Wednesday, March 01, 2017
a book of poems by Simrin Tamhane
article by Michael Todd Steffen
In the February 13 & 20, 2017 issue of The New Yorker (pp 93-5), Joyce Carol Oates comments on refugee and fiction writer Viet Thanh Nguyen. “It is hardly surprising,” Oates writes, that the displaced person “is obsessed with identity, both personal and ethnic…likely to be highly sensitive to others’ interpretations of him and his ‘minority’ culture. And so his peripheral status confers certain advantages, for he is in a position to see what others do not.”
The insight applies to Simrin Tamhane and her expressive debut book of poems, hundred and eight prayer flags, issued this year as part of the Endicott College Young Poets Series by Ibbetson Street Press (series director Emily Pineau, Founders Dan Sklar, Doug Holder).
Tamhane sees from her experience and memory, in the title poem, the embodiment of her natural and homeland energies, in
thousands of faded mantras printed on
rows of endless white
prayer flags that cling
onto tall bamboo poles while
dancing with the swirling Himalayan wind… [page 3]
The poet poignantly documents the significant coincidence of her young displacement from India to America with the loss of a cherished grandfather:
When I was flying
to the United States, leaving
the time zone didn’t let me
know that you died
until 2 days later…
And so I lit candles for you,
In this foreign land,
And prayed for your soul…
Hidden in the dorm bathroom,
Silencing my pain with
Cheap toilet paper [“my father’s father,” page 9]
The physical sense of isolation, however, is sustained inwardly with accompaniment in images of multiplicity like the “hundred and eight prayer flags” of the poem, or even more subtly in Tamhane’s choice word for a particular red denoting plenitude:
i am vermillion
power clouds [“who am i” p. 6]
The genius of the poetry, however, while allowing the consolation and inspiration of memory, faces its counterweight in what has happened with a striking concluding image:
Goodbye was 3 pistachios placed
On your hand while you
Struggled to have them touch your lips [page 9]
Whether she is conjuring from her past in India a poor maid that looked after her, forays with other children stealing passion fruit from her grandfather’s bamboo trellis, or witnessing the contradictions in the lives of her young American encounters (a would-be animal-rights activist who wears a vintage leather jacket, a medical student who works as a nightclub stripper) Tamhane’s vision is pristine and her language vivid and to the heart.
Charlotte Gordon has called this book “luminous and clear-sighted.” Mark Herlihy has noted the range of Tamhane’s powers of empathy which convey “loss, longing and heartache on personal and universal levels.” It is a promising first collection, accented with talent, imagination and consideration.
Michael Todd Steffen curates the Hastings Room Reading Series in Cambridge. His poetry and articles have appeared in The Boston Globe, Connecticut Review, Poem (HLA), ACM (Another Chicago Magazine), Ibbetson Street, Taos Journal and in the window of the Grolier Poetry Bookshop. His first book Partner, Orchard, Day Moon was published in April of 2014 by Cervena Barva Press edited by Gloria Mindock.
Tuesday, February 28, 2017
I went to this movie on Valentine’s Day; it was one of those things guys do, along with buying flowers and boxes of chocolates and dinner. Guys do this sort of thing not because we are hopeless romantics – we’re not – but because the women in our lives are romantics and we must go along. So I went to see the musical “La La Land” a skeptic determined to put on a happy face, grin and bear it (if it proved to be a really painful experience I could always get my comeuppance in a movie review); but I left the theater a convinced believer – and you will too.
The first scene – on a jammed highway overpass – was amazing, but almost backfired for an excess of energy, too much kinetic, balletic movement. Our leading lady Mia Dolan, played by the beautiful and talented Emma Stone, is busy texting (what else is there to do when stopped in traffic?) while our leading man Sebastian Wilder, played by the handsome and gifted Ryan Gosling, is stuck behind her, fuming with road rage (more than once a woman in the audience was heard to say to her boyfriend or husband – “that’s just like you!”). When the chance comes to move ahead a few feet she is busy texting and he, full of umbrage, leans on his horn while passing her. She responds by flipping him the bird – not an auspicious start to a love story! The couple meet again when Mia finds her car has been towed (cars again!); she wanders into a piano bar where this same fella is acting out a little rebellion by improvising complicated jazz numbers when the owner (J.K. Simmons) just wants traditional Christmas melodies. He’s fired on the spot and she falls in love; but when she approaches him he turns out to be the same jerk again. Strike two. But winged Cupid has brought these two love birds together and will not quit until they meet a third time – this time three’s the charm. Now he’s reduced to a shoulder slung keyboard in a cheesy band playing 80s pop tunes at pool parties for the pretty and the vacuous – a painful fate for a jazz purist. They manage to save each other from their mutual entanglements and begin their dance around and with each other.
