Friday, June 24, 2022

Somerville painter Sandra Allik : A Very Colorful Past, and a very colorful Artist

I met Sandra Allik in her space at the Miller St. Studios in Somerville, Ma. Her studio is a bubble of color--with many vivid paintings lining the walls.

Allik told me she finds the artistic environs in Somerville pleasing. She said, "I love my studio. I moved here in 2009; and presently there are a great group of artists working here. Recently I exhibited at the Inside/Out Gallery--which is basically a CVS window in Davis Square. I sold one of my paintings for 1800 dollars. I was surprised it sold  because it was in an unassuming store window." Obviously Allik knows that Somerville is fertile grounds for artists. Allik went on to explain how supportive the Somerville Arts Council is, and she is quite enthused about the Somerville Open Studios event that was recently held.

Allik, in another life, was a television journalist for the Canadian Broadcast Corporation and worked with CBS as well. She happened to be in the Washington Bureau during the heady Watergate years. She recalled, " It was an extraordinary time for me. I was in Washington at this time, and there was a frenzy of activity at the bureau. I can say that it was thrilling and appalling--but it is quaint in light of what we have going on today. During this time I met the iconic journalists Daniel Shore, and Eric Sevareid  We called Eric the "philosopher with a camera," because he ended his broadcast with little, but profound editorials."

Allik does not consider herself a political artist at this time. Back in 1984 when she lived in Israel, she witnessed the early beginnings of the Intifada. After experiencing the violence in the West Bank, she was more political and her paintings reflected the violence of the time.

Earlier, when she was with her journalist husband on assignment for CBS, she traveled to Moscow. Allik reflected on this dour city, "The whole atmosphere in Moscow was bleak, dark and colorless. The only time you saw color was during the holidays. They then they had red flags all over the place." Allik was introduced to dissident Russian artists by a photographer friend of hers. Often these outside artists were placed in psychiatric hospitals because they didn't fit into the Soviet propaganda scheme.

 Allik told me that during her time in Moscow her apartment was flush with bugs, monitoring  her and her husband's conversations. Mysterious men on trains, and mysterious phone calls in the dead of night, were the rule of thumb. In spite of this  Allik  purchased many paintings, etchings, and drawings from these dissident  artists. Now Allik is selling the work and sending the proceeds to It's quite the irony that work from Russia is providing aid to the Ukraine.

Allik told me that she started working with colors in Ibiza, (an island in the Mediterranean sea) when she and her husband lived there. She told me about a place on the island that she called the "magic valley," where they resided. Before this her paintings were more muted, but there she was taken by the colors, and the beauty of the landscape. After this her paintings had a decidedly different look.

Allik, a graduate of Wellesley College did not formally study art. But she did take workshops at the Carpenter Center at Harvard University and elsewhere. And obviously, this self-trained artists is immensely skilled.

Allick is one of the many talented artists in then Miller St. Studios, and in Somerville-the Paris of New England.

For more info:

Red Letter Poem #116

 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 #116




Summer arrives freighted with expectation.  Maybe that’s because so many of us were conditioned by the long school year where, at that June goal line, we’d be set free into a two-sided paradise: freedom/boredom.  Or perhaps it’s just a sense of relief that sun and warmth bring – especially for those of us dwelling in the northern hemisphere – after the endurance we mustered to face an interminable winter.  And, unavoidably, each new summer reminds us that time is indeed passing, and we’ve no guarantees about how many seasons we are to be granted.


“One must have a mind of winter”, wrote Wallace Stevens in “The Snow Man”, to regard that cold unfolding.  Perhaps that’s true for summer as well – a mind geared, not just for the grand moments (the dazzling display of Fourth of July rockets or the reward of those exotic of vacation locales,) but for the slow-motion flowering and decline of the garden; the symphonic layers of birdsong, cicada drone, and wind-stirred oaks; and (my personal Elysium) the riotous mouthful of the season’s first ripe tomato.  Or, in the case of poet Alan Feldman, the quiet captivation of stellar light. . .when accompanied, especially, by a like-minded loved one.  Ambivalent winds blow quietly through his new poem: expectation and disappointment; memory and presence.  I find much in the speaker’s meditation that resonates with my own summer thinking.  Perhaps it will spur your own, now that the season has officially taken hold.  I’m happy to have Alan make his second Red Letter appearance with this new poem.  He’s the author of four poetry collections, the most recent of which – The Golden Coin (University of Wisconsin Press) – was awarded the Four Lakes Poetry Prize.  For many years, Alan was a professor (and later chair) of English at Framingham State University. After retiring he continued to teach free drop-in poetry workshops in Framingham and on Cape Cod.  He and his wife Nan (a painter whose work, I’m sure, sharpens her husband’s eye) divide their time between Florida and the Commonwealth.


