The Year Of Blue Water

Young writer and critic Yani debuts with a prose compendium reminiscent of the old adage “poetry is a reflection of our times” or something along those lines. 

When I think of American Poetry, I think of Walt Whitman. His work is characterized by its celebration of the human spirit, optimism, and sense of wonder about the world. I think of Frank O’Hara whose work centers around taking delight in the ordinary moments of existence. And, of course, I think of Ralph Waldo Emerson whose work emphasizes the inherent goodness of people and nature, as well as the importance of self-reliance, individualism, and the celebration of the individual spirit. 

Yani’s The Year of Blue Water resembles a different kind of American Poetry. At times, its prose seems to explore writing elements that are as raw as Charles Bukowski’s. While it is unfiltered it feels rather fragile instead. In other areas, its ideas seem to venture into the style of T.S. Eliot – equally torn between spiritual and moral questions, time and memory. For example: 

My mother tells me something. Has she been lonely? There was so much I couldn’t see as a child. And then it was too much to try and save her, to help her feel better and feel a little less lonely. I felt like I failed at loving her.[…]

Much of the reflections in this collection are about race, identity, gender, and mental well-being. Unlike poetry from long bygone days, this work demonstrates the seismic shift that we as a people experience in America because of the conveniences modern technology has afforded us. It reminded me of another adage “Hard times create strong men, strong men create good times, good times create weak men, and weak men create hard times” that originated from “Those Who Remain.” So, if poetry is a reflection of our times then we might have become a little weaker, but I also like to believe that strength comes from taking ownership of our weaknesses, and, by all accounts “The Year of Blue Water” does exactly that. 

The Death of the American Dream

Thoughts on Arthur Miller’s classic Americana drama “Death of a Salesman.”

I keep a stack of classic American literature near my desk. It’s my way to pay tribute to those who walked these United States before me. It’s also a means to expose myself to different genres and writing styles.

Death of a Salesman” is written as a script for a theater play by infamous playwright Arthur Asher Miller. It centers around a middle-aged traveling salesman, Willy Loman, who is mentally disintegrating over his failed attempts to achieve the American Dream. The play’s structure is fluid and shifts abruptly between past, present, and ongoing or concluded stages of his life. I understand this to be used as a stylistic technique to demonstrate the mental breakdown of the main protagonist, Willy Loman, as the play unfolds. While this style is potent to make a point, it struck me as disruptive to my reading flow. Scripts require the reader to factor in the playwright’s scene interpretations, which adds a layer of complexity that I didn’t particularly enjoy.

The play is divided into two acts. Neither act has a headline, so bear with me as I label them:

Act 1: Willy’s Dreams Fade Away
Act 2: Willy’s Descent Into Delusion

Willy appears to suffer from burnout after a failed business trip. When he seeks to alleviate his pain by scaling back on work-related travel, he fails to convince his boss and gets himself laid off. This fuels his deteriorating mental state, which clings to the illusions of material success and his lack thereof. His overwhelming nostalgia makes him compare his children’s failures with his own, creating a deeply strained relationship with his sons that eventually culminates in confrontation and disappointment. It ends, of course, in tragedy.

This was a challenging read. Piecing together the puzzle that is Willy Loman’s mind is no easy feat, but, I think, it’s an analogy of the challenges we face in our own lives. The play reminded me of the actor Jim Carry’s father, who took a job he didn’t like to support a life he didn’t enjoy only to be let go at the age of 51. Arthur Miller described, in quite a similar fashion, this tragedy of our society that most of us live sad lives of quiet desperation to emulate, integrate, and do as we are told. It’s a cautionary tale and a bleak reminder of the stoic truth that death isn’t in the future but we die a little bit every day. Is it really worthwhile to spend your life living other people’s dreams? Death of a Salesman, like it or not, is an impetus to shift your thinking towards finding and pursuing your values and prioritize meaning over comfort.

