Thursday, May 31, 2012

Richard Skelton, Landings


A century's passing and the listening

rattle. Crows bicker in the trees

overhead. Rhymed leaves. Dew Grass.

Wing skirr. Engine. Siren. Machinic

murmur. Threads across the river.

Collective memory. Left to nettles

and to barbed wire.

When the flowerville blogger sent me this poem by Richard Skelton, knowing I am thinking about how barbed wire has been construed in literature, I went looking for the book Landings.

I found it in/on/at a spare and beautiful blog. When I decided to order the book and the accompanying music, the link took me to another striking site. My order elicited a personal email:

Dear Scott

Just a quick note to say your Landings is in the post. Here's the tracking number: RJ962567042GB, which you can track at

With many thanks and warmest wishes


The book arrived, royal mail indeed, with handwritten address.

Inside, the book was carefully wrapped in tissue. I washed my hands before I opened it.

 There was a note enclosed. The book was signed.

Landings breathes silence with its generously white pages, marked by type only where necessary.

The landscape, including the ruins of human habitation, of the West Pennine Moors is a subject of the book and of the music recorded on the moors. A related subject is loss. Another is language, names.

The book's notes are as interesting as the poems and quotations and thoughts that make up the main text.

For instance:

25 {many of these places have names} The question of names, name-giving and remembrance is, for me, a recurring one. Names become physical. . . . Place-names are embodied, and are subject to the same bodily process of change and decay. The question then becomes one of tenure, of endurance. How long can they last? . . . Maps are vital repositories of our knowledge of place. They enshrine the collective memory— recording not only what is current, but what is deemed worth holding onto from the past. But in so doing, they enforce a mononymous relationship between name and place—rarely does any location receive more than a single epithet. Yet this fact belies the complex relationship we have with our surroundings, and the many different ways in which we express our sense of place. Shouldn't there be room on maps for local names, folk-names and familial names; for narrative, personality and myth? What happened to the polyonymy of place?

Among the names Skelton reclaims from the place fallen into disuse is our family name: Abbott.

In 1696 a John Abbott of Anglezarke was church-warden at Rivington.

John Abbott is my brother. Was my brother. His birthday is four days from now. He died in 1991 at the age of 40.

In a very ruinous state. 

Ravaged by AIDS.

John Herbert Abbott. Also known as Jay.

Below the name of the book on the title page, Richard Skelton prints the name of his lost wife: Louise Skelton.

Landings worked a profound quiet into my being. A melancholy and meaningful stillness for which I am grateful.

"The barbed wire stretched across the landscape was like the strings on an instrument."

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The Worm

My Grandson Jaron turned 9 a couple of days ago.

He's a talented boy:

Monday, May 28, 2012

Wildflowers #16 + Barbed Wire + Blue

An early-morning look to the east and then a Memorial-Day walk along the Spanish Fork River revealed these scenes:

morning light catches the new aspens

wild rose, Rosa woodsii

thistle, not sure which

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Wildflowers #15: Pollinators

red poppy, Papaver rhoeas

oxeye daisy, Chrysanthemum leucanthemum

this bee is as big as my thumb!

Friday, May 25, 2012

Wildflowers #14: on the ground and in the sky

Palmer's penstemons
(progeny of Renee's and Janet's seeds)

the fourth in the succession of composites

Palmer's penstemon

Wednesday, May 23, 2012


 Yesterday morning I read Lorrie Moore's review of Richard Ford's new novel in The New Yorker. It's a lovely review, just a bit edgy, rich with quotes from the novel and interesting comments by Moore, a novelist herself.

"Opening in Montana in 1960, "Canada" is a story told by Dell Parsons, the son of a retired Air Force pilot and a schoolteacher—parents who have turned hapless bank robbers and who are quickly apprehended and sent to jail. Dell also has a twin sister, named Berner. 'Berner and I were fraternal twins—she was six minutes older—and looked nothing alike.'"

This last sentence sends Moore over a parenthetical cliff: "(Twins who are not the same sex are always fraternal, not identical; that a narrator would stop to explain this is unfortunate and a mistake, perhaps of the proofreading variety, that it would be goo no longer to see in a novel.)"

Yes, I thought. Of course, I thought. She's got a point, I thought, scratching my head. But there's something not quite right between these parentheses.

