Saturday, October 29, 2011


This weekend certainly did not turn out as I had planned. Yesterday afternoon I crossed the Chesapeake Bay to Maryland’s Eastern Shore fully intending to get up early the following morning and set off from Tilghman Island for a day in search of some trophy rockfish. Unfortunately, the forecast was not in my favor with the prediction of a strong nor’easter arriving overnight and bringing an early winter storm extending from the Mid-Atlantic states through New England. Snow in October! Who’d a thunk it?

The earliest measurable snowfall in both Baltimore and Washington, DC was 0.3 inches on October 10, 1979, during the World Series between the Baltimore Orioles and the Pittsburg Pirates. Trace amounts also fell in Baltimore on October 9, 1895, and again in 1903. A trace was also noted in Washington on October 5, 1892. The earliest recorded major snowfall in our area of Maryland was almost 6 inches recorded in Baltimore on November 6-7, 1953. Snow before Halloween is a rare occurrence. If the forecasters were correct, the Washington-Baltimore metropolitan area could expect a modest accumulation from this storm. Another one for the record books perhaps?

By the time I arrived on Tilghman Island last night, the forecast had turned positively grim. A light rain had already begun to fall and the winds were picking up. A captain will normally wait until the morning of an outing before pulling the plug on a day on the Bay, but it was hard to ignore the fact that we were in for quite a blow and the good captain had to accept the fact it made no sense to challenge the stormy bay unnecessarily. The trip was cancelled. Yet all was not lost. I spent a wonderful evening with friends on the island - a great meal with some fine wines and an evening topped off with some exquisite bourbons as we watched the St. Louis Cardinals win what was probably the best World Series in recent history. And a good night’s sleep as the storm began to brew outside.

This morning we wandered down to the local island store to pick up the papers and to check out the waterfront. A cold, raw rainfall fell and bands of gusting winds raked across the island. All the boats were still at their moorings; none of the captains had chosen to wander out onto the Bay today. We also drove down to Black Walnut Point, at the southern end of Tilghman Island, and found the Bay to be remarkably calm despite the winds. Still, the heavy wind-blown rain virtually obscured Sharps Island Light three miles to our southwest at the mouth of the Choptank River. Clearly this was not a day to be fishing on Chesapeake Bay. We returned to the warmth of home and hearth for a nice breakfast and a relaxing morning reading the paper.

This afternoon I departed Tilghman Island for the drive back to Washington. The storm continued to lash the Eastern Shore where local communities were cancelling Halloween parades and other outdoor activities. Listening to the car radio, the reports kept coming in of significant snows accumulating most of the day north and west of Washington and Baltimore. To make matters worse, the snow was slowly moving into the two cities and their suburbs. Strong wind warnings were posted on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge as I crossed over and fallen power lines closed the main Eastern Shore highway not far behind me. Winter has come early to Maryland this year! As I crossed over the bridge I looked down at the Bay which was now churned to a froth . Blowing rain became blowing snow and it seemed I was driving into the worst of it.

Certainly the Chesapeake Bay has seen worse storms than this. One would expect hurricanes this time of year, not a winter nor’easter. Traveling across the Bay Bridge is always a challenge when the winds are gusting regardless of the season. As the first snow of the approaching winter ticks against my windshield, I am reminded of other memorable trips across this bridge. One of the first was during the so-called "Bicentennial Winter" of 1976-1977, my first in Maryland and the coldest on record on the East Coast since the winter of 1779-1780. Back then ice on the Bay was so thick that carriages could cross from Annapolis to Kent Island, the same spot where the Bay Bridge is now situated. It is rare indeed for ice to stretch from shore to shore, yet in 1976-1977 the tidal Potomac, from the Chesapeake Bay to Washington, froze solid as did much of the upper Bay, and strong pack ice was responsible for tilting the Sharps Island Light fifteen degrees off perpendicular. As we crossed the bridge in that late December the ice reached up and down the Bay as far as the eye could see. It has never done that since then, but those of us who remember that winter take nothing for granted when contemplating what that season might offer up. Today’s storm reminds us of that.

