Saturday, February 24, 2024

Red Letter Poem #196

 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 #196

 

 

 

 

 

I Cannot Say

 

 

When she asked us outright

Am I dying? no one said You are.

 

A moment among moments

rips a mind. And ever after, is it

 

ill I'm thinking, when I'm thinking

about death? or for that matter ways

 

of living on? What wildness

in a maker's mind prepares

 

the porcupine, or sloth, for earth?  We are

no models of the kind, to speak of speakability,

 

or dying while alive.  We dumped

her dust across a gunnel,

 

into places all themselves revolving, underneath

a moon unmanned—we let her go

 

from every hand and off

the five whirlpools around

 

the local islands. All the while

the long, hewn sides of workboat

 

turned to every tune

the whirlpool played.

 

Some speak but cannot know.

Some know but cannot say.

 

 

      ––Heather McHugh

 

 

 

 

The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.The Name that can be named is not the eternal Name.

 

This is the opening verse of Taoism’s foundational text, the Tao Te Ching.  And if you’re sensing some contradiction here––a book setting out to explain what it’s just decreed unexplainable––perhaps that’s the reason Lao Tzu, the Chinese sage from the 5th century BCE, composed his spiritual treatise in poetry.  Even today, the deepest, most affecting part of any poem will be what’s not contained within its language.  Perhaps the poet’s voice somehow manages to inscribe a circle of sound and imagery, and we find ourselves suddenly situated at its invisible center, looking out from a new vantage.  Or perhaps the writer creates an archway with those carefully-hewn nouns and pulsating verbs, inviting us to pass through––so readers might shape what we find there, imbue it with meaning.  Or perhaps. . .

 

Heather McHugh is an acclaimed writer, author of eight books of poetry, four more of translations, and a collection of essays.  A former Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, her work has earned her numerous awards including two grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, a Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Award, a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship, and the MacArthur Foundation’s ‘Genius Grant’.  And though it might not come under the heading of artistic achievement, I think it important to add that, in 2012, she founded the nonprofit CAREGIFTED to provide respite and tribute to long-term caregivers of the severely disabled and chronically ill––an enterprise I view as a natural outgrowth from her lifelong exploration of what makes us human.  Endlessly fascinated with the variety of ways words attempt to embody the inexpressible states of experience, she was determined early on (as she’s written) “to follow every surge of language, every scrap and flotsam.”  But time and its inevitable losses have reshaped the project of her poetry.  “Where once the brightness of life and language sufficiently attracted me, now the darkness (full of ordinals but no cardinals) seems the greater calling.”  It’s been some time since her last published collection, and so it’s always a noteworthy event when new work appears.  Today’s poem is the first of two that will debut in the Red Letters.

 

“I Cannot Say” is a kind of jagged psalm of loss and acceptance.  Creating a composite here of two dear friends who’ve died, the poet finds herself wading deep in the morass of grief, wondering what can be said that honestly reflects such an awe-full moment.   I love how the voices in the opening lines are not entirely distinct, stripped of the customary quotation marks; perhaps this implies that the boundary between the asking and answering, the living and the dying is always more porous than we know.  And then the poet’s lens seems to pull back into a wider panorama of her thoughts––considering what can and cannot be said about the demands existence places upon every living creature, our overwhelming need to survive.  The impression I got was of a consciousness trying to think its way out of the heart’s paralysis, forestalling what it knows must come, until. . .  Brought back to the present moment by a series of simple nouns (dust. . .gunnel. . .whirlpool. . .workboat), we are once again face-to-face with this emptiness beyond comprehension: “we let her go // from every hand”.  When, in the end, the poet offers us an echo of Lao Tzu, it is perhaps a simple acknowledgement that the Way guiding all things, the unfathomable nature of Being, must always remain just that, elusive and deep––so deep that our earnest words, like stones, leave only the smallest ripples when they sink out of view.

