Wednesday, May 25, 2022

Time Is A Mother By Ocean Vuong

 

Time Is A Mother

By Ocean Vuong

Penguin Press

Penguinrandomhouse.com

New York, NY

ISBN: 978-0-593-30023-7

114 Pages

$24.00


Review by Dennis Daly


Decadent. Robotic. Thinly constructed with self-indulgent metaphors. No, I do not like Ocean Vuong’s new collection of poems, Time Is A Mother. In fairness, I am biased and motivated because of a breathless, over-the-top review of Vuong’s first book, Night Sky with Exit Wounds, published in the New Yorker in 2016. That hyperbolizing reviewer claimed that Vuong would somehow “fix” the English language. Nonsense.


However, Vuong, an American poet, born in Vietnam in 1988, did, as the inside flap of his new hardcover book reminds us, win the 2016 Whiting Award, the 2017 T. S. Eliot Prize, and a 2019 MacArthur Genius Grant.


Indeed, Vuong’s first book, as I remember it, seemed well-written and somewhat interesting as a first book, but not exceptional. This second collection, a meditation on his mother’s death—always a dicey subject for a poet, does not impress. Vuong’s technique reminds one of the infamous “poet voice” used to read aloud or, more to the point, the affected preciousness inherent in much of this poet’s written language. Until the last poem in the collection, nothing on Vuong’s pages offers even a modicum of originality. His images are often lifeless. His airy lyrics interrupted by verbal flatness.


Snow Theory, the first poem in Vuong’s collection, is probably his best. Each line begins with a capital letter and, although there are no periods, contributes a complete thought to the whole. After a bewildering montage of introductory lines, the poet launches into a riveting description of a snow angel he makes over his mother’s frozen outline that he has conjured up. His connection to her memory begets endearment, which, in turn, is blasted by blizzard-weather. Consider these lead-in lines,


This is the best day ever

I haven’t killed a thing since 2006

The darkness out there, wet as a newborn

I dog-eared the book & immediately

Thought of masturbation

How else do we return to ourselves but to fold

The page so it points to the good part

Another country burning on TV

What we’ll always have is something we lost


The non sequiturs aside, the fifth line, “Thought of masturbation,” doesn’t work, not because of sense (its 2022 and the term has lost all shock value and seems somewhat lame), but rather its flat Latinate tone. Line nine, “What we’ll always have is something we lost,” kicks in only cliché and slickness.


Vuong’s piece, Dear Peter, drops into the pedestrian depths of silliness. The victim/protagonist shows off his crazy credentials (a la Plath, Sexton, and Lowell) in words that are light and lifeless. It’s okay to write down your thoughts while confined and institutionalized, but, for God’s sake, make it new. And don’t position your bed a sea—especially given your first name, the irony smacks of puerile idiocy,


the xanax

dissolves & I’m

okay this bed

no longer stranded

at sea the door

coming closer

now & I’m gonna

dock some days

I make it to

the reading room

they have one flew over

the cuckoo’s nest can you

believe it but hey

I think I’m getting better


Trying to be clever in poetry never works. Vuong’s poem Old Glory is too artsy by half. His use of slang expressions, continuing clichés containing violent and obscene metaphors, doesn’t do much except engender dissatisfaction at old, tired phraseology and low-level disgust. The poet tries to lead his reader through brutishness into an illuminating last line that seems pointless and insignificant and, in any case, does not hold enough weight, given the piece’s preceding images. Here is the heartless center of the poem,


Total overkill. We tore

them a new one. My son’s a beast. A lady-

killer. Straight shooter, he knocked

her up. A bombshell blonde. You’ll blow

them away. Let’s bag the broad. Let’s spit-roast

the faggot. Let’s fuck his brains out.

