Thursday, October 23, 2014

Winter in China: An American Life by Bert Stern






 


Winter in China by Bert Stern
Reviewed by Lawrence Kessenich

The biography of a well-known historical figure has its appeal — it gives us (we hope) insight into a person we’re more or less well acquainted with. Bert Stern, on the other hand, lifts a fascinating and barely known historical figure, Robert Winter, out of obscurity, illuminating the life and his times of a man who, without Stern’s diligence, few of us would ever even have known existed. And we’re all the richer for his effort.

Winter was born in Crawfordsville, a small town in Indiana, where, when he heard tales of relatives killing Indians, he found himself sympathizing with their Native American victims. This was a harbinger of Winter’s discomfort with his own culture, which ultimately led to him to forsake it altogether and live for most of the last 67 years of his life (he lived to be 100) in China, during the tumultuous last three-quarters of the 20th century. This period included the Japanese subjugation of China, World War II, the rise of ruthless dictator Chiang Ki-shek — supported, to Winter’s consternation, by the US —the Communist victory of Mao and the Cultural Revolution.

Educated at Wabash College in Crawfordsville (where author Stern later taught, himself), Winter went on to advanced studies in the US, Paris and Naples, eventually teaching college-level literature in Chicago. It was here he first met Chinese scholars and was fascinated and charmed by the Chinese culture they represented. They, in turn, appreciated his interest in their culture, which ultimately led to an invitation to teach at Tsinghua College in Peking. Winter was a professor in China for the rest of his life.

Stern uses his knowledge of Chinese culture (he taught for a year in Peking, himself) and his personal knowledge of Winter (he interviewed Winter several times — and was even at his 100th birthday party) to paint a vivid picture of a complex man in a complex time and place. The reader lives through a great deal with Winter over the course of this book, and I challenge any reader not to care about the man and his fate.

What Stern explores, with a fascination that the reader can’t help but share, is what led Winter to adopt China as his home, and to retain his allegiance to his adopted country through an almost unbelievable amount of deprivation and danger. He found ways to help his fellow Chinese — especially his beloved students, who often suffered most — oppose first the Japanese and then the brutal Chiang and his Guomindang party. Winter was always willing to suffer along with them and to use his privileged position as a foreigner to do dangerous things they could not do — even, for example, putting his own life on the line by intervening when he saw someone being brutalized on the street by soldiers.

What Winter attempted to do with his teaching — and his life — was to find the place where Eastern and Western cultures could meet and learn from each other. He taught Western literature and invited students to his home for evenings of listening to classical Western music — in fact, this last was another way he brought Western culture to China, by relating to his students in a personal manner, something Chinese professors rarely did. He also learned and grew from being exposed to the Chinese.

One thing that fascinated Winter about Chinese culture was the way a certain delicacy and profound sense of community was able to survive brutality — and there was plenty of that during Winter’s tenure in China: wholesale slaughter by soldiers, artillery and bombs during the Japanese invasion; casual rape by American soldiers as World War II wound down; murder of peaceful demonstrators by the Guomindang after the war; widespread death by starvation as the world war and then the civil war between the Communists and Guomindang destroyed the economy. Winter often went hungry himself for months at a time, when his meager means of support by the university and by the Rockefeller Foundation was reduced or delayed.

Through all this, Winter maintained his dignity, his honor and his commitment to his adopted people. It’s not overstating it to call this man a hero, though it was the modest kind of heroics that doesn’t often make it into the history books. Thanks to the diligent research and thoughtful interviews that Stern conducted in order to write this book, and thanks to his skill at translating that material into a vivid narrative, this modest hero now belongs to the ages.

