Friday, September 14, 2012
Winter Tales II: Women on the Art of Aging
edited by R.A. Rycraft and Leslie What
Review by Alice Weiss
If there is an art to aging it is one we invent as we go along. Art involves at the very least a particular way of seeing experience. In this anthology there is a broad variety of such visions in poems, essays, memoir and cartoons from women writers engaged in the project of inventing their old age. The intended audience is also women and women “of a certain age.” But I don’t think this is unjust. Such an anthology has more than an underlying theme, it has a thrust, a purpose. That is to counter the messages of the dominant culture. It hardly needs mention that for women age compounds the already difficult project of creating and sustaining an independent and autonomous self. Speaking, writing words is a way of contending with that. These are the words of that project.
The scope of the material is broad and various, but the editors have not explicitly organized the material into themes, nonetheless certain themes do emerge, problems are defined, challenges explored. Without intending to limit the richness of the individual pieces, I will explore some of these as they thread through the collection.
Here is the first theme, the clear challenge of age: the body. It’s no longer the one you knew. Every piece deals with this one way or another, some explicitly. Here are only one or two examples. In a poem that regards the body as an ironic “House of Mercy” Hester L. Fury recognizes, “I have to live here/ in these guts, these bones.” In another poem, “The View from Here,” Betty Lynn Husted’s younger self cries out in horror at “A bent and hobbling woman /crossing the highway. . .” but now through “joint pain. Bone loss—lace designs on X-rays” she honors her. Now she understands something in her “is already broken,” but she is still dancing across the kitchen floor. Leigh Anne Joshaway in her essay “Facing Facts,” (note the pun) laughs her way through the shock of looking in the mirror and seeing, not her own, but Phyllis Diller’s lined and twisted mug.
Another challenge: age has a bad reputation. This is nowhere clearer than in Jan Eliot’s comic strip, “Stone Soup,” three panels of which are included. Grandma announces she is hosting her weekly poker game at their house, and the granddaughter says, “ I thought little old ladies played Bridge.” Grandma in a last frame, “I could arm wrestle you into the DUST, Missy.” Despite the bad rep or maybe because of it, age has hidden treasures and they are not here the traditional clichés. Elizabeth Murakowski, “I sin so much harder now.” Ursula Le Guin; “the expertise of being lame. . . the silent furtive welcome of delay.” Dorianne Laux, “Eventually the future shows up everywhere. . .[you] name the past and drag it behind/ bag like a lung filled with shadow and song,/dream of running, the keys to lost names.”
Michelle Bitting’s poem “Patti Smith after the premiere of ‘Dream of Life,’” takes that bad rep and shakes it like a dog shakes off water. She builds from complex series of traditional and pop culture allusions. The movie the title refers to is an account of the life of the seminal rock star as she returns to her career after a two decade break, a woman on stage with a “mannish mug,” “razor chin and dingy teeth,” “unshaven pits,” in short, a woman who defies conventions of female attractiveness yet who still brings an audience to “the hellfire heavens…[belting] the soaring refrain: G—l—o—r—i—a.” Imagined at first in the voice of two puzzled Jersey matrons wishing oddly to have been something like her, the speaker turns to her own sense of the singer in the final lines to address Patti Smith with this extraordinary invocation:
You are tracking Blake’s ghost
though the cemeteries, parks
and urinals of Paris,
every place his bony
is know to have squatted
and scribbled something beautiful
while taking an ordinary
everyday, entirely human piss.
To evoke Blake’s ghost is to remind us of another aspect of our lives, How things continue across time no matter what. Just as we still read long dead poets, our lives contain facts that move through time as if there were no change and yet we see them anew as we change. Diane McWhorter’s essay, “Stay Calm, Nothing Is Under Control” explores her life as an independent crafts person in a long lasting hippy community in California. She reaps the warmth and inventiveness of a life outside the ordinary institutions, but also recognizes the requirement to reinvent all the time grows wearying and dangerous she grows weaker. In Lauren Davis’s essay, “Breaking Down” the writer shows how age magnifies the always strange, strained relationship of mother and daughter. The disintegration of the mother’s body becomes a metaphor for the difficulty of the relationship. There is the failure of skin to maintain its protection of the body. She sees an elbow bone all too clearly as if the mother’s pain is demanding to be seen, as if that exposure were what love is.
Pain is not the only continuous thing. Pleasures continue. In Alicia Ostriker’s wonderful long poem, “Approaching Seventy,” she explores the presence of past in the loving relationships with nature and with her husband. Daring also continues. In ‘White Chin Hair and a Lonely Female Ccardinal,” Roisin McClean’s first person speaker relates an incident: she is masturbating in her bedroom with audible cries and sighs, sure that the house is empty, only to discover that her visiting daughter’s boyfriend had remained in the house and heard everything. This is defiance, the comedy of age. Everything continues.
