Thursday, January 14, 2021

The Open Door by Ruth Smullin


The Open Door

by Ruth Smullin

Fishing Line Press

Georgetown, Kentucky

ISBN 978-1-64662-356-3

The 26 poems of Ruth Smullin’s chapbook, The Open Door, arrived in the mail just in time to provide perfect biscuits to go with my wake-up-from-your-nap-and-face-up-to-the-afternoon coffee; they so absorbed my attention that I stretched out my arousal, compelled to finished the poems before I finished my coffee.

The poems of this collection, with its ekphrastic title poem on a painting of Bonnard, are life drawings from the speaker’s earliest memories until as a grandmother she places her grandchildren into a Bruegel composition in “Yom Kippur Under the Night Sky:”

On this eve of the day of atonement, it's hard

to feel solemn – the balmy October evening warm

and humid as a summer night, sky a blur of gray,

the moon fuzzy with moisture.

Twelve hundred chairs line the parking lot.

Sitting in the back row, listening to rush-hour sounds

from nearby streets, I watch families trickle in,

find seats and friends, catch up on news – children

of all ages and colors, jeans and striped socks,

tutus and leotards, Superman and Alice.

Intoxicated by the night air, the children, the moment,

I think of my two-week-old grandson,

born into a new moon, a new year.

Her strokes are sure, sometimes pointillistic and, when necessary, as fluid as these from the initial prose poem “Yellow,” which, besides being a dissertation on the color, “Sunflower, goldfinch, goldenrod, yellow jackets on a ripe peach,” is also an announcement of the time spanned by this collection from the yellow of “fat rendered from a chicken in Grandma’s kitchen,” to an impoverished present where “These day corn is too yellow, too sweet, watermelon yellow when it should be red; the seeds we loved to spit, gone.”

That mild complaint about seedless water melons provides a hint of an elegiac tone shared by many of these poems of which “Old Letters” (she has “saved every letter. … Six boxes full”) is a good example; here are its concluding stanzas:

Did you mean to sound so cold and hostile?

My mother writes. Dearest, his mother begins,

the phlox is blooming, we’re looking forward

to your visit.

Sarah is growing up at an alarming rate,

my now-dead friend tells me, she is thin,

complicated and moody –

Reading their letters an act of mourning

that sharpens the sense of loss.

I suspect Ruth’s favorite impressionist is Bonnard since, besides the title poem, the only other frankly ekphrastic poem is “Bonnard’s Nude in the Bath and Small Dog”:

In the bath, she floats, calmed

by warmth, wetness, a sensation

of lift. Around her, violet walls swell

blue-green tiles ripple. She drifts

like kelp on the open sea, the tub

holding her steady.

In addition to writing about painting she frequently writes as if painting a still life:


on a white plate, my own still life.

Fruit lavish as a rose colors the room,

pleases my eye.

For weeks I study its odd shape,

angles like cheekbones, skin taut

with the fullness of what's hidden,

the blossom and a tiny crown.

or an intimate landscape:

Raspberry Patch in Winter

Rising from deep snow, the canes stand spare,

naked – bright calligraphy in late sun.

Their long shadows – delicate, insubstantial –

reach out across the white expanse.

But regrettably, as my initial pleasure was interrupted upon reaching the final poem, I must stop my praise somewhere, so I shall do it by letting the poet speak for herself about loss with the first lines from “Lost,” a poem where she approaches grieving with humor:

Why do people say we “lost” him when he died?

as if we'd left them on the beach by mistake

like a forgotten flip-flop, after we packed up

towels, shovels, sunblock, and somehow overlook

our husband and father asleep in the sand where we

buried him up to his neck, face covered with a hat

to protect him from sun. If we’d glanced back

from the car before driving home, surely

we'd have noticed the hat, the mound of sand.

Now, when you have obtained your copy from somewhere other than Amazon, such as with an old fashioned mail order from the publisher (Finishing Line Press, P.O. Box 1626, Georgetown, Kentucky 40324) make yourself a cup of coffee or tea or hot chocolate, sit where you have good light, and have some good reading.

