Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Harvard Square's Lowes Theatre to Close in July : A Poetic Response

Harvard Square's Lowes Theatre to Close in July 

  I have been going to that theater from my my undergraduate days in the 1970s to now, a man decidedly in his middle-age.  I can only imagine what they will replace this grand ole' venue with, a scented soap shop?/ body lotions?/new expensive-pretentious bistro?/ cutting-edge chain clothes store?/ --another Starbucks?  How about a new idea?--condos!  I will miss this joint--and the many others that have disappeared from the Square--  Here is a poem for the theater:

Best--Doug Holder

Harvard Square Theater

To spend the dog days

in the darkened theater

 My Last Tango in Paris

a hot three hour

respite from the heat.

The midnight mass

of the faithful

the rituals

the memorized chants

to the Rock Horror Picture  show

I will grab a  beer

from the ghost of the Wursthaus

then get a seat in the back

the flickering of the dark cinema

a two hour balm

before I hit the hot street

then it's gone.....

------ Doug Holder

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Two Star General By Grey Held

Two Star General

By Grey Held

Brick Road Poetry Press

ISBN-13: 978-0-9841005-8-3

ISBN-10: 0-9841005-8-X

57 Pages


Review by Dennis Daly

In the best of circumstances the relationship between father and son tends towards complexity. Even a game of catch, the American emblem of that relationship, often devolves into rebellion when the boy tests his new found adolescent freedom against fatherly restraints and concerns. Now add to this paradigm a father who doubles as a military man, a leader who gives orders and expects immediate obedience. And finally add to this mix the rank of general; the father and leader now becomes a strategist who often must, and certainly should, sacrifice individual compassion for long term outcomes. Now we have an interesting and combustible consociation of dependency and paternal kinship.

In Two Star General Grey Held’s persona confronts his father and commanding general at odd angles and with the sensitivity and transcendence of a new-found understanding of human decency. The poem Under his Command gets right to the point,

We go to the Commissary

Drug Store so he can buy me

aviator sunglasses, though

what I want is the Elvis Presley kind,

but he says, not

for a two star general’s son!

He takes me to Uncle Sam’s Barbecue,

which I’ve never liked,

so he can get his favorite ribs.

In the same poem he puts his fathers’ serf-absorption in its proper military context. He relates a very telling story how his dad

...once drank scotch with McArthur

and told him, I know you and I will get along just fine.

He just took it when McArthur answered,

if there’s any getting along to do, Sir,

you’d better be the one to do it.

If your well-respected superiors have a way of making you feel small, it is only natural that those under your command, including a son, will get at least a taste of similar treatment.

The poet divides his book into two sections. The first sees life through a general’s eyes. In the second section the son of the general becomes the poet’s persona.

In the poem Fort Benning , Georgia  1942 the callous but sensible general describes his technique of training raw recruits how to kill using a bayonet. He says,

… I make them practice

sticking their weapons between the vivid

ribs of Savannah’s put-down

dogs I have them hang by rope

from branches of the drill field’s oaks.

I want them to feel resistance and retraction,

to witness the propulsion of sudden

blood—so much the better…

This hardened man knows how to save lives and in his own way—once you get by the stabbing of the dog’s bodies—cares profoundly and imaginatively for the humanity of his charges.

To be hard is one thing but to be totally aware of it is quite another. Awareness after all leads to consideration of feelings and all around sappiness.  The general explains in a poem entitled Sleepless,

On the army cot, I kiss the palm

of my own hand, wishing it were

my sweetheart. I miss the way

her instinctive fingers could amaze

her Steinway, one note rising, one note

kneeling. I have been 2 years 5 months


Back to the father and son relationship. Being a tough-ass dad is bad enough, but being an absentee dad easily trumps other short comings. And absentee-ness very often begins in the beginning.

The opening of the poem entitled Day My Son Is Born puts you inside the general’s conflicted head and it’s not pretty,

My son reports for duty

as the cord gets cut.

And where am I?

off somewhere buffing

Two silver stars…

On the battlefield numbers rise in importance beyond the personalities and flesh and blood they represent. In the poem Spit the general makes this clear,

More men arrive, enough to plug

the holes in three battalions.

They are just rounds of ammunition,

replaceable parts in the Machine.

The poem Landmines also gives us scary insight into this general’s mind. The general explains,

If you were to dismantle a bomb,

ask the right question of the fuse.

Rely on tweezer-work to negate

the panic side. Remember

every overtaken village must be dissected

into friend or thin transparency.

Don’t assume the innocence of the nameless


Good generals never assume innocence.

In the poem, Home of the Brave, the poet’s persona, now the son, observes closely as his mother tapes up the general’s broken toe and fuels a precious moment of family happiness as she

starts to laugh

huge laughter,

until tears drag rivulets

of eyeliner down her cheeks.

And my father, who rarely

seems happy, seems happy’

almost proud…

In Skeet Shooting the poet back up a bit and accepts some of the blame for the strained relationship. He says,

Marry within the faith,

be a soldier, not a poet.

And why didn’t I scream, I’m not you!

but blamed him instead.

Lately, he’s stopped playing

the part of gunpowder to my trigger.

In fact the poet had become just like his father, but without the military necessity.  He confesses in the poem After All:

Didn’t I have to convince you

when I left to start college

you needed a new typewriter,

so I could take your old one with me

determined as I was to be a poet, just

because you were not.