In the late afternoon a UPS truck brought a copy of the novel, preordered (as they say so awkwardly) several months ago. And I sat down to read.

As promised, Dell Parsons is the narrator. On pages 14-15 I arrived at the offending sentence and its context: "Berner, by this time, had begun not to be so easy to get along with. . . . Berner and I were fraternal twins—she was six minutes older—and looked nothing alike. She was tall, bony, awkward, freckled all over—left-handed where I was right-handed—with warts on her fingers. . . . I sometimes found myself thinking of Berner as an older boy. Other times I wished she looked more like me so she'd be nicer to me, and we could be closer. Though I never wanted to look like her."

Moore is right about the doubling up of information. She's wrong about it being unfortunate and a mistake. It has nothing to do with proofreading. It's a window into the narrator's fervent hope never to look like his sister. Stating that they are twins might lead a reader not as perspicacious as Lorrie Moore (and there are plenty such readers in Great Falls, Montana where Dell spends some adolescent years, and elsewhere as well) to assume he and his sister are identical and thus equally as warty and so Dell hurries to add to the twin information that they are fraternal and that they look nothing alike. Even a Great Falls kind of reader is apt to understand the important fact if it is repeated three times.

If Moore had read the book to the end, or had paid better attention to the ending, she would have found this further assertion: "Berner had begun drumming her fingers on the table top. When I looked at her plain, waiting face, it was without expression, though her jaw muscles were agitating. Her eyes had grown shiny. We looked nothing like rather other now in a different way" (414). Dell, even as a 66-year-old man retiring from teaching high school and beginning to write the story that is the novel, finds it important to note he is a fraternal twin different from his sister.

Having solved the problem of the parentheses, I turn back to the handsome book.

p.s. Michiko Kakutani reviews the book in the New York Times (Tuesday, May 22) and concludes that the novel is "naggingly schematic" with "static exposition" and is finally a "deeply flawed novel."

I can't even fathom such categorical judgments. How can a critic know anything but how he or she responds to a work? Who can still believe in Platonic absolutes and their own ability to pronounce them?

Monday, May 21, 2012


Just back from Las Vegas with two sets of photos that I'll let speak for themselves (click on photos for larger versions):

crazy 8's

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Wildflowers #13 + Barbed Wire

A couple of new blooms in the yard.

and . . .

Walking along the Spanish Fork River last night, cotton floating down from the cottonwood trees, we came across a barbed-wire fence with red barbs (for visibility?).

red penstemon / Penstemon eatonii ??

Palmer's penstemon / Penstemon palmeri

flax in native bunch grasses

cotton / Populus fremonti

Monday, May 14, 2012

I Was Never a Bully in High School

During a mothers'-day lunch with my mother, after learning that she had broken our agreement (she would offset my donating nothing to the Obama campaign by donating nothing to the Romney campaign–thus saving money for us both), I couldn't control myself and asked her what she thought about the Washington Post piece on Romney's bullying:  

He was incensed that a boy had long blonde hair and led other boys to hold him down while he cut his hair. 

Who would do that? I asked.

Didn't you do things in high school you're not proud of? Mom asked.

Of course I did. But I was never a bully!

And I never was. I can't even imagine that kind of action. What I can imagine is standing up for someone weak against someone stronger. I have done that repeatedly over my career at four different universities. My first impulse is in favor of the disadvantaged. That informs many of my personal and political choices.

Mitt Romney's political impulses are in favor of the advantaged.

When asked about the incident, Romney claimed he couldn't remember it.

This morning I woke to a set of memories (forgotten only briefly during the self-righteous conversation yesterday) that have shaken the certainty with which I countered my mother.

While in high school, sharing a room with twin desks and bunk-beds, I bullied my younger brother John. The memories are of white-hot anger, of fights that only ended when I had my way, fights over trivialities like whether the light in the room should be on or off.

Like the boy Romney bullied, John later came out as gay. 

I don't think (but I'm not sure) that that had anything to do with our fights. Romney too claimed that it never would have entered his mind that the other boy was homosexual.

My memories are clear. They are shameful. They have been with me since I left home to go to college. They inform every sentence I write as I work to overcome whatever parts of that past that can be overcome (it has been two decades since John died and the manuscript "Immortal For Quite Some Time" still has my focused attention).