—Wendell Smith

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Somerville Artist Janeann Dill: An animated animator, painter, educator and filmmaker.


 Somerville Artist Janeann Dill: An animated painter, educator and filmmaker.

This city offers a plethora of choices of talented artists to interview. Janeann Dill, caught my eye and interest--so I managed to catch up with her for an ( online) interview.

Interview by Doug Holder

Can you tell us about your Somerville Experience?

After relocating to the Boston area in 2011, I made a conscious choice to establish my studio in Somerville. When attending an ICA retrospective exhibition and memorial for an important experimental animation artist, Karen Aqua. As an experimental animation historian, I had been well aware of her artwork for years. I understood how influential and compelling her art films were for the City of Somerville as well as internationally. At this exhibition, I had the pleasure to meet and speak extensively with Karen’s husband, Ken Field. Ken Field is also an internationally recognized and compelling jazz artist, musician, and composer. Longer story short, with Ken’s generous help and suggestions, I was led to my artist studio at Miller Street in Somerville. I have worked in my studio and resided in Somerville for some seven years now and still believe that my decisions to live here were good ones! To name only one example among the many opportunities Somerville offers its artists, the Somerville Arts Council is an impressive arts organization with numerous successful programs for its artists and for Somerville’s citizens at-large.

You are a painter and filmmaker. Which came first?  And do they inform each other?

I love this question! Thank you for asking. My first long-lasting professional career was as a painter of works on paper and paintings on canvas. Experimental animation came into my view years later when I realized that I wanted my paintings “to move in time” when an Artist In Residence at the American Center In Paris. Little had I realized the profound conceptual influence the animated film, FANTASIA, would have on my paintings prior to living in Paris. I was, however, quite aware of the influences of music, poetic literature, and choreography on my paintings.

You are a conceptual artist. You deal with the "action of thought"   Can you explain this?

I teach my students in higher education how vital it is to at least try to understand their singular creative process as a disciplinary strategy in addition to being a medium or craft. I teach the importance of understanding what a concept is, and how to have one.

A concept is an idea. An idea comes into view through research. When research merges with intuition, creative intelligence informs and balances an artist’s output. In other words, one must take action when a thought arrives to reveal itself to an artist. It is a fleeting moment and comes quietly. Thought is ethereal. The act of hearing/seeing/sensing thought leads to another action, i.e., research. Research is meant to discern the impulse for idea. This takes work. Research is are acts of investigation to clarify an idea. For example, making a film is an arduous and laborious pursuit. Keeping a North Star of Idea in view during a lengthy creative process is essential to “remembering” why and how the artist decided to commit to this particular work of art in the first place. This is true for composing music, choreography, experiments in science, writing poetry, theatrical performances, and any visual works of art. I hope this is helpful …

You directed an award-winning documentary about the noted experimental filmmaker Jules Engel. Can you talk a bit about his work and your relationship to him? 

I am the Authorized Biographer of Jules Engel (1909 - 2003). The biographical components yet to be distributed are a feature cinematic essay film (documentary) and book. The short film, “An Artist for All Seasons,” is in many ways a seven-minute introduction to the enormous and largely unknown art historical legacy of Engel and his art students. A consummate arts educator and mentor to four decades of artist-students, Engel was the Founding Director of the first animation program in America to award a higher education degree in Animation, California Institute of the Arts (CalArts). As one of his students and Engel as my Mentor at CalArts, Jules Engel’s teachings are not only visible and tangible in Los Angeles, his far-reaching influences are evidenced in New England as well.

I read he was also a poet.

Jules Engel approached his experimental films and animations as a form of art founded on the principles of timing, rhythm, and personal expression. In much the same way, Engel’s poems are extensions of capturing a gesture of sound and motion in words.

