Poetry Drawer: Christmas Cantata in Six Parts by Robert Demaree

Greensboro 1948

When we would go home for Christmas,
It was to my mother’s town,
Where I was the cousin with the Yankee accent,
Who didn’t like grits:
A gentle, Southern place:
Gracious lawns, winding drives
In our grandfather’s Buick, past the golf course.

I see a dim American past, parts best forgotten:
Cedar Christmas trees, trackless trolleys,
Water fountains “For Coloured Only”,
Maids summoned from the kitchen with a bell,
Bearing trays of puffy rolls.

Christmas would be over and we’d go back north,
New toys stored away, my mother crying.

Metairie 1977

A child’s Christmas in Metry
We called it then,
Until our girls, teachers’ kids, would catch on.
A plumbing contractor
Lavishes new wealth
To display for children and parents
Along the sidewalks of a subdivision
The lights, the moving creatures of Christmas:
In one room, Santa’s helpers,
In another, an animated crêche:
He watches, approving yet sullen,
Dimly seen behind the picture window.

It does not matter that his home is darkened now,
That other families
Who did not live in Metairie then
Now drive by another spectacle
All the more preposterous
Further up the same street:
Thousands of lights blinking,
Reindeer, elves, angels, God knows what,
A parish policeman sourly chants:
Keep moving, keep moving.

Shreveport 1982

A downtown church on Christmas eve,
Well loved, well cared for,
Worshippers in fine clothes crowd together
In the old walnut pews– it is too warm for furs:
Married daughters, handsome nephews
In from Houston, people we do not know:
Of all the places one could be this night,
As lonely as any bus station or manger.
But there is this:
The particular tears of Christmas,
The precise fragrances, the harmonies
That make it palpable,
That release memory’s stubborn catch
Differ for us each
And for every home far from home.
I hear the sound, thin and sweet,
O Holy Night,
Scored for the voices of teenaged girls,
The white light of candles
Dancing on their faces.

Cedar Trees

Christmas night:
A potato-casserole weariness
Settles in upon the land.
We are ankle-deep in tissue,
Love and Lego,
Lists of who gave what to whom,
And I am wondering what became
Of those cedar trees
We would cut and trim Christmases ago,
Those trips to my mother’s home,
The grits, the black-eyed peas, the puffy rolls.
Cedars gave way to
Scotch pines, then to
Fraser firs that fill a room.

Years later two cedars grow
Outside the door, wider and taller,
With strings of white lights
That do not reach as high
As last year,
Unmindful of the sacrifices
Of their forebears.

The Day After Christmas

Tree smaller this year,
Lights burned out,
Not replaced.
Garbage can only half full
The day after Christmas:
Children grown, gone.

Christmas Night 2007

There are twelve of us for Christmas,
Three generations, ours the oldest.
A benign weariness:
Food and gifts, family jokes and tales,
Small stresses let quietly pass.
Cousins cavort, careen, compete.
Our daughters, friends too, consider vegetables;
Their husbands assemble a soccer goal
While the gravy cools.
As we are leaving, I think I see
Traces of a tear on Julie’s cheek;
Her smile lingers, quiet, faintly moist.

Robert Demaree is the author of four book-length collections of poems, including Other Ladders published in 2017 by Beech River Books. His poems have received first place in competitions sponsored by the Poetry Society of New Hampshire and the Burlington Writers Club. He is a retired school administrator with ties to North Carolina, Pennsylvania and New Hampshire. Bob’s poems have appeared in over 150 periodicals including Cold Mountain Review and Louisville Review.

You can find more of Bob’s poems here on Ink Pantry.

Ink Pantry’s Dr Zhivago Poetry Competition 2020 Highly Commended: Untitled by Rachel Cohen

The world was covered in the gloom
Of swirling snow.
A candle glowed in the room,
A candle glowed.
Like summer insects swarm to flame
In buzzing clouds,
The snowflakes at windowpanes
Would thickly crowd.
The blizzard painted icy plumes
In frozen rows.
A candle glowed in the room,
A candle glowed.
And on the ceiling, now dim
The light was tossing
The shadows of hands and limbs –
In fateful crosses.
The cloth would slide, the bed would creak,
Light shoes fall down.
The candle’s waxy tears streaked
Her cast-off gown.
The winter scattered its white bloom
On high and low.
A candle glowed in the room,
A candle glowed.
Temptation readied its hot sting
-The candle burning –
And crossed above its angel wings
Aflame with yearning.
All February fell the gloom
Of swirling snow.
And then the candle lit the room,
The candle glowed

Inky judge Andrew D Williams writes: A poem apparently inspired by Boris Pasternak’s “A Winter’s Night”, and likewise focused on a candle glowing in the February night as two lovers surrender to their passions. Yuri and Lara find something between them that neither has found in their unhappy marriages – yet the cold indifference of the world will snuff out that candle all too soon.

