Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Cinnamon Girl, by Lawrence Kessenich

Cinnamon Girl, by Lawrence Kessenich

North Star press of St. Cloud, Inc., St. Cloud, MN


Review by Denise Provost



The often-repeated cliché about the 1960s is that, if you can remember them, you weren’t there. In his debut novel, Lawrence Kessenich shows us that he clearly remembers those times, and was possibly taking notes. Otherwise, how could he spin out a novel recounting the kinds of events described, in such detail?


Cinnamon Girl is a quasi-picaresque coming-of-age novel (and possibly roman a clef.) Its first person narrator, John Meyer, begins his story in the midst of a political demonstration, as armed police are charging unarmed protestors. It’s the summer of 1969, and John is a youth of his time:  self-righteously angry at the conservatism of his parents, earnestly indignant about the war in Vietnam, and furious about the military draft that feeds young men like himself into its maw. Besides having a keen sense of life’s injustice, John is also a sensualist, drinking and smoking reefer while enjoying food, cigarettes, and rock music in the company of friends.


John and his friends are mostly students at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, preoccupied with maintaining their draft deferments while educating themselves out of the boring jobs they work at. There’s a touchy class consciousness about where families live, and fathers’ job descriptions. Yet there’s also the sense that even without these hovering social divides, John and his male friends would still stay at arm’s length, getting stoned together being the peak of their illusory intimacy.


It’s a strong illusion, though, and John becomes close buddies with affable dock hand and student Tony Russo. Or, possibly, John is drawn to Tony’s wife Claire, an enticing green-eyed blonde, with “freckles sprinkled like cinnamon across her nose.” There’s also the attraction of Tony and Claire’s infant son, Jonah; a lure for John, as conflict with his parents makes him want to break away from home, even as his strong love for his big pack of siblings anchors him there.


News of the far-off Woodstock Festival inspires Tony’s friend Tim Kolvacik to supply mescaline to a party at the Russo’s, enhancing the sense of closeness and trust growing between them, Meyer, and Kolvacik’s girlfriend, Mina. Soon after, as Myer recounts, “[w]e became a family almost instantaneously, incestuous longings and all.”   A few “inseparable” months later, the Russos, Meyer, and the intense young radical Jonathan Bradford move into a big Victorian house together, setting the stage for “the party months.”


What these young people do thereafter takes place in the shattering news of the Kent State killings and their aftermath; the local playing out of the national student strike; the shaky political alliance among the organizations on the Strike Committee, and the teach-ins, disruptions, and ideological hostilities of the day. Besides its psychological exploration of its characters, Cinnamon Girl is a collection of love stories, and a social history. It will have certain nostalgic appeal for those who came of age in the same era, and may well be a revelation to those whose experience of protest began with the Occupy movement, or Black Lives Matter.


John Meyer is an engaging central character. While he can be petulant and defensive, he simultaneously disarms the reader with his unfiltered candor, his lack of cynicism, and his willingness to behave in ways that are uncool. Kessenich shows Meyer goofing with his much younger sisters and brother, taking them out to a movie (and ice cream before dinner), volunteering to change Jonah’s diapers – a sort of anti-Holden Caulfield; not at all the typical male protagonist of that era.


Although he is an accomplished poet, Kessenich’s prose here is spare and straightforward, moving his story right along. The dialogue has a natural flow, although some of Meyer’s internal monologues about love, concerning cupid’s arrows, and a woman as an “open vessel,” while not unexpected from a besotted 19-year old, are a bit cringe-worthy. The use of cliché, even occasionally, is not what one expects from a writer of Kessenich’s talents.


That said, Cinnamon Girl’s flaws are as scattered as the faint freckles across Claire’s nose. It’s a good read, and a fine first novel. I’m already looking forward to the next.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

The Sunday Poet: Emily Pineau

Poet Emily Pineau

Emily Pineau is pursuing her MFA in Creative Writing at Pine Manor College, where she is working on her young adult novel, Except For You. Pineau is an Editorial Assistant at UpToDate, and is on the editorial team of AGNI Magazine and Wilderness House Literary Review. Pineau’s chapbook No Need to Speak (Ibbetson Street Press, 2013) was chosen for The Aurorean’s Chap Book Choice in 2013. She has been featured on New Mexico’s National Public Radio, and has won Salamander Magazine’s Poetry-On-the-Spot contest. Pineau’s poems have appeared in The Broken PlateFreshwaterMuddy River Poetry Review (which nominated her poem “I Would For You” for a Pushcart Prize), Oddball MagazineIbbetson Street, and elsewhere. Pineau lives in the suburbs of Boston with her domesticated lion-cat Symba Bartholomew.

