Friday, January 03, 2014
Michelle Reale’s This is Not a Situation in which You Should Remain Calm (Cervena Barva Press, Somerville, MA 02143) $7.00
Review by: Deborah Leipziger
To write a chapbook is an act of courage. Michelle Reale’s chapbook: This is Not a Situation in which You Should Remain Calm is a very courageous book, tackling themes such as immigration and domestic violence. The poet’s voice is distinctive and unforgettable.
Reale’s chapbook is a good antidote to winter, as we travel through the poems throughout Northern Africa and Sicily. We journey along with a couple through vineyards where the “wine tastes like strawberries and almond” through processions in dusty villages.
It is the work of the poet to speak the un-nameable and Reale does just that:
…My tongue will soon be
thick with what can never be said. I will not leave in the same
condition in which I will have arrived and the way you look at me
means we both know this..”
As we meander through villages thick with layers of history, the prose poems themselves seem to groan with the weight of time. The heat of the places we travel through is also dense and thick, following us like a cloud. We traverse with the man and woman through markets where sundried tomatoes, eggplant and artichokes are on display. The poems evoke a sense of place and dislocation, often with food as a theme, a touchstone.
Violence reverberates through the poems, melded somehow with a strange beauty by the poet’s alchemy.
The bruises on the woman’s breasts are described thus:
…purple and green
and yellow flowers bloomed like a night flower.
Wine and blood run through the poems.
Consider the beginning of the poem Tilt:
Shall I open a vein? We can do this all night, you know. Become
transfixed watching ruby formations, drop by agonizing drop. But
maybe you prefer a gush like a fountain…
The sounds of the places echo – there is a hiss, there are screams, there is a sense of malice and cruelty that accompany the couple on their journey thick with wine and blood. A snake is cut in two. The poems are inextricably linked to one another with echoes and reverberations that make a kind of pace, thick with fear and foreboding. The poems are dense with textures and emotions as Reale describes the landscape of desolation and dislocation. We are her witnesses.
Thursday, January 02, 2014
Lucie Burian Liebman
Review by Alice Weiss
Sometimes the things that give us misery are also the very things that save us in the end. Nowhere is this more true than in Lucie Burian Liebman’s “Unconquered,” an account of a three year trek by the Burian family from Vienna through Prague to New York, 1938-1941. . Starting out in Vienna on the day of the Anschluss, the Lucie places herself as the ten year old daughter of a successful businessman who has been aware for some time of the Nazi’s intentions towards the Jews and who has provided money and a plan in the event. In spare and prose Liebman relates sometimes breathless accounts of fleeing Nazis, ducking them,and surviving but with a father and mother so cold and cruel they rival the Germans in their impact.
Burian’s underlying theme is enunciated by reference to the William Ernest Henley poem, “Invictus.” No matter what horror or menace, or punishment, her is head is ‘bloody but unbowed.’ It was an early lesson, a demanding and dictatorial father and removed mother. Her brother, four years older but much less stubborn and independent was the person she protected and comforted. And there was a nanny who gave warmth and love. Strangely, a recipe for survival.
That the family was never interned in a concentration camp or rounded up and shot is due at least in part to luck. For example a scene in Prague: Lilie is walking to the JCC where she goes daily once Jews are expelled from schools, for sports and other training. She sees the yard is crowded with people falling over. Nazi soldiers are shooting into the crowd. Two of her cousins are in the crowd, but bodies fall on them and they, as well as Lucie, survive. If she had been there earlier in the day. . . However the survival of the Burians is due to the persistence and intelligence and clear vision of her father, Theodore.
Survival appears to have been his only goal. Thus the scene in the Spanish train car where two Nazi officers entered the Burians compartment and took turns raping Lucie while her parents literally looked the other way. Although she doesn’t say this one, wonders if the virginity of the thirteen year old girl was the price they paid for safety getting to Portugal. Speaking though, as the child she was Lucie complains that her parents failed to comfort her or indicate in any way that they were concerned about her welfare. Except of course that they made sure she obtained an abortion once they got to New York. That she says is the only intelligent thing her parents did. The interesting thing about the book is that you both agree with her, as parents, and don’t agree with her. Despite details that make you see them as the harshest and coldest of parents, you end up with a grudging respect for their perseverance and coolness in the face of frightful people and events.
