Friday, May 22, 2009

Steerage by Bert Stern

Steerage, by Bert Stern
Ibbetson Street Press

Review by Miriam Levine


We’ve heard a lot about American individualism; and, in American literature, about writers like Melville, who have what one critic has called, the voice of “the imperial self,”: majestic, heroic, grand. In “Walden,” Thoreau, though a less imperial writer than Melville, still creates a narrator who lives heroically alone in his tiny cabin in the woods and sees few people. He’s a man without family. In actual life, Thoreau walked daily to Concord village to see his mother. In contrast Bert Stern writes about his deep connection to the living and dead. He sheds his ego and takes on the voices of his ancestors who immigrated to America from Eastern Europe. Though him, we hear his dead mother’s account of the voyage. The family is out to sea; order falls apart; the family loses its center. Sailing in limbo, his mother says, “Nobody talked. We could not look at the sea or the dead sky/ above us. We hung between these. We would be here always.”
In “Lotty is Born” Stern bears the weight of generations: “All suffered to bring me here to this room/ where I write, bigger than the house/ my mother was born in.” Beautifully, in fluid lines, he registers a dissolving self: “I am somebody’s dream . . . let them tell me if they can/ if I am recompense for what they endured.”
A descendent of those who in steerage endured the stink of “of seawater and piss, animals and human sweat,” Stern brings his ancestors into the light. His mother says, “my spirit was waiting for me, dancing on the shore.” The spirit is feminine, like the Shekinah: the principle of immanence, the divine showing itself. I’ve heard the Shekinah described metaphorically as a single green leaf that keeps falling to earth but is never seen to land. Stern refers to the Shekinah in “Hannah Remembers,” notable for its sense of shining, never-ending time: “Evenings that went on forever/ still unfolding.” In “Driving Home from Elizabethtown” the poet is gathered into transcendent light:

. . . I am ready to fall
with the turnings of poplar
and oak. Through the windshield
even the thin rain that takes on
gold light from the sun in its falling
is fuel for the burning.

Stern’s “Wait,” the long poem, which comprises part five of “Steerage,” is a triumph, sweet and mysterious. The Shekinah takes the form of a dying girl who lives inside the man Stern calls “Jacob.” “He called out to her as one might/ throw a flower at a star.” The girl keeps falling, imperiled, but she comes back to life: “she’s close as your skin, still humming her tune.” Stern gives the girl a voice: “She said this. The girl said this
now was always as it is now.” Nothing is lost. Time is eternal. The poem ends by connecting a tender earthly image—“the turnip’s sweet spheroid,/ its little tail”—with an image of fire and living water: burning stars and icicles dripping as if they were “breathing.”
Besides water-fire-falling-burning poems in which Stern invokes a self’s dissolving in radiant never-ending time, there are poems about closely observed everyday life. (I prefer the spirit-Shekinah and daily-life poems to the fable poems, “What the Teller Knows” and “Early autumn in the Mountains,” which seem unreal to me.) Stern writes about his neighbor, Kenny, a Vietnam war veteran; he watches him capably “sizing boards with a handsaw,/ setting them snug.” But at night, in his dreams, he keeps shooting at a girl who is “hardly a shadow.” He describes Kenny’ son, “washing his car,/ a black Camarro/ with V8 engine,” and the everyday of American life with its skateboards and televisions playing all night in store windows.
“Tea,” which I’ll quote in its entirety, demonstrates the lyrical beauty of Stern’s poems. Here, the feminine appears as a muse. “Tea” is also a love poem that recognizes the separateness of the beloved:

That clear song—
was it you while I slept,
slipping down in your jade
silk to feed the stove
with pine and drink your tea
alone, at down, as you like to do?

Stern could be describing his own clear song: tender, lyrical, beautifully phrased.

*Miriam Levine's most recent book is The Dark Opens, winner of the 2007 Autumn House Poetry Prize. She is the author of In Paterson, a novel, Devotion: A Memoir, three poetry collections, and A Guide to Writers' Homes in New England. Her work has appeared in Harvard Review, The Kenyon Review, The Paris Review, and Ploughshares, among many other places. A recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts writing fellowship and grants from the Massachusetts Artists Foundation, she was a fellow at Yaddo, Hawthornden Castle, Le Château de Lavigny, Villa Montalvo, Fundación Valparaíso, and the Millay Colony for the Arts.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Boston Poet Laureate Sam Cornish and Doug Holder to Read in Brighton June 5, 2009.

