The Magazine of the Bethlehem Writers Group
Issue No. 38, July/August 2015

Editor's Note
Co-editor Paul Weidknecht
We enjoy reading poetry at the Roundtable and are intrigued as to how poets translate their work from the various themes we offer. We understand the nature of much poetry is personal, often highly so, making the process of what goes into accepting or rejecting a poem difficult to define. Poets might rightfully ask, “What makes a good (publishable) poem?” To which editors might deliver the easy answer, “We know it when we read it.”  Of course, that answer is too slippery to be of any value, so here are some observations about poetry and how poets might refine their work:

While prose can stand a degree of dilution, poetry is concentrated. From speaking with poets at writer’s conferences, I’ve heard that word—concentrated—come up time and again. In a poem, possibly due to its brevity compared to a short story, readers roll around the ‘flavor’ of words in their minds, sort of like a literary sommelier. Word number and choice are important, as poetry readers (read: editors) don’t skim.

Poems addressing emotional issues, i.e. the tragedy of losing a loved one, are most effective when they reach out, causing the reader to reflect in a similar way, and hopefully, compelling multiple readings. A silent nod by a reader might be one of the best compliments a poet can receive.

Other items of which to be mindful: Abstract poetry is fine; its originality is refreshing—as long as you keep the interest of someone reading that abstractness. When a poem becomes too much of a puzzle, reading it becomes a chore. A poem is not a piece of flash fiction with line breaks; short stories do that better. Read the poem out loud. How does it sound? Does it stumble along under the leaden awkwardness of worn phrases or does it ascend in the inspiration of inventive language and imagery?

Perhaps the two most important rules regarding the creation of poetry, or any other piece of creative writing, are the most obvious to understand and simplest to do: keep rewriting your own work, keep reading others work.

In this issue: Our front page feature for this issue is the engaging tale by Ronald Wolff of a father’s love for his musically gifted and autistic son. BWG member Diane Sismour
interviews multi-talented author, editor, and agent Marie Lamba. In our &More section, we showcase a short story by Mary Ann Cooper, as well as work by poets Michael Salgado and Elissa Gordon.

Our Mission  is to present the work of established and emerging writers to enable them to receive comments from readers and to engage in discussions with readers and other writers. Feel free to post your comments using our  Submission/Contact form

Our Featured Author

Ron Wolff
's first novel, Operation Capitol Hill, was published in 2006. Recent credits include short stories in 
the East Jasmine Review and Compass Literary Journal. He lives in Claremont, California, and retired in 2011 following a long career as the CEO of a social service, nonprofit organization. Ron invites readers to follow him on Instagram (@opcapitolhill), Facebook, and Twitter (@WolffRonald)

The Cellist

Ronald Wolff

Nobody ever figured out why my son Danny couldn’t talk. He just never did. He would look at you, and his eyes would tell you there was something he wanted to say, but the words never came. Maybe his mom would have known, but I doubt it. She could barely take care of herself. She left us both when Danny was just two months old, and despite my best efforts I never heard from her again. I left a picture of her in a small black frame, sitting on an end table next to the living room couch.

I took Danny to doctors, of course. When he was two, they said “Wait awhile, people develop at their own rates. Pretty soon you won’t be able to shut him up.” A year later, the diagnosis had changed. “This is highly unusual. Contact the Autism Society and enroll him in their special classes.” I did, but nothing changed. At the age of four, the doctors admitted they didn’t have a clue.

Danny was not your typical autistic child. He didn’t like being alone, but I wouldn’t say he was sociable, either. It felt to me like he was going through the motions, that there was some kind of emotional or psychological barrier he wouldn’t let people through. He just hung around without making a connection. He let me feed and dress him, and occasionally we would watch videos together. But there was no spark. He preferred not to sit on my lap. When I inched closer to him on the couch or tried to hold his hand, he pulled away.

Several months before he started kindergarten, increasingly concerned about how he would respond to the school environment, I took Danny to a speech pathologist with a reputation for performing miracles. She tried every technique in her repertoire. He just stared back at her, almost as if he were saying, “I know you’re giving me your best shot, but it just isn’t good enough.” She suggested a psychiatrist, but that didn’t work either; he wanted to focus on me, but it should have been all about Danny.

Finally, the unavoidable day arrived that I had to take Danny to school. I buckled him into the back seat, peering one last time into his expressionless brown eyes, trying to see whether he understood anything about the new life I had tried to explain to him. There was no answer.

