Monday, June 27, 2022

WHO BUT! (The Birth of an Iconic New England Brand)

 




 A good friend of mine --Somerville Bagel Bard Paul Steven Stone sent me an article about the birth of a brand-- the W.B. Mason brand and logo that he created.  An accomplished novelist and children's writer, Stone has created a bestseller, as his logo and copy appears on trucks throughout the country. Once when I had Paul lecture at Endicott College, a W.B.Mason truck pulled up outside my office even before he did. "Who But!" Paul Steve Stone could pull this off! I think this story says a lot about the mystery of the creative process.


 



WHO BUT! (The Birth of an Iconic New England Brand)

By Paul Steven Stone




A Dream Or A TV Commercial?

I dreamt last night I was at Fenway Park. The Red Sox were on one of their customary losing streaks but, with the bases loaded in the bottom half of the ninth inning, they were poised to rally back from a one-run deficit against the Yankees. There were two outs on the scoreboard, so the next batter would either be the game’s hero or its final out. Then, as if the dream were one of my cornball W.B. Mason TV commercials, the man of the moment stepped up to the plate and it was none other than W.B. Mason.

Yes, here was the personification of the W.B. Mason Company—‘W.B. Himself’ as I used to call him on the nameplate beneath his official portrait—the man I had fashioned from my imagination into dozens of heroic roles in print and TV advertisements: W.B. Mason as Prizefighter, as Hercules, Atlas, Genie of the Lamp, Broadway Star, G.I. Joe, Doo Wop Singer, Low Price Assurance Detective. And now, walking to the plate with a murderous gleam in his eye, W.B. Mason, Red Sox Slugger

Standing at home plate, W.B. tugged at his famous mustache, surveying the scene on the field before him. Red Sox runners were waiting anxiously at every base. The Yankee infield was playing him close to prevent a bunt. And there, most conspicuously splashed across Fenway Park’s left field wall, a sign proclaimed, as if in silent encouragement, “Who But W.B. Mason!”

Since 1898 Or 1986?

“Since 1898,” the sign declared, and that much was historically true. The W.B. Mason Company has been in existence since 1898, starting out as a print shop. But the company whose distinctive “Who But!” brand is blazoned across the Green Monster in Fenway Park has only truly existed in its present persona since 1986. I know because I am godfather to their now ubiquitous brand, the man whose fertile imagination originally spawned “Who But W.B.Mason!” If we can leave my dream baseball game briefly, even at such a melodramatic moment, I’d like to share with you the true story of the birth of W.B. Mason’s iconic brand.

A Brand Born Out Of Torture And Pain

It’s axiomatic in this ever-changing world that chaos and destruction usually precede rebirth and creative inspiration. So it was with the creation of my most famous, recognizable and singular brand identity.

Surely, these days, “Who But W.B. Mason!” is highly familiar and understandable to most people in W.B Mason’s sales territory—today when its’ wavy-type logo can be found on outfield walls in baseball parks throughout the northeast, and on trucks that crisscross city streets from San Francisco to Miami Beach, but there was a time when we would get stares and looks of disbelief as our ads first appeared in newspapers around Boston’s South Shore

“What the hell is that all about?” sums up the gist of most of the remarks I would hear in response to the half-page newspaper ads we created for the introductory phase of our branding campaign.

The ads, curiously resembling circus posters, were half page illustrations depicting W.B. Mason in heroic metaphorical guise. W.B. Mason as a prizefighter boxing a Boston furniture dealer; as a balloonist flying a hot air balloon across Brockton skies, as a Mason truck driver flouting speed limits to deliver a much-needed conference table. All with headlines grandly declaring, “Who But W.B. Mason Would Battle Heavyweights To Furnish Your Office!” or “Who But W.B. Mason Would Leap A City Block To Furnish Your Office!” or “Who But W.B. Mason Would Break The Law…” Well, you get the idea.

