Branches End: Poem by Shawn StJean

A Caterpillar on a long tree branch, crossing my head level

As I hike my morning away, in the woods.

He’s reached the very end, the very last bite of the very last leaf.

It’s taken his entire cycle to munch out to here.  Not so long, after all, but for him a lot of work.

The tree and the world are full of other leaves,

And other branches, but it’s a mighty crawl, back to the trunk.

He could roll off, to the ground. . .

I’ve seen others along my own tramp, some crossing to their business,

Others dead of the heat, or trampled.  Impossible to know

What will happen, in that direction, life on the ground.

Of course, the way back to the trunk is safer, more predictable.

Sure leaves grow there.  But who knows what bird may land there, as well?

So he waits, on the tip of that long, thin sliver of wood: ruminating, wondering, deciding, waving in the breeze.

The wind picks up; and I feel a big splat of rain on my neck.

Time to go.

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Tribute Poem for NaPoWriMo

I have a friend–a real poet–who is writing perhaps a poem per day, this month, National Poetry Writing Month.  I lack her workman-like ethic–or perhaps simply her skill, which improves all the time, not coincidentally, because she works.  True artists of any stripe don’t always produce great work, and the reasons are simple.  They don’t hoard their productivity, the way most of us do.  It flows out of their minds and mouths and fingertips, into the world, to be judged, ignored, discarded, or praised.  Look at the ouevre of any great artist–from Milton to The Beatles and Stephen King–and you will find a lot is not great, that is not even very good.  Because they experiment.  They take chances.  They don’t hold back.  And the great stuff flows out of that same, brave place.

There are so many definitions of poetry, but the one that sticks with me is the romantic one, coined by Wordsworth over two centuries ago: a spontaneous overflow of emotions. . .recollected in tranquility.  It doesn’t mean someone in the poem is crying or shouting angrily, or even that the poet had other than serene feelings, at the time.  It means, simply, an experience that is meaningful, among all other experiences, like a yellow flower amidst a vast green field.  An experience worth crafting, by experimentation with language, so that it can be shared with others.

True artists, in any form, are the most generous of people.  They surrender their vulnerabilities.  Over and over.

I am not such a one.  One month; one poem.  It’s all I got.  I write my poetry, for good and ill, in private places: small classrooms, garages, in the woods, carving it on trees no one will decode.  That’s most of us.

Here’s to the unprotected souls, the poets–it’s their time to sing.

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Shopping for Colleges

 

Despite the pouring rain, it’s not so much a memory of feeling, like cold and wet,

Nor of hearing the plunking relentless drops, or smell or taste, or even what we saw:

A lone girl walking along the sodden grass of the quad, a bright red raincoat

And a black umbrella shielding her.  I didn’t wear glasses then, and if I had

It might have all seemed like an impressionist painting.

My buddy had come with me; a come-with guy when an experience was new.

I was ready to get out of my factory job, go back to school; but he would stay.

We arrived on a Saturday, not knowing any better, and many offices were closed

and most of the professors and students had flown.  It was late May, anyway.

The pair of us crossed her path by chance, converging to cross the green expanse.

“Hey, you guys want to get under my umbrella?”

We exchange looks.  “Sure!”

I hadn’t yet been to college, but I’m not stupid.  The rain was nothing to me.

Once, in Korea, I spent a night in a hole full of monsoon rainwater, on a hillside.

And before that, I trudged seven miles through a storm

so that my first girlfriend could dump me, in person.

So the rain really was nothing to me.  Still, we huddled, we trio of twenty-somethings,

And the umbrella wasn’t big enough, so that we scrunched the poor girl in on either side.

She smiled and we chatted for as long as it lasted, only a walk of a hundred yards.

And somehow we didn’t ruin it, by hitting on her or touching by accident/on purpose

or insisting she give up her errand to the Registrar.  Later I wished we invited her

to swing back around, for coffee.  You don’t always know what to say, or do, at the time.

Of course I never saw her again.  Yet, sitting right there, in the dive coffee-house,

which since then had been replaced by a surgically clean campus computer-lab,

I looked over my cup, and declared to my buddy: “This is where I’m going to college.”

No pamphlets, guided tours, statistics, or Barron’s guides could have shown the way clearer.

