Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Review: If Mercy, Frannie Lindsay

If Mercy, Frannie Lindsay
published by The Word Works

Review by Alice Weiss

To any reader who knows Frannie Lindsay’s work it will come as no surprise that in this collection the poems are lyrical, complex, imagistic, syntactically subtle and musical. But they are also philosophical; they play with with and against logic. Take the title itself and the poem of the same name. If Mercy, is, the first clause of an if/then statement. In logic, if/then is a statement formed by combining two statements, where the second is a condition of the first. In such a statement, only if the If clause is true, can the statement be true. But in the poem the statements are incomplete. A series of nouns substitute for the clauses that follow the if clause: If, August, house, joy, mercy, peace. What is true here is the lightest touch of felt image: If August…

then ocean, with nothing to offer
the blistered foot but salt’s
vacant blessing.
If house, then faucet and drip,
then rust and the putting away
of albums and goblets.
If house, then also the upright piano.

So the question arises, why Mercy, why “then the eroded palms of a saint/
in a dirt-floored chapel.” Because death. Because dying, because that is the way the world is made and the only way to live with it is to believe in mercy. The poems feel their way to solace. Shade, shadow, darkness, each becomes a blessing. The weeping Beech that appears five times in the book is at once an “elderly parent of shadows” and “the place where nothing will be lost.” Its blackness loiters “like a vagrant,” its shadows assemble

and weep for anyone who needs
some weeping done: the adulteress
waking up to only sunlight on her breasts,

the child always playing outfield,
the knock-kneed girl sold by her father
for ten-thousand rupees.

Note though, that in all the insistence on the legitimacy of sentiment, the tone of mourning, even the evocation of evil, there is the adulteress waking up to sunlight on her breasts, sly, I think, even heretical, the “only” preceding the pleasure, the sensuality of sunlight and skin. This slight irony would be unremarkable if it weren’t for the intelligence with Lindsay undermines the tone of grace, does battle with the necessity for grace. 

That adulteress is instructive because the structure of the book is defined by
Magdalene “drawing her tresses… over the aches of the earth.” We weep for our sins, the mercy is in the weeping, but is it? When, as a reader you stumble on the tone breaking raspiness “The Thirteenth Fairy Comes Back to Even the Score,” or the extended conceit of “ To Heartache,” 

the same dress you always wore
hiked up to your terrible thighs
just so the weeds could brush them.
you turn back to all those magnanimous images of the weeping beech and wonder wonder what you missed. 

Take the poem “Abraham.” Twenty lines of truly complex poetry, Dante-esque in its allegorical structure, twisting and transfiguring the intended sacrifice of Isaac into a foreshadowing of the birth of Christ It begins as a narrative:

Now he climbs the hill believing
His handsome son is the ram God needs as proof.

If you already know the Abraham/Isaac tale, and the poem assumes we do, the story is over. The switch is made, the ram is already here. Abraham, believing,

Leading the boy up the known and rocky
face of the hill, doesn’t he love this child
more than the bulb adores its one lily?

Suddenly, the narrator becomes an implicit I, a shocked observer turning to us with a horrified question. Look at the image and the syntax, the bulb adoring the lily, the grammar seems off and the allegorical content seems to hit us on the head, and this is a speaker we have learned from the beginning of the poem customarily delivers elegant language and complex imagery, so a note of ringing doubt. Then

Easy enough to imagine the quiet
that shuttle’s between them
its awful resonance
… and the breeze on the gleam of the axe blade.

Easy? “awful resonance,” axe blade. The phrase creates the powerful turn. Easy enough is repeated in the next line,

Easy enough to imagine Sarah at home
with nothing important to think about,
folding the muslin bedclothes,
. . .rejoicing still. . .
that her womb has laid aside its years
of fatigue and borne them a son.

The reader’s first response, or at least mine, is to find the turn to Sarah strangely bitter given what we know is going on over in the hills. But then before I understood the allegory, I saw in that shift of attention a kind of mercy to the reader to go from the gleam of the axe blade to Sarah rejoicing. Except for the two ‘easy’s’ that function as connectives to turn the poem. Here is, at least, a carefully designated narrator who boths believes and doesn’t believe. How easy is that flirtation with death and transfiguration for the speaker. How slippery is it to escape the outraged helplessness in the sixth line? How strange to be a God who sacrifices his only son.