It sound weird to say this but aside from its horrors this is an easy read. Ms. Burian is always careful that we see her adventurous spirit and the joie de vivre that keep her relatively intact throughout the journey. And she does give us ample evidence that the unpleasant, unloving father is the medium of both their survival and the sense that it was living with him as parent the first ten years that necessitated her developing the distancing skills that enabled her to survive intact.
Tuesday, December 31, 2013
Gallery of Harlem Portraits
Melvin B Tolson
Edited with an afterword by Robert M. Farnsworth
University of Missouri Press
Columbia, MO 1979
Copyright © 1979 by The Curators of the University of Missouri
276 pages, softbound, no price given
Review by Zvi A. Sesling
Melvin B. Tolson was an interesting man who was born in 1898 in Mississippi and died sixty-eight years later in Dallas, TX. A black man, he was a poet first and other things second. He is the author of several poetry books, but his masterpiece is considered Gallery of Harlem Portraits. Its more than two hundred pages of poetic portraits of those living in Harlem in the 1930s and 1940s, though by the titles (often the names of his subjects) one cannot tell if the people are real, or just the title is made up. Nonetheless it is a fascinating read of Harlem lives.
With language born of Langston Hughes, French surrealists, blues singers and the imaging of white poets, Tolson produces numerous memorable lines. Here is part of the poem Augustus Lence as an example.
When a man is down
He’s all alone.
When a man is down
He’s all alone,
Like a homeless dawg
Without A bone
Augustus sat on the stoop in the November night.
Oblong patterns of yellow radiance
Along the naked ugliness of tenements.
A block away,
A homing elevated train
Stabbed the Harlem night
With blades of light and sound.
When you’s got de blues
‘Tain’t no use to pray.
When you’s got de blues
‘Taint no use to pray.
Takes a brown-skin gal
To chase de blues away.
In the first stanza or two of every poem the reader is quick to understand where Tolson is headed. In Duke Huggins we are treated to:
Duke Huggins was master of the Subway,
A gambling den housed in the sheltering shadows
Of a chambered basement on Upper Lenox Avenue.
He was a bronze colossus of a man
With restless gray eyes
Whose hollow chest was framed by enormous shoulders
Bowed from sitting over gaming tables
Through long, tightening hours.
Or there is the man of the cloth who Tolson describes:
The Reverend Isaiah Cloud preached a doctrine
That wormed its way under the skins of churchgoers.
Like an expert sharpshooter,
He hit tirelessly the bull’s-eye of their egotisms.
He never preached in pleasing generalities,
But discoursed on specific private sins and social corruptions
That left no hearer with that lofty hypocrisy
“I thank God that I am not like other men!”
Tolson’s Gallery of Harlem Portraits is interesting from a number of angles. First, the “bios” of the individuals. Second, the poetry. Third, from an historical view of the people who roamed and lived in Harlem in the 1930s and 1940s and finally, for those interested black literature, blues poetry and some history when blacks were Negroes and life was different, this book is where to begin.
Zvi A. Sesling
Reviewer, Boston Small Press and Poetry Scene
Author, King of the Jungle (Ibbetson Street, 2010)
Author, Across Stones of Bad Dreams (Cervena Barva, 2011)
Editor, Muddy River Poetry Review
Editor, Bagel Bards Anthologies #7 and #8.
Publisher, Muddy River Books
Monday, December 30, 2013
Devotion: A Memoir by Miriam Levine ( University of Georgia Press) http://www.ugapress.org
Review by Doug Holder
Each family and each life have their own secrets, their own beauty, and their own warts. Yet each has its own universal characteristics, after all as the song goes "It is still the same old story." And though Levine's story has her own distinct flavor, every person can relate to the overall themes presented in this book. In Miriam Levine's memoir Devotion, Levine an accomplished poet and writer, recounts in stunning detail about her life as a Jewish kid in New Jersey with an idiosyncratic family, and her maturation into a scholar, writer, wife and mother. There are no stick figures in Levine's lush memoir. The people are fleshed out, and Levine, with her gimlet eye, does not miss nuance , affectation, the stray aside, or the damning gesture. In this passage Levine describes her grandmother Molly, and at the same time her own emerging artistic sensibility:
" The memory of Molly's serenity does not interest me: there are no quirky bumps, no sticky places, and certainly no passion. If she had a personality, her clothes did not reflect it. They were like a habit: old woman's costume. She wore cotton self-belted house dresses, sometimes a white linen babushka, blue felt slippers...She never wore jewelry. Molly was unadorned as a nun--even more so: she had given her wide gold wedding band--it had come from Europe-to a daughter-in-law. Thinking of Molly's hands disturbs me. I wish I could have given her a ring--two rings. She never knew the exact date of her birthday. Sometime in the spring, I believe. Peasants don't keep those type of records."