And that’s our brand in a nutshell: W.B. Mason as hero, as daredevil adventurer and, yes, as earnest and upright businessman. W.B. Mason, the quintessential purveyor of old-time American values. A man, a company and a brand one can believe in.

Who But, Indeed!

You’ll notice from these headline constructions that back in 1986, office furniture was W.B. Mason’s principal line of business. Office supplies were merely a sideline, while all their other product lines—coffee, school, snack room and janitorial supplies—were years away from earning a place in the Mason catalog.

A Phoenix Rising From The Ashes At Arnold & Co.

But let’s return to the chaos and destruction I mentioned earlier. Back in 1986, before anyone outside of Brockton ever heard of W.B. Mason, I was working at Arnold & Company, one of Boston’s largest advertising agencies. Arnold was going through its own form of chaos and destruction, reeling from the loss of two of its largest accounts, Fayva Shoes and John Hancock Insurance. In those days, Arnold was one of the area’s largest agencies, but it was not highly regarded for its creative punch or ingenuity. In award show competition after competition, Arnold would lose out to Hill-Holiday or Mullen or to smaller-sized, but mammothly-creative Leonard Monahan from Providence. So, by the time Arnold went through the pain of losing both Fayva Shoes and John Hancock in the same year, the agency was already suffering from a massive and deeply cutting creative inferiority complex.

For a painful period, six months at least, the creative department at Arnold was in a shambles. Our creative director, a likable fellow who came from J. Walter Thompson in New York, was allowed to retain his title but almost none of his authority. Outside advertising pros were brought in to supervise the agency’s creative underlings, to show us what “real creative advertising” looked like. Those interventionist supervisors, none of whom had any actual management experience or interpersonal skills, would block all our ads and commercials from leaving the agency until they themselves had a chance to come up with ideas that were better or more creative. If an ad wasn’t ‘hot’ according to their inner creative thermostats, it would never get served to a client.

You can imagine how demoralizing it was to walk by the office of one of these creative “supervisors” and see, through the glass door, one of your ads being dissected, belittled and used as a jumping off point as they struggled to create something they deemed sufficiently more creative.

For six torturous months, I could not get a single advertisement or commercial out of the agency and presented to a client. By the time my work was sufficiently massaged and tweaked by our supervisors it was hardly recognizable and usually not measurably more creative than my original concept.

My Escape From Arnold

So, you can easily understand why I decided to leave Arnold for an advertising agency that was just starting up down in Hingham, on Boston’s South Shore. A highly risky career move, to say the least, leaving a big Boston agency to work for an unknown and unformed entity out in the burbs. But aside from escaping the craziness of an ad agency disintegrating under the crushing weight of its own identity crisis, I was also reaching for a chance to create something new, something special for myself, working with nothing but raw ingredients and simmering ambition. As creative director I would not only have the opportunity to help create a new advertising agency, but to re-launch a seemingly stagnant advertising career.

Or so I assured myself.

Out Of The Frying Pan Into The Fire

My new agency, TJ Clark, was located in a recently constructed office condo. A condo so new, in fact, I had never seen it before, having interviewed for the job in an office the agency owner borrowed for the interview. Which is why I was totally surprised—shocked, actually—when I came in that first morning to discover the agency didn’t have a single stick of real office furniture to its name. Long rectangular tables from Taylor Rental were set up everywhere, reminding me more of a runaway Bar Mitzvah than a professional advertising agency.

My first thought as I stood there surveying this fledgling, wannabe advertising agency was, “Could this be the end of my advertising career?” Then, after a day filled with mounting evidence to support the reality and threat of that question—an art director who didn’t know how to spec type (a critical function later made obsolete by the advent of desktop publishing), a paucity of clients, an agency owner whose only real advertising experience was as ad manager at a supermarket chain—I went home to confront my demons in a sleepless night that saw me write down a list of Ten Commandments: 10 actions my new employer needed to undertake for me to stay at his agency.

Number One on the list: buy real office furniture!