Winter in China is available in hardcover, paperback or as an e-book at http://bookstore.xlibris.com/AdvancedSearch/Default.aspx?SearchTerm=winter+in+china

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Contributors to Ibbetson Street 36 (Due out in Late November 2014)











CONTENTS


A WARNING 1
X. J. Kennedy

THE OTHER WOMAN 2
Kirk Etherton

MONTMARTE 3
Lyn Lifshin

TAKEN 4
Wayne-Daniel Berard

STREET MAN 4
Julia Carlson

RED ROSE BUSH SURROUNDED BY SNAKES 5
Zvi A. Sesling

NOW 5
Susan Tepper

REPAIR 6
Geraldine Zetzel

HOW TO DRESS LIKE A ROBOT TRYING TO PASS AS A HUMAN 7
Valerie Loveland

DREAMING IN BANGLEDESH 8
Elizabeth K. Doran

INCONVENIENT BAGGAGE 8
Harris Gardner

ON THE DEATH IN ALASKA OF MARIE SMITH JONES 9
Michael Ansara

EIGHTY-FIVE 9
Robert K. Johnson

HART CRANE’S BRIDGE TO NOWHERE 10
Alan Catlin

BABYLON 10
Alexander Levering Kern

MOMENT BEFORE, MOMENT AFTER 11
Teisha Dawn Twomey

PIETY MEETS PUBERTY 12
Denise Provost

LIFE STRETCHES LIKE A WILDERNESS 12
Steven Sher

DO ONLY ARMENIANS WRITE LOVE POEMS TO MOUNTAINS 13
Diana Der-Hovanessian

NOVEMBER 14
Rhina P. Espaillat

THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE 14
Joan Dugas

GOD RESIGNS 15
Llyn Clague

BONNARD’S PAINTING: NUDE IN THE BATH AND SMALL DOG 16
Ruth Smullin

APPLES AND HONEY 16
Marge Piercy

BEAUTIFUL DREAMERS 17
Charles Sabukewicz

KEDGING 18
Wendell Smith

ARTIST 18
Rene Schwiesow

A MILD ATTACK OF MADNESS AT THE FRICK 19
Ellaraine Lockie

DIS PLANS A CHANGE 20
Victor Howes

MOVING NORTH PROSPECT STREET 21
Mary Buchinger

IN THE ASSISTED LIVING CENTER 22
Barbara Boches

I SIT ACROSS FROM HIM 23
Jean Valentine

VETERAN 23
Jean Valentine

THE WAVES 24
Lucy Holstedt

WALKING THE LAKOTA PEOPLE’S LAND 26
Lauren Davis

WEST OF MIDNIGHT 26
Andy Roberts

THE BUDDHA’S SHOULDER 27
Lawrence Kessenich

WINTER’S SPARROW 27
Ruth Chad

TRAVELING TO RACE POINT BEACH TO HEAR THE WHALES SING 28
Elisabeth Weiss

CASTING 29
Karen Locascio

ARANEUS DIADEMATUS 30
Krikor Der Hohannesian

THE ALCAZAR, TOLEDO, SPAIN 30
Nina Rubinstein Alonso

SUGARING OFF 31
Philip E. Burnham, Jr.

LAMENT FOR THE MAKERS 32
George Kalogeris

HOP ON LEDGE 34
Michael Todd Steffan

YIDDISH AND MY LIFE 35
Richard J. Fein

MADAM ELEPHANT 35
Keith Tornheim

Monday, October 20, 2014

City of Eternal Spring By: Afaa Michael Weaver











City of Eternal Spring
By: Afaa Michael Weaver
Review By, Paige Shippie



*************   Paige Shippie,one of our talented students at Endicott College, took on the challenging task to review poet Afaa Michael Weaver's new collection of poetry City of Eternal Spring. Weaver recently won the Kingsley Tufts Award in Poetry.

********************************
 

In “City of Eternal Spring,”  Afaa Michael Weaver is on a journey of not only self discovery, but uncovering the origins of everything that has presented itself in his existence. As the Chinese String Theory would have it, this journey is never ending because as long as something is in existence, then it has a certain pull on the world and destiny (no matter how minuscule).


Weaver charts out his discovery in his travels through Eastern culture and his struggle  with memories that haunt him from the past. He aims to reinvent himself, but it is a slow process that sometimes requires him to forget his past life and past ego all together.