First time in a used bookstore

We kiss in front of horror
books and people without faces
we could make out—
we had a car but books drive
us to face each other
before the papers are signed
before my heart’s stitches dissolve
before we know how it feels
to start over with the sun
fresh on our starved skin.
We breathe hard, but not because
we feel fire and stars,
but because it is the first time
we kissed in a used bookstore.

--Emily Pineau

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

A Sentinel for our Times... Poems by Dennis Daly

Poet and Noted Critic Dennis Daly

  Sentinel By Dennis Daly   Sentinel Red Dashboard Press, 107 pages. $16.99.    Review by Ed Meek 

A Sentinel for our Times

A lot of poetry that falls under the heading of experimental today isn’t poetry at all but prose written in lines of varying lengths. Nor is it very experimental. In fact, true invention in poetry is hard to come by and much of what fills our literary magazines sounds and looks the same, written in coffin like blocks with long sentences missing punctuation.

Dennis Daly, on the other hand, in his collection Sentinel, writes poems that are obviously poetry and good poetry at that. Daly’s poems are usually metered and rhymed with varying patterns in quatrains. He revels in forms from sonnets to villanelles. He also loves old and rarely used words like flimflams and scallywag, bald-faced cahoots. And although he writes in conventional poetic forms, he brings new life to them with his content and language. Sentinel traffics in the events of our times. Daly like a character from a novel by John le Carre is, in a sense, spying on the spies. He’s a double agent of poetry. Fortunately, he’s working for us.

His concerns are many and the trouble lies deep. There are poems about drones, dead drops, sleepers, black boxes, moles, defectors, snipers, cowboys and curriers. Daly is out to decode this new world we live in under the eyes of the NSA and hackers from Russia and China, counterfeiters from North Korea, surveillance cameras wherever we go and, by the way, the guy on the train beside you may be taking a video of you now with his phone.

“Confession” a poem based on an interview with a former CIA Director, starts off like this: “Believe me it’s all here on the surface/No geopolitical strategy/Just mirrors blooming in the wilderness.” Daly is outing these torturers and government agents who in our name and with our tax dollars commit atrocious acts.

One of Daly’s Drone poems begins: “We never heard the drone’s dreadful hum.”
And ends: “In God we trust.” There is a clear moral center in Daly’s poems--something that hasn’t always been a factor in our foreign policy or our post-modern poetry.

These poems then often concern themselves with issues we seldom see poetry take on and they do so in poems that are well-structured, exhibiting a conventional mastery, and using contemporary language and metaphor. Sentinel is stocked with weighty issues that beg our attention, housed in an aesthetic rarely evident today.

By Dennis Daly   Sentinel Red Dashboard Press, 107 pages. $16.99.    Review by Ed Meek  

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Podcast: Doug Holder Interviews Joelle Renstrom

Doug Holder interviews Joelle Renstrom author of  Closing the Book: Travels in Life, Loss and Literature. Renstrom's book explores the intersection of literature and life with personal essays about traveling, teaching and dying. Renstrom teaches writing at Boston University. The interview was conducted at the Somerville Community Access TV studios. Holder hosts the program   Poet to Poet: Writer to Writer.

To listen to the podcast go to   https://archive.org/details/Z0000083_201610

Monday, October 17, 2016

Review of Memorial at the Boston Playwrights' Theatre

Review of Memorial at the Boston Playwrights' Theatre

by Debbie Wiess

Boston Playwrights' Theatre (BPT) kicks off its 2016/2017 season with the play Memorial by Livian Yeh.  This historically-based play is about the recognition and push-back that Maya Lin received after it was announced that her unconventional design was selected for the Vietnam Veterans' Memorial planned to be added to the National Mall in Washington, DC in 1981.  I remember that controversy which was often quite bitter and heated, and looked forward to seeing this play about it.  I happen to particularly enjoy historical pieces.  I was not disappointed.  Whether one has any knowledge of that time and the events or has a particular bent for historical pieces, there is nevertheless much to appreciate in the play.

