Wednesday, July 06, 2022

September 12 Andrea Carter Brown

 

September 12

Andrea Carter Brown

The Word Works

Washington D.C.

Copyright 2021

109 pages


Review by Lo Galluccio


I left New York City’s Lower East Side around September 1st, 2001 to stay briefly at my mother’s place in Cambridge, expecting to hear about a tour of Italy I had been devising with my band and a promoter in Rome. When my plans fell through, I fell into a deep depression which persisted through the morning hours of September 11th. It was my little sister who said, “This is one of the saddest days in US history,” and roused me from my morose bed-ridden state to watch the horrifying television repeating loop of the airplanes, piloted by al-Qaeda terrorists, crash the Twin Towers in New York City, the event we now call, 9/11. The cavernous holes and billowing smoke, the fire and ash, was a harrowing signal that the US had been brutally and systematically attacked by people who hated us and our way of life. I had worked as a temp secretary in the World Trade Center for Smith Barney, the largest tenant of the Towers, who managed to evacuate all their employees. It was soon revealed that American capitalism was under siege, that Osama Bin Laden and his corps had masterminded an attack on the heart and symbol of it in New York City, our own country’s cultural Mecca And while I had never fully bought into the system as a full-time employee, certainly not as a manager or executive, I felt that those people who had been killed, the nearly 3,000 of them, were innocent in some fundamental way. It was indeed a tragic day for America and a tragic day to be an American. 9/11 was a political and historical reckoning.


Recently, I came across Andrea Carter Brown’s poetry collection titled, September 12, released in 2021, her most recent book, along with two previous chapbooks and another collection titled, The Disheveled Bed, none of which I knew. I felt compelled to read this collection, to try to glean a better understanding of a first-person account of someone who had fled New York City in the immediate wake of the attacks on September 11. As the book is titled September 12, it seemed that the author was also aiming to take stock of the aftermath of the catastrophe. What does the day after an apocalyptic event bring? What’s the damage, the perspective, the prognosis for a person, a city, a civilization, an empire’s people?


Andrea Carter Brown opens with a simple paragraph about how she was alerted by her sister’s phone call to the first hit on the North Tower, while she was sitting and drinking coffee in her apartment in Battery Park City, just a block away at about 9 a.m. She immediately flees the scene and her journey to Staten Island through New Jersey and finally to upstate New York where she meets up with her husband Tom. This takes up the second section of the book, a lengthy prose poem in sections of astute observation, resilient emotions and stunning details. Like any refugee, she is dependent on luck, resources, the kindness of strangers and happenstance. There is no clearer demonstration of this than her parlous ride in the Staten Island Ferry which stalls halfway across the sound and is enveloped by a cloud of black smoke from the burning towers. Brown recounts how she nervously dons a donut shaped life-jacket and takes it off, twice, not knowing what will actually save her. Finally, after a kind Staten Island resident named Joyce takes her and a dozen or so survivors in, affording them clean clothes, internet and refreshment, Andrea is able to reach her husband and let him know she’s okay. She writes:


“All of Lower Manhattan dissolves in a scrim of gray dust. Rising, it rivers the sky as the wind carries it east, raining grit and papers on Brooklyn as far as the eye can see. On the western edge of the island, on landfill made from bedrock excavated to build the World Trade Center, I can just make out the apartment building where Tom and I live. It’s still standing. I don’t understand. How could those two skyscrapers, a hundred and ten stories each, fall down without destroying everything nearby? But there it is: our home.” (p 38).


The names of Jersey cities, including the one where Andrea grew up, fly by as though they are flags on a ski slalom course, as she is transported by a Port Authority pick up truck and finally arrives in a gas station at Larchmont, New York where she and her husband had planned to rendezvous. However, he is not there so Andrea waits and waits. Four days later, on September 15th, escorted by the National Guard they are allowed to go home. She recounts:


“Flashlights on, dust masks positioned over nose and mouth, we walk through the lobby, up five flights of stairs, and down dark hallways reeking of spoiled food. Inside the apartment, dirty white dust covers everything. The dust contains ashes of the thousands who vanished four mornings ago: we know this without being told. The dead now lie in our home, now cover every surface. They coat silverware, the runners on which drawers open and close; they sleep in book bindings; they seep between pages and underneath volumes packed tight on shelves; they find corners of closets where we haven’t looked in years. Yes, the dead are with us, will always be with us. Our home has become theirs; we hesitate to disturb their final resting place. Leave them in peace, if there can be any. As for the living, I long to simply walk away, take nothing, and never come back.” (p 42)


The third section of the book, “The Rock in the Glen,” memorializes and specifies the victims from Andrea’s hometown of Glen Rock, NJ. Here she gives us poignant portraits of the ten residents of the town who on September 11th, “go to work and never come home.” In a homage to Whitman, she writes: “Picture a breeze/ rustling the oaks and the maples, spreading/ the news of the morning of September 11./Picture a pretty town brought to its knees.” (p.46). Through these portraits, the ashen remains are transformed into very real people, people with family and community causes, people who played sports or who had retired, whose children, some of them, still expected their parent to return home after months or years of waiting.


