Book Chat: Along The WatchTower

In our next Issue, “Language & Music,” coming out December 26, we’re proud to feature an interview with award-winning Oklahoma author, Constance Squires, whose work has appeared in the Atlantic, Bayou, Eclectica, Identity Theory, New Delta Review, and many more.

Watchtower

Along the WatchTower (2012) is Ms. Squires first novel. Set in the 1980s, on an American army base in Germany and then in an Oklahoma small town, the novel chronicles the growing up of young Lucinda Collins, following her from adolescence on into young adulthood. We get to experience the growth of this eager-to-please, yet strong-minded woman through the world of a military family — overseas and Stateside.

The setting is something we don’t really see in fiction, that of the military family. And it would take someone with Ms. Squires’ particular talent to truly color and people an environment that is often institutional and drab. But there is no doubt, this novel is vigorous and alive.

The book gives us a wishbone with young Lucinda at the vertex and her mom on one side of the V, her father on the other. What makes the story wonderful to read is the author’s ability to deftly and clearly portray the characters’ cosmic arcs, and from the start we sense the tension bending on the bone where we find young Lucinda.

Faye Collins, Lucinda’s mother, obviously has the artist’s soul, the Creative’s gravitas; her’s is a mighty intellect harnessed into the world of being an army wife. She is always the volcano under the bulk of crust…waiting for release. The manner in which she has arrived in this marriage, as illustrated by Ms. Squires, makes complete sense. The fact that she appears unfit for the life it provides is obvious, yet her world is bruised by the desperate and inescapable need for her husband and kids — by the things they can and can’t provide.

Jack Collins, Lucinda’s father, is a relentless contradiction; the consummate military personality who is lovable and impossible to love, both devoted to the family and completely remote. Every awful action or comment for Jack is followed by a moment of redemption, which is then followed by a cold indifference, which is then followed by utter selflessness, which is then followed by callous bravado, which is then followed by incredible warmth and so on. He can piss us off. But…he also has our sympathy. One thing Ms. Squires clearly conveys is a permeant awareness, as seen by the children, the damage to men and women in the military…before caring about that sort of thing had any public traction.

This wishbone creaks from the start. It is Lucinda, our young protagonist who has to figure things out inside this arrangement. To be in the military, to grow up in that kind of family inevitably means the lowering of expectations in our friends. It’s not that we need them less, or that they’re worse…we just have to replace them all the time. So, standards might be a bit more flexible.

Throw in Rock and Roll — Punk — booze — a touch of fascistic background radiation — devastating metaphors — and we have a wonderful, coming-of-age tale spread across the Atlantic, in a setting that is too little represented in literature.

We need this author, and we need her to tell us her stories. Regardless of topic, Ms. Squires has the gift for flesh and blood. It’s impossible to think of Along The WatchTower without the people in it coming alive. For instance, Jack Collins has one of the clearest voices I’ve ever read. His dialogue crackles in the head with the clarity of a Holden Caulfield. And Ms. Squires’ energies are not wasted there; the minor characters pop as much as any.

As part of the Almagre community, we encourage you to support creative thinking, Great Storytelling, and find your way to a copy of Along The WatchTower. It is a pleasure from start to finish.

John Lewis,
Artist/Editor
AR monogram O

Again, Please. Tell Me Your Story

As fall turns to winter, I’d like to reconsider a particular reaction.AR_Fall Harvest

We have all been in the room before. Someone else is there…it might be one person, or two, or a crowd. A friend or family member begins a story. We’ve heard it already…many times.

But we let them go on out of politeness. (Is this person okay? Is he well? Does he not remember telling this story last Thanksgiving?)

This got me thinking about the importance of telling the same story again and again. First, it comes from a place of acknowledgement — I grow older, responsibilities increase, the kids acquire new demands; demands on my time, my attention, my bank account, my emotional and spiritual reservoir.

I used to think that my “elders” (I use this term carefully and loosely) were trapped in forgetfulness. At the dinner table, during or after, somehow, someway, the conversation inexorably drew to the moment where someone would re-commence the time when…

Often the details change. But what are details other than the sharp edges on a sugar cube? They don’t matter…around the pond of reminiscence, they polish down into the smooth stone of one-liners, zingers, bad accents, cued laughter. Or is it cued sadness? Either one, yes? Everything in between.