First thing next morning, the second day on my new job, I presented my list. I can’t recall if I issued an ultimatum with the list, but I’m certain my new employer understood he and I were at a crossroads. To his credit, he accepted my list of action steps with grave silence, afterwards spending most of the morning phoning Boston office furniture dealers, attempting to get just one to come out to Hingham and meet with him.

Around noon, my new boss left the office without a word as to where he was headed. Two hours later—and this is one of those indelible mental images one holds onto for the length of one’s days—he returned with an entire crew from W.B. Mason in Brockton hauling loaner office furniture—desks, chairs, tables—into our office.

That of course was my first glimpse of W.B. Mason and their aggressive, climb-any-mountain, swim-any-sea commitment to winning a client’s business. A business attitude that stood in bold contrast to the arrogance of Boston’s big-shot furniture dealers who thought TJ Clark too small and insignificant to merit a sales call. That hungry sales stance of Mason’s was made indelible in our first Mason newspaper ad depicting W.B. Mason as a prizefighter punching out the lights of one of those Boston dealers: “Who But W.B. Mason Would Battle Heavyweights To Furnish Your Office!”

A Relationship Grows In Hingham

I realize I’m getting a little ahead of myself, and my story. Before we arrive at the period where I would conceptualize a branding personality and advertising campaign for W.B. Mason, there were weeks, perhaps months, where two consecutive lines of communication were being developed and nurtured between TJ Clark and W.B. Mason. On one side, Mason was providing both office supplies and furniture to our small but growing agency, at one point even supplying the trucks and manpower to move us to larger digs. On the other side, I was developing a friendship with Mason’s VP of sales (today, CEO and President), Leo Meehan, whose strong interest in marketing and advertising led him to drop by for an early morning visit almost daily on his way to Mason’s in Brockton. During those visits we would smoke chains of cigarettes, drink vats of coffee and talk about Leo’s growing vision for Mason juxtaposed with my understanding, crude at the time, about advertising and marketing.

My understanding about marketing and advertising may have been crude at the time, but it was definitely informed and enlivened by the six months I had just spent in creative Siberia at Arnold & Company. Having to defend one’s creative ideas everyday, having to watch others slap down your work on a consistent basis, having to live under a constant state of creative storm warnings and alarms, had fashioned me into a ferocious creative animal and a surprisingly adept branding philosopher. Once I was able to hire Bill Dahlgren, a talented art director I had known at Arnold, TJ Clark unleashed a reign of creative advertising upon the South Shore’s business community unlike anything ever seen before.

We Don’t Do Ads!

“We don’t do ads!” I would proclaim to prospective clients at TJ Clark, my way of saying I didn’t believe in creating individual ads for a client if there wasn’t an underlying brand personality to give them direction and a unique voice. And so we refused to create ads on a one-shot, brand-less basis. Somewhat arrogant for a young man of 40, but I was empowered and inspired by the crucible of fire I had survived at Arnold. And so, rather than creating an advertisement for a W.B. Mason sale or to help sell their Lite Price line of furniture, Bill and I created an entire branding and advertising campaign that displayed the “Who But!” brand in all its circus finery and “fun-ery” emblazoned on everything from business stationery to newspaper ads to trucks.

And maybe because the folks at Mason didn’t know enough to realize how weird and different this campaign was— or perhaps because it was obviously a branding concept with great potential—or maybe they were just desperate for any advertising that might set them apart from the pack…for whatever reason, they bought into “Who But W.B. Mason!” and bought into it big. So big, in fact, that within months at the most, they, the company, “became the brand.” By that I mean Mason took on the personality of the campaign at all levels within the company, rising to a level of service, value and friendliness promised by their brand’s unique expression of old-fashioned American values and cornball entertainment.

Two Men Playing With Toys!