Indeed, summer comes to us, burdened by our pent-up desires and unbridled anticipation.  (You can say the same, I guess, about poetry, art, life itself.)  But, every now and then – if we’ve developed a mind and a heart for it – it delivers.







Question:  If we enter a dark hallway 

will the past shine behind us, so we won’t 

feel so lost?  Remember Lieutenant Island?

Remember the cottage with the cupola that swayed

in the night wind?  But we’re outside starbathing.

We’d just been making love inside our Plymouth

so the kids wouldn’t hear us.  No ambient light.

Stars sharp as lasers.  Copious.  Like outer space.

Our forearms on the aluminum armrests of the deckchairs.

This is the summer I’ll write my children’s book,

our daughter asking for nightly chapters. And our son

had a kind playmate, Dave, who will move to North Carolina 

and became a homicide detective.  The lovely past!

And the night sky, whose lights come from there.



                                     – Alan Feldman




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:



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


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



and the Boston Area Small Press and Poetry Scene


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



Thursday, June 16, 2022

Life Among the Terranauts, Caitlin Horrocks


Life Among the Terranauts, Caitlin Horrocks, Little, Brown, New York, 2021, 256 pages, $15.

Review by Ed Meek

Short story collections can function as writing labs for writers of fiction. They are a medium where writers can experiment with point of view, voice, and subject matter. A writer wonders why some people stay in small towns in the country, so she writes a story from their point of view. Maybe they hibernate in the winter, she thinks and works that into the story. Or she goes on a group tour to Peru and begins thinking about the tour from the point of view of the local tour guide who is leading them around. She imagines what’s going on with the other members of the group. The writer likes untranslatable phrases from other languages and so she constructs a story around a list of phrases she has collected. How about a story that is based on lines from a poem? A story about a group living in a biodome for two years?

In Life Among the Terranauts you’ll find a wide range of stories. Although the subject matter varies, Horrocks knows how to construct a plot, how to characterize the people in her stories, and she has a sense of humor. In “The Sleep,” the narrator answers the question: who lives in those small towns in America that have seen much better days?

“What kind of morons hustle for jobs that don’t even pay for cable television? What kind of people spend twenty years buying beer at the Hop-In and drinking in the quarry, the next thirty drinking at the Pointes, the last sodden ten at the Elks Lodge?

Our kind of people, we thought.”

Horrocks often writes what appears to be a conventional story about ordinary people, but then she will push the boundaries into the surreal. You may find this funny or you may have a hard time sticking with a story in which an entire town hibernates during the winter.

Sometimes the stories just feel like experimental exercises as in “The Untranslatables,” or “And Looked Down One As Far As I Could,” but they are still entertaining. Horrocks is best at long short stories. “Chance Me,” is a story within a story about a son, Justin (he goes by Just), who hasn’t seen his biological father for 16 years. He comes to Boston from Arizona and meets the father under the pretext that he is applying to colleges. The father flashes back to his days in Arizona with Justin’s mother, Willow, and their baby boy, in a utopian community run by the artist Soleri. The father, Harry, couldn’t convince the mother to leave the community so he abandons her and Justin. Now Harry is a real estate broker with a live-in girlfriend. He wants to patch things up with his son.

Wherever else his life might take him, it would not take him back there, to the red desert hills and the bleached sheet of sky snapped open every morning above them, their baby squalling in a hand-painted card-board box. Now that baby was sitting in his Lexus, six feet tall and applying to Harvard.

