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  • Writer's pictureGrailing Press

Grailing, No. 12




Contents


Opportunities Lost, An excerpt from Warren Blake's Vietnam-era memoir End of an Era: Saigon Before the Fall

Rehearsal, new poetry from Marian Kaplun Shapiro

Indelible, a poem by Marian Kaplun Shapiro

150 Novels..., a Literary List curated by Poet-in-Residence Ben Niles




The Opportunities!

by Captain Warren Blake


[PRECIS: Chapter One: The Opportunities! The Author arrives in Saigon in ’65, having already met two different wartime challenges. He meets an Australian Army Adventurer, misses an opportunity to follow in his path; is ejected from the US Ambassador's dinner table, and foretells meeting Someone Special.]

 

I found myself at the age of twenty five “on the Doorstep of Opportunity”, although I certainly did not discern then the sublime scope of what was on offer. There follows a brief account of the road to that Door....


I sailed away from Auckland in ’64, ostensibly to “Sail around the World”. This was the accepted thing for members of the family of Sir Peter Blake, Kiwi sailing hero, who did just that a number of times, competitively. My Parents encouraged this caper, but hoped that I would complete a circumnavigation, Settle Down, get a Proper Job, Marry a Local Lass, etc. etc. However, I suspected that I might find something different, even somebody different in a distant land beyond the far horizon. I was, from an early age, an avid scrutineer of Maps, and from adolescence a dreamy romanticist. I remember well a postcard which depicted a Round Maiden with Her sarong loosely knotted low around her hips, who “manned” a small bamboo bar under leaning coco-palms looking out on a glowing tropic beach with a turquoise blue lagoon. The Colours! The Colours!  Reality eventually proved even more colourful.  In truth I was torn between visions of that Round Maiden Anon and ones of Marilyn Monroe, but I figured that a Foreign Imposter would not amount to much on Sunset Boulevard…and it was those Colours!...even more ero…err…exotic than Hollywood what did it.


I and my shipmates, “The Bears” *, voyaged through the Western Pacific, Queensland, Darwin, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and Cambodia, in which places we saw myriad wonderful things and survived numerous sobering adventures...but all that is the stuff of other stories. By this time, early ’65, we were near-penniless.


And by that time aforementioned we had heard rumbles of War, not too distant, and possibly connected rumours of well-paid occupation...all in South Viet Nam, a next-door neighbour. That the rumoured War had a decidedly anti-Communist flavour was no obstacle to democracy-minded Kiwis,  and that the prospective employment there might advance such a worthy cause added spice to the geopolitical dish. So we reluctantly sailed away from our friends in (then) Sihanoukville, an idyllic, cheerful haven in pre-Khmer Rouge days.

Off Ca Mau, the Southern tip of VN, a blistering squall on the nose at 3am forced all sail down...and we all went below to sleep.  With the grey dawn a brisk breath of the SW Monsoon wind blew up, promising rapid passage up the East Coast. A glance around showed no land, only one ship to the SW, its bridge and radar mast visible, its hull below a clear, sharp horizon, like the low-lying VN Coast. I woke the Bears and we hoisted all plain sail plus our big multi-hued spinnaker. Off we went at increasing speed, ten, twelve knots. I glanced astern to admire our creaming wake, and was surprised to see a slender grey vessel dead astern with a white bone in her teeth steaming directly towards us. A look through binoculars confirmed my suspicion; a warship, probably a destroyer, was headed at speed in exactly the same direction as we were...or was she chasing us? She was still three nautical miles or more behind us.


The wind increased, and our light-weight trimaran started surfing down the bigger, ephemeral waves that rolled up behind us, at a good eighteen knots down the wave, and averaging thirteen or more. I looked astern again, the warship was a little closer, and her bow wave now seemed enormous...she had sped up!...to intercept us?


Five minutes later one of the Bears shouted that the ship was signalling...a dim white flashing light was indeed visible on her bridge. I decided we should show some colours, so we secured to a boat hook a huge New Zealand flag that HMNZS Taranaki had given us in Darwin. If we had been equipped with VHF radio, I would have called the warship....but our most sophisticated 20th. C. gear was a tin-opener.