So, how the hell did I ever come up with something as distinctive and bold as the “Who But W.B. Mason!”campaign? Looking back with the hindsight of history there were three principle ingredients I can credit:

1. My burning drive to prove myself as a creative powerhouse after my humiliating experience at Arnold; I would try anything in those days to stand out or create excitement, break down any doors to prove my worth;

2. Leo Meehan’s burning desire to create a company that was different, better and more memorable than everyone else’s and…

3. The remarkable, enjoyable and wholly fortuitous chemistry Leo and I experienced working together. We were kids with keys to the toy store and, at some level, we knew it. For the first few years after the Mason brand was launched, we would occasionally spend a few laugh-filled moments (usually with drinks in hand) reliving the high spots of this most enjoyable collaboration. Together, as the saying goes, we were unstoppable.

The Circus Coming To Town

One other element should not go unmentioned: old-fashioned American circus artwork. Before Bill Dahlgren and I started developing the Mason brand, I went to the Hingham library and borrowed a book of circus posters, most of them from the late 19th century. As mentioned earlier, I had had the idea that Mason because of its aggressive posture and its commitment to providing superior service and value was the embodiment of old-time American values,

What better way to convey old-time American values than by using materials that reminded everyone of 1890’s America? 19th Century America was a much simpler time in people’s minds, a time when advertising language sounded corny and stilted, and the public expected a dollar’s value for a dollar spent. ‘Who But’ must have come directly off one of those old posters, describing some feat of dare-devil artistry or unexplainable legerdemain.

Who But The Amazing Houdini could escape alive from the Sealed Box of Doom!

Match that against Who But W.B. Mason would leap a city block to furnish your office!

A Headline, Logo And Call To Arms

As for how I came to actually create the line “Who But W.B. Mason,” there’s no way for me to accurately reconstruct it. The creative process is more often a chain of linked impulses, one leading to another, than a singular Eureka moment. As I mentioned earlier, I had the impulse—quickly acted upon—to borrow a book of circus posters from the library. Did I know I’d be creating a campaign fashioned in that distinct look? I doubt it. More likely I was looking for inspiration. Even once the campaign was fully formed, it was always subject to the litmus tests of “Does it Work?” and “Is it great?” As happens so often with the creative process in developing ads or campaigns, you go down many avenues before you decide which road will go the distance.

Most likely, Bill Dahlgren and I designed the look of the introductory ads first. I just usually work that way; probably because one can say more (and learn more) in an ad than in a logo or a billboard. After the ads we would have tackled everything else. As for the line, “Who But W.B. Mason!” it was never intended to be a logo. We wanted headlines in our ads whose look mimicked circus poster headlines. But once we had created Mason’s distinctive wavy type headline, we realized we had a great looking logo on our hands as well as a circus poster-like headline.

The only aspect of the process I can testify to with certainty goes back to how I usually work. At the very beginning of a creative process, I usually play all sorts of games to get the juices flowing. Sometimes I’ll just free associate, typing up words that come to mind in response to the client’s business or their stated mission. Other times I’ll take the initial letters of a client’s name and see whatever word constructions they would lead me to. For instance, Monroe Community College (MCC) ultimately became “My College of Choice” in a branding campaign. After almost 40 years as a copywriter and creative director, I know myself well enough to be certain I would have started off the W.B. Mason creative process playing with the W.B. “W.B.” would have quickly taken me to “Who But,” given the way my quicksilver mind generally works. And the rest, after many hours of additional sweat and inspiration, is history.

Our old-time circus artwork is why—according to my theory— everyone notices our Mason trucks. When you see one of our trucks with its “Who But W.B. Mason!” logo and with W.B.’s giant portrait framed by American flags, you almost naturally feel the way children feel when they see the circus coming to town. It’s an almost primal childhood experience. Back in the beginning, when Mason had only four trucks, people would tell us “I see your trucks everywhere.” Now that Mason has over 400 trucks, people actually do see them everywhere. Another case of the company catching up to the brand.