The titles that Weaver uses are usually underplayed; they are at a surface level while beneath there is vast life and rich imagery and meaning to dig up in his ppoetry. Underneath, there is a vivid scene that makes one travel to different worlds and everywhere and every moment in between. Weaver at first takes a tactile and tangible stance with his words and then broadens it out to be more metaphorical and  legend-like. Weaver starts by capturing a picture, and then focusing with his creative lens  on the ideas he wants to bring to the focal point. Like a camera, he freely zooms in and out and to varying degrees of the macroscopic world.  In this method, he ties together the idea that everything is unified, whole and interconnected through themes that Weaver can only begin to describe through intense imagery.


Weaver's original imagery is also used to stitch the seams of his emotion together, and there is never a cliche in sight: “Where a blossom lifts its head and thrives where flowers die,”(3). Sometimes Weaver’s beautiful imagery is highlighted in a off key way that allows its original connotation to transform into something seen as sad or painful; beauty is a recurring theme throughout Weavers poetry that always seems to spring from pain.


Weaver is heartfelt, genuine, honest, and revealing with the moments of clarity that he has uncovered in his world of uncertainty. He is not afraid to open himself up and be vulnerable to potential heartache and ridicule if it means he will become stronger as a man and have a better grasp of his own identity and where he stands in the world. “Except what I know is me, a man who melts, falls apart to be repaired in broken spaces,” (5,6). One continuously stumbles upon feelings of tragedy and loss in Weaver’s prose, but at the same time, one can take away the wonder and bewilderment that he expresses about himself and his place in the world.


In Weaver’s ‘Chinese Theory of Strings’, he doesn’t hesitate to flip his perception of the world upside down and question everything. He skillfully plays on alliteration and onomatopoeia throughout the poem while inventing his own method for assessing what is alive, dead, being and what constitutes as our own identity:“but I must believe all sound is evidence of life.” (7)
“the way a mirror leads us to love the face it shows us/ as we are tempted by our eyes to become what we see,” (7). Mirrors show the limits of our physical embodiment or identity as humans; they show permanence and something that cannot be altered. Mirrors however can be deceptive, and Weaver attributes this deceptive quality to mirrors multiple times. “I am Chinese in the mirror,”(8). Reflections pose as a double entendre in their meaning.



To Weaver, mirrors merely reflect the outer appearance, the external self, the shell of a human being. In no way does it reflect one’s identity, ability, or true self that resides in the core of one’s being. Sometimes this core resides in the heart for Weaver, sometimes it’s in his head or stomach; on many occasions his soul is in his throat;“The way to a scream that jacks open my mouth but holds sound hostage,”(8). Here Weaver shows that he is trapped in his body within the bonds of humanity, seeking a greater purpose and an endless expanse of knowing.


Weaver continuously tests the limits and potential of his own human experience: “I have come here to be what I cannot be,” (8). Weaver will not be limited by what he judges from his own reflection because he is not on a journey where his physical identity matters, he is on a journey to discover his inner being, potential and how much he is willing to sacrifice for his soul. As Weaver has written,“a caterpillar dreams itself beautiful,” (10). Weaver believes he can become the being that he wants to be and abandon the hurt he has felt while in his prior identity.

Weaver amplifies the ways of Taoism in his poetry that result from his heavy exposure to Eastern Culture. He believes that being lost can lead to true discovery: “A place where rain is breath, and summer mist, the gas that lets you dream of being lost.”  Taoism is also characterized by a positive, active attitude toward the occult and the metaphysical (theories on the nature of reality). Weaver has set up for himself a lifetime search for true meaning and purpose and will not only enlighten his soul, but will touch others with his words through his journey. 


*************************************************************************************
                                                 ABOUT REVIEWER PAIGE SHIPPIE




 I am currently enrolled in the Honors Society and by May 2016, I will graduate from Endicott College with a Bachelor of Arts in English, Creative Writing concentration, and Studio Art Minor. As an artist, my interests span subject matter and I employ various uses of media. As a singer and performance artist, I enjoy being a member of ECHO, or (Endicott College Harmonic Overtones), as well as having a presence in Endicott’s Jazz Band (as a vocalist). As a writer, I compose lyrics for Jazz Band and submit poetry for publication in Endicott's Literary Review Magazine. Since the summer of 2013 I've been working on a sci-fi novel called, The Doppelganger Effect. As a studio artist, I sculpt with copper wire and clay, paint in acrylic, illustrate in pencil, pen, and charcoal and am open to working with just about anything I can get my hands on.

