Friday, April 25, 2008

Famous Faces and Steven by Niama Leslie Williams

Famous Faces
By Niama Leslie Williams
Lulu Publishers
102 pages/$17.95

By Niama Leslie Williams
Lulu Publishers
84 pages/$17.50

By Thomas Gagnon

As I read Niama Williams’ poetry, I thought of Joan Armatrading’s early ‘70s songs, like the emphatic “Back to the Night” or the melancholy “Save Me.” A lot of Williams’ poetry is, on the one hand, about passion, physicality, and intimacy, and, on the other hand, about sadness, longing, and oppression. She also often writes about the need for safety, thankfully, since nobody (that I’ve met) talks about needing safety outside of group therapy. So, a brave woman and good writer speaks—
First, on safety—In Famous Faces, the poem “Forty Years” begins with “that voice that saved me/in the midst of a mad, mad sea.” (22) Halfway through, Williams writes six lines ending with the word ‘safety’: “my first thought of them…/is of safety/the gift of safety/a dangerous childhood I survived/but in their house/always safety…” The poem concludes, “I know safety/what it feels like/how it sounds/how to bring it/home.” (23) The word ‘safety’ may not thrill the soul, but it is crucial to staying alive, as she demonstrates in a powerful onrush of a poem, “For Vincent D’Onofrio as Bobby Goren,” farther on in the book. This over-riding need for safety appears again in Steven, in the poems “Black Wool Coat” and “Mama’s Washcloth,” in which these small things (coat and washcloth) signify a lasting sense of warmth and health.

Second, on passion, physicality, intimacy—All of them definitely break through in the poem “First Time,” when a black man, “nothing I have ever wanted/parts my legs/crushes my disdain/helps me entertain/for the first time/a black penis/without recoiling.” (18-19 of Famous Faces) So, Williams throws us seven lines of rhythmic, rhyming passion (and an inner shift, away from repulsion). The passion of “First Time” is followed not much later by “The Gaze,” “In the Elevator,” and “For Lisa,” all of which contrast physicality and artificiality: wet palms vs. a song, whamming your gut vs. politeness, warm lips vs. Renaissance studies. In Steven, Williams claims in “The Chain Sestina” that “i once fell in love with a bicycle chain,” but most of the poem is about her love for a Korean, Hun Ku, a name that she repeats rapturously, before her fall into an oxymoron of livable longing. (47-48) The opposite of all this appears in a poem called “There will be no Passion in This House.” Instead, there will be dust, sadness, fatigue, and phantom-existence. Moving right along—

Williams evokes sadness especially beautifully in two poems in Famous Faces: “The Cleaning Lady” and “Jasmine.” The opening lines of “The Cleaning Lady”—“the thin line of hair removed/makes me wonder”—become an over-arching metaphor for the rest of this poem, about a silently long-suffering cleaning lady. This metaphor gets poignantly repeated, in “vague pencil strokes,” “the pencil lines are what remain,” and “eyebrow pencil eyebrows.” (64-65) The cleaning lady’s pain is not a metaphor, after all. “Jasmine” conjures up good memories, like “liqueur of jasmine cooling throat.” Jasmine spells relief, until it fades to “no scent; thirst.” (85) Williams evokes oppression (the oppression of family obligations) in “Bending,” with recurring reference to her knees, knees habitually bending, knees beginning to break, knees getting tired, knees screaming. (My knees empathize.)

In Steven, Williams writes two powerful poems on longing. One is “A Vacant Lot,” once a place in which she ran barefoot, now neglected and overgrown with weeds, so that she tries “to walk barefoot in the city…/the concrete and glass assault my feet…” (66-67) Not being able to run barefoot, as she did then, could be literally painful, now. If only then were now. The other poem on longing is called “Marian C.’s Sestina.” The tension in this poem is summed up in four lines in the third stanza: “no farmboy, even in the abstract/was going to make her stay in arkansas./she’d been born south/but she wasn’t going to stay there and give up her painting.” She longs to leave “the hell that was Arkansas” for the first 36 lines, and then, in the last three lines, she does. (74-75) For Marian, longing leads to fulfillment.