My favorite poem is “Apple Juice,” a scene with a daughter at the hospital bedside of her dying father.

So I sat him up and tried again
to help find the words
for juice and thirsty. . .

followed by the expert exploration of details that characterizes Lindsay’s work only here in the context of developing the drama, the relationship with the father.

Dad, you’re thirsty, it’s her job
to bring you things you need, and he said
oh and What and I said juice
again and button, press

Monday, August 22, 2016

College Radio (1975) Allen Ginsberg/Piri Thomas

Allen Ginsberg
Piri Thomas

I have interviewed hundreds of poets and writers over the years—but I can remember my first subjects back in 1975—when I had a short-lived campus radio show “Idea Exchange.” I had a lot of fun working for the station. I remember being expelled from the office of a conservative Buffalo city councilman for challenging his proposed ban on nude magazines, by pointing out that there were a lot of nudes in the city’s Museum of Fine Arts. Then I met Allen Ginsberg. Ginsberg was on campus at the State University College at Buffalo—so I went to see him. There I saw him dressed in a white gown, with fringes of very long hair, and a balding crown. He and a group of others were banging on Hare Krishna drums—reciting  mantra- like phrases, “ If you want to make love, then make love,” “ If you want to die, then die,” etc… He for all the world looked like my Uncle Sy   (A walrus mustachioed --hipster—who lived in Greenwich Village for many years).  My radio station manager happened to be at the event and asked me to interview him. Being an apple-cheeked innocent, sporting a tweed jacket with patches and an Irish cap, I asked, “ Who is he?” The manager said:  “ A prophet!” Well I never interviewed a prophet before, so with great trepidation I made my way to Ginsberg and a group of his friends. For all I knew at the time-- his friends could have been fellow Beat poets—Corso, Ferlinghetti, or the like. They looked the part of bohemian, bearded bards, and they were looking at this fresh-faced boy with their  jaundiced eyes as I approached them with an overly-earnest and awkward gait. I looked at Ginsberg and said, “Mr. Ginsberg I wonder if you could be on my radio show?” His cohorts rolled their eyes and started to snicker, but Ginsberg was polite, saying: “I would love to, but I have a party I have to go to.”  Of course after that I discovered the Beat Generation of poets and writers, and realized Ginsberg’s major contribution to the promotion of this literary genre.

I did manage to secure the author Piri Thomas for my show. Thomas was the author of “Down These Mean Streets.” He wrote about his hardscrabble life in Spanish Harlem—the gangs, the drugs—the poverty—the violence. He’d punctuate almost every sentence with “Check it out.” For a suburban kid from Long Island he was a total exotic. His whole manner, his stories, his street sensibility, his outlaw literary bent, was totally different than anything I experienced in my sheltered 20 years. But these nascent experiences sparked my interest in interviewing and reporting that really didn’t reach full fruition until about 20 years ago.  I always feel that there is some latent passion in every person, and if it is activated someway… well he or she is very lucky person indeed.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Review of Ibbetson Street #39 by Mary Buchinger August 2016

*** The Ibbetson Street Press was founded by Doug Holder, Dianne Robitaille and Richard Wilhelm in 1998.

Review of Ibbetson Street #39
by Mary Buchinger
August 2016

Boats on the front and boats on the back (photography by Dianne Robitaille and painting by Bridget Galway, respectively), this summer issue of Ibbetson sails with poetry, opening with Kathleen Spivack’s poem, “The Café,” set in a dim French establishment where women “[clutch] small glasses of absinthe,/reproaches, and the waste of possibility” and Jennifer Barber’s poem “Visiting Jerusalem” asking “How long/have I been the enemy?/What god am I counting on?” and ending with Joyce Wilson’s “The Envy of the Gods: “We…acted out in scenes/To trick the gods observing from afar/That they might praise what we had undertaken:/A quiet life, hardworking and soft-spoken.”