At Masconomet Regional High School, I was a Poetry Out Loud State Finalist and Semi-Finalist, a Movie Festival Screenwriter and Director, a Boston Globe Show Gold Key and Honorable Mention Recipient (in Art), and an actress playing a few lead roles in the Movie Festival.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

My Experience At Bunker Hill Community College by Alexandria Paul




 ...... For the past five years I have taught a College Writing Seminar at Bunker Hill Community College in Boston. Bunker Hill serves an inner-city, and multiethnic  population. Many of the students are older than traditional college students; many of the students are working full and part time jobs, and many will go on to four year institutions to continue their education. The college even offers midnight classes to accommodate the needs of this student population, and provides technical, nursing, and traditional liberal arts courses. Here is an essay from one of my students describing her first weeks in college.  ---Doug Holder



My Experience At Bunker Hill Community College
By Alexandria Paul


It has been two weeks since classes started and I already love college. Just the idea of finally being independent with no one on my back about my studies excites me when I wake up every morning. Unfortunately, high school for me was like being at the bottom of a swimming pool with my ankle tied to a plug in the drain. It was  hard to undo that hold authority had over me while I was just trying to gasp for independence. It’s a big shift going from a public high school where there are disciplinarians roaming the halls, awaiting for a student to step out of class to question and chastise, versus college where the staff there treats you as the adult you present yourself to be.

 On the first day of classes I was excited. “Finally, I can really focus and fully immerse myself into everything it takes to become a great chef,” I thought to myself as I stepped out of the revolving doors of Bunker Hill. In that single moment I felt the happiest, because no one could touch me. But it wasn’t just the fact that I just gained the independence. Prior to school starting I made a very big life changing decision. In the last weeks of summer, while getting things ready for school, I thought  about what I really wanted to do with my life. I went through a mental game of tug of war trying to determine what I really wanted my future to be. 

I had already chosen my classes for psychology, set up my schedule and had everything set when it dawned on me. “You’ve loved cooking since you were a little girl. You are passionate about it and there are so many career opportunities in the food industry," I told myself. Taking a deep breath I sat down and questioned myself  about taking on multiple client’s problems in my role as a counselor.  I thought,  "Is this something I’m passionate about?"  For a long time I was stuck  between wanting to be a chef and wanting to be a therapist. It took me about a week to weigh out the pros and cons of both careers and come up with a solution. 

 I had an epiphany during that week and decided to go on ahead and change my major from Psychology to Culinary Arts. And so far it was one of the best decisions I could have made in my life. My first day in the kitchen was nerve racking. My chef, Chef Kelley, gave me a task and right on the spot I forgot what he told me to do. I just walked to a part of the kitchen where he couldn’t see me and helped out my colleagues with their tasks. I also forgot my notebook in the dining room twice, each time just standing there while he was talking and others were writing down his every word. It was like my confidence was dwindling away as I kept messing up. 

At the end of the day my chef ordered me and my classmates to clean the whole entire kitchen. We all went to work scrubbing the tiles of  the greasy kitchen floor.  We shined anything that was steel in the kitchen. And almost everything in that kitchen is made of steel.  I was extremely upset about how my first day played out. But I had to take a moment to think and remember why I choose this major and how much dedication would have to be put into this kind of career. I got it together and kept going. Even though my first time in the kitchen wasn’t what I had expected it to be I was happy that I made it past my first day.


The Friday of my first week I attended my College Writing Seminar for the first time. I really enjoyed it and the classmates that I met.  I felt like it’s a good group of people to be surrounded by. I can already tell that the class would have really good and interesting debates and discussions since everyone’s inputs and opinions are different. In the beginning of class my professor, Professor Holder, asked us a question about the Market Basket incident and if we sided with the workers or the management team.  I hadn't heard  about the dilemma that the Somerville  and  the greater community were having. But after I asked Professor Holder to give me the background info I was then able to choose a side (the workers) and joined the discussion.