This morning, as I stood on Black Walnut Point, I could barely make out Sharps Island Light on the horizon, its now familiar cant peaking through the misty tempest. I wonder what this winter will bring us. It is getting off to a rather early start.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Man of the Hour - Reprise

My dad passed away two years ago today. Permit me to share with you once again the short tribute I wrote and posted then.

Father he enjoyed collisions; others walked away
A snowflake falls in May.
And the doors are open now as the bells are ringing out
Cause the man of the hour is taking his final bow
Goodbye for now.

This is not what I planned to write this week. I was not sure what I would write, but then I listened to Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam singing "Man of the Hour" and I knew what I had to say. There are times when life throws you a curve and this week was one of those times. My dad passed away in Florida after a lengthy illness. It was not entirely unexpected. He lived a long and interesting life spanning 85 years. Still, one is never really prepared for a life’s final chapter . . . especially when it’s your dad. So permit me this very brief reflection on a life now ended.

Ralph C. Rogers was born in Decatur, Michigan on June 24, 1924 and lived there for the first 18 years of his life. He played varsity basketball at Decatur High School and eventually attended the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. Drafted into military service during World War II, he served in the 104th Infantry Regiment, 26th Infantry Division in General George Patton’s Third Army during the northern European campaign in 1944-1945, including the Battle of the Bulge. His unit was awarded the Croix de Guerre by the French government for its participation in the liberation of that country. After the war, he returned home, married my mom, and attended the Georgia Institute of Technology where he earned Bachelor and Master degrees in Industrial Engineering. Then it was off to Chicago in 1950 to work in the engineering department at Montgomery Ward, the job he held when I was born the following year. He later worked for the Chicago-based consulting firm Stevenson, Jordan & Harrison for several years, a job which took him and his family around the country. In 1958 he took an engineering position with Champion Paper Company, in North Carolina, for almost six years. During that time he served in various professional organizations and taught at Western Carolina University. He ended his professional career with J.C. Penney where he moved in 1968 and where he was engineering manager for the catalog division until his retirement in 1984.

After retirement, Dad and Mom moved down to Florida’s Gulf Coast where they lived until 1994 when they moved to Ohio to be closer to family and friends. It was a family history that followed the trajectory of so many others of their generation. But it would not last. Things began to come apart and my parents divorced shortly before their 50th anniversary. Dad moved back to Florida where he eventually remarried. I did not see him much after that, certainly not as often as I had hoped. His life, for whatever reason, took a new direction. I was happy, that he was happy, or seemed to be, but I missed the time we should have spent together in these final years. We talked on the telephone occasionally; it just wasn’t enough. I never doubted his love for me, or mine for him. We just had a difficult time showing it.

I did spend more time with him during his final illness, but these were visits to the hospital and the nursing home where he lived the past couple of years. It was tough to watch him wither away. And now he is gone.

And the road
The old man paved
The broken seams along the way
The rusted signs, left just for me
He was guiding me, love, his own way
Now the man of the hour is taking his final bow
As the curtain comes down
I feel that this is just goodbye for now.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Monday, October 17, 2011

Thank You For Your Patience

Although my random thoughts from the edge of America have continued to bubble to the surface since we departed for Maine in mid-June, I have been slow in posting them here as we had very limited access to the Internet while we were away. We are home now, or at least some place where I can get online on a regular basis, so please check out the new postings dating back to mid-June. You will get a good idea how I spent my summer and what I am up to now. And stay tuned for new postings in the coming weeks. Nameste!

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Swinging Beef

Some say castrating a calf is a matter of taste.
Some do is slowly and others in haste.
Some gently saw, while others pull
While making a steer out of a bull.

The cowboy poet Lloyd Gerber, who recently died in Washington, DC at age 87, was once invited to read a poem on “The Tonight Show” when it was still hosted by Johnny Carson. He chose to read “It’s a Matter of Taste” - about cowboys castrating young lambs by biting off their testicles. Needless to say, Gerber got the attention of Johnny and his audience that evening. Although I have never personally bitten the testicles off a lamb or any other animal living or dead, I have seen it done. Furthermore, I must confess that I very much enjoy a properly prepared dish of ‘lamb fries” or “Rocky Mountain Oysters” a.k.a. bull calf testicles (frequently called “prairie oyster” up in Canada).