There are many other excellent poems in both Famous Faces and Steven, too many to list here. Also, each poem is excellent for a different reason, for instance, playfulness with diction, or an incantatory style that suddenly shocks. This is not to claim that these poetry collections are flawless. In some poems, less would definitely be more. But, overall, there is a lot to love.

Thomas Gagnon./ Ibbetson Update/ Somerville, Mass./ April 2008

Poet Miriam Levine makes the dark open

Poet Miriam Levine makes the dark open

Miriam Levine is the winner of the 2007 Autumn House Poetry Prize for her collection “The Dark Opens.” She is also the author of “In Paterson,” a novel, “Devotion,” a memoir, three poetry collections, and “A Guide to Writer’s Homes in New England.” Her work has appeared in the Harvard Review, the Kenyon Review, the Paris Review, and Ploughshares, as well as others. She was a guest on my program “ Poet to Poet: Writer to Writer” on Somerville Community Access TV.

Doug Holder: I read your essay “Food, Sex and Betrayal” Do you often use food in your poems? Can you judge a person by the food he eats?

Miriam Levine: I’m not sure I want to judge anybody. Poets who call themselves “Poets of the Body” certainly would include food. They deal with the whole notion of the “Love Feast”: the meal you have with a lover, either literally or in the imagination. It is the food you would prepare for your lover, the food you would prepare for yourself, the food you would take from the lover’s body, and the lover from yours. We see this all the time. The Honeymoon has a special meal. There is the food that increases desire—the French are very good at that. I think food is entwined with the whole notion of pleasure. If you think of poetry as the spoken word, you can see the entwinement, —the sound of the word in the mouth—certainly. Whitman was known for that. He had some wonderfully delicious lines like: “Beautifully dripping fragments.” These words come from the mouth. So for me poetry is connected, sometimes connected to food.

Doug Holder: In your memoir “Devotion” you air a lot of your family skeletons. Philip Roth once said you have to be willing to insult your mother if need be to be a good writer. A good writer isn’t a “polite” writer. What’s your take?

Miriam Levine: Well I think you have to be honest to some extent. There are many ways to go about it. If you have the bird of judgment sitting on your shoulder saying: “Don’t, Don’t, you mustn’t say this!” then you might have a problem. If you muzzle subjects that are really central to your material (what Henry James called the “germs” or “seed’) you really are not going to write. In some way if you are writing good memoir you will betray.

Doug Holder: Did you alienate your family?

Miriam Levine: No. Not in the least. When the memoir came out I did a couple of readings in New Jersey, and I changed the names. When I was reading at one venue, my aunt yelled out from the audience “That’s me!” There was nothing in the material that identified her. So for some members of the family this was validating. My mother experienced a great sense of release when she told me these family secrets. So it was something that we shared. She said, “ Everybody’s got something.” I grew up with secrets and it was very important to release the shame.

Doug Holder: Again in your essay you write: “Metaphor gives my life meaning. I can also stuff myself with words and not get fat. Words are a pleasure in the mouth. My mouth is moist when I write.” So in a way you align writing with eating; a sort of satisfying mastication?

Miriam Levine: I do ally it with a satisfying mastication. But that’s not all there is. There is the music and the mind working at the same time. For some poets, and I hope I have this in my work, the held note, the music note, the pleasure of words. I view art as it was said in Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” as “flaming amazement.”

Doug Holder: The poet Mark Doty was the judge of the Autumn House Prize that you won. Have you read his work? His recent collection “Fire to Fire?” Is your work similar?

Miriam Levine: I haven’t read “Fire to Fire” yet. I have read some of the poems that are in it. My knowledge of his work is spotty. I don’t know Mark Doty. I admire his taste and I admire his poems, and I feel very lucky that he chose this manuscript.

We do have similarities. I thought that never in a million years that Mark Doty would pick my manuscript. I was in awe. His work is elegiac—he likes to write of the dead. We share that. He love music and so do I. He wrote a wonderful poem about “Chet Baker” His work has a wonderful sense of music. The music that continues and the music that is lost. Lorca describes something that translates into “deep song.” The music escapes along the horizon to a point of common longing. And what we do long for we have often lost.