In high school I was a part of the debate team and participated in numerous competitions. So whenever we have a debate or a Socratic seminar it was exciting for me to be able to share my thoughts and input on different topics. After my first English class I felt like maybe my high school did prepare me for college. I kind of had a secret fear for a while that I wasn’t going to make it in college. I felt like everything my high school taught me was so easy and the fact that graduates came back and told us that they weren’t prepared scared me even more. But it wasn’t until after surviving my first week that I knew I could mentally and physically handle everything college has to offer me, hard work included.

The weeks following things gradually got better. I got more control over my knife, started studying my knife cuts, and working on my English assignments every chance I got. Bunker Hill is just my starting point. I plan to transfer to a four year college–preferably Johnson and Wales- and get my Bachelor’s Degree in Culinary Arts. Nevertheless, I’m glad that I picked Bunker Hill as my base because my experience so far has been great ever since I made the decision to change my major. 
......... 






Paul has been writing since  she was very young. On Saturday afternoons during her free time she would sit on the computer at home and write novels (Science Fiction, Non-fiction, fiction). If she wasn't on the computer she was writing  in a notebook. Reading has always been one of her hobbies. Paul loves to read for fun but hated being forced to read. It was something about reading and writing that  has always sparked her interests.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Carolee Carmello The Boston Concert The FUDGE Theatre Company





Carolee Carmello
The Boston Concert
The FUDGE Theatre Company
in association with Matt Phillips
The Mosesian Theatre
at The Arsenal Center For The Arts
Watertown, MA


Review by Zvi A. Sesling


There are few female singers who have earned the title of “Songstress”with their wonderful voices, Broadway performances and solo performances. The new addition to the list is Carolee Carmello.

Ms. Carmello is currently performing as Madame du Maurier in Finding Neverland at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge. She brought her outstanding voice, relaxed attitude and humor to the Mosesian Theatre at the Arsenal Center For The Arts singing seventeen songs from Broadway plays including Les Miserables, Follies, Call Me Madam, Funny Girl and Mama Mia. It was a compelling concert. Between some of the songs she told personal stories, some humorous, one touching about performing after the 9/11 terrorist attacks with only 100 people in a 1,500 seat theatre, realizing, as the Broadway mantra states: The show must go on.

Listening to her sing it is easy to understand why she has numerous award nominations including the Tony, Drama Desk, Outer Critics and an Obie Award. Her talent has been seen in Europe, in America and in New York at Lincoln Center, Town Hall and Carnegie Hall. In addition she has frequently appeared in many television shows.

In a touching and emotional moment Ms. Carmello brought her father on stage for a duet.
She was most ably accompanied at the piano by Music Director Phil Reno. Ms. Carmello easily conquered a cheering audience and with justification, she is a talent who that needs to be both seen and heard and if you do not catch her in Finding Neverland at the ART, perhaps FUDGE Theatre Company and Matt Phillipps will convince her to return in concert again.

____________________________________________________
Zvi A. Sesling
Reviewer, Boston Small Press and Poetry Scene
Author, King of the Jungle and Author, Across Stones of Bad Dreams
Editor, Muddy River Poetry Review
Editor, Bagel Bards Anthology 7
Editor, Bagel Bards Anthology 8
Publisher, Muddy River Books

Thursday, October 16, 2014

The Somerville Poet Laureate--It is finally here!‏

The Somerville Poet Laureate--It is finally here!


Harris Gardner (Tapestry of Voices) and myself (Doug Holder--Ibbetson Street Press) met with Gregory Jenkins, the Director of the Somerville Arts Council, at the now defunct Sherman Cafe  in Union Square this summer to discuss the prospects of getting a Somerville Poet Laureate. Jenkins was on board, so then we met with the mayor and he thought it was a good idea. Now we have an official announcement, and information  about how to apply. We are forming a selection committee, so far it is Greg Jenkins, Doug Holder, Bert Stern, Harris Gardner, Linda Conte and others to be announced. So if you are a fine poet, community-minded, have a track record of promoting poetry, and have a strong vision for your possible tenure--apply!




