Book Review: “Cane” by Jean Toomer

I’m torn about this book.

There’s no doubt in my mind that it’s beautiful. I can give it full marks for that, but for some reason enough of it did not resonate inside me to leave me wanting more of it.

IMG_8458

The book is a collection of short stories and poetry, based around black experience both in the rural south and up North during the 1900’s to 1920’s. Every piece had a wandering, lost, sort of feeling to it, reminiscent of the author himself, who spent most of his life suspended between the worlds of white and black, due the to racism of his day. My version of the book had a fairly extensive biographical portrait of the author at the end, which helped to pinpoint the inspiration for a lot of the pieces within the collection. And though it is a collection, I have seen it called a novel. This is probably because as you’re reading you see little connections here and there, linking everything together in a sort of chain.

The longest and final piece in the collection is written in a very interesting style, a sort of mixture between prose and play. The dialogue attributions are not done with the usual, “he said” and “she said,” but like a play have the speaker’s name with a colon. All of the poetry was beautiful, and this same beautiful use of language spilled into the short stories, making them a kind of prose poetry.

As lovely as this book was, only a few of the short stories really grabbed me, and the very last and longest story was not one of them. Perhaps it was this that left me feeling a bit torn about the whole collection. It was almost like reading a really good book with a disappointing ending. I have seen many reviews online about how wonderful the final story is, and the author himself admitted in a letter that the main character in it reflects his personal experience, but I wasn’t moved by it the way I was when I read “Passing” or “Their Eyes Were Watching God.”

If you’ve read it or plan to read it, I’d love to hear your thoughts. Leave them in the comment section, along with any recommendations for me to add to my ever lengthening “to read” list.

How We Met: featuring Sad Robert, the Gloomy Bear

I was on a bench in the park when he sat down beside me. The boards creaked beneath his weight. I felt his heavy breathing and heard him sigh. When I looked up, I tried not to panic.

IMG_4265It’s not within my usual daily experience to find a large brown grizzly bear sitting beside me on a park bench, or any bench for that matter. I comforted myself by remembering I never heard him approach since I was so absorbed in my book. If his object had been to hurt me, he already would have done so. Besides he didn’t look very threatening, just sad. I decided not to run away screaming, and casually turned the page of my novel to resume reading. He sighed again, the heavy hearted sigh of a bear in the midst of some deep trouble or other. The park was empty today but for us and he could have sat on any empty bench. Assuming he was lonely, I closed my book, marking my place with my finger, and cleared my throat. He turned his head towards me. His sad brown eyes looked briefly at me then turned to gaze mournfully over my head at the surrounding park.

“Good morning,” I said.

He didn’t seem to hear me, so I cleared my throat and repeated, “I said, good morning.”

He heaved another sigh and mumbled in a deep gruff voice, “Maybe it is and maybe it isn’t.” I eyed him curiously. After a few silent minutes he sighed again and slowly turned his head towards me. “I don’t suppose you have change for a dollar?”

I checked my pockets. “I’m afraid not. Just a dime and a five.”

He sighed and closed his eyes. “I might have guessed it.” He turned his mournful expression out over the park. We sat for a while, watching the leaves skitter and blow in the breeze before I spoke again.

“You seem to be in some sort of trouble.” He made a noise deep in his throat, but other than that made no reply. “Perhaps,” I said. “If you tell me what’s troubling you, I can be of some help.”

He grunted and raised his eyebrows. “I doubt it.”

“Well, would it hurt to try?”

He didn’t answer immediately, but when he did he pressed his paw to his forehead and messaged his temples. His deep rumbling voice made the bench tremor as he spoke.

“Well, it all started yesterday,” he began, his eyes roaming slowly over the empty park. “It began just like any other day. I woke up, made my bed, took a nice cold shower and brushed my teeth. I live on Acorn Street in an apartment above the fishmonger. I usually take a walk before breakfast, so I put on my rubber boots and headed out.” He paused and leaned his elbows on his legs. “I didn’t realize I had left the door open. My cat ran away.”

“Your cat?” I asked.

“Yup. Her name’s Sniffles on account of her allergies. She kept telling me she needed air, space, to chase butterflies. I didn’t think she meant it.”

“I see,” I said, though I didn’t see at all. This was the first bear I’d met with a pet cat.

