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Grailing, Vol 1., No. 5




Contents


O Captain, My Captain, a short biography of our Writer-in-Residence, Captain Warren Blake

New Leaves, new poetry from our Poet-in-Residence Ben Niles

Habit, poetry by Ben Niles

Just Passing Through, a story of fortune's wheel by Joe Kilgore

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




Biography

by Captain Warren Blake

Born at a very early age into absurd privilege: an average middle-class Pakeha Family in NZ in 1940. Avocation:Lifetime Imposter, who would stoop to joining a Club which would have him as a Member.

Theology, (Failed), expelled Sunday School ‘49

B.Sc (Physics) Auckl. U.1961. (C+) Like all members of Family of Sir Peter Blake, NZ Sporting Hero, built small yacht, sailed away from Auckland ’64,”to Sail around the World.” Parents encouraged this, but expected Return, Settle Down, Proper Job, Marry Local Lass…subject suspected something different beyond the far horizon, or even Somebody different in a distant land. At first port-of-call, (French Colony of Nouvelle Caledonie) admired sylph-like Lasses with long, glossy black hair and warm brown eyes. Author too shy to chat in Schoolboy Francais, although those warm eyes and sparkling teeth did indeed flash, briefly. French friends informed “Elles sont Tonquinoises tres belles!” Consulted Atlas: Tonquin in Central VN. “That would be a fine place to visit!” Never dreamed that near a decade later would marry une Tonquinoise; 50th. Anniversary now passed; Gorgeous Grand Children in Melbourne, US Virgin Isles. Sailed up-river to Saigon in ’65. Enchanted, spent near seven years there, the entire American War. In those early days, never dreamed of the Opportunity, Adventure, Femininity and Family on offer in that Gracious Old Whore of a City, one beset about with relentless, Besieging Barbarians,…many stories...(End of an Era: Saigon before the Fall), plus Family Epic spanning 100yrs; in progress.

The 4 decades following VN were spent in full-time, unconstrained Exploration in own Schooner (pic) of the Seas and Jungle Rivers of SE Asia and Indian Ocean: seven years of Treasure Hunting beneath the Sea, decades of dive charters, TV crews (BBC, Disc.Ch, Survivor), a thousand Young School and Uni Students on Adventure Voyages to Idyllic Tropic Isles hid beneath the Far Horizon, with turquoise lagoons and gleaming, white beaches where our footprints of the evening before are wiped clean by the night’s tide, now a pristine strand. In between sea-going adventures, Author propped up numerous bars in obscure Eastern ports or rivers, meeting various Scoundrels, and a few Saints, whereupon the question, “Can I buy you a beer?” often elicited a Tale worth embellishing. These activities offered multifarious connections with the various and the nefarious: Scientists & Spies, Diplomats & Defectors, Paupers & Pirates, Saints & Scoundrels, Journalists & Juveniles; (the worst depicted in Lost in Asia; and other Tales of Human Frailty; and the best, through whose young eyes the Captain saw all the Magic anew, described in Sailing with Youngsters). These stories include one fat historical novel, A Long Way from Home, set in Borneo in the ‘50’s (1850’s that is), the time of Sir James Brooke, famous “White Rajah of Sarawak”; adventures amongst the People of the Ulu, the Headwaters of the great jungle rivers, the Author’s favourite Society on the planet; rivaled admittedly by that of Wife’s folk in Viet Nam. Was never quite at home in 20th., refused to enter 21st. Have accepted Faustian Bargain to be born again in 1748, in Cornwall, hoping to sail with James Cook…this in exchange for what’s left of Immortal Soul. Not yet consummated. A different, Unfinished Historical MS, in progress, depicts Life of Midshipman Patrick Saunders, RN, Deserter from HMS Endeavour in futile pursuit of Tahitienne Nymph, and subsequent three decades as sole Haole in various Isles of Late 18th.C. Polynesia. Need actual, real-time experience of that Era to flesh out details, but strangely reluctant to leave 21st locked-down Melbourne and three generation Family just yet.  Need a potential Publisher to encourage consummation of Faust, et alii. In all this time as Adventurer, Looter, Smuggler, Imposter, contributed not a cent to the Grossness of the National Product, never an Honest Day’s Work, ain’t never paid no Taxes. Fifty Years of undetected Bending of the Law! Avoided Tar and Feathers, Time behind Bars, the Noose, solely because of Felicitous, Undeserved Marriage. Reasons for seeking to Publish: Now, in 2022, with his Schooner “trapped” by Covid in Bali, the Captain is in sole command of a Sofa in Melbourne, facing the horrors of premature “retirement”; and only 82! After poring through faded fotos, dusty diaries and misty memories, he seeks to publish hundreds of stories already writ, memories of old friends, and other Scoundrels, some already passed, and of many other adventures near forgotten…before they fade away. pC: (post Covid): Schooner “rescued,” refitted, Captain rejuvenant after two 10-day Expeditions to his Favourite Island Archipel in all the Tropic Seas with 24 Youngsters on a school charter…the very definition of “rejuvenate.” Future uncertain.


