Poetry

It’s been many years since I wrote poetry, but last night a couple presented themselves to me while I was watching, of all things, The Walking Dead–which probably accounts for their, shall we say, unsentimental nature.

VISIONS OF VALHALLA

If I had read the runes
I might have known the taste of blood like iron
when the longboats pierced the mist
and kissed the pebbled shore far from home;
and when I went to glory I’d have
filled my mouth with sweet, sweet ale
from the horn of plenty and feasted my fill
with all my kin beneath Odin’s laughing gaze.
But I drew letters on the page from pictures
that dreams gifted to my head, and
in the deep quiet I heard only
the voice of God calling my name.
Until the silence shattered.
His eyes, dragon blue, considered me from the
point of his sword, and when he smiled
he was like the skull he took home with him,
back to the mountains
which frowned upon his straw-haired children
and the woman who cradled him close
after the sun disappeared.


 MALHEUREUSE

You see me and I you
in a mirror that brings
miles within an inch
of our heartbeats.
I cannot bear it.
I raise the gun
and fire.

“The best lack all conviction…”

Some of our clearest-seeing visionaries have been poets.  I love Yeats for his mysticism and his lyric Irish soul.  I know of no one like him today.

Excerpt – V-SQUAD: A NOVEL by Pamela Marcantel

The vampires at the kitchen’s entrance glanced about uncertainly.  Now that they were here, they didn’t quite know what to do.  John opened his mouth to ask Henry what the next step should be when Eddie started and said, “Hey, did you hear that?”

The others listened intently. A soft whimper came from behind a hedge a few feet away.  Too loud to be any kind of noise a vampire might make, it came from a human, and one who unquestionably was frightened.

John crept warily to the hedge and pulled aside the branches, revealing a young kitchen maid cowering on her knees, her terrified face stained with tears.

She screamed at the sight of the vampires.

The sound shattered the otherwise silent evening, and the vampires flinched at its shrillness.  John knew instinctively that upon the roof George no doubt froze at the sound and listened, all his attention fixed on the source of the disturbance.  If he heard it, there was no telling who else did as well.

With a single swift movement, John pulled the girl from the hedge before she could call out again and covered her mouth with his hand.  She tried to scream once more, but with his hand clamped over half her face she could only whimper desperately.  John looked into her wide, panicked eyes, and with a vampire’s intensity spoke beguilingly, entrancing her with the power of his voice.

“Do not be afraid. I am not going to harm you.  Do you understand?”

Already falling under his influence, the girl gave him a barely detectable nod.

“Good.  Now, you will hear nothing but the sound of my voice. When I remove my hand, you will answer me calmly and without any fear whatever.  Is that clear to you?”

Her head bobbed up and down again, and now apprehension was gone from her eyes. John removed his hand from her mouth, and asked gently, “What is your name, child?”

“Jane, sir.  Jane Lowry.”

“Delighted to meet you, Jane.  My name is John.  I’m your friend.”

Jane smiled dreamily.

“I’m also Mr. Churchill’s friend.  Is he here?”

“Yes, he is, sir.”

“Can you tell me where he is?”

“I don’t know, sir.”  Her eyes suddenly darkened and she started to become agitated all over again.  “Bad men—they—horrible-–!”

“Shh! It’s all right, Jane.  They can’t harm you.  All is well.  Are the bad men inside the house?”

She gave him a zombie-like nod.  He paused for a moment to look at his watch and gather his thoughts.

4:17.

They had lost some time leaving Southampton and what with the disturbance on the road, the trip here to the North had taken longer than the five hours he had anticipated at the outset.  Now dawn was just a little more than two hours away.  God only knew what they would find inside the house.  If they intended to survive past sunrise, they’d have to find shelter from the sun, and soon.

“Is there any place in the house that is closed off,” he wondered aloud, “where the light of day cannot enter?”

“The pantry,” Jane murmured.

“Any other place?  Think carefully.”

“They say there’s a secret room behind the fireplace in the Great Hall.”

“Do you know how to enter it?”

“No, sir.”

“One more thing, Jane.  May my friends and I enter the house?”

She nodded again.

“Would you invite us to come inside?”

“Yes, sir.  Won’t you please come into the house?”

