Monday, October 21, 2019

Review of Poplar Hill, a novel by Stephen Ramey Glines

Steve Glines

Review of Poplar Hill, a novel by Stephen Ramey Glines
Wilderness House Press, MA 2019

Review by Marcia Ross

Stephen Glines’s novel Poplar Hill takes place in Pictou County, Nova Scotia. The complex story is well crafted and up close in delivery: it’s a hoot, a wild ride, and an exposure of war, and a portrait of love. Kitty, a woman in the last months of her life, and the central figure in the story, stars in a series of incidents and conversations that hark back to her youth, which had its own share of incidents and conversations. It so happens that Kitty had been not quite a ingénue, but a talented young lady when, in the late 1920s, because of the (unspeakable) onslaught of the Depression, her family had to sell off houses in Bar Harbor and New York City, etcetera. Kitty was sent luxuriously off to Germany to study opera and take advantage of that country’s relaxed financial circumstances. There she stayed for years, “spending money” in German marks, worthless anywhere else. It was first class all the way.

But when we meet Kitty at the beginning of the story, she has been living Nova Scotia for many years in a house that was perhaps once rather grand. It is the summer of 1994 and she will wince, and nearly collapse, from an acute angina attack during her own “wake,” a party she’s arranged for herself, down to the tee. We meet some local folk, hear Kitty’s dramatic rendition of a Scottish brogue, watch her work a crowd, and keep her distance from her not-so-amused son visiting from the States. It is impossible to miss her unflagging spirits, her subtle but formidable will, and love of attention. This woman in her 80s can seriously party, and not heed the warning signs of a coronary seizure.

By the end of following chapter, winter of 1998, we know a good deal about Kitty and her life in Poplar Hill, as well as of her earlier life in 30s because, now that she’s hooked up to an oxygen tank and can barely walk, she has a willing and loyal audience. Her local friend Barb hardly leaves her side, and, by default, we learn about an American life abroad in intriguing detail.  There are gay and tipsy nights, frustrating attempts at studying, love interests, a meeting with the ultimate Nazi in Café Heck (he with the high voice and magnetic eyes). There are breathless train journeys, and parties, and Kitty’s budding success as an opera singer cut short by the misfortune of impending war. Glines, who skillfully handles the crowded plot, writes with affection for his central character, divulging key details of her life and serving up examples of her sense of humor, and, well, her ample self love. He air-drops the youthful scenes from Munich into Kitty’s aged rural life with its angina attacks and desperate gasps for oxygen. But Kitty doesn’t shrink from telling her story, even with plastic tubes up her nose.

By the middle of the book, it is true, the reader may struggle to stay abreast of the many incidents, the dual what-the-heck high life in Munich, Kitty’s noblesse oblige, her sophisticated friends and accomplishments (she’s an accredited chef!), not to mention whatever happened to end her marriage.  An eccentric woman of many talents, she is perfect for Glines, a writer of narrative skill and a remarkable familiarity with two worlds, enveloping both 1930s Nazi history and the everlasting rural Canadian life. Glines’s mandate, I would bet, is to make the incidents in these disparate worlds convincing, and it’s accomplished without a hitch, despite the two complex plots— racing or plodding as they  must be—plus the buildup to Kitty’s impending death. Along the way, it is true, the reader may yearn to know more of how Nova Scotia looks and feels, what Kitty sees from her kitchen window, how the weather shapes the ways of country life, why her son James keeps a cool distance and seems loaded with some resentful baggage. It is a given that Kitty is more comfortable and free with her friends, especially her Nova Scotian friends, has a plan up her sleeve, a tendency to boast, and an incurably generous nature.

It can be challenging to keep track of Kitty’s friends, not to mention of the evolving gossip and growing dread of late 1930s Europe; several characters are never fleshed out. But Glines understands that some features of Nova Scotian country life are par for the course: horrendous snow storms, stuck trucks, downed power lines, savvy timing, and neighbors as eccentric as the old gal herself. The two stories can strain our focus, swinging back and forth, present and past, with pop-ups of small town characters and sketches of chilling Nazis, but Kitty never misses an opportunity to tell her friend Barb about her past adventures, and Barb is always there.

Glines keeps an admirable track of time, historical and present, and has an ear for spoken Canadian language, not to mention a broad appreciation of character. He lets himself go to good effect when he is loosens the narrative in the Nova Scotia scenes, bringing his own voice into the fray, noting the smells in the cab of a truck or the mysterious look of fresh ice on the highway at night. His brief but sharp attention to the details of local weather and relationships is gratifying. His affection for places and persons are much in evidence. In the Introduction he states that the characters and places in the story are real, and the reader doesn’t doubt it. As Kitty would say, “Splendid altogether.”