(Sam Cornish)

( Doug Holder)

Boston Poet Laureate Sam Cornish and Ibbetson Street Press founder Doug Holder will be reading from their work at Cafenation June 5 2009 at 7PM 380 Washington St.
Brighton, Mass.

Poet, educator Sam Cornish

An underappreciated figure of the Black Arts movement of the 1960s and 1970s, poet Sam Cornish wrote about the urban African-American experience in a voice just as tough and realistic as that of any other black poet of the time. His poems, however, replace the enthusiastic self-expression and the experimental African-American idioms of much modern black poetry with a terse, precise style that at times found more admirers among white readers and publishers than among blacks. In a poem about the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King ("Death of Dr. King," 1971), Cornish depicted rage not in mounting cascades of language but in a devastating quick brushstroke: "we are mourning // our hands filled with bricks // a brother is dead."

Samuel James Cornish was born on December 22, 1935, in Baltimore, Maryland. He spent much of his life in the city, returning there even after beginning to find work and publication opportunities in the Boston area. After his father's death, he and his brother Herman Jr. were raised by his mother and grandmother. "These women raised us on two things: chicken and God," Cornish wrote in his autobiographical prose poem "Winters" (included in Generations, 1971). After one semester at Baltimore's Douglass High School, he dropped out. He later attended Booker T. Washington High School in Baltimore and took courses at Goddard College in Vermont and Northeastern University in Boston. For the most part, however, he was self-educated.

From 1958 to 1960 Cornish served in the United Stated Army Medical Corps. He returned to Baltimore and began to get acquainted with other creatively inclined people and to write poetry seriously himself, issuing his first small collection of poems, In This Corner, around 1961. His best-known publication, Generations, began life as a single poem in the early 1960s, grew to a 16-page pamphlet that Cornish published himself in 1964 (using the publisher name Beanbag Press), and finally became a full-length book. In 1965 Cornish began working at Baltimore's public library, the Enoch Pratt Free Library, as a writing specialist. He worked with children in that job, co-editing a magazine of children's writing called Chicory and compiling an anthology called Chicory: Young Voices from the Black Ghetto that the library issued through its 1960s-era Community Action Program.

Cornish continued to have a strong interest in the creative lives of children and wrote several children's books, including Your Hand in Mine (1970), which Black World called "a gem," noting that "the book is about a little boy who might have been Sam himself." By that time, Cornish had issued several more small volumes of poetry, known as chapbooks, under his Beanbag Press imprint. Traveling frequently between Baltimore and Boston, Cornish worked in several bookstores and at an insurance office in the Boston area and did editorial work for what was then the U.S. Office of Education in Washington. After marrying Jean Faxon (who had edited the first edition of Generations) in 1967, he returned to the Enoch Pratt Free Library for a year in 1968-69. In 1969 he took a post as a creative writing instructor at the Highland Park Free School in the Boston ghetto of Roxbury.

Although his poetry had attracted national attention as early as 1967, when he won a National Endowment for the Arts grant, Cornish's breakthrough occurred with the publication of the full-length Generations in 1971. The mostly short poems in that volume were organized into five sections ("Generations," "Slaves," "Family," "Malcolm," and "Others") that interwove Cornish's own family experiences with those of figures from African-American history. "Cornish shows that America has always been a land of crisis and social chaos," noted Jon Woodson in a Dictionary of Literary Biography essay. "His work is an individual's record of tragic events."