The wind increased some more...we were now surfing down every passing wave, averaging perhaps sixteen to eighteen knots. Astern, our pursuer was a little closer, again, and as I looked, she started signalling once more. My grasp of Morse code was not up to understanding professional flashing of that order. Supposing she were a South Vietnamese vessel we would be legally required to stop since we were within territorial waters...but not for a ship of any other nation. North Vietnamese?...highly unlikely. Chinese? I would refuse to stop. American?...most likely, a possible patrol to intercept Viet Cong arms smugglers, etc. I felt that a USN vessel would hardly fire on an obvious sailing yacht, and we were making great progress, so we surfed on. Admittedly, small sailing yachts were something of a rarity in war-zones. Perhaps the USN had a point?


The “USS Floyd B. Parks, 884” eventually hauled up alongside just thirty meters to port, and several officers on the wing of her bridge pointed at us and made obscure, agitated hand signals. I waved back, cheerily. Jack, irreverent Bear, brought a green bottle of Beer up from below and ostentatiously toasted the Americans...with no complementary reply...USN ships are “dry”, after all. Besides being a trifle annoyed at such a long chase, an hour and a half at least, the Americans were possibly a bit embarrassed that they had taken so long to catch a tiny sailing yacht.


The embarrassment continued. As if to show us just how powerful, fast, and irritated the ship was, she suddenly lurched forward at full power with a great rooster tail under her stern. She certainly moved ahead of us, but when her increasing wake caught up with our “Edward Bear”, we surged forward on the crest of the USN wave, surfing along off the ship’s quarter. Thanks to the permanent, steep wake she was producing we were able to stay perched atop it and keep pace with the US Navy!...surfing at an extraordinary 25knots or so! I was able to edge closer to the ship along the crest so that we could shout greetings to a small and increasing knot of bluejackets perched along her taffrail. They responded cheerily. Jack produced some more beers, and gestured that he would toss them aboard, while asking me to edge closer. The sailors eagerly held out their hands in readiness. I was pondering the wisdom of closing in...the wash looked quite chaotic nearer the stern...when an irate NCO came running aft and ordered our cheerful, thirsty audience back to their parched duties.

Shortly thereafter the ship turned sharply away to port, dislodging us downhill from our perch on the crest, collapsing our spinnaker and enveloping us in a brief, undignified and thoroughly deserved shower of salt spray in her turbulent wake. The Floyd B. Parks continued her turn through 180 and returned to her proper patrol duties.


That was our first taste of the American War, and even back then I sensed a certain air of absurdity about the whole affair, the first of many such irreverencies. I also felt a bit ashamed that we had not been more courteous...more cooperative. I wonder if the name “Edward Bear”, clearly visible on our bow, became an entry in a US Navy logbook?


There was one more obstacle to face before we could sail into Saigon, where we hoped Opportunity beckoned:  sixty eight kilometers of winding tropic river from the sea to the city, a slow passage during which we would probably face ambush by the Viet Cong from the heavily forested banks...as we were cheerfully warned by a friendly Vietnamese officer in a bar in the seaport of Vung Tau (then Cap St. Jacques on my chart). 


Our small sailing vessel, with no engine, would face numerous obstacles, with head winds on many of the winding curves...and contrary currents in all. Tacking back and forth across the river in a head wind we would have presented a sitting target even for the most leisurely ambush, on either bank. Small sailing yachts were indeed an extreme rarity in war zones back in those days.


But here our friend, a Lieutenant in the Army of the Republic of Viet Nam (ARVN) offered a solution. He commanded a tiny minesweeper whose job was to steam close along near the bank of the river while towing gear to cut any wire cables leading from the trees to Viet Cong mines laid in mid-channel. We were pleased to be offered a tow to Saigon the next morning, and we bought him beers out of our scant remaining funds.


We were secured port side-to, as our little mothership scoured the right bank of the river, with any likely ambush expected therefore from starboard. This precaution notwithstanding, I accepted the Captain's invitation to join him in his little, open bridge.  We passed under quite a few overhanging branches, and he asked me to keep a close eye on them as we approached because, "The VC try to hide in the branches and drop grenades on us!”   This was in the days before Agent Orange and river foliage clearance, you understand.


