A Pair of Silver Wings by James Holland

Few novels can truly claim to be both fiction and non-fiction. The much abused “based on real events” really only gives license to conflate and hyperbolize factual, historical events. This is as it should be. Any story is a crafted work, condensing and omitting tangential episodes, creating new ones to serve its main purpose: engage and entertain.

In Holland’s A Pair of Silver Wings we can enjoy a terrific story, along the lines of Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, an epic that can only unravel with its protagonist, Edward Enderby traveling through space (and time, effectually) in order to loop back and pick up where he left off at the end of World War Two. Actual historical events are pulled from Holland’s seminal history the HIGHLY RECOMMENDABLE Italy’s Sorrow and laced into the Enderby’s fictional story. Here you have a well-told yarn inspired by a minute and empirical study of the Western Alliance’s Mediterranean & Italian campaign in the second world war. Holland’s novel gives you both: real and factual events coupled with an engaging and heart-breaking story.

An almost somatic understanding of PTSD is present here. This effect was reached by Holland after the many hundreds of hours that he has spent interviewing survivors of the war’s bloodiest massacres and veterans from all the major, contributing nations that fought in the Italian campaigns:  the heroically strenuous, and often quagmired effort exhibited by the Allies. One long peninsula with a determined enemy making our effort against them similar to the stalemate felt by the Allies in the First World War. Impossible terrain, mountainous country taken one peak at a time, unending rains, an internal civil war, a parity of numbers between the armies, roving bands of partisans and paramilitaries from both sides behind the fronts: hell on Earth. Holland has been able to study all the effects mentioned above on combatants and non-combatants alike. His is an almost anthropological understanding of that time and place–so much so that you can either read A Pair of Silver Wings or Italy’s Sorrow and walk away with an equal understanding of what it must have been like. “Soft under-belly,” indeed!

As to a “sloppy” or Spielbergian” ending: I would like to say that Holland is sharing his own enlightened observation that those men and women with whom he spoke to felt better by not ignoring those horrible years in their lives but by incorporating them into their own life’s narratives. We carry a novel in our heads and we’re our own protagonists. By failing to incorporate the traumatic effects of our most heinous moments we risk becoming detached to our loved ones, not valuing them as key factors in whom we’ve become. To put it a simpler way: you’re living a lie by ignoring or suppressing your past. Memory leads to mending– which inevitably leads to loving. This is what Holland is suggesting with Enderby’s Scrooge-like, sea-changed awareness. What’s worth noting is how said discovery was made by Holland via personal exchanges with the people who lived it.

It was generous of him to share.

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Associate Artist, Atlantic Center for the Arts

So happy to have earned a spot at the Atlantic Center for the Arts this year for my playwriting. I’ll be working with Master Artist, James Lecesne, a Pabst Endowed Chair for Master Writers.

I’m thrilled, actually…but rather than go on about my expectations, I’ll just cite Mr. Lecesne’s own…

…Residency Statement:

I’m interested in working with anyone who has a story to tell and who also has some experience doing this in the theatre, TV, film or prose. During our morning sessions together, we will review the basic elements of story so that we all have a common language, and then discuss how those elements apply to the play, A Streetcar Named Desire. As you present your own original story to the group, we will support you in puzzling out the underlying conflict, illuminating the characters, uncovering your deeply held beliefs and creating a vivid map of your story. You will have time on your own in the afternoons and evenings to develop your ideas further and write deeper into the work.  We’ll come together to present our work to one another and continue mapping out the structure of the overall work.  The idea is to be familiar with the landscape of your story by the end of the three weeks and to have a clear idea of where to dig.

Stay tuned for more updates!
Rooftops of the Artists’ Colony, ACA, New Smyrna, Florida
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Landscaping

We seldom we question

Who considers the gaps in between

those tucked away places our field of vision

crudely splatters and forces into display

this is another way to say “landscape”

sable palms frame a green composition

really a myriad-pocketed schema

which within its pockets the wind dies

murdered by us for whom nothing but

the margins seem to sway to create

an event in time which only happened

to this viewer myself, say,

at the car park of my girl’s school.