He nodded slowly at me. “So I drove to the airport and flew my helicopter to Sweden. I beat her there by twenty minutes. She’d had a taste of freedom now though and said she wouldn’t go back. I tried everything. I offered her chocolate covered grapes, tickets to the movies, and even promised to bring her with me on my vacation to the Rockies next spring. She just shook her head and said she’d rather suck Cheerios up her nose then go back with me.” He flicked some lint off his leg. “Claimed she’s allergic to me.”

I had no response to this. It’s one thing for a bear to own a pet cat, but it’s another thing entirely for that pet to be allergic to him. He let out a long sigh, and as he exhaled, his shoulders drooped and slouched. Fearing he might begin to cry, I reached over and patted his shoulder.

“There, there,” I said encouragingly. “I’m sorry for your loss.”

“Well,” he said. “I should have known. I’ve never been able to keep a cat more than three months. They all run away.” He turned his face towards me so his snout nearly touched my nose. “Or die,” he added.

If you’ve ever had a grizzly bear rumble the word, “die” at you while looking in your eyes, you would probably understand me when I say that it made me a little uncomfortable. I patted his shoulder again.

“So,” I said, after clearing my throat. “So you decided to take a walk then I suppose. That’s how we’ve come to meet?”

The bear shook his head. “No. Not right away. This all happened yesterday, you know. After she left me, I did what any bear would do.”

“Fishing?”

He raised his eyebrows at me. “Tennis.”

“Tennis?”

“Tennis.”

“Ah. Right. Tennis!”

“I stopped in at Stephen Harpers.”

“Stephen Harper?” I asked. “As in the former prime minister of Canada, Stephen Harper?”

He nodded. “You know him?”

“Uhh…No.”

“Well, we play tennis on Tuesday’s. He’s a good listener. But then I accidentally landed in his wife’s rutabaga patch and she had a fit. She practically threw me into Lake Ontario.”

“Wow.”

“So I gathered what was left of my pride and came home. I made myself some bran muffins for dinner, but they burned because I forgot my egg timer was broken. I barely slept all night for dreaming of unicorns and pancakes.” He looked forlornly at me. “And I hate pancakes.”

“Gosh, you’ve sure had a time of it.”

He heaved another broken sigh. “You can say that again,” he said. We sat in silence for a while, just listening to the breeze ruffle the trees. I know that the sounds of the park this time of day usually lift my spirits and the sun had come out of hiding from behind the clouds, casting vitamin enriching rays over the gloomy slouching bear.

Eventually he rose to his feet and turned a wan smile towards me, “Well, thanks for listening ma’am.”

“Rachel,” I said. “You can call me Rachel. And may I know your name?”

“Robert.”

“Robert. It’s a pleasure to meet you.” A world weary half smile touched the corner of his mouth, giving more an impression of forced cordiality than actual happiness, as though he doubted I meant it. He nodded politely towards me and began to shuffle away.

I watched him for a minute, replaying our odd conversation in my head, when a thought struck me. Unsure if we should ever meet again, I called out to him before he had a chance to disappear. “Wait,” I said. He turned back to me. “Why did you need change for a dollar?” I asked.

“I wanted a coke from that machine.”

I turned towards the machine. From my seat, I could see it had one of those new fangled slots that took credit cards. I smiled to myself and turned back to him.

“Just hold on a sec,” I said. I ran to the machine, and, in the work of an instant, was jogging towards him with a soda in hand.

“Here,” I said, handing it towards him. There were tears in his eyes and his expression was the closest thing to a smile I’d yet seen. He looked down at the bottle and it was as though someone had cut his bungee chord and he now stood a fair chance of plummeting to his death.

“It’s pepsi,” he said with a soft choke in his voice.

“Oh,” I said. “I’m sorry, it was a pepsi machine. It’s all they had.”

He sighed again, shook his head, and said in a low gloomy voice, “I should have known.” He handed it back to me and left me standing alone in the park with the pepsi in my hand.

IMG_4525

© Rachel Svendsen 2016

Grey Shadows

The music lilts through the house, soft and sweet. The electric piano sits with its back to the front window, its plug nestled into the wall just below that of the light peering overtop of the music rest. Several large oak trees shade the view of the street out front. The woman at the keys stares at music with unseeing eyes. She knows the tune. She wrote it.