In the poem, Balance is the Riddle the general now becomes the child and the poet kneels to tie his shoes. In Veterans’ Day Parade the poet steadies him during the festivities. And finally in Death of a General the respectful and dutiful poet-son says,

I take off his false coat,

put on this shroud, stitched from thunder,

buttoned into mud.

These are honest poems not easily written by a poet who comes to terms with a decent man in a difficult but necessary profession. Both father and son deserve our admiration.

Poet Jean Monahan : A Meditative Writer

Poet Jean Monahan : A Meditative Writer

By Doug Holder

I like to write my poetry amidst the din of a cafĂ©—the atmosphere for some reason makes me able to focus.  Poet Jean Monahan needs quiet. For her poetry is a form of meditation—and at times painful meditation.

 Monahan, is a single mother, works a full time job, and tries to write when time allows.
She is the author of three books of poetry: Hands (chosen by Donald Hall to win the 1991 Anhinga Prize); and Believe It or Not and Mauled Illusionist, both published by Orchises Press (1999 and 2006). She has received several awards and an artist residency at Yaddo. Her poems have appeared in numerous journals and magazines, including Poetry, The New Republic, Atlantic Monthly, and Salamander, as well as in several anthologies. Her MFA in Creative Writing is from Columbia University’s School of the Arts.

I talked with her on my Somerville Community Access TV Show Poet to Poet Writer to Writer.

Doug Holder: In the manuscript you sent me Pomegranate you write a lot about fruit.  You could say it is a kind of a fruit bowl of a collection. What is it with you and fruit?

Jean Monahan:  (Laugh) Maybe I am a fruitcake.  I have always liked to use inanimate objects and just let them speak for themselves. Something like a pomegranate has so many historical references. One thing that I read was that some people consider this fruit to have been present in the Garden of Eden. With all the seeds inside this fruit it could represent the galaxy. Fruit, of course can be pretty metaphorical. I was working on this manuscript and I began to realize that I had a number of poems that dealt with food. Food has a lot of associations for me.

Doug Holder: When you lived in East Cambridge you wrote in a small, separate room. Now, in your house in Salem you have a room to write. We know that Virginia Wolf talked about a writer having a room of one’s own. Do you need a room to write—to write well?

Jean Monahan:  It is interesting because there are so many ways people work. When I am ready to work I have to be in a meditative state. I need quiet—absolute quiet. When I used to be in the East Cambridge apartment I used to put on a fan or something to create a low level buzz or white noise. Writing can be excruciating—so you need to eliminate the distractions and just focus. The room I have now is wonderful because it is a lot bigger than the little alcove that I had. I am less focused now than I was then because my life is different.

Doug Holder: In an interview I read you say for you—poetry is a form of meditation.

Jean Monahan: Yes I don’t formally meditate. But I find when if I am writing a poem that is going to work as a poem inevitably I will get into a meditative state where the poem comes out of my unconscious rather than my conscious state. That’s hard to do. And since I have not been writing much the last few years it is harder to get in that state. When I was writing regularly I knew the poem was going somewhere when I didn’t know what was coming next.

Doug Holder: You went to the Columbia University MFA Progra. Who did you study with there?

Jean Monahan: I studied with Richard Howard. Tom Lux was there briefly. A lot of people would come in for a week or so and then we would have the regular faculty. I had Bill Matthews—he was a big influence on me, as well as Molly Peacock. Dan Halpern was running the program. The stuff I learned there was great. The environment was stimulating. Very competitive. A lot of people in the program had degrees in English.  My degree is in Psychology. There were a lot of conventions and understandings about writing that I didn’t have. In a way that helped me because I wasn’t overly influenced by some of these notions. And yet there were a lot of things I needed to know.

Doug Holder: You have described writing like mud wrestling with a pig.

Jean Monahan: I think even when I wrote regularly—and more at ease with it; I found it very hard to get to the place where it was working.

Doug Holder: You taught in China around the time of Tienanmen Square Riot in the late 80’s. Did you know poets then? Was there more powerful writing because of the danger of living under an oppressive regime?

Jean Monahan: I was teaching English to university students. I helped them speak English. If someone was writing powerful poetry they didn’t tell me about it because things were quite oppressive then. One of my students told me Mao was a poet. He wrote in the tradition of the poet/warrior. So Mao utilized poetry—metaphor to convey his ideas. He wrote in a tradition of recognizable metaphor.

Doug Holder: There is often an element of surprise in your work.

Jean Monahan: You can’t engineer it consciously. Sometimes you write a poem and you are surprised. A thought can come about in the writing process that surprises you—but it rings true. I like it—it doesn’t happen often. When I don’t see it coming—that’s a thrill. 

Doug Holder: What is a poem? 

Jean Monahan:  Richard Howard said to me: " A poem is a made thing." There is a very big difference between poetry and journalism, as well as diary writing, a letter, etc... A poem is the initial impulse and then all that shaping and crafting.

Life After Water

In the life before water, we were rock.
Molten. Singed. The heat was in our mouths:
it took our words away.
Now we swim in the lake of vowels. I and you.
Water is about drift and change.
The trick is to embrace what absorbs
and dissolves you, let each stroke pull
the shadows into light.
When you step on a fish, you take on its power.
The edge of the lake is where we end.
In the life after water,
wind speaks with a louder voice,
the sky is white with dying stars.
Only those with water in their ears
can hear them fall.

originally published in Two If By Sea MIT Oceanographic Institute newsletter--Archives, Summer 2000 and both appear in Mauled Illusionist