We arrived safely, and gratefully in Saigon and farewelled our friend, who refused our offers of hospitality, as he was planning an early night in order to set out at dawn the next day on his commute back down the river on the ebb tide...on the left bank this time. We inquired; this was not an occasional mission, he had been enduring the same threat of imminent, close-to, deadly ambush every day for many weeks now! He hoped he was due for two days leave “next month”. I often wonder what fate befell Lt. Nguyen Van Trieu, the first of many I still ponder upon, and remember with awe. He was two years younger than I.

 

There were no “Positions Vacant” signs visible on the streets nor in the one English-language newspaper, The Saigon Post, so my shipmates gave up, and took cheerful advantage of a free military flight to Singapore to find work eventually in Darwin, vowing to return. They very generously left more cash with me than they each took with them.

 

I explored the boulevards, cafes and bistros of Saigon, still very French in style in ’65. They were much as I had imagined from my copy of  “The Quiet American”. I decided I could afford a beer in the Hotel Continental, long reputed a watering hole of journalists, colons, diplomats, spies and writers...notably Graham Greene, of course.


At 11am there was only one other patron at the bar, a fellow Caucasian, and no bartender. The other fellow was busy scrutinising, and annotating, a sheaf of loose papers. In shuffling his pages, one remained paused long enough for me to construct, from large black typescript reflected in the mirror behind the bar the letters “...p Secret”. Top Secret! Good Heavens! The reputation of this Grand Old Dame of Hotels still resounded!


I glanced at my neighbour, three stools away, with more interest. He was not a US military man, his hair was a bit too long and unkempt. He was very casually dressed, not your typical diplomat. A journalist would hardly be in possession of stacks of Top Secret documents. A French spy then? Handling stolen secrets in public? The Suspect did not notice my discreet surveillance.


The bartender returned to his duties, and flush with Gallicesque Undercover Gastrique Juices, I attempted to order, en Francais, une biere, s’il vous plait. The very young man seemed not to understand, so I was forced to lapse into my native language, at which the nice young fellow, quite obvious proud of his command of that international lingua franca, asked me what was I doing in Saigon?


I attempted a plausible explanation...sailing a small yacht...3 days ago...etc, etc,  but the bartender expressed puzzlement and so proceeded instead to draw a draught of my first “Bir Ba Muoi Ba” , Beer 33, the national brew.


This brief exchange had not gone unnoticed. The Other Patron, the French Spy, enquired, “Are you Australian?” My accent must have been quite DownUnder in those days, unknown to me then.


“And you sailed into Saigon on a small boat? I don’t believe it!” he continued without waiting for an answer, but dismounting and grabbing his glass, he came to my adjacent stool with a disarming smile. I was beginning to perceive that entering a war-zone in a small yacht was indeed somewhat unusual...and slightly suspect?


I pointed out that I was a Kiwi, and attempted an explanation of my suspect presence with the implausible excuse that I was in Saigon looking for employment.


“Then you might try PA&E, Pacific Architects & Engineers, and even QLJ, Quaymond, Lorrison & Jnutsen, they are both starting on big building projects for the US Military...I bet they are looking for qualified builders...and engineers, surveyors, etc.”


I took mental note of this valuable information, and noted too that this obviously well-informed “French Spy” spoke fair dinkum Oztrylian...confirmed. An Antipodean bond was starting to form.


“Barry”, Aussie indeed, (I did not note his family name at the time) turned out to be an even more mysterious, and more interesting character than my imagined Gallic espion.


Over the space of an hour he related a Tale of Wartime Intrigue well worthy of a Greene or a Fleming novel. That he should spill such truly undercover information to a callow young Kiwi newly arrived under “suspect” conditions, I realize now, was because he trusted virtually no one else in that ancient City of Convoluted Intrigue. By my very virginal innocence and DownUnder origins I was a fit, mute, audience upon which to unload his tale of betrayal and disappointment in what had been, to him, an honest, worthy project.