That girl’s a grenade…


Vuong’s most telling work in the collection he sets as the last poem. It is an elegy, made up of thirty-three eight-line stanzas, addressed to his mother entitled Dear Rose. Vuong’s mother’s Vietnamese name, Hong, means rose or pink. She died in 2019 from cancer. The poem almost succeeds but seems embedded with hesitancy. Its subject revolves around his mother’s alienated life and his search for understanding in it. The back story certainly works, but not the two images that it is based upon: zigzagging ants and fish sauce. Here are two sets of those crucial lines,


down

there between thumb & forefinger

an ant racing in circles then zigzags

I wanted significance but think

it was just the load he was bearing


that unhinged him: another ant

curled & cold lifted on

his shoulders they looked like a set

of quotations missing speech…


and


you dumped

A garbage bag of anchovies into the glass jar

the day was harmless a breeze hovering

in amber light above us gray

New England branches swayed without

touching to make fish sauce you said

you must bear the scent of corpses

salted & crushed a year in a jar …


The above images seem a bit thin, given the insinuations of hatred, violence, and racism that follows. Because of her American father, Rose identifies herself as her people’s “white enemy.”


That Ocean Vuong came from a difficult background, no one doubts. Nor is he responsible for the over-the-top idolization of his (to some) compelling persona. But personality cults do not trump craft or musical inspiration. Vuong may be on his way to the heights of Parnassus, but he has not yet arrived. Time is, indeed, a mother.

Tuesday, May 24, 2022

Somerville Artist Jeannie Motherwell: From the Cosmos to the Canvas




Somerville Artist Jeannie Motherwell met me at her studio at Miller Street Artists Studios in Somerville. She has a large space with many of her expansive paintings both on the floor and the walls. Originally Motherwell had worked in her home studio in Cambridge, but eventually she needed a new and larger space. After a stint at the Joy Street Studios, she scored a space at Miller Street. It seems that folks moved from Miller Street due to the pandemic, and Motherwell lucked out and scored a vacant one. As for Somerville--Motherwell heartily embraces it. She told me, " I love the Somerville Arts Council--they really try to create spaces and opportunities  for artists in the community."

 

Motherwell has adorned many hats in her long career. One of which is being on the board of  Provincetown Arts Magazine. This much lauded magazine, has highlighted the works of a broad range for artists for decades. We talked a bit about the founder, the late Chrsitopher Busa, who I knew briefly. Motherwell reflected on Provincetown, " I have a long association with Provincetown. My father, the artist Robert Motherwell and my stepmother Helen Frankenthaler summered for years there, since I was a young child. It was an alternative to the Hamptons. The Hamptons were too busy, a lot more of a business atmosphere. But in Provincetown my father was most prolific during the summer season--it was a much more informal atmosphere." As for the magazine, Motherwell told me it is going as strong as ever since Busa passed. " Motherwell said," Liz Winston took over from Chris, and since then we have continued the tradition of great articles, new patrons, and great production values."
Having parents who were world famous artists made it hard for her to create her own artistic identity. She said that her parents were trailblazers. Back in the 1950s and 60s, artist in her parents' milieu were trying to put their art in in the world spotlight, that previously had shone on Europe.  Robert Motherwell, an abstract expressionist, was in the middle of this exciting period of American art.  Jeannie Motherwell told me her dad was worried about her choice of being an artist, but was also supportive. According to her --he was like a movie star in the artworld, and like any movie star parent might feel, he was worried that a child who wanted to follow the same path and would have to endure a hardscrabble life.  But in the end he said, " Hey, you've got the bug," realizing that this was an intrinsic part of her.
For a period of 10 years, in the‘80’s, Jeannie did not paint. She felt that she was too young, and wasn't confident that she could add something to the art world. She came back to it, and years later she viewed some pictures from the Hubbel Telescope, and was blown away. She became infatuated with the idea of space, stars, moons, all that infinite black space. In many ways her work includes that cosmic awareness---that focus on space in the cosmos and the canvas.
As a poet, I was interested to learn that the painter has an affinity for poetry. She told me,  "Painters understand poetry--the abstract nature of the world."  She remembered often having conversations with the noted poet John Yau at college and after about their process. She said, "We were so in tune we could complete each other sentences."
Jeannie said that she often spreads a canvas on the floor--with no preconceived notion of what the painting will be, and lets her brush explore.  She often listens to music to accompany her painting
Jeannie can often be found her Miller Street studio.  She has a solo show coming up at the Schoolhouse Gallery in Provincetown and the M FINE ARTS GALERIE IN BOSTON and this fall at the ETHAN COHEN GALLERY IN NYC. Jeannie Motherwell is yet another artist I have interviewed in this rich font of creativity that we call the " Paris of New England."