Thirty years later, I have no memory whatsoever of the prior month, or the following month.

Can’t recollect her smell, or the color of her hair, or what anybody said.

The gym has since burned down and been replaced, that quad of green grass paved over.

Most of the faculty I knew are gone, and the football field has grown a ten-foot perimeter fence.

And the students are not even the children of my own classmates–some August soon,

their grandchildren will arrive.  Not long ago, in the grand scheme, but a full third in the life of a man.

I’ve walked through so much rain, since then.  And rarely have been offered

a share of an umbrella by a girl in a red raincoat, and a smile, no one within call

to protect her from strange boys.  No one to tell her what the right thing to do was.

Just the invulnerability of her open heart.

I sometimes wonder if women wonder if all the thousands of smiles they’ve spent

on strangers were worth it.  Or if they shouldn’t just have bowed their heads,

and moved on with their business, silently, or raised their eyes in Don’t-Mess-With-Me,

paved themselves over with concrete, and put up high, iron fences.

That would be too bad.

Because frigid damp, exposure under the wet sky, the unsureness about the right thing, are not nothing to me.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Australia’s Hardest Working Blogger Reviews Cranky Bear Wakes Up

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Andrew Gillman, tireless analyzer of all things pop culture via his blog SparklyPrettyBriiiiight, has taken a look at Cranky Bear Wakes Up, the new, illustrated offering for children from Glas Daggre Publishing, authored by Shawn StJean and drawn by Todd StJean.

Here’s a snippet:  “It doesn’t matter that the pictures aren’t coloured; there’s a beguiling simplicity to each and every drawing that portrays the story more memorably than even than coloured-in drawings would.”

Read the detailed review HERE:

http://www.sparklyprettybriiiight.com/kindness-is-for-everyone-the-important-life-lessons-of-cranky-bear-wakes-up-review/

Hardcover Indie Children’s Story-Sketchbook On Sale Now: Cranky Bear Wakes Up! through Nook Press by Barnes & Noble

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Previously published in December in softcover, this “Story-sketchbook” by Todd StJean and Shawn StJean is now available at $16.99 list through the online bookstores, both in the US and abroad, printed by Nook Press and LightningSource.  Nook Press (Barnes & Noble) has recently updraded its services for indie authors, and has added several new formatting  and packaging options.  For those seeking an alternative to Amazon’s Createspace POD platform, they are certainly worth a look!

https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/cranky-bear-wakes-up-dr-shawn-stjean/1127591429?ean=9781538069936

https://www.amazon.com/Cranky-Bear-Wakes-Up-Sketchbook/dp/1538069938/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&qid=1519835549&sr=8-3&keywords=cranky+bear

Saving Hascal’s Horrors by Laura Smith: ‘Tween Book Review by Shawn StJean

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In his famous short essay “Why We Crave Horror Movies,” Stephen King makes a crucial distinction—though he witholds the alienating clinical terminology–between neurosis and psychosis, and explains that horror texts keep most of us on the harmless side of that line.  A parallel, critical definition of Gothics—such as Frankenstein— is that they explore the irrational impulses lurking beneath the calm surface of the rational mind.

Without delving into the why of it, King observes that horror has “always been the special province of the young.”  One might theorize that, before and during puberty, the id has a clear dominance over the superego, while the ego spends all its time in formation, self-absorbed and aloof from the battle.  Simply put, kids have more strongly expressed fears and desires than adults, because they haven’t learned yet to be ashamed of them.  In fact, they embrace them, through thrill-seeking: climbing trees, riding roller coasters, skateboarding, flashlight-tag, Truth or Dare.

Laura Smith’s adventure novel for ‘tweens, Saving Hascal’s Horrors, is neither Horror nor Gothic.  Yet its conflict does center around the culture of the Horror Shop (think comic-book store, leaning over a cliff’s edge).  Hascal’s store has been closed to the public for years, following alleged complicity in the disappearance and death of a local teen.

This navigation around a genre, without indulging in its excesses, is a bit of a neat trick.  Smith understands her audience (I‘d say 8-12 years old).  Many young children, given the opportunity, revel in the scatology, “sick jokes,” profanity, sexual suggestiveness, and gore of the horror text.  Smith leverages none of these cheap elements.  Rather, the major conflict resolves around a common, relatable fear: getting lost in the woods.  That’s not to say the book is sanitized: it does contain a dead body, for example.  But we aren’t asked to witness an autopsy of descriptive (and gross!) detail.