The brightness outside the window dims. Grey shadows swallow the light from left to right with alarming speed. Raindrops fall, sucking the blue from the sky on their way down and splatter it into the grass. Everything is turning ashen, losing color, even the music, which fades from innocent beauty into a melancholic sigh. Raindrops fall from her eyes as the tune melts from joy to sadness. It isn’t the tune she wants to play, but somehow she cannot lift the rhythm or modulate out of this minor key.

The pattering rain gushes. Wind whistles through the trees, bending and snapping branches. The clouds part with a flash of lighting. The lights in the house go out.

With the loss of power, the music ceases. In the dark a faint click plods along, gentle rhythmic thumps and springs of weighted plastic keys. She’s still playing. The darkness of the storm swallows her wholly, until the melody she knows is barely an echo in her head. Her fingers know their part. They continue to obediently move in hopes the power will soon return.

© Rachel Svendsen 2015

The Storm

The winds raged. I won’t say the volume of the storm didn’t shock me. It was a lot more than I expected when I set out with only light grey skies above me. Just a little rain, I thought, no more than a drizzle. Besides, the sea is small and I’ll be safe on the other side before anything can go wrong. Now I was grumbling curses at myself as I took down what was left of my shredded sail. My only option was to hit the oars. There was little light left, save the occasional flashes of distant lightning, and I was too absorbed in steadying my boat in the swell to worry about where I was headed.

“Can I help now?”

I started at the sound of His voice. I entirely forgot He was sitting there. I bit my lip stubbornly and shook my head. “Nope,” I said. “I’ve totally got this. You just relax okay?” I think my voice sounded convincing but just in case it didn’t, I averted my eyes from his face. The last thing I needed was criticism. I started up my mental recording of self help mantras and dug the oars beneath the waves with each one: I am brave. I am strong. I am capable. I know with time and effort I can achieve.

The waves were growing, it’s the natural outcome of the storm, but what I really wanted to know was why on earth my boat was shrinking. It definitely looked smaller. I thought I set out on a yacht. Where had this rickety old rowboat come from? Perhaps I had just been too arrogant to realize how unprepared I was for the journey ahead.

A heavy wave crashed over the side and snapped the rowlock off the frame. The force sucked my oar with it. I reached for it with two desperate hands, thereby dropping my remaining oar into the dark churning waters. They were both out of my reach before I could decide which to go for first. I watched them dip and bob, as though waving goodbye, while bucketloads of water rolled into my splintering wreck of a boat.

“Now can I help?”

I just flat out ignored Him this time. I hadn’t invited Him anyway, He just seems to show up everywhere I go. Besides, if I didn’t concentrate we would sink. I bailed with my hands, hoping against hope that there was an extra oar hidden at the bottom of the boat. The next wave knocked me off my seat almost out into the sea. Why wasn’t I wearing a lifejacket? What possessed me, a lousy swimmer on a good day, to drop themselves in the middle of a large body of water sans life jacket?

I struggled in vain for as long as I could. Perhaps those desperate hours were all packed into five minutes or maybe my floundering lasted as long as it felt. It wasn’t until the splintered wood around me had cut my hands and I was half drowned and choking that I finally dropped to my knees. The water came up to my chest. I wrapped my arms around His legs and buried my face in His knees.

“Okay,” I whimpered. “Okay please, help me. Please I give up. I can’t do this alone anymore.”

He was on his feet before the words came from my mouth. He didn’t need my words. He was only waiting for my heart to relent. He raised a hand over the sea.

“Peace be still.”

Instantaneous silence. The wind purred like a kitten as it ruffled the still waters, rippling reflections of bright sunlight across the glassy surface.

I cried and shook. My salty tears mingled with the water that dripped from my drenched hair down my wet face. He lifted me to my feet and took my face in his hands. I had to look in his eyes then. I always expected to see bitterness, anger, or rebuke when we came to this point, but I never did. The same tender expression he always wore when he looked at me calmed my trembling heart. The only change was the hurt I could see in his eyes, but the love that flowed from them made it almost invisible in comparison.

“Oh my little child,” He whispered. “Your faith is so small.”

“Forgive me,” I said then added with a soft choke of bitter irony, “again.” We’d been here before, same scene different setting.

He smiled and pulled me into his arms. I cried against his chest while the wreckage of my boat sank beneath our feet.

“Daddy, will you grow my faith?” I asked.

