traumatized psyches. Often central to the overarching atmosphere of these works was a large, foreboding house harboring a terrible secret (Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights); the term Gothic actually derives from the architectural classification of late Medieval structures such as cathedrals that featured stone and glass incorporated into the arches and buttresses.

Elements of the Gothic tradition in literature continue today—the entire oeuvre of Stephen King or Anne Rice, for example—with sensational plots and characters steeped in mystery and the supernatural, with thematic spillover into movies and television shows featuring zombies, vampires, and werewolves.

“His own life seemed so solitary, a fragile column supporting nothing amidst the wreckage of the years.” Carson McCullers, from “The Sojourner”

While the roots of Southern Gothic literature stem from the Gothic tradition, Southern Gothic tends to focus less on the primary setting of singular creepy mansions and instead uses the concept of the sprawling Southern plantation or the small Southern town as the atmospheric backdrop. Much of Southern Gothic literature centers on the differences inherent in the mid 20th century South and the characters who reside there. For example, in Reflections, McCullers incubates her characters within the stultifying isolation of a military base in which characters self-mutilate and ultimately commit murder.

Southern Gothic first emerged as a sub genre in the work of William Faulkner in the 1920s, but it reached its peak in the period between the 1940s to the 1960s through the work of well-known authors such as McCullers, O’Connor, Eudora Welty, Truman Capote, and Harper Lee. I would be remiss if I did not mention the Southern Gothic masterpiece, A Streetcar Named Desire (1947), by  Tennessee Williams; in fact, it was Williams who convinced his friend McCullers to turn her 1946 novel Member of the Wedding into the 1950 play, which won the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for the best play of the season.

Interestingly, many well-known Gothic novels and stories have been translated to movies and plays, with some having multiple adaptations over the years: McCullers’ Heart novel was adapted to film in 1968 and starred Alan Arkin and a young Sondra Locke. Elizabeth Taylor and Marlon Brando starred in the 1967 film version of Reflections. Member was not only adapted into a play, but also into a film in both 1952 (garnering Julie Harris a best actress nomination) and 1997, as well as a TV adaptation in 1982.

“Maybe when people longed for a thing that bad the longing made them trust in anything that might give it to them.” ~ Carson McCullers, from The Heart is a Lonely Hunter

One key motif of both Gothic and Southern Gothic literature is the incorporation of the grotesque, which is defined in the literary sense as the ludicrous or abnormal, in other words, whatever or whoever deviates from traditional societal norms, especially as relates to the body and the many ways in which it can be exaggerated or distorted, a la the Frankenstein monster. McCullers was particularly skilled in incorporating the overarching Gothic idea of the grotesque into her characterizations: witness John Singer, the deaf-mute protagonist of Heart, whose physical differences caused him such emotional pain and mental anguish. He moves through his life with an overarching sense of alienation that allows him no permanent place in this world, which in turn leads to his suicide.

McCullers creates within so many of her characters this sense of other as a deliberate mechanism for portraying the wretchedness of the human condition. Her  stories are populated by those set apart from the mainstream by race, sexuality, and deformity, and then she further isolates these characters through  complex themes such as bisexuality, impotency, bestiality, and murder. But perhaps the leitmotif that permeates her work more than any other is that of need: her characters’ need for love, for understanding, for companionship, for sex, for strength, for belonging. She creates these needs, but rarely offers the satisfaction of successfully achieving any of them.

I always thought that her characters in Heart are indeed both grotesque and sublime—creations that the reader can both love and fear because we fear what we do not know, whether it be a mute or an individual institutionalized for mental illness (Spiros). Singer was a masterpiece of contractions: He could not hear, but he loved music, or the idea of music. He could not speak but was named singer. Oddly, the person in the boarding house who is deemed the best listener is the deaf man. Overall, the book’s characters are all lone hunters, with each seemingly hunting something different yet at the same time, each hunting a way out of loneliness.

“What did he understand? Nothing. Where was he headed? Nowhere. What did he want? To know. What? A meaning. Why? A riddle.” ~ Carson McCullers, from The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter
Carson McCullers, Nyack, New York, 1947; photograph by Henri Cartier-Bresson

Anyway, not really sure how I ended up writing so much about Southern Gothic literature when I had originally just wanted to mention McCullers’ birthday;  I finally had to stop myself when I realized that I was going into a full-blown academic analysis of her, and the Gothic tradition, etc. . . . that, plus I began this post on Wednesday, so it was long overdue for completion. Truthfully, though, I miss writing research papers, which is why so many of my posts contain elements inherent to pedagogy.

