Friday, July 31, 2009

A Monster's Notes by Laurie Sheck.

And the Monster Is -- ?
by Mary Rice

A Monster's Notes by Laurie Sheck. (Knopf. 530 pages; $30)

Frankenstein. Ever since Boris Karloff's memorable portrayal, the monster at the center of Mary Shelley's novel Frankenstein has been called that, even though he actually had no name. A Monster's Notes is about that monster and that author. The book's premise is that the monster was real, and has continued to exist to the present day. Yet Mary Shelley was intimately involved in his life, and he in hers.

"Where do you end and I begin?" the monster asks early on. That question is never quite resolved. But here the monster is not really monstrous; he commits no violent acts. This is not a horror story, but an experimental novel. A gloss on Frankenstein, it re-imagines both the novel and its author's life.

The structure is enormously complex, and initially confusing, an amalgam of disparate parts much like the monster's own body. Fragments of information -- the notes of the title, even whole articles, are combined with passages of first-person narrative.

The primary "I" is the monster; his consciousness, his struggle to understand himself and human life, is the organizing principle. But there are other voices as well, in the form of letters, that staple of 19th century novels. Mary Shelley's narrative is crucial, but only appears late in the book. It is through her step-sister Claire Clairmont that we first see her.

Characters drawn from Mary Shelley's complicated family history include her mother Mary Wollstonecraft, the 18th century feminist writer, who died after giving birth to her; her father William Godwin, the philosopher, whose step-daughter from a previous marriage was Claire Clairmont; and Fanny Imlay, Wollstonecraft's daughter from a previous relationship of her own. Not to mention poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, who eventually married Mary, after eloping with her -- and Claire.

Conspicuously absent from the cast of characters is Frankenstein himself, the monster's creator. Although the monster addresses him in his thoughts and, poignantly, keeps his lab notes, it's as though he can't bear to think about him too deeply. Victor Frankenstein created life to see if he could, without thinking about the consequences. When he finally succeeded, he was appalled by what he had done and abandoned his creation, like a profoundly rejecting parent. In this book, he is never given a chance to speak for himself.

Mary Wollstonecraft, the parent who, by her death, unintentionally abandoned Mary Shelley, does speak and speaks eloquently. "I never wanted gorgeous words. Wanted language stripped. Plain as undraped windows." In letters imagined as she lies dying, she relives her life and wonders about her newborn daughter. This is only one of the deaths in the book, where absence and loss are themes. Naming and the power of words are others.

Fiction writers often say that characters come to them, suddenly appearing in their minds, or take a story they're writing in unexpected directions. Here a character is presented as having an independent physical existence and writing a book of his own, which is partly about the author who wrote about him.

Who and what, exactly, is he? The monster's nature remains elusive. He is able to observe people in a way that transcends geography and time. "Time meant nothing to me," he says near the end. "Past, present, future, all wrapped up as one." Yet he is material. Mary Shelley finally admits to Claire that she saw him as a child, heard his "gravelly" voice, interacted with him repeatedly. Some two hundred years later, he walks around unremarked in New York, and his manuscript and computer are found in an abandoned building there in 2007, when the book begins.

Beyond the complex relationship of character to author, the book explores the nature of human identity. In her preface, Laurie Sheck puts it beautifully: "So much of a life is invisible, inscrutable: layers of thoughts, feelings, outward events entwined with secrecies, ambiguities, ambivalences, obscurities, darknesses strongly present even to the one who's lived it -- maybe especially to the one who's lived it."

For all its own obscurities, A Monster's Notes is both imaginative and intriguing. In an age of robotics and cloning, exploring the psyche of an artificially created being has special resonance.

Thursday, July 30, 2009



I once described Zvi Sesling as an avuncular presence. And he is, as he has patiently mentored many students in a long teaching career. He wears his years of experience comfortably on his open face. Sesling has been an alderman, a founder of a much touted PR firm, as well as being trained as a lawyer.