Mrs. Melvin was Danny’s kindergarten teacher. An attractive women in her forties, with dancing green eyes and a ready smile, she said the principal had talked with her about Danny and asked whether it was all right to put him in her class. “I insist,” she had told him. It was clear to me immediately that she was exceptional.

Mrs. Melvin held her hand down where Danny could reach it easily, palm open, in a motion so smooth and natural I almost reached for it myself. He stared back at her. What she did then surprised me—she just left her hand in exactly the same place and gave him a smile that would have made an angel jealous. And she continued to hold it there—it must have been two or three minutes—until she saw the slightest movement in Danny’s wrist. Then she walked slowly toward the center of the room, one excruciatingly small step at a time, leaving her hand within Danny’s reach. He followed, moving his feet as silently as possible, never actually touching her, until they stepped onto a thick area rug that covered the middle of the classroom. She sat down next to him, simultaneously looking at me and nodding slightly with her head toward the door. I left, bewildered by what I had seen.

Fortunately, this all happened before kindergarten became the gateway to college. Mrs. Melvin operated an open, free form classroom, taking maximum advantage of every available space to locate child friendly activities. She appreciated her students’ artwork, though none of it bore any resemblance to either Picasso or Rembrandt. She loved classical music. When the lights were lowered for nap time, she introduced her young charges to Brahms, Beethoven, and Chopin. “Danny listens,” she told me on parents’ night. “He hears things other people don’t hear.” I went home and wrote a letter to Danny’s mom that night. I wanted her to know about her son. I wanted her to know I still loved her. I mailed it to her last known address, convinced that she would never see it. To the best of my knowledge, she didn’t.

Something happened inside Danny that year. Normally, getting him ready to leave the house, for almost any reason, required an hour or more of patient guidance. Suddenly, on school days, he started dressing himself as best he could and waiting eagerly by the door. His eyes revealed anticipation, an emotion I had never seen in him before. One day, when I picked him up after school, he burst into tears and cried the entire evening; I learned later that Mrs. Melvin had been sick that day. When school ended in June, Danny once again became morose, resisting activity and moping around the house without purpose.

I called Mrs. Melvin to thank her for what she had done. She suggested lunch. I declined.

First grade was a disaster, and second was even worse. Despite the extra help he was offered, academic structure suited neither Danny’s temperament nor his talents. He regressed; once again he refused to get dressed without assistance. Doing homework was simply out of the question. The principal suggested holding him back a year; the teachers disagreed vehemently. As difficult as this is to say, as his father, I admit that Danny was no fun to have around the house.

In desperation, anticipating a third grade year that would be simply unacceptable, I called Mrs. Melvin for advice. I hoped she would have some little tidbit of wisdom to pass along over the phone. But it wasn’t that simple. “May I come over?” she asked. “I don’t get a chance to see Danny very often at school.” Reluctantly, I agreed to her visit. I debated whether to dust more thoroughly than usual and finally decided against it.

When she arrived, Danny seemed both excited and wary. He greeted her with a brush of his hand on her hip, an extraordinary amount of physical contact for him, then retreated to his room in total silence. About ten minutes later we noticed him looking at us from the safety of the hallway. That’s when Mrs. Melvin suggested putting on some music. “Do you have any classical?” she asked. Sifting through my collection of Beatles, Dylan, and Led Zeppelin, I found a forgotten copy of the Dvorak cello concerto, probably a gift, and put it on. Danny inched toward us at a rate that made a receding glacier seem reckless, but as he approached I saw in his eyes an eerie consciousness, an eagerness I only started to comprehend years later, after the miracle started unfolding. Danny stared at the album cover, then handed it to Mrs. Melvin. “Yes, that’s the man who is playing,” she said, and handed it back to him. I actually saw tears in Danny’s eyes. Apparently that was new for Mrs. Melvin too, because it triggered an idea. “Danny has always loved music,” she told me. “Maybe he’s ready for lessons.” I was skeptical but willing to try anything. “I used to play in the orchestra, you know, in high school,” she added with a wink. “I’ll come over every week for an hour, if that’s okay.”

Just as she was leaving, Mrs. Melvin noticed the picture on the end table. “Danny’s Mom, I presume?” I had told her the story – well, part of it anyway. “She’s gorgeous.” I nodded in agreement. Truthfully I felt the blood rush to my face. She had, in fact, been my high school sweetheart, the only girl I ever loved. Danny acted like the conversation wasn’t taking place.