You can see from that passage that Horrocks can write a good line. And she is adept at assuming the voices of everyone from young men to older women and young kids. She’ll pretty much take on anything. One story is from the point of view of a granddaughter trying to figure out if her grandmother was a lesbian (as she is). Another story is from the point of view of an eight -year-old girl.

There are two great stories in the collection. “Norwegian for Troll,” and “Paradise Lodge.” Both of these stories have credible characters, compelling settings, complex plots. Who doesn’t like a story with trolls in it? The second story is set in Peru and delves into conflicts of identity and family with an adopted Peruvian-American on a trip with his red-headed American girlfriend and a Peruvian tour guide who is trying to make a major decision in his own life. If you can live with the unevenness of the stories, you can enjoy Horrocks’ talents and get a feel for what’s going on in contemporary short fiction today in America.

Tuesday, June 14, 2022

The Wild Goose Poems By Kevin Gallagher

The Wild Goose


By Kevin Gallagher

Loom Press

67 Pages


Review by Dennis Daly

No writer distills history utilizing the form of poetic narratives better than Kevin Gallagher. In his latest effort, The Wild Goose Poems, Gallagher delves into Irish Americana, its background, and its sources. He uses a first-person sequence of poems on the rebel Irishman, then iconic Bostonian, John Boyle O’Reilly as the centerpiece of his collection. The poet leads into that sequence with a retelling of Celtic myth and finishes the book with a combination of classical myth and both local (Southie) and family lore. Think beginning, middle, and end. And that’s the way it reads.

Gallagher initiates his saga gently with a piece he entitles Birth of a Nation. Chock full of one damsel confined to a tower, one greed-filled king, the mysterious De Danaan tribe, one lovely princess, one white witch (or, in this case, a she-druid), one charming prince, and the bane of Celtic life, a stolen cow, this piece gives necessary foundation and entrances the reader in with its dreamlike sexuality. Consider these alluring and delicate lines,

As Cian stared at her

Eithlinn’s whole body went warm.

She now saw what she only heard.

She now had what she only dreamed of.

They each declared their love

for each other in the same breath

then gently took off the other’s clothes

before they could breathe another.

He buried his face in her breasts

As she put him between her thighs

and sang a long slow psalm

of love up to the skies.

Cian wanted to live with her forever

Fenian to his core, John Boyle O’Reilly was sentenced for treasonous activities by a British tribunal to imprisonment in Australia. He escaped and as a poet, espouser of Irish causes, and editor of the Boston-based national newspaper The Pilot, earned regard and fame in America. In the poem 1867 Gallagher chronicles O’Reilly’s prison ship experience. The poet captures the below-deck claustrophobia this way,

There were three hundred of us without shadows

cast by lamps under the forward hold.

We welcomed each other with loud

Laughter curses of the most evil fear.

A warm stranger gripped my arm and whispered

come O’Reilly we are waiting for you.

He led me through a small door amidships

to the space where we waited to be slaves.

After O’Reilly’s escape and raucous welcome to Boston by two thousand cheering Irishmen, he faced the reality of his political circumstances. These opening lines from Gallagher’s poem Help Wanted explain,

Positively No Irish need apply?

We were half-starved and penniless

farmers without any tools for the city.

Most of us went working on the wharfs.

Women made factory shoes or sewed from home.

We had our will, our music, and our God,

but many wondered why we traveled here.

Like most Irish immigrants O’Reilly melted into the stew of multi-ethnic America. He left his Irish grudges behind (mostly) and became more American than the Americans. Writing for the Pilot he railed against the old insular hatreds carried as baggage into his new country. When Irish Orangemen marched in the streets of New York demeaning Catholics, they were attacked and four of them gunned down by Fenians. In Gallagher’s poem, Boston Pilot, O’Reilly laments the outrage,

Why must we carry our cursed island feuds

to disturb the peace of these citizens?

We are all aliens from a petty island

in the eyes of our fellow Americans. Here

the Orange have as much right to parade

as a Fenian regiment in green.

Both parties are to be blamed and condemned,

yes both Fenians and the Orangemen.

