William Vlach


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for Helen Ernst née Julius

There were many Helens:
Daughter, sister, wife, mother, grandmother, aunt, niece, cousin, friend, educator, leader

One Helen, the earliest—
Her name—Eléni
Granddaughter of
the bringer of fire— Prometheus.
[Chorus] parakalo

There were many Helens—
Another one: beautiful Helen of Sparta,
absconded to Troy.
Many Helens…
[Chorus] parakalo

Our Helen—
Who watched her father
through the door window
as he lay dying
on the hospital bed-
The Great Flu pandemic.

Our Helen-
Who touched the bumps
on her Mani born
grandfather’s neck—
Bullets from The Balkan Wars.

Our Helen—
Who listened to Greek
music in the Napa orchard.
[Chorus] parakalo

Who held her baby brother
Who flirted as a Bobby Soxer

Who watched her brother
blow dandelions out over
The Carquinez Straights—
Missing his mother.
[Chorus] parakalo

Who studied at Cal
Who joined the service
Who fell in love
With a son of Cambridge
Who tried to rescue her baby brother
from violent war.
[Chorus] parakalo

Who proudly studied at Stanford.
Who wrapped packages
for the Greek children of war
[Chorus] parakalo

Who wanted to make things right,
at times intensely,
because she knew
what Chaos looks like,
feels like.

Who watched over her family
Who lost the man she loved
Who lost the brother she loved
Who welcomed a lost nephew
on Greek Easter.
[Chorus] parakalo

If we allow…

These Helens
are here, are now,
in this place, at this time.
There were many Helens
And yes, there are many Helens…
Here, now-

-efcharistó, Auntie Helen, theía mou, efcharistó
[Chorus] parakalo

#Elegy #poem #GreekAmerican #poetry


The California fiery sky.

The picture above is the Autumn twilight sky in the California Valley as the San Hill Cranes descend. Mount Diablo in the background, like Mount Fuji, is a perfect backdrop for the landing cranes. The first Western novel I wrote, The Guns of Revenge, used the theme of fire as both destruction and transformation. Fire, twilight, and transformation are mythological foundations of California.
#Western #WesternNovel #Californiafires

Reading from Father Coffee at Folio Books—

Great fun!

Reading from Father Coffee Monday, 11/13 in Noe Valley!

Selections from The Gospel According to Father Coffee

Father Coffee's sermons began to take on a darker note after the carnival left. "You think," he said in a tenor brogue, "that your life is hard here in this outpost. You think that your husband doesn't pay attention to you. Your wife doesn't give herself enough to you. Your children don't pay attention to your feeble parents. There's never enough money. People get sick and get old and die. Well, let me tell you. We were not born from darkness and silence. When we were born, we were released from a world of suffocation, anguish, fiery pain and gasping for air. And no matter how you lead your life, merit and demerit, you will return to that state of unremitting despair and relentless pain. This life is fine, fine and dandy. No matter how bad things are, you are not where you were. And not where you are going. The worst of times are the best of times."

There was a rise of sin in the village. It was gradual, but Father Coffee noted the increase in the weekly confessions. The ancient ritual that began with Bless me Father, for I have sinned, was now followed by a new, more extreme litany: Father, I beat my wife, and Father, I kicked the dog, and Father, I committed adultery with Mrs. Miller, and Father, I had relations with a goat, and Father, I used the tractor to run over my neighbor's new Pontiac. There were enigmas outside of the confessional also. Vincente, the only teetotaler rancher in the area, smelled of a bad red Portagee wine at the 9: 00 o'clock mass. After the priest carefully placed the host on Mrs. Caldera's tongue, she immediately began chewing on it. In the sacristy, Harold, the intellectually challenged gas station attendant, gargled holy water. Father Coffee walked through the town to find out what the hell was going on. The barber complained that the kids were especially unruly, swatting his clippers away. The pharmacist described a massive increase in requests for bromides and digestive disorder medicinals. The school teacher said the children had forgotten an entire academic year. On the street, dogs purred and cats growled. He saw Mrs. Fitzgerald and the grimiest bum in town, Arnold, taking turns gulping out of a cold bottle of Schlitz. The next day the bull died. He lay dead on the yellow field next to the factory. Billows of blue white smoke poured out from the factory's tall thin chimney stacks. Smoke shadows crossed over the great dead bull. The ranch men stood around the Andalusian lump of power and majesty. "The factory fluoride killed him," Cain, the young ranch hand, said pointing up to the billowing smoke. "Santa Muerte," Manuel, El Bracero, said as he blessed himself. When they opened the bull's dead mouth they saw two rows of perfectly white teeth. "Floride!" Cain cried. People had questioned Cain because he was incredibly close to his bossy mother and had never married. He figured that was none of their business. Besides, the priest had never been upset in the confessional about his sexual behavior, just giving him a few Our Father's and a couple of Hail Mary's, not bothering to tell him to go forth and sin no more. Cain brought Father Coffee out to the field to give Last Rites to the magnificent animal. That night Father Coffee tried something new. Instead of launching from the church peak, he spun in a circle in the garden cemetery. He had seen a picture of the dervishes in the Saturday Evening Post and wanted to try it. He spun upwards, then over the town. From his vantage point, he saw town children vomiting, husbands hitting, wives crying. After seeing the dead bull and the factory smoke, the priest guessed it was some odd evil emitted from the factory. Father Coffee turned east from the town, flew over the factory and plunged into the tallest chimney stack of the Dow Chemical Company. As he nose dived down he prayed, Let me be your breath, Dear Jesus. He inhaled. His lungs nearly burst from the fiery factory made napalm smoke. The next morning, still coughing, Father Coffee calmly walked to the plant holding up an olive wood cross. The workers quickly opened the gates for him. He walked around the great factory until he found the main electrical plug. He quickly leaned over, grabbed the python-like black electrical cord and yanked. He had unplugged the factory. The machinery ground to a halt, there was silence and thereafter significantly less trouble in the town.