There were many reasons for people to take exception to Maya Lin's being awarded the project.  Her design was unlike any memorial that had been built previously.  It was very modern, stark, consisting of slabs of black marble that would list every US service man and woman who lost their life in the Vietnam War, and was to be set in a great cut in the ground. Lin is also Chinese-American and at that time was a 21 year old student at Yale's School of Architecture.  Her young age, lack of experience or what would be considered "street cred" today, gender and Asian roots were all made into issues as well. 

Although the events depicted are from 35 years ago the play still felt very current and relevant.  That is due to the strong writing and smart language, as well as fine direction by Kelly Galvin and acting.  Everything comes together very nicely to tell the story in a lively intriguing way. 

The set is dominated by a modern open metal structure used as a backdrop.  There is a minimalism in the decor and props that help to evoke the feeling of the memorial.  The metal structure is fixed and formidable, however it also has curves and a transparency that seems to offer the hope of resolution.  It provides interesting pathways through and around itself for the actors to enter and exit.  The action is a constant ebb and flow on stage as the actors move on and off from one scene to the next.  The whole thing has a very modern stylized feel. Occasionally a couple of the characters come on stage for a brief moment without dialogue; this was confusing and was one of the rare missteps.

The project is clearly well-researched, but this is not a documentary.  Much has been simplified for the ease of the recounting and for dramatic purpose.  What we see is an encapsulation and it is a very effective and affecting short-hand of what played out.  The story is told in 90 minutes and there is no intermission.

The various sides of the controversy are expressed, but to facilitate things (and keep the cast to a tight group of five) they are represented in a single character Colonel Becker.  This military officer who has the role of being the big naysayer could have been a cliche and easily demonized.  But he retains his humanity and we can understand his side of things.  The play maintains a nice balance in fact as the differences between the parties are expressed and Lin tries to overcome the issues that are brought up against her. 

In the end, all is resolved as we know since Lin's beautiful, innovative design can be seen today on the Mall. What may be extremely controversial at first, like Paris' Eiffel Tower, later become iconic symbols and beloved national treasures. The effect of Lin's striking monument is profound and moving, and so is Yeh's play. 

This is the first in a rich season of six plays put on by the BPT.  Five of them are new plays written by Boston University MFA Playwrighting Program class of 2017 students.  The focus on new plays is part of BU's College of Fine Arts commitment the the School of Theatre's effort to cultivate and develop new work.  Next up is Faithless by Andrew Joseph Clarke.  But before that be sure to see Memorial!  

Saturday, October 15, 2016

The Sunday Poet: William Harney

William Harney
  English Professor William Harney of Endicott College chimes in on the "Trump" thing...

Republicans, Donald Trump, and the Exquisite Corpse

Bent on creating what has never been before,
Participants each draw a
Body part and pass it forward
To be assembled,
Human and monster both,
With its enormous head;
Its shock of orange hair.

Their goal?
To blow up the museums,
Kill the curators,
Hang the judges,
Jail the experts,
Expel the know-it-alls,
Level the playing field,
And, of course, selflessly,
(Because I don’t need to do this, folks,
I really don’t)
Fill the openings at the top.

---William Harney

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Against Sunset: Poems by Stanley Plumly

Against Sunset
Poems by Stanley Plumly
W.W. Norton & Company
500 Fifth Avenue
New York, NY 10110
ISBN: 978-0-393-25394-8
84 pages
$25.95 Cloth

Review by Dennis Daly

Stanley Plumly hobnobs with dead people – romantic poets, contemporary poets, and personal relations. Whether citing real or imagined incidents from diaries or first-hand memories evoked from his past life, Plumly uses his verses to delve into the meaning of mortality and the mystery of life itself. He gently sorts out the strange draws and the nagging fears inherent in that “good night,” and explores those inclinations with a lyricism that mesmerizes his undaunted readers.