Both composer and spectator

make-up any given moment alive

Both victim and perpetrator–

actor-spectator—both seer and non-seen

Now back to my green-framed landscape

where the mundane miracle occurs

witnessed but dreamt

apportioned & man-made

the sum of an heir to a savanna simian

deluded into seeing clear to the horizon

wherein his safety lies he thinks,

a deliverance

but really where he’s collected a whiff

of his own demise, a simple death

achromatic & chicken-kicking

hung upside-down on a wire bled white

pockmarked & plucked–rubbed out

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Amor a/de/por Cuba…

De veras que soy atrevido porque soy licenciado en Literatura Inglesa, y solo me han publicado en ése idioma…pero daría el huevo izquierdo por poder escribir con soltura en Español. Me identifico culturalmente como Cubano, pero los Cubanos en Cuba no me acceptan como uno de ellos. Nací acá, en NY, pero por supuesto el Americano me rechaza. Y me pregunto: no soy mas cercano a un guajiro de Batabanó en casa del culo del perro, que con alguien de MississippiAlabamaWisconsinKansas, etc? Estoy cansado de vivir en el guion, pero me tocó el emblema “CubanoAmericano”…a otros le trocarían la Era Especial, y a otros La Guerra de los Diez Años, y mas atrás, a otros el genocidio de Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar. 
 
Esto, pues, seria mi pequeña (y existencialmente ridícula) cruz:
 
Amor a/de/por Cuba…
Amo a Cuba como el sordomudo abrumado por la emoción
Amo a Cuba como uno que no sabe lo que hace
La amo como un desconocido tocando a la puerta súbitamente
Como los borrachos, la amo
Como las hormigas que trabajan de noche 
La añoro como un vaso de agua, para los muertos de la sed
Es tan querida como la alumna quien me mira con sospecha en el aula de lección
o como el amigo quien me da un abrazo sin dudas frotándonos las mejias.
Es un amor tan tierno como cuando yo cargaba a mi hija, Ella gritando como si la mataban.
La amo como cuando el corazón adolecente me saltaba leyendo a Martí por las mañana heladas de Nueva York
Amor a Cuba es una chancleta con que te suenan por la cabeza o un vaso de guarapo que empalaga
La amo como la pulsada del guajiro
Es un amor sin sombra, debajo de la cual no se reposa, siempre alumbrado, sin ceso
Es el primer beso en el pasillo de la escuela, y será, me imagino, acompañando mi ultimo gemido 
Es escupida, es ser pisado por un tacón bailando 
Es Gólgota y entrada a Jerusalén 
La amo como se ama el Amor, en fin.
Chaz Mena, Miami, Agosto, 2018
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“Morning Coffee”

I am more than what I decide to get done today

part mole on my grandmother’s cheek

some belittling gesture my grandfather made.

The indignant patriot before a righteous machete charge,

I was in his cold coffee this morning.

My aunt’s secret Charleston dances, when she decided to cut her hair short

the raindrop that fell into my mother’s eye at her wedding

my father’s ashes leavened with regret for having left Cuba,

and the pair of shoes he got when his mother died.

I’m standing between two mirrors forward and aft,

back and forth, as on a ship, and focus past

the echoes of my ancestors reflected to a point

just past the horizon….

…I am an unseen decision made in the dark.

The dead just collected, the pots of piss thrown out

the windows during some war, the bombing

to begin again as I dip my croissant into

my coffee,

this morning,

now.

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Review of WW1 Historian, Nigel Atter’s In The Shadow of Bois Hugo

front cover, In the Shadow of Bois Hugo: The 8th Lincolns at the Battle of Loos by Nigel Atter, Peter Simkins (Foreword)

Atter’s book covers the story of a battalion going first into action in the Battle of Loos, France in 1915. The Lincoln’s (Lincolnshire County’s) 8 Battalion is an example of what was even then being called Kitchener’s Army. This was the first nationwide enlisting effort in Britain, personified by Lord Kitchener in his personal appeal for more men, in reaction to the fact that the original BEF was all but gone by 1914’s end. There was a critical shortage of manpower on the British front facing the German trenches from Ypres snaking southwards to Artois.

Enlistment, Training, Transport, and Deployment are all covered in this pithy book of only 144 pages. Both bird’s eye and worm’s eye view are well mentioned as diary entries from Sir John French, Gen. Douglas Haig and all ranks down to personal letters from Lincolnshire privates are showcased throughout. Atter’s book is an elegant if tragic account of a small corner during the opening days of Britain’s hastily conceived Loos Campaign in 1915, a battle hardly mentioned in the usual timeline of events of the First World War, Western Front: Mons-Marne-Ypres-Verdun-Somme-Passchendaele-Cambrai-Kaiserschlacht-100 Days.