Rachel Cohen practices law in Canada, and says that writing is an inoffensive hobby.  

Andrew D Williams writes psychological thrillers with a streak of dark humour. His stories question the nature of reality and those beliefs we hold most dear – who we are, what we think is true, whether we can trust our own minds – and combine elements of science fiction with philosophical questions. When he isn’t writing, Andrew’s time is split between swearing at computers, the occasional run and serving as one of the cat’s human slaves. You can find more of Andrew’s work here on Ink Pantry.



Ink Pantry’s Dr Zhivago Poetry Competition 2020 Winner: Zhivago by Mark Sheeky

A dark leaf runs,
toyed by a winter’s wind,
away from my grasp
towards the train
and my father’s body
bent on the track.

In the dim room, I recall
only scents of candle smoke,
and notes of fruit wood,
a melody which winds
like cotton, around my wrists,
to touch beautiful Lara, then flee
ragged, a whip
of time singing sparks,
screaming steam
from mourning breaks
and shots of vodka
that ricochet past Komarovsky
like a snake of black
bent on the track.

I huddle on my tram,
which rattles like my old teeth,
and again touch her memory
which butterflies into words to write,
to fly, to her lost grave
and kiss that sorrow’d soil
where my dark leaf lies
on its broken back,
with my father’s mistakes
bent on the track.

Inky judge Andrew D Williams writes: A poem that touches on an early moment in the story, as Yuri’s father falls to his death from the train. The short lines echo the sound of the train on the track, while the images and events flash past. A train can only go where the rails will take it, and likewise Yuri’s life is a series of unfortunate events that he has little control over.

Mark Sheeky is a surrealist artist in paint, music, and writing. His poetry has moved on hugely in the past couple of years, partly by knowing more poets. Mark’s latest poetry book, The Burning Circus, was published in 2020 and includes a foreword by former Cheshire Poet Laureate, John Lindley. Marks’ book, 21st Century Surrealism, is a successful contemporary re-examination of the First Surrealist Manifesto. You can find more of Mark’s work here on Ink Pantry.

Andrew D Williams writes psychological thrillers with a streak of dark humour. His stories question the nature of reality and those beliefs we hold most dear – who we are, what we think is true, whether we can trust our own minds – and combine elements of science fiction with philosophical questions. When he isn’t writing, Andrew’s time is split between swearing at computers, the occasional run and serving as one of the cat’s human slaves. You can find more of Andrew’s work here on Ink Pantry. 

Pantry Prose: Roy by Balu Swami

When Roy first mentioned his bizarre idea of flight, we were sitting on the parapet wall on the roof of the community college building where he worked as a telephone operator (yes, it was back in those days) during the week and as a security guard on weekends. “What the fuck is a parapet wall,” he wanted to know when I used the English term for ledge. He said, “you mean the ledge?” We had a minor argument about it and I said “that’s what I was taught to call it.” In typical Roy fashion he settled the argument saying, “You are in fucking America. Speak American!”

I was drinking beer and he was drinking beer and smoking pot. He got up and started walking along the ledge with arms spread wide. He turned around and said, “If I jumped off the building now, I’m pretty sure I’ll start flying.” My hands had gotten clammy when he started walking on the ledge. When he talked about flying, my knees started knocking and I immediately got off the ledge. Laughing, he got off too.

That was Roy. He was short, sinewy, and steely tough. I have seen him lift a 300 pound engine with just his bare arms from under the hood of a car. And he was a wizard at fixing cars – foreign, domestic, no matter. We were first year engineering students at the local state college and he befriended me – a foreign student – for some reason. We did our assignments together either in his apartment or mine. I taught him thermal equilibrium and unit conversion and he taught me how to get class work done while drinking heavily and listening to loud music in the background.

