Saturday, November 12, 2011

Four Elements: Reflections on Nature by John Donohue

Four Elements

Reflections on Nature

John Donohue

ISBN 978-0-307-71760-3

Harmony Books, a Division of Random House

Contact: Nora O’Malley 212-782-8370

Review By Dennis Daly

As a rule, books categorized by their publishers as inspirational cause me to avert my eyes and hold onto my wallet. Four Elements by John O’Donohue is not one of those. It is rather a series of beautifully crafted essays tapping in to fourteenth century mysticism and twenty-first century environmental concerns.

O’Donohue, a Gaelic-speaking poet and priest from a remote parish in the west of Ireland, uses the ancient metaphor of the four elements—air, water, fire, and earth (stone) as the prism to explore the nature of man and his world. This is not cutesy new age drivel. Although simply written, it has a hard philosophical core. O’Donohue, by the way, had a PHD in Hegelian philosophy. That said, he does use Irish culture, including the likes of Yeats, Joyce, and Becket to support his points and charm the hell out of us.

In the first of the four sections of his book, O’Donohue meditates on air as the breath of God, which in a sense welcomes us as we enter the world and gives us the timespan of our lives. He speaks of breaths as prayers. Not the silly techniques taught by self-aggrandizing gurus, but real straightforward connections with the divine. He seems able to rework older religious myths into a new understanding of spiritual reality. In his poem In Praise of Air he says,

In the name of the air

The breeze

And the wind

May our souls

Stay in rhythm

With eternal


In this first section there is also a wonderful discussion of Michelangelo’s Prisoners in Stone, a series of sculptures I saw years ago in Florence. The lower half of each figure is still part of the stone, while the upper half is a fully formed human being. “This is the tension of emergence,” say O’Donohue, “such sculpture awakens one’s eyes to the power of encounter that is permanently going on between the air and each shape that allows it.” O’Donohue parlays this encounter into a discourse on life’s possibilities.

The next element, water, is used as a metaphor for spiritual need or thirst with a poetic exposition on “the gift of tears.” O’Donohue’s poem, In Praise of Water, touches on this,

Water: voice of grief

Cry of love

In the flowing tear

Rites from the Catholic faith like the sacrament of baptism and the tradition of holy water are put in a larger and lovely continuum that is nothing if not pantheistic.

Fire, the third element that O’Donohue muses on, encompasses man’s endless passions originating in the fire of creation. Here is the opening of O’Donohue’s In Praise of Fire:

In the beginning

The word was red

And the sound was thunder

And the wound in the unseen

Spilled forth the red weather of being.

An association is also developed between fear and fire. Children, who play with fire, get burned. Heretics and witches were for a time burned at the stake. Hell is eternal burning according to Church teachings. But here O’Donohue rejects his church’s darker vision as a grave misinterpretation and he even suggests some papal penance for past injustices committed in the name of his faith. Donohue, himself, retired from his priestly duties in 2000 to devout full time to writing and lecturing.

According to O’Donohue, stone, the fourth element, is a Zen-like presence, a repository of memory. Limestone contains the memories of the sea. Igneous rock contains memories of fire. Coal is organic rock. And so on. His concept of stone expands to landscapes, which he sees as having selfhoods, which interact in some interesting ways with humans. In fact he sees humans as expressions of the earth, sentries with an especial responsibility. The earth becomes a comforter, a great conclusion.

O’Donohue’s submergence of religious myth into a much larger pantheistic system rivals Francis of Assisi for nerve. In another age O’Donohue might have been one of those heretics burned at the stake that he so poignantly laments.

John O’Donohue died at the age of 52 in 2010. He wrote a number of books including two international best sellers, Anam Cara and To Bless the Space Between Us. The essays comprising Four Elements were written early in his career and are a perfect introduction into the wonders of this visionary’s later works.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Somerville Writer Janet Mendelsohn: Bringing her passion to the passion of her subjects.

(Picture by Stu Rosner)

Somerville Writer Janet Mendelsohn: Bringing her passion to the passion of her subjects.

By Doug Holder

Janet Mendelsohn is a passionate writer who writes about other people’s passions. This Davis Square resident has the ability to hone in on her subject like some predatory literary bird, and peck out what makes them tick—to strain an analogy. I met Mendelsohn on a warm October morning in one of my favorite haunts in Union Square, the Sherman Cafe.