Two exquisite, airy pieces act as bookends to this collection. The opening poem, Dutch Elm, celebrates a suburbia of the mind, the dreamy paths leading to a mnemonic self-nullification. Plumly uses the majestic elm trees of his past life as his metaphoric, solace-delivering vehicle. The protective canopy of these trees shelter the poet’s most intimate moments and his deepest sorrows, a reality that shadows him like an afterlife. Here’s the lyrical heart of the poem,

I miss in particular the perspective looking down
the distances of all those Elm named streets disappearing
into dusk, the last sun turned the stained blue of church windows.
I miss standing there, letting the welcome dark make me invisible.
I miss the birds starting to sleep, their talking in their songs becoming
silent, then their silence. I even miss not standing there.    

Against Sunset, Plumly’s title poem and the last piece in this impressive collection, extols the half-light of rising and setting suns. Speed matters as life lines up against the backdrop of horizon and sunset. The word “Against” in the title seems to take on an alternative meaning devoid of negativity. Plumly links the fall and rise of death and birth in his concluding lines,

The horizon, halfway disappeared between above and below—
night falls too or does it also rise out of the death-glitter of water?
And if night is the long straight path of the full moon pouring down
on the face of the deep, what makes us wish we could walk there,
like a flat skipped stone? I’ve seen the sun-path poured at dawn
on the flat other side of the country, but it was different, the yellow
morning red with fire, the new day’s burning hours oh so slowly climbing.

Within the depths of this book, many of the poems center on certain dead poets. In Mortal Acts Plumly reminisces about Galway Kinnell in a lovely narrative with a heartfelt point. But the real interesting part happens on the way to the aforesaid point. Here’s a taste of Plumly’s irony,

You hadn’t been there long, the job
at Binghamton meant traveling by bus
or driving to the center of the state
where the noir-in-color painter Edward
Hopper had once made lonely art of
Depression downtown buildings bleaker
than the rail yards and B&O freight cars.
In the end you couldn’t do it, drive or take
the bus, be that tired again, so you won
the Pulitzer and efficiency apartment
that goes with full professorships at nearby
NYU, as close as you could get to home
in faraway Vermont.

Replete with multiple caesuras in the form of dashes, Plumly’s To Autumn, which he bases on letters from John Keats to Richard Woodhouse and John Hamilton Reynolds, chronicles Keats’ poetic walks that served up the heavily-misted landscapes for that poet’s piece Ode to Autumn.  Plumly knows whereof he speaks—he has written a book on John Keats. The poet fastens many of Keats’ insightful quotations together with explanatory phrases and connective words. The process works spectacularly well. The poem opens this way,

A walk along the water meadows by the playing fields
of the college—a mile-and-a-half to the hospice
of St. Cross—a walk he takes almost every day
in the “pleasantest town I was ever in,”
including a Sunday named for the sun cutting angles
with its scythe, when it strikes him just how beautiful
the season has become here at the end of summer,
the gathering of light, the harvest coming in,
“chaste weather—Dian skies… a temperate sharpness.”
He writes Reynolds that he “never liked stubble fields
so much as now…

Keats’ aforementioned letters were written a year and a half before his death.

Set in the heart of this collection, Plumly’s thirteen-section poem, Early Nineteenth Century English Poetry Walks, amazes with its mosaic of famous lives pieced together by a twenty-first century denizen not unfamiliar with pastoral romance. Keats appears again, as does William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, essayist Charles Lamb,  Thomas Chatterton, and others. The constant movement of these artists in their walkabouts mimic their imagined realities and their romanticized fates. Each of the thirteen poetic sections is thirteen lines long. How unlucky! Section 11 explores the very nature of these walks. Consider these lines,

Walks.  Coleridge walks, at his best, through abstraction thick as glass,
toward what Hart Crane calls “an improved infancy,” both his sons’s
and his own. There is no stopping Coleridge. Shelley, “borne darkly,
fearfully, afar,” tries to walk on water, “far from shore.” Keats,
in the thousand days before the end, walks in ever-closing circles

Sounds a bit like an academic exercise, doesn’t it? Well, it’s not. Plumly seems to know exactly what he’s doing. He has reached back into the nineteenth century and grabbed hold of these melancholic constructions of country landscape, which have been disused in our new century, sets them in place, and then employs this context as a framework to his contemplation of mortality. Plumly then weaves his own personal contacts and concerns into this emotional panorama. The poetic consequences of these strategies both enlighten and comfort readers of this subtly-layered, rewarding book.