What I’m Reading: Les Miserables

I have always loved the Broadway musical, which I rediscovered after forgetting about it, in 2022, first on CD, and then through DVDs checked out of the library. It’s an inspiring musical and I’m glad to be inspired by it still. The singing drove me this time to the book, which I’ll be reading for quite a while. I’m 1/3rd through the 1500 pager by Victor Hugo.

As Hugo says in what I just read, his story is the divine as it shines through the faces of the world. The characters are secondary. I think he also said this to justify his twenty to forty pages on describing the nunnery, its history, practices, events, tidbits, devotions, self-tortures, where Jean Valjean is right now hiding out in the spot where I’m impinged in the narrative. Well, I can’t say I have enjoyed this interlude as much as the Battle of Waterloo earlier. At the same time, I’m edified by it.

Praise to Victor Hugo, a master among masters. Like Phillip Roth said of Charles Dickens (in one of his novels through a mouthpiece of a character, and I paraphrase), what a heart! It’s an unforgettable journey and I can’t wait for it not to end. Except, for me, when it does end, it’s the sort of book that will travel with me . . . which will help me see what comes up a bit better . . . a beneficial reference . . . and make choices.

Bonnie Raitt’s “Just Like That” (2023)

We live at such a fast clip, it feels, because of the amount of information many of us have to deal with in this Internet and smart phone era. Still just like that, Bonnie Raitt’s song of the same name won a Grammy for best US song of the year.

It’s cool when such a pared down, bone deep folk song about one person’s struggle, and really just one crucial moment in a day of their life told to sweet rhythmic guitar picking–can win song of the year. Cutting through both high production and the noise, that award in fact turned me onto the song.

Raitt of course is a classic at this point. For now the song, Just Like That, can be found online here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Skd0XR3twCA. It might be elsewhere too. Check it out.

What I’m Reading: e. e. cummings: a life by Susan Cheever

I unfortunately just finished this e. e. cummings biography by Susan Cheever, which is “unfortunate” because it was so good. Written by the accomplished daughter of a famous novelist who also met e. e. cummings as a young girl, it is full-bodied with the color of events and with the twists and turns of this author’s life, and well paced at about 300 pages. It’s further imbued with Cheever’s touching, yet never uncritical, admiration for the cummings. She sprinkles in a few poems into this biography, so I read his poetry again in this more personal context, including the sense that Susan Cheever selected some of her favorites.

Cheever tells the tale of a Harvard educated, turn-of-the 20th Century young man, who had a close-knit understanding family, financial support, and set out to be utterly free without any sense of needing to compromise. He lived most of his life in Patchin Place, in Greenwich Village of NYC, and lived hand-to-mouth fairly often too, so he could live, socialize, and write. Cummings met and knew many of the American and European modernist writers. He wrote his poems in that idiosyncratic style we know him for from the outset. He published his first book of poetry, Tulips and Chimneys, in 1923 at around age twenty nine, which I have just started re-reading after finishing this biography.

After two bad marriages, cummings found the right life’s partner, according to Cheever. He had a daughter from one of his marriages to whom he was estranged for much of his life, as the mother remarried, moved to England, and kept them apart. Cummings, from his end, kept his distance, maybe out of being hurt in part, and maybe out of being a self-absorbed artist in part, according to Cheever. As adults, they did get to know each other, and his daughter published at least one book of poetry too. Beneath cummings’ idiosyncrasy was a sort of anger, a sort of total individuality and refusal to conform, beneath the humor, reports Cheever. There is more here and I’m thrilled to dive back into his poems.

This biography has a personal atmosphere. In that way it lives up to Rilke’s dictum to read literature with loving eyes. Cheever brings a considerate care and careful parsing even to the hurt and hurtful places in the story of this poet’s life.

While I did not exactly get a sense of being in the room with e. e. cummings from this biography, and I bet there is room for a longer more detailed treatment, I did leave with an atmosphere and arc of cummings that will provide new pleasure and insight as I revisit his poetry.

G. H. Mosson


What I’m Reading: Tony Hoagland’s Turn Up the Ocean

I was glad to spot this collection from the poet and essayist Tony Hoagland in the library. It is provocative, clear-eyed, and flavorful like much of his poetry of social satire published since his chapbook, Hard Rain (Hollyridge, CA 2005).