Mendelsohn told me she and her husband love Somerville. Their children live next door in Arlington; her husband likes the quick commute into Boston, and they both love the stimulation and diversity that the Paris of New England generously provides.

Mendelsohn has had many roles in her impressive career. She has worked for a number of non-profits, and was more often than not a Public Relations person. Now she is a freelance writer and writes for the Boston Globe Travel Section, the Wellesley /Weston Magazine, Maine Boat, and other publications. She writes about people as diverse as a group of needlepointers in Wellesley, Mass. or an artist and his timber- framed home in the wilds of Maine.

Mendelsohn has a degree in Journalism, and an MFA in Creative Non-Fiction from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. She describes Creative Non-Fiction as a genre in which the writer becomes part of the story. The writer does not have to be as objective as he or she would in a standard journalistic piece.

I asked Mendelsohn about her work on a book about the history of Mt. Auburn Hospital in Cambridge, Mass. This was an in-house publication that she worked on during her tenure there some years ago. She told me about the hospital that lies in the shadow of Mass. General and other behemoths:

“Mt. Auburn has a very fascinating past. It was founded by a Civil War nurse, Emily Parson. It has a strong connection to the literary community—Longfellow was an early supporter of the hospital and Robert Lowell contributed his work to a book that was used as part of a fundraiser for the hospital.”

Mendelsohn makes no bones about the valuable work she did as a PR person. I asked her how she would answer people who would say that this line of work was all about hype—sizzle with very little steak. She said:

“This makes me mad. When I was working for non-profits, hospitals, Wellesley College,etc.... I always felt it was my job to tell the stories about the institutions, and get the reporters to report about them. The press is too often fixated on scandals. I wanted them to know about the projects, the faculty, students, doctors, etc… were working on.”

As we ended our interview, Mendelsohn started to informally interview me about my Bagel Bards literary group. It is obvious her passion for people and their stories plays a defining role in her life.

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Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Macbeth// Music by Guiseppe Verdi Libretto by Maria Piave and Andrea Maffei// after William Shakespeare’s drama// Shubert Theater, Boston MA.

Opera by Verdi
Shubert Theater, Boston MA.
November 4 -13, 2011

Review by Zvi A. Sesling

If Shakespeare is the ultimate dramatist, Verdi is arguably his counterpart in opera. In his earlier years Verdi’s La Traviata, Rigoletto and Il Trovatore have become standards of opera company repertoire, while his later operas, considered by many his greatest works include Otello, Faust and Macbeth. This latter one is currently being staged at Boston’s Shubert Theater by the Boston Lyric Opera.

Having previously attended BLO renditions of other operas, including performances by the Metropolitan Opera in New York and the Santa Fe Opera in New Mexico, this Macbeth can hold its own with any of them.

John Conklin’s set designs are a brilliant depiction of the hell that the characters have made of their own choosing. Off kilter sets reflect the twisted, murderous lives they lead, with lighting used to set mood and props used as ghosts, hands, forests and death.

While knives are the weapon of choice, the appearance of a gun and contemporary clothes reminds us this staging is a modern version of Verdi, not unlike Santa Fe’s production of Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore updated to a World War II setting.

As for the performances, there is little negative to be said for singers. Daniel Sutin in his BLO debut brings the increasingly insane Macbeth to chilling life. His voice is strong, clear and powerful, his acting well matched to the role, particularly in dealing with the ghost of Banquo, who is amply sung and acted by Darren K. Stokes. Carter Scott, also in her BLO debut as Lady Macbeth, is convincing as the “behind every king there is an ambitious woman” and like her husband grows increasingly insane, unable to get the blood off her hands. Her voice is of top operatic quality, her pronunciations flawless and her ability to convey her insanity emphasize her acting ability.

A highlight of the opera is sung by Richard Crawley who as Macduff garnered a well deserved ovation with his stirring aria bemoaning the murder of his family and his determination to bring down Macbeth.

In fairness to the other singers, tenors rather than baritones always seem to gather more applause and cheers. And that is a shame because both Sutin and Stokes have excellent voices and display them well. And Stokes makes one scary ghost.

As for the score, Conductor David Angus elicits the maximum from his orchestra. While Verdi’s score is at times, well, Verdi, meaning at times a bit light for the drama, Angus manages to keep the music in tempo with the action, trauma and drama of this wonderful opera.