This issue contains all the hallmarks of Ibbetson that I have come to depend on—new work from long favorites like Marge Piercy, Denise Provost, Molly Mattfield Bennett, Philip Burnham, Richard J. Fein, Robert K. Johnson, Barbara Claire Kasselman, Ted Kooser, and X.J. Kennedy, as well as a first-ever publication—“Where Your Phone Rang”—“Home was where the creaking of the trees outside/played see-saw with your breath,/where the book bounced/off your chest and slipped to the  floor,/and the whiskey cabinet’s door yawned wide”—by Tim Kinsella, an American Sign Language interpreter from eastern Mass.

One particular delight of #39 is a “A Poem for Fred Marchant” by David Blair beside “On a Poem from David Blair” by Fred Marchant—“small cat/ boogers in the dark/runnels of wet nose” in Blair’s poem translates into a cat purring “through its soft, slightly crusted/nose, the air carrying to its mind/the sparrow” in Marchant’s. Opening the pages of this journal is like boarding a harbor cruise with friends and neighbors. There’s talk of travel, of Remembered Places (William Harney), of childhood and merry-go-rounds (Alfred Nicol), remonstrations: “unplug yourself girl” (Susan Nisenbaum Becker, “O Woman Get Off the Rock”), a fine description of “James Wright’s Hammock” (Tom Laughlin) “where the dream drifts toward dawn” and T. Michael Sullivan’s meditative prayer for the sacred and the lost “refugees/of our greed and waste…dimming the kingfisher’s fire/ and the dragonflies’ flame…Before the dearest freshness/deep down things disappear,/dona nobis ah! ” (spem means “hope”). If you haven’t already cracked the spine of #39, the sailing season is winding down, get to it!  

***** Mary Buchinger is the Co-President of the New England Poetry Club.

The Sunday Poet: Mark L. Levinson

Mark L. Levinson

Mark L. Levinson grew up in Greater Boston, earned
a degree at Harvard College, and moved to Israel where
he has been active in the local community of English-language
authors while making his living as a writer for software companies.
He also translates from Hebrew to English.



A Livermore, California, light bulb

has been burning one hundred seven years,

day and night, according to the paper.

The man there says the seal was made so well

no air can get inside the bulb “to help

disintegrate the carbon filament”.

We have a carbon filament somewhere,

I would suppose.  We have everything else.

Old business cards, unplayable cassettes,

souvenir pencils, fragrant candle stubs.

Our carbon filament would never be

so thoroughly protected from the air.

Protection doesn’t do us.  Luck, maybe.

Never have we been sealed from relatives,

from military call-ups, from neighbors,

from dogs, from jealousy, from history,

from CTs, from TVs, from CVs,

from fortune tellers, from timeshare sellers,

tourists, manicurists, coasters, florists,

toasters, roasters, chorists, posters, boasters,

misgivings, misapprehension, mistrust.

The man in Livermore, California,

says: “This bulb operates in a vacuum
and it doesn’t burn hot.  That’s the secret.”

Friday, August 19, 2016

An apology to David Blair, with a preliminary announcement for The Seamus Heaney Memorial Reading presented by the Hastings Room

Seamus Heaney


An apology to David Blair, with a preliminary announcement for
The Seamus Heaney Memorial Reading presented by the Hastings Room
Wednesday 14 September 2016
At First Church Congregationalist
11 Garden Street near Harvard Square at 7pm

Back on the 30th of March, the day before David Blair read at the Cervena Barva Press studio at the Somerville Armory with Lloyd Schwartz and Joseph Torra, David Blair and his then just- released book Friends With Dogs were the subject of an article published in this blog. A few days later, with much gratitude for the write-up, David emailed me and pointed out a few “goofs” I had made. I promised him I would correct the goofs in due time and get them to Doug so that the Boston Area Small Press and Poetry Scene would have the record straight.