One day, not too many years ago, I noticed myself telling the same story…one I’d told many times. There was also this other strange little thought. I knew I was telling a story everyone had already heard. I knew it. They knew it. I knew that they knew it. And so on.

But, what followed proved to be an insight, albeit small. I did not care that I’d told this story before. I plowed through my social reserve and kept the performance alive, armed with those punches and zingers, cued their laughter, and delivered what my polite audience allowed. I told this story because it was a pleasure to tell. It’s always a pleasure to tell.

Why?

Because it is important. To me, it was a bright cherry along the branch of experience that is worth repeating. I have to repeat it. Others have to hear it. Memory is bad and faulty, and so much of what we live is lost along that long gray branch. But the bright cherries become the lodestars of identity. This is who I am. This is one among many stories that define the “johnness” of John to others…and to me.

Which leads me back to my original thought. That reaction! When a friend or family member begins again that story we’ve heard throughout the years…we stop, listen, and appreciate. We know they’ve told this story before. But they know it too! It does not matter.

We listen, because it is the teller’s pleasure to tell! We grant this woman or man the dignity of his or her story, the dignity of his or her life and experience. We permit them the bright cherry of identity. We listen…because it is a pleasure to listen.

John Lewis
Artist/Editor

 

 

 

Joe Barrera: Los Dias de los Muertos/The Days of the Dead

jose posada dancing skeletons
Artist: Jose Guadalupe Posada

The season of death and dying is here. Autumn brings the end of the year, the end of living things, the end of growth in the cold of winter. October 31, All Hallows’ Eve, Halloween, albeit much altered from its original intent, is a celebration of the end of the harvest but also a recognition of the presence of the dead on earth. Originally, Halloween was the time when ghosts of the dead, along with unholy spirits, were given free rein to roam the earth before they were again confined in Purgatory or in Hell. They had to be confined in anticipation of November 1, the Day of All Hallows, the Holy Ones, the saints in heaven. All Saints is followed by All Souls on November 2, during which we honor the Souls in Purgatory, suffering purification before entry to heaven in the Catholic belief that was once universal in Europe. The season is the last vestige in modern culture of the reality that life and death are two sides of the same coin, that where there is life there must also be death, that the same Creator who created life also created death. The season tells us that we should not ignore death, nor fear it, because it is part of our existence and we cannot avoid it. In our culture, which deludes us into believing that youth and physical beauty are eternal, we don’t pay much heed to this kind of thing anymore.

Our Halloween customs derive from northern Europe, but traditions known as The Days of the Dead, usually the last days of October and first days of November, have come in from lands to the south. These influences are often mistakenly considered to be “Mexican Halloween,” but Halloween and The Days of the Dead are very different celebrations. In Mexico, death is traditionally honored in a much more open fashion than it is here. Death is held in high esteem, in a reverential sense, not in the spooky, haunted sense of Halloween.

Awareness of the dead is typical of a culture that looks to the past, as in Mexico, not of a future-oriented culture as in the U.S. In Mexico, which is strongly mindful of the past, the amalgamation of Iberian Catholicism, full of ancient Greek and Roman roots, with the indigenous religions of the Aztecs, has given rise to a rich tradition known as los Dias de los Muertos, or The Days of the Dead. We enjoy the celebration here in spite of the cultural differences. A manifestation of this in U.S. culture is the creation of “altares,” altars in remembrance of deceased friends or relatives. These are  commonly found in art galleries, where they are seen as opportunities for artistic license. In Mexico, altars to the dead are found in many homes. They are sincere tributes to loved ones, not art installations. Portraits of the departed are displayed, and their favorite food, drink, cigarettes, personal items, etc. are laid out in anticipation of their earthly visitations. The intent is to honor the deceased out of love and affection but also from a profound sense of the very thin veil that separates this life from the other life. In some ways, The Days of the Dead resemble American Memorial Day. Families in Mexico go to cemeteries to visit and adorn the tombs and to share meals with the dead. This is something which we should respect.

The veil separating life and death is indeed flimsy. We must realize that we will all soon be dead. What happens then? The Mexican artist, Jose Guadalupe Posada, is famous for his depictions of skeletons behaving as if they were still alive, enjoying all the pleasures of human life–food, drink, fancy clothes, parties, dancing, even sex. Posada’s skulls and bones in the midst of carnal pleasures symbolize the union of life and death. They also warn us of the illusory nature of pleasure. His art has been appropriated by the dominant U.S. culture and is now found everywhere. But his ideas have not. We see the dancing, drunken, fornicating skeletons as just funny art, missing the point of the illusion of human existence and the much more real intimacy of life and death.

