Friday, April 24, 2009

The Bluffer’s Guide to the Cosmos. Daniel Hudon.

The Bluffer’s Guide to the Cosmos. Daniel Hudon. ( $10

Daniel Hudon is a regular at the meetings of the Somerville, Mass. literary group the Bagel Bards. One Saturday morning (his eyes shining brightly as say…stars), he handed me a book he wrote for the popular best- selling series; “The Bluffer’s Guide…” His book’s title is: “The Bluffer’s Guide to the Cosmos.” Hudon is a science lecturer at Boston University and has had an interest in the cosmos ever since he was a little dwarf star of a boy himself.

The book is perfect for guys like me. You know the sort of stumblebum at the cocktail party who corners you then bamboozles, beguiles, outsmarts, or more likely bluffs his way to your attention.

The book ain’t fluff, Hudon has some solid facts and theories to present and he does it in a light and humorous way. I mean this book is not meant for Carl Sagan or Steven Hawking to read, it is meant for me, and my ilk.

In this passage Hudon gives some advice about how to explain the “Big Bang” at, say, some haughty dinner part with a bunch of nattering nabobs:

“ Because the expansion of the cosmos is a source of great confusion for people, choosing your words carefully at the beginning will save you much grief later on. To get started, it’s best to repeat the following phrase to yourself before trying it out in public: The Big Bang was an explosion of space at the beginning of time. Then keep repeating it until everyone who hears it appreciates that it is truly profound as it sounds.”

Now there are a lot of talking points in this little book like: “The color of the universe is not black or blue, or even colorless—it’s beige. Think cosmic latte.” Or: “ A white dwarf is so compact that a teaspoon of its material would weigh the same as an automobile.” And how about? “ In jumping into a black hole, you would first be stretched thin like spaghetti and then crushed into oblivion.” I don’t think I will live in the pasta folks!

Carry this trusty little book in your back pocket and refer to it when you encounter a pack of rabid MIT nerds at some gathering and are at a loss for words. Houdin can make you bluff your way in or out in any situation.

Doug Holder/ Ibbetson Update

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Poet Dan Tobin: Writes of the West of Ireland and the New World of Brooklyn.

Poet Dan Tobin: Writes of the West of Ireland and the New World of Brooklyn.

By Doug Holder

In a blurb on the back of Dan Tobin’s brilliant poetry collection “The Narrows” (Four Way Books-2005) it reads: ”…Dan Tobin recounts the many-sided history of his family. Conceived around the oldest theme in Irish literature, the dinnseanchas or ‘lore of place’ poem, the poems in this collection range back and forth between the West of Ireland and New World Brooklyn.”

What I found most compelling about this book was the poems about his father. My late father was a World War ll vet, a hardscrabble kid from the Bronx, and later became a Madison Ave. advertising executive. Tobin’s poem about drinking with his old man brought a tear to this poet’s eyes. My late father always asked me to join him for a few drinks at a pub he frequented in Manhattan, and talk to his pals…you know meet the kid from Somerville who writes poetry. Somehow I never found the time. Too self-absorbed I guess. Tobin, who is the director of the MFA program in Boston, Mass., and a recent recipient of a Guggenheim Award, read in my poetry series at the Newton Free Library this spring, and I took the opportunity to purchase his book. He graciously let me use his poem: “Drinking with my Father at Muse’s Bar.”


Butcher, green grocer, luncheonette, altar rail,
once a week bingo at the Young at Heart,
coffee at Pegasus, The Green Tea Room;
then it's off to the garage to warm up the car
he can't drive anymore. But everyday
my widowed father's rounds end at Muse's
where he settles in, one of the regulars,
giving the sign for his afternoon drink.

This could be any dim watering hole
glimpsed into walking past, but this is here.
No need to order since everyone knows
what everyone wants, and everyone is named
but me--Turk the Tender, John the Bookie,
Big Fat Roger who bounces on weekends,
Jameson Jimmy, Jose the Gambler,
Killer Bill, Budweiser Bill, Bill the Suit.

And bellied up beside them: my father,
Dewar's Jerry, life-long exile to haunts
like this, where he would come into his own
outside his family's overweening eyes.
Connolly's, Spiro's, Hannigan's--now all gone.
Hours-long chin-fests, palaver thick as smoke
that drifted from my mother's cigarette
where she brooded alone in our kitchen.

Time moves in closed circuits of memory,
pools in the half-light of the TV's glow
where the horses rehearse each coming race
in races run before, an endless replay
like my father's story the day he found
my mother dead in bed beside him, or those
he told for months after, his life with her
unreeled into after-lives at one remove.

I nurse my beer and listen to the talk
of Aqueduct, Belmont, the betting pools--
such ease, as if a life without regrets
blessed each of these cronies, my father, me.
And soon, surprised, I find myself at rest
among this motley crew, sharing their jibes
till Turk says, "Hey Jerry, your son's alright."
"Yeh, I know--he's a first class ballbuster."

Outside the bar he takes my arm, unsteady,
as we walk to the same apartment house
he's lived in fifty years. "I'm glad you're home,"
and "I miss your mother." Then, up the stairs:
"I need to rest--go on ahead of me."
I make my way myself up the last flight
while he sits beside the landing window,
his blunt face shining in the low evening light.

--- Daniel Tobin

Monday, April 20, 2009

Poetic Healing: As the hospital and its clients have changed, counselor Douglas Holder adds another dimension.

* This article came out 9 years ago in The Boston Globe. It was the lead article in the Living/Arts. I found it in my archives and typed it up because it is no longer online. It can be purchased from The Boston Globe archives.

THE BOSTON GLOBE: (Living Arts: Feb. 8, 2000.)

