Friday, September 15, 2023

Writing Meditation by Greg Gilbert on Sun House

Sun House by David James Duncan
Meditation by Greg Gilbert

This is not a review of David James Duncan’s Sun House, more a Writing Meditation of gratitude. Sun House is a looong booook, which is one of its many attributes.


The novel’s length matters because it engulfs the reader in an immersive experience, “immersive” as in sensory and extrasensory stimulation. Sun House is rhythmic and embodies various forms of meditation, worship, prayer, awe, reverence, and zazen. An oceanic rhythm carries the lives of the characters as they experience duhkha, Sanskrit for suffering; discovery, and moments of satori, the genuineness of each passing moment, the eternal NOW.


When a boy’s mother dies, we embody his rage as he bicycles wildly through traffic. When a young Jesuit descends into a crises of faith, we suffer with him. As characters fall in love, the writing swells with their passion, becomes romantic, hopeful, euphoric, and at times disillusioned. In chapter length effusions of satori, Duncan surrenders his mindful prose to celebratory releases that lift away from the page like sea mist. These are important rhythmic, meditative elements in a book that is itself an experience. Think of breathing, taking it in and releasing it, becoming lost in thinking and then releasing your thoughts. Think of becoming enmeshed in the natural world, of being tested by it, physically enduring its challenges, and then finding release in its glaciated summits and healing waters.


In his afterwards, the author explains that our divided world calls for celebratory answers rather than ceaseless condemnations. Sun House is rich in information about the earth, its dwindling gifts and enduring miracles. The earth is as much a character as anyone in this epic story. Sun House is a love song to the natural world. Duncan reveals the musicality and interconnectedness in all things, wind, rain, and high altitude thermal ponds. His writing sings of the music in dulcimers, folk singers, electric guitars, human voices, and the natural world, all of it without cliché because his writing is centered in the authentic experience.


The author gave 16 years of his life to creating this gift, and among my friends are those who have awaited his new book as though it were a visit from a long separated loved one. Sun House is a smart, funny book, one that satisfied my longing for the wit, humor, and earth loving reverence of Ruth Ozeki, Richard Powers, Charlotte McConaghy, Herman Hesse, TomRobbins, Kurt Vonnegut, Edward Abbey, Gary Snyder (ants and pebbles / In thethin loam), Thoreau, Rilke, and too many others to name here. Sun House is aname for the earth.

If you give yourself the gift of this book, you will be paying it forward for David James Duncan and all of us who yearn for a time of healing.

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Greg Gilbert is the author of Afflatus.

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Monday, September 11, 2023

Book Review! Our Lady of the Perpetual Desert by Alexandra Martinez

With a title such as “Our Lady of Perpetual Desert” I almost expect a miracle story, an apparition of prophetic witness; a good pinch of mystery, something hovering in the realm of sacred text. I am pleased to report that Alexandra Martinez’s 2021 Hillary Gravendyk Prize-winning poetry collection more than delivers on these expectations.

In the opening poem “Conroe, Texas” the poet recalls vignettes from middle school with her friend Bree “walking the deer path and smoking cigarettes.” On the one hand Bree shares her dad’s coveted box set of Led Zeppelin’s BBC sessions cautioning, “Be careful with this, man, if my dad knew I was sharing this with a Mexican he would kill me.” The poet, on the other hand, wonders if the dad knows about the cigarettes? Bree also tells the poet “she had sex with some boy and was maybe pregnant but she has thrown herself down the stairs and her sister had punched her in the stomach for good measure/ but maybe tomorrow after school we could take a bus to the clinic maybe.” The poem starkly evokes many coming-of-age dilemmas for adolescent girls who are left to navigate these life altering events on their own with no recourse but to throw themselves down a flight of stairs or have their sister gut punch them “for good measure.” Maybe it’s how the poem ends with an inquisitive “maybe” but it left me wondering and wanting more: what happens to Bree? Is she pregnant? Theu reader is left holding the question unanswered, to speculate and to sit in the discomfort of not knowing. Such are the developmental tasks of middle school girl children these days. Of course I was left wanting more, not so much for the poem itself but more and better for the lives of middle school girls.

This line of thought leads me to the poem “CENTO TO KEEP YOU ALIVE” in which the poet speaks of “ALWAYS THE NEED TO WANT TO KNOW WHAT COMES NEXT.” This poem which is printed ALL IN CAPS and is placed practically in the middle of the book says something to me of the central importance of this eight line poem. Borrowing lines attributed to Marwa Halal, Werner Herzog, Nick Flynn, Kaveh Akbar, Charles Bukowski, and Ada Limon, the poet pieces together a kind of litany for survival that antidotes the tendency to numb out, with the need/want to know what happens next. “SPEND THE YEAR DRINKING IN/ THE DESERT. KNOW THAT YOU ARE UNENDING.” I take the phrase “drinking in” in two ways: one is an alcoholic’s wet dream, the other is one of total immersion, soaking in the desert landscape, letting it hold, sustain and become you. Therein lies any and every sense that we are unending, beings of perpetual desert.