On the payroll of the Australian Govt, and loosely supported by the CIA, he had been attempting to train, equip and protect a tribal minority in the mountains against the violent aggression of the Communist Viet Cong; as well as against the petty jealousies, corruption and heroin smuggling of his South Vietnamese “Allies”;  against the incompetence and irrational suspicion of his American CIA “handlers”; the devious interventions of Le Deuxieme Bureau; and the casual carelessness of his Oz Govt. employers...all resulting in thoughtless, dangerous disregard for his beloved Montagnard tribal friends. He needed to tell all to a sympathetic ear who had no connections with...“all of the above.”


And I, in my first week in Saigon, had been granted an insight into the geopolitical rivalries and contradictory loyalties that have bedeviled all of the more recent Viet Nam Wars: the Japanese invasion, the anti-colonial Colonial struggle against the French, the Viet Minh resistance, the Viet Cong infiltration...and now the budding American Invasion...this last mislabeled by its proponents, and its detractors, as the “Viet Nam War”. Not to mention a thousand year struggle with VN’s huge neighbour to the North, nor China’s brief, failed invasion of ‘78.


Barry told me that he was due to fly back to Oz for a new chapter in his life, because his CIA handlers “thought I had ‘gone native’…I was appointed Tribal Chief by my Followers!..and that I was fomenting rebellion amongst the Montagnards; some are rumoured to have suggested I should be assassinated!”


After much harrowing detail of the daunting obstacles in his job, Barry grew sentimental about the cheerful loyalty of his “Tiger Men”, of their hospitality, love even, and of their fierce devotion to the protection of their villages and above all, the preservation of their unique, and charming way of life. I saw clearly that, with all these responsibilities and challenges he was but a few years older than I.


“How fascinating! How does a Young Antipodean get to have a job like yours?” I asked casually, not actually applying for a job, really, just a light-hearted comment, you understand.

Barry seemed to ignore my frivolous enquiry, understandably, and looked at his watch, “Whoa, I’m due at the Aussie Embassy to see my Boss!”, and he turned to pack up his “Top Secret” papers lying for all to note on the bar.


“But if you really are keen, I am going back to the Highlands tomorrow for a few days to brief my Mountain Men on new stuff I have learned here in Saigon. Be here, outside, tomorrow at 6am, and you will see a bit of what it’s like up there! Be ready for a bit of jungle-bashing! Nice meeting you!” He thrust his hand out, and was gone.


Of course I was keen! But without an alarm clock I woke at 0530, and rushed, groggy, without coffee to the Continental, closed up, only to wait outside, without coffee, for a full hour without the appearance of a swashbuckling Commander of a fierce, brave warrior force. I was too late.


And while I was very disappointed at missing one opportunity, I was newly awake to to the fascinating prospect that there would be more. Only in a place like Saigon before the Fall!

To enlarge in a very minor way upon the theme of Opportunity: Early in my Saigon years, before sailing away, I found myself at dinner table with the US Ambassador and a dozen others in his home. Opportunities to dine with such a VIP do not arise every day, especially to twenty five-year old imposters...and just how I came to be invited escapes me now...that was near half a Century ago...if indeed I really did enjoy the exalted status of invitee…I could already lay rightful claim to the title of Imposter, after all...but there I was, admittedly at the far, most anonymous end from His Excellency.


Now it happened that at one point an electrician, a local man, entered unobtrusively behind me and proceeded to change the bulb in a nearby standing lamp. When done, he left the room but his small tool bag remained on the floor under the lamp. New to a City under Insurgent Siege, I instantly feared that there might be a Bomb in that bag; my Dinner Companions, after all, presented a fine target, if not Yours truly. I looked around anxiously; the Ambassador droned on about Grand Strategy, or similar, and everyone listened agog. I determined, briefly, that I was too ill-informed, too junior to everybody else, to mention...surely all the other Guests were widely experienced Old Asia Hands?


Then the notion that a possible Bomb should be ignored because the Most Junior Diner, possibly only that Most Junior had noticed...? As quietly and as discreetly as possible I edged out of my chair, sidled along behind two rapt Diners and bent to gently open the bag a little. It was almost empty, two screw drivers and a pair of pliers....no Bomb! I edged back to my seat, hoping that my ignorant indiscretion had gone unnoticed.


