Friday, May 18, 2012

The Chameleon Couch Yusef Komunyakaa

The Chameleon Couch
Yusef Komunyakaa
Farrar, Straus &Giroux Books
ISBN: 978-0-374-53314-4
2011 $14.00

"a trembling runs through what pulls us
to the blood knot."

Some of the poems, in this collection, have a deep throaty
longing. In Komunyakaa's poems the longing roots us to what
each verse reveals "the cold stings." The poet waters
each word in which to feed the reader, his contemplations
concerning the birth of each word is there. He writes like
his life depends on setting the words on the page and I envision
each poem spread before me:

"...My name grew into a sonata he learned
to put back into his mouth, an echo
of his voice in the wind. My blood seethed
into his words, an immaculate conception
in reverse, & no one could keep God's worms
out of the tomb after I died in childbirth."

This is my first time reading Komunyakaa and I read his poems
with trepidation, because he is an accomplished writer, well
known to so many and I want to read the poems as poems.
I realize the poems want more than a sentence or form, they
want to sustain the line, line by line. For me the poet uses every-
thing to find the poem, to have the poem converse, take root:

"...Brushstrokes formed a blade to cut
the hues. A slipped disk
grew into a counterweight,
& the muse kept saying,
Learn to be kind to yourself.
A twisted globe of flesh
is held together by what
it pushes against."

This is a book to be kept, read, and then read again and again:
"My muse is holding me prisoner.
She refuses to give back my shadow,
anything that clings to a stone or tree
to keep me here. I recite dead poets
to her, & their words heal the cold air.
I feed her fat, sweet, juicy grapes,
& melons holding a tropical sun
inside them. From here, I see only
the river. The blue heron dives,
& always rises with a fright fish
in its beak, dangling a grace note..."
Couched in tomorrow, the morning each day brings, the poems
receive comfort and then change and return to their own
presence. They ask to be read and that is all we can do when
we enter any holy place. Read the signs, the omens, the ritual
and then leave with a sense of renewal:
"...I know what it took to master the serpent
& wheel, the crossbow & spinal tap.
Once I was a leopard beside a stone gate.
I am a riddle to be unraveled. I am not
and I am. When their eyes are on me
I become whatever is judged badly.
I circle the park. Hunger shapes
my keen sense of smell, a lifetime ahead..."
The strophes, "echo us back as the years uncount," and there again,
is the sadness, longing for, again. The poems live in our veins, sustain
our present tense. "Perhaps omens speak more clearly across a
desert or the seas."

irene koronas
poetry editor: wilderness house literary review
reviewer: ibbetson street press

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Interview with Debra Spark Author of The Pretty Girl: Novella and Stories.

Interview with Debra Spark Author of The Pretty Girl: Novella and Stories.

By Doug Holder

 Debra Spark is author of the novels Coconuts for the Saint, The Ghost of Bridgetown and Good for the Jews. She edited the best-selling anthology Twenty Under Thirty: Best Stories by America's New Young Writers. Her popular lectures on writing are collected in Curious Attractions: Essays on Fiction.

Spark's recent release is a fiction collection titled The Pretty Girl: Novella and Stories. I had the pleasure to speak to her on my Somerville Community Access TV show Poet to Poet: Writer to Writer. Spark currently teaches at Colby College in Maine.

 Doug Holder: In your new collection The Pretty Girl: Novella and Stories you have many references to Jewish culture, literature, etc…. Can you tell us a bit about your background?

Debra Spark: I grew up in the suburbs of Boston, but much of my family is originally from the New York City area. I had a secular Jewish background. As a friend told me once about himself:  “ I am so secular I am Baptist.”(Laugh) But we were very culturally Jewish—we celebrated the holidays, etc…

DH:  Your protagonist Andrea, in your title novella in the collection The Pretty Girl, has made a study of her elderly aunt Rose. Rose is a resident of the Chelsea section of Manhattan, and as we learn had a tumultuous as well as colorful past. I found that through my interviews of people I learn about myself. Do you think Andrea was trying to learn about herself?