The Days of the Dead celebration in U.S. culture is an example of cultural blending, something which always happens when distinct cultures rub against each other, as is the case in this part of the country. This can be good because cross-fertilization like this saves U.S. culture from stagnation. It goes the other way, too. Mexican culture is influenced by American culture. However, the popularity of The Days of the Dead is an appropriation by the American dominant culture of an element from the subordinate Mexican culture. As such, the meaning of the celebration has been altered. Things get changed when cultural elements are removed from their original context. They diverge from their original meanings. They may be  trivialized, stripped of serious meaning, made into “kitsch,” becoming pretentious, shallow and gaudy. This is what has happened to The Days of the Dead in the U.S. The sacred meaning of Los Dias de los Muertos has been lost.  This sacredness can be understood to be an escape from human rationalism, a journey into a space of intense, passionate, personal religion, a religion not about obeying God but more about one’s relationship with the physical world and simultaneously with the spiritual world. This is a religion of beauty, and definitely not one of fear of death and punishment for sins, but one of love in a space where loved ones await living human beings, who are the soon-to-be dead.

Joe Barrera, Ph.D., is the former director of the Ethnic Studies Program at UCCS, and a combat veteran of the Vietnam War.

business-card-monogram

Book Chat: Blood on the Tracks

Colorado author, Barbara Nickless, delivers the audience intensity and literary satisfaction in her debut novel, Blood on the Tracks. Intensity: applied deftly, like a clock set to screws tightening meticulously and relentlessly. Literary: with the designer’s eye for beautiful language to animate the hearts and motives of characters.

I must make a confession before jumping into Ms. Nickless’ novel. Crime-Thriller fiction is something I typically avoid. I believe novels ought to draw a reader through on the quality of its prose. To marry prose with “whodunnit” incentive and the Rube-goldbergian trickeration of opening three new questions for every one answered, strikes me as relying on clever tricks as opposed to quality writing. But, perhaps that’s a little too stuffy and self-righteous. Better I get over myself.

Good news: with Blood on the Tracks, we take pleasure in both. Denver railroad police officer, Agent Sydney Parnell, is an Iraq war veteran who is thrown into solving a sadistic murder. Ms. Nickless does not care for a squeamish audience, and…she makes everything personal.

It’s easy to forget that the whole novel takes place over a few days. The fact that it does, argues eloquently on behalf of Ms. Nickless’ handling of prose. She is a brilliant storyteller. And her main character, Sydney Parnell, is fiercely interesting and refreshing.

The murdered victim is family, and through family, Agent Parnell is pulled inevitably into her past, both to her childhood and her Iraq combat experience. It is the kind of story that must invite ghosts…and a self-medication of alcohol and drugs.

For me, this is a bright take on the female hero, where quite often, we are given a main character who despite the blows of combat, always seems to be a bit impervious or never fully imperiled. Something extraordinary and invisible, magical, seems to be granted by the author that will remove the female hero from danger. But that is not the case with Blood on the Tracks. Our character is quite broken…and quite strong. She feels the hammer of her pain swing from the inside and the outside.

Agent Parnell doesn’t have that authorial Deus ex machina excuse. I’m so impressed by Ms. Nickless’ handling of her. Our hero meets the “boys,” (good and bad), on their level—exchanging bullets, fists, kicks, quips, barbs—and gets her ass-kicking in while also taking a few. Her body, throughout the novel, is a chronicle of every encounter, and the author remembers this as she tells her tale. We feel the bruises as they add up. And we root—Hard!—for Agent Parnell. Especially so, as the gruesome murder invites the prospect of neo-Nazis.

But, it’s not that simple. It would be nice, and clean, to stick it to the Nazis…and we do get the satisfaction of killing a few! Ms. Nickless, however, keeps her story screwed to the mud and snow through Agent Parnell’s family ties and the haunting damage from Iraq. It really turns out, that a crime of this nature, involves all three.

The book ends where it should; Agent Parnell catches up to her killer, but we’re left with those three big questions the author can’t answer until the following novel. Which leads me to my next point.