Sesling is also a Brookline, Mass. poet who has published in over 100 magazines, including: HazMat Review, The Chaffin Journal, Ship of Fools, Ibbetson Street and many others. He is the founder of the Muddy River Poetry Review, and the winner of the Reuben Rose International Poetry Competition and a finalist in the 2009 Cervena Barva Press Chapbook Contest. I talked with Sesling on my Somerville Community Access TV show “Poet to Poet: Writer to Writer”

Doug Holder: Zvi, years ago you started the Muddy River Review, and now revived it online. Which do you prefer: Print or Web? What do you look for in the poetry that is submitted to you?

Zvi Sesling: My choice is really quite eclectic. I like things that are accessible. When I read it, it should grab me. Years ago when I did the print journal my choices were very different. I was looking for much more simplier things. But print is much more expensive than online, so this time I went with online.

Basically, for the online journal I don’t want long, long poems. They can be humorous. The first edition is online, and the second edition is coming out this summer. But basically if something grabs me I take it.

Doug Holder: I interviewed the poet David Slavitt some years ago. He is a poet, and he decided to run for State Rep. against Timothy Toomey. He lost by a landslide. He thought a poet would make a good politician because as he put it: “ He or she has a built in shit detector.”

Your take?

Zvi Sesling: Actually I don’t feel a poet would be a good fit.. I think the only thing the poet brings to politics is the power of observation, and the ability to listen better, and to take mental notes about what’s going around him. If you want to be a politician you have to be tough. You have to yell, you have to swear. I tend to view poets as a little more gentle, and calm about how they do things.

Doug Holder: I like how you focus on ordinary objects, a fish, a piece of licorice, and make it a starting point for much larger themes.

Zvi Sesling: I try to take something I observe and connect it to something else. I did it with wine glasses, and a pomegranate. I think everything in the world is connected in one-way or the other. So you can connect a very small issue or item and make it into a much bigger thing—then come back to the original.

Doug Holder: You made a switch in your writing from hardboiled mysteries to poetry. Why?

Zvi Sesling: I found that poetry was much more satisfying to me. It appealed to my new direction when I was getting out of the political scene. I found poetry much more calming and easy to deal with. I was writing much more succinctly. It is something I truly enjoy.

Doug Holder: Are you a fan of the hardboiled genre of writers like Raymond Chandler, and Dashiell Hammett?

Zvi Sesling: Yes. These are two of my favorites. They were more than just hardboiled writers. If you read them enough you could see there were social issues involved.

Doug Holder: Did you like Nero Wolfe, the obese, gourmet detective?

Zvi Sesling: Yeah. Wolfe was overweight and he gets his food involved with everything. The food was connected with life in general. It was a lot of fun.

Doug Holder: How much does your Jewish background come into play in your work?

Zvi Sesling: In some of it, it is very strong. I have been to Israel 24 or 25 times. I lived there for a year after high school. My father was born in Russia, went to Israel and then the states. My mother was from Germany. She escaped the Holocaust, and went to Israel. So a lot of that stuff has an impact on me. Also things like Hebrew School, or my Bar Mitzvah, sometimes fits into my poems, sometimes very subtly.

Doug Holder: Are you a religious man?

Zvi Sesling: No not at all. I am what they call a “Three Day Jew.” I go for the high holidays, and that’s it.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

In My Bustan by Michael Mahgerefteh

In My Bustan ($13.00) (Poetica Publishing Company, P.O. Box 11014, Norfolk, VA 23517), published 2009.
By Michal Mahgerefteh

Review by Pam Rosenblatt

It’s a fact. Every living person has an identity. There are four main parts to a person’s identity, at least to me: personal, religious, cultural, and sexual orientation. Whether his identity plays a part in his life depends upon the person. Some people readily accept their identity, while many people deny it. And some people never know their true identity. When a person realizes the importance of his identity in his life, it is the mark of self-realization.