“And my friends as well?  All of us?”  He had no way of knowing where Phil and the others were but hopefully they would have the good sense to locate a resting place rather than forge on ahead to Aylsdon.  In the event that they did make it here before the lethal dawn, they’d also need entry into the house.

As he hoped she would, Jane answered, “Yes, all of you.”

“We shall, Jane, thank you. You’re a good girl, and you’ve been a great help to us.  Now you’re going to lie down behind the verge where you were earlier, and you’re going to sleep peacefully, straight through the night.  When you awaken in the morning, you’ll remember none of the night’s events.  Do you understand?”

Another nod.  Without hesitation she returned to the hedge and reclined behind it, falling asleep immediately. The night was chilly and perhaps by morning there would be frost everywhere.  John removed his coat and placed it over her, then arranged the foliage so that she was completely hidden.

He went to the kitchen door where Eddie and Henry waited for him.  “There’s no telling where Longchamps’ men are, so when we get in there, we must maintain silence.  If we need to communicate, let’s do it by hand.”

The others nodded in agreement.  “Right, John,” said Henry.

“Eddie, I want you to get on the ceiling and move along with us.  Keep an alert eye for anyone we might not be able to see.  Understood?”

“Yeah.”

“One more thing.  If Henry senses that humans are hiding anywhere, let’s leave them where they are.  We don’t want to help Longchamps find them if he hasn’t already.”

They were with him.  Commitment shone within the eyes that stared at him through the shadows.

“Let’s go.”

He grasped the door handle and turned it.  The vampires quickly slipped inside, swords at the ready.

There to greet them was the overpowering smell of blood.

My Book for a Desert Island

Success is as dangerous as failure.
Hope is as hollow as fear.

–Lao-Tzu

Way back in 1972 I found myself in a spiritual and psychological desert of sorts, at odds with everyone and everything around me and uncertain as to what direction, if any, I should take. It was at that precise moment that, like Howard Carter entering Tutankhamun’s tomb, I stumbled onto the wisdom of the East. For a young woman who had grown up in a south-Louisiana, French-Catholic family, the discovery of such arcane philosophies as Taoism and Zen marked a major shift in my life, expanding my worldview as nothing else before or since. For me, the planet and its far-ranging cultural history unexpectedly became larger than I ever had imagined. Central to this turning point was the Tao Te Ching, a little book of sparely-written, oftentimes cryptic Chinese mysticism that reads like poetry.

Over the years I have dipped into it when I’ve needed to be reminded of its lessons; ignored it when tempted to flatter myself that I’ve outgrown it; and returned to its allure when the realization has flashed into my mind, that it is much grander than my laughable inability to comprehend its challenging secrets. I have argued with it, been tempted to rip it to shreds, and literally thrown it across the room in frustration. And yet…and yet…

There are books that I enjoy, some that have taught me a lot and a few I treasure, but Lao-Tzu’s ancient, humble lessons lie within the pages of the last book I’ll ever really need.

Francois Marcantel Immigrates to America

Okay, so this isn’t strictly speaking a piece about writing and/or books, but I am a Southerner with a legacy of literary compatriots (Faulkner, Welty, O’Connor, Lee (a couple of those), Capote, etc.; and you all have read them–right?), so this puts the topic at hand in the ballpark, more or less.  You see, we folks from the steamy environs of Dixie are nothing if not obsessed with our roots and all the various branches on our family trees, probably because said origins tend to be “lost within the very bogs of time” (to quote Florence King, another Southerner).

At any rate, on the “I am a Marcantel” page on Facebook (trust me, it does exist, closed membership and all that), there’s a Marcantels-in-America/Louisiana discussion that’s been doing the back-and-forth thing for the past few days.  The current topic focuses on whither Marcantels, Italy (Marcontelli?) or France (Marcantel?).

Here’s the story I know about my family, and every word is true.  Honest.

The first Marcantel in the New World was one François Marcantel, a French soldier who in 1752 “volunteered” to relocate to the then-colony of Louisiana as a militiaman-settler.  He came from Chambery in the foothills of the French Alps, at the time the capital of the Duchy of Savoy and now a ski resort.  Clear, clean air.  Snow-topped mountains.  Lush summer meadows.  Four distinct seasons.