The book opens with eight poems that are related to the Hudson River, the great river that graces and enchants Andrea as she lives in Battery Park City. Most of these are beautiful homages to other poets, like Constable and Apollinaire, Dubuffet and Ruscha. In “Each Boat Signs the Water.” She writes in the second stanza,


“I’ve watched the river two years now

I know the names of tugs, the ebb and flow

of tankers and barges, when the next

bright yellow banana boat

comes in. I’ve caught

at dawn an ocean

liner cruise

into port.” (p 24)


In these poems Brown captures the movement and history of the river, its importance in the founding of Manhattan and the way the waters’ reflexes determine her own mood and stance as well as the commerce of New York. Implied by this poet, who is also a birdwatcher and naturalist, is that the river rolls on – it predates and persists beyond the reckoning of shattered man-made metal and glass, the brutal massacre of human life of 9/11.


The fourth section of the book “To the Dust” begins with an epigraph from Charles Bukowski:

what matters most is/how well you/walk through the/fire.” This is a fitting opening to a section that includes poems about ruined buildings brought back to life, about kid necklaces made on the day after, paeans to the varied ethnic laborers and characters that frequented the old neighborhood before the cataclysm, and more poems in the aftermath. It opens with a piece called, “The Kiss” in which Andrea’s husband remembers that he heard about the towers burning in a meeting and was sure that his wife was dead. His friend Andy takes him home and they watch TV to hear news, to figure out what happened. And he ends with “I was glad I had gone back to kiss you a second time before leaving. Do you remember that?” And then the poem turns to her story. “Did I hear your whispered I love you? I don’t know. I drifted back to sleep. Only late that night, September 11, when you ask, do your words come back, as in a dream.” (p 61)


There are two fragmented poems with columns that divide and connect each other: one called, “After the Disaster: Fragments” and the other a blunt ode to the Towers themselves, called, “Pinstriped Bullies,” that ends, “To live/in your/ shadow/was to feel/infinitesimal.” (p 73). In a poem titled “The Garden of Earthly Delights” – a homage to Bosch, Brown describes the trials her husband endures in the months following the attacks….”you waited in that stuffy acrid air/for someone to pick up the carpets/rolled up on our living room floor/since the morning of September 11./Those months doctors banned me/from going within two miles of the site,/you did everything. It took three years/to get the asthma I never had before/under control…” (p 81). In an “Ars Poetica” she writes: “Let’s not romanticize bodies/falling. Others may use float/or dance; I refuse to pretend/…Some screamed. The sound/they made landing? Forget/thud. Louder than the wind.” p. 83. And there is grace. In “This is for You” she gives thanks to all those who helped her and her husband during and after the crisis, a heartfelt tribute and testimony to the fact that no one can survive a catastrophe alone. This fourth part is a powerful section of the book: a poet wielding her full capacity at free verse to capture, in elegiac figures, the loss and realities of the devastation wrought by the 9/11 attacks.


September 12 ends with a fifth and final section called “The Present” with an epigraph from a swatch of London graffiti, “Every day is a gift, that’s why we call it the present.” Relocated to California, these poems shine with the domestic pleasures of cooking and gardening, of trips to Hawaii, of birds and snakes and reminders of what has transpired. In “To the WTC Health Registry” May 2020, Brown reports on the latest survey about 9/11’s health side-effects that arrives in the mail during the pandemic. In it the addressee is warned, “Call the 24/7 toll-free hotline should/flashbacks or raised heart rates/result at any point.” The survey goes on to ask about new cancers and PTSD, nightmares: “Still have trouble sleeping?” The poet ends this bureaucratic summons with “May it do some good./May some future survey/find us filling more spaces that say/Seldom/Almost Never/Not at All. (p 99)


The finale is a poem called, “Domestic Karma” which lists the daily objects of health and renewal, including lemons and tangerines and clothes lines of laundry dried by outdoor air. The author has been restored to an almost regular regimen. “Monday morning/again. May this ritual help us get/ through the week between tests/and results./May it bring/months of Mondays like this,/shirts loving sun on shoulders,/fear faded as favorite blue jeans/pinned to the line, socks ready/to take us wherever we want.” (p 103). There is ironic hope and a touch of glee in this ending – a sharp contrast to the terror and urgency of Brown’s fleeing blindly that morning from the furious heat and destruction nearby. To note, seventy of her neighbors never returned home after September 11th. In the Afterword she states, “In truth, I was very lucky.” And there is more but I will let you read it. In truth, she was lucky, but she was also brave and instinctual in making a fast getaway and dealing with the displacement and damage of that day, for years to come.