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Ibbetson Street 45

Ibbetson Street 45

Review by Wendell Smith

Ibbetson Street #45 is unique in my experience, a poetry magazine that may be picked up and read cover to cover. The editors lead us into the issue and catch our attention with three poems about craft, about the skills and observation needed to achieve and to perceive visual meaning. I think this arrangement serves a purpose; it provided an esthetic preparation for what follows. The first poem, “Song of Three Skies” by Eileen McCluskey, links this discussion of the visual arts to poetry.

You didn't usually talk
about your art, but this triptych,
you explained on the day you hung it,
was called The Song
of Wandering Aengus,
after the Yeats Poem.

The second poem, “Portrait Lesson” by Jesse Brown, is a humorous note on the frustrations of learning any craft when her instructor concludes her lesson, “Don't worry. I'm just giving you/everything in one shot.” But it is the third poem, “A Still Life” by Jennifer Barber that introduces the importance of paying attention. It speaks of attention to detail in the preparation before one even picks up a brush, and it follows through to the reward that may come to a viewer for paying attention when in the last two stanzas It happens[*] to Jennifer and, because of her use of the second person, to us:

the instant of your trespassing
the layers of the visible
to watch the painter’s hands

arranging three oranges
that glow like coals in you
before you disappear in them.

The clue that this opening arrangement has been intentional is the editorial decision not to interrupt this sequence by placing a second poem by Jesse Brown, “Eve Astonished,” alongside “Portrait Lesson,” where it would have been in most poetry collections, but to insert it some six poems later. Because of that decision these three poems become an invitation to pay attention to the poetry that follows them and let It happen. Some of these poems will have more of It than others and some less of It, but all of them have some of It. And, of course, which of those poems is which, when it comes down to It, will depend upon taste, upon what flavors of It trigger our receptors; here are a few selections that triggered mine.

I thought It happened in the contemplation of a central story of our classical heritage, “Stealing Troy i.,” by Gary Metras, which ends:

Blame a father’s honor, a brother’s honor.
Blame the lust and love the gods
inspire and envy so that, today, neither

the blood of passion nor the blood of
courage stain this soil, these broken stones
the rains of ages blotch without mercy.

 I felt It happen in “A Quiet Afternoon,” as Beatriz Alba del Rio told us that a marriage may end in divorce, but love doesn’t:

it is a benign summer day
we just had a light dinner at the Museum
we laughed while drinking our beloved Chianti
we reminisce of our times in Florence…

and ends,

it is dark
you say     i want to get divorced
i look at you     i answer softly     it's okay     it's okay

it is irresistibly dark.

When It happens, It is not sentimental. In fact It may be quite unpleasant as It is in “That’s My Story and I’m Sticking To It” by Claire Scott.

I was abused as a child. Period.
My body foraged. Period.

and ends

I know full well if the ice melts
his hands will be there – again.
Waves of shame will flood – again.
The cold stings, my face is numb.
there is frost on my fingers.
Suspended in ice, frozen forever.

One innovation of Ibbetson Street #45 compared with earlier issues is its inclusion of longer poems. This allows us to enjoy It happening in the 91 lines of humor, “Walking Backward Along the Path of the Promenade,” by Ravi Teja Yelamanchili. These ten lines occupy the middle of the poem:

                                           I laughed when I saw the bags
of frozen chicken in the supermarket.
Some people asked me what was so funny,
and I replied saying, “What tragedy has befallen
Plato’s man!” as I walked away, I heard someone
whisper, “There’s all sorts of crazy at this time of night.”

Plato defined man as featherless biped and was applauded
for his clever definition. Diogenes plucked the feathers
from a cock, let it run loose on Plato and his crowd
and proclaimed, “Behold Plato’s man!”

The issue itself ends in humor with a superb parody of Robert Frost, “Awaking by Words on a Snowy Evening” by Robert Whelan. As It happens in this poem Ibbetson Street #45 ends its survey by anchoring itself to a corner post of American poetry, with a comparison that leaves us wondering about the price of progress.

Whose words these are I think I know.
His name is in my contacts though;
He will not see me waking here
To watch his words display and glow.

My little phone must think it queer
To call without a voice to hear
Because the words make devices quake
Their insistence in the evening, clear.

It rings its bells and starts to shake
I wonder if there’s some mistake.
The annoying sound disrupts my sleep
With noises its vibrations make.