I’m taking the occasion of re-presenting my article here (below) to make a preliminary announcement of this year’s Seamus Heaney Memorial Reading, the third of our annual readings in tribute to the great Nobel Prize Irish poet. Along with Meg Tyler and George Kalogeris, David Blair, we feel lucky and proud to say, will be among the evening’s readers.
And only since March, David’s third book Arsonville has been released with dazzling praise. Of it, Stephen Burt, one of our best poetry critics, writes:
There's simply-- and also not so simply-- more life in this poetry than in almost all the other poetry that isn't this poetry; more life, and more kinds of life…the kind whose savor and importance poetry helps you recognize, whether it's a sensory impression, wrought with all seven senses alert, or good wry advice: 'Parents are running a three-legged race,' for example, or 'you always pay as we go,' or 'the longer you drive,/ the more you have to get back home.' Here are real towns, real families, real jokes, real fears, real 'bicycles/ with training wheels,' 'a zone of green yards' with 'a spit-shine of black granite,' and (coming indoors, with bears, so not quite domestic) 'a sudden slight dip in the bathtub temperature.' Here are bad cookies, good apologies, and a really supple language that can helix its way around and above whatever life can throw at the singular poet involved. Let the poems come to you at home. They'll stay.

Tony Hoagland writes, “David Blair is a wholly original American poet-- his poems yammer and jam, they aria and catalogue and whine, combining kaleidoscopic perceptual and social detail with a sensibility that is smart, canny, but affectionate.”
If you’ve read any of David’s own reviews, seen him introduce other readers or perhaps attended one of his courses, you will already know how insightful and articulate David is about poetry. When I mentioned the Heaney reading, he was positively in for it. He loves Heaney. In a recent email to me, David gave me this as a teaser to his segment of the reading:
I am planning on saying some things about the influence of deep image poetry which Heaney encountered during his first stay in America, and how we may see the influence of "leaping poetry" in poems like "Viking Trial Pieces: Dublin," "Hercules and Antaeus,"  and "The Harvest Bow." I will also say a few things about how making large associate leaps is not something limited to the deep image poets, but is also there in Lowell and other American poets as well. I will be going back to Stepping Stones & re-reading the stuff he says about his initial encounters with American poetry there.

If you’ve been to one of the Heaney Memorial readings at the Hastings Room before, you may remember them being on the last Wednesday of August. We’re moving back to mid-September this year in hopes of having a cooler room for the audience. In the following weeks, I will attempt to tease folk to come to the reading, with pieces on George Kalogeris and Meg Tyler.
In his description above, Blair mentions the poem “Hercules and Antaeus” by Heaney. This morning I was reading another of Heaney’s meditations simply on one of the characters and titled “Antaeus,” which I will leave with the reader for this week’s Seamus Heaney poem:

     When I lie on the ground
I rise flushed as a rose in the morning.
In fights I arrange a fall on the ring
     To rub myself with sand

     That is operative
As an elixir. I cannot be weaned
Off the earth’s long contour, her river-veins.
     Down here in my cave

     Girdered with root and rock
I am cradled in the dark that wombed me
And nurtured in every artery
     Like a small hillock.

     Let each new hero come
Seeking the golden apples and Atlas:
He must wrestle with me before he pass
     Into that realm of fame

     Among sky-born and royal.
He may well throw me and renew my birth
But let him not plan, lifting me off the earth,
     My elevation, my fall.

David Blair Sounding the Whistle in his third book FRIENDS WITH DOGS

article by Michael T Steffen (revised, August 2016)

Reading David Blair’s poems is like lying in bed awake listening to the one who lies beside you talking in their sleep.

                There is a network
                of veins, nerves, and straw
                where there was potted nasturtium.

                Dental hygienists who misbehave
                come back as the numbers crunchers
                who remove salaried plaque,

                the 86ers going deep
                to scorch or freeze.                               [“Vulcanists & Neptunists,” FWD, pp 38-9]

All of the terms are a little odd, which is difficult but also amusing. Blair himself commented on this poem:

86 is restaurant lingo for removing something from a menu. I call the corporate flaks who fire people 86-ers. The line "to scorch or freeze" comes from the title of a decidedly irony-free Donald Davie book, and I guess I find the procedures of corporate America hellish, to say the least. This is the most hermetic poem in the book.

