Monday, March 9, 2020

Not a Jot More

Dystopia with a grin?  Listen at The Strange Recital fiction podcast produced by Tom Newton and Brent Robison.

Saturday, May 4, 2019


Yours was a closed adoption. We thought it better
to start everything fresh and new.
Birthright memories of Simón Bolívar 
meant not being a bastard child but hewed too closely
to our own pretense.
Better to follow the decorum of a broken family
at dinner time. Especially when the neighbors are invited.
Protocol is the thing. Rules of order to keep us
from divulging something that might betray
our crooked solidarity.

A verboten past & the words to sustain it, writhe like
flexing ankles—nervous and metered—until they rattle the silverware
& then must be stopped lest they make their way
into the minds of our young.

You’re an unwitting gang member, admired for your natural beauty,
envied for your favored jewels
& you’ve had to toughen yourself.

But wearing the right colors was not enough.
We’re not the Crips or Bloods here, or even the Latin Kings.
No initiation. Here, you must be baptized, each and every time—
reliving a mythic founding, smiling upon red, white and blue.

Relearn your place and understand the rules
in the street or in prison. Our Faces and Olders will be there.
But the bandolas will be silent. No dancing to Joropo.

When you are hungry enough, you’ll come home.
Until then, we’ll stay in the streets disguised, in the shadows.
We’ll even live in prison with you to eavesdrop &
ensure that the code is kept & our colors are worn.
If you’ve forgotten, we will tell you again: do not break the code.
Your benefactor’s name is Monroe. No new gangs allowed.

While we fence the goods,TV faces, attractive in their discipleship,
will keep us together.
The stenographers, orderly & steady, will make our graffiti
& safekeep our story.

And no one will remember.

Saturday, May 26, 2018


My recent poem, Goshen, is featured in the May issue of the Ithaca-based Onager Editions fiction and poetry journal. 
"The poem Goshen arises from the firsthand experience of a 12-year old horse groom’s assistant at the Historic Track of harness racing in Goshen, NY and the interpretive memory of a middle-aged man. Their reunions occur in poetry." Read the poem online, here: Goshen, by Kevin Swanwick

Sunday, November 26, 2017

The Equalizer

"Following a Newtonian law of incarceration, the court officer clamped the cuffs on him with a force equal to his show of resistance...."

Two men meet in a jail cell... circumstance juxtaposed. What exactly is this thing called "chance" that separates one person's fate from another? - Brent Robison.

Hear this story at the fiction podcast, The Strange Recital, Episode 17111.

Friday, December 23, 2016

The Green Man......coming soon...

I am grateful to be acknowledged by the literary journal, The Glimmer Train, and receive Honorable Mention in their Fall 2016 writer's competition for my short story, The Green Man. I hope to have the story published soon, but this acknowledgement does put wind in my sails!

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Inertia and Voodoo Featured on The Strange Recital

For better or worse, this is recorded in my own  voice.  I really enjoyed working in this format.
Listen to my short story Inertia and Voodoo at The Strange Recital web site.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

An Odyssey for Truth: Reading Djelloul Marbrook’s Brash Ice

Part of Homer’s cleverness may have been an ability to imbue his characters with key aspects of their adult personalities while retaining their childhood through time and travel in the form of stark memories. This allows us to see certain heroic figures from different perspectives. These can range from innocence to treachery. Was Odysseus’s return to Ithaca the reunion of a self-same man and boy; a boy who knew the simple virtues and innocence of pastoral life, and a man who remembered it, while carrying the graphic memory of horrific experiences?

In his latest poetry collection, Brash Ice, Djelloul Marbrook takes us on a modern Homeric journey through boreal climes as the weathered and wise protagonist carries the weight of sorrows and silence of a young boy, aboard his ship. This is a long and forthright conversation which finds a way for the young boy to confront his rapist while the wise old man navigates perilous and icy waters, struggling to bring them home together, at peace.  At times, it is not clear whether they will make it or not. In the opening chapter titled Proem, the poet is frank about the dire responsibility carried by persons of conscience and the risks we all face when being direct and honest with ourselves and others.

With startling clarity a herald starts us on our journey with a stark warning about the seriousness of the matter at hand. From handling plutonium:

so this business of being you
is about handling plutonium
and is much more dangerous
than your parents said….

