Time to Choose

Considering Fred Borsch’s career – culminating in more than a decade as the Episcopal Bishop of L.A. - his new book of poems, Parade (Los Angeles: Cathedral Center Press, 2010), has much in common with the work of his (and my) favorite clerical poet, George Herbert.  That is, a reader comes to recognize that a remarkable modesty characterizes the writer’s voice, a modesty in no way incompatible with keenest observation and subtle wit.  One should note first, though, that Fred has published more than twenty books, making him perhaps the most prolific ‘57 author. The range is impressive: theology, Biblical commentary, helpful counsel directed to the faithful, and quite recently an accomplished novel imagining what was in the minds and hearts of the crew whose assignment it was to destroy Hiroshima and frighten the world ever after.  The prose in all these books is strikingly lucid; more, Fred’s sense of the meanings of the lives of others – from the Son of Man to an Army Air Force bombardier – strikes this reader as notably empathic.  And now we discover that all along he has been writing poems.  Who knew?  But then one remembers that he was a Summa English major.  Yes, he has come a distance since, and from, his thesis on Virginia Woolf.


Parade testifies to the fullness of Fred’s experience.  There are handsomely turned poems here evoking faith, marriage, fathering and grandfathering, baseball, canoeing and camping in the North Woods, and places– see "Return to Tadousac,” a wittily bilingual Shakespearean sonnet evoking Bill Glassco’s summer house in Quebec, where a group of classmates gathered annually until Bill was taken from us.  The gathering in the next poem, the fully realized and, tonally, quite Herbertian "Reunion,” turns out to be of high school friends.  Even those who have made careers of writing and teaching poetry will learn something here about how subtly quatrains in varied trimeters and faint rhymes can be handled.  If one were to grumble about anything stylistic in this book it might be the rare syntactical inversions.  But then they lend the work something of the feel of a safer world, the one that, despite the Bomb, we grew up in.  As the book comes to a close a reader takes in the conclusion of "Going On,” a poem that starts with such broad strokes as "One day tricky Dick, and then old Frankie boy,” but concludes by not concluding – yet.


                                                            And the amazing thing

                        Is that any of us are still around;

                        I mean we all die . . .


Followed two lines on by this:


It’s because we are going one by one,

            or in little clumps that living seems not

            to notice or change that much, managing

            to go on, which is good, and somehow strange.


That exquisitely unemphatic mastery may reach its richest expression in the not entirely ironically titled "Free at Last,” which imagines the last "thoughts” of a hippopotamus in the Prague Zoo as the river waters rise during a major flood.  Simply quoting the terminal strophes makes the case for this book definitively.


            I was excited to think of trying

            out the Vlatava.  I might have

            escaped, too, floating as we do so well,

            and maybe found a bar downstream

            and ordered my own drink and things to chew,

            though who would know for sure what escape

            means for sister seal in a peopled world.


            The roar you heard was my laughter

            to see her slither off, and a rising hope,

            for I never saw the gun until

            your fear of me free, huge and strong,

            you said to be a kind of kindness

            to put me down.


The carefully ordered complexities of language and feeling here, to say nothing of the deft music of the antepenultimate line, signify a writer in full command of his art.  The ability move in no more than ten lines from the spirited humor of a hippo downing a couple in a Prague bar to its would-be-but-isn’t merciful death is reserved to those few writers whose humanity is matched by their talent.  I suggest that you buy this book and read it through on delivery.  You will not regret it.      Dave Sofield

When I was asked to review John Milton's new book "Time to Choose" I had some concerns. What if! don't like it? Can I be honest about a classmate?
Midway into the third chapter my concerns disappeared. I did like it very much. John has written a first class book.
With the background of his own experience, in the Minnesota State Senate, he tells the story of a retired member of that body who had sworn never again to get involved in politics.
All that changes as he meets and later falls in love with a strikingly beautiful young physician who has decided to seek the nomination for a Senate seat in his district.  Roe vs. Wade always a difficult issue jumps front and center due to the fact that his candidate heads a clinic that does abortions. Threats and violence hang over the campaign and her candidacy.
In the meantime the Senator is forced to re-examine the past and the choices that shaped his life. It's a good story and as you read - you learn a lot - first about the workings of a state legislature and secondly a campaign.
I do believe that nobody who has not been through a campaign can understand the process. It is a seven days a week, 20 hours a day pressure cooker. There are crises day and night. . Decisions are made every day that mayor may not determine the outcome. Should you take the high or low road to office. There are always campaign people to tell you that if only you take this unfair shot you will be elected. You learn something about your opponents past. Should you use it? Should you state your real beliefs or fudge them if something you believe doesn't poll well. My experience is that candidates who withstand these pressures, as John's candidate does ultimately, are more successful, but the temptation is always there.
Politics has changed. Campaigns are more difficult, issues more divisive, money has become the cancer on the system. Issues like abortion have embittered the debate. But the process continues and good people continue to volunteer for candidates they believe in.
As a former state legislator, I found so much of this familiar. The friendship among legislators, the ever growing swarm of lobbyists good and bad, the press looking to sell papers not always to inform.
One thing is not familiar, sex. It may be the difference between New Jersey and Minnesota but this Minnesota State Senator is faced with temptation every day. Often he succumbs. Female lobbyists and reporters fall to his charms. Reading all this, I couldn't help feeling I must have missed something.
Overall this is a story of a man and his choices. The campaign is the background. It's a good book and I have no trouble recommending it.
Thomas Kean '57