The second book in the series, Dead Stop, comes out October 3rd. That’s next Tuesday for those, like me, who can’t count. Now is the perfect time to catch up and read Blood on the Tracks. It won’t take long…I promise. Go on, pick it up. After three pages, put it down! I dare you.

Almagre Artist/Editor,
John Lewis

cropped-ar-monogram-i

Joe Barrera: Stories that Heal

MVCD Button
There was a picture in The Gazette a couple of months ago that really got to me. The photo was front-page, full-color, and it was pure heartbreak. In the picture a grieving mother is on her hands and knees decorating the grave of her son. I could feel the pain of her broken heart. That awareness prompted me to propose a solution for veterans’ suicides.

The suicide of that mother’s son, the “ideal Marine,” as he was called, a young Colorado Springs veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, was a senseless tragedy. It was senseless because the alienation from society that often precedes suicide can be prevented. We already know how to do it. We have solutions. We just need to implement them.

I would like to propose one good solution, simple, easily done and effective in healing the soul damage caused by war. Once we understand the soul damage of war veterans, especially combat veterans, we then have the option of implementing what we call The Military Veterans’ Community Dialogues. What are the Military Veterans’ Community Dialogues? They are opportunities for soldiers to tell their stories of war and coming home from war to other soldiers and veterans in non-judgmental, supportive, structured but informal sessions, in the presence of families, friends, and community members.

Please note: In the presence of loved ones, spouses, families, friends, and just as important, members of the public, the community at-large. It is common for veterans not to talk about their war experiences to “civilians,” which includes their families and friends. But in the Dialogues, they will open up and tell their stories to other soldiers and veterans. The families, friends and community members listen, absorb many things they have never heard before, and they react, they begin to tell their stories. All the group – soldiers, veterans, families, friends, community members – start to talk.

Healing begins once psychically damaged veterans start to tell their stories and listeners extend acceptance. All veterans deserve help in their readjustment to civilian life, which for many can take a whole lifetime. What is commonly not understood, however, is that like the young Marine who committed suicide, those who are combat veterans very often need a heightened level of support. Tragically, the “Ideal Marine” never got that. As a combat veteran of the Vietnam War I know the need for this kind of support. Because they are built on community, the Military Veterans Community Dialogues, which we have been doing since 2005, can provide some of that support. No amount of professional therapy at the VA or any where else, however competent and well-intentioned, can substitute for true community.

The principle idea motivating the Dialogues is first an honest understanding of what happens to soldiers in war, especially the soldiers who do the actual fighting. Secondly, it is to propose the creation of a true community, a network of responsible people actively bringing war veterans back into the embrace of the society they have fought to defend. When soldiers tell their stories there is a chance they will heal their trauma. If we heal trauma we reduce suicides. What is combat veteran trauma? There is an emptiness in the lives of many war veterans that is difficult to fill.

When infantry soldiers and others who actually fight are trained for war. they are trained to be the weapon that we use against aggressors, the sharp edge of the sword that bends our enemies to our will. This is the morality of war, if we can speak of war as a moral thing. We must destroy our enemies before they destroy us. This justification – however much it is believed in the beginning – ultimately fails to convince many soldiers, especially in the kinds of war we have been fighting since 9/11. We have been fighting insurgencies which create a moral dilemma because we kill non-combatants.

Like the Vietnamese in my war, Iraqis and Afghans will resist. They will fight against us. This resistance causes untold civilian casualties, including women and children. The consequence is that we have many soldiers who did their duty honorably but are now afflicted with soul damage, who are suffering from what is called “moral injury.” Moral injury can create a corrosive guilt. Out of this guilt a fateful remorse is born and a terrible sadness that defies healing. Soldiers who return from fighting insurgencies struggle to forget the war, to conquer guilt, to re-integrate. But for some this is very difficult if not impossible.

They do not see any hope of becoming normal again. They are at home, but not at home. Many develop a consciousness of futility which leads to depression. This leads to a desire to end the suffering, to seek solace in oblivion, to just slip away into nothingness. To die.

~ O~

Joe Barrera, Ph.D., is the former director of the Ethnic Studies Program at UCCS, a combat veteran of the Vietnam War and one of the founders of the Colorado Springs Military Veterans’ Community Dialogues.