Looking at your work on canvas it seems you use an orgasm of vivid colors--and they seem to project a certain energy--like the formation of a distant galaxy.

I am blushing! I suppose remnants of my Southern upbringing are responding! Hahaha

I’ve never framed my paintings as ‘orgasms’ of color; in this same way, I’ve never considered the Big-Bang an orgasmic event of our universe. That said, I understand how my paintings can be described in this way. I’m not offended by the comment. I did wonder, however, if this description would occur if these paintings had been created by a male artist? I ask out of curiosity. Do you think of the formation of a distant galaxy as an orgasm of color?

The formation of galaxies has been described to me by an astrophysicist to whom I showed my work early in his career and mine as “a kind-of colorful soup.” I am, indeed, creating an animated short film that involves the combining of NASA images (Harvard website) and my original images in which I imagined what is on the other side of the sky. This series of paintings were created in the South of France prior to the launching of the Hubble Telescope for deep space exploration. These pre-Hubble works may be viewed virtually on my website.

Is it hard painting intangible things rather than, let's say, having a bowl of fruit in front of you? You must be very intuitive.

As mentioned, my view is that the intuitive is informed by intelligence, i.e., research! I teach a philosophical approach that is grounded in the discipline of an actual creative process … after years of experience (or no experience at all) the challenge for any artist, young or old, is to remain committed to seeking new fields of inquiry (for themselves) when blockages show up. I can say with certainty, blockages or plateaus or detours and distractions will present themselves to the creative process. In terms of external or internal stimuli for an artist, the distinctions of painting a bowl of fruit in front of me and intangible evidence are both a kind of grappling with the blank canvas, or the piece of white paper in front of a poet. One learns to “kill the white” (canvas or paper) with differing strategies attached to outcomes. Idea is intangible but a bowl of fruit is not just a bowl of fruit. Not even in Photorealist art works. Lighting, placement, and choice of spatial relationships all exemplify the grappling of an idea. Skillful execution imposes a demand whether or not the object is seen in actuality or in the mind’s eye.

Why should people view your art?

Why not? My paintings offer a sense of the mysterious and my experimental films offer a sense of inquiry and curiosity of the “in-between” of rhythm, timing, and pacing. Both challenge prior assumptions and evoke the viewer into the presence of the now - this is not something I consciously intended when emerging as a young artist nor do I consciously intend it now as a mature artist. These are simply responses as the art work’s first viewer.

The text, philosophies, information and defining descriptions written, composed and authored by (c) Janeann Dill are reserved rights. Citation and written permission directly from Janeann Dill is required to publish beyond this one-time use for online and print publication granted to Doug Holder and the Somerville Times.

Saturday, January 09, 2021

The Great Empty: A Renga in Time of Corona Gary Duehr

The Great Empty: A Renga in Time of Corona

Gary Duehr

Grisaille Press [2020]


Review by David P. Miller

The Japanese term renga indicates a series of linked poems. Each poem consists of five lines in two “stanzas” with specific syllabic counts, the first with three lines of 5-7-5 syllables, the second with two lines of 7-7 syllables. This, at least, is how the form manifests in standard English-language practice: the relevant concept in Japanese practice is mora or “sound units” rather than syllables. If 5-7-5 seems familiar, it is: the first renga stanza, called hokku, evolved into what we know as haiku. Typically, renga are written collaboratively, and can be quite lengthy. The linkages between poems may be based on different attributes, such as (free-)association, comparison, or contrast. (There are interesting comparisons with more recent forms such as the surrealist “exquisite corpse.” On a global, multimedia scale, have a look at the collaborative Telephone Project:

Gary Duehr makes a thoughtful, evocative contribution to the literature of the COVID-19 pandemic with The Great Empty. This renga includes forty linked poems in orthodox English-language form. As suggested by the title, Duehr especially evokes the sense of alienation and social abandonment which marked the onset of the crisis, in the late winter and spring of 2020. I’m writing this around the New Year at the top of 2021. Although we are still far from coming to grips with the disaster, on all levels beginning with the devastation of individual lives, families, and communities, the situation is no longer new. This work recalls what it was like to have the pandemic suddenly crashed down on us.