The poet has inverted the struggle of the dispossessed boy and the heroically surviving man. The elder is coming back to rescue the boy, before the world, in the hope that together they can navigate their arctic ship to its final destination. It is as if the boy has been hidden away in the cargo hold and the elder must tell their story because he has the voice, while the imprisoned boy retains the unspeakable memory. The journey is approaching its end and the protagonist informs us that this is not his first attempt at deliverance. Telling the story honestly and plainly has proven to be a great burden. Perhaps artistic devices had been used to divert our eyes while telling only half of a story? Now the artist, finding himself in a frozen landscape, means to get down to business. We are given a clear statement of intention and a foreshadowing of the storytelling devices, which have been sharpened by years of practice in both artistic creation and evasion: a confessional in stunning imagery.

if i had a painterly eye

here’s what i would do to celebrate,
i’d show me atoms of something else
in the manner of seurat or tanguy,
a congress of memories,
a sufferance like frankenstein’s beast
becoming more than its parts
hankering to fulfill their longings,
i’d witness the sidelong world,
i’d lay my own ashes,
i’d make athena blink.
i’d study brash ice.
failing that i’d call failure life
& unmask myself as a firefly
nobody caught in a jar.

Each of these assertions is really conditional and dependent on the “if” and each is explored, in turn, in later chapters.  At the end of this preface we have the poem escapade where the poet reminds the reader that we can easily fool ourselves but that our self-correction is both possible and self-evident if we are honest.  But our corrections will not bury our errors, no matter what we do.

i take the task seriously,
i’m able to correct my work
and i know its pentimento
will be explored. snapshots
never interested me, nor beauty
agreed upon by voyeurs…

And attempts at beating around the bush, to circle the problem, to avoid facing an horrific truth, are all too human and seen in the light of pathology and error.

…a peripheral glance that jars
our nerve ends loose,
diseases that best define
our escapades at being well.

There is a startling freshness here as our hero’s voice is heard wrestling with the demon who might have killed the boy, but instead wounded him in the most intimate and harmful way and left him for spiritual dead. There are the bystanders too, those who could not or would not reach the stranded boy on his unwanted, forbidden ground. There is something awful afoot. When the boy faces manhood, the only choice is for the man to come into being and leave the boy, locking him away in the hold, while trying to navigate the world with whatever skills he has kept.

Sexual abuse of children is now spoken about in the open. Its uncovering has been scandalous as the indescribable pain of victims and the sociopathic indifference and survival instincts of predators are suddenly uncovered like sheets ripped from one in repose on a cold night. Few have been able to describe the journey of the victim. In Brash Ice we find the protagonist in possession of long life experience, wisdom and the unique perspective of an abused child presented through the lens of an adult master’s “painterly eye.”  But that eye is now directed with more than a glance, as if to say “no more bullshit.”  Our pathologies can be foist upon us and somehow we must carry on.

These poems identify the universal in our human struggle while staying remarkably personal, intensely tragic but also triumphant.

The author seems to carry on a subtle conversation with the protagonist, making himself known in this long and beautiful confessional as the artist who has come to terms with his past and wishes to be done with falsity so that he can get on with life on life’s terms. We are taken beyond the local story of a boyhood trauma and into nature and the heart of things as we might see them if we are present and in full possession of our attentive senses. In the later chapters there are also strong impressions of nature and our connection to it through sensation and esthetics.
Throughout this collection, the poet eschews the limits of punctuation, embracing minimalism and relying utterly on superb prosody and meter to keep the reader in the wake of his vessel. The first-person subject pronoun is cast into the picture frame in lower case with all of the related parts of the poem so that the artist can honestly assess the complete landscape. In the chapter i’d witness the sidelong world, we encounter the poem frisking the periphery, where the artist sets down his paint brush and picks up his camera, reflecting on how we can see everything around a thing before we see the thing itself. A useful talent and perhaps a form of unconscious evasion. Marbrook’s years of photography experience are evident.

being a ninety-degree camera,
all i miss is straight ahead.
i adjust for light and flash,
i zoom to sync my paranoia.
you look as if you’re being shot,
but i’m frisking the periphery.
everything behind my subject
is in focus, but the foreground
breeds misunderstanding…

…i am the green wink of chagrin
simply because i have no trash bin.

Later musings include lamentations of the artist condemned to create, unable to simply observe. But as Wallace Stevens seemed to wonder about the survival of his poems in the Planet on the Table, our author wonders how his words can both represent and be a part of his final spiritual journey if the whole truth is not there.

i don’t want to become like this again
after so much heartfelt unbecoming,
all this tedium and plot. i haven’t even got
a scent to contribute to the flowering
whose warmth i feel through the tunnel ahead.
i should have lost my soul in books.

i tried but it proved a handy figment:
what’s death but what i have to work with now?

We see that this imperative defines the journey.

The early reference to the title poem, which we don’t encounter until near the end of the journey, foreshadows much of the winter and arctic imagery ahead. Both Frankenstein and brash ice share the outward feature of fragmentation, parts formed together; one in an unnatural way and the other the result of natural thermal activity. The scars remain and it is the truth of their formation that this journey seeks to reveal so that a complete story may be told. In its frankness, this collection offers the reader the kinds of startling moments found in Homer or Beowulf. It also opens us to the beating heart of its creator, who from experience eerily places us in the arctic seas of the Cold War, the natural landscape of the Hudson Valley and the quirkiness of places like Woodstock, NY.