Part Hamlet, part To Kill A Mockingbird, Smith creates a neighborhood of characters in “Salemstown, PA,” in which the real tragedy is one of folks laboring under irrational prejudices against one another: the freaky/geeky boy who can’t fit in, and lacks the social tools to disabuse his tormentors; the mean-seeming old man, who doesn’t care to justify himself.  And stripped of the racial dimension of Harper Lee’s novel, Smith’s work might appeal to contemporary parents who would prefer their progeny focus on the more common forms of prejudice.  As one of the characters realizes, “Maybe a villain was just a good guy who had something terrible happen to him.”

Supernatural elements do introduce themselves, through a video message by protagonist Mike’s father, from beyond the grave: a mission to reopen the store, in the face of continued financial decline.  Further on, Mike discovers an inherited post-cognitive ability.  In fact, the book eventually transforms into an actual ghost story.  However, like Hamlet’s father, the spirit of the missing boy is not evil, only haunting the forest while it awaits release from purgatory.  A preoccupation with death imagery, paraphenalia, verse, and text almost defines the teen audience, and the book thus weaves a sort of unique appeal for so young an audience.  The YA bookshelves, of course, are filled with the stuff, but Smith offers a less intense, more fun experience for the neophyte crowd.   I especially enjoyed the repartee among Mike, Corey, Jack, Lisa, and Freddy, even amidst imminent danger in the caves.

The extended conclusion is suspenseful, but not designed to frighten, and devoid of terror.  In fact, it more often invokes nervous humor during the misadventures of the cohort of 9-11 year olds, in a Goonies-like manner.  The book also contains Easter eggs, scattered throughout, for the watchful older reader–if one should happen to be a fan of the horror genre.

Finally, there’s a lot of book for the buck, here.  In fact, the novel feels to me about two minor characters (several adults hover in the background,) and forty pages too heavy, with a few scenes that could have been harmlessly dropped, contributing to a tighter organic unity.  But nothing so problematic as the “Director’s Cut” that King himself has released of The Stand, all but ruining a good epic with excess material, and proving why editors are needed—even in the labyrinth of the unconscious.

FOUR stars.

Author’s website, with links to her other works:

http://lsmith335.wix.com/laura-smith-author

Purchase Page:

https://www.amazon.com/Saving-Hascals-Horrors-Laura-Smith/dp/1495345610/ref=pd_sim_b_1?ie=UTF8&refRID=1K0S7SDDCEFEXDN89XPS

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Age of Eli: New YA Science Fiction by J.E. Brink II, Review by Shawn StJean

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A decade ago, the media was populated by “horror-lite” books and movies, inspired by Buffy and Angel, and imitating the commercial success of Twilight, to the extent that you can’t walk over to the Roku today, without tripping over a horror property.  Inevitably, Sci-Fi, Horror’s nerdy cousin, would follow.  CGI made it not simply possible, but sustainable business.  Problem is, “Sci-Fi Lite,” or commercial sci-fi (in the vein of the ’50s pulps imported to the screen,) tends to rely a lot more on Fiction than Science.  Which is too bad, because, as the late Carl Sagan often lamented, the preparation of young people in this country in the sciences is deplorable.

Technology, Science’s practical side, certainly seems to have taken over the mindspace of children and adolescents.  But not in the way the futurists predicted.  When I was a child of the 1970s, hot on the heels of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Planet of the Apes, and as George Lucas put out a little film called THX-1138, everyone thought that kids of my generation would all grow up to be computer geniuses.  After all, I bought a TRS-80 with my own money.  Right into high school, in the early ’80s (before Windows,) if one wanted a home computer to do something, one had to write a program, at the maddeningly patient prompt of a DOS cursor.  And we did.  Hell, it seemed a quantum leap over a typewriter.

Yet many 21st-century young people have shown no interest, to the extent that good IT folks and coders and programmers remain in high demand.  Many humans would seem to prefer the route of Frank Poole in 2001: “A little lower Hal, a little more to the right,” the astronaut instructs the ship’s computer, as he reclines in a lounger curiously similar to the ones found in today’s cinemas.  Computers and technology are meant to make life easier, not harder.  Or so we think.