DS: I wasn’t thinking that. She is really interested in her aunt, and this aunt is someone she loves. She is curious about what her young life had been like. She is passionate about her inquiry because she loves her, and perhaps she sees things in her aunt that she perhaps doesn't have in her own life. I mean Andrea is not a pretty woman. She was concerned with her weight and her sense of her physical self. When her aunt was young she was pretty. Andrea wanted to know what it was to live a life as an attractive woman.

DH:  In Rose’s NYC apartment there is a painting titled “The Pretty Girl” We later learn that it is Rose herself as a young girl. And the painting was by a man who she had an affair with, and shared a traumatic event. It must be a constant reminder to Rose of this trauma, but to the outside world this painting of a young woman with an enigmatic smile must have been a mystery. Why would Rose want to be constantly reminded of this tragic part of her life by the painting? And is a painting a good literary device?

DS: It reminds her of the early part of her life. When she was being painted she was the object of great devotion and love; even though that became perverted because of things that happened afterwards. A painting is a good literary device. A self-portrait always has a story behind it.

DH:  So often young people never think of the elderly as once having vibrant, creative, and sexual lives. Andrea seems more aware than most.

DS: Yes I agree. Rose is a fictional version of my aunt Ethel. I always thought that she was much more interesting—much more vibrant—much more fun that the average person her age.

DH: Do you go by the old adage: write what you know?

DS: Lorri Moore told me that the relationship between the autobiography and the actual work is a little like the relationship with the ingredients in the kitchen cupboard and the cake. So although everything I write about is made from aspects of my life, I don’t think it is recognizable. I mean when you eat a cake, you don’t say “Ah, I got some baking soda here." So that is how it is with my books. It is all of me. It is all parts of me. None of it is directly me. I don’t like that an old adage you mentioned. I think if you don’t know something before you sit down to write; then make an effort to learn about it.

DH: You teach writing at Colby College in Maine and elsewhere. How do you introduce seminal writing students to creative writing?

DS: I always start off the semester by telling the students within every writer there are two writers. The writer who wants to write and the writer who wants to prevent the writer from writing. So there is the person who has good ideas and wants to get them down, and then there is the censor—the person who wants to edit. I learned this from one of my teachers the writer John Hershey. As a teacher I can’t teach you to have imagination, but I can teach character, plot, grammar, that type of thing. If I am a good teacher I can get students to access their imagination. I try to get these two writers in balance.

DH: What was it like for you starting out as a writer?

DS: I went to college and graduate school. I had a lot of early luck. When I came back to Cambridge, Mass. in my early 20’s, I was adjuncting and doing freelance editing. I had a lot of writer friends and there was always something to go to: readings, etc… It was quite a lot of fun. My life now is different. I am middle-aged and I have a child. I have a hard time getting my own writing done. Even back then I did  have a hard time finding time, come to think of it. It is hard for me to balance work, motherhood and art. I do things when I can.
 I did a lot of book reviewing early on. I tell my students to do this although the world is different now. But it is good to have your name out there. There are now a lot of online opportunities.

DH: If your child said he wanted to be a writer what would you say?
DS: I would be worried. It is hard to make a life as a writer. Obviously I would support him if he really wanted it. It seems like a bigger challenge than it was 20 years ago. The true answer is that I would want him to do what he really wants to.

The Poetry of Elizabeth Hansen Elizabeth Hanson 2011

The Poetry of Elizabeth Hansen
Elizabeth Hanson 2011

“long spears of ice
like bats unfurl themselves
in rows under the overhang
and sharply they sing and fall
into the embankment of snow
as a single wind calls to them...”

Hanson's poems in this self published chapbook will surprise
and embrace the reader. The core of what the poet is writing
is not as simple as it sounds. Her poetry reflects her relationships
and her surroundings. She places the words with careful touch.
Their core is a place like plums, pomegranates, and familiar flavors.
Similar to the differences in verse, the fruit remains itself. The
placed words the reader tastes and identifies. Hanson writes
about the core, the juice, the renewal relationships bring,
not too sweet or tart. We come to identify each poem as our own.
She is not to be missed or set aside:

“each morning
they gather, at the same coffeeshop
they discuss
world events the economy;
I'm always
getting my latte
my muffin,
there is a lot to say
about routine
about life
being predictable.
And if occasionally
your husband slaps you,
not because there is another woman
not because he wants to leave
(though these could always be
considered side issues)
nor because of what
you have done
but what life has
made him
and because deep down its
easier to blame
someone else-
than shouldering the blame
and maybe 'playing by the book'
'being a man' – is a killer
is life
is death
and respect
the lack of it
kills love
better than
a beating”

The poems collect our everyday routines and presents the ways only
a poet like Hanson can portray:

“...the woman
one day
her collection
in front
of the wall
and was never
seen again...”