The Great Empty is not a group product. Nevertheless, Duehr makes use of different forms of linkage between poems, suggesting associative flows discovered in the process of writing. Individual words and phrases may be transmuted. A key image in the last line of poem 2 mutates in the second line of poem 3:

This face mask, smudged, torn blossom. (2)

On a U.S. map,

The pale pink smudges swell up, (3)

Stark contrasts may mark the space between poems. Poem 22 ends with an image of the early community applause for first responders: “Block by block, Brooklyn’s neighbors / Clap their hands: a pond’s ripples.” Compare this with the first stanza of 23: “Isolate, apart / A tribe of total strangers, / We roam dusty streets.” Images themselves may transform, as between poems 24 and 25. 24 ends with an image of late afternoon quiet, from the cessation of subtle sound: “Somewhere outside a dog yelps. / The house ticks, hums, falls silent.” This is followed by an image of nighttime quiet disrupted by sound similar to, but different from, ticking: “Two a.m. Hard rain / Nails the walls down. Still awake, / You miss everything.”

Particularly complex associations link poems 34 and 35. Here is 34:

These tiny moments:

Look how bright the house-fronts are!

Night slides into day.

From the next room, the tapping

Of computer keys: light rain.

Poem 35 begins with a line repeated verbatim from 34. It sets into motion connections between rain/river, present/past, and house fronts/skyscrapers:

Night slides into day.

The house a watery dream.

A lifetime ago,

The river in Chicago

Lit up by sunny towers.

The Great Empty is, of course, more than a compendium of linkage techniques. Duehr expresses the combined shock and melancholy of the early COVID-19 period, when we learned that the disease was going to mean much more than a cruise-ship infestation. Poem 5 imagines the sudden disappearance of normal crowds from city streets as an optical illusion: “As in a 19th-century / Tintype, only transient ghosts.” From 9: “Here’s The Great Empty: / Terminals, hotel lobbies, / Train stations, plazas.” The crises of emergency hospitalizations and surges in mass deaths manifest as surreal images of the mundane: “Beds flank a parking garage. / In a field, white tents billow” (11). Our lives’ in-person events, abruptly cancelled, resulted in blanks evoking hospitals and cemeteries: “Calendar squares lie empty: / Pillows, graves” (16). The sense of being unmoored expands to include time itself: “The day / Begins its long trip – // Alone, without any bags” (29).

At the same time, the voice does not settle for despair. The poet repeatedly re-centers his perception. For example, while poem 6 begins, “We are ghosts, transients,” it concludes, “In his drive, a dad unloads / 12-packs from his Range Rover.” “Forsythias spark” in 10, there’s “a din of starlings” in 20. To focus on such phenomena is not to bypass the catastrophe. Rather, it’s to keep one’s fears and cautions situated in what has in fact not changed, what is also still real. It is not a matter of sentimentality but of psychological survival. Poem 32 melds The Great Empty’s most affirmative statement with an observation that’s acute as it is uneasy:

What can be read there?

Einstein: live as if all things

Are miraculous.

Two branches, high up, rubbed raw:

A violin’s plaintive cry.

We’ve seen that poem 35 moves to the memory a past life in Chicago. This revery continues through poem 37 and then pivots, as if a reminiscent daydream wakes into contemplation of early morning and its qualities: “The world falls open— / Breathing, quiet—the glossy / Red mouths of tulips” (39). With the 40th poem, the renga concludes, not in an easily-grasped redemption, but with space for each moment and sensation:

Between breaths, a pause.

A quiet slice of Thisness.

She’s asleep upstairs.

Your day has not yet opened.

Let each thought stretch out, release.