Doug Holder: In your collection “The Dark Opens” you have a poems that centers around the Winslow Homer painting “Summer Evening” In the painting there are two woman dancing with the backdrop of a vast ocean. You write:

“He got it right, the proportions
our place is as small as the woman dancing
in each other’s arms near the ocean.”

Do you think in these days, when we are out of touch with nature, we become centers of our universe, and forget the scale of things?

Miriam Levine: Absolutely. Absolutely. Particularly now where the star, the picture of the star, the cult of personality, abounds. In one of the Greek tragedies our lives are described as sparks escaping from the fire. I am not sure about the Old Testament idea that the whole universe was given to us. I am not sure we figure that big.

Doug Holder: You wrote a book “A Guide to Writer’s Homes in New England. Is there any communality in writers’ home that you discovered?

Miriam Levine: What got me going was going out to The Old Manse and seeing Hawthorne’s little room. The desk that he used is very small. It is about the size of the seat of a child’s door. The theme in the 19th Century was the privacy of a room where the writer could go and be “private.” Edith Wharton would write in bed, Hawthorne wrote on what was in essence a tiny shelf. Mark Twain certainly had a grand desk. I was very interested in the interplay between family life and private life of the writers of this era. In the case of Melville his sisters and his wife were his copyists. His, was a home industry. Thoreau walked daily from his cabin to visit his mother daily. I was interested in these writers who presented themselves as the “imperial self” Their domestic life said something entirely different.

--Doug Holder

Wednesday, April 23, 2008


Poems by Gary Fincke
Cervena Barva Press
PO Box 440357
Somerville, MA 02144-3222
Price: $7.00

Gary Fincke’s chapbook of poems brings back to this reviewer memories of another era, a time when the US Government was pursuing another unfathomably insane war, not unlike the one it is currently pursuing. It was a time, like these times, of a divided nation ruled by arrogance, a time when the nation’s young, even those in elite colleges, were beaten and even shot for voicing their opposition to the war’s insanity. The first poem is titled “Kent, Ohio.” Fincke recalls that horrible day at Kent State “where thirty-five years ago/ I survived the guardsmen’s volley.”
It may be difficult for those who have not lived through those years to understand just how divided the nation was in those years. Though the nation was hardly ripe for revolution, the prospect was talked about seriously in dorms and coffeehouses around the nation. Espousing ideals of love and peace was often met with a hatred that was palpable and personal. Here are the opening lines of “Mother’s Day, 1970:”

“They should have shot you too,” my uncle said
After I chose between the protesters
And the blunt authority of the Guard.
Sick of my mutton chops and thick mustache,
He hated how I thought I knew the world
Better than he did without picking up
A gun or grenade or the requisite
Gumption to wear a uniform with pride.

George W. Bush’s monumental blunder of a war will prove to be more disastrous in its consequences and it has certainly divided the nation. But, other than members of the military and their families, Americans have not been asked to sacrifice anything. During the Vietnam War, a young man had to try to wrap his head around the fact that the government wanted to send him off to die in an enterprise that was morally bankrupt, an enterprise which even its architects, we found out much later, had realized by 1967 was doomed to failure. Since admitting mistakes is something politicians are not wont to do, the war continued for another seven years. This had the effect of twisting up my and Gary Fincke’s generation to no small extent:

I hitchhiked, believing in the Kingdom
Of rootlessness(------------------------
-------------------------------------) saying
Nothing to bored or curious drivers
About my history of Presidents
By name: Kennedy, the office-buyer;
Johnson, the quitter; Nixon, the liar,
who had called my classmates “bums” and killed them
Three hundred yards from my classroom at Kent.

--“All Through May, 1970”

Also found in Fincke’s lines are signs of the transformation America was undergoing, signs of what was fast disappearing:

Some nights my father would drive us north where
Farms were turning into streets of houses.