The knowledge of the feelings and actions of a bully make me a better person, the person who could state flatly that I was no bully.

Now, today, and perhaps since I left home, I am not and have not been a bully. If that is true, it is only true because of the strength of the heart wrenching, indelible memories.

Mitt Romney is either brutally calloused or a calculating liar.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Janice Hilton Abbott: A Conversation between Two of Her Sons

For some reason John heavily annotated my twelve pages [of memories of and thoughts about our mother].
I began impersonally:
Shocked by his mother’s suicide, Peter Handke decided to write his memories of her. He thought that such a sorting out would make her more real to him, that he could learn to know her better, that he could save at least her memories by writing about her. He began confidently; but the more he wrote the less he understood his mother. . . . As the book progresses the paragraphs grow shorter and finally dwindle to fragments. At the end Handke writes: “I’ll write more exactly about her later.”

John ignored the theory. His first note is an answer to my question about place: “Junior Sunday School. Montpelier, Idaho. Or was it Paonia, Colorado? Sunday after Sunday she stood in front of us and taught us to sing. Filled with her warmth, basking in her love, bursting with pride that she was my mother, I told myself she was the most beautiful woman in the world.”
Montpelier, John wrote.
I mentioned a few memories from Montpelier, including acting in some play or pageant, an ignominious role that required lipstick. John wrote: it was in Farmington for me, living at Grandpa's. I didn't go to school, because it took soap to wash the lipstick off. I'd already had my mouth washed out with soap.
I remembered feigning cramps to avoid swimming lessons in the freezing water of Bear Lake. John noted: never knew you pulled the same stunts. You were my idol. I wrote about ice skating, and John commented: frozen hands, no ability, too young, not as good as you -- ever, till manhood.
I mentioned “early, happy memories in a less-than-pleasant physical environment (our little house out of place among the warehouses butted up against the railroad track): Mom gave meaning to those early, potentially destructive years. What I don’t remember from that time is a sense of shame.” John drew a line from the word “destructive” to the margin and wrote: for you, no! for me, yes! For some reason he crosses out the word “shame” and writes no humanity.