 For more information about Motherwell go to:   https://jeanniemotherwell.com/

Thursday, May 19, 2022

Red Letter Poem #111 Martín Espada

 The Red Letters

 

 

In ancient Rome, feast days were indicated on the calendar by red letters.  To my mind, all poetry and art serves as a reminder that every day we wake together beneath the sun is a red-letter day.

 

                                                                                                          – Steven Ratiner

 

 

Red Letter Poem #111

 

 

 

It’s as American as apple pie, as baseball, as Fourth of July: racism.  Isn’t it mind-boggling that a nation conceived by beleaguered people seeking a better world – whose founding document states unequivocally that all men are created equal – can have braided within its history some of the most glorious and egregious moments imaginable?  Perhaps it’s the very contradiction of the human soul – that we contain the voices of those ‘better angels’ and well as the snarl of bitterness that sometimes erupts when confronting the other (when constructing the idea that the other actually exists, and needs to be feared, attacked.)  That some people would like to forbid us from even examining and learning from our past – are, in fact, too consumed by fear to allow their children to risk being exposed to the truth – as I said, the mind reels.  But does not retreat.  Perhaps that’s what poets are for.

 

Case in point: Martín Espada who, over the course of four decades, has become an indispensable American voice bringing us – in fifteen collections of poetry, not to mention translations, essays and anthologies – the hard truths, the hard-fought struggles, and the enduring beauty of our national experience.  The list of Martín’s honors unscrolls like a cash register slip from CVS: the Academy of American Poets Fellowship, the Shelley Memorial Award, the American Book Award, the 2018 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize for a lifetimes achievement.  So we should not be surprised that his most recent collection, Floaters (from W. W. Norton & Co. and which, I’m happy to report, was just released in paperback this week), was the winner of the 2021 National Book Award.  I interviewed Martín many decades ago when he was just starting out and, ever since, his poetry readings are among the ones I seek out repeatedly for the chance to be challenged and revitalized by his Whitmanesque imagination.  This is what signifies to me the career of a great poet: how often he or she forces you to reevaluate your favorite book choice among their oeuvre.  Floaters – with its harrowing poems about immigration and class struggle, its devastating lyrics about love, friendship, and the way fathers carve out a mountain-sized place in our consciousness – has just claimed that top spot.  And so I’m pleased the poet has allowed me to share another from that collection with our Red Letter readers.  This selection seems at first not to be one of his grand societal broadsides; instead, it has the quiet voice, the vulnerable heart of, well, a child.  But thinking back to my own boyhood, what is, in fact, more monumental than discovering the delight of the body via sport; than first falling in love; than discovering the world may not be as you thought (imagined? desired?) it would be?  And yet there is something honest and vital within such heartache; something valuable in posing unanswerable questions; and certainly something worth savoring when we speak out (as poets do) and affirm that we are not alone in all this.  “Asking Questions of the Moon” contains both a sucker punch and a caress.  Reading it, you may feel yourself alone in the vast field watching the baseball (or the spring moon, or the heart of a poet) plummeting toward your upraised glove.  Trying to catch what the world offers us – the best and, yes, the worst; being willing to face the hard facts of existence, and survive with our hearts intact.  What’s more American than that?






 

 

 

Asking Questions of the Moon





Some blind girls

ask questions of the moon

and spirals of weeping

rise through the air.