The words are shallow, hardly deep,
Tell of appointments I must keep,
And now awakened I can't sleep,
And now awakened I can't sleep.

So there you have It; the satire directed, not at Frost, but at us. Wouldn't we be better off thinking about the promises we have to keep than being annoyed by this technology, which only leads to insomnia?
Go for IT.

---Wendell Smith

[*] Whether or not “It happens” is a critical criterion I have purloined from Ramon Guthrie’s poem and guide to what's important in art “It Happens,” Maximum Security Ward and Other Poems, Persea Books, New York, 1984, p. 56.

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Thursday, October 10, 2019

Did You Know? Elizabeth S. Wolf

Did You Know?
Elizabeth S. Wolf
Studio City, California: Rattle, 2019
ISBN 978-1-931307-40-6
48 pages; $6.00

Review by David P. Miller

Elizabeth S. Wolf’s Did You Know?, a winner of the 2018 Rattle Chapbook Poetry Prize, tells a compelling story of family destruction and heartening (if incomplete) recovery. There is no sidestepping the fact that the engine is, yes again, male arrogance and devaluation of women. I’ll confess to a dilemma: I’d like to say more here than I will. A more extensive description would mean one spoiler after another.

There are two critical elements braided through this tale of severe dysfunction/recuperation. The first is the decision by Wolf’s lawyer father, in 1968, to deliberately conceal the fact that her mother had a degenerative disease – knowledge concealed from his wife and children, but apparently from no one else, including the mother’s parents. As she writes: “Believing the stress of naming the disease / would make it worse, my father chose / to be her guardian, the gatekeeper / of incoming information. He would tell her / when the time was right. He was certain / he would know / when the time was right” (“Tangled Web”). That time, unfortunately, never arrived, as the father suddenly died eight years later.

The second major element is the exceptional rejection of Elizabeth, the daughter, by her father and grandfather (also a lawyer). This is introduced by typically obtuse misogyny: “My father used to say there was nothing a girl could do / worth paying for. Girl talk was vapid” (“May 4, 1970”). It manifests in the casting-out of the daughter into a chaos of homelessness and foster care, beginning here:

My father made vacation plans with my mother.
He told me, you can do whatever you want
for the holiday, as long as it isn’t with us.
                I was 12.

(“The Center Did Not Hold”)

Sadly but unsurprisingly, her mother seems to have internalized not only a state of helpless dependence on her husband, but also his disregard for their daughter, who became the subject of a complex family shunning and bizarre institutional cruelties.

The secret inevitably explodes after the father’s death. This marks the beginning of Wolf’s re-integration into the family (grandfather excepted) and the steady remaking of her mother’s new-found autonomy, even as her body continued to degenerate. Wolf finds new personal strength, and crucially, a rebuilt and affirmative relationship with her mother. The crux of it is here:

Now there was an “us”:
the ones who did not know.

And with that I was restored.

(“That Night My Mother Called Me”)

Among stories of the mother’s developing self-image, “There Used to Be Rules” is one of my favorites. During a visit, Wolf experiences both astonishment and tenderness at what her mother truly considers an act of rebellion:

“I used the top sheet from one set
with a different fitted sheet,” she declared.
“I thought you’d get a kick out of that.”

I stared at the bed.

I stared at my mother.

But realizing that this is really a threshold moment, the daughter gives her mother what she needs:

“Wow!” I answered. “I thought I woke up
extra spunky. Now I know why!”

She turned and crutched down the hall, giggling.

As subsequent poems show us, Wolf’s mother moves well beyond this first stage of self-repair to become truly her own woman, even as her physical condition continues to decline. In “March 2004,” Wolf and her young daughter visit for the final time: its conclusion is one of the most moving passages in all of Did You Know?

The nuclear family’s healing (Wolf’s brothers included) does not, however, mean the rehabilitation of the father’s memory, nor of the grandfather’s after the latter’s death. The family damage these men did was their legacy, even as their professional associates held them in warm memory. “July 1993” begins: “When my grandfather died, / lawyers wept. The family / held a roast, presided over by his younger daughter, at a hotel / by the funeral home, / probably on his dime.” And Wolf’s mother was, at last, able to forgive all those who deceived her, “Except for my father. / He remained dead.” (“April 2004”)

And that’s enough spoilers for one review: there’s a lot more to discover in Elizabeth S. Wolf’s Did You Know? Only one concern: the boilerplate on the title page verso says “While the perceptions and insights are based on the author’s experience, no reference to any real person is intended or should be inferred.” Well . . . not true. Fortunately, this isn’t really part of the book. Was there no other legalese to use instead?