The Boston audiences was enthusiastic about this opera performance and by the end there
wereloud sustained applause, well deserved by the cast, conductor and everyone who made this opening night performance a success.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Sipping Memories: Poetic Journal to Morocco: Poems by Michal Mahgerefteh

Sipping Memories
Poetic Journal to Morocco
Poems by Michal Mahgerefteh
Poetica Publishing Co.
Copyright © 2011 by Michal Mahgerefteh
ISBN: 978-0-9836410-1-8
Softbound, 31 pages, $15

Review by Zvi A. Sesling

The opening welcome is provided by “a large woman flashes gold teeth/offers fresh round bread topped with pecan butter/walnut and pistachio cookies and hot green tea”

She takes you to the shuk in Rabat where “I stroll down narrow alleys/of mud covered pebble stones/faint must odor of carpets and urine/persists of the scent of fresh tangerines/stored in wood boxes/pushed by ragged men and worn-out donkey”

The way it is written you can see yourself there, or at least it will hark back one movie
or another one has seen that was filmed in this shuk in Rabat or another one.

This book, while poetic is also educational. There is a recipe for Moroccan tea, another for Couscous with Vegetables and a lesson on rosewater as a hydrating toner.

Her poetry takes you to Evening Prayer at Hassan II Mosque where:

I following the growing crowd
take off my boots walk under rounded arches
stepping down several feet on to a tiled floor
paved in blue

a group of women all in white
veils up to the bridge of their noses
sit on carpets adorned in blue-yellow vines
verses from the Quran

Ms. Mahgerefteh takes you on visit to the “Beggar on the Corner of Blvd de al Corniche” and “On the Road to Marrakesh.” At “The Sheep Market” you discover that “life hangs heavy over the women/inside fabric tens sweaty anchored/between large bags of raw wool/brought steaming after shearing/sorting colors in to piles/letting it fluff and dry before the endless/spinning and weaving”

You will also encounter “The Henna Artist” and “The Fabric Market” a Moroccon bride and you will hear “The Sounds of Morocco” from the school girls laughing to water sellers and cars, trucks, motorbikes and taxi cabs and, of course, Muezzin prayer calls.

If you are an adventurer or one who likes to read travel books, this poetry journey in
Morocco will fill the bill.

Monday, November 07, 2011

What’s Left Behind: Poems by Michal Mahgerefteh

What’s Left Behind
Poems by Michal Mahgerefteh
Poetica Publishing Co.
Copyright © 2011 by Michal Mahgerefteh
ISBN: 978-0-9836410-2-5
Softbound, 31 pages, $15

Review by Zvi A. Sesling

This book is dedicated by the author “to my father, for his unconditional love and support of my mother.” It is a book about the author’s mother who was diagnosed with breast cancer a the age of 41 and supported by her husband for the next 25 years. It is a book of poetry titles such as “For Twenty-Five Years,” “The Dy of Mother’s Passing,” “Things She Left Behind,” “The Agony of Looking Back” and “Portrait of a Man.” It is a book of grief and grieving and no happy ending except just reality as in “The Day of Mother’s Passing:”

edgy conversations erupt around the room
Mother’s sisters assess her display of bodily decline
over the years their strong bond easily tested
by tender emotions but tonight stitched to perfection

the light of life fades from Father’s face
as he prepares to accept the inevitable
staring at his swollen diabetic feet
wishing he could command this moment

Or in the poem “During the Shivah”

our house
holds its breath in mourning

Father in his bereavement
speaks only when necessary

he just sits there
stiff against the rough Mediterranean

till the mist rolls in
softening the sharp edges of the shoreline

with a slow sway
turning to blue—black bowl of night sky

These are raw emotional images of death and mourning that fill this book, no moments of happiness, right to the end of the book with “No More Hurt” in her father’s voice:

they want me to cover the mirrors
with black cloth
to avoid my mournful reflection
to think about you

the last twenty-five years
were all about you
no, I no longer care about cancer and death
Your Cancer—Your Death

all I want is to flee from your dark days
that sealed My Book of Life
until the hurt no longer
bears your name

Yes, this is a sad book, but one that may help others whose family has suffered the terrible effects of terminal illness that has extended itself for many years and affected family members. It may not provide the hope or the answers people seek, but it will help them cope when they see others have gone through their anguish.