Back in April of this year, I gave my interpretation of the poem, trying to use educated guesses going on what I deemed “objective correlatives.” This was the result: We leap, as Robert Bly would say, from potted plants, to the dentist and accounting, to sports and weather. What does “the 86ers” refer to? There is a European American Football team in Sweden called the Uppsala 86ers, which would make sense of “going deep” (throwing a long pass deep down field). General American readers will recognize the term “going deep” and have the research engines in their memories looking for an associate NFL team, say the 49ers. In this line of thought, on to Blair’s next line, you can “freeze” a linebacker by faking a run then throwing a long pass which, if successful, could be said to burn (“scorch”) a defensive back. Amid all of this talk of athletic dynamics, tactics and maneuvers, keep in mind the extremities of weather which climate change is causing our winters and summers. Poetry is at work when so much more is evoked than is actually stated. Great bargains take place between word count and reader.

FRIENDS WITH DOGS [ISBN 9781937679606/Sheep Meadow Press/P.O. Box 84/Rhinebeck, NY 12514], Blair’s third book of poems, lives up to the promise of his previous collections, in which the poet established his signature method in madness of evasive speech. “His music, his diction,” wrote Thomas Lux, “his refusal to use (ever) clichés, his syntax all drive his poems and their hearts forward.”

David Rivard writes,

I have been reading Blair’s poems for about ten years now—struck always by his unique pitch and tone, the tensile muscularity of his syntax and vibrational accents. His diction is totally unboxed.

From this deliberate dismissal of clichés and coins and cousinages, mere gestures are made toward a grander scale, a finger on one’s cheek pointing at the sky, to refute determinism and fate, while acknowledging these mechanisms dangerously at play in our world. The poem “Festivals for Saints Lucy and Anthony” strike a plangent irony that reminds one (listen closely) of Ophelia singing over the virtues of herbs and flowers in her craze after Polonius’s death.

                The Book of Common Prayer
                gives such lovely presentation
                to the psalms, and the weird rites
                that developed for so many events
                All through the North End,
                Jimmy Roselli kept singing Torah
                and ending in Koran verses
                across the neck of water
                between here and Charlestown
                When people pin the ribbon pole
                with dollar bills with the trumpets
                annoying people until they pin more,
                bringing back indulgences is okay with me.

There is a pill (are pills) under Blair’s sugar of meanderings. To an aggressive, accusative and hypocritical world of solicitation, denying us so much in the way of authentic contact and purpose, there is adequacy in a response of denial, refusing sense made by the powers that be, returning everything originally to depict the oddness of how this feels rather than how it should seem okay. Satire, the theatre of the absurd, deigning to no obvious purpose or sense, happens upon a critical “usefulness” in its powerful disrespect and will to shock the censors and oppression crouching even in a free society.

The festivals evoked in the poem’s title are feast days or celebrations in honor of saints. Saint Lucy is petitioned for restoration of sight or vision. Saint Anthony is prayed to for help in recovering losses. The title of Blair’s second book, Ascension Days, with vocabulary in his earlier poems, have raised the notion of religion, an old world religion, in his poetry. His language can behave hermetically. Like Haley Joel Osment, the child in The Sixth Sense, Blair sees dead people: he sees Rabelais’ ghost in the erudite contemporary poet Tom Yuill—

                the poet from Old Dominion.
                “Yoo hoo,” he says, “Read more Wyatt. Read
                Sir Philip Sidney.”
                “Yoo hoo,” he says, “Buttermilk biscuits.
                Gravy. Monday Night Football.”
                [FWD, p. 60].

The fragmentary presentation of his poetry allows for vast silences and omissions. Whether Blair is devoted to religion we may not know by his poetry. That atrocities are being committed throughout the world in the name of Religion should weigh on every informed human being. This is a fact that reflects howsoever in the mirror of Blair’s presented discourse.