I am presently in Gainesville, Florida, in the heart of some of the best cattle country east of the Mississippi River. And although mountain or prairie oysters, as well as lamb fries, are not as popular as they are out west, seeing the beef cattle roaming the local ranches reminded me of Mr. Gerber’s poem and my own enjoyment of a well-prepared plate of assorted nuts.

Being from the Midwest, known more for its dairy herds than beef cattle, I never had an opportunity to savor these delicacies. This does not mean that farmers did not castrate their bulls and sheep. My grandfather did, but for some reason the thought of “peeling” the now detached testicles (removing the outer membrane), flattening them with a heavy spatula, and then dredging them in flour (why some call them “dusted nuts”) and deep frying them to a golden brown perfection, was not high on his list of priorities. Given me a good steak any day!

My father-in-law worked on Florida cattle ranches for years and was personally involved in the castrating of young bulls. The wife of one of his men would prepare a bucket of balls and he would eat and enjoy them, according to my mother-in-law who could never quite get her head around the idea of what they are and where they come from. My wife was young and does not recall ever trying them. But I know from personal experience that you will not find them on the menus of Florida restaurants, at least none that I have ever been to and I have been to a few. And what would you call them? Sewannee River Dumplings? Panhandle Pancakes? Florida is famous for its Apalachicola oysters, but these are real oysters. So you get the idea.

Attending graduate school at the University of Arizona, one of my colleagues lived on the large Robles Ranch, in the foothills of the Baboquivari Mountains southwest of the city. We enjoyed leaving our studies behind and heading into the desert to party and more than once I attended a large barbeque at the ranch featuring local beef. It was at once such party that I was introduced to, and consumed for the first time, a rather large plate of rocky mountain oysters served with homemade hot sauce. Funny what tequila will do to such a young and impressionable mind. All kidding aside, I actually liked them; I liked them very much. Now don’t turn your nose up until you have tried them. They taste a lot like chicken. No they don’t. They taste exactly like what they are. After we left Tucson for Maryland, my tastes turned toward Chesapeake oysters (again, real oysters) and crabs, and I had little opportunity to remain a gonad gourmand.

More recently my wife and I took an extensive road trip through the Great Plains from Nebraska to Montana and back. I was not surprised to frequently find RMOs on the menu. Finally, on a snowy afternoon in Deadwood, South Dakota, sitting in the same saloon where Wild Bill Hitchcock was shot in the back and killed, my wife and I sat at the bar and I order a large plate. Sally Ann had never tried them, had never even seen them cooked. When the bartender brought them out and placed them before me along with a mug of cold beer, Sally Ann commented that they looked a lot like popcorn shrimp (they do a little) and asked why they weren’t round. “So they won’t roll off the plate,” the bartender and I answered in unison. They were as good as I remembered while dipping them in a tasty ranch dressing. Lloyd Gerber was correct. “It is a matter of taste.” I think they taste just fine.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Better Late Than Never

On October 6th it was announced that Tomas Tranströmer is the 2011 recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature. What follows is an essay I wrote this time last year when it was expected that he would when the Nobel Prize. I am running it here . . . better late than never!

Earlier this month British bookmakers offered Tomas Tranströmer, perhaps Sweden’s most noted poet, as a 5/1 favorite to win this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature, placing him ahead of three other poets ranked at 8/1 - Adam Zagajewski of Poland, South Korea’s Ko Un and Syria’s Adonis - as well as the Paraguayan playwright Nestor Amarilla. Tranströmer, born in Stockholm in 1931 has, in addition to his career as a noted poet, critic and translator, worked as a psychologist providing vocational guidance to Sweden’s incarcerated juvenile offenders. This year is not the first time that he has been on the bookies’ shortlist for this prestigious honor. I welcomed this news but suspected that Tranströmer would not win since last year’s laureate was a European - the Romanian-born German novelist, poet and essayist, Herta Müller. One hopes that geopolitics would not influence the judges, but it does. A Hispanic writer had not won since 1998, when José Saramago, the Portuguese novelist and playwright who passed away in June, took home the Nobel laurels. But when you think about it, no Swede - no Scandinavian - has won the Nobel Prize in Literature since 1974 when Harry Martinson and Eyvind Johnson, both members of the Swedish Academy, shared the prize. So I was not surprised when the Academy anointed Peru’s Mario Vargas Llosa as this year’s winner. He was not the bookmakers choice - his chances were listed as 45/1 - but there can be little argument that Llosa is deserving of the honor.