Not so! I had barely relaxed into an attentive pose with my eyes on the Ambassador when to my surprise he said quietly, “Well done, Young Man! Not sure how that technician was allowed in like that!” He applauded by clapping his hands quietly and briefly. Two Diners opposite me, who had apparently watched me, also clapped. All the others looked around towards me, in surprise.


“He suspected, quite understandably, that there might be a bomb in that bag there!” His Excellency said, pointing. “And he checked!” I felt vindicated, briefly, but the general reaction seemed a collective shrug...perhaps this sort of thing often happened.

The Dinner progressed, with me very much anonymous again...but basking in a little, modest adulation.


But once again my Youthful Inexperience was to intrude, literally this time, onto that white linen covered dinner table. After dinner coffee was served in the inimitable Franco-Viet style: “Caphe philtre.” This consists of a small filter on the top of each cup from which the brew drips. There was now one such in front of each guest. Unsure, I watched the other, experienced elders. I saw that after some minutes they removed the filter...philtre...and placed it down on the table. I did the same, and like the others, sipped at the sublime syrup, then followed with interest an expert exposition on the State of Affairs in SE Asia.


After a few minutes, a certain air of anxious inattention seemed to pervade my end of the table. Some more minutes and I realized that the supposed “inattention” was actually directed, with acute attention, towards me, or at least towards my right elbow. I glanced there, to see, to my horror, that a dark brown stain was visibly expanding out half way across the immaculate white table cloth, and centred, centrifugally, on my discarded filter...philtre.

As the gradual but very conspicuous discolouration spread towards the opposite side, my previous anonymity collapsed and at least half the table were all glaring at me. The Ambassador perforce, bereft of admiring attention, paused in his monologue, stood up for a better view, then brusquely summoned an aide and gestured pointedly at me, whereupon Security escorted me out of the room, and out of the front gate onto a rain-swept street with never a Cyclo nor a Blue & Yellow Cab in sight. And I had managed only one sip of my Caphe! For some strange reason I never sat at dinner again around that polluted table for the remainder of my years in Saigon. This was one Occasion in my Life, at least, where the Insidious Imposter was rightly unmasked...and brusquely ejected.


In the following weeks I learned that the cap, with small handle, that sits atop the fi...philtre is normally first turned over and placed on the table, forming a shallow cup, whereupon the...philtre can now be safely placed to catch remaining drips of Caphe. Another one of Life’s Lessons Learned...too late, as always.


One much more substantial Opportunity on offer in Saigon was an exquisitely Vietnamese one...


After we sailed away from Auckland in early ’64, our first Port-o’-call was Noumea in Nouvelle Caledonie. Amongst very new sights and impressions there was a luminous one that I could admire only from a distance: young, Sylph-like Lasses with long, glossy black hair and warm brown eyes. I was yet to acquire any of my International Imposter Insolence of later years and was thus too shy to approach these Sirenes with my Schoolboy Francais, although some of them, it seemed, did flash those warm brown eyes, briefly.  Of course I enquired. “Elles sont Tonquinoises tres belles!” my French friends explained. Although well informed geographically in general, I had to consult an atlas...Tonquin, in Central Viet Nam.  That would be a fine place to visit!...I thought at the time.


Now it so happened that some years later a young Tonquinoise named Nguyen Thi Ngoc Tue (NTNT* to the Old Hands), with very long glossy black hair and warm brown eyes, was working in a modern air-conned office in a fashionable part of downtown Saigon for a pleasant foreign boss who later became a long term family friend of ours. Just why She felt the urge to answer an advertisement by an obscure firm of upstarts for, amongst other skills, a Secretary, has never been explained. But she did climb on her Yamaha motorcycle, in her miniskirt, and rode towards Applied Technical Services.*       


Our company was located deep in a squalid part of the docks of Saigon, at the end of a narrow, pot-holed, dusty and very congested road. Half way down she asked herself what on Earth was she doing there?..and did a U-turn. Shortly thereafter she ended up enveloped in exhaust fumes under the noon-day tropic sun at the tail-end of a military convoy stalled in a traffic jam. So she then thought that having come so far, she might as well...so she turned again...and climbed the stairs to our office in her miniskirt. To this day each of the Four Friends* alleges it was he who decided to hire Nguyen Thi Ngoc Tue.                                                                                                            

Tue did decide to leave our employ after a year, and it was then that I realized that I missed her company.               