Roy was, by turns, charming and crude. One evening we were at the local 7-11 picking up beer for the evening. As we were leaving, this highly attractive young girl pulled up in a black Corvette next to us. Noticing Roy, she flashed a sweet smile. Roy said to her, “What are you looking at? I won’t put my dick in your mouth.” The girl started crying and I pulled out of the parking lot fast as I could. I felt embarrassment, shame, guilt, anger. “What the fuck did you do that for?” I shouted and he simply laughed. Later, he admitted he was being a dick and promised he would make it up to her. He made it up to her by dating her. He had found her by following any black Corvette he saw on the road until he found the right one. He put on his best clothes, brushed his flowy blonde hair and waited outside her workplace. She tried to avoid him but he caught up with her and told her that he showed up just to say how sorry and ashamed he was for what he had said in his drunken state. A couple of days later, he showed up again and saw her this time with another woman, a colleague, maybe a friend. He could hear the other woman ask, “do you know that loser?” and saw the two of them walk away laughing at him. A week later, she smiled as she walked past him. A month later, they started dating.

After Wendy came into his life, Roy lost all interest in school and I saw him less and less. Both Wendy and I tried to convince him he should pursue his degree in engineering, but he was adamant in his belief that the professors were all morons and he knew more about engineering than any of them did. I tried telling him knowing auto mechanics is not the same as knowing engineering, but he knew better.

Although he gave up education, he didn’t give up alcohol, pot or hard drugs. Wendy began losing interest and soon found another guy – someone from work, one of the white collar types. One day, Roy stopped by my apartment looking a total wreck. But he claimed he felt happier than ever because he was freer than ever. No school work, no work work, no girlfriend bullshit. He was thoroughly enjoying his primeval glory.

A month later, I got a call from Wendy saying Roy had jumped off a building and killed himself. But only I knew he didn’t kill himself. It was his first (and last) attempt at flight.

Balu Swami is a new writer. One of his pieces is in Flash Fiction North.

Ink Pantry Publishing’s Krampus Poetry Competition 2019

Many thanks to all you creative Inksters who submitted. Amazing! 90 international submissions.

Results are in! Congratulations to our winners.

A note from our judge, Claire Faulkner…

After reading, and re-reading and then reading again, I’ve finally managed to select three poems. It was difficult to pick an overall winner. It’s not easy being a judge in a poetry competition, and I would like to thank everyone who entered for sharing and trusting their work with me.

I enjoyed reading all the entries and it has been wonderful to see how the theme of Krampus has inspired so many different types of writing styles and structure.

OUR WINNER: Krampusnacht by Amy Cresswell

Our tale takes place on December the Fifth,
On a suitably freezing cold night,
With a creature you’ve heard of, from olden day myth,
Eyes aglow with malevolent light.

The snow is disturbed by his cloven footsteps,
His grey beard, all matted and long,
Swishes as he stalks past the darkened doorsteps,
To the houses of those who’ve done wrong.

A red hooded cloak covers up his horned head,
Fur trimmed, just like old Saint Nick’s,
His first victim, cowering under her bed,
Gets a swipe with his great birchwood stick.

The next, vainly dreaming of presents and sweets,
Hears the deafening clanking of chains,
Downstairs, not Saint Nick, but Krampus he meets,
And the blood freezes inside his veins.

The third, hoping for a bit of good luck,
Squares his shoulders, prepares to attack,
But Krampus’s claw swiftly snatches him up,
And then bundles him into his sack.

Just like this it continues, and when dawn draws near,
He retreats, a full bag on his back,
Hurls the wicked children down to Hell for a year,
Then enjoys an ice cold glass of Schnapps

I enjoyed the style and structure of this poem. I feel that it tells us everything we need to know about Krampus using fantastic storytelling and imagery.

HIGHLY COMMENDED:Krampusnacht (a triolet poem) by
Tracy Davidson 

On Krampusnacht, bad children quake
as anti-Santa stalks the streets,
cloven-hooved, with a chain to shake.
On Krampusnacht, bad children quake
and rue each sin and sad mistake,
receiving swats instead of sweets.
On Krampusnacht, bad children quake
as anti-Santa stalks the streets.

A strong example of writing to a theme within a set form. One of the shorter entries, but still a story full of imagery.

HIGHLY COMMENDED: Krampus by Lel Meleyal

Krampus stole my grandchildren.
No goat ever threatened my son.
Just the mothers’ ally threat
‘Santa does not visit naughty children’
was enough, at least in December

Vienna is as beautiful as the girl
Who captured my boy’s heart
Who took him home
To celebrate life, love and Christmas
Held on the 24th December.

