Sunday, January 31, 2010

Trains coming, loves leaving

I love trains.   I grew up in a railroad town.  My father and grandfather worked on the railroad.  I went to sleep each night, for 18 years, to the sound of trains passing through the mountains, train whistles calling in the night,  train wheels clack-clack-clacking along the tracks across the river heading to or coming from the yards. Whenever I hear one today, it's like a song from the past taking root again ... and I get very ... nostalgic.

American songwriter Steve Goodman wrote a song later made famous by Arlo Guthrie, about a train called the "City of New Orleans."  Yeah, you know the one I mean.  :)  They say imitation is the greatest form of flattery.  Singer/songwriter Joe Dassin (son of Jules Dassin the film director), in 1972 took the melody from this song about a train and with the words (in French) of  Richelle Dassin and Claude Lemesle and a new arrangement, turned it into a meloncholic song, in French, about the end of a love affair.  (The couple in the song still love one another, they just weren't meant to live together, and they have things to talk about, say the lyrics.)

I was sitting outside on the patio at a family gathering one evening last summer when--as often happens when all the family gets together--everyone started singing.  One of the songs was "Salut les amoureux".  I didn't know the words but I sure recognized that melody!  This song is enormously popular here in Québec, even after more than 30 years. I say this because anytime it's played, I notice everyone up and starts singing along, and they all know ALL the words. 

Here's Arlo Guthrie, in 1978, in Atlanta, Georgia, performing with Shenandoah (my favorite version):

And now, its French adaptation, as "Salut les amoureux" ("Hello, Lovers", referring to a line in the song where neighbors pass by and call out to the couple, unaware that they are splitting up.)

There are lots of other versions out there, take your pick:  In English, by Steve Goodman, Willie NelsonJohn DenverJohnny Cash, Judy Collins, and Jerry Reed ; in German (by Rudi Carrell: "Wann wird's mal wieder richtig"); in Finnish (by Karma: "Huomenta Suomi"), and finally, by a bunch of people at some gathering, singing their hearts out, in French. 

Music transcends borders, it brings people together. We may not always understand the words, but the melodies can be, and frequently are, enjoyed and shared and played, again and again.

For any sing-along buffs out there, here are the respective lyrics: first in English,  then French. Hop the train, pull out your guitar and join in!


Ridin’ on the City of New Orleans
Illinois Central, Monday morning rail
Fifteen cars and fifteen restless riders
Three conductors, and twenty-five sacks of mail.
All along the southbound odyssey
The train pulls out of Kankakee
and rolls along past houses, farms and fields.
Passing trains that have no name
Freight yards full of old black men
And the graveyards of the rusted automobiles

Good morning, America, how are ya?
Say, don’t ya know me? I’m your native son!
I’m the train they call the City of New Orleans
I’ll be gone 500 miles when the day is done.

Dealin’ cards with the old men in the club car,
Penny a point, ain’t no one keepin’ score.
Pass the paper bag that holds the bottle,
Feel the wheels rumblin’ ‘neath the floor.
And the sons of pullman porters
And the sons of engineers
Ride their fathers’ magic carpet made of steel.
Mothers with their babes asleep
Are rockin’ to the gentle beat
And the rhythm of the rails is all they feel.

Good morning, America, how are ya?
Say, don’t ya know me? I’m your native son!
I’m the train they call the City of New Orleans
I’ll be gone 500 miles when the day is done.

Night time on the City of New Orleans,
Changin’ cars in Memphis, Tennessee.
Halfway home and we’ll be there by morning,
To the Mississippi darkness rolling down to the sea.
But all the towns and people seem
To fade into a bad dream
And the steel rails still ain’t heard the news.
The conductor sings his songs again,
The passangers will please refrain,
This train’s got the disappearing railroad blues.