Readers will be sustained by these poems, they will become the morning
fruits we eat.

Irene Koronas
Reviewer: Ibbetson Street Press
Poetry Editor: Wilderness House Literary Review

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

THIS BEAUTIFUL PLACE By Tankred Dorst and Ursula Ehler

By Tankred Dorst and Ursula Ehler
Hanging Loose Press
Prose, 91 pages
ISBN: 978-1-934909-29-4 (pbk.)

     Tankred Dorst  is a German playwright who has also worked in film, radio, and as a stage director.  THIS BEAUTIFUL PLACE, written with his partner, Ursula Ehler, is his only novella.  Translator Anna Posten, in her illuminating afterward, notes that the book was first conceived as a screenplay and, indeed, it has a cinematic quality.  Posten mentions the parallels between this novella and the work of American filmmaker Robert Altman.  She says that “Altman’s style, with its emphasis on luck and fate, coupled with dark undercurrents of tragedy and dissatisfaction, had a strong effect, not only on Dorst, but on German culture and writing from the last quarter of the twentieth century through to the present day.”  

     THIS BEAUTIFUL PLACE is comic in an even darker way and more indebted to Theater of the Absurd than Altman’s work but the fragmented, episodic unfolding of the narrative(s) works the same kind of magic as that of an Altman film.  The reader gradually learns more about the characters and their motives, their dreams, desires and delusions as their stories weave together.  

      One of the most interesting characters is Lilly, child of an absent father and a drunken and feckless mother.  Lilly believes her father, who deserted the family and who is no doubt an alcoholic too, is living in Spain and is, in fact, the King of Spain.  As the story progresses, she steals money from her mother and takes off with her little brother, Maxi, who is still young enough to be in diapers, an heads off to hitchhike to Spain to find her father the King.  She imagines a wonderful life filled with love if only she can find him.  

     Another presence dominating the story is not a character per se but a historical personage (though there is some debate about what is true and what is myth regarding him) called Aleijadinho (real name: Antonio Francisco Lisboa).  He was a Brazilian architect and sculptor who lived from 1738—1814.  He is said to have contracted leprosy but continued to design churches and carve religious statuary.  When he lost his hands he had his tools strapped to the stumps of his arms and continued to work.  When his feet rotted away he bought a slave to carry him on his shoulders.  

     Another character is Adam Bonsack, a womanizer who has written an essay on Aleijadinho, and his devoted wife, Anna, whom he neglects and humiliates.   A comic character who turns up for brief interludes is Fritz, who is Maxi’s actual father though he in no way carries out that role.  Fritz is a lewd, disheveled geezer who wears an aviator’s cap and rides around on a moped and who is generally unwelcome wherever he shows up.

     Dorst’s novella explores how our lives are bounded by our dreams and delusions, and by the luck of the draw. Within that context there is still room for hope, however, because there’s still room for the persistence, the courage of an Aleijadinho.
                                                                                    --Richard Wilhelm

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Jessica Treadway: A writer of everyday people and everything human: Interview with Doug Holder

Jessica Treadway:  A writer of everyday people and everything human

Interview with Doug Holder

  Jessica Treadway is not a writer whose main concern is the mere trappings of everyday life. She goes to the marrow of what makes us human. And that means the flaws, the pockmarks, how we delude ourselves and how we love in spite of it all. Treadway, is an unpretentious woman, with an open face and an engaging smile.  But don't be fooled; this is an accomplished writer with an impressive resume. She currently is a Professor at Emerson College in Boston, and has recently released a collection of short stories  Please Come Back To Me.Treadway has a number of books to her credit and her work has appeared in top shelf publications like: Plougshares, AGNI, Best American Short Stories, etc... She has received awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, and was on the Board of Directors of PEN-New England. I had the good fortune to talk with her on my Somerville Community Access TV show  " Poet to Poet: writer to Writer."