 

 

 

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

 

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

Friday, February 23, 2024

John Proctor is the Villain: A play by Kimberly Belflower


 

John Proctor is the Villain

Review of John Proctor is the Villain, a play by Kimberly Belflower

Huntington Theatre, at the Calderwood Pavilion through March 10, 2024

 Review By Andy Hoffman

Setting a show in a school brings up so many production problems. How do you maintain the illusion of the adults playing kids and that the teacher/student power dynamic has actual consequences? The Huntington Theatre shows how with John Proctor is the Villain, tightly written by Kimberly Belflower and expertly directed by Margot Bordelon. This production takes the audience right back into high school. The actors dress and speak like teenagers and gallop awkwardly around the stage as they would in a high-school classroom. From the scrunchies on their wrists to the oddly knowing innocence, this cast has embraced their younger selves. The young people connect to their identities through Billie Eilish, Lorde, and Taylor Swift and they erupt into fits of laughter and screaming as teens do. The young playwright went home to rural Georgia after she completed her education and used the familiar location to channel her own youth into this play. They completely brought the audience into their world, as evidenced by the spontaneous standing ovation at the final curtain.

John Proctor is the Villain is set in a small-town high school in rural Georgia. The two faculty members we meet – English teacher Carter Smith and guidance counselor Bailey Gallagher – both graduated from this school, which creates an insular, even protected, environment for the rest of the characters, all students. The play’s subject, gender relations, makes the realism of the production even more powerful. We open in Mr. Smith’s English class, doubling as the sex-education course due to a faculty shortage. Japhet Balaban comes across as the incredibly cool and devoted teacher and he leads his students into the unit on Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. He gives his students the standard interpretation of the play, Miller’s indictment of anticommunist fervor played as the Salem Witch Trials, in which John Proctor’s refusal to save himself by impugning others seems heroic. The teenage girls in his class have a different point of view about John Proctor’s character; the play tells us why.

Set in the recent past, the students run squarely into political reality when they want to start a school club to explore feminism, of particular interest in the wake of the #metoo movement. The guidance counselor tries to break the news that the community would likely object to their club, but Mr. Smith comes to the rescue as both the faculty sponsor and with a different name that will deflect rancor. The community context comes into the classroom in the free-wheeling conversation among the club members, as when Beth, a high-schooler who always apologizes for her opinions and the main instigator for forming the club, confesses that she really thought of the club as a Christian feminist organization. Her classmates are as baffled by this perspective as the audience is. The church remains an offstage character throughout the play, as membership and activity there stands in for upstanding moral behavior. The play we see on the Calderwood stage unfolds like a parallel commentary on the action of The Crucible, as the students fumble their way to insight. Newcomer Nell, a Black student transferred from Atlanta, brings her classmates a slightly more worldly perspective.

In truth, they have plenty of worldliness among themselves. We learn early in the play that Raelynn and Lee, a couple since the fourth grade, ran into an explosive problem when Lee slept with Raelynn’s best friend Shelby, who subsequently disappeared from school for half a year. Did Shelby become pregnant? Did she have a breakdown? No one knows, especially not Raelynn, who simultaneously hates and misses her bestie. The action of the play accelerates to break-neck speed when Shelby returns unexpectedly. Her revelations turn the school upside down and bring the action of The Crucible and the action of John Proctor is the Villain into a duet. The exhilarating ending brings out both the best in the cast and the audience. Join the standing ovation at this exuberant performance.

Poet Robbie Gamble: Much More than a 'Can of Pinto Beans'

 

***Interview by New England Poetry Club Co-President Doug Holder

 
Recently, I was at a New England Poetry Club reading to hear poet Robbie Gamble and others read from their work. Gamble has a new chapbook out titled, " A Can of Pinto Beans." Gamble generously gave me a copy--and I decided to interview this accomplished bard.

From his website:

Robbie Gamble’s poems have appeared in the Atlanta Review, Poet Lore, RHINO, Spillway, and The Sun, among other journals. His essays have appeared in MassPoetry, Pangyrus, Scoundrel Time, Solstice, and Tahoma Literary Review. Recipient of the Carve Poetry prize, and a Peter Taylor Fellowship at the Kenyon Summer Writers Workshop, he holds an MFA from Lesley University, and he serves as poetry editor for Solstice: A Magazine of Diverse Voices.

Robbie worked for twenty years as a nurse practitioner with Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program, and he now divides his time between Boston and Vermont.



Doug Holder: These poems arise from your work with the organization NO MORE DEATHS that helps migrants passing through the remote sections of the Sonora Desert along the Arizonia/Mexican borders. Can you tell us a bit about your experience?