The fishing vessel, The Valhalla, moored in Gloucester and for awhile in the Saugus River has become part of Boston Irish lore. Even Whitey Bulger, the notorious gangster, reportedly played a tangential part in this mythological drama. This reviewer, in a past life, met the Valhalla’s captain and off-loaded its cargo on the docks of Gloucester. It carried squid at the time. Later the same ship, tracked by satellite during the Reagan administration, was intercepted, carrying guns, off the coast of Ireland. Gallagher details the arms-running preparation in his poem entitled The Valhalla,

We had close to seven tons of mail-order

Weapons delivered by UPS.

We purchased them through ads in Shotgun News

by calling the 1-800 number.

We ordered ammunition cans, weapons,

training manuals, nylon rifle clips,

piles of M-16 magazines,

and rifle bags to hide them in the bogs.

We bought rocket warheads, anti-aircraft,

and 20,000 rounds home delivery special.

But the handguns, the rifles, and shotguns,

we stole those the old-fashioned way.

We packed all this in a couple of U-Hauls,

Then drove the trucks up to Gloucester Harbor.

My favorite poem in this collection, The Rose in the Elysian Fields, describes a classically based visit between the poet and his deceased father in the underworld. Mostly written in blank verse the piece, eleven pages long, conjures up an affecting blend of passion, wit, wisdom, and hope. Eight pages in, Gallagher inserts a lovely villanelle. Here’s the heart of it,

You can’t be dead for the rest of my life.

I’m so afraid that I will run out of time

but I don’t have any time to lose.

I cannot wait to see you until I die.

When you aren’t with me my life is a lie

and there is no such thing as the truth.

You can’t be dead for the rest of my life.

The rest of my life is too long a line

and I wouldn’t have anything to prove.

You can’t be dead for the rest of my life.

Poets who breathe in the rarefied air of Elysium, I’m told, change forever. Here’s hoping that Kevin Gallagher remains Kevin Gallagher, at least long enough to write his next book of extraordinary poems.

Monday, June 13, 2022

Joe the Salamander by Timothy Gager


Joe the Salamander by Timothy Gager Golden Antelope Press $19.95

At first glance it may seem that a novel about an autistic boy and his struggles, might not be a ripe subject for fiction. After all, this population is characterized by repetitive behaviors, and non-verbal communication, hardly the stuff for rich dialogue, and action-filled pages. But in Tim Gager’s latest novel, “ Joe the Salamander” the author brings an autistic boy named Joe alive, and follows him from a newly-slapped baby-- to his maturation as a man. This is a survival story in many respects because if Joe can’t adjust to a hostile environment, he would be doomed to be some ward of the state or even worse. Often the sins of our fathers are passed on, and as it happen Joe’s dad Adrian is autistic as well, and doesn’t have enough distance from the disorder to help his son. The women in his life—Millie his mother, and Laurie—a caring nurse, are the stalwarts in Joe’s travails.

Gager, who is a social worker, and who once worked out of a state office in Davis Square, Somerville, brings his knowledge of this disorder to the forefront. We experience the agonizing and grinding progress of Joe; we are able to get a fascinating look at his skewed thought process, and his profound confusion with emotion.

Joe when he was a young kid, often adorned a Superman costume. This is a great conceit Gager brings into play. The use of an all-powerful, flying superhero, transcending the fray—saving the day—breaking the nefarious bubble that surrounds our protagonist  is inspired.

Not to give anything up, but in the end Gager ties things up beautifully.

Gager, to my mind brings the skills of a clinician to fiction, but this is not a dry, clinical work. Having worked in the mental health field at McLean Hospital for 37 years, this book rings powerfully true for me. This book is an accomplished work of fiction--but it should be required reading for aspiring mental health professionals, as well.