Nevertheless, I never even touched on McCullers as a person, which is in large part why I have always been so fascinated with her, but that’s a whole other post’s worth of words, and then some. But truly, McCullers was brilliant, and like many brilliant people she was very troubled, so perhaps I’ll write about that and the bourbon some other time, but this is quite enough for today.

More later. Peace.


Music by The Dead South, “In Hell I’ll Be in Good Company”

A Quick Update . . .

Wednesday afternoon, sunny, 42 degrees.

Oh my. Far too much to include in a quick update, so I’ll just hit the highlights: major ongoing computer problems causing me to reboot several times a day and making it pretty near impossible to write anything more than a few sentences (and I had several posts planned to begin the new year), major vertigo episode causing me to be unable to do much of anything several times a day……..

I’m uncertain if the vertigo was exacerbated by the Aimovig shot that I had last Friday, but the two things seem to be going hand in hand. I’ve never had vertigo that went on for days, and it’s maddening as I can’t do anything, especially anything that requires me to bend over. The medication that I take for vertigo (Meclizine) makes me very sleepy, so I’m unwilling to take it during the day. As a compromise, I’ve been taking half a pill, which really doesn’t do much to alleviate the feelings that I’m going to fall on my face at any second.

Anyway, that’s a very quick synopsis of my life this past week. I’m hoping that something changes soon, anything, actually.

“But our innocence goes awfully deep, and our discreditable secret is that we don’t know anything at all, and our horrid inner secret is that we don’t care that we don’t.” ~ Dylan Thomas, from a letter to his wife (November/December 1936)

Dylan Thomas in his favorite environment: a bar

My birthday began with the water-
…..Birds and the birds of the winged trees flying my name
……..Above the farms and the white horses
…………….And I rose
………….In rainy autumn
….And walked abroad in a shower of all my days.” ~ Dylan Thomas, from “Poem in October”

Sunday evening, cloudy, 66 degrees.

Today is the birthday of Welsh poet Dylan Thomas (October 27, 1914-November 9, 1953). The Poetry Foundation has a good biography and selection of his poems, or you can visit the official website, Discover Dylan Thomas, here.

I still remember the circumstances in which I read my first Thomas poem: I was an undergraduate, working in the newsroom, and one of the editors brought me a handwritten copy of his most famous poem (below) and asked me to type it as she wanted to give it to her father. I realize now what I was unable to fathom at that time, that her father must have been ill.

I remember being moved by the words as I typed them, so moved that in the ignorance of my youth I decided to write my own version. I know, right? Ah, the unfounded arrogance that only the young possess.

I showed that version to one of my writing professors, and she very kindly pointed out that perhaps there were some poems that should not be rewritten, or updated, or mangled by an overwrought young writer (she didn’t say the last part).

Yeh. It was that bad, but I digress . . .

Anyway, listening to Thomas’s deep, melodious voice read his own work enhances the impact of the words and phrasing of his poems. The wonder is that Thomas was able to retain his mellifluous speaking voice in spite of how much he drank and smoked, as opposed to, say, Charles Bukowski. whose voice was scratchy from booze and cigarettes.

More later. Peace.

Today is also the birthday of poet and writer Sylvia Plath (October 27, 1932February 11, 1963), who I have featured here several times before.

Dylan Thomas reading his poem “Do Not Go Gentle Into that Good Night”


Do not go gentle into that good night

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

“She lived with us for 56 years. She raised me and my siblings without pay. I was 11, a typical American kid, before I realized who she was.” ~ Alex Tizon, from “My Family’s Slave”

Lola Pulido with the author and his siblings (all images are Tizon family photos)

“Push away the past, that vessel in which all emotions curdle to regret.” ~ Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, from Before We Visit the Goddess

Thursday late afternoon, cloudy and cool, 51 degrees.

I’ve had this one tab open on my laptop for about two weeks, maybe more. I haven’t wanted to close it as I wanted it to be a constant reminder that it needed attention on my part. It’s one of three posts that I’ve been trying to write longer than I care to admit. This particular tab is for an article that was published in The Atlantic called “My Family’s Slave,” by the late Alex Tizon, and although I’ve wanted to write a response to it ever since I read it, I cannot seem to find the best way in, if that makes any sense.