The Golden Gate

Vikram Seth’s novel in verse will make you remember that your worries are all about things that merely sustain life, but love, passion, and the beauty of nature are what we live for.  

The Golden Gate found me as I was browsing boxes filled with old books on a flea market somewhere in the Inner Sunset. I picked it up out of curiosity. I bought it because I wanted to read more poetry. I found it refreshing to read poetry that is something different yet familiar. Familiar in the sense that it speaks about my city – the place where I live, love, and linger (sometimes at the expense of my plentiful responsibilities). Here are some notable verses that let my mind wander:

“Subdued and silent, he surveys it–
The loveliest city in the world.
No veiling words suffice to praise it,
But if you saw it as, light-pearled,
Fog-fingered, pinnacled, I see it
Across the black tide, you’d agree it
Outvied the magic of our own.
Even tonight, as Ed, alone,
Makes out Marina, plaza, tower,
Fort Point, Presidio–he feels
A benediction as it steals
Over his heart with its still power.
He thinks, “I’ll phone Phil. No, instead,
Better to write him, as he said” ”

“From the tall overlook, the indented
Shoreline extends in cliffs and bays
And promontories through the scented
Wind-sheared sage northwest to Point Reyes.
Northward, Mount Tamalpais lowers;
Southward, through leather fearns, wildflowers
–Tangling and twining through the lush
Confusion of coyote brush
And winter weeds–the blue Pacific,
Unwrinkled as a pond, defines
With wharves and cypresses and pines
Three edges of the hieroglyphic
Of San Francisco, still and square
And sun-bleached in the ocean air.”

“Some claim the coast of California
Is seasonless, that there’s no snow
To flavor winter. Others, born here
Or fleeing here–glad to forgo
The option of frostbitten fingers
And housebound months as hoarfrost lingers
Upon the firs, less picturesque
Than deadening, while from their desk
They’d stare past dark eaves fringed with icicles
Well into March, and scarcely dare
To breathe the east or midwest air–
Now yield, with tank tops, frisbees, bicycles,
Dogs, cats, and kids and tans and smiles
To spring’s precocious warmth and wiles.”

Reading The Golden Gate was a struggle, but after a few pages, the eloquent rhymes create a harmony with the storyline that is indescribable but captivating. Read it cover to cover or take a slow and deliberate approach to each verse. The Golden Gate will deliver. Eureka!

The Classic That Should Not Be? 

Maybe it is time to dial back our enthusiasm for classic novels with a checkered past and banal storylines.

Sometimes all it takes is a little controversy. J.D. Salinger inadvertently created controversy around his first published novel “The Catcher In The Rye” by crafting a contrast between individual experience and societal change. His main character’s use of inappropriate and foul language led to several removals from school curriculums while, at the same time, being subscribed to the school curriculums of many others for its brilliant depiction of childhood emotions and the struggle of adolescents. In essence, the Catcher in the Rye is about protecting the innocence of young life. It can be seen as a critique of society or merely as an autobiographical account (Salinger recanted his early statements that his main character Holden Caulfield was tailored after his own childhood). Frankly, I wasn’t moved when I was forced to read this book as a teenager and I’m not moved by it twenty years later. Maybe another few decades will make me view it differently, but for now, I question the Catcher in the Rye’s status as a classic. It is incoherent writing. It fails to establish gravitas or emotional trust in the main character’s thoughts and actions. It seems to me to be a book that was published a lifetime ago when the baby boomers were changing social structure forever, and not for the better. Salinger is a product of this generation. Some of his experience translates into younger generations, but I couldn’t relate. I really wanted to find myself in this book, however, I am glad that I didn’t.

Tales Of Invincible Frogmen

Men In Green Faces is a gripping fictional combat novel. It shows the cruelty, intensity, but also the strategic intelligence and psychological resilience needed to prevail in war.