“Paucity” is a word that keeps coming up describing the short shrift given the enormous effort to train and deploy this band of men that heard the call of their country’s need. There were shortages in every phase of their handling. Poor logistics, mistaken orders, lack of communication, ineffective artillery too sparse to amass an effect, tired and hungry after two days and one night’s march, sans food & water, and then told to take German bulwarks (their second line of trenches) studded with machine guns providing enfilading fire–well, the perfect storm for massive disaster! It is heartbreaking the level of neglect shown to these proud men by French & Haig’s general staff.

Yet, they held their unit cohesion through most of it and even managed sustained attacks for hours on 26 of September only to have to retire with irrevocable losses. The official report dismissed them as having cut and run, even leaving their rifles behind in their wake.

Atter shows the lies and scapegoating that these men were judged by. Here is a clear example of generals blaming the men for their own lack of understanding, planning or willingness to learn from some earlier battles that should have shown them that a sustained, creeping barrage was vital for any frontal attack; that the German reserve system discouraged a “breakout” mentality with the cavalry “leading the way;” that men need to be fed and watered during long marches. The British were still two years away from knowing that “bite & hold” was more feasible than “breakout” but the former lessons should have been learned by 1915. The general staff was not listening to subordinates and learning, fighting past wars. (Similar to American Chief of Staff’s failure to innovate after the Tet Offensive in ’68 Southeast Asia; they were still fighting the Japanese.)

If you don’t hold that remembering the sacrifices of past generation who safeguarded your civil liberties is an honorable pastime (and I do), then you will agree that righting a historical wrong is of vital interest to all of us today. Contemporary historians in 1915 were wrong to have characterized 8 Battalion’s epic efforts & gallantry to simply saying that “they [had] bolted,” as Atter’s ending reminds us.

What does this say to us in our time of purported “fake news” and hyper-information? Perhaps that historiography should become the prime purpose of today’s historians.

 

Nigel Atter is a former student of Professor Gary Sheffield and Dr Spencer Jones, and is an independent scholar of the Great War (his primary area of interest being the Western Front in 1915 – particularly the Battle of Loos). He is, perhaps, unique in his interest related to the 8th (Service) Battalion Lincolnshire Regiment. Nigel was a founding member of the Leicestershire and Rutland Branch of the Western Front Association and has presented papers on a range of diverse topics, such as the Indian Corps, Lord Kitchener and the Battle of Loos. As military history advisor and secretary to the ‘Oadby Remembers 1914-1918’ project, Nigel undertakes research on individual soldiers and oversees all the published research from the wider team. He has delivered research findings on topics as diverse as the Leicestershire Regiment in Mesopotamia and papers on individual battles and biographies of local soldiers. His recent publications includenbsp;’Their name Liveth for Evermore: a military history of the men from Oadby Baptist Church’ andnbsp;’A Difficult Year: Offensive Operations on the Western Front in 1915′, which was published in Stand To! (the journal of The Western Front Association).

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To-Do List

Day old bread and this morning’s coffee

tastes like opportunity all over again

I know the milk is off by now, the coffee saccharine

the bread’s crust limp with rancid butter

but so is my forgotten To-Do list from much earlier

written in tired pencil, no room for error

its eraser long since gone

thus goes my life I’m tempted to say

and another day drips off

I didn’t visit my ailing mother

and my father’s ashes still lie here, in an alien country

one that showed itself to him with as much promise

 

 

as my to-do list did me this morning

I feed my daughter fried zucchini and finish this poem later.

All I ever am is one man with one day to fill right.

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Played to sold-out audiences. It was a pleasure to work with my dear friend, Michael McKeever’s on his new play. The trailer below produced by Actors’ Playhouse at the Miracle Theatre, Coral Gables, FL.

 

Review from Miami’s Daily, The Miami Herald

JULY 17, 2017 1:45 PM

 Intriguing stories swirl in new play about the iconic Mona Lisa

Fans of the South Florida-based playwright’s recent award-winning “Daniel’s Husband” and “After” will encounter a different side of McKeever in “Finding Mona Lisa.” But those who have experienced his many dramas, comedies and short plays over the past two decades won’t be surprised that art and history, among the subjects that interest him most, are at the heart of his newest work.

