Beauty and Horror

Author James Lee Burke

Author James Lee Burke

I’m grateful to readers and reviewers for sharing comments and insights about The Glass Sponge. I was shocked by how many men responded, and flabbergasted when I realized they preferred the same six poems. A special thanks goes to the men: musicians, singer/songwriters, a writer, social worker, doctor, brother, editor, publisher, salesman, gardening guru and blogger, who taught me thinking I’m open minded is self-limiting and revelations aren’t reserved for the bible.

One of the revelations was the conclusion expressed by a number of readers that my chapbook is a memoir. I want readers to form their own opinions and hesitate to sway them but speculation about an author’s life via interpretation of their fictional work is unreliable.

James Lee Burke is described as “The Reigning Champ of Nostalgia Noir” by The Times Book Review and “A Modern Master” by Publishers Weekly. I’m intrigued by Burke and his work. A blurb from The Washington Post on the inside jacket of Light of the World reads, “If you believe, as Burke does, that beauty and horror go hand in hand in this life, he can touch you in ways few writers can.”

To know beauty and horror exist, turn on CNN. To believe they go hand in hand, experience their co-existence. Soldiers, doctors, first responders, and victims and witnesses of violence and catastrophic events encounter this incongruous pairing. They appear in the face of a smiling baby in the midst of war and the cheery cottage garden at a pedophile’s home.

I’ve seen the combination repeatedly in the love and devotion an abused or neglected child has for the parent who abused them. This clasp of beauty and horror; violence and reconciliation, is difficult to break between domestic violence victims and their perpetrators. It was unbreakable for my sister-in-law, who produced beautiful pieces of Mozart and Chopin on the piano, and ended her life in a rare, horrific manner.

Believing beauty and horror go hand and hand in this world doesn’t mean I understand James Lee Burke.  The only thing I know about the author personally is what he told me in a response to my email thanking him for drawing attention to autoimmune, connective tissue diseases. He afflicted main character Dave Robicheaux’s wife with Lupus (in earlier books) and twin, African American women with Scleroderma.

James Lee Burke’s pristine writing and fluid poetic prose accentuate corrupt officials and flawed protagonists searching for problematic victims, depraved antagonists and remnants of beauty in an unsettled world. It’s natural to wonder if the Pulitzer Prize nominated author is an alcoholic with anger management issues like character Dave Rochicheaux. Burke’s website states he lives in New Iberia, Louisiana, the setting for the Robicheaux novels. Does the  setting and fact that both the author and Sheriff’s Detective Robicheaux have daughters named Alafair prove the novels are semi-autobiographical?

Authors who write about serial killers likely aren’t serial killers. I’d guess Jeff Lindsay, author of The Dexter Series, isn’t friends with mass murderers on Facebook. I believe James Lee Burke could be Dave Robicheaux because the author created a complex, relatable character through extraordinary writing and skillfull use of the first person narrative.

I can’t translate Burke’s creative work into ingredients for a recipe of his life if I can’t do it for myself. I don’t have a formula to calculate percentages for factors influencing my own writing. Do I attribute twenty-eight percent of The Glass Sponge to personal experience? How much do I allot for socioeconomic factors, observation and writing influences? If I give voice, ability and imagination twenty-five percent each, will they pop out like hidden pictures in Highlights for Children?

I’m not going to dissect my chapbook but readers may be surprised to learn only seven of the twenty-five poems in The Glass Sponge are based on events that happened to me or a person I know. The rest are a mercurial compilation of factors and influences, both recognizable and nameless. I don’t know what’s behind my curtain.  It’s possible James Lee Burke could lift the veil.

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Jules Jacob

julie ginkgoJulie "Jules" Jacob is a contemporary poet who often writes about dichotomous conditions and relationships among humans and the natural world. Her poems are recently featured or forthcoming in Plume Poetry, The Tishman Review, Glass: A Journal of Poetry, Rust + Moth, Yes Poetry and elsewhere. She is the author of The Glass Sponge chapbook with select poems featured at the Colorado Gallery of the Arts and Le Moulin à Nef where she was a resident of the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts Poetry Workshop.

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— Dr. Harrison Solow. Harrison Solow is a Pushcart Prize winning writer, author and university professor. Her latest book is Felicity & Barbara Pym.

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