Friday, October 04, 2019

Among the Enigmas Poems by Robert Murphy

Among the Enigmas
Poems by Robert Murphy
Artwork by Donald Golder
Dos Madres Press
ISBN: 978-1-948017-52-7
61 Pages

Review by Dennis Daly

Without an inductive or deductive leg to stand on, Robert Murphy, in his new collection of poetry, Among the Enigmas, nails the existential perplexities that niggle our attempts to apprehend human consciousness and metaphysical selfhood. Quite an accomplishment! He achieves his ends with humor, wordplay, and puckish subversions, marbled throughout with his singular warmth and kindliness.

Additionally, most of Murphy’s poems are paired up with intriguing artwork by Donald Golder. Golder’s ink drawings and watercolor images both complement the knotty verse puzzlements and tease away any trite conclusions.

Murphy opens his collection with a nod to poet William Bronk in a lovely piece entitled The Lay Of The Land—Hudson Falls New York, Just This Side Of Elysium. He recalls sending his fellow poet a myth laden daffodil, properly named poeticus narcissus. The flower was spoken of by Virgil and is associated with Persephone (she had been gathering them before her abduction into the Underworld) and Narcissus (the goddess Nemesis turned him into the flower). Bronk, who lived Hudson Falls New York, died there in 1999. Here is the heart of Murphy’s poem,

I sent Bill the poet’s flower, poeticus narcissus, variety
old pheasant eye. Those ones that are fragrant,
almost impossibly so, an echo of the Mediterranean world
from which they come, pure white, with six (as it is described
in the catalogs) perianth segments on a single stem,
petals slightly recurved; with a small, red rimmed
ruffled yellow cup into which you might pour yourself
to lie within reflected—the last of its kind to bloom,
                                                      late spring.

Turning the Cartesian philosophical proposition Cogito, ergo sum on its head, Jean Paul Sartre famously declared I am, therefore I think. Yet Sartre did not believe that the “I” even exists. In fact he declared it a fiction. Murphy seems to buy into Sartre with one exception: he concocts his “I” as a dynamic, but empty, container of sorts, enabling what was already there. Two of the poet’s early pieces make this clear. In The Real Problem Is, Murphy characterizes internal consciousness as an alien invader. The poet explains,

…we live,
Colonized, inhabited by
Thoughts as much unlived as we
Whose words survive us—
Life having fled with the naming of things

Murphy effects much the same proposition from a different angle in his poem The Times. In the process he reroutes Heraclitus’ famous river into a circular flow. Murphy illuminates the action,

… every day is
Brought back to life in us to live

Where what was, otherwise,
Would never think to do, does,

And remembered so
Time and Again
Has its way with us.

The poet warns his readers against the use of rational tools in delving into life’s appearances.  Murphy winks while comically employing cliché after cliché in making his case. He plays the Holy Fool with sacerdotal expertise. Speaking of these same appearances he says,

Hidden in plain sight as they always are
Right under our noses…
(if not the coffee, try the roses)
And just out of earshot too, 
     -- “Listen up!” –
Fact is, if facts mattered,
And they don’t.
Not in any real world:
Priest, Rabbi, Mullah,
Good Time Evangelical Rock and Roller.
Dear Mother of God, it’s true.
And you’re dead right.
When not for the first time
You find a serpent
In your shoe…

Jumping Jehoshaphat!”

My friend, have faith.

In Murphy’s poem entitled At the Border he ruminates on the very meaning of “I.” Observing the phenomenon of consciousness at work is not enough. His name is attached and that means something. Or does it? The poet considers his connundrum,

Trying to convince the authorities
We are who we say we are:

Those who know us best.
Ourselves being the ones we are
Most desperate to convince.

For a lot of us being human means making the best of things. Shadows menace us on the outskirts of our world. Yet, somehow, we must pass the time, we must continue as our nature demands. Something on life’s extremity, just out of sight awaits us with answers. We are pretty sure of it. Murphy, in his piece Shelter in Place, spells it out this way,

…still we are waiting
To be told what it is at the edge of our lives
That shadows us—
What it is that keeps us so at bay.

“Shelter in place!” “Shelter in place!”
Neither knowing how it came to be,
Nor how it must surely end.

We do what we can to pass the time of day.
Some tell stories, others joke,
The more guarded listen and look.
Of the unaccountable, no one will say.