I can still remember reading Hard Rain for the first time at an outdoor cafe table in Charles Village, in Baltimore, Maryland. His wide-ranging, almost laugh out loud and then cry poetry about America sort of updates Allen Ginsberg’s poem, “America,” across various settings. As Emily Dickinson puts it, the poetry took the top off my head. It opened up vistas.

Hoagland’s Turn Up the Ocean (Graywolf, MN 2022) is a posthumous collection, sad to say. Hoagland passed away from cancer in 2018, based on these poems and prior ones. With this in mind, the collection is clear-eyed in being focused on essential things. It’s happily vibrant, evasive to labels, and the poems stretch toward insight, wit, biting chuckles, pleasure, and moral judgment. His playful, yet exacting, analogies appear – a signature of his poetry since Hard Rain. The play is a little less wild here, which fits the calmer mood of these poems.

I plan to reread the volume before returning it to the library and the next lucky reader, as there are some amazing poems in here. To name a few: “Among the Intellectuals,” “Gorgon,” and “Bible Out of Order.” There are a few chilling poems noting humanity’s rapacious use of the earth and almost fatalist look to the earth’s potential greeny renewal if civilization collapses. There are some tender poems in here on illness, friendship, aloneness, and time’s passage.

There is an atmosphere of someone living into, not shying from or explaining away, their experience. It’s a palpable strength throughout these poems, appearing in a poem title, “Why I Like The Hospital,” with its rue, humor and acceptance. It can be found in a tender introspective poem about how we sometimes over-interpret interactions. Hoagland does not lament or lampoon, but sits with and looks into it in “Mistaken Identity Librarian Syndrome,” as far as he can.

In the poem, “Gorgon,” Hoagland presents an ars poetrica addressed to fellow poets when he says, “the world is a Gorgon.” He then writes, “Your job is to take notes, / to go on looking.”

This does not have to apply solely to writers, but of course, I take it that way. It might apply to anyone, really.

Blessings to Tony Hoagland and his loved ones. I reviewed his Application for Release from a Dream (Graywolf, MN 2015) linked here, some years ago, and that is a valiant and vibrant book. Here, the social wit’s present. The antic energy is more subdued, the tone, more graceful.

G. H. Mosson


What I’m Reading: “The War That Made the Roman Empire: Antony, Cleopatra, and Octavian at Actium” by Barry Strauss

“The War That Made the Roman Empire” by ancient-military historian Barry Strauss is written with an eye for detail on how the famous last stand of Antony and Cleopatra was fought and won by Octavian, and retold with a wistful, delightful “what if” nostalgia. What if Antony and Cleopatra won and the ancient world of both Hellenistic Greece and Ancient Egypt more permeated the modern world to date? This atmosphere was quite delightful.

Strauss spins a good yarn about the aftermath of the assassination of Julius Caesar, the battle for supremacy between Octavian, who won and became Augustus Caesar, and Antony, who lost along with Ancient Egypt’s last pharaoh, Cleopatra. She, of course, was a Greek decedent of a general of Alexander the Great – Ptolemy. Strauss presents a story told before, but with more accent on Cleopatra and the importance of Alexandria, which at the time had the Mediterranean world’s greatest library, and was a multicultural epicenter of culture and learning.

In Strauss’ telling, Cleopatra’s political ambitions and religious-like presence among Antony and his Roman army paints a dramatic tapestry, as Antony too marched under the banner of Dionysus. At the same time, Strauss hints her military and diplomatic presence made some Romans at best uncomfortable as Antony and Octavian vied for power.

Of course, these military generals and pharaohs were brutal. Strauss does a good job of telling the story too of chaos unleashed by warring Roman military generals; the landscape that became the sea battle of Actium on Sept. 2, 31 AD; and recounts the tactics and strategies until Anthony and Cleopatra (and the ships and soldiers that could) fled. Fleeing to Egypt, their time in the sun was running out.

Published by Simon & Schuster in 2022, Strauss’ book is excellent. It will particularly delight those with, dare I say, romantic leanings away from Rome and deeper into antiquity toward Ancient Egypt and/or Ancient Greece.