This book is an amazing compendium of recollection and transformation. It is an important and singular chronicle of one woman’s survival and insight into the debacle of 9/11. It has remarkable structure, imagination, music and heart – a poetic and historical treasure. On this Fourth of July, 2022, it seems fitting that I recommend it to you. Read it.

Friday, July 01, 2022

The Red Letter Poem 117

 The Red Letters

 

 

In ancient Rome, feast days were indicated on the calendar by red letters.  To my mind, all poetry and art serves as a reminder that every day we wake together beneath the sun is a red-letter day.

 

                                                                                                          – Steven Ratiner

 

 

Red Letter Poem #117

 

 

 

It is good knowing that glassesare to drink from;the bad thing is not to knowwhat thirst is for.

                  -- Antonio Machado

 

 

It seems to me Jennifer Barber knows – or, at the very least, is learning.  Thirst is the antidote for that drowsiness that veils the senses; thirst is a reagent for stripping the varnish off habit and expectation; for engaging in the complex practice that is gratitude; for learning how to wake on yet another morning, amid the everydayness of our lives, and discover new ways of discerning its unique beauty.  Thirst – and poetry, too, perhaps – is what elevates perception into prayer.

 

When Jennifer gave me two new poems from her then-forthcoming (and, I’m happy to report, now published and well-received) new collection – The Sliding Boat Our Bodies Made, issued by The Word Works Press – I could feel an increased emotional and even spiritual valence in the work.  No reason for surprise.  After a quarter century, she’d retired as editor-in-chief of the literary journal Salamander which she founded in 1992.  She’d also concluded her time as Scholar in Residence at Suffolk University, stepping back from the teaching that had become a central feature in her life.  She was undergoing a time of transition, perhaps a time of harvest.  It was now a central focus for her to attend to more personal labors, knowing that (as is the case for all of us) these mornings are neither guaranteed nor to be taken for granted.  And so in the new book Jennifer was entering undiscovered territory – or, in some cases, revisiting old terrains but with a more refined and probing investigation.  I like how, in this poem for example, one perception throws the next into an altered light, and only seems to magnify our quiet thirst for more.  When her unscrolling images come to an end, I believe the speaker is reflecting the dual responsibilities of any poet: to experience, as fully as possible, the potentiality within the present moment – while, at the same time, becoming available to the potentiality that this unexpected language is revealing within the poem, within the self.

 

I’ve read about Tang Dynasty scholars leaving the emperor’s employ and going off to live in the Chungnon Mountains – a life of solitude, reflection, and poetry.  And yet it is clear in their writing that, even in seclusion, they are conscious of their ties, their responsibilities to society-at-large, or perhaps to some imagined future.  I believe it was Robert Louis Stevenson who wrote: “Don’t judge each day by the harvest you reap but by the seeds that you plant.”  In an age that seems to be filled with unending turmoil, it’s a good thought to keep in mind.  So, once again, no great surprise when, in the spring of 2021 – and while the pandemic bedeviled every aspect of daily life – Jennifer accepted the appointment as Poet Laureate for Brookline, Massachusetts.  Even during the time of harvesting, new seeds need to be sowed. 

 

 

 

 

These Mornings

 

 

I light a candle at daybreak.

I fill a cup with my thirst

and drink it down, and reach for more.

I’m in a flannel nightgown,

a flannel bathrobe printed with red birds.

I sleep. I wake. Another indigo

fills the window of my room.

By now the trees have shed their leaves.

I light the grapefruit-scented candle

with three wicks; I fall in love with it

and scissors and pens and paperclips.

I strip to a shadow of myself

and fill the shadow with

powders, pink and blue,

and spread them evenly across.

What I feel I feel for all of us—

the highway driver, the insomniac,

my friend waiting to hear what the doctor found.

 

 

–– Jennifer Barber

 

 

 

 

The Red Letters 3.0

 

* If you would like to receive these poems every Friday in your own in-box – or would like to write in with comments or submissions – send correspondence to:

steven.arlingtonlaureate@gmail.com

 

 

To learn more about the origins of the Red Letter Project, check out an essay I wrote for Arrowsmith Magazine:

https://www.arrowsmithpress.com/community-of-voices

 

Two of our partner sites will continue re-posting each Red Letter weekly: the YourArlington news blog

https://www.yourarlington.com/easyblog/entry/28-poetry/3149-redletter-052722

 

 

and the Boston Area Small Press and Poetry Scene

http://dougholder.blogspot.com

 

For updates and announcements about Red Letter projects and poetry readings, please follow me on Twitter          

@StevenRatiner

Wednesday, June 29, 2022

Far Cry Poems by Tom Daley

 

Far Cry

Poems by Tom Daley

Handmade book by Sara Lefsyk

For Ethel Zine & Micro Press

www.ethelzine.com

46 Pages


Review by Dennis Daly


Mischief meets elegiac mournfulness in Tom Daley’s new chapbook, Far Cry, in which the poet summons up the ghost of a close but estranged gay friend and searches through evocative imagery and shared memories for an understanding, a resolution, and, most of all, a final embrace. Unexpected religious and erotic juxtapositions deliver both edgy wit and good-natured humor. And, most impressively, throughout this poetic sequence, Daley utilizes impeccable word choices that result in very high-level, almost objectified, confessional pieces. In short, Daley’s diction sparkles.