I will admit that I was pulling for Tranströmer. I have been reading his poetry since I was first introduced to it in English translation almost 40 years ago. Robert Bly, his longtime friend and translator, writing in the introduction to his 1980 translation of Tranströmer’s Sanningsbarriären [Truth Barriers (1978)], has perhaps captured the essence of Tranströmer’s importance and appeal to readers. His “poems are a luminous example of the ability of poetry that inhabits one culture to travel to another culture and arrive.” I felt an immediate connection to his poems when I first heard him read in the spring of 1974 when I was attending graduate school at the University of Arizona, in Tucson.

I was working on a Master’s degree in German Literature at the time and had been involved with the University’s Ruth Stephan’s Poetry Center since my arrival in Tucson. I was especially drawn to its venerable reading series and the small poetry library located in a house donated by Ms. Stephan (a second donated residence, a small cottage, housed the noted poets visiting the Center). Tranströmer came to Tucson in late February 1974 to give a campus reading. He was also interviewed for the new student literary magazine, Window Rock, which also reprinted a couple of his more recent poems. I was there that evening sitting in the front row. Admittedly, I knew very little about the poet and his work when he took to the stage. He came before us as a relatively new presence and voice. Although he rose to prominence as a promising new voice in his native Sweden in 1954 with the publication of 17 dikter [17 Poems], at the age of 23, it was not until the early 1970s, with the publication of Robert Bly’s translation of 20 Poems (1970), and May Swenson’s translations in Windows and Stones: Selected Poems of Tomas Tranströmer (1972), that English-speaking readers were first introduced to the work of this fine Swedish poet. I read some of these translations prior to that evening, especially after hearing Swenson read in Tucson the previous month when she offered effusive praise for Tranströmer’s poetry. I cannot say that I fully understood them, but I was nevertheless intrigued as I felt he was a new and important poetic voice. There was an inborn authority underlying ever word, every phrase.

Now the evening star burns through cloud.
Trees, fences and houses grow, grow larger
with the dark’s soundless, steepening fall.
And under the star is outlined clear and clearer
the other, secret landscape that lives
the life of contour on night’s X-ray plate.
A shadow draws its sled between the houses,
They wait.

[“Epilogue,” from 17 dikter, translated by May Swenson]

What I recall from the poems read that evening, and what I have taken from all of his poetry I have read since, is Tranströmer’s very strong sense of place, even when it tends toward the surrealistic at times - Sweden, of course (he has continued to reside in Västerås near Stockholm), but more particularly the islands of Södermalm and Runmarö and the east-central coastal archipelago of his ancestors where Tranströmer spent the summers during his youth. The audience was enwrapped from start to finish and I left that evening a convert.

Tranströmer’s long poem Östersjöar was published in the autumn of 1974, and Samuel Charters acclaimed English translation Baltics was brought out by the Berkeley publisher Oyez in 1975. I read it as soon as I could lay my hands on a copy (which, I recall, was not very easy). It provided entree into an entirely new understanding of Tranströmer’s poetics and use of metaphor, and I agree with the poet Bill Coyle who later wrote that this collection “ is in some ways the best place for a new reader of Tranströmer to start; it develops more slowly than his shorter pieces, and his metaphors, though as striking here as elsewhere, reveal themselves more gradually.” Again, the strong sense of place - the Stockholm archipelago, and the Baltic Sea.