Which is not really Christmas
Where my boy grew up
But is where his boys now excitedly
Hope for a visit from the Christkind
And Saint Nicholas

My mince pies
Do not meet the approval of
Großmutter Anna
Though I like her Lebkuchen.
Thankfully, no-one likes carp.

The kids in accented giggles
Call me Die Englische Großmutter
When they tease my Yorkshire inability to ski.
I ache for Granny, or Grandma
Closeness cleft by air miles.

A different style and approach to the theme of Krampus, but one which captured my heart about the impact of myth in different lifestyles and cultures.

Inky Exclusive: The Austin Poets’ Union

Introducing the Austin Poets’ Union, a collective of well-published poets based in the US. The APU launched mid October 2020. Poets are Angie Dribben, Jena Kirkpatrick, Mike Whalen, and M L Woldman.

Angie Dribben’s poetry, essays, and reviews can be found or are forthcoming in Cave Wall, EcoTheo, Deep South, San Pedro River Review, Crab Creek Review, Crack the Spine, Cider Press, and others. A Bread Loaf alum, she is an MFA candidate at Randolph College. Everygirl, her first full-length collection, is due out 2021 from Main Street Rag. 

Upon Waking
by Angie Dribben

Once a wildebeest calf
fell behind the herd fell
prey to a spotted hyena
who had fallen to instinct
to survive
or so we’re taught
And it was hard to hear a mother’s child scream
But I did not change the channel

And the mother stayed
with her herd One glance back
A single clockwise canter
to witness her calf submit
And then the mother walked
away and it was hard to watch
a mother walk away
but I did not change the channel

and the hyena took
the hindquarter, tore the calf at the hip
leaving her untenable
and the hyena drank
from the wound of the calf
and it was hard to watch one take
what isn’t theirs

sometimes I dream
I am wildebeest,
when I wake, I am hyena
and I cannot change the channel

Poet for Hire, Jena Kirkpatrick, is editor of the poetry anthology Writing for Positive Change for the Boys and Girls Clubs of Central Texas. Jena tours nationally as a member of the Trio of Poets. She writes poems for clients worldwide. Jena is an artist instructor for Badgerdog Literary Publishing. Her work in the classroom was featured in Teachers & Writers Magazine. Over the last three decades, she has self-published seven books, co-written, three multimedia performance art shows, competed in two National Poetry Slam competitions and released two poetry CDs.

I wish you love & happiness…I guess I wish you all the best
by Jena Kirkpatrick

I wish you love & happiness…I guess I wish you all the best
(John Prine)

who lost me first?
was it God or Buddha or my ungrateful
lack of worth –alone or together
reflections on the past
not sure how many tears I have left
last night in a furious rage I actually said
I was grateful you were already dead
because that was one less person I love
I’d have to worry about losing –who
who lost me first? –you
you lifted me up
you always stuck around
you never left my side –from the day I lost my child
now we’ve got this virus
screaming bloody fucking murder
endless echoes of a tool pitting one against another
over fences –on TV screens
panic attacks forged by violent dreams
spooning with a psychotic ventriloquist
everyone is scared scribbling ridiculous lists
who lost me first? was it Christ
was it heaven or hell
was it the ability to practice free will
was it set forth as a precedent
carved in stone by some ancient
was is illicit drugs or sorcery
some flaw in personality
every precious moment is countered by adversity
maybe there are answers in pollution or abuse
or all the callous judgments
we throw like seeds to sprout on this earth
maybe we have babbled long enough
repeated beatings for too long
ignored are the hungry children
the sick all too often pushed aside
in favor of elitist
when given the chance
will we ever correct what’s wrong
who lost me first?
stay at home and sing on your marble terrace
have your slaves bring you your breakfast
revel in the thought that
what you squander makes you

somehow eccentric
your dirty money won’t save you
you will die like the rest of us do
who lost me first?
I was lost to the trees
to the wind
to the stars
on my knees praying for forgiveness since birth

yeah I knew love. love knew me. and when I walked love walked with me.
but friends don’t know. they can only guess –how hard it is
to wish you happiness

Michael Whalen has been a member of the Austin Poetry Slam Team, and coached two Austin Neo Soul Poetry Slam Teams and four Austin Youth Poetry Slam Teams. He’s edited numerous chapbooks by young poets, and released 1.5 of his own poetry chapbooks.