­––Federico García Lorca





As a boy, I stood guard in right field, lazily punching my glove,

keeping watch over the ballgame and the moon as it rose

from the infield, asking questions of the moon about the girl

with long blonde hair in the back of my classroom, who sat with me

when no one else would, who talked to me when no one else would,

who laughed at my jokes when no one else would, until the day

her friend sat beside us and whispered to her behind that long hair,

and the girl asked me, as softly as she could: Are you a spic?

And I, with a hive of words in my head, could only think to say:

Yes, I am. She never spoke to me again, and as I thought of her

in the outfield the moon fell from the sky, tore through the webbing

of my glove, and smacked me in the eye. Blinded, I wept, kicked

the moon at my feet, and loudly blamed the webbing of my glove.





– Martín Espada

 

 

 

The Red Letters 3.0

 

* If you would like to receive these poems every Friday in your own in-box – or would like to write in with comments or submissions – send correspondence to:

steven.arlingtonlaureate@gmail.com

 

 

To learn more about the origins of the Red Letter Project, check out an essay I wrote for Arrowsmith Magazine:

https://www.arrowsmithpress.com/community-of-voices

 

Two of our partner sites will continue re-posting each Red Letter weekly: the YourArlington news blog

https://www.yourarlington.com/easyblog/entry/28-poetry/3132-redletter-040822

 

and the Boston Area Small Press and Poetry Scene

http://dougholder.blogspot.com

 

For updates and announcements about Red Letter projects and poetry readings, please follow me on Twitter          

@StevenRatiner

 

Saturday, May 14, 2022

The Invisible Borders of Time: Five Female Latin American Poets Edited by Nidia Hernández

 



"The Invisible Borders of Time..." Edited by Nidia Hernández ( Arrowsmith Press) $24.

Review by Hecmely Ferreiras

In an anthology of emotionally captivating poems, I was introduced to five female Latin American poets. These poets have carefully, yet effortlessly captured similar themes of motherhood, dreams, and quiet sadness. I enjoyed reading the Spanish versions of each poem and comparing how the English translations somehow miss out on a bit of the passion and intensity that the Spanish tongue offers. I chose two poems from each author to analyze and digest the depths of each line.

The first poet featured in this book is Cristina Peri Rossi. Peri Rossi is an Uruguayan poet whose romantic tone transports you into the scene of her words. As she said, “poetry is a perception, a state of mind”. Her poems offer a journey to a state of mind that she sets up in each line. In an untitled poem, the speaker recounts an unrequited love in which their partner is no longer with them. The last few lines spoke to me; “Excuse me, the literature killed me, but you looked so much like it.” This line brought a sense of reality as if the speaker was aware that their memories and desires are just words in a poem, and it killed them because those words reminded them of their lover. The next poem by Cristina Peri Rossi was difficult for me to understand. It wasn’t until the final line that I understood that the poem “Auto-da-fe” was leading to “I love you”. The lines describe mostly negative things mixed with beauty like “with destroyed palaces whose magnificent ruin we admire.” Peri Rossi sends the message that love is complex and lacks simplicity.

Piedad Bonnett is a Columbian poet that writes poems to express herself in that very moment. I agree with her that “there are things that only poetry can say”. You can hear the sorrow in her poems along with her strength. I can only imagine that poetry must have been a comfortable source after Bonnett lost her son in 2013. The poem “Guarding”, spoke to me in many ways. I interpreted it that the speaker has put a guard up to protect themselves, whether they realize it or not. The poem has a sad but also a hopeful tone. The speaker realizes that they have put up a wall and is aware that they are sad, but still remain fierce. The next poem I looked at by Piedad Bonnett is called “Kitchen”. The poem was dedicated to Maria Victoria. The poem centers on two mothers who talk “as if there were children asleep upstairs” but in reality, there was no one. It seems as if the two mothers were reminiscing about a time when kids were running around and playing music. The two mothers comfort each other with their losses. This poem in particular reminds me of the mothers with angels in my life. I recall a time when my family was gathered for Christmas and each woman in the room shared a story of the child they lost. Similar to Bonnett’s poem, their loss provided “a bridge that united them, their hands holding on to the emptiness.”