                                                                                               

She now has one Daughter and one Son and three GrandChildren, and we will celebrate fifty years of marriage in early 2022, next month. I shudder to contemplate my Life, surely dismal and brief;  and the non-existence of my Gorgeous GrandChildren,  should that military traffic jam have cleared away quickly.      

                                                                       

85%**


*More info on these vague references is lodged elsewhere in my writings, perhaps to be published anon.


PS:  Not until decades later, early ’22, while we are in Covid-constrained Melbourne with our Daughter have I learned more about Major Barry Petersen, who did some of his early special services training at Victoria Barracks just two blocks away from where we live.


Petersen did indeed offend some in the CIA, and definitely many South Vietnamese military and political officials, simply because in bolstering the ability, and the confidence, of his Montagnards in facing, and defeating Viet Cong incursions, he allso enhanced their pride in their distinctive culture. And I note that immediately after my brief encounter with Petersen, he was celebrated and feasted for two whole weeks by the Montagnards before leaving them for good…now I really do regret not following him to the Mountains for such a Celebratory, Cornucopian Caper!..having joyfully experienced mere two-three day Parties with the People of the Ulu, the Longhouse dwellers of the Headwaters of the rivers of Borneo, themselves distant, but related Anthropological Cousins of Barry’s Montagnards (see “A Long Way from Home”)   

 

Petersen’s support enabled the Montagnards to assert more independence from their paternalist Vietnamese overlords...indeed, to the point where some groups, not Petersen’s, actively rebelled in ’64. The Vietnamese officials, of course, complained to the CIA, who in turn accused Petersen of “going native”, which to them meant undermining CIA and Government influence. He was directly accused of fostering a personality cult amongst his followers...and in an unconfirmed report, a CIA officer warned him that he might suffer an accident and go home in a body bag. On the other hand he was, upon his departure, awarded the Vietnamese Military Cross for gallantry, and his Australian CO wrote a glowing commendation.          

                                                                  

In an Obituary for Petersen in the Sydney Morning Herald, 6 Mar.2019, his biographer, Frank Walker, related that,like Marlon Brando’s character Colonel Kurtz in the movie Apocalypse Now, he got too close to the natives and the CIA wanted him out, dead or alive”. Walker relates how Petersen was struck by the parallels between his experiences and that of Coppola’s cinematic version of Conrad’s character in “Heart of Darkness”, and was enraged when told that the CIA had planned to kill him if he did not abandon his beloved Montagnards.


I can readily believe that Barry Petersen’s story inspired ‘Apocalypse Now’, wherein the very real folly and absurdity of covert war as enacted around the Australian was magnified beyond absurdity. I too, can feign rage that “Apocalypse Now, Redux”, the long, uncut version, appears to have plagiarised my account, after it was first writ, of a PBR, River Patrol Boat, that towed water-skiers while under VC fire;  in Coppola’s version a mere enlisted crewman, in my case the far more cinematic Girls of the Pink Pussy Cat! (see Ch.Four: C’est la Guerre!”). And in addition, Coppola seems to have borrowed both my shady, French planter/collaborateur “Le Corse”, and my crazed Colonel Scheisskofpt (“Postscript Fiasco”), both greatly magnified on celluloid.


However, instead of sueing Director Coppola, I am prepared to grant that perhaps our separate accounts converge in portraying reality: the Folly! The Absurdity!...The Horror!

 

 

[**Editor's Note: Captain Warren Blake, all-around seafarer, adventurer, gentleman, and raconteur, often lists percentages at the end of his stories to capture the truth contained in a given account. 85% or higher signals the most veracious of tales. For a biography of this ]




 



Rehearsal

by Marian Kaplun Shapiro


Start at Measure 10.  The conductor 

lifts his arms. And! His right hand guillotines 

the air. Now! Music rises out of nowhere,  

bearing us weightless on its unworldly wings. 

 

Now. Where is that moment? It’s passed 

before us, faster than a thought.  

No hope but to start. Starting’s the thing. 