M L Woldman is a GED graduate with a heart full of fire. Founder of Austin Poets’ Union, poet and playwright. Author of three books and numerous publications. 5th generation Texas.

autumn
by M L Woldman

the fire recedes from the sky and we know it’s autumn
four months of autumn and eight months of summer
that’s what we get now
in texas
i relish these months when dusty coats can find their place in circulation again
and you can see your breath:
making each exhalation
a visual affirmation
that you are alive
i write this poem every year
a love poem to autumn
in the hopes that she might stick around a little longer this time
it’s an exercise in diminishing returns
because the sun won’t be happy until it swallows the world

Poetry Drawer: Car and Lizard: Good Neighbour #94: Doctor Moreau: by Glen Armstrong

Car and Lizard

I find a car
and a giant lizard

no one knows
what I’m talking about

but to me
it could not be clearer

a car allows
me to be both the delivery

man and the package
I arrive

I wreck the city
I find

being male
increasingly problematic

sometimes I want
to wear eyeliner and carefully

align the paper doll’s
dress with her chubby

two-dimensional body
as for the giant

lizard
it is just a giant lizard.

Good Neighbour #94

Expect childish words from children and broken words from broken people. Only the lonely hope to hear from the small, the discontent. Expect nothing. The guest speaker favours keyholes and tiny spoons of breath-cooled soup.

I expect the impossible.

What does not exist never / continuously disappoints. It comes from the sky like lightning or a slash mark or the new fall / fall fashions. The guest speaker used the phrase “cash cow” so offhandedly that, for a moment, the audience imagined itself collecting lactations in golden buckets.

Doctor Moreau

I used to go back and forth.
On Brando’s insane portrayal.
Of Doctor Moreau.
I used to wear eyeliner to class.
Now I insist on wearing.
My own ice bucket.
And other people insist.
On staying away.
It’s a lovely day.
On some other green planet.

There are miniatures and echoes.
I used to blow soap bubbles.
From the open third-floor window.
When you didn’t want to do so alone.
It’s kind of neat to think.
About that thin line.
Between saving the world.
And acting like such a fuck-wad.
That only the most broken.
Among us respond to our efforts.

Glen Armstrong holds an MFA in English from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst and teaches writing at Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan. He edits a poetry journal called Cruel Garters and has three current books of poems: Invisible HistoriesThe New Vaudeville, and Midsummer. His work has appeared in Poetry NorthwestConduit, and Cream City Review.

Poetry Drawer: An Act of Suppression: Hummingbird: Gorget by Henry Stanton

An Act of Suppression
(for William Wantling)

Dragging a sorry-ass body to the studio
riddled with pain
I see there up ahead a Yellow Tiger-Swallowtail
flopping around on the pavement
bizarrely
like something convulsing
or someone improvising
or a body working through a choreography.

I know this isn’t normal
I am intimate with this poet-butterfly – it has made me aware
as I bend down and unfold the massive flopping wings
I see there the Bald-faced Hornet
beautiful and black terrible and white
clutching the body with its
desperate and powerful and elegant embrace
locked in the same brutal struggle,

And I know this
never intervene
don’t do it
don’t
who knows which animal is more rare?
who knows what is beauty really and what is life
and what is death?

but I can’t help it
I am exhausted and riddled with pain
I pry them apart

and feel better
watching them fly off
in opposed direction.

Hummingbird

The gaggle of kids burst out the door
and flush the hummingbird from the feeder smack into the glass.

I lift the small bird from its awkward contortion on the concrete stoop
into the palm of my hand
and breath again because it lived.

I smooth the feathers.
The little bird straightens out
blinks its tiny eyes and struggles a bit to breath.
I dribble some sugar water in my palm since I had read somewhere
that it is possible to starve again in flight.

And I wait there with it
this bird this poet this perfect work of art
whispering and humming because it makes me feel fine.

Until suddenly, miraculously it bursts from my palm!
Ohhh… look at that! sweetheart look at that! It’s fine it’s fine!
The kids gather together close the little girl squeals
up there the bird the bird look!
settling in the cedar
fluttering its wings
and then off! into the Honey Suckle to feed.

Gorget

She will always be powerful.
Small girl with these runes
tattooed up and down her arms her legs.
Life’s flame humming
and dreaming.