The conclusion of “Festivals for Saint Lucy & Saint Anthony” startlingly compresses the world confused in these gestures to the naïve sweet tooth of a child at such a festival, bound for the biochemical disaster of a blackout caused by a sugar rush:

                A kid won a box of Lemon Heads
                and a box of Alexander the Grape,
                and all the flavors of taffy,
                a watermelon Now & Later candy,
                a coconut oil smooth banana flavor
                that never leaves my mouth,
                that takes the wooden floor out
                from underneath our feet,
                that brings me to another level
                of unpeopled Wampanoag hill
                sadness first state park north of the city,
                where there is one chipmunk
                and about four pigeons left
                and a lot of woods,
                a sugar rush, then crash,
                graceful deficit
                in the distant Fells.

In the “rational world,” radical fundamentalism motivating violence is seen as the choice that justifies intervention. It is not Saint Lucy or Saint Anthony, any more than the 86ers going deep. It is a butterfly somewhere causing a hurricane elsewhere. The, say, Venus de Milo as an objective is not mentioned. Nor the fact that the world is consuming sources of energy on a daily basis like a kid loading himself with candy to the point of having a seizure at a religious festival.  As elsewhere in Blair’s poetry, just enough is said in this poem to make so much come tumbling out.

To a great extent, the day-to-day world we live in “makes sense” because it is what we have learned to live with, ways accumulated and assimilated with progress in time. It is the world we frequent daily. One necessary step for the artist and poet, in order to get a good look at things around, in order to begin to speak relevantly about it, is somehow to get outside of that world, get somehow to a vantage point, on a hill, for a good while, to be able to see it for himself or herself. To varying degrees, poets bring this cultivated alienation to readers, with their purpose of showing us something we cannot normally see yet that is true, so probable to how we imagine life, that we say “this really speaks to me.”
Defying logic and expected sequences, Blair, while “restless,” often achieves an a-temporal or out-of-ordinary-time feel, the around-going-nowhere motion of a river mill wheel, a simultaneity of collages, a moving stillness.
David Rivard in Boston Review isolated a line of Blair’s, “Nothing can remain horizontal or vertical for long,” calling this the poet’s “mini ars poetica.” The riverhead of the statement may be Heraclitus’ The only constant is change. It comes by way of one of Blair’s tamer or more focused meditations, from Ascension Days, on inspiration, in the figure and under the title of “AMELIA EARHART”, who like the Virgin Mary did not suffer a witnessed death. The famous American “aviatrix,” as David designates her (with a wink that is both bawdry and submissive to the suffix, evoking the Dominatrix of erotica) serves stunningly as a displacement of the Virgin Mother who according to certain traditions is said not to have suffered death but to have been assumed into heaven, lost up in the air in flight, off the radar and our maps, entering into the needful and copious domains of our speculation and wonder.
A little beyond midstream in the poem, Blair embellishes Earhart with suggestions of another great woman from American history, Eleanor Roosevelt, with a marvelous double entendre on the word “dam”, in one sense for the construction with a reservoir that harnesses energy from a river (recalling the era of the New Deal), and “dam” in the sense of a grand lady, the diminutive of “Madam” or “Madame”.
     The lines go,
                It’s possible that she was always bundled
                muscle, nerve and horse sense.
                Standing rigidly against rivers like a dam
                named after a president is a dubious way to be,
                but I can imagine Amelia fascinated by toasters
                and Christmas lights, the large blue bulbs,
                and the terrifying orange coils
                and the way the toaster cord feels like the root
                of a plant when attracted to earthen recesses,
                and I can imagine a blue bathrobe for her
                in the endless morning before anything.

There is merely a suggestive allusion to Mary in the poem. We might remember that blue is Mary’s color, blue of the serene sky. And that Amelia’s bathrobe imagined in David’s poem is blue. A verbal association is possible with the Day of the Assumption, which is commonly confused with Christ’s Ascension, offering an explanation as to the plural in the title of this wonderful book, Ascension Days, published in 2007 by Del Sol Press.
The poetry of David Blair, for all of its oddity and difficulty, strikes us as something we cannot put down or turn away from. It’s likely we are not terribly sure about what it is he is saying to us on a first or maybe not even a second reading, yet we get a keen sense that it is undeniable and essential.