After that it’s old news. 




 



Indelible

by Marian Kaplun Shapiro



“…those places in us, like your dog’s bruised head,

that are bruised forever, that time/never assuages, never”

Denise Levertov


Our old kitchen table is getting grimy.

Who knows when it was last given a good scrub.

Brillo, Ajax, a spritz of Windex, a soupçon of Clorox.

Sponges, paper towels, even toothbrushes - will it

return to shiny newborn-ness, to its old Sears roots,

to its home in our first just-married kitchen? There

we inched along the path, husband/wife, wife/husband.

Nevertheless, we hurt each other’s feelings out of ignorance

and childishness. We’d laugh now, ruefully, but we can’t

recall the subjects that we clashed about. Because

we weren’t there at all - just two small children

who had never met, sitting at this table

upset about - what?


There’s a dime-sized yellow spot I can’t quite scrub away

no matter what I do. Pale, almost invisible, it taunts me,

glowers at me as the morning sun highlights its golden shadow.

Still here, it gloats. Shades of turmeric, I think, and, like a dream,

the ghost of takeout vindaloo and biriyani rises, the spicy heat

set to the fire our Indian friend preferred. Indelible. Faded, but indelible,

that spot. Once painful, shocking, excruciating, those ancient hurts,

like that curry stabbing our tongues. Now we’re laughing, re-imagining

our friend, joking in his loving way, as he commandeered the hot sauce,

announcing “Now that will put some taste to it!”

as we reached desperately

for the water pitcher.


Marian Kaplun Shapiro, a practicing psychologist, is the author of a professional book, Second Childhood (Norton, 1988), her first poetry book, Players In The Dream, Dreamers In The Play (Plain View Press, 2007) and two chapbooks. A resident of Lexington, she is a five-time Senior Poet Laureate of Massachusetts. She was nominated for the Pushcart Prize in 2012 and 2021. Her collection of experimental poems, At The Edge Of The Cliff, was published by Plain View Press in January 2021. Her latest book, Upbringing, a collection of graphic poems, was published by Plain View in January, 2023.

 

 


 



150 Novels to Read in a Lifetime is a list of great novels selected by Ben Niles, the Grailing Press 2023-2024 Poet-in-Residence. It is an unranked list that includes works by 150 different writers, so any given author will have only one novel included on the list. Ben is fully aware that his selections (or more probably, his omissions) may incur the literary ire of Dear Readers everywhere, but it’s a burden he is willing to bear. Finally, the 150 novels also fall evenly (fifty novels each) across three time-spans: up to 1935, 1936 to 1979, and 1980 to the present. See Ben’s introduction to the list and explanation of the selection criteria here.



Group 9—

 

The Savage Detectives

Roberto Bolaño . 1998

 

Perhaps only in the Latin American literary tradition—with its forefather Borges and mid-century masters like Cortázar, Vargas Llosa, García Márquez, Fuentes, Cabrera Infante and others—could a novel exist with protagonists so elusive that we must rely on a collage of narrators giving us fragmentary insights and opinions about them and their bohemian peregrinations in pursuit of their equally elusive idée fixe, Tinajero, a mysterious lost poet of the 1920s connected to the poetic movement to which the protagonists (the titular savage detectives) belong. In the figures of the protagonists, “Visceral Realists” Ulises Lima and Alberto Belano, we see Bolaño himself, founder of the Infrarealist poetic movement in Mexico City in the 1970s, which strived—like the Beat Generation before it—to combat the cultural norms of the time. But the connections to Bolaño’s life alone aren’t what make The Savage Detectives such an intriguing novel; it’s his masterful use of that panoply of narrative voices in the book’s middle section that keeps us invested in the ethereal Lima and Belano, and the Pynchon-esque ensemble of odd (but tangible in their oddity) characters from across Mexico, South America, Israel, Europe, and West Africa. It’s a trip; enjoy it!