John placed a cryptic “NS” after a paragraph about a photo of Mom as an object of desire.   Did my mention of our parents’ sexuality please him? Disturb him? Or does NS stand for a sarcastic “No Shit!”
Beside a paragraph describing a long family hike around Shiprock and the sleepy ride home made electric by the sight of my newly captured bull snake crawling up Mom’s leg, John wrote: I remember this. I didn't want to go. He often didn’t want to go. There were times when the sheer size of our family made me wince as well.
I wrote: “Kneeling around the table for family prayer.” John filled the margin with: Remember when Carol was saying the prayer and the phone rang. She hurried her prayer, jumped up, and grabbed the phone. "Heavenly Father," she said, and dropped the phone. Even Mom, next to the phone, was laughing and coughing so much that she could hardly answer the phone, which was for her.
I recounted a fond memory: “One night I awoke to find Dad shaking my shoulder. He hurried me into Sunday clothes and rushed me off to the Elk’s lodge where he and Mom had gone to hear an Australian boys’ choir. I thoroughly enjoyed the second half of the program; but my strongest memory is of gratitude that they went out of their way to share the experience with me.” John commented, with an interesting choice of prepositions: Never did this to me.
I described Mom hobbling around the house with a broken toe, the victim of her temper, and asked “How did the sides of her mouth survive those vicious chewings?” John's comment is Ya!!
Then there is my statement about “the tender new mother (for the eighth time) with baby Jeff,” to which John affixed the words: Another brother. A year after Jeff was born John did a science-fair project nicely related to those family population pressures: “The Effects of Different Amounts of Space on the Number of Fruit Flies (Drosophila melanogaster) Produced in the F1 Generation.”
Next to my memory of hiking trips with Mom and Dad, John noted his own memory: Mom a Cub Scout Den Mother while pregnant with Jeff. Pregnant lady followed by ten cub scouts. Very humorous.
There’s a paragraph about picking up Paul from his mission in Zurich, about the testimony meeting at which Mom emphatically described her visit, just a week before, to Christ’s garden tomb: “I can’t help but think of Sesemi Weichbrodt’s words at the end of Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks: ‘It is so!’ she said with all her strength and glared at the others. She stood there – a victor in the good fight. She had fought her life-long against doubts from her school-teacher rationality – bent, tiny, shaking with conviction, a small, fierce, enthusiastic prophetess.’” John wrote: She, as Mom, are victors!!
After my description of Mom as a fine and strict first-grade teacher, ending with “I wonder how the children view Mrs. Abbott?” John noted: An invigorating teacher like Mrs. Anderson, my 1st teacher. Teaches from love, not $. They viewed her as I viewed Mrs. A., a Goddess. I've seen her students introduce her to their parents. I've seen parents thank Mom for being their children's first grade teacher. Mom's a teacher like Dad was. Mom, they need you.I praised Mom’s grit after Dad was killed: “The determined Mother and provider, back in school again at a ripe middle age. Surely an act of courage. But then again, she enjoyed it so much. No one would ever choose that route, but Mom positively flourished.” John expressed regrets I recognize: I disappeared for quite a few years. No help. No compassion. Nothing. Thanks Mom. I love you.
I criticized Mom’s frenetic walking habits, antithetical to contemplation and conversation, and John again defended her: No, she thinks more as she picks up speed. Give the woman credit. She's good at being a friend, even if she's herself. Scott, did you give her a chance to be herself? Probably not! Just you as her son yet intelligent? I spent 2 months with my mother. She won't accept what I do, but we finally became friends.
John, how could you become friends if she won’t accept what you do? You argue here for accepting her, for letting her be herself; but what if “herself” is antithetical to “yourself”?
Then so be it, you answer back. She took me in for two months when I needed a break. She is my mother.
I referred to Mom as a grandmother. John wrote: I've never seen Mom as a grandmother. I guess it's because I have no family but the one I grew up with, except for Carol's kids.
John had advice for me when I admitted that it’s best for me not to talk politics with Mom: You're afraid!! I spent 2 months with Mom. You have to make her be honest, and you have to be honest in discussion. It's not easy, but it works!
In one entry I tried to analyze difficulties I have talking with Mom: “Those phone conversations when Mom asks: How are you doing? Always an awkward silence because I know she really wants to know. And doesn’t. No matter how well I am doing, an honest response makes her worry and sets me up for an even more searching question the next time she calls. But if I don’t tell her the truth, we don’t communicate either.” No!! John wrote. Scott, what's a mother to do? She loves us. We don't let her accept us and we don't accept her as her. We have to accept each other! Mom's a person herself. Share her right to believe! Are we friends, my brother?
This question undoes me every time I read it.
“It’s a pleasure to see how proud Mom is of us,” I wrote, and John noted, with his trademark double exclamation points: She's even proud of me!!
My fragmentary essay ended with the words: “Merry Christmas, Mom. I love you dearly.”
John added sentiments that quicken my heart: Love you too my brother!
It is a conversation of sorts. One text engenders another. The disturbed man who told his sister she was dead defends his mother and expresses love for his brother. The man who claims to have no desires reveals how he values his mother’s pride.
Precious words, heart-rending in their fixed paucity.


Why, I wonder this morning, are so many of the spring plants this color?

Thursday, May 10, 2012


A big half moon in the sky this morning. Two blackheaded grosbeaks singing liquid songs. Towhees and a lazuli bunting too. Spring flowers blazing yellow and blue and purple.

Oh how different it feels from yesterday morning.

Calico was hit by a car yesterday. We buried her under a maple with some favorite little toys.

She's everywhere this morning: In her little nest in the rabbitbrush. In her bed. Next to her food and water dishes. In the sound that mistakenly announces she's playing with her ball. On the trail we walk, lagging behind us, bounding ahead of us.

We're not sure how we'll get through the day. We won't forget her.

Early this morning I dreamed it was snowing.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Wildflowers #12, Plus Birds

First penstemon is blooming this morning. A towhee and a blackheaded grosbeak and a lazuli bunting singing. A hummingbird on his favorite perch (between sittings for the photo he performed a death defying "J" for a lady friend).

blue penstemon, Penstemon cyan's

rufous-sided or spotted towhee

a better storks bill photo than i had in an earlier post

lazuli bunting, before i saw him i heard the pretty, quick, high-pitched song

goat's beard, western salsify, Tragopogon dubious
blackheaded grosbeak