Doug Holder

Doug Holder was born in Manhattan, N.Y. on July 5, 1955. A small press activist, he founded the Ibbetson Street Press in the winter of 1998 in Somerville, Mass. He has published over 50 books of poetry of local and national poets and 25 issues of the literary journal Ibbetson Street. Holder is the arts/editor for The Somerville News, a co-founder of "The Somerville News Writers Festival," and is the curator of the "Newton Free Library Poetry Series" in Newton, Mass. His recorderd interviews with contemporary poets are archived at the Harvard and the University of Buffalo libraries, as well as Poet's House in NYC. In Dec. of 2007 he was a guest of the Voices Israel Literary organization and lead workshops and gave readings in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and Haifa. Holder's own articles and poetry have appeared in several anthologies including: Inside the Outside: An Anthology of Avant-Garde American Poets (Presa Press) Greatest Hits: twelve years of Compost Magazine (Zephyr Press) and America's Favorite Poems edited by Robert Pinsky. His work has also appeared in such magazines as: Rattle, Reconfigurations: A Journal for Poetics and Poetry, The Home Planet News, Hazmat, The Boston Globe Magazine, Caesura, Sahara, Raintown Review, Poesy, Small Press Review, Artword Quarterly, Manifold (U.K.), Microbe ( Belguim),The Café Review, the new renaissance, Quercus Review, Northeast Corridor, and many others. His two recent poetry collections are: "Of All The Meals I Had Before..." ( Cervena Barva Press- 2007 ) and "No One Dies at the Au Bon Pain" ( sunyoutside-2007). His collection "THE MAN IN THE BOOTH IN THE MIDTOWN TUNNEL" was released in the summer of 2008 by the Cervena Barva Press. It was a pick of the month in the Small Press Review (July/August 2008). In 2009 he released a collection of interviews: " From the Paris of New England: Interviews with Poets and Writers." It was selected for a New and Noteworthy Book on NEW PAGES. His poetry and prose has been translated into French and Spanish. He holds an M.A. in Literature from Harvard University.

Monday, May 18, 2009

An Sokolovska: A Somerville Writer/Activist Who Ponders The War Between the Sexes.

An Sokolovska: A Somerville Writer/Activist Who Ponders The War Between the Sexes.

It is not unusual for me to run into interesting people at my perch in the Sherman Café in Union Square. One of the folks I have talked with over the years is Activist/Writer/Academic, An Sokolovska. An is a Social Scientist trained at Boston University and Brandeis in the 1960’s and 1970’s. During this era she did field work and taught. She told me: “ I lived through the ‘cultural revolution’, academic joblessness, cultural disorientation, and I finally took financial shelter in the construction industry despite years of advanced study." But Sokolovska didn’t divorce her self from the “academic clay” and her intellectual interests were still in play. The question she asked many decades ago while working on her PhD was: “Why do men and women have difficulties with each other?" She said: “ We are an old species. We are a reproductive species. We have been together for a millennium, from a time before language. Why should we have so many problems? Why hasn’t it been sorted out?

Sokolovska, in the course of her studies, looked back and saw two relationships that go back to the dawn of time. One is the mother/child, the other is the male/female. The mother/child relationship is long lasting. The male/female bond is of shorter duration. Women have different survival skills than men. Children are born in a social matrix of men and women and live close to nature. But boys grow up and leave this society, and join different groups of men. For the man to be accepted by his male cohorts he has to reject what he left behind in the matrix. As a result the male has a fear of the part of him that is drawn back to the matrix. This is where the fear of women originates.

When Sokolovska used to teach she asked her students both male and female, many working class veterans, to observe each other’s interactions in the world, and with their peers. Sokolovska feels that if people have knowledge of each other they will drop the “masks” and stop misrepresenting themselves. From this harmony of the sexes will hopefully arise.

Sokolovska said we live in a time when conquest and war seem to be the way of the world. Naturally, this affects interactions between men and women. She feels it is essential that we take the time to truly understand our differences in order for relationships to be less contentious.

I asked her how literature—poetry, informs this discussion. She replied: “ I believe if something is true it has already been expressed in poetry and art. Poetry reveals emotional truth. The ideas, if they are true, should be found in some fashion in poetry and literature.”

Sokolovska used a quote from the late poet Wallace Stevens to illustrate the male-female connection:

“ A man and a woman are one. A man and a woman and a blackbird are one.” (From “Thirteen Ways to Look at a Blackbird.”)

Sokolovska offered a poem of her own to illustrate her points:

The Honorific Title
(honorific: "1. Conferring or conveying honor 2. Belonging to
or constituting a
class of grammatical forms used in speaking to or about a social
superior -"
Webster's 9th)

Why should I call you "Man"

before you have understood me?

Why, seeing your crazy terror of me - "The Other."

I have been observing you in the green thickets

for a long time. I know you are running, keeping secret, afraid.

Why would I call you Man?