In 2009, Poetica Publishing Company published poet Michal Mahgerefteh’s In My Bustan, a seventy-seven page book about a Jewish woman and her personal, religious, and cultural experiences. Mahgerefteh uses her Jewish background as a vehicle to understanding herself, her religion and her God.

It is a pleasure to read a poetry book that has a clear and distinctive voice. And In My Bustan has that voice, a voice that belongs to a speaker who knows she is Jewish and appreciates her ancestry and cultural background. This book isn’t all fun and games, though. Mahgerefteh deals with issues like birth, life, and death and all the conflicts that a person experiences underneath, on top, and in between.

Mahgerefteh has lived in the United States since 1986 when she moved from Israel. Poetica Magazine, Reflections of Jewish Thought, a magazine that she founded, publishes, and edits, consists of poetry, prose, fiction, and essays all dealing with the Jewish experience. She belongs to the The Poetry Society of Virginia. Many of her poems have been published in established literary magazines and anthologies.

Mahgerefteh is also an artist who creates painting with acrylics and paper collages. Her award-winnings works have been displayed in venues in Virginia, New Orleans, and New York and published in Golda Magazine, Being Jewish Magazine, ken* again Literary Magazine, The William and Mary Review, among others.

In My Bustan is comprised of four chapters about life and living it to the “fullness of every moment”, as Mahgerefteh quotes herself in the book’s beginning pages. In fact, the word “bustan” found in the title actually means the word “life” in Hebrew. [It also means “garden” in Farsi and “orchard” in Arabic, as Mahgerefteh defines in the back of the book. (p. 75)]

Throughout the book, Mahgerefteh uses the personal voice “I”. The speaker always knows who she is, where she came from, and what she is doing, through good times, bad times, solemn times, angry times, and enlightening times.
Her personal, religious, and cultural orientations are identified in her poem, “Peaceful Thoughts to my Sleep” (pp. 4-5):

Tell me Mami, still washing clothes
outdoors in the leaking rusted faucet?
I suppose you are attached to this tradition,

something from the old days you do not
want to forget, like cooking on Thursday
night, sitting on a wooden stool in the yard

chanting while peeling and cutting. I pass
these mizrachi tunes from my lips to my
children’s as a token of your memory.

I want to walk in your bustan to the scent
of sweet-lemon tree. Harvest this rare
fruit, prepare marmalade for me. Take me

back to the old days….

Here the speaker reminisces about her younger days when her mother “wash(ed) clothes/outdoors in the leaking rusted faucet” and “cook(ed) on Thursday/night” in preparation for the Sabbath, a weekly holiday celebrating the Jewish day of rest. The speaker seems to be hinting something is going on with her to make her yearn for the past so, to request “Take me//back to the old days….”
Life seems to treating the speaker well, at least as seen in “Friday before Shabbat” (pp. 6-7) when the speaker remembers her childhood memory when

…(she) giggled as (her aunt)
pinned her colorful head cover firmly

with greasy hands. Together we prepared
the table with the white lace cloth, gold-
trimmed china and a silver kiddush cup

on the eighteen-place dinner table near
the veranda. Father kissed my forehead
before he left with my brothers and uncles

for minchah, and I with my mother,
grandmother, sister, aunts and cousins,
recited the blessing over the Shabbat
Lights, wished each other Shabbat Shalom,
eager to start Seudat Shabbat filled with
thanksgiving, song, laughter and spice.

“Friday before Shabbat” reveals the traditional, Jewish side of the speaker’s identity. She is family-oriented, observes the holidays and its customs with close family and relatives. The speaker is recalling her youth and how much fun it was.
But then the tone of the poems change, as reflected in the fall of the Garden of Eden in Mahgerefteh’s “Lilith and Chava” (p. 9) This coming of age poem further solidifies the speaker’s identity.