Perhaps the most compelling poems in Murphy’s collection he saves for last. His Imp sequence of nine poems wrestles with the duality concept of mind and body, conjuring up the absurd construction of self. In Imp, the first piece in the series, Murphy opens by setting the conversational tone of gleeful wordplay,

Lord knows, for who should know better than I,
bottled up as you and I have been, the two of us, together.
What is it now, near to a lifetime? Ah, the soul,

the soul! How in the end we worry about its disposition,
as if the body, too, wasn’t just another name
for what you would, if you could, sell

separately on the cheap, down river. Admit it, though,
if wishes were fishes,… didn’t I reel you in a boat load?
Yeah, and beware of what you wish for. I hear you.

Yes, Murphy’s readers hear him too—both his oracular wit and his musical inquiry. And, in my experience, once one hearkens to Murphy’s especial brand of poetry, one wants, nay, one needs more. 

Monday, September 30, 2019

The Book Club Play By Karen Zacarias


The Book Club Play
By Karen Zacarias
Through October 13

Review by Lawrence Kessenich

If you like your humor broad and a little silly, this production of The Book Club Play at Boston Playwrights Theatre will please you. I doubt you’ll be in danger of falling out of your seat with laughter, but you’ll get some good chuckles.

The setting is a middle class living room (beautifully designed by Jeffrey Petersen) where the eponymous book group of 30-somethings has been meeting for five years. The group includes newspaper columnist Ana, who claims to have founded the group; her college friend (and brief beau at the time) Will, a history museum curator who continually reminds Ana that the book group was his idea; Ana’s husband and Will’s former college roommate Rob, a reluctant member of the group who rarely reads the books (he says he’s in it for the food), Ana’s somewhat forlorn single friend Jennifer; and the newest member of the group, Ana’s protégé at the newspaper, Lily.

Adding interest—and making everyone totally self-conscious—is the fact that everything that happens in the groups for a couple months is being filmed by an unmanned camera and the footage will be used by an internationally famous filmmaker for a documentary about book groups. Many times in the play, members of the group address the camera directly, usually asking the filmmaker to cut the part that has just been recorded.

This is a very literary book club—when the play opens, they’re discussing Moby Dick—but a somewhat clumsy exchange with Lily, who is black, reveals that the group has only read white authors. They ask Lily to pick something intense and out of their wheelhouse, clearly hoping it will be a classic author of color, but Lily picks the popular novel Twilight, written by a white woman. Ana and Will are aghast, but the others are willing to give it a try, so they decide to read the book.

Much of the humor for the middle part of the play grows out of the discrepancy between Ana and Will’s classical tastes and everyone else’s appreciation of Twilight and then The Da Vinci Code, which is introduced by a man Jennifer springs on the group. The man, Alex, is a professor of comparative literature, but, having recently been dumped by his girlfriend because she read Twilight, he has come to realize that he knows nothing about popular literature and ought to be learning about it.

There is a good deal of back and forth between the opposing groups about the value of popular literature, and though some of it is interesting, and even insightful, it isn’t terribly dramatic and goes on a bit too lolng. What provides some drama is Rob’s dissatisfaction with his marriage to Ana, Will’s coming to grips with his sexuality, and Ana’s dealing with her slipping control over the group. It would be spoiling things to describe what happens in these areas, but suffice it to say that there are a number of revelations that cause confusion and consternation in the group.

Interspersed with the book club scenes are brief monologues by a single actor, Brooks Reeves, who appears upstage, with the set dark behind him, as an amazing variety of characters, including: a female literary agent, who talks about how many books there are and how few get published and read; a male Secret Service agent, who talks about his own book group and how they enforce attendance; “Sam” from Walmart, who talks about how many books the company sells and how intra-Walmart book clubs keep its underpaid employees happy; and an elderly, retired librarian, about to skydive, who warns readers to live life for real, not just through books. While these interludes are sometimes fun, they really don’t relate to the rest of play in any direct way—except at the very end, when the Secret Service agent makes a brief appearance with the rest of the characters.

Besides Reeves, because of the variety of his characters, none of the actors really stands out. They are good performers, but I never really believed in them as real human beings, because the director, Shana Gozansky, has them play their roles on a kind of middle ground, neither realistically nor over-the-top (except for brief moments). If they’d been over-the-top most of the time, the farcical quality would have carried the humor better. But I think it would have been even more effective if they’d been asked to play their characters as naturally as possible, which would have set off the absurdity of what goes on among them. So, this reviewer was left feeling lukewarm about the play, caught on his own middle ground between liking and not liking the play. Depending on your tastes, you might go either way.