--“The Fire Landscape”

A sense of dread in the form of the Selective Service System hangs over Fincke and his friends during their last semester in college. Some poems flash forward to pay respects to the dead, those classmates who later died in Vietnam, or in car crashes, or in a jeep in basic training. But death was impatient and didn’t feel compelled to wait for semester’s end:

Early in an evening of remembering death,
I tell my friend that after the Kent State shooting,
After students like me went home and waited out
Our anger, the police came armed to Jackson State
Like a recreation of the Ohio Guard.
They herded those students, I tell him. They backed them
Against the front wall of a dorm and suffered stones
And bricks until they opened fire as if they’d loved
The headlines from the week before, (-------------
Almost five hundred times, I say, they hit that dorm
Two dead, twelve wounded, all of them “nigger students”
According to the cop who called in the shooting,
That speaker’s nickname was “goon,” something history
Can’t make up, his casual slurs, on tape, leaching
Into the voiceless future to poison language,

--“The Casual Slurs”

Toward the end of the book the language quiets, grows beautiful. One reason America is so divided today is that many people don’t understand what was actually happening in the 1960’s and 70’s. This is even true of many who lived through those years. THE LENGTHENING RADIUS FOR HATE could help provide a way toward that understanding. All I’m saying is give it a chance.

-- Richard Wilhelm, Ibbetson Update

Monday, April 21, 2008

Gold Star Road. Richard Hoffman

Gold Star Road. Richard Hoffman. ( Barrow Street PO BOX 1831 Murray Hill Station NY 10156) $25.

Review by Doug Holder

There damn well should be a poem for a doorman, a poem that celebrates in-your-face blue-collar wisdom, and a poem that sings for the many unsung Gold Star Roads
(Designated roads where soldiers killed in the line of duty lived and are memorialized), in far flung communities across the country. And poet/memoirist Richard Hoffman is just the man for the job. If you read Hoffman’s acclaimed memoir “Half the House…” you would know that he sprung from a hardscrabble working class background, and has had more than his share of sorrows over the years. This is not some freshly scrubbed MFA churning out another unearned angst-laden collection. Hoffman has walked the walk, and has been around the block several times. But unlike these tired clich├ęs his work is original and evocative.

I’m no scholar and I respond to poetry on a very gut and emotional level. So a poem like “ Summer Job” speaks to me. It brings out my sense of longing: for my youth, and that no-nonsense type of guy who befriended me and cut through all the crap and posturing we all engage in, in this hyperactive society. In this poem “Summer Job” Hoffman remembers a grizzled boss from his early years who proved to be an unexpected font of wisdom. The poem is so tight and cohesive it would be a disservice not to quote it in full:


“The trouble with intellectuals,” Manny, my boss
once told me, “ is that they don’t know nothing
till they can explain it to themselves. A guy like that,”
he said, “ he gets to middle age;--and by the way,
he gets there late; he’s trying to be a boy until
he’s forty, forty-five, and then give him five
more years till that craziness peters out, and now
he’s almost fifty—a guy like that at last explains
to himself that life is made of time, that time
is what’s all about. Aha! he says. And then
he either blows his brains out, gets religion,
or settles down to some major-league depression.
Make yourself useful. Hand me that three –eights
torque wrench—no, you moron, the other one.”

There is a lot of other great work to recommend this collection of course. “ Airfare” deals with a chance encounter the poet had at an airport with a man he knew when he was young. The encounter consists of a “brittle conversation,” but the memories the meeting evokes releases a flood of perceptions about the confusion and continuum of life:

“I wondered at how we change,
inhibit, inhabit one another;
friends, enemies, teachers lovers,
neighbors, students…

was trying to find, through layers
of scratched Plexiglass and drifting
clouds, a sign of where we were
and how much farther we had to go…”

Gold Star Road is a five star collection in my book. And Hoffman is a star of a poet.