I suspect that his arrival in Louisiana went something like this:

Welcome to the subtropics, François.  Let me tell you about your new home.  It features alligator-infested swamps, mosquitoes the size of your thumb, 200% year-round humidity so thick that you can see the air move, abundant wildlife, much of it carnivorous, and two lovely seasons: hot-and-wet and cold-and-wet.  And the good news is that hot-and-wet lasts twice as long as cold-and-wet.

Any questions?

At this point something along the lines of “Oh, merde!” must have belched into François’ head like one of those heavy Louisiana bullfrogs. (And if you don’t know what that word means, you need to Netflix a couple of French movies.  Or just one.)

UPDATED: I’m an inveterate editor and can’t leave anything alone.  Perfectionism is my cross to bear.

Francois Immigrates to America Part Deux, or Frankie, Jr.

Continuing the family saga from a couple of days ago:

François Marcantel stayed in Louisiana (he didn’t have much choice; see here) and married and, as usually happens, in the fullness of time had children.  The oldest son also was named François.  We in the family know him as Frankie, Jr.

Along about 1788, Frankie, Jr. became involved with his wife’s sister, and not in a brotherly-in-law kind of way either.  She was married, too, to the Worst Man in Town™, a wife-beating lush who loved to pick fights at the local tavern and owed  money far and wide, which meant of course that everybody quite naturally hated him.  Frankie, Jr., on the other hand, possessed all of the charm and bonhomie common to the Marcantels <ahem>, and so was generally well-regarded.  (I’m kind of making this up as I go along, but then, I’m a writer and all writers are fundamentally liars.  So sue me.)

Anyway, the Worst Man in Town somehow contrived to get himself murdered shortly after he forbade his wife from “walking” with Frankie, Jr., and to emphasize the seriousness of his request, beat pummeled slapped … lovingly caressed her and spoke to her with soft, reasonable words.  Although almost everyone in the surrounding area had a reason to despise him, thereby ensuring their membership on the roster of potential suspects, only one person was seriously considered for arrest in connection with his slaying.

Now, at this point I get a clear metaphorical image of the situation in my head.  Imagine that a pie goes missing, and the nearest authority figure confronts a group of angelic-looking-but-perhaps-guilty kids, one of whom has a circle of whipped cream and chocolate ringing his mouth.

“Frankie, Jr., did you take that pie?”

“Pie?  What pie?” he asks, carefully sweeping his tongue across his upper lip in a transparent attempt to hide evidence of the pie’s fate.

No doubt because they considered the community well-rid of a wife-beating, drunken, deadbeat bully, the authorities clearly didn’t much care whether the killer was Frankie, Jr., little green men from Mars, or the Easter Rabbit.   So, despite his almost certain … involvement in TWMIT’s murder, Frankie, Jr. was never charged with anything, much less hanged.   If he had been, I wouldn’t be here and you wouldn’t be reading this 100% accurate account of what happened.

On the other side of my family was a guy who certainly was a lothario and may or may not have been a pirate with Jean Lafitte.  But that’s another story.

P.S.  Details of l’affaire Frankie, Jr. can be found in this legal document, starting on p. 8.  I might have embellished the story just a tad.  (Did I mention that all writers are liars?)

Joan of Arc at 600

Joan of Arc, Philadelphia, PA – after the original at the Place des Pyramides, Paris

Today, January 6, is the officially recognized birthday of Jehanne Darc (more commonly known as Joan of Arc), the 15th century peasant girl who led the armies of Charles VII of France to a string of victories against the English and subsequently was burned at the stake after being convicted of heresy.

Born on this date in 1412 (or thereabouts), she came out of nowhere to rouse a listless Dauphin and his dejected knights to a renewed confidence in France’s national destiny, a faith that they had relinquished many years earlier after a series of defeats at the hands of the English.  Martyrdom at the age of nineteen guaranteed her an historical immortality. 

Over the past six centuries countless books, poems, operas and movies have been dedicated to telling Joan of Arc’s story, including my own An Army of Angels in 1997.  Artists, it seems, cannot get enough of her.  No doubt she would have found that unbelievable.  Even more astonishing, the notion that people in 2012, living in countries that didn’t exist when she was alive, would still remember her.  But we do.

Happy Birthday, Jehanne La Pucelle.

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