Good night, America, how are ya?
I say, don’t ya know me, I’m your native son.
I’m the train they call the City of New Orleans,
I’ll be gone 500 miles when the day is done. [1]

And now in French:


Les matins se suivent et se ressemblent
Quand l'amour fait place au quotidien
On était pas fait pour vivre ensemble
Ça n'suffit pas toujours de s'aimer bien
C'est drôle hier on s'ennuyait
Et c'est à peine si l'on trouvait
Les mots pour se parler du mauvais temps
Et maintenant qu'il faut partir
On a cent milles choses à dire
Qui tiennent trop à coeur pour si peu de temps

On s'est aimé comme on se quitte
Tout simplement sans penser à demain
A demain qui vient toujours un peu trop vite
Aux adieux qui quelques fois se passent un peu trop bien

On fait c'qu'il faut on tien nos rôles
On se regarde on rit on craint un peu
On a toujours oublié quelques choses
C'est pas facile de se dire adieu
Et l'on sait trop bien que tôt ou tard
Demain peut-être ou même ce soir
On va se dire que tout n'est pas perdu
De ce roman inachevé
On va se faire un conte de fée
Mais on a passé l'âge on n'y croirait plus

On s'est aimé comme on se quitte
Tout simplement sans penser à demain
A demain qui vient toujours un peu trop vite
Aux adieux qui quelques fois se passent un peu trop bien

Roméo Juliette et tous les autres
Au fond de vos bouquins dormer en paix
Une simple histoire comme la nôtre
Est le seul qu'on écrira jamais
Allons petite il faut partir
Laisser ici nos souvenirs
On va descendre ensemble si tu veux
Et quand elle va nous voir passer
La patronne du café
Elle va encore nous dire salut les amoureux

On s'est aimé comme on se quitte
Tout simplement sans penser à demain
A demain qui vient toujours un peu trop vite
Aux adieux qui quelques fois se passent un peu trop bien. [2]

Friday, January 29, 2010

For Now, They Stay

Those prayers that should be drifting
up and out
now choked and held by nature's hand.
Once bright and firm, cloth soaked by rain,
the colors fade, in sifting seasons
like the songs from their once land
now choked and held, not lifting up
the heaviness of now.

Every spring they are replaced,
and brighter still until the sky rains down,
again, as if by plan
yet twisted hope
still sends out words that catch the wind,
are carried far and reach beyond
the shadow blocking sun's remembered light.

~ ~ Annie Wyndham

[first publication]

[This one was for you, Tibet.]

*Photo by awyn, Jan. 28, 2010, outside my kitchen window.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Air Around the Butterfly

The Air Around the Butterfly
Въздухът около пеперудата
by Katerina Stoykova
Sofia, Bulgaria: Fakel Express; First edition (August, 2009)
SBN: 978-954-9772-64-7
Size: 6.5" x 8.5", 147 pages
Price: $10.00

Bilingual poetry books are relatively rare today, particularly those where the English text is paired with one in a non-Latin alphabet.  The interesting thing about the above book--the author's first--is that she wrote the poems in English--her second language--and then translated them back into her native Bulgarian.

The 59 poems presented in this book are grouped into three sections, each representing a different period in the poet’s life.  The first section, “My Mother Was Going to War”, is a collection of poetic vignettes: of a mother who was dying; of a grandfather as a young guerrilla; of the first time she tried to leave home while yet a child; of a colonel's heart not yet thawed from the Cold War.  The second section,  “E.T. and I Phone Home” covers the poet's departure from her native Bulgaria to her arrival and settling in America, unsure of what that would entail, but "diving in" nonetheless.  The third section, titled “The Apple Who Wanted to Become a Pinecone”, is a collection of memories, observations and self-reflections where she acknowledges that "Here I've Already Been Lost”, yet she emerges finally, fully at home, as a writer and poet.

What particularly interested me about this book was first, its bilingualality--it introduces me to a language with which I am totally unfamiliar; and second, it offers an intriguing glimpse of the emotional seesaw that results from leaving one's home in one country to spend the rest of your life in another; of the nostalgic reluctance in letting go, coupled with the magnetic pull toward the unknown--and of the need, above all, to be one's Self.

This is reflected quite clearly in the poem  “Sus-toss”, which in the Hopi culture is a word that describes the disease that people suffer when they move to live on new lands.  Here are some excerpts:

Sus-toss is a disease that makes you not want the things you want . . .

It is the disease of living in a walnut shell
and spending all your strength to keep it closed. . .

Sus-toss . . . causes different parts of you to live in different places. . .

It makes you eat cheesecake when all you want is bread. . .

When you have sus-toss you are afraid to be happy.

Sus-toss makes you feel as though you are living somebody else's life.
Somebody ordinary.
Somebody terrified by the thought of not being successful.
Somebody who does not want to care about anything
and is bothered by that.

Sus-toss makes you want proof that it was all worth it.
You can see the rest of your life and predict every day
until the very end.
You feel as though you are sleep-living.