And,
iridescent purple gorget feathers
flare out
around that being.
See here she hovers
over the mirror-shine of Cloud Lake’s gloaming
delicate composite of delight
despair.

While we all suspect she has departed
as the storm still traverses that ridge
see there I will always be powerful
small flyer beats back turbulence
dissipates our torment.

These poems are from Henry Stanton’s collection, Pain Rubble, published Holy & Intoxicated Press. Henry Stanton’s fiction, poetry and paintings appear in 2River, The A3 Review, Alien Buddha Press, Analog Submission Press, Avatar, The Baltimore
City Paper, The Baltimore Sun Magazine, Black Petal Press, Cathexis
Northwest Press, Chicago Record, Down in The Dirt, High Shelf Press, Holy &
Intoxicated Press, Kestrel, North of Oxford, Outlaw Poetry, Paper & Ink
Zine, The Paragon Press, PCC Inscape, Pindeldyboz, Ramingo!, Rust Belt
Press, Rusty Truck, Salt & Syntax, SmokeLong Quarterly, Under The Bleachers,
The William and Mary Review, Word Riot, The Write Launch and Yellow Mama,
among other publications.  His book of Short Stories, River of Sleep and
Dreams
, is due to be published by Alien Buddha Press in 2019. His book of
poems, The Man Who Turned Stuff Off, is being published by Holy &
Intoxicated Press in June 2019.

His poetry was selected for the A3 Review Poetry Prize and was shortlisted
for the Eyewear 9th Fortnight Prize for Poetry. His fiction received an
Honourable Mention acceptance for the Salt & Syntax Fiction Contest and was
selected as a finalist for the Pen 2 Paper Annual Writing Contest.

A selection of Henry Stanton’s paintings, published fiction and poetry can be viewed at the following website. Henry is the Publisher of Uncollected Press and the Founding & Managing Editor of The Raw Art Review. Check out more of Henry’s poetry on Soundcloud.

Poetry Drawer: Only Child: Iconography: Downsizing by Robert Demaree

Only Child

You were an only child, weren’t you?
The look on the face,
The tone of voice,
Assumption, condescension, accusation:
That you are wrapped up in yourself,
That you lurk on the edges of greed:
A minority group
Without advocates to lobby
For our interests.
Don’t tell me what I missed
Having no siblings,
What I never learned to do.
There were advantages:
We never lacked for books to read,
And when the time came
To attend to the frail and failing,
Lay them to rest,
We did it by ourselves.

Iconography

I spent the morning
Trying to restore the Zoom icon
To the home screen on my phone,
Not an unlikely way
For an 82-year-old to pass his time.
The grandchildren are some help
And know to resist eye-rolling.
We got a Facebook account
So we could watch the church service
Online.
We did not add pictures or information.
We have not listed friends
And do not know
If anyone has listed us.
Someone I think I might have known
In Kiwanis
Keeps wanting to add me to his
LinkedIn list.
We rely on Zoom in this strange time.
People carry on about it
But it suits me fine.
I thought I had restored the icon
To the home screen.
That’s not quite true,
But I can get to it now
With only one extra click.

Downsizing

Favourite authors dropped off
For the church book sale,
The passing of a friend.
Easier to part with:
Those memos to the file,
Notes on events
Of interest to lawyers.
We did not succeed:
A storage shed, tight
With boxes, whose labels
Have lost meaning;
Somewhere in there
Green Depression Glass
That did not sell on eBay,
The Chelsea we bought for Caroline.

Robert Demaree is the author of four book-length collections of poems, including Other Ladders published in 2017 by Beech River Books. His poems have received first place in competitions sponsored by the Poetry Society of New Hampshire and the Burlington Writers Club. He is a retired school administrator with ties to North Carolina, Pennsylvania and New Hampshire. Bob’s poems have appeared in over 150 periodicals including Cold Mountain Review and Louisville Review.

You can find more of Bob’s poems here on Ink Pantry.

Books From The Pantry: Riverrun by Danton Remoto reviewed by Yang Ming

In The Art of Memoir, Mary Karr describes memory as ‘a pinball in a machine – it messily ricochets around between image, fragments of scenes, stories you’ve heard. Then the machine goes tilt and snaps off.’ That’s what Filipino author Danton Remoto uses to craft his most intimate novel, Riverrun.