Doug Holder
: You grew up in Albany, New York, the home of the famed novelist William Kennedy. Do you use the less than cosmopolitan burg of Albany, N.Y. as a focal point for your work like Kennedy does?

Jessica Treadway: I really  don't use the city itself, but upstate New York in general. My sensibilities are probably that of an upstate N.Y. girl. I have quite a few stories in fictional towns around Buffalo, N.Y.  Joyce Carol Oates as well as Richard Russo have also been influenced by and have written about upstate New York-like settings.

DH: What is the upstate New York frame of mind?

JT: Winter comes to mind. (laugh) You don't realize until your work is collected and even after that you have a certain focus in the body of your work.. It usually takes a reader to point out the similarities in some of your stories. A lot of my stories are set in the winter, but there are some beautiful summers in my work. The landscape is bleak in the winter but a stunning backdrop in the summer.

DH: In the title novella in your new collection  Please Come Back to Me a vision of a deceased woman's husband appears in front of her and prevents her from having a tragic accident. Are ghosts a good literary device. Have you ever seen one?

JT: I don't think I have ever experienced a ghost. I believe I wrote that in a certain way so that the person who saw the apparition believed it was the deceased man. I hope I left it open to the fact that this was just what she saw and not an actual presence. The story tries to deal with living people's  experience of seeking communication after death. A ghost or anything used as a literary device can be used if it is employed well. I would say a writer should try everything.

DH: In your short story "The Nurse and the Black Lagoon" a woman tries to understand why her teenage son has been accused of a disturbing crime. She creates this whole story to convince herself that her son is normal. We all create myths of sort to get by in life, to bring order to the chaotic nature of existence. Do you think the mother was heroic in her efforts to keep herself together?

JT: I think one of the main  themes in my work is willful blindness, and what the repercussions and ramification will be. The woman in the story you referenced knows the truth and ignores it--or goes to a layer close to the surface and tries to arrange things the way she likes it. It's not particularly admirable. I think the character is weak but not evil.

DH: You are not a mother yourself, but you write about mothers often enough.

JT: Some of my greatest gratification comes from mothers who ask me:" How do you know what this mother character would say or do.?" To be a good writer you have to have empathy and imagination. Just because you are a good mother--doesn't mean you can write well about it.

: You teach writing at Emerson College in Boston. What is the best way to teach writing?

JT: Instead of offering opinions, ( although I do of course)  I try to ask questions. I find this more effective than harsh criticism, etc...

DH You started out as a journalist. how important was this for your maturation as a writer?

JT: I only did it for a few years. It makes you learn that how to select the details that are relevant. I wrote for a wire service. They kept to a strict word limit. I learned to write concisely and fast

DH: I have always believed in the importance of community in the writer's life. You have belonged to writer's groups in the past. What role did they play?

: I was in a group of four women writers including Debra Spark who got together to discuss our work. That played an important role. The group that played the most important role was a group I was in for 10 years with Andre Dubus. It met in his house in Haverhill, Mass. I joined because I loved his work. My first book that came out was partly written in that group. And having the support of fellow writers like Elizabeth Searle, Debra Spark and others over the years was a great help.

Monday, May 14, 2012

The Endicott Review Spring 2012

This is an edict from our Puritan reviewer Dennis Daley regarding The Endicott Review Spring 2012 edition :)

The Endicott Review

Spring 2012

Volume 29, Issue 1

Beverly, MA

Review by Dennis Daly

What is this you’ve put in my hands, Palfrey?  Have you no sense. My name, Endicott, defiled in this abomination of a magazine. Let our Puritan band discover the followers of these mountebanks and mirth counterfeiters.  Every copy of this Endicott Review must burn. See to it.

But hold, let us determine punishment now. I want the editor to swing for this veritable maypole of perfidiousness. Just paging through it now I read of mirth and alcohol and dancing and masques and bright colors and whispers of heathen sex: all this from an undergraduate journal that has been loosed upon our world by its faculty advisors.

What say you? There is no editor, only an editorial board. Then let us pick four of the most deserving as our scape goats. The one called the Wolf King must die tonight. His very alias denotes him as the Lord of Misrule. In his poem, Who Am I/Enigma, he says,

For who am I?