Brash Ice reckons with the past and leaves us with ample evidence that this poet is as fresh and vital as ever, having sought reunion with an injured but aspiring youth while offering the wisdom that only a long and examined life can bring.

i’ve said too much and said it flatly
because i thought the song pretentious
that splinters the wardrobe of the years
and shovels me out the door a naked stranger.

Surely, there will be more to come.

Brash Ice, New Poems.
Djelloul Marbrook
Leaky Boot Press

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Pope Francis, Politics and the Blessed Peacemakers

While a number of strident public critics in corporate media and Washington politics have suggested that Pope Francis should stay out of politics and stop criticizing various US policies, it is rather impossible to separate the moral admonitions of the Pope from politics.  Politics determines policy and policy reflects the morality of societies.  The pontiff's harshest criticism seems reserved for capitalism, as it actually exists.  He does not favor a political party.  We often speak of capitalism as if it exists according to the romanticized and now distorted images co opted from the writings of Adam Smith and David Ricardo, men who wrote centuries ago and at a time when corporations as we know them did not exist and when British and European “trade” activity was based on mercantilism, artisanal entrepreneurs and tradesmen. When Smith referred to the coincidentally benevolent “silent hand” affecting mutual benefit amongst citizens, he was referring to these kinds of individuals and not large mega corporations, which did not exist in his time. For the one exception, the East India Company, Smith was harshly critical of its monopolistic power and brutal tactics in foreign lands.  Many “conservatives” like to quote Adam Smith but in a way that makes it apparent that they haven’t actually read his work, or have done so selectively.

What the Pope seems to understand at a fundamental level is that the thing we call capitalism today is anything but the world envisioned by Smith, or that the “market” is in any way free and therefore benevolent or benign, by intent or otherwise.  When trade agreements are negotiated in secret, out of public and even congressional view, how can we justly call this free trade?  Free for whom?  When the three largest arms producers in the world are US companies and virtually all of their profits are attributable to US taxpayers, how is this free market capitalism?  When these arms are sold to brutal regimes, like the one in Egypt, in power by virtue of coup d’états, or Saudi Arabia, an extremist fiefdom that promotes Wahhabism and genocide against Shia’s, how can this be seen by the Pope as anything other than government sponsored brutality? 

The Catholic Church, despite the story of Galileo, has a rather decent record on the embrace of science in the modern era. This Pope recognizes the urgency that overwhelming scientific evidence has brought to bear with regard to global warming and climate change. When fossil fuel companies dominate energy markets, are given massive taxpayer subsidies and licenses to drill on public lands, driving ever more CO2 into our only atmosphere, how is this rational public policy? How does this serve the public trust and how is it remotely based on free market economics?  

When the US surrounds Iran with 14 military bases and supplies massive arms to its most bitter enemies, the Saudis (and Egypt, Oman, Qatar and Bahrain), who have promoted Wahhabi and Salafist extremism intent on wiping out Shia Islam, how is this furthering democracy, peace and brotherhood? How is it rational and peace-seeking on the part of the US when all of the non-aligned nations of the world and the P5+1 countries support the Iranian Multilateral Nuclear agreement and accept the IAEA’s assessments (and the US Intelligence Estimate) and findings, but the US Congress and influential “hawks” attempt to scuttle it, raising the specter of war?

The Pope is from Latin America and knows its history well.  A question he might ask: why is it that the US Congress and leading presidential candidates propose building gargantuan border walls and the undertaking of massive deportations of illegal immigrants, many of whom were refugees fleeing from Honduras where a democratically elected government was overthrown by military coup in 2009?  How is it that the Latin American countries, the European Union and the UN condemned the coup, but the US didn’t? That the US went even further and embraced the new military dictatorship, which then undertook a violent campaign of oppression, driving farmers off of working land and creating a massive refugee crisis, landing thousands at our southern border? 

The Pope will know well the effects of the US War on Drugs in Latin American countries.  He sees our massive demand for narcotics and our poverty-generated markets for them and the criminalization of non-violent, drug-related activities in the poorest neighborhoods of the US. He sees our  prisons swelling, creating a new government-driven private, (but not free) market for prison management, with taxpayers bearing the cost of building the prisons and paying the tab for private contractors.  We now jail 2.5 million people, the largest number, in absolute value, in the world.  The Pope may also question why the US has, unilaterally and brutally, imposed an embargo on Cuba for over 50 years, while the rest of the world and all of Latin America has condemned it.  On this front, even large capitalist enterprises in the US have, for years, called for the lifting of the embargo.