As godfather and keeper of the Mason brand, I periodically have to remind people what the W.B. Mason brand stands for—what its soul is all about. Whenever someone in the company or on the creative team starts to take W.B. Mason too seriously, I remind them W.B. Mason is the circus coming to town. Repeat: the circus coming to town, and nothing more. Doesn’t matter that Mason has grown to two billion in sales, or that they now employ a few thousand people, rather than the 30-40 who worked there when we first created the brand. W.B. Mason was, is and always will be (I hope) the circus coming to town. Our ads, our TV commercials, our catalog covers were all meant to be as corny as the circus and as American as apple pie.

Start up the calliope, pop the popcorn, put on the clown makeup, W.B. Mason is coming to your office or your town. And don’t mind if he dresses up as a cinema noir detective, Hercules or Jack Dempsey.

And by the way, going back to that dream ballgame we interrupted with bases loaded in the 9th inning, turns out W.B. Mason walloped the ball out of the ballpark to score four runs and win the game against the Yankees. No surprise there. Just another magical feat in the heroic and mythical life of W.B. Mason Brand Personality.

A grand slam home run against the Yankees! Now, who could do that?

Who else?

Who But W.B. Mason!

———————————–

Paul Steven Stone is a former creative director who retired to write novels and live a simple life on a pond with his wife Amy. Stone is a member of The Bagel Bards, a much vaunted Boston-area writers group.

Friday, June 24, 2022

Somerville painter Sandra Allik : A Very Colorful Past, and a very colorful Artist




I met Sandra Allik in her space at the Miller St. Studios in Somerville, Ma. Her studio is a bubble of color--with many vivid paintings lining the walls.

Allik told me she finds the artistic environs in Somerville pleasing. She said, "I love my studio. I moved here in 2009; and presently there are a great group of artists working here. Recently I exhibited at the Inside/Out Gallery--which is basically a CVS window in Davis Square. I sold one of my paintings for 1800 dollars. I was surprised it sold  because it was in an unassuming store window." Obviously Allik knows that Somerville is fertile grounds for artists. Allik went on to explain how supportive the Somerville Arts Council is, and she is quite enthused about the Somerville Open Studios event that was recently held.

Allik, in another life, was a television journalist for the Canadian Broadcast Corporation and worked with CBS as well. She happened to be in the Washington Bureau during the heady Watergate years. She recalled, " It was an extraordinary time for me. I was in Washington at this time, and there was a frenzy of activity at the bureau. I can say that it was thrilling and appalling--but it is quaint in light of what we have going on today. During this time I met the iconic journalists Daniel Shore, and Eric Sevareid  We called Eric the "philosopher with a camera," because he ended his broadcast with little, but profound editorials."

Allik does not consider herself a political artist at this time. Back in 1984 when she lived in Israel, she witnessed the early beginnings of the Intifada. After experiencing the violence in the West Bank, she was more political and her paintings reflected the violence of the time.

Earlier, when she was with her journalist husband on assignment for CBS, she traveled to Moscow. Allik reflected on this dour city, "The whole atmosphere in Moscow was bleak, dark and colorless. The only time you saw color was during the holidays. They then they had red flags all over the place." Allik was introduced to dissident Russian artists by a photographer friend of hers. Often these outside artists were placed in psychiatric hospitals because they didn't fit into the Soviet propaganda scheme.

 Allik told me that during her time in Moscow her apartment was flush with bugs, monitoring  her and her husband's conversations. Mysterious men on trains, and mysterious phone calls in the dead of night, were the rule of thumb. In spite of this  Allik  purchased many paintings, etchings, and drawings from these dissident  artists. Now Allik is selling the work and sending the proceeds to assist-ukraine.org. It's quite the irony that work from Russia is providing aid to the Ukraine.

Allik told me that she started working with colors in Ibiza, (an island in the Mediterranean sea) when she and her husband lived there. She told me about a place on the island that she called the "magic valley," where they resided. Before this her paintings were more muted, but there she was taken by the colors, and the beauty of the landscape. After this her paintings had a decidedly different look.

Allik, a graduate of Wellesley College did not formally study art. But she did take workshops at the Carpenter Center at Harvard University and elsewhere. And obviously, this self-trained artists is immensely skilled.