His gentle voice hummed against my ear. “That’s what I’m doing now. Walk with me.”

My tiny fingers locked securely in his strong hand, we walked across the still, peaceful waters to the other side of the sea.

© Rachel Svendsen 2015

Amazing Alliteration Adventures: Act II

The two of them tripped through the tavern. Darkness dimmed their drunken journey. Kelly cuddled closer to Kevin.

“The stars sure seem singularly shiny,” she sighed softly.

Kevin coughed. His fingers followed the folds of her frock. They wistfully wound round her waist.

“Holy hippo honey.” He hugged her hungrily. “I cannot keep completely quiet. You know now, my nymph, I need you. Leave that lousy loaf of a looser. The whole hope of my happiness hinges on having your heart. I would willingly wander the wild wilderness of Wisconsin to win you. Come kiss me Kelly.”

“Please,” she pleaded. “We’re positively pissed! That third tequila tipped my total towards twenty.”

“I’m always an inebriated, inept, idiotic addict when you’re around. Don’t disparage darling. Drinks definitely don’t destroy the deepest devotions.”

“Drinks do destroy discernment.”

“Let’s lock lips and let lesser lovers live life in laughable languishing.”

Kelly kissed Kevin. Kevin kissed Kelly. The two tipsy travelers touched tenderly. His happy hands hung on her hips.

“Get your grubby grips off my girl!” Craig cried crossly. “I won’t watch you wipe your whistler all over my wife.” His huge hands heaved the hapless, happy huggers apart.

“Sir,” Kevin stuttered. “Surely you saw that she started…”

Craig waved his words to the wind. “Lie and I’ll litter your lousy limbs high and low. I heard your horrible hypnotic humming turning her touched head. Gentlemen generally grant graces to gin-soaked girls. You sir are simply unsavory.”

The two men tumbled to the tarmac in a tangled twist of turbulent thumps. Punches pummeled poor Kevin. He whimpered and whined wretchedly. Craig lost himself in loads of loony laughter.

Kelly kicked Craig. “Craig you creepy crawler! You cruddy, contemptible, cruel, crap-for-brains, canine! You can’t consistently crawl around. Can’t you comprehend I’ve completely changed. Kevin cares for me. I care for Kevin. So, keep your crusty claws off my charming Kevin or I’ll quickly crush your callous chest until it caves.” Her hand hit his head. The slap signaled silence for the troubled trio. Kevin crawled from Craig and cowered cautiously behind Kelly.

A one word warning whipped willfully from the feisty fräulein, “Flee!”

Craig chuckled. “Sure sweetheart.” A simpering smile suddenly slid slyly over his seductive face. “I will walk away. But beware. When your willful wild streak snaps, I won’t be willing to wipe your whiffer.”

Kelly remembered, really remembered, the romantic rendezvous with Craig. She suddenly screamed.

“Craig please pardon my passing passion. I’m pickled. Pissed. Plastered! This predicament is purely potty. There’s only one wonder-boy for this worshiping wife. Don’t depart darling. Your kisses can cleanse Kevin’s corrosive cancer from my callous cadaver.”

Craig cackled contemptuously. “Frankly fräulein…” the familiar phrase went unfinished. He flipped her the finger and frolicked forward leaving his lovely lady to lament her lifetime of loneliness.

© Rachel Svendsen 2014

Amazing Alliteration Adventures: Act I

“Three thespians.” Sally slowly slid sideways, unsecuring her seatbelt. “These perplexing puzzles are positively peculiar.” She sighed. “This murderer’s MO might make most actors migrate.”

“Chief will be chuffed,” Sybil sneered. “He hates histrionics.”

Sally shook her head. “He despises depravity deeper and the paperwork pisses him.”

Wilma waved from the walkway. “Detectives,” she said. “The deceased died dangling from the doorframe of this dumpy domicile.”

“Time of termination?” Sybil asked.

Wilma wiped her whiffer. “Three thirty.”

“Three thirty?” Sally sighed. “The twin termination time as the other three thespians. This is getting thick!”

Low laughter lifted the ladies’ eyes. Sharon’s head hung happily from a second story skylight.

“Sharon the malicious murderer!” Sybil snapped. “We should have suspected.”

Sharon cackled corruptly. “You yodeling yankees! Your useless understanding won’t outwit me. I’m impervious!” Sharon slammed the skylight shut. Loads of loony laughter lilted downward.