I’m also about to finish Barry Strauss’ The Spartacus War (Simon & Schuster, 2009). Here the events primarily take place in 73 AD to 71 AD on the Italian peninsula when an unknown gladiator, named Spartacus, along with a few hundred or so others, break out of a gladiatorial school where they are enslaved to live, fight, and eventually die. They gather enough supporters and other runaways to form a marauding piecemeal army of 20,000 to 60,000 or so, roaming and fighting around the Italian countryside, and almost crossing over to Sicily, before finally cornered and destroyed by a Roman army led by Crassus.

Strauss here does an excellent job in balancing a narrative facts with gaps, and walking the reader through what can and cannot be told about it. Reading this book, one feels history being woven and unwoven, so to speak.

One aspect of this tale is the chaos existing in Italy and in Rome during a time of civil war and warring generals, and the oppressive slave-society structure of Roman countryside estates. If there is a silver lining, it is to cherish peace.

G. H. Mosson


Tale of a Haiku

I am excited to have a haiku coming out in the heartfelt and hilarious online literary journal on Twitter, called the Lickety Split, linked here. It’s at @olicketysplit on Twitter.

Edited by the wonderful poet Chen Chen, the journal’s title and my desire to alliterate tempted me to seek more “H” words, but instead, let me say the journal features poems that fit in a tweet, including spacing.

The haiku in question, “Gloria’s Dive,” is about fifteen to seventeen years old, based on my recollection, but without looking for its first appearance in some dusty, saved journal. It did not have that title until recently. In fact, the poem was not complete – until that title framed it, so to speak, so the poem could speak.

The poem features a character. Like some other character poems, it is important to know your character. What a odd concept, and yet, true.

In this case, the name Gloria occurred to me relatively recently but not in regard to this poem, but another, and it was asserted into that poem, and then pulled out again, as wrong. Call that a year. Then, it floated around in the empty warehouse area of the creative mind until this poem was in submission to this journal, and lickety spit!, it found itself.

The adventure of writing is certainly an adventure. I believe the haiku comes out in November. November 2022, and then, Gloria can be met.

G. H. Mosson


Reading on Oct. 21 in Crisfield, Md.

Looking forward to reading with Marcus Colasurdo in Crisfield, Maryland, this Friday, by his kind invite, at Gallery 413, 6pm to 8pm. We’ll be reading separate sets, to end with “Soul Kitchen,” a poem read jointly.

A open mike follows.

Gallery 413 is at 413 West Main Street, Crisfield, Md. Where is Crisfield? It is the Southern most town on the Maryland peninsula, I believe, and a town I’ve enjoyed getting to know these last five or so years.

G. H. Mosson


What I’m Reading: Maggie Smith’s Goldenrod

I scooped up Maggie Smith’s Goldenrod (Simon & Schuster 2021) from the library and enjoyed this breezy, sensual, and mindfully resonate read of poems. Each poem had its own spark, but the array of them also unfurled like Smith on the porch telling you a good story, with laughter, a few gaps in the telling that come from a good time, and maybe a beer or two from her fridge, but not three, across an autumn evening in Ohio.

Smith’s savvy middle-age voice is edgy yet suburban, a writer and a mother of two, and ends poems that question the boundaries and ideas we set up for ourselves, with statements like, “Do we know anymore what it is to be human?  I’ve stopped knowing what it is to be human.” 

I like this invitation to question.

In one poem titled from her daughter’s point of view, “After the Divorce, I Think of Something My Daughter Said About Mars” (p. 74), Smith writes, “One you go, you can never come back.”  Yes – that’s a life changing event.

The poem ends: “So if you go, / you have to stay gone.”  This was a moving comment on how her daughter has viewed divorce: a change with no going back, as if to Mars, where love lives on, but also with a certain firmness about maybe moving forward rather than dwelling on what’s not.

I was thinking about, overall, what makes Maggie Smith’s poetic voice optimistic and even cheerful. She never forgets, even in stepping out at night into the backyard, the same one she’s seen before and like everyone else falling into habit, to find and search again to find what’s delicate and precious.

I read Smith’s well circulated poem, “Good Bones,” some time ago, and am glad to read her latest full-length.

G. H. Mosson