Lilith, swayed by the serpent’s
hiss, No man is my master as I am
as strong as he, no man will tie my
lips as I have tasted sun and fruit,

echoed above the Trees ‘til God
shackled her tongue, binding her
name to the shores of the Red Sea.
But when Chava bit into the Bitter

Fruit, Lilith rushed to assist: sitting
within a circle of stones on a mat
of reeds, she cleaned Chava’s gypsy
curls with oily wool, perfumed tawny

skin with orchid petals, and fed her
on goat milk, pomegranates and roots.
As the Garden awaited, Lilith gracefully
wrapped her Skin around Chava’s,

Implanting the Infinite Life into the
unborn child. The First Cry rushed
out of her womb and with a stream
of blood became the House Israel.

The speaker’s world changes with the fall of the Garden of Eden as such things as sex, birth, and Judaism have been created. Here she becomes aware of the importance of her sexual identity and of Judaism in her life. But there has been a fall from innocence in “Lilith and Chava”. The poems that proceed have a more mature, somewhat disillusioned tone.
Mahgerefteh begins to deal with hardcore subjects like the death of an infant son in “The Isolated Room” (p. 16), the impending and eventual death of her mother in “Descending” (p. 17), “For Twenty-Three Years”, and “Upon Her Death” (p. 19), and the discovery of “‘pre-cancer cells” in “And I Thought I was Good” (p. 24). All these poems challenge the speaker. She wonders why these things had to happen, as can be read in
“Kaddish” (p. 21) when Mahgerefteh writes:

All colors gone from the world,
life is redone in black as his coffin
lowers into the thawing ground,
and I frail lips and imploring arms,
scour the distance for my Maker.

Through the use of vivid, articulate word choice, Mahgerefteh asks God why death has to occur. The speaker is lost without this man, who is probably her father but could be her husband. She finds solace in her religion as understood when she writes “of the unsayable words of the kaddish, life has meaning, plan and purpose ‘til death overtakes.”
By the end of “Kaddish”, the speaker is rejuvenated and finds life again:

The sun startles into motion. I bind
my left arm in leather straps, warm
under a prayer shawl, and dance on
spines of books like gravestones;
within each scripture words fortify
touch feel hear breathe

Above the waters on many voices,
prayers, passing intensities, refresh
with language and sound, and as
Shabbat starts to depart sweetly,
circles of meaning slowly brush
shoulders with every chorus.

At this point in In My Bustan, the speaker gets angry, but she still remains true to herself, especially to her religious identity. After finding out in “And I thought I was Good” (p. 24), she has “‘pre-cancer cells’”, the speaker wonders ambiguously to God and/or to her lover, “…I can’t do it without You and I thought I was good, wasn’t I good? Don’t be silent, tell me I was good am I still so good, so good?” (p. 24).

The question often arises is why are certain things happening to her. The answer for her is usually because of or for “Elohai”, or “my God” (p. 66). The speaker understands she is Jewish, accepts Judaism in various forms throughout her life’s experiences, and never questions the existence of God – but it is usually on her terms.
Mahgerefteh goes through three stages of Jewish experience in In My Bustan: 1) acceptance of traditional Jewish religious customs and cultural 2)challenging/questioning of traditional Jewish religious customs and cultural 3) returning of acceptance of Jewish religious customs and culture.
To backtrack to “poetry” (p. 3), the beginning poem, Mahgerefteh writes:

As the pen’s
leaves a print
I gladly yield
to its intrusion.

In My Bustan takes you on a personal journey. The speaker implies she puts pen to paper to lead to self-realization, or self-identity. This path may be frightening to some readers; but most people will appreciate this memoir’s truthfulness, sincerity, and brilliance and “gladly yield/to its intrusion.”

James Has Diabetes Mariah Daily

James Has Diabetes
Mariah Daly

As a parent it is difficult to comprehend and deal with the diagnosis of disease in one of our children. Yet, as difficult as it is for an adult, the confusion for the child is greater. Lifestyle changes are difficult and when those changes involve the need to remove items we love to eat from our diet, when those changes involve dealing with needles on a daily basis, when those changes involve the possibility of ridicule or shunning by other children, a child can feel fearful and alone.