When I first sounded out the word "sus-toss", I had a mental image of people being thrown into the air, landing all twisted and confused, scrambling to unwobble themselves.  "It's us, tossed" was the word equivalent that came to mind, which implies a kind of forced ejection, like mandatory exile.  But deliberately choosing to take oneself out of one land, self-launching permanently toward another also, apparently, subjects a person to "sus-toss."

Katerina Stoykova plunges into her new life in America, still  “Slow Dancing with My Demons", asking the mirror to forget everything it's seen so far and to wipe the slate clean, as she leaps ahead with manifest


The space in my heart
intentionally left blank

Some of the poems in the book are three pages long; others, but a single word:

Impatience Kills


The poems are a mixture of pathos and humor, expectation and disappointment, of having to eat “bitter cookies” and being lost, hanging on to  “The Rope to Nowhere”--yet finding a way to soar,  “still intact, flying elsewhere”.

This poet definitely has a sense of humor. The poem “Reluctance” is about a spare tire who “is constantly afraid/ that one day/ it will be his turn/ to start carrying the weight/ of the car/ in which/ he has been riding.”  He whispers his fears to the windshield wipers but "they just shake their heads."  He longs to be like the wheels, "so confident and groovy."   "Crossing" is a witty poem about an alphabet marching to the border, intent on taking over, to "help people".

In sum, this book is a delightful find. And I've learned a few Bulgarian words as well.

How To Write a Poem

Catch the air
 Around the butterfly

I admit I was a bit puzzled as to the meaning of the above poem, whose phrase "the air around the butterfly" was also chosen as the title for this book.  What does it mean to "catch the air" around a butterfly?  And assuming one can catch it, what then?  How does a poem arise from capturing butterfly air?

When a butterfly is at rest, the air around it is calm.  But when it flies and flaps its wings, it creates a small disturbance in the air. Miniscule, probably.  Chaos theory posits that even the smallest event can have large, widespread consequences, for example, meterologically.  Culturally speaking, its metaphorical equivalent, "the bufferfly effect,"  suggests that seemingly insignificant moments in our lives can alter our history and shape our destinies, depending, of course, on which path we ultimately choose to take (the operative words here being "can" (not "will"), and "choose".  Nothing is set in stone, or 100% predictable, when it comes to an individual life.   Possiblity, and creativity, I think, may trump "fate" in this regard.

An event happens, or a series of events occur, and we consider whether to go forward or to remain right where we are.  (Sometimes one doesn't have a choice.  One of Stoykova's poems describes a ladybug whose feet are stuck in tar:  "You will not come out whole," she warns, "even if you flap your wings/ very, very fast.") But wholeness, like happiness, is a matter of perception.  In immersing herself in "the air around the butterfly," Stoykova has let it gently lead her to the air beyond the air--enabling her to transform this experience into poetry.

This all seems to relate back to her poem "Sus-Toss", that existential malaise that manifests in a gnawing sense of the loss of connection--between what was left behind, and what has taken its place.  One attempts to live  both "here" and "there", simultaneously, so to speak.  Choosing not to go back doesn't mean  the longing for certain continuities will disappear.  Because this is an abiding interest--the pull between the there and the here, the then and the now--and its effect on those involved (as a phenomenon, rife with fascinating examples), it perhaps held special significance for me, and yet it bespeaks of a certain universality.  

Sometimes, in reading poetry, one hastens to be carried farther, beyond the words, and sometimes one simply prefers to remain still, content to rest with the words on the page and savor the moment.  Such was my reaction to Katerina Stoykova's collection of poems, on a twofold level: first, seeing the words themselves, as words; and second, following their collective story.  

Ms. Stoykova has, in effect, I think, caught the air around the butterfly, became a part of it, and these poems are the result.  In the final poem, an unnamed interviewer asks an apple why it wants to become a pinecone.  Well, for one, it's tired of being "sweet, and round, and rosy" and of having humans "look at it and salivate".  There is more to me than that, it seems to be hinting.  To become a pinecone, it plans to "elongate" and "develop scales," among other things, and finally, to "fall far, far, far from the tree."  Where this became a "story" for me, was in its unspoken echo back to a previous poem suggesting the same theme, i.e., breaking with the past (stretching out, unfolding, "elongating"), bracing oneself for the future, yet not wanting to lose the self in the process. But like the ladybug stuck in the tar, extracting oneself from a place of being stuck, or from one's roots, is never easy.  In the poem "Tree", Stoykova describes the stem of the tree as being the thickest around its hollow, that "if you lay it sideways/ it will look like/ a boa constrictor/ digesting an elephant."  The tree, anchored in the earth by its roots, its stem likened to a boa constrictor that can swallow one whole (i.e., suffocate, bring death)--one understandably would want to get "far, far, far away"  from such a stranglehold.