I call Man that quiet place

the smell of the lake the earth sun-warming

long flutterings of air

There it is safe. I manage to be

Small then very large I am altering

Transforming like a berry or a flower.

None of this Man fears for it is home.

The One and Only Human Galaxy by Elizabeth Swados

The One and Only Human Galaxy by Elizabeth Swados. ( Hanging Loose Press, NY) 2009. $18.

It’s a debut poetry collection, but hardly at the hand of a beginner! Elizabeth Swados, author of The One and Only Human Galaxy, a poetic biography of Harry Houdini, has composed, written and directed acclaimed plays, dance scores, nonfiction books, novels, and children’s books for some 30 years, in the U.S. and abroad. You can tell from the first poem, “An Elephant as Unwilling Performer and Prologue”, that she can write tightly edited and mysterious, symbolic imagery that gives the reader a sense of an intriguing story ahead.

She starts with what I call Act I, where she defines Houdini as a Jewish man whose rabbi father is “disappointed” in him. Rather than rely on God, “the one I depend on/is myself/I am the arm that pulls me from the grave…”, says Houdini. But he also relies on his wife, Bess, during his early years as a magician, escape artist, and illusionist. She says in “Bess As Slave”, “It’s your clock I wind/your hours I keep/…I am one box folded inside another box…” He himself then continues in “Houdini Gives Orders to Bess”, “When I die, burn my tricks and illusions. /So if you marry, Bess, he must not steal my elephant,/water box, velvet cape/…or curl inside my trunk/for that would be adultery/…blasphemy…/I’ll come back with demons protecting me/and I will cut him in two”!

Houdini’s “Private God” gives “the right card…a gift from Houdini’s God…”
But in the next chunk of the 133-page book, which could be called Act II (perfection),he admits “There is no true magic/without pain/no escape without initial panic…” He’s a built and wounded body, in fact “I am Crime”… “My skin already scabbed from/the last tension/pull in/suck in/steal air/no one can keep me/…keys held in my teeth,/picks embedded in my scalp…” In short, he uses Hindu breathing to “pull my diaphragm against my spine. (Kill half of yourself and/the other half slips through”).

But some of these poems could be mistaken for a playwright’s stage directions to get the actor to describe and present Harry the legend. Then she’ll blend in a “cacoon of chains” and other good poetry images. The emotional Harry is shown in “After Mama Dies”:“You are squeezed by grief/ and strangled by grief /and hammered by grief/Get upside down with grief/enclosed in grief that keeps you there forever/like an iron womb.”

A possible Act III could begin with the book title, “The One and Only Human Galaxy”: Harry says “I’ve Arrived”; “You won’t forget my name (and picture).” I personally had to stop and take a rest before I could go on reading the emotional and kabalistic (mystical) poem “Mother”: “It’s my name up there like the Hebrew alphabet…forms a ladder on which I can/wrestle off the angels, the ones who will have you/instead of me…”

Harry is clearly very full of himself: “I’m made of cells and each cell is/a star that burns/in whipping circles/like the ring of fire outside Eden’s gate./I will shine into a future/that is unimaginable. I am possibility/transformed into action…”
But as Harry gets on in years of notoriety, he gets startled by other people’s fame.
Edison invents a telephone, but Houdini wants one he can use to call his dead mother…Then come an influx of “spiritualists,” women who do shows about talking to the dead. He is apparently very threatened by them, not just that they do popular shows, but that they give the concept of “Performance” a bad name.

Houdini, the fabulous fraud, makes it “The Holy Battle”: “You who claim to heal and save, communicating/with the dead…/are a danger as bad/as poison sold as medicine…/ cheap perfume on which/poor innocents choke…”

Before the poet expounds her epilogue—as mysterious as the prologue…Harry warns us he will “die on my own terms/here I am, death,/flip a coin/but remember every magician/has one coin with two heads/and another with two tails…”

I’ll leave you to figure out the epilogue on your own. You should grab this book and read it if you’d like a good poetic narrative, especially one whose cover photo shows Houdini hanging perilously from a scaffolding by his feet. I usually think of a poet’s first poetry book as a chapbook of stories from one’s childhood, but Elizabeth Swados is of course a playwright, and she keeps you riveted by her book with the power of poetic story telling.

--Barbara Bialick