Book Review: Flooded (Requiem for Johnstown)

Rosemary's Reading Circle

Ann E. Burg’s Flooded: Requiem for Johnstown, a novel in verse, is a powerful set of interlocking character stories, informed by historical record, that lays bare the tragedy of the dam that burst in the working-class town outside of Pittsburgh, and all that died as a result.

Even worse, the story reminds us that the powerful and wealthy (ie, Andrew Carnegie, etc.), who bought the abandoned dammed-up lake for summer recreation and then failed to invest enough in its upkeep and maintenance, are clearly to blame for the 1889 disaster, and were never really held accountable. They blamed nature, not themselves.

Flooded is told in poetic verse, through the voices of children of the town as they prepare for Decoration Day, honoring veterans of the Civil War. Burg stitches together their stories and voices through some researched historical records, and with the freedom of a fiction writer. The result is a moving quilt of life, from the eyes and lives of young people, brought into the chaos of the flood, and the destruction of the town, and the loss of many, many lives, on that day when the dam breached and the water ran downhill.

The river, too, has a voice here, as it weaves its own story in between narrative sections, with narrow text formatting to visually show the winding path of its waters, and warning us of how it might never be tamed, and is always wild.

The last section of the book, where Burg uses anonymous letters and numbers as identification, is both insightful and, at times, both despairing and hopeful, the wishes of the dead for the survivors to carry on, to press ahead, to make something good in the world, to remember the stories. She even uses faded font texts to indicate those whose lives were taken, their ghost voices rises from the pages like distant music, and those who survived, devastated by loss but intent on moving forward.

As I read Flooded, I was reminded of the great 1874 Mill River Flood in my area of Western Massachusetts, in which a dam burst, towns were destroyed, lives lost or forever altered, and the wealthy — who ignored the upkeep of the dam, were never held accountable. Sound familiar? That river is one I walk by all the time, and the memorials erected and reminders we have (including a map of the flood on a wall of our house) is never far away from our thoughts. And I have Burg’s structure in my mind now, too, and how stories can be told.

Peace (comes after a time),

Slice of Life: Making Music Again

(This is for the Slice of Life challenge, hosted by Two Writing Teachers. We write on Tuesdays about the small moments in the larger perspective  …  You write, too.)

My band, minus a permanent lead singer (we’re in the process of auditioning some new folks), played out live for the first time the other day at a neighborhood Block Party, and while the weather was hot and the audience rather sparse, we had a blast on the lawn, and remembered again — after a long stretch of only playing for ourselves — the joy of making music for others.

That’s me on saxophone. We invited a friend to sing lead on this James Brown song.

Peace (play it),

It’s Been A Long Time Since I’ve Rock and Rolled

Sold Out band

Later today, at a neighborhood block party, my bandmates and I will perform for a live audience for the first time in about four years. (I play saxophone). It’s exciting and nerve-wracking — mostly because our lead singer left the band a few weeks ago and myself and the bass player are taking over lead vocals, and neither of us is really a lead vocalist that can carry a band for extended periods of time. So we’ve divided up the task. We’ve also invited a friend to sit in and sing on a few songs.

Despite the nervous energy (will I remember all of the lyrics?) this morning, having an opportunity to move our sound from the basement to the stage (eh, the village lawn) on a beautiful day with a receptive audience is a great way to come out of the Pandemic Blues that sidelines so many musicians. There’s a whole level of energy from playing live with a band that is hard to explain.

We’ve recently gone back to an old band name — Duke Rushmore — and are looking for a singer so we can start playing out again on a regular basis. Wish us luck!

Peace (turn it up!),

Poem: Straggler Flowers

Straggler FlowerWe took my wife to a Mother’s Day flower show held at an estate out in the Berkshires on Sunday and it was beautiful. Most of the flowers had been just days into a Spring Bloom, and the estate – owned by a conservation agency that we are members of — is well maintained. There were tens of thousands of bulbs all over the grounds. We had a lovely time.

What caught our attention most, though, were the stragglers, the flowers who were rooted in places they weren’t planted, and I won’t say, didn’t belong, but that were confidently out of place with the rest of the plantings around them. Either moved by animal or insect — or who knows, human hand — these flowers provided a nice visual contrast.

So, when, over at Mastodon, where I have been taking part in writing poems to a “word of the day” was “wild,” my mind immediately went back to those little scenes of wildness in an otherwise planned flower experience, and the poem above is what I wrote.

And it reminded me to remember my students, too, and to celebrate the ones who think different, who diverge from the assignments, who question whatever it is that we are doing and why, who ask to change direction, who don’t ask to change direction but just go ahead, who find a thread and just pull it to watch it unwind, who would rather be a daisy among tulips than just another tulip.

Peace (planted and in bloom),

Poem: Listening In As The Black Hole Sings

This poem was inspired by an audio file released by NASA, capturing the sound of a black hole in the Perseus Galaxy Cluster. I found the sound fascinating and the poem just sort of emerged, and it felt right that the poem should be visual, with the NASA audio in the background.

Peace (in the deep),