And nothing continues. Finally we come up against the true thing, to age is to approach death. It is to feel a fear with an intensity only glanced at earlier, perhaps after one has avoided a car crash on a rain slick highway, slipped at the edge of a balcony, or at the Grand Canyon. In an essay notable for its calm acceptance, Supriya Bhatnagar’s “Memories and Misgivings: Death of a Friend” explores the imminence of death in the loss of a friend. She includes a careful and simple discussion of Ashrama, the four stages of life in the Hindu religion, information added, almost it seems, for our comfort. In Elizabeth Murawsaki’s poem “Incense of the Blythe” she holds on, with humor and beauty, “It kills. . .[ her]. . . to die/ in the midst of orchards.” And in another Alicia Ostriker poem, a confession and subtle metaphor in “Insomnia”
you brag to friends you won’t mind death only dying
what a liar you are—
all the other fears, of rejection, of physical pain,
of losing your mind, of losing your eyes,
they are all part of this!
Pawprints of this! hair snarls in your comb—
Now notice the clock is the single light in the room—
What the editors have done with this anthology is to define and redefine the “art” of aging. It’s unquestionably worth a good read.
Wednesday, September 12, 2012
58-09 205th Street
Bayside, New York
Review by Dennis Daly
These deadening lines of sometimes discerning, sometimes defiling dissonance bestir us, hector us like some Old Testament prophet enumerating past horrors, here and there naming names and, above all, accusing the future, which harbors all of us, of ignorance or worse—complicity.
In the title poem Terezin the Eastern European world of 1942 passes by the cattle cars carrying the stunned Jewish families to the holding town or ghetto of Terezin, where many of them would be sent on to their appointed concentration camps and, of course, their deaths. The poet laments,
I carried my days
until we remain only a body
a historian’s vague nightmare
to a destination marked Terezin
with our aims throwing off
thin suitcases, blankets, towels
up to our waist in human dirt.
And this is just the beginning. The intensity and stridency of horror continues,
my father simply puffed out
by terror and night after nightmare
jumped off the train
from the bare-iced sheets
by howling hysteria
of mother pregnant with another life.
I know of no appropriate frame of mind or mood that can be easily summoned to handle this type of unrelenting assault well. But the insistent poem presses on. The prophet /poet wisely modulates the tone in two places by describing a child with a serious injured eye. Pathos is momentarily accommodated but barely acknowledged. Here is the earlier of these two affecting sections,
a warm boy holds out his hand
with tightly sweated fingers
his injured eye resembling
a yellow flamed torch lamp
no one wishes to acknowledge.
My Century, the very next poem in this disquieting collection, continues the righteous hectoring and the dissonance. It ends this way,
Those who forgive evil are the unforgiven.
Those who are good are known to the unknown.
Statistics cry in the night.
Statisticians of death have clean bureaucratic faces.
Historians move over the bodies.
Theologians move no one, not even
Another poem that reflects on the tyranny of the Nazi years is 1944: Mid Europa. It works as a litany. Here is the Vichy France section,
death angels are desolate
hungary for children’s O negative
Quisling eats a four-course meal
Maurice Chevalier bows
Celine asks for human freight
Genet asks for primal sympathy…
Sartre is recreative
Edith Piaf loses herself.
Niditch’s cumulative jeremiad reaches a crescendo with the poem, Berlin. Here the poet harangues,
Alleys close to joyless beggars.
A mighty fortress topples from metaphysics.
Wittgenstein has a solipsis of schoolboys.
Elan has its own gauntness for Heinrich Heine.
One’s cheekbones show our injustice.
Fashion coexists with fascism.
Believe it or not, the poet does back off for breath on occasion. The result is positively efficacious. The poem Exile of Boston contributes this persona-revealing piece of self-knowledge embedded in a striking image of an immigrant,
or riddled disasters
can I offer Boston
an exile in tentative sadness
when bitchery enthusiasms
are put on this shoeless
pawned overcoat of a man
holding up a foreign body…
Also imagistic and a bit romantic is a piece called Boston Waterfront. The poet limns the scene this way,
A stranger’s tongue
the freshness of water
and the fish bleed
in the delirium
of an exiled morning.
In the latitude
of transparent wind the blue-green ocean
outspoken in mortality
in the sanguine port calls
I am not ashamed
to weep along the sea wall
counting voices on the wharf.
In the poem Another Tryst Niditch reveals a well-wrought set of Kafka-like images. Nightmares and long corridors certainly seem to go together. The poet describes,
is frozen in a well-lit
your spiky heels
will offer daily nightmares
and your understanding
of the cold long corridors.