Almagre Review Logo2

Why We Read: 2

Being a project dedicated to growing Colorado literature, we ask ourselves this question at the Almagre quite a bit. Why build a journal, paper no less, and expect others to read it?

For us, the easy answer is this: pick up a copy of Issue 3, open it, fan the pages, breathe in the spine’s scent. Take it, sit with it, create a silent space. Then…explore the poems within, the stories, the essays, the art. We know that the Authors and Artists in Issue 3 will give any reader their money back many times over…restored in full with ideas, new perspectives, as-yet-learned words, and renewed optimism in the power of imagination.

But that is self-serving. And it’s really about more than our journal. It’s about participation in all that’s going on. Literature promises truth; and that is even when it distorts history, or kneads it, bends it, warps it, or is about hypocrites and thieves and liars; or deals with gouging, skullduggery, banditry, or lowlifes. Literature promises truth, because it triangulates around it, shines a flashlight one way, then another, producing a changing shadow that can provide deeper understanding. The point is, literature begs us to know that any given subject requires curiosity and examination from multiple angles. This curiosity should never end.

We’ve entered an age of alternative facts…and that is a worrying thing. In certain venues, we prefer it one way—facts as facts—a thing which doesn’t build on alternatives but on additions. With literature (fiction and nonfiction), we are faced with an honest proposition: “Here is my side of the story,” or, “Here is a side of the story.” By taking the time to do this, we acknowledge that a gain in understanding is a journey. A matter of course. For those who believe they have reached a destination, we feel pity.

To read is to fend ignorance, acquire knowledge and wisdom, to join the polity as those who would prevent a world of alternative facts. For many of us, it is the way forward.

With Profound Gratitude to all our Readers,

Editor & Artist, John Lewis

 

John & Carol Stansfield Present The Almagre Review’s Second Literary Event: April 20 @ Hooked On Books

Come join us for our second literary salon in anticipation of Earth Day. Thursday afternoon (5:30 pm to 7:30 pm), John and Carol Stansfield will read authors Edward Abbey and Enos Mills, downtown @ Hooked On Books. Admission is FREE!

Janice Gould Presents at Colorado College

The Almagre Review’s first literary salon, April 6, at Colorado College. Janice Gould and the audience read and discuss feminist author, Kate Chopin, and her fiction piece, “The Story of an Hour.”

Issue 2: “Leadership” has Arrived!

It’s official, announcing the arrival of Issue Two.

leadership-cover-2jpeg

The Almagre Review/La Revista Almagre is excited to share the publication of our second issue. We have wonderful local contributors, writers from up and down the front range, from the prairie, all the way to Wisconsin. To purchase a copy online, click HERE ($12 plus shipping). Copies are also available at the downtown locations of Hooked On Books and Poor Richards.

The Almagre Review will be at the Manitou Art Center on December 16th for their art opening. Copies of issues one and two will be available for purchase. Stay tuned for additional dates and events.

Warm Regards,

The Almagre Staff

Contemporary Heroes; Hooked On Books

Yes, in the spirit of leadership, the theme of issue two, we’d like to honor bookstores and especially their proprietors.

The Almagre Review wants to take a minute to thank Hooked On Books for their enduring dedication to Colorado Springs’s local authors. One might not realize this, but Jim and Mary Ciletti devote a tremendous amount of time and resource to writers who publish and sell their work locally.

The bookstore, we all know, is a diminished institution. This is not because we read less than we used to; that is a misconception. We read more than ever. But, we read differently. Deep attention to long, rich works grows scarcer by the year. We collect information like grains of sand blowing through the air. News by captions! This is the age of trying to form complex world-views out of a chaotic constellation of information. Our contemporary consumption of the written word has conferred all its disadvantages upon the local bookstore.

Companies like Barnes and Noble can manage, but even then, not all the large companies survive–Borders went out of business. And for the mom and pops bookstore? To find one is a treasure, to support them–a public service. There’s a touch of the heroic, born of faithful dedication, to Jim and Mary Ciletti for their labors in sustaining a brick and mortar location for story enthusiasts like us.

As a gesture of friendship, take the time to stop by Hooked On Books, or any bookstore. The Almagre recommends this from a place of deep gratitude. While there, let Mary or Jim know, that it was at the urging of Colorado’s newest literary journal. Most importantly, ask the proprietor, “what book by a local author do you suggest today?”

bookstore-graphic