 

 

The Bell Jar

Sylvia Plath . 1963

 

Although Sylvia Plath is better known as a brilliant confessional poet (and, sadly, for the tragic manner in which she committed suicide), her only novel is undoubtedly important, and it offers a heartbreaking and starkly effective depiction of her protagonist’s descent into madness. The novel is consequently often deemed a roman à clef because of the parallels to Plath’s own struggles with depression and mental health, but regardless of its classification as semi-autobiography or fiction, the story of Esther Greenwood’s decline is a remarkable one. Esther is twenty years old, highly intelligent and attractive, but her sense of identity is tightly bound to her place in academia and society and to her romantic/sexual relationships. As she takes an internship in New York City away from school and away from her boyfriend, we see Esther’s psyche begin down a path that will include psychotherapy and other (now questionable) treatments available in the 1950s. It is certainly an affecting novel, and the fact that Esther’s breakdown is—as a reader—so convincing and thoroughly rendered only adds a chilling layer to the knowledge that Plath took her own life just a month after The Bell Jar was published.

 

 

All the Light We Cannot See

Anthony Doerr . 2014

 

In brief, imagistic, lyrical chapters alternating between the young lives of Marie-Laure and Werner, All the Light We Cannot See is—in this humble reader’s opinion—one of the truly great novels of our current century. Marie-Laure lives with her father, the lock-master in Paris’s Museum of Natural History, and Werner is a German orphan whose fascination and technical skill with radios leads to his being reluctantly swept into the Nazi youth. When the Germans occupy Paris, Marie-Laure and her father flee to the beautiful walled city on the sea, Saint-Malo, having secretly absconded with a priceless jewel from the museum, preventing the Nazis from possessing it. As the novel and the war progress, Marie-Laure and Werner’s lives draw nearer to each other, and Anthony Doerr’s interweaving of their stories is nothing short of masterful. I can’t put it better than author J.R. Moehringer did: “Doerr sees the world as a scientist, but feels it as a poet. He knows about everything—radios, diamonds, mollusks, birds, flowers, locks, guns—but he also writes a line so beautiful, creates an image or scene so haunting, it makes you think forever differently about the big things—love, fear, cruelty, kindness.”

 

 

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

Lewis Carroll . 1865

 

A book that has never been out of print since it was published in 1865, and which has inspired adaptations in film, theater, musical theater, and even opera and ballet, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is the children’s literature masterpiece of Reverend Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, the Oxford logic and mathematics don better known as Lewis Carroll. It’s hard to imagine a world without Carroll’s cast of characters firmly in the common cultural lexicon. The White Rabbit who is running late, the Hatter and his mad tea party, the Queen of Hearts with her penchant for croquet and capital punishment, the Cheshire Cat and his wide smile, and the hookah-smoking Caterpillar with a gruff demeanor—all these and more populate Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. We can thank a real girl (Alice Liddell, daughter of Lewis Carroll’s friend Henry Liddell) for the existence of the fantastical novel, since Carroll took note of the fact that she particularly requested that he write down the episodes he told her, unlike some of the other whimsical stories he invented to entertain her. Alice had the good sense to like this nonsense story full of topsy-turvy logic and wonderful humor; if you don’t… off with your head!

 

 

On the Road

Jack Kerouac . 1957

 

When I was twenty-two, I drove across the country from my childhood home in Massachusetts to Los Angeles. Leaving familiar New England behind, my first stop was State College, PA, a true “college town” dominated by its football stadium and giftshops selling blue-and-white paraphernalia. Day two: corn. Seemingly eleven hours of it. I crossed the Mississippi on day three and spent my third night somewhere outside Omaha, Nebraska (more corn). Then I picked up my uncle in Denver, whence we checked out Mesa Verde, Bryce Canyon, and other geohistorical wonders. Dropping him in Las Vegas for his flight home, I continued westward, sun-glare in my face, worldly possessions stuffed from glovebox to tailpipe of my Saab station wagon, and I didn’t stop until Costa Mesa, CA, which—you can look it up—has no costa; just mesa. Maybe one day I’ll write the full story of my journey there and back again, but without question it will utterly pale in comparison to the bold, brilliant, American novel that is On the Road, the defining book of the Beat Generation. Self-discovery, sex, jazz, poetry, art, drugs, adventure; Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty (i.e. Kerouac and his friend) drive for it all.

 

 



[Cover Photo: Adrien Olichon]


 

Grailing No. 12


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