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


What I Witnessed: On Laurie Anderson

I was lucky enough to catch multi-media artist Laurie Anderson’s show, The Weather, at The Hirshhorn Museum this August 2022, and Anderson remains a provocative, complex, and searching artist even in the latter days of her five-decade-plus career. Anderson’s 2022 work also is playful, elusive, and at times, blunt, and of course, ironic. The Weather, for me, was tonally dystopic, but also pulse-beatingly creative.

Her show weaved through the circle of this uniquely concentric museum; one room called into question the experiencing of a mechanical environment, for me. Anderson had red flags in a hallway that moved at times by mechanical arms to an eerie, recorded soundscape. Each side had five or so flags. On each side, most but not all the flags moved in unison, like soldiers, like slow dancers. The dark room’s lighting exposed some of the gentle contours of each flag’s blood-red draping.

What does it mean to have an interpretative or emotional experience of this technology? That’s what I mean by her work calling “experiencing” into question.

Generally, this red-flag piece spoke to how environments shape us. Of course, it also had an eerie and yet graceful effect. My friend alongside also commented on the red connotations to blood and war. Today, a day later, the red made me think about passion. Red flags as metaphor.

The show was larger than this. There was a room of onsite images and text from floor to ceiling that appeared to be made onsite. Further along, there was a room of large scale paintings of a loose brushwork and atmospheric figures and landscapes. There were two rooms involving imagistic projections. Anderson is a multimedia artist indeed.

I happened this August to visit MASS MOCA, an amazing contemporary art museum in North Adams, Mass., and saw two or three films of Anderson there too. She’s wonderful, provocative, curious, odd, and I plan on returning to and exploring more of her work this year. The Weather, at The Hirshhorn Museum, was overwhelming, provocative, impactful, and disorienting in good way.

G. H. Mosson


What I’m Watching: Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water

My kids and I just finished the anime series, Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water (circa 1990-1991), and I already miss it.

Nadia features the adventures of Nadia, a young girl, runaway circus performer, and orphan allegedly from Africa, and John, a French young inventor; and of course, their relationship, how they help each other and grow, and what happens along the way. I won’t say what happens. The above brief sketch of these two can be found in the very first episode. For fans of the U.S. anime series Avatar and Korra, simply put, I highly recommend it. The themes are closer to older-child age appropriate.

Based in part on Ten Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, Nadia offers amazing creativity in an odyssey of adventure, and a world-spanning origin story that unfolds during its 39 episodes. As the title indicates, there’s a “secret.”

What else might I add, without giving anything away? My kids and I also enjoyed the opening song, and would sing it as we began our next episode. Further, there’s a certain sort of realism to some of the violence in this anime, along with positive underlining values of non-violence and respect for nature, plus emotional depth–all of which makes it best-suited to slightly older kids. This depends on the household. For me, ages 11 and 13 were great for Nadia. Some of the nuanced emotions will resonate upward with adults, but the show’s okay if the heart-rending depth of some of this is just missed by the younger crowd.

Wikipedia, linked here, quotes a good takeaway for Nadia by the Anime Encyclopedia by Mr. Clements and Ms. McCarthy, the apparent editors: “Very rarely has [a popular approach to writing anime] produced a show of such enduring charm and emotional validity.”

I got my copy from the library. Thank you library, a communal and valued resource!

G. H. Mosson


What I’m Reading: Seven Thousand Ways to Listen by Mark Nepo

Mark Nepo’s Seven Thousand Ways to Listen (Free Press 2012) is an amazing compendium of vignettes on living through listening. It provides reflections upon adult evolution through various kinds of listening, whether from his own experiences or stories from others. Snapshots of insightful prose are followed by various prompts for mediation, journal writing, and discussion, if you wish to practice with it or expand what’s explored into your own life.

While this book cannot be summed up, Nepo writes on p. 134, “While the soul’s calling helps us discovery our life’s work, the call of the soul is a continual call to aliveness.” One can see this phrase as a call to move forward. Of course, it also taps into the general theme of the book, listening, to be listening for this “aliveness.” The listening leads to the “continual call” to entering into listening rather than plans.

Nepo also wrote this book later in life and after several books and real world success. So, the above quote can be viewed as well through the lens of transition, from getting to where you want to be into a next stage. In fact, he directly addresses this topic in the middle of his book. This second stage of life after ‘striving’ also is covered well in the more analytical, essay-formatted book by social economist Arthur C. Brooks, called From Strength to Strength: Finding Success, Happiness, and Deep Purpose in the Second Half of Life (Portfolio 2022), which I am finishing too and highly recommend.

Digression aside, I am in the midst of reading Nepo on listening. It is my third book by him. His listening book proceeds as very short vignettes, in sections of 1-4 pages or so, followed by prompts for practice. So, it can sipped and savored, used and shared.

It also made me notice a tendency to wish to “finish” a “book.” But why? Much of what he discusses cannot really be finished, like the Nepo quote above, but rather is for refreshment and practice. Further, there is so much here I can easily see me rereading it in 2023 – after I finish it – which hasn’t happened yet.

I think it was late 2020 when I read Mark Nepo’s also amazing The Endless Practice (2014), which features more detailed essays. Seven Thousand Ways to Listen (Free Press 2012) is more like a day book of gems. It offers equal emphasis on prose reflections as prompts for a reader’s use. Highly recommended for inspiration and exploration.

G. H. Mosson


What I’m Watching: La La Land

I recently found this 2016 academy award winning musical-movie in the library, where I get most of my movies. It is a whimsical, sweet, and also slow-paced contemporary take on the Hollywood musical romantic comedy of yore. Imagine romance when life is uncertain while starting out. Because it had a great ending that I won’t reveal, I’ll say I’m glad I watched it; it was pleasant overall. However, the movie’s focus on panoramic scenes lost track of telling the story through people, and this made the slow paced movie even slower.

La La Land won Academy Awards for best actress by Emma Stone, best cinematography, best director, and in three other categories, in the year it came out. I am no expert on musicals or shooting movies, but the cinematography surprisingly stayed away from close-ups in the dialogue and the dancing and was a detriment in my humble opinion to this film. When Emma Stone could be seen, her deeply felt, dramatic expressiveness within the context of playing an ordinary person, yet aspiring actress, was quite captivating. For example, a red-and-white striped couch was in the forefront of the visual presentation rather than the talking roommates next to it in one scene, or sometimes the dancing was shot from such a distance it was barely visible and more of a mood than a performance. La La Land displays a contemporary American focus on things over people, in this regard.

For contemporary musicals, Everyone Says I Love You (1996) by Woody Allen stands out as far superior, as well as the movie of the Broadway musical Into the Woods (2014).

It is always fun to check stuff out from the library and explore.

G. H. Mosson