COVID-19 has confronted us with challenges that are, in their totality, beyond individual comprehension. Poets have provided all manner of responses, contributing perspectives that, combined, help us to understand the depth and extent of the crisis. See, for example, Voices Amidst the Virus, published by the Lily Poetry Review Press (disclosure: that anthology includes a poem of my own). The distinctions of Gary Duehr’s The Great Empty are its formal elegance and its meditative quality. While not denying the pain and alienation of this time, it allows us to step back and reset. It turns out that emptiness means room for panic to subside, as well as the vanishing of vehicles and crowds.

(Duehr has also published a sequel, The Great Empty 2, including “infrared, black and white photos taken in the spring and summer of the pandemic by the author, which reflect the apocalyptic, science fiction-like nature of the times.”)

Friday, January 08, 2021

New Book coming soon from the Ibbetson Street Press/Endicott College Young Writer Series


****  The Ibbetson Street Press/Endicott College Young Writers Series will have a new book out this month by talented undergraduate Koby Hirschaut

"The title of Left on Read evokes not just an unanswered text message but also the violation of a traffic rule. Like a driver turning left on red, the poet takes us in a direction that is risky and unsanctioned, veering within the space of a single poem from pastoral dreams full of flowers and sunlight into nightmares in which posies appear to be grey bullets. Ultimately, however, Hirschaut’s achievement here lies in the way he explores the space between dreams and nightmares: the sleepless nights and early mornings full of grainy coffee that the poet sips alone, “lips pressed against nothing but porcelain.” Rejecting the comfortable clichés of love poetry and other “memories that aren’t mine,” Hirschaut plunges instead into a stark reality that he calls “undersold and ours”—in which, for example, an anonymous girl who appears “golden” turns out to be lit by the neon sign of a convenience store. Hirschaut is not afraid to indulge in this kind of “neon fantasy” (in fact, he suggests that fantasy is essential to self-discovery), but he is at his best when he shows us how the poet’s dreams are less compelling than their raw material-- the everyday experiences that make up what Yeats called famously "the foul rag and bone shop of the heart."   ----Sam Alexander/  Associate Professor of English/Endicott College

Friday, January 01, 2021

The Age of Infinity and Disappearance in Jane Hirshfield’s new collection of poems: Ledger

Jane Hirshfield

The Age of Infinity and Disappearance in Jane Hirshfield’s new collection of poems Ledger

article by Michael Todd Steffen

You can be young Joe, thirteen years old, ridden with the anxiety of time and mortality at the discovery that the universe is finite, in Woody Allen’s Radio Days. Or you can be an American poet just past being fifty-something, writing an ode to the precedent decade of your life, as Jane Hirshfield, from her new book Ledger (Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2020, ISBN 9780525657804), in the poem “TO MY FIFTIES.”

It is not so much an address by Hirshfield to her fifth decade of life, her fifties. It is to the substance of the maturity of her craft, the opening of inspiration, where a balance or equality has been struck between the poet and her light, creating the “You” of other within self to be reckoned with, with an exact reversal of terms expressing this equality, echoing the title of her visionary 2013 collection Come Thief:

You opened me

as a burglar opens a house with a silent alarm.

I opened you

as a burglar opens a house with a silent alarm.

It registers a memorable moment akin to “the uncertain hour before morning” section in T. S. Eliot’s Little Gidding—“So I assumed a double part, and cried And heard another’s voice cry, ‘What! Are you here?’” Yet Hirshfield’s unraveling of the climactic moment turns at once to the familiar and to parable:

We knew we had to work quickly,

bears ecstatic, not minding the stinging.

The short poem goes on to unfold on a variation of anaphora: “Or say it was this:…Or this…Say:…”—concluding:

We were our own future,

a furnace invented to burn itself up.

For its facility, John Keats’s conclusion to one of his famous odes, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty…” has brought him, one of the undisputed Pleiades of English poetry, to considerable critical scrutiny.

But we do not scrutinize poets these days for their conclusions so much as for their faculties with associations, their ability to leap from association to association. (Eliot esteems the associative sensibility—yet in an age more beset with stultification than with diversity.)