Lola age 51

The article deals with a Filipino tradition (for lack of a better word) of the better-off taking in someone not so well-off and offering them the opportunity to live with and work for the family. Better-off is very subjective as it means anyone with more money than you. The only catch is that working for implies receiving a salary of some sort, and these women (mostly) never receive any money. Tizon explains:

Slavery has a long history on the islands. Before the Spanish came, islanders enslaved other islanders, usually war captives, criminals, or debtors. Slaves came in different varieties, from warriors who could earn their freedom through valor to household servants who were regarded as property and could be bought and sold or traded. High-status slaves could own low-status slaves, and the low could own the lowliest. Some chose to enter servitude simply to survive: In exchange for their labor, they might be given food, shelter, and protection.

. . . Today even the poor can have utusans or katulongs (“helpers”) or kasambahays (“domestics”), as long as there are people even poorer. The pool is deep.

“If ever I lose
my memory of you, walk beside me
like a stag; like a bird heard, unseen” ~ Anne Michaels, from Correspondences

Let me offer a bit of my own background here: For three summers, starting when I was just 14, I worked for my Aunt Remy, taking care of her five kids. I arrived at 7 in the morning and left at 6 in the evening, and for this I received $50 a week, and I felt lucky to be making such good money. In addition to taking care of the kids, my cousins (a term loosely used by Filipinos to identify anyone close to the family), my daily chores included cleaning the entire house, doing laundry, and attempting to cook. I never saw this as being too much work; after all, they had an in-ground pool and I could spend a few hours every day hanging out in the crystal blue water. I viewed the entire transaction was quite equitable.

Lola passport photo

These were my “rich relatives,” as I always referred to them. I loved my aunt and uncle like a second set of parents, for good reason. My uncle lived with my parents before he got married, and he was one of my frequent babysitters. My aunt lived with my parents when she came over from the Philippines before she married my uncle. They were always a big part of my life, and their deaths wounded my heart almost as much as those of my parents.

When my summers became too full with cheer leading practices for me to continue my full-time summer job with them, my aunt found a Filipino woman to live with the family. I never knew if she was paid, only that she lived with the family full-time. I’m embarrassed to say that I cannot remember her name. But this article immediately called her to mind.

“This memory was not painful to her now. Her life was an open window and she a butterfly.” ~ Simon Van Booy, from “French Artist Killed in Sunday’s Earthquake”

Another memory: When relatives from Newark visited one summer, they brought with them their live-in woman. My aunt asked me not to mention that I was paid because she didn’t want their live-in to feel bad. I realize now that the woman probably wasn’t paid anything. That’s just how it was done.

Lola Pulido at age 18

We never had one of these women in our house, probably because it was just my mom, dad, and me, that and we weren’t well off. However, over the years we frequently had a relative of some sort living with us. Again, that’s just how it is, and it never seemed odd to me. I think that if my parents had wanted a live-in that there were certainly many relatives in the Philippines who would have jumped at the chance, life in the States being much preferred to a life of poverty in the islands.

That being said, I don’t think that my American mother would have ever been comfortable with such an arrangement, not because she was opposed to have help, but more because she was such a very jealous woman and having another woman living in our house would have stirred her monster, which was always seething just below the surface of her marriage to my dad.  Truthfully, though, my father gave her good reason to be suspicious. I can admit that now without feeling that I’m betraying either of them.

“Stare at the monster: remark
How difficult it is to define just what
Amounts to monstrosity in that
Very ordinary appearance.” ~ Ted Hughes, from “Famous Poet”

What has made it so hard for me to write about all of this is that my aunt and uncle were good, generous people, and I wouldn’t want it to seem that I’m criticizing them in any way, but if I am to be honest, then I have to admit that the tradition that they carried on was very much like the slavery the article’s author discusses. It is hard, painful even, to try to think of my relatives in these terms.

Slavery is a hard word—it is filled with negative connotations, rightfully so, and when most American heard the word, they think about that shameful period in our country’s history in which the color of one’s skin dictated how the individual lived, whether or not the person was paid or could vote or even if that individual could have the barest education. Tizon’s article recounts another form of slavery, one that most white Americans know nothing about, but one that most Filipino Americans know about but rarely acknowledge.

Lieutenant Tomhow

But back to the article: Tizon narrates how Lola (an all-encompassing Tagalog word for grandmother or nana), lived with his family after his mother died, and after Lola’s death how he took her ashes back to her family in the Philippines. It’s a bittersweet story, told in retrospect through a child’s eyes and then later through the wisdom that being an adult sometimes imparts, too late more often than not.