Yolanda Pantin is a distinguished poet of Venezuela. Her dreamy poems offer an escape from reality and into the descriptive scenery Pantin displays. The poem “Déjà vu” speaks about a dream in which the speaker was writing in a notebook. The speaker asks, “what were you for me, then, poetry?” In the dream, the speaker was a horse searching for the answers and found them in a notebook that said: “a, e, i,”. The last line reminded me of elementary Spanish class where I would recite the vowels “a, e, i, o, u”. At first glance, the reader may think, how are three letters the answer they’ve been looking for? It is because poetry is like vowels. You cannot live without it or speak without it. It flows naturally and there is no way to force a sentence without vowels. It made sense to me that poetry is like life support as vowels are to a complete sentence. The poem “Guerrero” is a short poem about the soul of a house. The English version of this poem confused me because at first, but after reading it in Spanish I interpret it as the soul of the house is protected and protective of others. This poem reminds me of the comfort of an ancient house.

Carmen Boullosa is a Mexican author and poet. When reading her poems, I noticed the amount of description that delicately puzzles together into an image in your mind. In an untitled poem, Boullosa described the night as an “unmoved, peaceful skein of sound, large impenetrable serenity”. The soft tone sets a calming mood that is homey and comfortable. In the last line, the speaker says that the night covers them “in the presence of clarity without borders”. As someone who loves her country, I can only imagine that Boullosa writes about the Mexican night sky that is tranquil and silent. It reminds me of the nights in the Dominican Republic that are so rich in stars, incomparable to the smog-filled city in America that is always alive in the nighttime. This poem gave me sweet nostalgia and for a brief moment, I was in the presence of the unmoved night. When I first read the poem, “Vein”, I instantly had the thought that it was alluding to the destruction of the earth. The “wound, incision, cut” to me relates to all the times we have hurt the earth. The last line sets a negative tone with the words “viscous, rotten, permanent, poisoned” to describe the open wound. It may not allude to the tarnished earth but it resonated with the impeding planet we remain on and continue to harm.

Rossella Di Paolo is a Peruvian poet and teacher. I agree with Di Paolo when she states that “poetry gives shape (language and music) to the chaos that we all are and because of that we feel less perplexed, less alone”. The poem “Fifteen Hundred” includes descriptive words of a goat climbing uphill. My favorite line is “a thorny sun that scratches my eyes. Like a lightning bolt of dust I grow”. The impressive play on words brings me a sense of joy. The last poem I looked at is called “leave if you can II”. This poem personifies poetry in a way that I can relate to. There are times when you are in love with poetry but other times when you want to remove yourself from the endless thoughts, lines, and rhymes cluttering your head. I love the line “I surrender always because I live in the house of poetry”. Poetry is always something I come back to. It is always in my head when I feel intense emotions or when I tune into the lyrical genius of my favorite rappers. Poetry is a fantasy and an inescapable reality. It can be overwhelming at times, but I am always drawn to it.

Ultimately these poems have shown me that poetry comes in all shapes, sizes, and lengths. The featured poets in this book have reminded me of myself, my culture, and my connection to poetry. I am glad I am not the only one that thinks of poetry as a companion that we can confide in to express our emotions or just lay out our thoughts.


****** Hecmely Ferreiras is an undergraduate writer at Endicott College



Friday, May 13, 2022

Red Letter Poem #110

 The Red Letters

 

 

In ancient Rome, feast days were indicated on the calendar by red letters.  To my mind, all poetry and art serves as a reminder that every day we wake together beneath the sun is a red-letter day.

 

                                                                                                          – Steven Ratiner

 

 

Red Letter Poem #110

 

 

This is one of the things I love most about poetry: there isn’t a single rule, aesthetic stricture, established formulation, honored tradition – no matter how critically revered or widely practiced – for which I can’t offer you an example of a poet who violated said rule in order to achieve a successful poem.  Perhaps that is poetry’s ‘prime directive’: once a new poem begins to announce itself inside your consciousness, do anything – no matter how devilishly subtle or lavishly irregular – if (and I must stress that sense of necessity) it helps you to bring that dynamic vision, that singular music to the page.