Saturday, June 11, 2022

Red Letter Poem #114

 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 #114



I’m no theologian, but if I were searching the Bible for an iconic moment to symbolize the ‘fall of humankind’, it couldn’t possibly be that of a woman (or man) so desirous of knowledge that they indulge in the fruit of God’s creation.  It seems apparent that the mind inherently needs to know, that it’s a part of its very design (divine or otherwise.)  No, the symbol for me would be that of one brother so angered by the other’s good fortune, he would murder his sibling out of jealousy.  From envy and violence, all darkness arises, and what was once a garden is made barren.  So in reading Yuliya Musakovska’s new poem, I couldn’t help but see the brutal aggression of one brother-nation toward its neighbor in almost Biblical terms – especially today, as Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine has just surpassed its hundredth day.  But in corresponding with Yuliya, she cautioned me in my metaphor.  “There has not been any brotherhood or even friendship between Russia and Ukraine. Through the centuries, Russia was trying to colonize [my homeland], to destroy its identity.” She went on to describe how Russia has long been painting the picture of a weaker, rural, culturally-backward ‘younger brother’ nation, which cannot exist without the older one's patronage.  This version attempts to negate Ukraine’s ancient cultural legacy and its aspirations to become part of a modern European Union.  “And this deceitful narrative sounds especially cruel through the lens of today's events. . . so my address to the "older brother" [in the poem] is, of course, bitter and sarcastic.”


Yuliya Musakovska is an award-winning Ukrainian poet and translator.  The author of five poetry collections, the most recent of which – The God of Freedom (Old Lion Publishing House, 2021) – is where “Garden of Bones” first appeared.  This English translation, done by Olena Jennings and the author herself, is making its debut in the Red Letters.  Yuliya’s own poems are quite well-traveled, having been translated into numerous languages, from English and German, to Bulgarian, Hebrew, Chinese and more.  Among her many honors in Ukraine, she is the recipient of the Krok Publishing House’s DICTUM Prize, the Smoloskyp Poetry Award for young authors, and the Ostroh Academy Vytoky Award.  Yuliya makes her home in Lviv and, in addition to her literary endeavors, works in Ukraine’s tech industry.  She has been drawing on her expertise in both poetry and technology in her efforts to help her nation survive this terrible conflict.


In this poem, a new mythology is taking shape, repurposing the Biblical seeds and attempting to grow something that will prove enduring, where even the buried bones give rise to some future sweetness.  I was introduced to Yuliya by an organizer of one of the numerous readings in support of Ukraine.  I loved her work and asked if I might publish one of the new poems here.  In conversation, we remarked (rather ruefully) on a term someone mentioned at that event – ‘Ukraine fatigue.’  It's undeniable that, here in America – where life is bountiful even in the worst of times (at least compared to much of humanity) – our generosity is substantial and our hearts do go out during a time of crisis.  But I needed to acknowledge that, as crises continue to mount, our interest tends to wane, and we are drawn to the next drama unfolding elsewhere.  Yet another simple appeal from that poetry event has also stayed with me: “Please don’t forget us.” 


In Genesis, the Lord asks "Where is Abel, your brother?” and Cain replies: "I do not know – am I my brother's keeper?"  That question has haunted humanity since its inception.  From the skies, God proclaims: “Listen! Your brother's blood cries out to me from the soil.”  Indeed, haven’t we all arisen from the same garden?  Don’t we share the same joys – and comprehend, as well, the weight of suffering and loss?  All the wanton death and destruction taking place.  All my sisters and brothers.  How can we allow ourselves to forget?



Garden of Bones



What's rattling in the bag?


My bones, but not all of them.

My brother stole three bones,

he sold two of them at the market

and buried one in his garden.


An apple tree will grow from that bone.

Each apple with my face

will speak to my brother.

 Why did you do this, older brother?

What did you kill me for,

taking the bones from my body,

sewing it shut with a coarse thread,

put me into a bag,

not letting them bury me for three days.


– It is because your wife is prettier,

your song is louder,

your soil is richer,

the apple tree in your garden is taller.

Give me your wife,

your land,

tie your song

in a knot in your throat.


You're not a brother to me,

not an honest enemy,

not a man,

not a beast.

A bag full of bones.


Your wife will come outside

and take a bite of an apple.

She will fall dead.

Your children will come out.

They will take a bite

and fall, lifeless.

The sun will rise

and burn your house to the ground,

sowing the land with ashes.


What's rattling in the bag?


So very sweet.



 – Yuliya Musakovska





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:



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


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


and the Boston Area Small Press and Poetry Scene


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