The poet waxes subtlety and even bit of elegance in the poem entitled In Memory of C. Day Lewis. Notice that the subject has not changed, nor has the horror receded. The poet has simply put aside his prophetic gown for the moment. He says,
He was there in the sun
when nothing but a lilac
cold shouldered in the blitz
as the face of the dusk
fought the crime of night
The final poem in this chapbook returns to the poet’s prophetic tone and uses a staccato delivery. Niditch compels us to listen,
A chemical zyclon b2
To hell with D’Annunzio
Red flags us down
Eterna, play the chamber music
Leonardo is not only your cat
Michaelangeli plays Scarlatti
The red bearded snow dances
Where the streets are palmed
boys play boccie thinking of sex
Each generation offered
out from Moloch’s olfactory steel
This is the second book of Niditch’s that I have reviewed. The first one—Lorca at Sevilla, filled with imagistic logic, I enjoyed more. In this one, enjoyment is beside the point. The poet here conveys his words with a prophet’s shrillness that overwhelms with its import and uneasy necessity. This chapbook needs to be read.
Monday, September 10, 2012
A Strange Frenzy: 17 Poems
by Dom Gabrielli
Englewood, NJ: Unbound Content
Release date: July 2012
Review by David P. Miller
Dom Gabrielli, a poet based in Salento, Italy, and writing in English, has produced this volume of responses to the works of Rumi, a 13th century Persian poet and Sufi mystic. Rumi’s ecstatic writing is probably best known in English through translations by Coleman Barks, with many other translations also available (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rumi#English_translations). In his introduction, Gabrielli says that, although he had read Barks’ translations many times, his spirit took fire upon further rereading, and it was “almost as if my words were dictated to me.”
Each of Gabrieilli’s poems, titled simply with Roman numerals, is paired with a quotation from Rumi on the facing page. While it is not certain that the poems are direct responses to the quotations, it is intriguing to read them as if they were. I find that, considering the work from this perspective, Rumi and Gabrielli stand in counterpoint in different ways. In one instance, Rumi finds the beloved in every atom:
There’s a strange frenzy in my head,
of birds flying,
each particle circulating on its own.
Is the one I love everywhere?
Gabrielli’s paired poem (IV) may arise, in part, from his occupation producing extra virgin olive oil. Its physicality also points from materiality toward something ineffable:
every wane of dawn
with wicker basket and knife
with brown boots and burning fingers
i walk the same mounds of red earth
inhale perfumes of chamomile and fennel
watch the calendula open and close
its orange cup of promise
[. . .]
twisting black snake my basking companion
silence my mentor
my poems call Venus from the sky
Gabrielli’s poem XV seems to take Rumi’s simple expression of deep intimacy in a different and perhaps darker direction. Rumi:
How do we keep our love-secret?
We speak from brow to brow
and hear with our eyes.
Gabrielli’s poem concludes:
i do not need to look to find your mouth
nor call to hear your eyelashes caress my chest
you have grown vast also
like the deep underground rivers
without which you whole land of liars
would lie beneath us in cinders
This volume is dedicated to love, to the absolute unification of lover and beloved, beyond the ability to be expressed, and yet compelling expression. I am only somewhat familiar with Rumi’s poetry, but what always stands out is the parallelism between the discovery of matchless love between persons, and the absorption of the seeker into unity with God. As one consequence, the pronouns “I” and “you” become ambiguous, as they may refer to either level of reality, or both at once. I find this at points in Gabrielli’s poems as well. Poem XIV evinces both the ecstasy and the shifting sense of person:
[. . .]
throw me higher
than light falls on a leaf
kiss me there
in the vanishing dew of dawn
every word i write
has been to travel here
to where the dew evaporates
to where your fingers expose
the inaccurate beauty of love
to touch with my lips
the opening of the heavens
This is paired with a quotation from Rumi, in which the persons indicated by pronouns may be read in at least two dimensions simultaneously:
The inner secret of that which was never born,
you are that freshness, and I am with you now.
In the foreword to his earlier volume, The Parallel Body (Ziggurat Books, 2009), Gabrielli says that the writing “explores several ‘you’s’ as it travels toward a definition of love through poetry, towards a very intimate ‘you’, towards a harmony, both graceful and joyful, for which the poet can only be grateful.” A Strange Frenzy is evidently another step in that direction.
This is an elegant landscape-format chapbook, with cover art and line drawings by Emily Faccini. I wish that the Rumi translations had been credited, both simply to know whose work they are and also to allow for further exploration. Nevertheless, this encounter has me interested in reading more by Dom Gabrielli, and most likely to re-investigate the Persian mystic poets as well.