Allick is one of the many talented artists in then Miller St. Studios, and in Somerville-the Paris of New England.

For more info:

 http://www.sallik.com




Red Letter Poem #116

 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 #116

 

 

 

Summer arrives freighted with expectation.  Maybe that’s because so many of us were conditioned by the long school year where, at that June goal line, we’d be set free into a two-sided paradise: freedom/boredom.  Or perhaps it’s just a sense of relief that sun and warmth bring – especially for those of us dwelling in the northern hemisphere – after the endurance we mustered to face an interminable winter.  And, unavoidably, each new summer reminds us that time is indeed passing, and we’ve no guarantees about how many seasons we are to be granted.

 

“One must have a mind of winter”, wrote Wallace Stevens in “The Snow Man”, to regard that cold unfolding.  Perhaps that’s true for summer as well – a mind geared, not just for the grand moments (the dazzling display of Fourth of July rockets or the reward of those exotic of vacation locales,) but for the slow-motion flowering and decline of the garden; the symphonic layers of birdsong, cicada drone, and wind-stirred oaks; and (my personal Elysium) the riotous mouthful of the season’s first ripe tomato.  Or, in the case of poet Alan Feldman, the quiet captivation of stellar light. . .when accompanied, especially, by a like-minded loved one.  Ambivalent winds blow quietly through his new poem: expectation and disappointment; memory and presence.  I find much in the speaker’s meditation that resonates with my own summer thinking.  Perhaps it will spur your own, now that the season has officially taken hold.  I’m happy to have Alan make his second Red Letter appearance with this new poem.  He’s the author of four poetry collections, the most recent of which – The Golden Coin (University of Wisconsin Press) – was awarded the Four Lakes Poetry Prize.  For many years, Alan was a professor (and later chair) of English at Framingham State University. After retiring he continued to teach free drop-in poetry workshops in Framingham and on Cape Cod.  He and his wife Nan (a painter whose work, I’m sure, sharpens her husband’s eye) divide their time between Florida and the Commonwealth.

 

Indeed, summer comes to us, burdened by our pent-up desires and unbridled anticipation.  (You can say the same, I guess, about poetry, art, life itself.)  But, every now and then – if we’ve developed a mind and a heart for it – it delivers.

 

 

 

Starbathing

 

 

Question:  If we enter a dark hallway 

will the past shine behind us, so we won’t 

feel so lost?  Remember Lieutenant Island?

Remember the cottage with the cupola that swayed

in the night wind?  But we’re outside starbathing.

We’d just been making love inside our Plymouth

so the kids wouldn’t hear us.  No ambient light.

Stars sharp as lasers.  Copious.  Like outer space.

Our forearms on the aluminum armrests of the deckchairs.

This is the summer I’ll write my children’s book,

our daughter asking for nightly chapters. And our son

had a kind playmate, Dave, who will move to North Carolina 

and became a homicide detective.  The lovely past!

And the night sky, whose lights come from there.

 

 

                                     – Alan Feldman

 

 

 

The 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

 

Two of our partner sites will continue re-posting each Red Letter weekly: the YourArlington news blog

https://www.yourarlington.com/easyblog/entry/28-poetry/3149-redletter-052722

 

 

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

 

Thursday, June 16, 2022

Life Among the Terranauts, Caitlin Horrocks

 

Life Among the Terranauts, Caitlin Horrocks, Little, Brown, New York, 2021, 256 pages, $15.


Review by Ed Meek


Short story collections can function as writing labs for writers of fiction. They are a medium where writers can experiment with point of view, voice, and subject matter. A writer wonders why some people stay in small towns in the country, so she writes a story from their point of view. Maybe they hibernate in the winter, she thinks and works that into the story. Or she goes on a group tour to Peru and begins thinking about the tour from the point of view of the local tour guide who is leading them around. She imagines what’s going on with the other members of the group. The writer likes untranslatable phrases from other languages and so she constructs a story around a list of phrases she has collected. How about a story that is based on lines from a poem? A story about a group living in a biodome for two years?