Perhaps the poet  intended no such correlation, between the desire of the apple to transform itself, break free, and fall "far, far, far away" from the tree to which it was attached, and the reference to the thickest part of the tree as resembling a boa constrictor, a possible harbinger of death. The idea of death of self, though, is also implied in the poem "Loss" where the poet describes, in so many words, what happens when you attempt to be who you are not:

if a butterfly tries to be an ant
if an ant tries to be a butterfly
the world loses an ant
the world loses a butterfly

The apple wanting to be a pinecone plans to "develop scales", while the speaker in the poem "A Dream", glues fish scales to his/her body. (The scales on a pinecone and the scales on a fish function as a  protection, the way a soldier's armor protects him from being killed.)  When asked by a passerby "Why in the world are you doing this?", the narrator in "A Dream" replies, "I open and close/ open and close/ open and close/ my mouth."  In the dream, he/she is without a voice, tries to speak but can only mimic the motion, like a fish out of water, gasping for life.  Likewise, the apple, if  it becomes a pinecone, would open and close its scales, but it, too, would have no real voice.  It would only "dry up and turn brown."  But then along came that butterfly, the one with the intoxicating air around it; the poet somehow "caught its air", and the rest is history.  The poet's voice comes out, loud and clear, in these poems, pairing words from the land from which she came to words in her new language, reconnecting, completing the circle, so to speak, reuniting the there and the here, the then and the now.

An interesting book of poems. I look forward to its sequel, to learn more about what happens when the journey has ended, or if already ended, what garlands of insights have been collected, what new worlds of words she has discovered.

About the poet:

Katerina Stoykova emigrated from Bulgaria to the United States at the age of 24 and worked as an engineer at IBM and Lexmark.  She holds an MFA in poetry from Spalding University in Louisville, Kentucky and serves as Deputy Editor in Chief of the English language edition of the online magazine Public Republic. She also hosts "Accents", a radio show for literature, art and culture, in Lexington, Kentucky.  Her website can be found here.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Letting Go

snow sailing
o'er sea of cedars
no compass needed


Sunday, January 17, 2010

Arty Foodies, Take a Bow

Pomegranate Yogourt

Add 2-3 tablespoons of freshly squeezed pomegranate juice
to about 5 whopping tablespoons of plain yogourt.
Swirl together and sprinkle fresh seeds on top.
It will turn pink and taste yummy.

*Optional:  Toss in a few walnuts and/or a bit of granola.

Red Cabbage Frog

Cabbage Smiley with
Carrot Vision

Heart of Cabbage
pulsing purple

Friday, January 15, 2010

Rumbles from the Earth

Rock crushes scissors
Scissors cut paper
Paper covers rock

a children's game
and then it came

Rock crushes bones
Bones break, here take
blanket covers dead
pulled from under rock

Nowhere to go
nothing to eat
night falls
they thirst.
Please ...

Quake crushes Haiti
Papers cover crisis
they amputated her leg
without anesthesia

rock in my stomach
cry in my throat
too little too late
for some

Three days now



Regarding the earthquake that hit Haiti on January 12, 2010:

Photos here and here.

How to Help:

Send donations to:
Doctors Without Borders
Medecins sans frontieres
International Committee of the Red Cross in Haiti
Stand with Haiti

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Writers Rally for Liu Xiaobo

Fifteen days ago, on December 23, 2009, Chinese writer Liu Xiaobo was sentenced to 11 years in prison and 2 years' deprivation of political rights for writing some sentences the Chinese authorities felt "incited subversion of state power."   This country seems particularly sensitive to criticism, however factually based.  Its response was to silence, and imprison, the writer.

A week ago, on New Year's Eve, while most of us were enjoying holiday festivities, preparing the family dinner or getting ready for a New Year's Eve party, a small group of writers came together and stood in the falling snow on the steps outside the New York City Public Library, to read the seven sentences for which the writer Liu Xiaobo was sent to prison, and to call for his release.    Some things haven't changed all that much going into the New Year, it seems.  Liu Xiaobo joins 45 other writers now imprisoned in China for, well .... writing.