Levine recounts her years as a student at Boston University; her courtship with an older man who she really did not find attractive, but at the same time she was drawn to. His satyr-like face haunted her for years, and she realized the devil in this man's details was an aphrodisiac. While driving through
Somerville, Mass, the memoirist had an epiphany:
"..I remember Mike's face, the habitual smirk was now a genuine devilish leer, unselfconscious; his head was tossed back; he was about to speak, or rather, make a sound, one of his buzzing sounds of pleasure. There he was-naked, his high broad chest, the glint of fair hair, the flat belly, and narrow hips, and strong, well-shaped legs. His penis was erect, pointing up. His skin was delicate and pink. I found myself grinning into his awful satyr's face. He was ruined and potent. I laughed out loud and let myself remember."
So often today our writing is in tweets, bytes, flashes--punctuated with LOL--inexpressive fragments of frenzied 21st Century life. Levine is decidedly old school. She is not plugged in to some high tech device, but she is plugged into the world. She stops, she listens, she breathes in deeply, and exhales so the reader can take it all in before returning to the endless rush, the press of the flesh, and the pounding heels of the crowd.
Sunday, December 29, 2013
Malone: A writer of historical verse and
poetry of memory lost.By
Jacqueline Malone has recently written a
historical verse novel, and a collection of poetry dealing with her father’s
dementia. In many ways she uses research in
her creative writing to bring back the memory of the past, and in her new
poetry collection she explores the existential crisis of loss of memory and loss
of the “self.”
Malone has been a recipient of a National Endowment for
the Arts Fellowship grant in poetry. Her work has appeared in Poetry
Magazine, Beloit Poetry Journal, Cimarron Review, Cortland Review,
and Poetry Northwest. The poem published in the Beloit Journal
was nominated for the Pushcart Prize. One of the poems published in
Poetry was featured on the website Poetry Daily. Her chapbook
All Waters Run to Lethe was published by Finishing Line Press in 2011.
She is the editor and writer for masspoetry.org.
Holder: You are editor for http://masspoetry.org-- the website for the Mass. Poetry
Festival. Tell us about your
Malone: Yes. I have been doing it for about two years. It reminds me a great
deal of what I did for IBM and Lotus. And that is to make a homepage story that
is interesting. I get a lot of stories about the Mass. Poetry Festival up as the
event comes closer. I created a series “ The State of Poetry.” And what I find
interesting about everyone who writes for it (and there are 14 all together so
far) is that everyone has a different sense of what the state of poetry is. I
loved learning how different people viewed poetry years ago vs. now. There is an
interesting essay from a poet in Western Mass. about the small press and reading
scene in that part of the state. We have had such well-known poets as Richard
Hoffman, Jennifer Jean , January O’Neil, Charles Coe and others in this essay
I read somewhere that you studied poetry with Louise Gluck. How was she as a
She was very good. I had her my last semester at Warren Wilson. I worked with a
lot of accomplished faculty. You had to write a contract about what you were
going to do during the semester. I studied with Stephen Dobyns, and well as Gluck, and they both had very different
ideas about what makes good poetry. For instance: Dobyns wanted to know how the poem went from here to there,
and Gluck would feel you didn't that detail. So it was great...very challenging.
You wrote a historical verse novel “James and Lottie.” It concerns the founding
mother and father of Nashville, Tennessee.