Tizon recounts the story of how his maternal grandfather, Lieutenant Tom, a “cigar-chomping army lieutenant named Tomas Asuncion” brought an 18-year-old Filipina girl named Eudocia Tomas Pulido into the family in 1943 to take care of his mother whose own mother had died in childbirth. Pulida, or Lola—a cousin from a marginal side of the family, rice farmers—was a gift to Tizon’s mother, and Lola stayed with various members of Tizon’s family for almost 68 years, 56 or them as an utusan (people who take commands).

Lieutenant Tom had as many as three families of utusans living on his property in the Tarlac province of the Philippines. He had lots of land but little money, and he was shrewd. As Tizon explains how Lola came to be the family’s slave, “The lieutenant was shrewd—he saw that this girl was penniless, unschooled, and likely to be malleable . . . She could have food and shelter if she would commit to taking care of his daughter . . . Lola agreed, not grasping that the deal was for life.”

“Sometimes, I feel the past and the future pressing so hard on either side that there’s no room for the present at all.” ~ Evelyn Waugh, from Brideshead Revisited

Another memory: My parents and I spent several months in the Philippines after my dad retired from the Navy. The plan was for us to live there, but that didn’t work out as I became ill and found to be allergic to pretty  much everything. But while we were staying at my grandmother’s house in my dad’s village of Gapan, we would visit my great aunt Tiba’s house. I recall that she had an utusan, but that’s all I remember. Later, when we moved to Quezon City, two of my cousins moved with us. They helped out, but I honestly don’t know if they were there as utusans or as family, or even if there is a difference.

We were Americanized. We weren’t rich, but as compared to many in my father’s family, we were well off. We stayed in an air-conditioned apartment in Quezon City at a time in which air conditioning was a luxury. It may still be a luxury—I have no idea. So the opportunity to live in the city with us as opposed to a small village must have seemed appealing.

Lola age 82

My mother, born into a large family during the Great Depression, never had servants, so I don’t think that she would have been able to order people about naturally; at least, that is how I like to remember things. My father made it out of his small village by becoming a Guerilla during WWII and then later enlisting in the U.S. Navy; he was never entitled but he believed ardently in helping out family whenever he could.

If it sounds as if I’m trying to convince myself that for those few short months we did not have a family slave, I am, but I’m also trying to be realistic, reconciling the parents I knew with the parents I couldn’t have possibly known well as a child. What we know of our parents is what we choose to know, and few of us choose to know or to remember that side in which our parents were human beings, with their own likes and dislikes, wants and desires, shortfalls and foibles.

That’s just not how it works. Is it?

Utusan. Helper. Servitude. Long hours. No pay. No personal life beyond the family’s environs. Bottom line: slave. It’s ugly no matter how memory shapes it. If you get a chance, I do recommend reading the article that jump started this post. It is a lovely narrative, one to which few white Americans can actually relate but deserves a wide audience nevertheless.

More later. Peace.


Music by Billie Marten, “Bird”

Wordless Wednesdays . . .

Wednesday afternoon, sunny and sultry, 89 degrees.

Continuing my love affair with Haiku, the Japanese flute, and dragonflies—incredible camera work . . .


Music by Kitaro, “Silk Road”

“On a branch | floating downriver | a cricket, singing.” ~ Kobayashi Issa (Trans. Jane Hirshfield)

Cover of A Haiku Garden: The Four Seasons in Poems and Prints

Today’s Two for Tuesday features poems from the book A Haiku Garden: The Four Seasons In Poems And Prints, by Stephen Addiss with Fumiko and Akira Yamamoto (a PDF of which can be found here). I’ve been intent on the coming of autumn, but I decided yesterday that I need to appreciate the last days of summer, regardless of the flies.  I find that whenever am keenly focused on nature and in search of poems, I turn to Haiku, and admittedly, I am very fond of the frequent appearance of dragonflies in this type of verse.

Haiku is a traditional 13th century form of Japanese verse that depicts a moment in time, or as Cor van den Heuvel wrote in 1987, Haiku is the concise “essence of a moment keenly perceived in which Nature is linked to human nature.” When translated to English, the formal Haiku is supposed to be composed of three lines of verse, usually unrhymed, with five, seven and five syllables. These 17 syllables are akin to the original form of 17 mora, which is a unit of Japanese syllable weight; however, it has been pointed out that roughly 12, not 17 syllables in English are equivalent to the 17 On (phonetic units) of the Japanese Haiku, which only goes to show that strict adherence to form does not necessarily a Haiku make.