Obituary Picture, the first poem in Daley’s collection, begins the festivities by invoking and connecting a conclave of words signifying church officialdom (cardinal, bishop, pope) to the processes at hand: forgiveness and healing. The deceased friend’s pictured attire strikes the poet as especially vivid and implies flamboyant powers, perhaps even those of absolution. Consider these opening and pertinent lines,


Your dear and dangerous mouth is open

to the sunlight. In your red jersey


and perfectly white t-shirt,

you are a cardinal on holiday.


No mistake that you boasted

that the bishop who baptized you


later elected a pope. Your teeth

are touching, they might be grinding


forgiveness or trust into a fine

powder. You are the chosen


vessel…


My favorite poem in this collection is Infant of Prague. Very funny, very blasphemous, and not a little bizarre, the poem strikes home to those of us steeped in the minutiae of Roman Catholic tradition. Not only did many churches have altars devoted to this ornate iteration of the crowned Christ Child back in the day, but many families had their own Infant for home-based devotions. The statue was introduced into Ireland during the 1700s and became very popular. Daley uses the decorativeness and formalness of the imagined statue to incite mock horror between two friends returning from a night’s drunk, and with it a closeness of shared hilarity, now lost in lament. Here’s the heart of the poem,


Oh my God! It’s an Infant of Prague!

Only you could have conjured


that crowned Christ Child with the orb

that the Altar Guild outfitted


in different gowns for each

liturgical season—purple for Lent,


white for Easter—on a side altar

of a Roman Catholic church,


out of a sack someone had left

on a staircase in the dim light. Only you


could knuckle my funnybone so,

you hand curling up,


fingers digging into my wrist

as if hanging on for dear life


Daley’s title poem, Far Cry, suggests both the literal (long distance) and idiomatic (big difference) definitions of the phrase. We are talking life and death here, or are we?

Passion needs release. Impulse cannot be contained by deliberation. The ritual of written poetry may span distance, but it is very different from sensual memory. Its ululations rebound and echo but are, at least directly, unconnected. One may find positive advantage here. Daley describes the experience thusly,


a truncated hiccup fused

with the urgent, inhaled coo


of a woman trying to suppress

the commotion of her passion


so as to not disturb her neighbors.

The cry repeated itself


With the heft of ritual syllable,

Accelerating, amplifying …


In his poem Death Is the Only Daley outs himself as a co-conspirator with death. His poetry not only conjures up a spirit marked with utmost urgency but disturbs the neatness and permanence of death with mnemonic traces of messy, unruly life. Words alone must, need to fail. But the poet’s unholy alliance with the beyond seems to succeed, then decidedly leads to a marvelous metaphor of resolution,


I have conspired


with death to keep

your oblivion at bay.


What is it you would wish me

To do with death?


I can hardly avoid cranking

death open to permit


the ferocity of your predicaments

to tattle me upright.


I am now, in your mind’s eye,

An excuse for death


To leave some dribs of you behind

Over the drab drayhorse of time.


Like all serious poets Daley struggles with the ineffable. His poem I Address the Virtual Impossibility of Conjuring You with Verses that Are Merely Descriptive illuminates the conundrum he faces. Mixing the profane with the pious Daley undercuts his title, winking to his readers between his “merely descriptive” lines. This poet excels in teasing out past grievances and ironies. The poem concludes this way,


To the north,


a khaki top or an immaculately

white t-shirt that you had probably ironed.


There were always men in the woodwork,

splintering or shying under the wide


rabbit trap of your eyes. Always

a feast being prepared


in the scorching pockets

of your salivary glands.


Always a haunch

waiting to be palmed,


a genuflection waiting

to be blessed.


Daley titles one of his last pieces in this collection, Am I Any Closer? And in truth he is that and more. By his skill and consummate craft, the poet has confronted the roguish admonishments, irascibility, and unwanted verdicts from his fractured relationship with his deceased friend and has factored in the sweet and moonlit jubilance of imperfect life, all within time’s poetically amendable imagery. By his very act of creation, Daley, with each reading, bridges the unbridgeable. A tour de force.