Structurally, “Finding Mona Lisa” departs from the straightforward storytelling of “Daniel’s Husband” and “After” for a more fluid, time-traveling approach. Rooted in research or imaginatively invented, the stories McKeever tells in “Finding Mona Lisa” have one thing uniting them: that iconic masterpiece.

 A replica of the Mona Lisa rests on an easel placed center stage on Gene Seyffer’s minimalist set, a series of curving platforms in front of a black velvet curtain. As the centuries swirl around her, she remains in her quietly commanding position, fascinating and eternal.

From the outset, McKeever and director David Arisco make the play’s tone and style clear.

Stage left and in present day, Dr. Lange (Irene Adjan) delivers a crisp, authoritative lecture on the painting, its history and some of its misadventures through the ages. Stage right, in 1956, an agitated Bolivian man named Ugo Ungaza Villegas (Daniel Capote) paces and sweats, speaking of the woman in the painting as if she were a faithless lover toying with him. Neither character sees the other, but their dialogue dovetails and alternates, creating an emotional pendulum that swings from cool scientific consideration to the delusional anguish that will lead Villegas to pitch a rock at his beloved.

Actors Capote, Adjan, Anna Lise Jensen, Paul Louis, Chaz Mena and Tom Wahl play a total of 25 roles, their multiple transformations accomplished through the playwright’s character-defining writing, the actors’ vocal and physical prowess and costume designer Ellis Tillman’s gorgeous century-hopping work (two of his designs for Adjan are breathtakingly beautiful). Eric Nelson’s painterly lighting and Shaun Mitchell’s sound design are also key to evoking the play’s multiple eras as one flows into another.

Watching these acting pros appear and reappear as wholly different human beings is a joy.

Adjan, for instance, is beguiling as Ellen, a vibrant American woman whose anniversary trip to Paris with her grumpy husband leads to an encounter worthy of a romance novel, sending her home with her own version of a Mona Lisa smile. Then she’s cool and slightly imperious as a wealthy woman circa 1911 who is willing to part with a small fortune to possess the stolen Mona Lisa.

Mena is chameleonic as a nobleman who, to his later misfortune, urges King François I to remove the Mona Lisa from one of his steam baths and display it to the masses; then as a randy Napoleon, who has the painting in his bedchamber because he can; then as Vincenzo Peruggia, a rampantly sexist Louvre Museum employee who made off with the painting in 1911.

Louis, too, is vastly different from role to role, particularly as the charming but lethal François I and then as the meek but deeply talented art forger Yves Chaudron. Besides Villegas, Capote plays Ellen’s sexy stranger, the enforcer for François I, the mastermind behind the selling of Mona Lisa forgeries and, finally, Da Vinci’s in-demand rival Michaelangelo.

Wahl and Jensen shine in two very different scenes together. The first, set in 1962, involves a back-and-forth between Kenneth, who works for the director of Washington D.C.’s National Gallery, and Colette, an incredulous Louvre employee who cannot believe that the Mona Lisa is to travel to the United States at the behest of first lady Jacqueline Kennedy.

In their second scene, the play’s last, Wahl portrays da Vinci, Jensen his subject. A normally modest Lisa Gherardini appears for her sitting heavily rouged, her hair in a snood, her lavish jewelry and ornamental scarves someone else’s idea. When painter and subject are finally alone, the two talk, and da Vinci senses Lisa’s essence. He has her remove the makeup, then lets down her hair, places her right hand over her left, takes off the scarves. Then he says something that makes her smile, ever so slightly. And voilà — there she is, the Mona Lisa.

McKeever’s writing in the play ranges from straightforward to serious to comic as he explores everything from changing attitudes toward women to the way great art inspires adoration, envy, avariciousness and more. Arisco at times pushes the performances in the comic scenes into caricature, which is overkill. And as he’s rewriting — inevitably, new plays get rewritten — McKeever would do well to excise contemporary expressions and word choices from scenes that travel back in history.

Still, for those who know only McKeever’s recent plays and for others who find the Mona Lisa mysteriously alluring, “Finding Mona Lisa” is an entertaining and enlightening way to contemplate an enduring masterpiece.

 

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