* * *

Father Coffee did not question his night flying. He figured if he thought too much about it, self-consciousness would kill it. Besides he had his hands full with his three wards. The church housekeeper, Mrs. O'Hanorahan, had become obsessed with the three boys’ bad behaviors. The epitome of their juvenile delinquency came the morning they tied a rope from the cross at the peak of the church and took turns swinging by their feet around the building like they were performing the Danza de los Voladores in Veracruz. The oldest, Jackie, flew and screamed in delight. The youngest, Timmy, crashed into the stained glass window portraying Christ's agony at Gethsemane. Mrs. O'Hanorahan held her faithful broom ready for the middle boy, Bobby as he swung around the corner of the church. She smacked the flying screaming Bobby which reversed his course and sent him the other way around the church like a boy tether ball. Before the third smack, Father Coffee stopped his housekeeper by standing in front of her holding a cross as if she were to be exorcized. She walked away, broom in tow, muttering, "Ah, bless me St. Patrick, 'tis a fool's parish."

The broken stained glass window and flustered housekeeper did not deter Father Coffee from delivering his weekly sermon the next Sunday morning. "Please note the broken Christ," he said, pointing to the colorful stained glass shards below the cardboard covered window. "He was in agony at the foot of the Mount of Olives. Now he is not. How can anyone be in agony if they are tasting a good green olive? I know, I know. An acquired taste. But, still. A good green olive overrides agony. Any day. Gustat bonum, est etiam in malo olice. Even a bad olive tastes good. What if Christ would have grown tired of sweating blood and eaten a couple good ripe green olives. We wouldn't be worshiping a cross. We'd be worshiping an olive. Veracruz? Nay, Vera Aceituna! The True Olive. Wouldn't history be different if Constantine saw an olive instead a cross? Chew on that one. Go in peace. In the name of the Kalamata, Nicoise and The Holy Martini. Amen."

Back to Blogging…

What with the new novel out and heading off to Africa, seems time to kick this blog back into gear….

Review from the Historical Novel Society for Hunahpu by Charlotte Kirsch

The Golden Chalice of Hunahpu: A Novel of the Spanish Attack on the Maya

The Spanish conquest of the Mayan civilization in the 16th Century forms the dramatic climax of William Vlach’s sweeping novel The Golden Chalice of Hunahpu, but the narrative is much more generous than that of simple military fiction; through a fascinating cast of disparate characters, Vlach dramatizes what he refers to as a “sixteenth-century American holocaust.” We see the doomed valor of Mayan prince Belehe Qat as he struggles to fight the invading Spanish (the savagery of that invasion is exceptionally well portrayed in these pages – so much so that there are stretches that make for very disturbing reading). We see the violently-widening world view of the Spanish noblewoman Beatriz (by a good measure the book’s most interesting character) as she follows her conquistador husband to his new assignment and is quickly forced to re-assess both him and herself.

Most entertaining of all (albeit in a very darkly sardonic way), we see the battered idealism of a monk named Domingo, whose personal story intersects with key historical events in ways that keep the story unpredictable. A host of secondary characters are equally well fleshed-out, and the lost world of the Maya is painted in all its sometimes contradictory colors. The book is barely three-hundred pages long but feels as satisfying as an epic three times that length. Recommended.

Facing the Pacific

He stands in the sand
flings the pole forward.
Weight hook bait line
fly overhead into the surf.

He wonders what will come
from the ocean:
debris, a silver fish, ideas.
His boots are planted in the sand.

A white line of surf
moves up to his feet.
He does not move, for his
footing is solid.

It’s not.

Je Suis Hija

Some of the earliest nasty satire is from Medieval Islamic Arabia. Hija is an Arabic form of satire. It is restricted to poetry, but is not exactly satire in the Western sense in that it is more closely resembles straight out invective. Another word for hija is dhamm, or blame. According to the Encyclopedia of Arabic Literature it lacks some of the sparkle of western satire and is generally more of a polemic. It is insulting, abusive, and highly critical. Hija has been called the abuse poetry of the Umayyads, the Muslim dynasty that ruled Moorish Spain for 700 years. The poetry is extremely course and inflammatory. These hijas, abusive and course poems, were usually aimed at rival tribes. These poems were thought to be fatal, and at times the poet led his people into battle, hurling his verses as he would hurl a spear.

Here’s a fine title for a book: The Bad and the Ugly: Attitudes Toward Invective Poetry (Hija). The book finds that only rarely were poets punished for hija, though the poet Jarir was flogged by al-Walid’s (caliph of Damascus, 668-715 AD) minions. But the typical leader’s attitude was that of Al-Ma’mun’s: “It is not my habit to have someone killed, even if his sin is grave: so should I then do it in the case of a poet?” The reason these abusive invective poets were generally not punished is that the punishments were not seen as effective and would probably incite further invective.


I imagine the ancient hija was like the French soldier in Monty Python and the Holy Grail: “I don’t want to talk to you no more, you empty-headed animal food trough wiper. I fart in your general direction! Your mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries!”

A famous hija from Tayyib al-Mutanabbi (AD 915-965) who attacked the former slave and now ruler of Egypt wrote “…this black man with his pierced camel lips,” who is “pot bellied” and “a woman-like slave.” In a further poetic attack, this target, Kafour, is so unworthy that not even death will bother to take him away, “unless his hand has a trace of its stink. With loosened belt, the flabby belly breaks wind;/ neither counted among men nor yet among women.”

Satire, a long and good tradition in the West and in Islamic cultures.

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