Issues of race, class, sex, family, cultural identity, spirituality, immigration, violence, plights of the unhoused and unemployed, and environmental degradation are matter-of-factly addressed throughout the text. The immigrant farm worker experience is central to such poems as “Citrus Is My Only Home,” “Citrus,” “Las Golondrinas,” “The Blue Stove,” “The Girls in the Kitchen” to mention a few. “Citrus Is My Only Home” combines the bitter and the sweet. “Back then” the author’s uncles “had to eat wet dog food while working in the fields/ they put it on the stove and wrapped it up in a tortilla!/ Can you believe that shit?” Her dad knows the difference- “To bite into an orange is not the same as to cut/ into an orange is not the same/ as to pick an orange.” And it is certainly not the same for the author’s generation as she and her sister “now squeeze the oranges over our heads/ Let the yolks drip down/ And take turns/ Baptizing each other in the sea.” Imagine the trajectory and meaning of oranges in their lives, across generations, the family history - from the sweat, salt, blood, sweet and bitter flavors, the moldy decay — a fruity sacrament eaten whole - rind, pulp, juice, seeds.

Word portraits of several intriguing characters contribute to the raw poignancy of the collection, eliciting what may perhaps be the composite multi-faceted title figure of Our Lady of Perpetual Desert. From the coin-snitching aunty in “Mexican Piggy Bank”; to her parents in “Las Golondrinas” who “go to church every Sunday, not together/ but united in the Holy Spirit.” In “Fuck the Clock” she gives a nod to Patti Smith while paying tribute to the “patron saint of Butterflies,” Homero Gomez Gonzalez, environmental activist and manager of El Rosario Monarch Butterfly Reserve who was murdered in 2020. With the poem “Yessenia Zamudio” the poet introduces the fierce feminist activist whose 19-year old daughter was murdered in 2016. “The thing to remember is that/ I am the hand that gently douses the back/ of a cop’s neck with gasoline./ I am the fingers that strike the match/ that sets him ablaze and as he’s/ rolling around in his own melt/ I am still moving like wildfire./ I become the spit that/ comes out of Yessenia Zamudio’s mouth.”  Zamudio, the activist who railed fiercely about injustices and the fact of increasing femicides and gender based violence, “What are we doing? Crying and sewing from our homes? Ya, well those days are over now.” The poet takes her on, Zamudio’s tenacious ferocity against injustice and the daily systemic terrorism perpetrated against women and girls globally.

Mixing the bitter with the sweet, the pain with the joy, to rail against the attraction of numbing out in difficult times - seems quintessential to the whole of Martinez’s sense of “Our Lady of Perpetual Desert.” In “La Cometa” she describes a moment with her sister, “I tasted dirt in my mouth and looked up/ as a comet came blazing past/ It was so close it lit up the entire field in front of us/ My sister and I, we reached our arms/ up in delight, and even now,/ swear we could touch it.” Later in the poem “Desert Star,” again with her sister “driving in the dry toxic heat/ Past the hospital we both saw a tall/ elegant feathered thing on the sidewalk./ A blue heron in this desert suburb./ We couldn’t believe it as we drove by/ It made me forget the tank was near/ Empty and neither of us will get paid/ This week. It made me forget the stench of/ Smog and the road rage look in my rearview.” Martinez reminds us that the desert is like that - with exquisite surprises of great beauty or joy in the midst of sometimes stark and toxic conditions.

Much as the beauty and pathos “Our Lady” offers, it comes with a cautionary caveat at the end in the final poem “The Wasteland.” The poem asks “Do people still think of the desert as a wasteland? What is a wasteland anyway?” The “answers” follow as further questions - “Is it a long avenue of/ warehouse/ after warehouse/ after warehouse? . .  . Lined with sidewalks where no one/ walks?” Is it the Interstate 10 freeway with all of its Amazon trucks? What is a wasteland anyway? “I’ve never gotten a delivery filled/ with rock formations,/ You could definitely order some white sage/ you could probably order some native plants./ You could probably pick two-day shipping for all these things./ But why would you when the wasteland is right outside your door.”

Yes, indeed, why would you? “Our Lady of Perpetual Desert” takes us to task for all the ironic conundrums we bless and curse about 21st century desert living.

Friday, September 1, 2023

New Issue! Cholla Needles 81


The dramatic cover art is by Bonnie Bostrom

The creative writing shielded within is by
Helen Gualtere
Donna Castañeda
Royal Rhodes
Leslie Palmer
Jacob Quint
Tobi Alfier
Duane Anderson
James Marvelle
Mark T. Evans
Michael Loyd Gray
Zary Fakete
and Bobby Norman