Am I a great and noble leader

Am I a wise and intelligent scholar

Am I a strong and strapping Adonis

Am I a kind soul

Or a despicable villain…

Clearly we have a ringleader here. There are others.

Hadley St. Clair consorts with evil doers and satanic manifestations.  Consider these lines written by her,

The man who taught me

how to write poetry

talks to wolves and cats,

wears tuxedo jackets and speaks

fluent jazz.

Jess Richard anthropomorphizes crows and is delusional. She’s lost to sin and Beelzebub. She writes,


he told us

they recognize faces.

In a prose poem entitled Drunk Poet Society, Larissa Burgess contemplates a dissolute life. She says,

…I’m thinking about becoming a drunk. Maybe I cant be a

great alcoholic like Bukowski or Fitzgerald or Plath. But I’ll write short, sad poems about

the things I’ve tried and failed..

Good ancient Palfrey, set up the gallows for all of the aforementioned editors. Henceforth editors at The Endicott Review will think twice about their chosen subjects and the awful responsibility they bear creating out of nothing a true literary magazine with expectant and zealous votaries.

Who else dawdles their precious time with demons and beasts giving scandal and ruining souls? Ronnie Tuscano admits that there is

… a war that rages in my soul

fought between two great creatures

The wolf and the tiger

a creature of the night against one of the day…

He cleverly creates ambivalence here and thus deserves three days in the stocks. Arrest him.

Tyler Golec in his affecting poem entitled A Silent Song mourns loneliness and need and praises youth and music and drunken rapture as a sanctuary. More pagan delusions! He says,

Girls sway drunkenly as they enjoy youth

Long youthful legs shown off, breasts left partially bare

The night whispers sex from full young lips

And you listen to the whispers as you get stoned…

Twenty lashes and perhaps Tyler will appreciate our solemn quietude.

Luke Salisbury’s piece, Fragmentation, 1960 portrays the depth and sensitivity of his thirteen year old persona, listening to the drunken words of hardened adults, and there lies the problem. His prose is too pensive, too deft for our new world of stark sainthood. He describes the breakup of the parents’ marriage as a force of nature, cruel and unstoppable. This prompter of internal life and an apparent friend of the magazine must be stopped. His unacceptable artistry demands forty lashes.  

In the deep dusk of the forest Jason L. Roberts obviously cavorts with practitioners of the black arts. In his poem, Prehistoric Love, he confesses,

Velociraptor of mine

Claw me to shreds

Pick out my fantasies and dreams and stomp on them

I am yours to command for you are my lord

My savior…

Not less than twenty-five lashes.

Zvi A. Sesling, a friend of the magazine, commits the unforgivable crime of minimizing death and the evil ones. He speaks of the “broken frame of life” with authority as if he knows something in poetry too profound to tell in plain language.  He says,

Death does not steal them

From us

They hide waiting for us to

Join them

The eternal smile permanent…

This poet worries me: forty lashes. And lay them on heavily!

In her poem, Anywhere But Here, Meghan Perkins admits devil worship. She says,

I want to take a running leap off a cliff

and dissipate into smoke,

drifting into the stratosphere,

returning to dance on the face of the moon,

Arrest the woman and jail her. We will provide a fair trial before we hang her.

We have a true outrage by poet and friend of the magazine, Doug Holder. The table of contents places his poem, It’s Like Putting Lipstick On A Pig, on page 32. But it is not there. They smeared it instead on page 26. Concealment will not work, however. Righteousness uncovers licentiousness wherever it hides. This poem is a mockery of all that we hold dear. Holder spews,    

When she pouts

put the red on her

porcine lips

A Red Flag around her mouth

because no make-up

will disguise the genuine

whine and plea of

her insistent oink…

Holder makes us, a congregation of saints, wallow in the human condition. He deserves both thirty lashes and the stocks and then you will secure a signed confession of his wizardry. Pile rocks on his naked chest if necessary.  When you are finished with him, good Palfrey, bring him to Salem before the Great and General Court in shackles and we will think more on this. The man is another Thomas Morton and not fit to be in our colony.