In Life Among the Terranauts you’ll find a wide range of stories. Although the subject matter varies, Horrocks knows how to construct a plot, how to characterize the people in her stories, and she has a sense of humor. In “The Sleep,” the narrator answers the question: who lives in those small towns in America that have seen much better days?

“What kind of morons hustle for jobs that don’t even pay for cable television? What kind of people spend twenty years buying beer at the Hop-In and drinking in the quarry, the next thirty drinking at the Pointes, the last sodden ten at the Elks Lodge?

Our kind of people, we thought.”

Horrocks often writes what appears to be a conventional story about ordinary people, but then she will push the boundaries into the surreal. You may find this funny or you may have a hard time sticking with a story in which an entire town hibernates during the winter.

Sometimes the stories just feel like experimental exercises as in “The Untranslatables,” or “And Looked Down One As Far As I Could,” but they are still entertaining. Horrocks is best at long short stories. “Chance Me,” is a story within a story about a son, Justin (he goes by Just), who hasn’t seen his biological father for 16 years. He comes to Boston from Arizona and meets the father under the pretext that he is applying to colleges. The father flashes back to his days in Arizona with Justin’s mother, Willow, and their baby boy, in a utopian community run by the artist Soleri. The father, Harry, couldn’t convince the mother to leave the community so he abandons her and Justin. Now Harry is a real estate broker with a live-in girlfriend. He wants to patch things up with his son.

Wherever else his life might take him, it would not take him back there, to the red desert hills and the bleached sheet of sky snapped open every morning above them, their baby squalling in a hand-painted card-board box. Now that baby was sitting in his Lexus, six feet tall and applying to Harvard.

You can see from that passage that Horrocks can write a good line. And she is adept at assuming the voices of everyone from young men to older women and young kids. She’ll pretty much take on anything. One story is from the point of view of a granddaughter trying to figure out if her grandmother was a lesbian (as she is). Another story is from the point of view of an eight -year-old girl.

There are two great stories in the collection. “Norwegian for Troll,” and “Paradise Lodge.” Both of these stories have credible characters, compelling settings, complex plots. Who doesn’t like a story with trolls in it? The second story is set in Peru and delves into conflicts of identity and family with an adopted Peruvian-American on a trip with his red-headed American girlfriend and a Peruvian tour guide who is trying to make a major decision in his own life. If you can live with the unevenness of the stories, you can enjoy Horrocks’ talents and get a feel for what’s going on in contemporary short fiction today in America.

Tuesday, June 14, 2022

The Wild Goose Poems By Kevin Gallagher



The Wild Goose

Poems

By Kevin Gallagher

Loom Press

www.loompress.com

67 Pages

$20.00


Review by Dennis Daly


No writer distills history utilizing the form of poetic narratives better than Kevin Gallagher. In his latest effort, The Wild Goose Poems, Gallagher delves into Irish Americana, its background, and its sources. He uses a first-person sequence of poems on the rebel Irishman, then iconic Bostonian, John Boyle O’Reilly as the centerpiece of his collection. The poet leads into that sequence with a retelling of Celtic myth and finishes the book with a combination of classical myth and both local (Southie) and family lore. Think beginning, middle, and end. And that’s the way it reads.


Gallagher initiates his saga gently with a piece he entitles Birth of a Nation. Chock full of one damsel confined to a tower, one greed-filled king, the mysterious De Danaan tribe, one lovely princess, one white witch (or, in this case, a she-druid), one charming prince, and the bane of Celtic life, a stolen cow, this piece gives necessary foundation and entrances the reader in with its dreamlike sexuality. Consider these alluring and delicate lines,


As Cian stared at her

Eithlinn’s whole body went warm.


She now saw what she only heard.

She now had what she only dreamed of.


They each declared their love

for each other in the same breath


then gently took off the other’s clothes

before they could breathe another.