Mori Shunkei,” Red dragonfly and caterpillar on plant” (1820, wood block print)

Over time, poets have moved away from the strict 17 syllable and line count while focusing more on the economy of form. Importantly, to understand Haiku it should be viewed as more than a short poem, more than a pithy description. For a poem to be Haiku, it must encompass a sense of awareness, an eloquence of brevity. One other aspect of Haiku that should be noted is the use of kigo, which are words or phrases traditionally associated with seasons. I actually found a world database on kigo which contains fairly comprehensive discussions of the Japanese term and its use in Haiku.

The Poetry Foundation has a good description of Haiku that can be found here. A more detailed history of the form can be found on the site With Words, and the British Haiku Society site offers a breakdown of the western views and approaches to the form. Historically, there were four Japanese poets considered masters of the form, sometimes referred to as the Great Four: Matsuo Bashō (1644-1694), Yosa Buson (1716-1784), Kobayashi Issa (1763-1828), and Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902). Seventeenth-century Samurai poet Bashō is often classified as the greatest writer of  Haiku; to read more about him you can go here or here for a collection of his verse.

Because of the compact nature of Haiku, I am breaking my self-imposed Tuesday rule and featuring more than two; most of these come from the “Summer” section of the book, and I am including the page numbers on which each can be found. Enjoy.

More later. Peace.


After the thunderstorm
one tree catches the setting sun—
cicada voices

~ Shiki (p48)

Seen in the daylight
it has a red neck—
the firefly

~ Bashō (p48)

The warbler
amid the bamboo shoots
sings of old age

~ Bashō (p51)

The garden darkening
the night quieting—
peonies

~ Shirao (p52)

The coming of autumn
determined
by a red dragonfly

~ Shirao (p60)

The dragonfly
has died his body
autumn

~ Bakusui (p63)

The puppy
completely unaware that
autumn has come

~ Issa (p63)


Music by Rodrigo Rodriguez, “Hitomi (Eyes), composed by Horii Kojiro

“Preservation of one’s own culture does not require contempt or disrespect for other cultures.” ~ Cesar Chavez

Image result for Cesar Chavez quotes


“I am convinced that the truest act of courage, the strongest act of manliness is to sacrifice ourselves for others in a totally non-violent struggle for justice. To be a man is to suffer for others. God hep us to be men.” ~ Cesar Chavez

I found myself thinking about Cesar Chavez today, mostly because of the continued assaults on immigrants and migrants being perpetuated by this administration, the most recent of which is the abolition of the medical deferred action program (more on that later).  Chavez was an American labor leader and a civil rights activist who firmly believed in the efficacy of non-violent protest. And yes, his quotes are dated in that they use men/them, man/him, etc., but he was a product of his times, so I don’t read him as being sexist.

Anyway, Chavez is actually one of the first civil rights activists whose name I learned in my youth (aside from King, Kennedy, etc). I remember reading about his hunger strikes in 1968 and 1972, and the last of which was in 1988. That last fast was big in the news as several famous individuals took up the fast once Chavez completed his 36-day Fast for Life on August 21, 1988: The Reverend Jesse Jackson, Martin Sheen, the Reverend J. Lowery (President SCLC), Edward James Olmos, Emilio Estevez, Kerry Kennedy, legislator Peter Chacon, Julie Carmen, Danny Glover, Carly Simon, and Whoopi Goldberg.

Chavez regarded fasting as both a personal and public protest. Of fasting, he said,

A fast is first and foremost personal. It is a fast for the purification of my own body, mind, and soul. The fast is also a heartfelt prayer for purification and strengthening for all those who work beside me in the farm worker movement. The fast is also an act of penance for those in positions of moral authority and for all men and women activists who know what is right and just, who know that they could and should do more. The fast is finally a declaration of non-cooperation with supermarkets who promote and sell and profit from California table grapes.

Not sure why Chavez popped up on my internal radar today, but I’m going with it. If you want to learn more about him and the American Farm Workers union, go here.

(Note: I couldn’t decide on a poem for today’s post. Most of the ones that I liked are still under copyright, and I couldn’t find a poem that was specifically about Chavez.)