Mariah Daly is a licensed, practicing nurse with a Master’s in Education. She has taught children in after school programs in both Boston and Cambridge and her love for children, her dedication to helping the child understand their illness shines through in Mariah’s first book, “James Has Diabetes.”

The journey for young James, an active elementary school student with a penchant for baseball begins with his feeling tired during activities. James lives with his mother, his father, and a sister named Julia. Julia is frustrated that James is sleeping all the time and James, himself, becomes concerned when running the bases causes him fatigue and sweatiness. James parents also notice a difference in James’ energy and eating habits and make an appointment to take James to the doctor where he is diagnosed with Type II Diabetes. Mariah’s background in nursing allows her to share the medical information clearly while she writes with empathy about the changes James and his family will encounter. From his hospital stay and the interaction between the parents and children in an educational in-patient program, to the way in which James’ teacher handles introducing his classmates to his disease, Mariah leaves no base uncovered. Even the child who fears the loss of dessert will find that there are delicious alternatives. Even the local baker is a diabetic who helps James understand the options available for his new dietary choices.

Reading to the younger child in two or three shorter sessions will make the length of the book and the depth of information easier handle. Older children will enjoy the book in its entirety and may even enjoy taking turns reading with you!

You can find “James Has Diabetes” in some branches of the Boston Public Library, it can be purchased at Porter Square Book Store; MIT Co-op; Curious George, Harvard Square; Brookline Booksmith; Brookline Children’s Bookstore in Brookline Village; or can be purchased on the author’s website: The price is $14.70.

*Rene Schwiesow co-owns an online poetry forum ( and is a co-host for The Art of Words: Mike Amado Memorial Poetry Series in Plymouth, MA. She is the author of Beginnings Beget Beginnings and A Year in the Quilt. Rene can be reached at

Monday, July 27, 2009

Review of LOST HORSES, Poems by Lyn Lifshin

Review of LOST HORSES, Poems by Lyn Lifshin, 2009, Presa Press, PO Box 792, Rockford, MI 49341, 36 pages, $6.

By Barbara Bialick

For Lyn Lifshin’s ever-growing fan base, the chapbook LOST HORSES can be a challenge to understanding her inner creative process as seen through 20 dreams that evolved into poems. I’m not a dream interpreter, so I’d have to check out some dream and nightmare archetypes to do full justice to this curious collection, but I’m not motivated to do so.
Still, as poems in their own right, the book is written by an experienced hand at it, forming long columns that trail down the length of the pages, often in iambic pentameter or quadrameter. She has recurring imagery of sexual fantasy, worry about losing her cat, her poetry career, and most poignantly, feelings of sadness about her late mother.
One example is BAD DREAM # 2791: “The old Vt house,/it’s enormous from the first frame on/…on the top/floor my mother is dead. It can’t be her/my heart is insisting.”
“I haven’t slept well but if/Bukowski is coming, I want to/put my Outsider issues on him/out…What clothes/would Buk want to see/a woman in?/…I am certain I/better clean up the house though they/all, my mother, my uncle and/Buk, are still dead.”
One nightmare image that is particularly awful is the DREAM RUINED BY A DOG-SIZED CENTIPEDE”!
The last and title poem is haunting—IN HER DREAM OF THE LOST HORSES is intriguingly obscure: “they gather by the hill,/once elegant limbs/shattered, made/whole again/…in shadows where she/imagines the lost horses,/she fingers the pebbles/of their names.”
For only $6, this Lifshin book is certainly worth buying if you want to get introduced to or learn more about the author and her writing skill. Perhaps then you’ll want to move on to her more than 125 books and four anthologies of women writers. Or, as her bio continues, “Her poems have appeared in most of the litmags in the USA”!