Yes. James Robertson and his wife Lottie led the first settlers from the
mountains in North Carolina to the Cumberland River in the 1770s. This was about 250 miles if you went
overland. The women went by the river route that was supposed to be easy--but
they didn't expect the whirlpools, rapids, small pox, Indian attacks,
Why did you choose this to write about?
I am from Tennessee. I chose it because as a kid I would vaguely hear these
stories and never really paid attention, until all the people I could have
asked about it were dead. Then I happened to be in the state archives in
Nashville, and started read these journals about this time and the perilous
journey these people undertook.
You also explore in this novel how cultural differences and misunderstanding can
When I first became interested I was primarily interested in the women, and what
it must of been like to be a mother of two of three children and traveling to
a place where you couldn't use a wagon and you had to ride on horseback, and all
all the hardships it evoked. Later I became interested in the relationship
between James Robertson and the Cherokee Indian chief, Attakullakullah. They got along well...the chef having been to England and
fairly literate and Robertson was a very literate man. But things didn't turn
out well in the end. The chief's son realized that if the white man came over the
mountain it was the end of the Indian way of life.
What are the challenges of writing historical verse?
First of all I read a lot of novels in verse. The challenge is to lead people
through the story and not be monotonous. I was very influenced by Christopher
Logue who sort of re-created the Iliad. It was wonderful-- full of great dialogue--it made quite
an impression on me.
You have a new book of poetry "Playbill for the Gray One." This deals with your
father's Alzheimer's Disease.
Yes. There are so many elements of Alzheimer's besides loss of memory. There are
personality changes--depression--anger. It was hard to say when it started with
my father. My mother reported that he was doing strange things like putting mail
in the refrigerator. My brother and I thought my mother was exaggerating. And
then one day my parents came to visit. We all played Scrabble. And he put down
the word "puppet" but instead of starting with a "P"--he started with a "T." My daughter laughed and he picked up the card table and
threw it in the air. He was furious. And he always had been this gentle man. He
still retained certain things. He would tell stories that didn't make sense at
all--but he would still have the cadences, etc...of a
In your poetry book you have a scene out of Hamlet-- and your father is a player
of sorts in it. He has an existential crisis of being.
There are 8 segments to that poem, and the segment you discuss he plays Hamlet's
father. He is a puppet also. He goes on stage after the guard says: " Who goes
there?" The play ends when my father can't say whether he is king, a player, a
A Quantum Elegy
for E.K. Malone 1940 - 1986
Each seed drifts toward the windshield like a daytime star
or a floating aura around an invisible force.
They lift with the airstream, riding it the length
of the hearse. The train of cars approaching the hillside
hardly disturbs the peaceful procession
of wave on wave of dandelion puffs, one wave
at a time over one grave after another.
They pass the stone wall and flow down the pasture
alongside black and white cows, the rolling hills
green and pink with spring, the seeds
lifting and falling on their way to rest.
O let one of them be that invisible mass
that can become motion and speed backward in time.
Let it — genius of the corporeal world — move me
to an earlier spring where inside a barnyard fence
a brother and sister vie to scatter first
the dandelion heads we each hold;
in the backward flow of time, let the scattered seed
return to each head. For a moment —
o quantum dream — let regeneration wait
while at this graveside we each indulge ourselves
in the fantasy that memory isn’t all we have.
Published in Poetry Northwest..
|Portrait of the Bagel Bards by Bridget Galway|
There will be a Bagel Bards Celebratory Reading at the Somerville Library (main branch) , Highland Avenue (next to the High School) on January 15th. There is a pot-luck reception at 6:15 to 7:00P.M. . The reading is from 7:00 P.M. to 8:30P.M. This reading is to celebrate the occasion of the Somerville Library accepting # 1-8 of Bagels With The Bards Anthologies for permanent archiving in the Local History Room. The Bagel Bards is a literary organization founded by Doug Holder and Harris Gardner in 2004. This group of poets, novelists, playwrights, poseurs, stumble-bums, and whoever joins us on Saturday mornings at 9AM at the Au Bon Pain in Somerville, is an egalitarian group, an informal band of brothers and sisters, outside the mainstream, outside the academy, and just outside from the mandarin environs of the Republic of Cambridge, and the Brahmins of Boston. Some of the readers for the said event:
Joseph A. Cohen
Afaa M. Weaver