Somerville Poet Laureate
Application and Overview

                                                          
Statement of Purpose
The City of Somerville announces the creation of a Poet Laureate for Somerville.   The City views the position as a means to further enhance the profile of poets and poetry in the city and beyond.  The Poet Laureate is expected to bring poetry to segments of Somerville's community that have less access or exposure to poetry: senior citizens, youth, schools and communities.  The Poet Laureate will be a person of vision with the ability to enact his/her vision.

Duration
The Poet Laureate will serve for a two-year term and will be provided an honorarium of $2,000 per year.  A contract will be derived with expectations detailed as to the public benefit required of the position, which will be jointly determined with the final applicant and review committee.    The expectation is that the position will support and expand poetry in the city.  The Somerville Arts Council/City of Somerville will support the Laureate in networking within the community but actual work must be accomplished by the chosen candidate. 

How to apply
Deadline:   Postmarked by November 17, 2014

Candidates for Somerville Poet Laureate must provide the following: 

  • One page contact info sheet with name, address, phone number, email, website (if applicable)  
  • Proof of residence demonstrated by sending a copy of a utility bill, lease, phone bill.  (a jpg image of a current bill or statement is fine if emailing application, or a photocopy of statement if mailing application)
  • Curriculum Vitae / Poetry-Related Bio  
  • Up to 20 pages of original poetry
  • One to three-page vision statement with details as to how you will implement the public benefit component. 

How to submit 

  1. Either email PDFs of the above items to Gregory Jenkins at gjenkins@somervillema.gov     with Poet Laureate in the subject header:
  2. Or mail the following documents to:   Somerville Poet Laureate, Somerville Arts Council, 50 Evergreen Ave., Somerville, MA  02145  




Selection Process for Poet Laureate of Somerville

A committee, comprised of local poets, teachers, and arts administrators, will review the applications based on the evaluation criteria and select no fewer than three and no more than six applications to be finalists.  Finalists will be interviewed in December with the expectation that they will further refine their proposed vision and public component for the position.  The interview process will also provide the selection committee the ability to inquire more of the candidate.  Based on the four criteria below, the committee will select a final candidate and alternate who will be presented to Mayor Joseph Curtatone for his approval.

 Evaluation Process for Poet Laureate Nomination

The Poet Laureate will be reviewed and chosen on the basis of the four criteria (percentage weights included):

·         Excellence in craftsmanship, as demonstrated by submitted original poems  (25%)
·         Providing a vision for the position. How will you work with the community, schools, nonprofit or municipal arts and service departments.   Please convey your vision for the position with details of outreach and collaborations.   (25%)
·         Professional achievement in the field of poetry. Merit shall be proven by publication credits either in small press or large press publications; at least one collection, full size or chapbook published by a small press or large press; also, awards or recognition such as grants, fellowships, prizes, and/or other recognition. (25%)
·         A history of actively promulgating the visibility of poetry in Somerville’s neighborhoods and literary communities through readings, publications, promotion of events, public presentations  and/or workshops and other types of teaching and literary community involvement. (25%)




City of Somerville
Mayor Joseph A. Curtatone

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Trying To Help The Elephant Man Dance By Tim Suermondt




 
Trying To Help The Elephant Man Dance
By Tim Suermondt
The Backwaters Press
Omaha, Nebraska
www.thebackwaterspress.homestead.com
ISBN: 0-9785782-9-5
100 Pages
$16.00y

Review by Dennis Daly

Some people dance through life changing everything and everybody they touch for the better. They imagine goodness and a wonder-filled life that might someday be; then they try to make it happen. Unfortunately, very few poets count themselves among this happy hopeful group; most versifiers seem to prefer the harrowing reality of the coffin lid. Tim Suermondt differs greatly from those other poets—the morose ones, that is—and, besides, he sings, mimics Cary Grant and understands the religious experience of a well-made grilled cheese sandwich.

Opening his collection with a poem entitled The Days of the Dead Are Alive with Happiness Suermondt treats his readers to a rather funereal square dance. Skeletons clanking about with energy put on quite a show for Everyman who, relishing his favorite bologna and cheese sandwich, gives a nod and wink to his future state of being. The poet sets up his piece this way,

You can’t see them
although the faint but energetic crackle

gives them away, those skeletons
in their true freedom and democracy

who are plying their square dance
throughout the apartment complex,

changing partners with ghostly speed, adding
to “ashes to ashes, dust to dust”

the crucial amendment:  “Bone to Bone.”