In the middle of the forest the Baltic also sighs, deep in the
forest you’re out on the open sea.
[Baltics, II]

“The Baltic is Tranströmer’s archetypal environment,” Coyle writes, “with its mixture of sea and islands, of sweet and salt water and, at least during the Cold War, of democracies and dictatorships.” The Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia had been under Soviet domination since the end of World War II, and this long poem reflects the geopolitical realities of the Baltic region and their impact on the poet and his work.

Now, a hundred years later. The waves come in from no man’s
and break against the stone.
[Baltics, III]

Transtömer returned to Tucson in November 1975 for a reading at which he presented Baltics in its entirety. I had an opportunity to speak with the poet at some length afterwards and he graciously inscribed my copy of the Charters translation of Baltics as well as my copy (one of 600) of the inaugural 1974 number of Window Rock with it’s interview of the poet and the reprints of two of his poems. I went home that evening with a deeper admiration for the poet and his work, but also a better understanding of the plight of these small nations so close to the poet’s native Baltic archipelago yet suffering under the oppressive Soviet thumb.

And now: the stretch of open water, without doors, the open
that grow broader and broader
the farther you stretch out.
[. . . ]
But it’s a long way to Liepaja.
[Baltics, IV]

Baltics came up a few years later, in the autumn of 1979, when I had an opportunity to discuss Tranströmer’s poetry and the plight of the Baltic states with the noted Estonian poet Ivar Ivask (1927-1992) and the Lithuanian historian Vitas S. Vardys (1924-1993) . We shared dinner at the faculty club at the University of Oklahoma, in Norman, Oklahoma, and my long conversation with Ivask, who was then the editor-in-chief of World Literature Today and the founder of the Neustadt International Prize for Literature which Tranströmer would win in 1990, opened my eyes to other approaches to the poem, including those by Baltic writers in exile.

Tranströmer’s English speaking audience has continued to grow as has his influence on other poets. His work in translation appeared in Robert Bly’s Friends, You Drank Some Darkness: Three Swedish Poets: - Harry Martinson, Gunnar Ekelöf, Tomas Tranströmer (1975). Bly’s translation of Sanningsbarriären [Truth Barriers, 1978] appeared in 1980, and an entire issue of Michael Cuddihy’s fine journal, Ironwood 13, was devoted to Tranströmer in 1979 (published in Tucson, by the way). Tranströmer’s Selected Poems, containing the work of several of his noted translators and edited by Robert Haas, was published in 1987, and New Collected Poems, translated by Robert Fulton, appeared in 1997. This volume was greatly expanded in 2006 under the title The Great Enigma: New Collected Poems which represents the first time all of Tranströmer’s poems to date have been available in one volume in English.

I have been lucky to hear Tranströmer read two other times. First, at an evening reading in Stockholm, in the spring of 1985. I had a free evening in the city and it was a treat to hear selections of Östersjöar and other poems read in the original Swedish. Tranströmer was treated like a rock star yet he remained the same humble man I first encountered a decade earlier in Tucson. The last time was here in Washington, DC, when Tranströmer read at the Folger Library, in April 1986. The poet and his poetry had reached a new and recognizable maturity, yet his inner voice, and the voice by which he shared his poems in Stockholm and Washington, were still recognizable from that first time I heard him read in Tucson in 1974. Both, etched by new experiences, remained, spare, clear, and quiet - the benchmarks of his poetry through the years.

Thankfully, Tranströmer at age 79 remains a major poetic voice in the world. Sadly, however, his own voice has been largely silenced by a stroke he suffered in 1990, an event foretold years earlier toward the end of Baltics.

Something wants to be said, but the words don’t agree.
Something that can’t be said,
there aren’t any words but maybe a style . . .
[. . .]
Then comes the stroke: right side paralysis and aphasia, can only
grasp short phrases, says wrong words
Can, as a result of this, not be touched by advancement or blame.
But the music’s still there, he still composes in his own style,
he becomes a medical sensation for the time he has left to live.
[Baltics, V]

Despite the cruel silence imposed upon him, Tomas Tranströmer continues to practice his craft and sharing it with the world. We are certainly thankful for his insights and his ability to help us recognize and transcend the boundaries that encompass us all.