The story follows Gene Michaels and his team of highly-trained, elite commandos on their tour of duty during the Vietnam War. They are stationed on Seafloat, a floating Mobile Advanced Tactical Support Base (MATSB), somewhere in the Mekong Delta at the southern tip of Vietnam. Throughout their deployment, the team goes on different missions roaming the thick tropical jungle in search for specific targets and evading enemy positions. With each mission, the reader learns a little more about the complex, individual characters. They’re not just warriors devoid of emotions, but live and struggle through the atrocities of war – far away from home and their families.

Men in Green Faces is a dialogue-heavy fictional combat novel. It’s the kind of book that poses a situation and you’d want to discuss it with someone else or, if you’re so adventurous, enlist in the Navy right away. I learned about this book when Jonny Kim shared that his motivation to become a U.S. Navy SEAL was partly inspired by this book. To illustrate why this book is in part so powerful, I’ll leave you with the below excerpt of one of the teams early missions to extract a potential target for interrogation:

“Almost without a sound, the squad, already in file formation, came on line and dropped down to conceal themselves within the foliage. The last thing they wanted was contact. Through the bushes and trees Gene caught movement. It was one lone VC (Viet Cong) in black pajamas, talking to himself even as he strolled closer to their location. Not another person in sight. Just ten feet farther to the left, and the VC would have seen their tracks in the mud. The squad was dead quiet. Their personal discipline never faltered in combat. Almost mesmerized, Gene watched the VC strolling closer. The man passed Doc without detection, then Cruz and Alex. He came within eighteen inches of Brian, who was still in Gene’s position. The VC, carrying an AK-47 over his shoulder, holding it by its barrel, continued to talk to himself, just walking along within inches now of Jim. Jim grabbed the VC, slapped a hand over his mouth, and took him down. There was virtually no sound. Before Gene realized he’d moved, he had the VC’s AK-47 in his hand and the rest of the squad had backed in around the three of them, ensuring 360-degree security. Gene positioned his 60 inches from the VC’s head. The man’s eyes were stretched wide, almost popping from their sockets. He knew about the men in green faces, and it showed.”

Understanding America

When I first arrived in New York City, this most portrayed American city appeared intimidating with its never-ending concrete jungles, incessant traffic and an overwhelmingly fast-paced populace. It made me wonder, is this the land of the free? Is this what America is like? Fast-forward a couple decades when the United States finds itself polarized, divided and void of compassion, insecure about its future. In times like these, I was looking for its identity. An identity forged by openness not oppression. A dear family member recommended reading Travels with Charley in search of America by John Steinbeck. It would become a starting point of how we got here.    

Steinbeck’s travelogue is comprised of simple ingredients: a man and his best friend, a three-quarter-ton pick up truck, and the wide and open roads of America. His best friend, a poodle named Charley is a main character in this non-fiction novel. His pick up truck Rocinante loads a little camper designed for housing. The duo is road tripping across rural America, sleeping wherever Rocinante finds a parking spot and a theme of this philosophical journey is to engage strangers in conversation over a cup of coffee. While this adventure takes place  in the America of the 1960s, it is somehow a timeless reflection of America’s soul. In somber passages, Steinbeck describes the struggle of Black Americans for equality. In more uplifting parts, he paints an American identity imbued in the spirit of tall, green Sequoias, who have seen all of history’s main events – free of discrimination. It’s a book about America, the beautiful, the ugly and the never-finished. Much as Steinbeck didn’t know his country in the 1960s, I don’t know my country in the 2020s: 

“I did not know my own country. I, an American writer, writing about America, was working from memory, and the memory is at best a faulty, warpy reservoir. I had not heard the speech of America, smelled the grass and trees and sewage, seen its hills and water, its color and quality of light. I knew the changes only from books and newspapers. But more than this, I had not felt the country for twenty-five years. In short, I was writing of something I did not know about”

Nevertheless, acknowledging a lack of knowledge is the first step in learning. “Travels with Charley in search of America” is an important piece of American literature. Its authentic historical account, its poetic beauty and the felt tragedy that is this great American democracy live on in our generation. What will we learn from it?