The art work throughout this magazine reeks of deviltry: from the expressive paintings of Arielle Matthews to the magnetic photograph of mother and child by Brittany Mellon. The artist responsible for the idolatrous cover must be pulled from his or her anonymity and justice will again be meted out, fairly, of course.

Prepare the fire, Palfrey, the Spring 2012 issue must not survive this night.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

The FSG Book of Twentieth-Century Italian Poetry: An Anthology Edited by Geoffrey Brock

The FSG Book of Twentieth-Century Italian Poetry
An Anthology Edited by Geoffrey Brock
Introduction and Selection Copyright 2012 by Geoffrey Brock
Farrar Strauss Giroux
New York, NY
Hardbound,  672 pages,  $50.00
ISBN 978-0-374-10538-9

Review by Zvi A. Sesling

Editing an anthology of poetry is a daunting task, particularly if you have decided on a single subject, say twentieth century Italian poets. Having selected the theme or subject matter you next need to choose which poets to use. Finally, there is the question of which poems. When it comes to Italian poetry there are centuries to pick from. Or, if you are Geoffrey Brock you limit yourself to the twentieth century when some of the most exciting and poignant poetry was written.

Brock’s “Introduction”  is like a course in the history of Italian poetry, citing St. Francis’s Canticle of the Sun as the beginning of Italian poetry. He then notes other early Italian poets and discusses many of the poets in this volume.  In his “A Note on Translation” Brock explains his selection process which included poets who are Swiss, not Italian, but write in Italian. He also admits, “I have had to omit important and marvelous poets and poems, either because I lacked space or because I was unable to find or make sufficiently marvelous translations…”  This explanation is refreshingly honest and does not diminish what Brock accomplished, a selection of marvelous translations of seventy-three poets, some represented by one poem, others by multiple selections.

Among the poets are a number of familiar names such as Giovanni Pascoli, F.T. Marinetti, Giuseppe Ungaretti, Eugenio Montale, Salvatore Quasimodo, Cesare Pavese, Giorgio Bassani (perhaps better known for his novel The Garden of the Finzi-Contini), Holocaust survivor Primo Levi and Pier Paolo Pasolini, also a movie director who was murdered.

Brock, who did a number of the translations, also selected translations by a veritable who’s who of poets, including: AllenGinsberg, Seamus Heaney, James Merrill, Robert Lowell, Geoffrey Hill, Thomas Lux, Charles Wright, J.D. McClatchy, Samuel Beckett, W.D. Snodgrass, Ezra Pound, A.E. Stalllings, Kevin Prufer, Jonathan Galassi, W.S. Di Piero, Cid Corman, Dana Gioia, Kenneth Koch, Marianne Moore, Charles Tomlinson, Cyrus Cassels, John Frederick Nims, Peter Covino, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and many other poets, each of them bringing their own brilliance to the book.

The Anthology has many long poems, but here are examples of three translations that are shorter. First is Cid Corman’s reading of Giuseppe Ungaretti’s  Joy Of Shipwreck followed by Jonathan Galassi’s translation of Eugenio Montale’s 10 and finally Brock’s rendering of Mario Luzi’s Night Cleanses The Mind.


Versa, February 14, 1917

And suddenly the voyage
after being shipwrecked
a surviving
old sea dog will


Why wait? The squirrel beats his torch-tail
on the pine tree’s bark
The half-moon with its peak sinks down
into the sun that snuffs it out. It’s day.

The sluggish mist is startled by a breeze,
but hold firm at the point it covers you.
Nothing ends, or everything,
if, thunderbolt, you leave your cloud.


Night cleanses the mind.

A little later, as you well know,
we’re here, a line of souls along the ledge,
some ready for the leap, others

as if in chains. On the sea’s page,
someone traces a a sign of life, fixes a point:
Seldom do any gulls appear.

These are just three short examples. The FSG Book of Twentieth-Century Italian Poetry is filled with wonderful poems. It is a book of poetry that should be in everyone’s collection. Very highly recommended.

Zvi A. Sesling is author of King of the Jungle (Ibbetson Street, 2010), Across Stones of Bad Dreams (Cervena Barva, 2011) and the soon to be published Fire Tongue (Cervena Barva). He is Editor of Muddy River Poetry Review and Bagel Bards Anthology #7.