Sally stared solemnly skyward. “She’s so strange,” she said.

Sybil shrugged. “Someone should send some slugs sailing swiftly southward. Sharon’s skull should shatter soon. She shan’t stop sans some intersession.”

Sally smirked slyly. “Thankfully I trump at trick shots.” Sally stood still, her handgun hoisted heavenward. Three slugs slid speedily south. Sharon shrieked. Sybil hurriedly opened the hatch. The two flatfoots fleetly flew forward almost falling up the flight of steps.

Blood radiated round Sharon’s wound in red rings.

“Definitely dead,” Sybil said.

“I always accomplish my aim,” Sally sniggered. She glided her gun guardedly into its grip. “Mission mastered. Let’s leg it.”

“Don’t donuts sound scrummy?” Sybil said.

“Definitely donuts.”

The two friendly flatfoots went westward down Downing Street. The sweet smell of Dunkin’ Donuts wafted their way.

© Rachel Svendsen 2014

A Second Goodbye

She ducked behind the display. Perhaps he hadn’t seen her. She felt him move towards her before she saw him. She picked up an item on the self and examined the price tag on its base. He spoke her name. It was a question. Could it really be her? His voice was all too familiar. She braced herself and turned around to look him full in the eye.

“Oh my gosh it is you!” he said. He raked a hand through his hair and looked her over. “Wow. I’d never have imagined meeting you here.”

Or anywhere… she mentally sighed.

“How’ve you been. You look great!”

“You too,” she mumbled. It was the right thing to say, but was it a lie? What she wanted to say was, “You look exactly the same.” He was smiling. Words were rolling out of his mouth. Falling from his lips. His lips. The same lips that had stolen her first kiss. The same lips that had…

He was so easy, carefree. How could he be so calm? How long had it been?

“Wow, how long has it been?” he echoed. She blushed at the absurd fear he could read her mind. “Five years right?”

“At least,” she muttered. They had been standing there several minutes. The greeting was over. Next was the horrific part.

“What have you been up to?” he asked. Perhaps he could read her mind…

“Oh this and that,” she said. He smiled.

“That’s appropriately vague,” he teased. The same smile touched his mouth. The same glint brightened in his eyes. The same sense of humor colored his words. “You here with someone?” he asked.

“No,” she said. “I’m on business. Just passing through. In fact I’ve got a meeting to run to so I should go.”

“Ah.” The knowing look in his eye. The little smirk. They knew each other too well. Three years pouring yourself, heart, soul, and body, into one person can leave little room for secrets.

“It was good to see you again,” he said. That awkward moment of saying goodbye. Do we shake hands? That seems odd and formal for two people who’ve…who’ve…known so much of each other.

He did it. He put his arms around her and gave her a kiss on the cheek. She managed to close her hands gingerly around his back. She could smell his aftershave. He hadn’t changed that either.

“Take care.”

“You too,” she mumbled back.

He was gone. It was over. The moment she had been dreading in her dreams ever since they said their first goodbye. She’d rehearsed for this meeting, aloud of all maddening things. She watched her face in the mirror, planned all she would say, and how she would behave.  Those rehearsals had been useless.  She could see them fluttering out the window with her script, each page separated and dropped lazily to the ground.

She was shaking. She went to the register and purchased the item in her hand. She didn’t see what it was until they slid it into the blue plastic bag. A paperweight? It looked like there was an insect incased in it. Gross! What was she going to do with that?

Useless memento in hand, she walked out the door. She looked both ways along the busy city sidewalk. She was looking for him. She always looked for him. Now that she knew he hadn’t changed his haircut, and still wore that same jacket, she would wonder if every look alike she spied walking away from her was him. Before now she could tell herself it wasn’t. Now…

She was walking. Where was she going? Back to the hotel she guessed. People brushed past her. Strangers. But somewhere in that mass of unknown faces, somewhere in that city…her first love. Her first kiss. Her first…everything. Shared memories and moments connected two moving bodies, two beating hearts, in this hurried mass of humanity.

He was gone again. Maybe they would run into each other tomorrow. Maybe five or ten years from now… or maybe never. That was their second goodbye. She thought the first would be their last. She’d hoped it was the last, but she made the right decision then just as now.

Hadn’t she?

© Rachel Svendsen 2014