J.E. Brink doesn’t seem to agree.  The Earth of the mid-21st century (not long from now,) in his novel Age of Eli‘s vision, is an extrapolation of our own: everyone has their gadgets and devices, of course, and internet connectivity has become universal and free, thanks to a grid of satellites orbiting the planet.  No one questions the wisdom of this, until a global disaster provides teen-prodigy Warren Novatec with the opportunity to both solve the problem, and implant everyone with an even better version of the smartphone: a nano-robotic exoskeleton for the brain called QPU.  This allows direct connection, through the net, with everyone else, but further benefits are promised: “enhancements” that allow a person abilities that seem superheroic.

Not everything works as promised, however: and this seems to be a perrenial human truth about our relationship to technology.  After all, when domesticated, fire can heat your house and cook your dinner; when out of control, it can raze your home and your body.

The novel’s author reputedly works in solar energy, so it’s unsurprising that the narrative concerns itself with energy expenditure: the “powers” that the protagonists and antagonists use must be paid for, and recharged–and they take a heavy toll.  You won’t see any CW/Supergirl feats of unlimited strength here (apparently the sun can also recharge her cells instantaneously, as well as infinitely.)  In fact, Brink’s entire AI premise retains the ring of actual science, as predicted by cultural luminaries like Steve Jobs and Elon Musk.  Thematically, we have to wonder if all these “enhancements” are actually worth it–whereas, in ninety-percent of all comic-book-based fiction, it’s taken for granted (Stan Lee-based Spider-Man and X-Men material being notable exceptions.)  And, to give Brink credit, the book resists becoming about feats of superhuman ability.  It’s really about what happens to human relationships when metal and money come between people.

The title character, along with some others among Warren’s circle, as well as a few pockets of folks in the U.S., resist his inevitable takeover.  Our society begins to resemble a fascist regime under a benevolent dictator, with all the losses of freedom that real-life developments like the continuing re-approval of the Patriot Act, and the dispersal of drones throughout the skies of the world, forbode.  To call the book political allegory wouldn’t be to stretch its literary texture too thin, though the emphasis is often more on action and incident.  Both adolescent and adult characters are varied and developed, and clearly awaiting a sequel.  It seems to me that the “villian,” Warren, doesn’t emerge as evil, so much as misguided, and not without a hint of remorse.  Brink never quite rolls over into the pit of comic-book simplicity* that other franchises do.  I won’t spoil the climax, but I will say that, again, Brink eschews superheroics among his cast, in favor of the virtue of tactical retreat: “Live to fight another day.”  And because the marketplace is filled with shows and books and movies that trivialize the difficulty and cost of actual war (aided by our government’s insulation of the U.S. population from our ongoing wars outside our hemisphere,) it’s refreshing that a YA novel should remind us that conflicts are usually resolved by sacrifice and compromise.  And that, deaths aside, survivors of war are often scarred: physically and psychically.

For this reason, the novel–and presumably the series follow-up books–encourages a debate about whether we should whole-heartedly accept the self-driving cars, the Roombas and Alexas and other robots charging up for a place in our homes, the replacement of memory and books and first-hand research by Google searches and Wikipedia quasi-facts.  Many sci-fi texts have posed the question: At what point does Artificial Intelligence become human?  Brink asks the converse: at what point do we become robots?  You will not be hard-pressed to find a person today wondering aloud, “what did we do before we had these things?”–speaking of a personal communications device.  But perhaps the better question is, “What will we do when these things–utterly and irreversably–have us?”

Four and a half stars.  Well done, J. E. Brink II!

Purchase pages:

https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/age-of-eli-j-e-brink-ii/1127687378?ean=2940154975244

https://www.kobo.com/us/en/ebook/age-of-eli

https://www.scribd.com/book/367494284/Age-Of-Eli-Book-1

Promotional Video: https://youtu.be/qK5c7WyFhCs

 

*Not that all comic books are simplistic, but many are.  For every villian as complex as Magneto, there exist a hundred megalomaniacs, mercenaries, and Joe Chills.  An article for another time.