 


New Leaves

by Ben Niles

“What good amid these?” was the question on

the table between glasses and ash trays,

crystal, silver, candlelit.

Someone raised an eyebrow and someone else admitted

to not knowing the reference, alas.

Jazz was spinning; it was an attempt. At what,

exactly? Exactly.

Dad once told me he could never sell you on liking things

he liked, said he wrote it off as a generational thing,

then pushed his glasses up and smiled how he does

when he’s covering for you.

After all, he left you his vinyl.

And I got his books.

Outside, falling snow made us feel a privacy

that should have been foreign, should have cracked,

should have muted the laughter or at least questioned

the cigarettes or the reintroduction of the melody.

I said “Whitman” too loudly with my eyes on the

middle distance, and you looked at the others

and laughed.




 


Habit

by Ben Niles

My household drowses:

the dog in its bed,

my wife beneath a blanket

in our living room.

The light blazes

off the upper reaches,

and in a minute or two

the afternoon will have passed.

October fades in practice more than theory.

There aren’t enough leaves yet to rake.

The bedsheets don’t need cleaning.

Today, I stacked the plates the same way,

and I made tea, too.

And tomorrow is one day

closer to Halloween,

when we parade masks and demons.



Ben Niles studied English & American Literature and Language at Harvard University, and he earned his Master’s degree from Middlebury College’s Bread Loaf School of English. He lives in Boston with his wife, Sophie, and their dog, Roo.


 


Just Passing Through

by Joe Kilgore


Some say a dry wind blew him into town along with the dust of a typical August afternoon. No one claimed to know him or his history, and he was not one to divulge information voluntarily. He carried no valise, backpack, or other visual means of travel, yet his rumpled clothing told a story of time on the road. Where had he come from? Where was he going? Why was he here? All questions without answers the first time he took a stool at Dooley’s Diner and ordered coffee, black, no sugar.

The waitress tried to make conversation without employing interrogatives but there’s only so much that can be said about weather that isn’t bad, acquaintances that aren’t shared, and current events that have long since stopped being current. Such is the plight however, of a tired woman hoping to turn a cup of joe into a piece of pie, a hamburger, a bigger tip. Over the span of a human life there are few times individuals are thought of as mysterious. Being a stranger in a small town is one of those times. He didn’t seem to revel however in his temporary status. He just sat drinking his coffee as if he had nothing better to do. In point of fact though, he did, and he would soon get on with his business.

The other customers at Dooley’s made up their own backstories for our newcomer. Their mental depictions were completely personal and not based on anything other than boredom and poor imaginations. You couldn’t blame them for trying though. Little of import ever really happened within their quiet city limits.

Coffee finished, he ambled along the sidewalk with his right hand stuffed in his trouser pocket while his left cradled a burning cigarette. Behind him, the deputy sheriff’s squad car crept along like a slow loris on the trail of an ant. The man behind the wheel harbored the illusion that the stranger might flick the coffin nail away, thereby providing an opportunity to confront him with the village’s ongoing commitment to keep its streets free of unsightly trash. That would also create an opening to demand the interloper’s driver’s license or other means of identification. It didn’t do to have someone in town that the law was not familiar with. But the stranger thwarted the lawman’s plan. He took a last long drag, stubbed the fire-end out on a post, and dropped the butt into his pocket. An educated man might have chalked the spoiled scheme up to Robert Burns’ admonition about best laid plans, but the deputy was not now, nor had he ever been, on a first name basis with the Romantic poets.

Park benches are known to inherently possess Siren songs. They lure passersby with a promise of quiet respite. The stranger was no exception and took a seat facing the largest edifice on the town square, the courthouse. There’s something majestic about these architectural icons to law and order. Perhaps it’s their columnar exteriors and not the crude downhome justice meted out within. Or perhaps injustice is a better description of what goes on within such hallowed halls. And though law is supposed to be the counterweight for the fact that might makes right, there always seems to be a heavier thumb on the might side. That particular inequality was the very reason the quiet stranger found himself taking up space on the filigreed bench mere steps away from the local government’s house of moral absolutes.