We found a kid-sized cello for him to play—a broken down, second-hand instrument that needed to be tuned every five minutes. But he handled it the way a concertmaster treats a Stradivarius. Specks of dust had no chance against Danny’s painstaking use of a soft chamois cloth, and he carried the case as if it contained a fragile piece of artwork, or a baby. In a few months, he was playing simple tunes. He didn’t seem to know what key he was playing in, or maybe he just didn’t care. He was already more musician than technician. “I think your son has a gift,” Mrs. Melvin told me. “There’s a limit to what I can teach him. He should take lessons at school.”

I arranged for Danny to be in the orchestra—the highlight of an abominable elementary school experience. People are never meaner than when they’re young, don’t ask me why. Danny took a lot of abuse, not only for not talking, but for having interests so different from his classmates. Once, in the sixth grade, he had a temper tantrum and literally destroyed his cello. He was so mad he practically went unconscious. When he regained a sense of what he had done, he ran into Mrs. Melvin’s room, crying. She told me she’s never seen a child sob so hard.

I got him another cello, and with each passing year he advanced musically at an astounding rate. At the age of fifteen he was playing Dvorak. At seventeen he played the entire Saint-Saens concerto from memory with the high school orchestra. And such playing! He even got written up in the local newspaper: "Tone quality you wouldn’t expect from a person twice his age,” the reviewer said. “Technique so proficient you don’t even watch his fingers; you watch his eyes and listen to phrasing so exquisite you imagine the composer crying with joy.”

The music schools weren’t thrilled about taking him. They loved the way he played. But they didn’t know if they could handle a student who couldn’t talk. Julliard took a chance and never regretted its decision. Danny performed as soloist with the world’s greatest orchestras, making music the way no one ever has or perhaps ever will.

Mrs. Melvin received a ticket to every performance, along with an airline reservation. She retired from teaching just about the time he went on tour, so she attended many of his concerts. Once, when I was fortunate enough to join her in New York, I saw him gaze at her in the front row just before he played. I’m willing to bet that, in his mind, that concert was dedicated to her. For all I knew, they all were. I asked her, after the concert, why Danny played the Dvorak so often. “You love who you love,” she said softly, glancing at her shoes, and I got the impression she was talking about more than music.

Two months after that concert, Mrs. Melvin was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer. Treatments were unsuccessful, and she died a year later. I had no choice; I showed the obituary to Danny and explained what happened as well as I could. He played the next concert on his schedule, then cancelled the rest of the tour. Well, technically, his manager cancelled it, concluding the inevitable after finding Danny in his dressing room sobbing over a wastebasket filled with music.

We’re burying Danny today. Once again the doctors are dumbfounded, astonished. There is no apparent cause of death.

I don’t know whether to wish that Danny had been able to talk or not. I do know that he found his voice—in the cello. I firmly believe that he understood music better than anyone else who ever lived. He brought wonderment and pleasure to everyone who heard him lovingly sing the notes that others merely play. I am grateful for the beauty he brought to our world. I just wish his mother could have heard it.
The Top Ten . . .
Victor Hugo Quotations
Ron Wolff

At almost 1500 pages, Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables no longer commands the attention of the public. But its magnificent plot and exhaustive 
characterizations, together with the author’s breathtaking language and astonishing observations about human nature, have inspired me to read it twice. Herewith, ten of my favorite short passages:

10. “There are people who observe the rules of honor as we observe the stars, from far off” (p. 1244).

9. “He knew how to do a little of everything–all badly” (p. 154).

8. "He was in the season of life at which the mind of thinking men is made up in nearly equal proportions of depth and simplicity” (p. 699).

7. “What a great thing, to be loved! What a greater thing still, to love!” (p. 934).

6. “With gentleness, youth has the effect on old men of sunshine without wind” (p. 689).

5. “The delight we inspire in others has this enchanting peculiarity that, far from being diminished like every other reflection, it returns to us more radiant than ever” (p. 569).

4. “What a sublime, sweet thing is hope in a child who has never known anything but its opposite” (p. 414).

3.“Though we chisel away as best we can at the mysterious block from which our life is made, the black vein of destiny continually reappears” (p. 203).

2. “The goodness of the mother is written in the gaiety of the child” (p. 151).

1. “If the soul is left in darkness, sins will be committed. The guilty one is not he who commits the sin, but the one who causes the darkness” (p. 14).

(Page numbers above refer to the Signet Classics version, copyright 1987 by Lee Fahnestock and Norman MacAfee.)

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