My New Year's resolution for 2010--which I've already broken, by the way--concerned chocolate and ice cream, among other things.  As of today I am making a new one, one that I'm far more likely to keep, and that is to begin more frequently adding my small voice to the others speaking out for writers like Liu Xiaobo.

What's one more little squawk from an obscure Internet blog? Molly Ivins, may she rest in peace, said we need people "in the streets, banging pots and pans"--like they did in Argentina in 2001--to bring about change.)  At Christmas time people gather on the sidewalk or on neighbors' doorsteps to sing carols--why not writers assembling on non-holidays, in public places, to read out the words of other writers who are no longer able to write? Why not ordinary bloggers occasionally jumping in to voice their support from the sidelines?  You never know who might be listening.

Never underestimate the power of the spoken or written word on a casual reader or passerby--those few words can sometimes change a person's life.  Nearly two decades ago, a  woman doctor whose resume I typed, happened to mention, as she was leaving, that she had just recently adopted a "prisoner of conscience".  "What's that?" I asked.  Her random remark led me to seek out more information about these 'thought prisoners'--and I ended up working with Amnesty International for the next eleven years, where I was privileged to meet former men and women who'd survived years of unbelievably harsh and degrading, dehumanizing treatment--people who had been shackled in prisons, starved, force fed or physically broken in workcamps, put into asylums and drugged, or sent away into exile, merely for expressing their views.  That one little offhand remark by a stranger took me on a path of no return, so to speak.  It compelled me to become less complacent, to not just observe and note, then turn away, but to actually want to join in and try to do something. Life, though, as it always does, intervenes and sometimes I lapse, as my attention is drawn elsewhere--until I'm reminded again--as I was when I saw the above video.

On an official level, governments are still rounding up and punishing people for what they think, what they say, how they say it.  (This occurs on the more personal level, too, albeit less severely, but damaging all the same. People still continue to attack, marginalize, isolate and punish others because of differences in politics, religion or strongly held opinions. While a state can deprive someone of his liberty, one's own family, friends, peers, or even employer can retaliate by withholding support, terminating the friendship, chastising, or firing someone, all because one's beliefs or lifestyle or choices in life embarrass, annoy or clash with their own.  Small intolerances or state-sanctioned repression--some subtle, others blatant--still playing out on the world stage in the never-ending war between the "Usses" and the "Thems".  Evolution, it appears, has yet to occur on this front.

Liu Xiaobo was sentenced to 11 years' confinement for writing 224 Chinese characters--for basically saying, for example, that he believes in democracy, and advocating that China discontinue its one-party rule.  The Chinese constitution states that its citizens have freedom of speech and of the press. In practice, however, if you try exercising this freedom, you risk being surveilled, harrassed and searched, arrested and imprisoned. He was also a political activist. The powers that be would prefer that he had stayed silent.

They may have silenced Liu Xiaobo temporarily--but not his words.  Other writers are seeing to it that his situation is made known and that his words don't disappear.  (You can see one of his poems posted today over on Salamander Cove ("Daybreak" under entry #20100107), and a few more on the PEN American Center website, where you can hear them read aloud by writers Paul Auster, Edward Albee, Don DeLillo, and E. L. Doctorow.)

Liu Xiaobo, in his own words:

A little nudge, to remind myself to not slip into such complacency again, to notch my awareness level up a tad or two:

Speaking for the Silenced

Small squeak today by a few,
giant roar tomorrow by the many ...
a little group of writers, standing
in the cold
snow falling, wind blowing words drifting
unchaining chains
breaking the

erase one voice, another takes
its place
then another ...
and another

and another

*Update:  February 1, 2010:  Liu Xiaobo has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.[1]

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

2 Favorite People & My Wish for 2010

James Taylor and Yo-Yo Ma, with Edgar Meyer & Mark O'Connor, playing a classic Stephen Foster tune on their 2000 recording "Appalachian Journey", performed live.

Friday, January 1, 2010




's frozen memories,
fragmented and released,

breaking free
to drift
in unchartered waters.

In Spring, not a trace
of the
melting of years.

Only the river remembers,
its waters containing
the record of its own

the slow, steady hardening,
the separating of itself
from itself
flowing alongside itself
merging into



 *First poem of 2010 by Annie Wyndham.  Photo taken last year, with my older camera, during a walk along the St. Lawrence River at the foot of the Sanctuary in Cap-de-la-Madeleine, QC.