The Philippines edition of Riverrun was first released in 2015, and the international edition was published in 2020 by Penguin South East Asia. This expanded edition has two additional chapters that are set in London and Scotland.

The form of the novel is a memoir. It chronicles the life of Danny Cruz, a young gay man in the Philippines between 1960s and 1970s in two parts. As the title suggests, the narrative runs gently like a river. This coming-of-age story is exquisitely told through vignettes, short prose, recipes (yes, you read it right) and song lyrics. It begins with Danny learning alphabets before he enters kindergarten. His mother would guide his hand to form ‘the arcs, loops and crosses, the dips and turns of the letters’.

Remoto is a keen observer of people and situations. He has a way of presenting beautiful quotidian moments in a delicate manner that shows the longing and the depravity of a human soul. One is the tragic story about his cousin, Naomi, a bright and sassy girl, who runs away from home with a classmate at the university. Before long, she returns home not only with a broken heart, but expecting. She eventually dies from a complication during childbirth. Though the family mourns for her death, her uncle is less sympathetic. Being a staunch Catholic who reads the Good News gospel during service, he has no qualms in expressing his disdain for Naomi’s actions and how God disapproves of them. Such is precariousness of youth and the hypocrisy of Catholic faith, which many of us have witnessed at some point in our lives.

The sharing about his sexual awakening as a teenager illustrates the tension between his innate desire and the societal norms. Living in a deeply Catholic and conservative society where gay relationships are frowned upon, he can’t express outwardly what he really feels internally about his sexual inclination in those times. As a result, he often let those cherished moments slip by. The time when he and Luis are sitting on the Ferris wheel at a local carnival, and his desire to touch Luis’s hand that is within reach. The private moment he almost professes his love to Mario at a garden in the chilly air.

However, what I enjoy most about this novel is the folklore and mythologies that Remoto weaves into his story. The family’s housemaid, Ludy often narrates Filipino mythologies to little Danny during meal times. Her narration of Manananggal, an evil spirit that assumes the form of a shy and demure woman in the day and morphs into a beast with the most powerful wings by night, is most alluring and terrifying at the same time. A nymph who lives in the bottom of the village’s lake and takes the life of a young man every year becomes the centre of attention when Danny’s classmate, Felix, disappears in the lake. After diving into the depth of the lake a couple of times, a Navy frogman finally encounters the diaphanous woman in white and has to plead with the spirit to let the boy go. Here’s the fun fact: this is based on a true story.

Not only do these folklore and mythologies play an important part in Remoto’s childhood and upbringing, it adds texture and layers to the novel.

The volatile political landscape affects the lives of many who live under a corrupted military dictatorship. Remoto, who has lived through it, uses those events to give a hint of irony in his stories. Without naming the political figures, he describes who they are by indicating their idiosyncrasies, such as, the First Lady who amasses 3,000 pairs of Italian shoes. Students express their deep frustration and resentment through a mass demonstration outside of old Congress building during the president’s State of the Nation address. The confrontation between the police and the students is raw and heartbreaking.

The police and the military put on their black masks and began to lob canisters of tear gas into the air, in the direction of the protesters. Then they swooped down on the students, their wooden sticks and trenches swinging wildly. They bashed heads; they shattered arms and knees. You could hear the bones breaking. In turn, the students threw rocks and Molotov cocktails, heaping a rain of curses on the cops and the soldiers.’

In short, Riverrun is a tender, poignant and moving novel that offers a glimpse of everyday life in the Philippines. Unlike a typical novel with memoir elements, Remoto uses evocative language to paint factual events and vivid description of places and people he encounters. The result: a lyrical prose that is filled with lovely details, such as kitsch-decorated jeepneys, the acacia tree in his home’s yard, and the food. It reminds me of reading a collection of creative non-fiction stories. But that’s what makes this novel so unique and beautiful. He said in one of his media interviews recently, ‘I wanted to show the dissonance between the official version of the news and the version that happened down there, in the real world. This is the real version that touched people’s lives, reshaping them into lives of sadness and grief.’

The description of those homely cuisines and food recipes just whets my appetite each time I turn those pages. It symbolises a spirit of home and family history. Remoto writes deftly about existing class disparity and social issues. Reading this book evokes a certain sense of nostalgia and satisfaction. Who knows, in a few years’ time, this novel might be considered to be part of the Filipino literary canon.