For those who wish to blame the GOP for all of these tragedies – and they deserve plenty of blame – please do not allow the plank to rest in your eye and ignore the complicity of the Democrats in all of this. These are not new problems.  They have developed over decades and across presidential administrations and congresses and the unraveling of them will not occur on our behalf by those in power whose campaign coffers are filled by powerful special interest groups.  We are, in the literal sense, living in an empire and this Pope knows it.  Private power is feeding at the public trough and our government policies, unsurprisingly, reflect these interests.

If the Pope accomplishes one thing outside of the Catholic Church proper, it may be that he opens our eyes to the human and moral consequences of our government’s policies, its misuse of its citizens money by spending 54 cents of every tax dollar on the military (that we know of), its allowance of companies like Oracle, Microsoft, Google, Apple and GE to store billions of untaxed dollars abroad, the forcing of its citizens to underwrite the moral hazard of ridiculously large banks and their executive’s bonuses in the name of “liquidity,” increasing the already staggering wealth of those who make money on capital, but not of working people and the poor. He dares to critique our perpetual militarism, which has destabilized an entire region of the world, bringing death and suffering to millions of innocents and the creation of massive refugee crises, all the while having 25% of the world’s prison population jailed inside of our own borders and over a half a million people living homeless on the streets of our great cities.

It is instructive that the Pope, when addressing today's joint session of Congress, offered these great Americans for thoughtful consideration: Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton.  Blessed are the peacemakers.

"Here we have to ask ourselves: Why are deadly weapons being sold to those who plan to inflict untold suffering on individuals and society? Sadly, the answer, as we all know, is simply for money: money that is drenched in blood, often innocent blood. In the face of this shameful and culpable silence, it is our duty to confront the problem and to stop the arms trade." - Pope Francis, Address to the joint session of Congress, September 24, 2015

Friday, August 28, 2015

Reflections of late August: 1919’s Red Summer

The Lynching of Will Brown, Omaha, Nebraska. 1919

Woodrow Wilson was elected in 1916 as the anti-war candidate. But five months into his presidency he plunged America into the great catastrophe of World War I. Different historical narratives exist regarding that decision. This was a stunning reversal for a president who came into office proudly wearing the slogan, "He kept us out of war." In order to sway opinion with a reluctant public, the White House used a new public propaganda tool, the Committee on Public Information, created by with the help of journalist George Creel. Wilson eventually mustered 4,800,000 US soldiers into service, 2,800,000 of them by draft, after a sustained public relations effort.

One effect of the war was a shortage of labor in the industrial north of the United States. A great migration of southern blacks took place to the large cities of the north to fill jobs on the railroads and in factories. Deep unemployment came about at the end of the war amidst a mass demobilization of US troops and a reduction in armaments manufacturing. What had been a shortage of labor was now a surplus. Coincident with these events were the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, which had taken place in 1917, and new black civil rights activism in the US in the wake of Marcus Garvey, the 10-year-old NAACP and other organizations and the new prominence of important black intellectuals, artists and writers of the Harlem Renaissance.

Many politicians and newspapers treated activists as enemies of the state by conflating the emergent black civil rights movement with Bolshevism. The New York Times was amongst the worst offenders with a July 28, 1919 headline titled “REDS TRY TO STIR NEGROES TO REVOLT; Widespread Propaganda on Foot Urging Them to Join I.W.W. and 'Left Wing' Socialists.”

At the end of the war, suspicion of an ascendant Germany was being replaced by the “red scare.” While politicians, carnival barkers and reckless newspaper media promoted this hysteria, tensions were breaking out between whites and blacks as black communities were placed in a state of siege by mob attacks on the part of jobless whites, Klan members and their sympathizers. From opened archives we know that Woodrow Wilson in private conversation, stated, “the American Negro returning from abroad would be our greatest medium in conveying bolshevism to America,” a direct reference to men who had just served their country in the deadliest war of the modern era. (See Cameron McWhirter, Red Summer). 

It can also be noted that this was the era of the racist, pro-KKK film "Birth of a Nation" by Wilson's friend and cinematographer, D.W. Griffith. Wilson invited his cabinet and close friends to the White House for a private screening of the film.

In the summer of 1919 riots broke out with white mobs attacking blacks, but unlike past eras, many blacks resisted and fought back. Even in Washington DC, where President Wilson maintained racially segregated federal offices, violence erupted after repeated attacks on black homes, against individuals on streetcars, and in workplaces elsewhere in the city. The DC Police refused to intervene. The NAACP sent a telegram to President Wilson, condemning the attacks and urging intervention. As the attacks went unabated, riots broke out.

Lynching would go on for a number of years. The Red Scare would continue. Newspapers, the mass media of the day, would continue to carry water for those promoting hysteria and attacking the labor and civil rights movements, while brave souls of American history forged new paths.

"She says, You can’t repeat the past. I say, You can’t? What do you mean, you can’t? Of course you can.'” - Bob Dylan, Summer Days.