Doug Holder

* This review will appear in the May 2008 issue of "Fight These Bastards"

*Doug Holder is the founder of the Ibbteson Street Press. His two most recent poetry collections are: “ No One Dies at the Au Bon Pain” ( sunnyoutside) and “Of All The Meals I Had Before” ( Cervena Barva Press)

Double Crossing: New&Selected Poems. Eva Salzman

Double Crossing: New&Selected Poems. Eva Salzman ( Bloodaxe Books Highgreen, Tarset, Northumberland NE48 IRP. http:/// ) Distributed in U.S.A. by Dufour

Review by Doug Holder

I am afraid of Eva Salzman. This woman is as sharp as a tack, and in her writing she is not stifled by tact, or afraid to attack. She sizes up my gender with a laser-like eye, and more than once I felt like my fly was down. The woman has a high-toned resume, but her poetry in the best sense remain accessible, sparkling with word play, leavened with levity, not to mention a delicious dash of world weariness.

In the poem: “The Having of the Cake,” Salzman wonders what separates men and boys, and is it simply the size of their toys? This poem examines a woman when the blush of youth has flown the coop. She wonders about the callused brush off from the man or should I say the boy?

“ He burdens her with images of someone gross and elderly
stuffed into short, tight skirts, accentuating all the fat,
with images of missing woman’s destiny—he burdened me,
his feet upon a desk, and made his cruelty resemble tact.

The girls with babies clutch them close, and blessedly.
The boys arrange their separate lives, convenient flats
both north and south (an urban nest, a nest in the country)
and wait for 45, and newer girls with wombs entirely intact.”

And how about the dearly departed? Read the following poem at the wake, when you sit shiva, and when they read that purple flourish of an eulogy… and then get back to me:

Mneme Re-Writes History

I’m so damn tired of love for the dead,
of the lies of the living about their dead.

Minus the bodily subject of their praise,
they dig up corpses of buried words,
powder the vowels, adjust the consonant limbs
and prop them up on silk pillows.

They take into their mouths cold lips
with passion, finally, for their own grief.

Salzman lives in England but was raised in the New York City/Long Island axis. And being the dyed-in-the –wool New York Jew that I am, I can detect that very wisecracking, wonderfully jaded, brand of humor I grew up with in her work. Yes Salzman’s work made me laugh, but it is dead serious.

Highly Recommended.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Bradley Lastname

the press of the third mind 2008
1301 north Dearborn parkway
loft #1007
Chicago Illinois 60610

PROTEST POETRY? the title “your pretty type face is
going to hell” is apropos. what is it about some
writers. do they think the reader can’t see or the
reader might miss the point of this writing and what
is the point of the emphatic bold face type beating us
over the head. it reminds me of bible thumping. it
reminds me of elmer gantry, the con man trying to con
an audience into believing “I’m the messenger” and “we
jerks out here are the sinners?” give me a break.

“last Wednesday, Oscar De La Rentstrike
asks me to fill in for him at the hardware
store; he was too hung over to come in.
“what do I know about hardware?” I ask.
to which Oscar replies, “bongHog. if you
can make it through the metal detector
without triggering it, that’s all you need
to know about hardware.”

this is a rip off of the old joke, “this guy goes
grocery shopping and orders bread. the guy behind the
counter asks him if he is a poet. how did you know I
was a poet. because this is a hardware store. duh.
well this is what this book is about. ordering bread
and getting a screw driver. Bradley Lastname
lameblasts almost everything he thinks is sacred or in
need of being put in its place. yet he has his own
righteous god. he gives himself permission to

“you shouldn’t sail here
throw down the life preservers
chicks and children first”

some readers will be amused, finding reason illogical.
it is not that this book from hell is not logical, it
is burning, it is a furnace of telling. surprising to
me is, how alike the protesting is to the
presentation, how much this book is similar in its
stance to what is being protested. telling us how to
think or not to think or to think as the writer deems

“the dadaist ran from his forehead to his neck,
cutting his face into looks forward to the day, fully
aware that a flowerpot may fall on his head.”


“to whom else should one offer sacrifices,
to whom else should one pay honor”


“to say the least, and he curtains dry out fetuses
on blotting paper in order to grind them up and sell…”


“the mothers I’d like to find are mothers I’d like to

hidden under the heading of dada or surrealism is
hatred by the author’s “its them” attitude, the blame
game attitude.

“if Isabella blow married steven jobs
she would be isabella blow-jobs”

there are a lot of isms in this book and I’m sure
there might be an audience who wants to invest their
money in a book of rants.