The two middle sections of “TO MY FIFTIES” display Hirshfield’s virtuosity with transition, which might be identified as the virtuosity of the collection Ledger as a whole. One strophe reassures us with the familiar and particular, in this instance, of doing stuff at home, in an act of preparing a gift for others:

We were the wax paper bag

in which something was wrapped.

What was inside us

neither opaque nor entirely transparent.

Afterwards, we were folded into neat creases.

This is a sort of witness, metaphor of things (wax paper and then the things wax paper holds—“neither opaque nor entirely transparent”).

Yet it is important and honest for Hirshfield to recognize the poem as itself in textual terms:

Say we were paired


still evoking figures—

cupping two dates, a hyphen,

and much that continues unspoken—

“unspoken” to announce even the silence, the margins of white paper bespeaking the line breaks of verse that make poems different from prose.

Hirshfield’s poetry has been selected for seven editions of Best American Poetry. She is a distinguished member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, earning Kay Ryan’s praise as “a true person of letters—an eloquent and exacting poet, first, but in addition the author of enduring essays and influential translations and anthologies…bringing the good news about poetry to nearly every state of the union…[with] her elegant ambassadorship for poetry in the greater world (…Japan, Poland, China).”

Hirshfield demonstrates a keen awareness of her times. She may use the fog and mirrors of the trade where they are needed, where we are less concerned, such as with conclusions. She knows our agendas are full and she is mindful to fit her carefully termed and mystifying poems into our fifteen or so minutes here and there. We like passing by and stopping door to door but we don’t like those doors locking shut in our wake.

We live in this early 21st Century, in the moment of the poem just a little less than a well-spaced page, which may account for the rampant proliferation of poems on the accommodating Internet in the last 15 years or so. The good of this phenomenon has ever been with us, in the stars above, with the accompanying vertigo of contemplating—like young Joe in Radio Days—their vastness and finitude, and accelerated disappearance.

As Rosanna Warren reminds us, Hirshfield’s “poems appear simple, and are not. Her language, in its cleanliness and transparency, poses riddles of a quietly metaphysical nature.”

The poems in Ledger uphold this “sensual philosophy.” Hirshfield can do this with the butterfly net of a couplet, as in the concluding grasp of “NINE PEBBLES”:

This body, still walking.

The wind must go around it.

She does it more elaborately, comparable to the early 17th-century “Metaphysical” poets, in poems like “VEST” with its “many pockets,” concretizing with this single image the several ways diversity and compartmentalization hang in the balance of our lives as well as in our closets:

It is easy to forget

which holds the reading glasses,

which the small pen,

which the house keys,

the compass and whistle, the passport…

The poem proceeds characteristically with a jarring transition from the familiar and reassuring to the less-defined and potentially disturbing:

To forget at last for weeks

even the pocket holding the dates

of digging a place for my sister’s ashes,

the one holding the day

where someone will soon enough put my own.

The vest of Hirshfield’s poem speaks to this time of COVID isolation by holding in another of its pockets, for our restlessness and searching, remnants to our global transport and connectivity:

I rummage and rummage—


for Munich, for Melbourne,

to Oslo.

A receipt for a Singapore kopi.

To familiar readers the passage is like the closing of a dormer window opened in Hirshfield’s 2015 collection The Beauty, from a poem like the Norman Rockwell painting titled “A Common Cold”:

A common cold, we say—

common, though it has encircled the globe

seven times now handed traveler to traveler

though it has seen the Wild Goose Pagoda in X’ian

seen Piero della Francesca’s Madonna del Parto in Monterchi

seen the emptied synagogues in Krasnogruda

seen the since-burned souk of Aleppo…

Lists are important—perhaps even necessary—in a time where events of magnitude follow one upon another, like the 30 named hurricanes the troubling year of 2020 has delivered to our quarantined and boarded-up doors and windows.