This day being the Sabbath, there were a few gawkers strolling the sidewalk that surrounded the courthouse, but there were none entering and leaving as its doors were locked. The stranger was content to pass the hours on the bench appearing to simply smoke and gaze. In reality, he was rehearsing. He’d had two years as a non-volunteer member of one of the county’s day-labor chain gangs to lay this plan. Hard work was the key to rehabilitation they had told him and as usual they were full of shit. Hard work, was simply fodder for an unceasing appetite for protein and revenge.

When the stranger previously passed through this burg on his way to a new job a couple of years ago he consumed a few too many beers and wound up heaving a rock through a glass door. The presiding judge viewed his unseemly behavior as attempted robbery rather than vandalism under the influence—resulting in an extended sentence that cost him a job, freedom, and any kind of future that didn’t begin with the sobriquet, ex-con. No, the stranger simply couldn’t get over the feeling that the punishment dealt him had far exceeded his crime.

The day eventually graduated to night. There were no longer couples strolling or families wandering about. It was a good time to act. Slipping on a pair of gloves he had folded and stuffed into each back pocket prior to his arrival, he rose and began to walk to the rear of the courthouse. There, he found windows at the bottom of the building indicating a basement within. Balling his right hand into a fist, he punched out the glass and listened for a possible alarm. There was only silence. So he decided the gods were on his side. Slithering through the open space he had created, he indeed found himself in a basement storage room. The angle of the moon provided enough light to find the door. He opened it and slowly ascended the staircase to the main floor. From there, it was easy for him to find the ornate courtroom where he had been sentenced to two years in the work detail. Taking some measure of self-satisfaction in his accomplishments thus far, he strode leisurely to the elevated bench and took a seat in the very chair where his prejudicial punishment had been handed down. The trappings of power bordered the center of the judges throne. A wooden mallet, used to call the proceedings to order was on the left. On the right, stood a pitcher of water and a glass still half full. They must have been in a hurry to get away for the weekend, he mused.

From the left inside pocket of his jacket, he removed a single stick of dynamite. From the right, a lengthy fuse. Carefully, he attached the fuse to the explosive, leaving it more than long enough to give him time to retrace his previous steps and vacate the premises before it opened a crater in, as he saw it, this hall of infamy. Removing a small box of matches from the pocket of his pants, he took one last look at what would soon be shards and ashes. Then he lit the fuse and placed the dynamite on the floor beneath the center of the bench. As he stood to leave, he took a second look at the gavel. Why not, he decided. A souvenir. Scooping it up, he turned quickly to begin his exit. When he did, the gavel in his hand knocked the pitcher off the bench. Screw it, he said to himself, the fuse was still burning and it was definitely time to depart.

The stranger bolted from the courtroom, hurried down the stairs, and dashed back into the storage room. As he was hurriedly making his escape, he had no way of knowing that the water seeping from the overturned pitcher had made its way to the dynamite and puddled just enough to drown the flame. He also had no way of knowing that when he broke the window to get in, he didn’t hear an alarm because the county had installed silent ones. Crawling out of the window he was immediately bathed in the glow from the spotlight on the deputy’s cruiser. Such was the stranger’s surprise, coupled with his assumed need to flee an impending explosion, that he gave no thought to the gavel still in his hand. The deputy however, did. He felt it was a weapon in the paw of a criminal. And as remarked earlier, while the lawman had little literary expertise, he was extremely adept with the action, operation, and use of his 30-ought-6 Springfield rifle.

Big events in small towns tend to have long lifespans. It was quite a while before the citizenry stopped talking about the explosion that never happened, the stranger no one could put a name to, and the deputy who surprisingly retired after that night. But eventually, the episode and its participants were seldom spoken of, and only infrequently recollected. Such is the nature of life on this particular planet we’re just passing through.


Joe Kilgore is an award-winning writer of novels, novellas, screenplays, and short stories. His work has appeared in magazines, creative journals, anthologies, and online literary publications. Prior to developing his own work for page and screen, Joe created television, radio, newspaper, and magazine advertising for an international advertising agency. He lives and writes in Austin, Texas. You can learn more about Joe and his work at his website: https://joekilgore.com.