Robbie Gamble: Prior to COVID, I spent a chunk of time each summer for several years volunteering for No More Deaths/ No Más Muertes in a rugged stretch of desert near Arivaca, Arizona where several thousand known migrant fatalities have occurred over the past decade. The aim of the organization is to prevent further deaths by providing medical and material support to migrants passing through. No More Deaths operated a base camp in the desert with a M.A.S.H. tent-style clinic where we could provide some basic care for injured or exhausted migrants. We also went out daily deeper into the desert, starting in four-wheel-drive vehicles and then continuing on foot, to leave gallon jugs of water and food along known migrant trails, with the hopes of preventing people from becoming dehydrated and malnourished on their journey. Passing through this desert often required them to walk 30 to 60 miles from the border, often being pursued by Border Patrol agents. I’m a nurse practitioner, and I’m fairly fluent in Spanish, so I had a good skill set for the work. The conditions were difficult, with daytime temperatures sometimes exceeding 110 degrees. We were also sometimes harassed by Border Patrol agents, who did not approve of our activities. At the time I was volunteering, there was a shaky agreement between No More Deaths and the Tucson Sector Command of Border Patrol allowing us to operate the Arivaca base camp, but it was still stressful to work in such a highly militarized zone where we were often under surveillance.

DH: "A Can of Pinto Beans" seems like a rather pedestrian title for a book of verse. But it is so much more than a can of beans, isn't it?

RG: The Sonoran Desert is a vast, open space where we rarely encountered the people we were trying to support. Mostly we were aware of migrants’ activities by the things they left behind: footprints, trash, discarded possessions, and on occasion, human remains. I came to envision the chapbook as a collection of bits of evidence that people had passed through this desert space, and how they had experienced their journey. The title poem “A Can of Pinto Beans” is a kind of cinematic zoom shot, beginning with a panorama of the horizon and then focusing down onto this one piece of trailside detritus, which had been violently destroyed by a Border Patrol agent in order to deny migrants a small portion of possibly life-saving nutrition. So to me, the can embodies the migrants’ journey, and our small efforts to alleviate their suffering, and the institutional violence simultaneously being deployed to prevent their passage.

DH: Did you plan to write poems about your work, or did it just naturally arise?

RG: I wrote a sequence of five poems upon returning from one of my earlier trips to Arizona, and I shared them in a workshop. Eileen Cleary read them, and she said, “This needs to be a chapbook, and I want to publish it.” I didn’t think I had enough material for a manuscript, but she kept after me, and eventually I wrote some more poems about the work, and included some found snippets from my journal and from operational logbooks to flesh out the project, and she did publish it, in Lily Poetry Review Press.

DH: In your poem " Water Bearer" you seem to question your journey into these harsh environs—you seem to be asking yourself about your motives and why you abandoned your comfort zone.

RG: Very much so. It sometimes seemed that what we were doing was a small drop in a very dry bucket, and I wondered if our efforts were having much of an impact at all. And the conditions were difficult, both physically and psychologically. But I’ve also worked with political refugees and undocumented folks for much of my adult life, and I’ve heard many stories about how a chance moment made it possible for someone to survive. And that spurs me on to do what I can.

DH: Why should we read this book?

RG: “The Border Crisis” is very much in the news these days, couched in broad, menacing, dehumanizing terms. What I hoped to do in this book is to present a more granular, up-close picture of what is taking place at this particular stretch of the border, what is at stake for the human beings who feel compelled to risk this journey, because they can no longer remain in their communities of origin. I also tried to explore the complicated relationship among three distinct cultures in these borderlands, the indigenous peoples who have lived in the region for centuries, for whom the idea of a border is a colonial construct; the groups of Latinos from the South who are passing through in search a safer, more tolerable life; and the Anglo-American forces who hold the technology and the firepower and the legislative wherewithal to dictate who gets to enter and who is excluded. I’m writing as a witness, someone who is not from this harsh geography, but I hope that I have been able to put in enough time and observation to bring some insight into the injustices that I have seen.


A Can of Pinto Beans

Just below the ridgeline saddle

tossed to the side of the trail

lying dented among rocks,

bleached label peeled back,

and the downhill-facing end

of the can stabbed through

by some Border Patrol agent’s

Ka-Bar knife, a precise wound

mouldering around the edges,

with filaments wafting down

the corners, no, they’re streams

of tiny ants, crawling in and out,

bearing flecks of nourishment away.