In a multileveled poem, Flying Without the Geese or the Plane, Suermondt takes us above it all. Are his characters taking a temporary metaphysical break or are they all dead? It doesn’t seem to matter. The poet prances through the afterlife with aplomb while he contemplates the mortality of all of us. His tone breezes along with not a little hilarity. Suermondt describes the experience,

…in seconds I’m airborne.

“I never knew it was so easy,” I say

to a politician who asks for my vote—
some things don’t change, which too is a virtue.

I confess: lyricism has always escaped me
but I’m flying as well as everyone else.

There’s a lovely Asian woman in a dress
redder than Beijing, and an Elvis impersonator

pointing to his nametag, BILLY KING.

“For my sake the world was created,” a rabbi
recites, crossing in front of me, cheerfully banishing

the second part, “I am dust and ashes.”

Not many of us consider the possibility of getting even with childhood boogeymen.   Suermondt torments his boorish monster with words in a poem called The Aztec Mummy of My Childhood. His poetic taunts strike fear in this would-be nightmare maker and he returns meekly, presumably to his fellow mummies.
The poet declares his victory of words and his self-awareness,

My parting shot chasing after him
like a madman with a flame thrower—
“Don’t let the language get you.”
Should I run into him or his relatives
on the Spanish channel late at night
I’ll apologize for my lack of comity—

But I won’t let him bunk down
in the basement, even if he promises to behave—
poor pathetic Aztec Mummy,
a terror who’s long since been eclipsed,
no more dangerous than a telenovela—
God am I cruel.

The title poem, Trying to Help the Elephant Man Dance, captures in a nutshell Suermondt’s offbeat tone. Its sweetness belies any surrealistic interpretation, yet it plays out beyond any realm of realism.  He simply alters what he needs to alter. He makes his own world moment by moment. It occurs to me that Francis of Assisi, another holy fool and original poet, would understand completely. Suermondt celebrates the humanity of his borrowed partner and denies the significance of seemingly repulsive details. His choreographed piece opens with a philosophic sureness,

We do our careful steps in the alley.
“I’m so hideous, “ he says,
looking down at his jumbo feet.
I say, “In this world there are things
far more hideous”—“one, two, three…”
and clumsy as we surely must be
there’s an elegance we both can feel...

My favorite poem and easily the most lyrical in this collection, Singing for Janet Visiting Key West, 1953, also takes an unpleasant reality of the past (and quite possibly the future) and, in the face of all reason, turns the moment into an imagined place of happiness. Suermondt conjures this up by sheer will and stubborn, almost childish, music. I like it. Here’s a good bit of it:

        Oh Janet, polio girl,
        what a sight:
        The Dolphins are dancing in the moonlight.

The pink, aqua and resplendent green
    will help you believe
         the braces by the side of your bed

           can be tossed into the sea
             and you can walk, no run instead
        down to the Duval levy…

Like the weather human sadness descends on us in seasonal fashion. In Beginning and Ending with a Donald Justice Line Suermondt invokes the iconic image of Richard Nixon at the end of his cataclysmic presidency waving bitterly to his fellow citizens. He seems to say that the fault, dear Brutus, may indeed be in the stars. In some sense we all wear the same cloth coats of humanity and share the same ultimate fate. The poet puts it this way,

Time to think of Mr. Nixon
Wearing his Republican cloth coat,
walking around in sadness,
in bitterness—the ultimate display
of how we feel
now that summer itself
has waved Farewell, farewell
from the world’s helicopter.
Looking skyward,
consider the havoc
the stars and the seasons cause…

On his book’s cover Suermondt superimposes headshots of Elvis Presley, Joseph Merrick, and Richard Nixon on the bodies of his dancing partners. In a sense he comes across as an altruistic headhunter of the fallen and flawed. His pieces try to make sense of these unfortunates through a lens of poetic kindness, and Suermondt’s decency shines through each and every composition.