 


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 2—


Hopscotch Julio Cortázar . 1963 Walter Benjamin sadly died far too soon to see Julio Cortázar’s masterwork published, but when he suggested that “All great works of literature either dissolve a genre or invent one,” he must have had a book like Hopscotch in mind. When you open it, a ‘Table of Instructions’ informs you that “this book consists of many books, but two books above all. The first can be read in a normal fashion and it ends with chapter 56, at the close of which there are three garish little stars which stand for the words The End.” And if you read it that ‘normal’ way, you’ll have left 99 chapters unread. Tantalizingly, you’re then informed that you could instead choose to follow a suggested pathway through the novel, beginning with chapter 73 and hopping (hence the title) back and forth until you’ve read it all, reaching a far more satisfying manifestation of The End than those garish little stars. If the word ‘gimmick’ has come to your mind, Hopscotch may not be the novel for you. But it’s a work of unconventional genius, structurally brilliant, lyrical, with bohemian characters in Paris and Argentina that are alive with intellect, mystery, and wit. Robinson Crusoe Daniel Defoe . 1719 Some would argue that Daniel Defoe was one of the “founders” of the novel genre, along with fellow 18th century authors like Richardson and Fielding. Others—including yours truly—give that honor to Miguel de Cervantes and Don Quixote, who was tilting at windmills more than a hundred years before Robinson Crusoe was stranded on his island. (I’ll entertain the claim that Murasaki Shikibu got there first with her early-11th century prose epic, The Tale of Genji; it’s just that no one seemed to follow suit for six hundred years…). All of this is to say: while I might not call Defoe a founding father of the novel, he was certainly a skilled early practitioner, so skilled that he amusingly didn’t get initial recognition for Robinson Crusoe, because readers believed it to be a true autobiographical survival account of the titular hero’s twenty-eight years somewhere far beyond the shores of Venezuela and the outskirts of the Caribbean Sea. Ultimately, regardless of Defoe’s status as an early novelist, he wrote a compelling tale that has stood the test of time, published 281 years before Castaway and Tom Hanks made us genuinely mourn the loss of a volleyball. Invisible Man Ralph Ellison . 1952 The impact of Invisible Man extends far beyond the realm of literature. Ellison held a nuanced stance on race and racism, and he was intentional in his resistance to having his novel too easily labeled a ‘protest novel’, but part of the novel’s power lies in its stark depiction of all-too-visible and visceral racism while its narrator grapples with his identity, his invisibility. Invisible Man was not without its critics, including fellow black authors who accused Ellison of misrepresenting black people and their place in early 20th century America, but Ellison fired back with a piercing question when he asked in a later essay: “Why is it that Sociology-oriented critics seem to rate literature so far below politics and ideology that they would rather kill a novel than modify their presumptions concerning a given reality which it seeks in its own terms to project?” A bold novel with some hard-to-swallow moments, Invisible Man is not just a great, but an important, work. The Unbearable Lightness of Being Milan Kundera . 1984 It’s exceedingly difficult to quantify, but I’d be hard-pressed to find another novel that more aptly embodies the literary spirit of its author to the degree that The Unbearable Lightness of Being does with Milan Kundera. Cast your eyes over a shelf of Kundera’s titles—The Joke, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Immortality, Ignorance, Life is Elsewhere—and you might begin to comprehend the wonderful dual nature of his writing. It is at once light-hearted and serious, satirical but poignant, blending philosophical depth with cynical but earnest investigations into the oft-superficial tribulations and trivialities of humans and their relationships. Fittingly, The Unbearable Lightness of Being begins with a playful yet incisive look at Nietzsche’s notion of Eternal Recurrence: if every moment of every human life is destined to repeat infinitely, is that “the heaviest of burdens” to bear, or are man’s actions consequently “as free as they are insignificant”? Kundera asks, “What then shall we choose? Weight or lightness?” It is well worth reading of the choices made by Teresa, her womanizing husband Tomáš, his mistress Sabina, and her loyal lover Franz during the upheaval of the 1968 Prague Spring. Room Emma Donoghue . 2010 The danger of reading Room is that once you voluntarily enter the world of the novel, you have entered a world that is truly a single small room, out of which there is no escape. The story is told from the perspective of Jack, a five-year-old boy living with his mother. Definite and indefinite articles are largely absent from Jack’s story—it’s not a room, it’s just Room; it’s not the lamp or the bed, they’re simply Lamp and Bed. That linguistic absence bespeaks a presence, something sinister, something to make you ask why these objects are endowed with added significance for Jack, with capitalized names like characters. After all, ‘earth’ means something different from ‘Earth’. Realizing that ‘Room’ is the entirety of Jack’s known world is when you begin to grasp the horrific reality his mother is heroically enduring for his sake. Such is the haunting and moving tale that is Room—mother and son are quite literally in it together, but only one knows that there is a whole world outside to which she has lost access. What happens when she needs to explain to her child that his world is, in fact, their involuntary prison?


[cover art: Pamela Pearce]

 

Grailing, Vol 1., No. 5


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