Music is an integral part of this film: it stands alone in jazz scenes and is interwoven with dance numbers. Song and dance are what make musicals a distinctive art form – and the musical film is one of America’s great art forms, along with Jazz. Yet Jazz is dying and the musical – well it’s all but dead. In Sebastian’s lamentation over the death of jazz we are invited to think also about this other art form which is so characteristically American, and so much a part of our American story. There are plenty of allusions to the history of musicals – this is after all a film about film making just as “Singing in the Rain” – perhaps the most well-known and celebrated movie musical. Mia is a barista on the Warner Brother’s lot and she is gobsmacked by the movie stars who dash in for a take-out cappuccino. We see scenes being shot as they meander around the back lots with the Hollywood Hills in the background. Mia wants to make a drama, a film, something; Sebastian wants to restart an old jazz club. They are millennials so full of ambition, so short of success, so hungry for auditions and gigs; this is as much “La Boheme” as La La Land. They pursue their dreams with the ardor and purity of youth – you can’t help but root for them. Besides they are so good looking you can’t take your eyes of their faces – Emma Stone works small miracles in lots of close up shots.
This is a very knowing work of art, it alludes to and incorporates the Griffith Observatory from “Rebel without a Cause” – an LA landmark; dance scenes take place in Paris against cartoon backdrops that recall that other musical – “An American in Paris”. The staging, lighting, costumes all work their magic and mix together almost seamlessly with the realism of the Los Angeles sun and the California nights as street scenes jammed with parked cars under romantic street lights somehow come to life to evoke a strong sense of place.
But LA exists in a larger world and Paris beckons to Mia – how can she resist? In the end they both find success; but love...ah love…such a tricky, slippery thing...let’s just say they find love but not in the way we might have imagined or hoped for – and it is this which saves this movie from the worst faults of the movie musical – the predictably happy ending. The dollop of realism with which this film ends blends reality with fantasy in a way that works; at least it worked for me: a determined skeptic and an old codger familiar with love and loss.
During the Great Depression, in the 1930s, musicals rendered a real service for a country that needed an escape, even if only for an hour or two, from a national reality that was less than savory; and this musical can do that for you too just as it did for me and my gal on Valentine’s Day.
Monday, February 27, 2017
Sunday, February 26, 2017
Heather Nelson is a poet, teacher, mother and recovering attorney based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She studied writing under the poet C.D. Wright as an undergraduate at Brown University. Most recently she has studied poetry with Tom Daley and Barbara Helfgott Hyett. Heather's work has appeared in Constellations, The Somerville Times, The Sunday Poet, he Compassion Anthology and Ekphrastic Review.
The Leaning Tower
is climbed by appointment-
timed clusters of travelers wound into queues,
shuffling along the edge
of 4:30’s scorching shadow.
I am searching for Sophia
when a dark-garbed guard turns my head
with a sharp bark: Watch your son!
My blond boy as always is climbing the rails.
I spot her at last-far off
on the grass, behind the Pomodoro,
where at 4 she practiced her shaky
walk-over, dark hair sweeping the ground.
Like an umber fan, hair hid
her burning face, her trembling legs,
the trace of amused scorn at the corner
of her older brother’s mouth.
Still waiting, I’m wishing for morning
a return to the wall where they all
walked abreast, two boys and a girl,
tramping together along Lucca’s rim.
Truthfully there was morning
fighting too, over three bottles of
water, bought just for the bathroom,
spilled struggling over who gets whose first.
Lunch served us a respite under the cover
of a wide canopy, we all had room
for seven wines poured by the owner’s daughter
whose red hair wound across the label of the Rosato.
Our family runs toward noir,
thick brow and olive skin,
sister and big brother twine, arms wrestling,
each boasting a greater darkness.
The last wine served is darkest
and sweetest lingering in the late afternoon light,
blurring Sophia’s lithe and livid frame, her simmering shame,
all she is hiding in her halter of yellow flowers, daring me to find her.