 

One of those ‘best practices’ young poets learn in writing classes: don’t beat around the bush. You should move directly into the heart of the subject; don’t sacrifice clarity or economy of expression by allowing the poem’s attention to wander.  After all, how can you expect a reader to be moved if the poem indulges in detour or distraction?  Well, tell that to acclaimed poets like Frank O’Hara or Ruth Stone, Philip Levine or Wislawa Szymborska – who each seemed to make detours into an art form, creating a new experience of consciousness within poetry by mimicking the way our minds often meander, subvert and, seemingly, stumble upon a more meaningful destination than the conventional one sighted at the outset.  Jennifer Garfield – another fine poet making Arlington her home – has her own version of such anomalous behavior, often second-guessing herself within the poem, challenging her own perceptions, only to offer at the end some realization, some unexpected clarity made more satisfying for the circuitous route that brought us there.  If I tell you a poem entitled “Spring” contains baby bunnies and tulips, I’m sure you have some immediate and Hallmark-like expectations about the piece in question.  But this poet continually undercuts our assumptions and, in doing so, reminds us of our own doubts and insecurities, our often-formless craving for clear emotional resolutions in a world where such things are, at the least, problematic if not downright impossible.  Jennifer has published poetry in such journals as The Threepenny Review, Frontier Poetry, Sugarhouse Review, and Salamander, and was recently featured in Mass Poetry’s Hard Work of Hope series.  She’s also the recipient of The Martha's Vineyard Institute for Creative Writing Parent-Writer Fellowship.  She’s one of those poets whose voice and vision seem desultory and eccentric – and then, after a few readings, inevitable and strangely trustworthy.

 

So if spring is a time of rebirth and renewal, shouldn’t a spring poem take Ezra Pound’s directive to heart – “make it new!” – and uncover what unimagined moments might be blooming inside even everyday consciousness?  And if new poems seem to sprout each May, attempting to honor both the season and, of course, Mother’s Day, I’d gladly help myself to ones as mysterious and honestly self-reflective as Jennifer’s.  Her “Spring” produces both a smile and a wince, and makes me grateful to have endured another winter.

 

 

 

Spring

 

 

There are baby bunnies in our neighbor’s yard 

hiding behind an old ladder. I watch them 

while doing dishes and think to show my own kids 

 

the miracle of spring, but I don’t. You are a bad mother, 

the voice in my head says. It sounds a lot like 

my own mother. I turn her words into statues 

 

and arrange them in the garden. Bunnies hop 

over syllables, unbothered by their tone and history. 

Can I not be wild without strumming my list 

 

of failures? Let me admire someone else’s flowers, 

not mine, I don’t know how to make things grow. 

Yet somehow the kids keep sprouting, 

 

even when I keep the bunnies to myself 

for reasons I can’t explain, and don’t you see? 

Spring really is meant for poetry. Or poetry 

 

is meant for spring. Or I’ve been stuck inside

too long and willing to mistake any damn season 

for spring. I forgot to mention the tulips 

 

and the pink blossoms

on our tree, opening their hearts

to no one but the sky. 

 

 

                         – Jennifer Garfield

 

 

 

The Red Letters 3.0

 

* If you would like to receive these poems every Friday in your own in-box – or would like to write in with comments or submissions – send correspondence to:

steven.arlingtonlaureate@gmail.com

 

 

To learn more about the origins of the Red Letter Project, check out an essay I wrote for Arrowsmith Magazine:

https://www.arrowsmithpress.com/community-of-voices

 

Two of our partner sites will continue re-posting each Red Letter weekly: the YourArlington news blog

https://www.yourarlington.com/easyblog/entry/28-poetry/3132-redletter-040822

 

and the Boston Area Small Press and Poetry Scene

http://dougholder.blogspot.com

 

For updates and announcements about Red Letter projects and poetry readings, please follow me on Twitter          

@StevenRatiner