Poetic Healing: As the hospital and its clients have changed, counselor Douglas Holder adds another dimension.

By Michael Kenney (Globe Staff)

SOMERVILLE—In the fourth collection of poetry of poetry Douglas Holder has published at his Ibbetson Street Press here, he includes a poem of his own, titled: “ A Simple Nod.”

I saw him in Harvard Square,
happily walking with a friend.
As we passed each other
we exchanged a simple, understated
Our silence was a friendly conspiracy
a reminder of where he once was
and where he was

The where is never stated—although two words, “the ward,” a few lines further on provide a hint. Holder, 44, is a mental health counselor, and for the past six years he has been conducting poetry workshops at McLean Hospital for its patients.

“ I’d been working there 17 years, and I’d had my poetry published in small journals,” he says. I wanted to add another dimension to my job and help a few folks out.”

While Holder would not think of ranking himself with Anne Sexton, who won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1967, he does invoke the legendary poetry workshops she conducted at McLean in the late 1960s. Sexton, a patient at the Belmont hospital in 1973, committed suicide in October 1974.

Nor does Holder claim that the hospital today resemble the institution of those years. “It’s not like the old McLean,” he says, “with patrician types sitting around drinking tea from bone china.” That was the McLean of Harvard fullbacks, Porcellian Club members, and “ Mayflower screwballs.” That was the McLean that Robert Lowell, a frequent patient there in the 1960’s, memorialized in his poem “Waking in the Blue,” and that writer Susanna Kaysen, a patient in 1967, recalls in her best-selling memoir “Girl Interrupted,” now a major motion picture.

Today, Holder says, the members of his poetry groups are more likely to be the homeless “ coming in with a bit of doggerel.”

He runs two workshops, one on Thursday afternoons for patients in the hospital’s open-ward program, which meets in a converted Victorian mansion, and other Friday evenings for patients on two locked wards where Holder works. Neither is open to an outside visitor.

But whether in the mansion or in the more institutional setting of the locked ward, Holder says, “ I try to sort of have a coffeehouse atmosphere. We’ll have a round of applause when some reads a poem.”

Of course it doesn’t always work out as planned.

Holder remembers reading Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” at his very first workshop.

“I was pretty enthusiastic then, and a bit na├»ve,” he says. I thought they’d like it. I saw the poem—with its lament about the “best minds of his generation lost to madness”—as a haunting cry that would be a catalyst for discussion.”

And he says with some self-deprecation, “ I thought they’d think of me as, “ Hey, this guy knows where I am coming from.”

Instead , “they were angry and one of them walked out,” he says. “And one of them told me: “Why do I have to hear this? I live with it.”

Another time, Holder says, a young woman became hysterical and ran out when he read a poem of his own about a kosher butcher in Brookline.

“It turned out the young woman had a painful experience in her life, which she associated with chickens, and she couldn’t take it,” Holder says. “ I had a lot of explaining to do with the clinical staff.”

“You never know,” he adds, “when you might hit a vein.”

The problem is compounded, Holder says, by the fact that today’s hospital stays tend to be shorter—a week or two instead of several months. “You don’t always know what to expect,” he says.

It also means that the workshops aren’t quite they were in Sexton’s day.

“I get in their face about it,” Holder says. “ I’ll go around to the rooms in my wards and ask: “Are you coming to the poetry group tonight?’

“And sometimes, I’ll have a doctor or another staff person tell me that so-and-so is a well-known writer, so I’ll make a special effort to get them to come.”

A number of poems written by patients in these workshops have been published—usually anonymously in the now defunct Boston Poet and other small poetry magazines. But not in his own magazine, which shares the name of his small press, Holder says, because that would violate hospital policy.

Because he believes that poetry can play a healing role, Holder started Ibbetson Street Press, out of house in Somerville—naming it after the street where he lives with his wife, Dianne Robitaille, a poet and geriatric nurse.

Holder, who got a master’s degree in literature from Harvard’s extension school while working at McLean, has been publishing his poetry in small magazines and especially Spare Change, the monthly journal for the homeless. “I write a lot about homelessness and mental health problems.”

Starting a small press to publish local poets, Holder says, was “ a way to get connected.”

The most recent issue—38 pages on 81/2 by 11 paper with a paper cover, bound with black slip plastic binder—sells for $4 and contains 40 poems; an interview with Ed Galing, an elderly small press poet; and several reviews.

Among the poets are a number of first-time writers and others described as “mainstays” of Holder’s press. There are also two professors of literature—John Hildebidle, who teaches at MIT, and Robert K. Johnson, who teaches at Suffolk University—as well as Don DiVecchio, the poetry editor of Spare Change.

Ibbetson Street Press has also published a number of chapbooks, and old English term for a small collection of poems or ballads, most recently: Poems From 42nd Street” by Rufus Goodwin, a poet and journalist who lives in Boston; and a collection called “ Poems for the Poet, the Working Man and the Downtrodden,” by A.D. Winans, who published a small poetry magazine in San Francisco.

“What distinguishes our journal,” says Holder, “is that it contains poems that anyone can read.” They deal “with everyday life. There’s not a lot of arcane words or funny verse patterns.” Anyone, he adds,” can get something out of them.”

The following is a poem written by an anonymous participant in one of Douglas Holder’s poetry workshops at McLean Hospital:

When The Hunter Arrived.

When the hunter arrived
at the place
where it was unfamiliar
he became the prey
stalked by everything
ever unleashed
by the conspiracy of creation.
to the edge he cantered
idols toppling by his sides
until at last
those that were against him
trusted his insight into their
essential nature
Finally pushing a hole through
God’s left eye
past what had separately
designed the limitless war
streaming beyond infinity.