Thursday, February 15, 2024

Red Letter Poem #195

 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 #195

 

 

 

 

 

Shop Talk

 

 

The door-shop man talked…doors. He talked about

centimeters, frames of width and height,

his raised voice drowning as his sander droned

and dust flew from the jam he had in mind,

 

his goggles in the streamed flurry it snowed.

He rattled his thick fingers through a box

of hinges, saying hang so that the load

of the door weighed in its intransitive syntax.

 

That summer we shouldered slabs with holes for knobs

from delivery trucks, leaning them into

just tilted stacks against the cinder wall.

 

I’d mention poetry. His eyes would cross

in concentration almost. Then he’d smile

and skip getting fancy with Violets are blue.

 

 

     ––Michael T. Steffen

 

 

 

Shop talk: “a discussion about one's trade, business, or employment that only others in the same field can understand.”  Yet there’s an unmistakable allure in jargon, don’t you think, the way that such specialized language evolves inside every trade or profession?  It has the power to quickly confirm a sense of inclusion, or implicitly exclude the uninitiated.  Back in college, I worked one summer in the warehouse of a local department store, helping to deliver furniture all across New York’s Southern Tier.  Let me tell you, woe to the newbie who drives onto the loading dock with a settee on his forklift when the order was for a sectional!  Yet I couldn’t help admiring how the men who schooled me in their occupation could balance-load a 24-foot box truck as artfully as I arranged iambs in a sonnet.  I had a professor back then, Milton Kessler (a fine poet in his own right), who relished jargon in poems, praising the sense of “actuality” and “lived experience” they brought to a piece.  And so, in Michael T. Steffen’s “Shop Talk”, it only takes a few lines to convince us that, sometime in his life, he’s put in his hours at the door shop, learning the trade.  For me, the delight of the poem is watching the double-mind he’s conjured; the young apprentice who’s taby the earnest shop talk, while the agile mind of the poet can’t help but record the experience, leading us to speculate about what’s crucial within all of our working lives.

 

It's no accident that the poem begins with six monosyllables: “The door-shop man talked…doors”––  a hammering drumbeat, unadorned, workaday.  But then the more complicated music and double entendres come rushing into play: “his raised voice drowning as his sander droned/ and dust flew from the jam he had in mind”.  His boss’s voice is indeed buffeted by drown and drone––and we’re not surprised to see him, first awash in noise, then snowed in by blown sawdust (and oh, that troublesome mind-jam!)  Poetry seems to be insinuating itself into the very texture of the labor.  But when the actual mention of verse enters the conversation (has the speaker, perhaps, confessed what he really wants to do with his life?), the older man dismisses the enterprise with the most artless of rhymes (skipping the roses are red, as perhaps being too highbrow, but settling on those blue-collar violets––whether or not he’s aware that they signify modesty and humility.)

 

Michael’s poetry has the ear of a classicist and the calloused hands of the salt-of-the-earth citizenry.  Recipient of a Massachusetts Cultural Council Fellowship and an Ibbetson Street Press Poetry Award, his work has appeared in such diverse places as The Boston Globe, E-Verse Radio, The Lyric, and The Concord Saunterer.  His second strong collection, On Earth As It Is, was recently published by Cervena Barva Press.  He’s also begun staging choral readings of important long-poems from the modern canon, including Seamus Heaney’s “Station Island” and Donald Hall’s “The One Day.”  Today’s piece brought to mind the characters of Robert Frost’s “The Death of the Hired Man.”  If you’ll remember: there’s Silas, the itinerant farm hand, nearing the end of his life; and Harold Wilson, a college boy doing summer labor.  Silas can’t comprehend the boy’s fixation on things like Latin and the violin––useless skills to this hardworking man.  Still, he’d like to teach Harold “how to build a load of hay”––a task Silas has elevated into almost an artform.  We’ve long had something of an uneasy relationship with poetry––in America more so than in many European countries.  And so apprentice poets usually have had to find separate employment in order to survive.  Are we incapable of valuing what the well-made poem provides for all of us?  Must beauty be marketable before we’ll give it its due?  Perhaps Michael learned (through his work in the shop as well as the notebook) how gratifying it is when either a poem or that well-crafted door swings open on its hinges, allowing others to enter.  Both offer a welcome, and the invitation to make yourself at home.

 

 

 

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

 

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