He buried his face in her breasts

As she put him between her thighs


and sang a long slow psalm

of love up to the skies.


Cian wanted to live with her forever


Fenian to his core, John Boyle O’Reilly was sentenced for treasonous activities by a British tribunal to imprisonment in Australia. He escaped and as a poet, espouser of Irish causes, and editor of the Boston-based national newspaper The Pilot, earned regard and fame in America. In the poem 1867 Gallagher chronicles O’Reilly’s prison ship experience. The poet captures the below-deck claustrophobia this way,


There were three hundred of us without shadows

cast by lamps under the forward hold.


We welcomed each other with loud

Laughter curses of the most evil fear.


A warm stranger gripped my arm and whispered

come O’Reilly we are waiting for you.


He led me through a small door amidships

to the space where we waited to be slaves.


After O’Reilly’s escape and raucous welcome to Boston by two thousand cheering Irishmen, he faced the reality of his political circumstances. These opening lines from Gallagher’s poem Help Wanted explain,


Positively No Irish need apply?

We were half-starved and penniless


farmers without any tools for the city.

Most of us went working on the wharfs.


Women made factory shoes or sewed from home.

We had our will, our music, and our God,


but many wondered why we traveled here.


Like most Irish immigrants O’Reilly melted into the stew of multi-ethnic America. He left his Irish grudges behind (mostly) and became more American than the Americans. Writing for the Pilot he railed against the old insular hatreds carried as baggage into his new country. When Irish Orangemen marched in the streets of New York demeaning Catholics, they were attacked and four of them gunned down by Fenians. In Gallagher’s poem, Boston Pilot, O’Reilly laments the outrage,


Why must we carry our cursed island feuds

to disturb the peace of these citizens?


We are all aliens from a petty island

in the eyes of our fellow Americans. Here


the Orange have as much right to parade

as a Fenian regiment in green.


Both parties are to be blamed and condemned,

yes both Fenians and the Orangemen.


The fishing vessel, The Valhalla, moored in Gloucester and for awhile in the Saugus River has become part of Boston Irish lore. Even Whitey Bulger, the notorious gangster, reportedly played a tangential part in this mythological drama. This reviewer, in a past life, met the Valhalla’s captain and off-loaded its cargo on the docks of Gloucester. It carried squid at the time. Later the same ship, tracked by satellite during the Reagan administration, was intercepted, carrying guns, off the coast of Ireland. Gallagher details the arms-running preparation in his poem entitled The Valhalla,


We had close to seven tons of mail-order

Weapons delivered by UPS.


We purchased them through ads in Shotgun News

by calling the 1-800 number.


We ordered ammunition cans, weapons,

training manuals, nylon rifle clips,


piles of M-16 magazines,

and rifle bags to hide them in the bogs.


We bought rocket warheads, anti-aircraft,

and 20,000 rounds home delivery special.


But the handguns, the rifles, and shotguns,

we stole those the old-fashioned way.

We packed all this in a couple of U-Hauls,

Then drove the trucks up to Gloucester Harbor.


My favorite poem in this collection, The Rose in the Elysian Fields, describes a classically based visit between the poet and his deceased father in the underworld. Mostly written in blank verse the piece, eleven pages long, conjures up an affecting blend of passion, wit, wisdom, and hope. Eight pages in, Gallagher inserts a lovely villanelle. Here’s the heart of it,


You can’t be dead for the rest of my life.


I’m so afraid that I will run out of time

but I don’t have any time to lose.

I cannot wait to see you until I die.


When you aren’t with me my life is a lie

and there is no such thing as the truth.

You can’t be dead for the rest of my life.


The rest of my life is too long a line

and I wouldn’t have anything to prove.

You can’t be dead for the rest of my life.


Poets who breathe in the rarefied air of Elysium, I’m told, change forever. Here’s hoping that Kevin Gallagher remains Kevin Gallagher, at least long enough to write his next book of extraordinary poems.