Saturday, May 26, 2012

Three Poems By Ross Runfola

Three Poems

By Ross Runfola

University of Buffalo

The State University of New York

The Poetry Collection

Of the University Libraries

Buffalo, NY

300 copies printed

Review by Dennis Daly

Like a solitary glass of draft beer, poetry needs attention. In this elegant looking but gritty chapbook of three relatively short poems by Ross Runfola, each piece gets the attention it deserves. Herein the poet speaks to games and the violence they induce, flat beer, and crotch-sniffing dogs. Let us deal with flat beer first.

Some of you may indeed marvel at how, in a twenty-two ounce glass of blueberry beer, the blueberries seem motivated to rise and fall of their own accord, their propulsion systems and their quantum methodologies among life’s greater mysteries. Others, including myself, are purists and eschew blueberry beer. We prefer our beer without fruit or other zesty ingredients cruelly added during spring’s onset or in the midst of a heartless summer. An appropriate and expected one inch (read two fingers) head in either a zany lager or stern ale usually enhances the inspiration value so coolly and happily delivered. But even a flat beer, that is, one criminally under carbonated, can for our purposes lead to a prayerful and profound meditational experience.

Runfola in his poem, Magic Glass, understands these principals. He describes a working class type of guy, an understated average fellow, and gent whose body has turned the final corner and now revolts against years of youthful, unthinking pleasures and indiscretions. He describes him this way,

A work shirt with mud on the left sleeve

Glasses with huge frames that were never fashionable

Yellow fingers from smoking too many cigarettes

A pair of well worn black Harley Davidson boots

A raspy smoker’s cough…

Yes, this man hacking away, sitting next to the poet’s persona at the bar, seeks metaphysical meaning. The poet explains,

Staring in his beer glass for almost an hour

As if it is a crystal ball

Is he pondering the existence of God

Bemoaning the end of a relationship

Being laid off from a job

Thinking about his son in Iraq


Is he pissed off because his beer is flat.

Of course the beer glass can function as a crystal ball. Every serious drinker knows this and on occasion has received hints of future calamities or unexpected successes. 

Next, let us consider the function of games as suggested by Runfola in his poem, Bored Games. The poet watches gamers closely with an eye on filling the vacuum of his life. This is a problem because to many people the game is not just a game, it is life. The old have time on their hands and so do those who want to be seen and, of course, the young. The poem begins this way,

I watch old men playing chess in the park

carefully measuring every move

The blonde in the tight fitting sweater

struggling with the New York Times crossword puzzle

Little children crying out in frustration

trying to put together a jigsaw puzzle…

The poet’s persona learns a valuable lesson when, all in good fun, he mixes with the serious gamers,

When I won at chess for the first time

The guy in the park who talked to himself

Knocked the chess pieces down and broke my jaw

When I played pool at Flynn’s Golden Dollar Café

The pimp with the red felt hat pulled a gun on me.

Broken people or people outside the law are playing for different stakes than their bored counterparts and not understanding this can lead all to disaster.

Finally, in Runfola’s poem entitled The Dog Walkers Club a crotch sniffing canine named Zelig changes the poet’s world forever.  This poetry revolts against the humdrum and the routine and those who reinforce that false existence on us. The poet describes the dog walkers thusly,

When I walk Zelig every morning

Men with bedroom slippers

And football sweatshirts

All give me the same secret greeting

In the winter—“Cold enough for you.”

In the summer—“Hot enough for you.”

When it rains—“Looks like it’s going to be a wet one.”

Life’s triteness is surely painful and something that most of us find inescapable. We are slowly drawn into the dog walkers club losing spontaneity and creativity along the way.  But then poet’s dog noses into instinctual, precipitant action,

…Zelig sniffs a dog walker’s crotch

Then another

Then sniff and a hump combination to the bearded one

“Don’t be afraid, you remind Zelig of his father,” I shout

As he makes a hasty retreat…

In the end both poet and dog are masters of their own destinies.  I like happy endings.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Somerville’s Jennifer Swanson Downes: A Low Brow/Pop Surrealist Artist

                          (Downes struts her stuff in front of her art at Somerville Open Studio)

Somerville’s Jennifer Swanson Downes: A Low Brow/Pop Surrealist Artist

By Doug Holder

 When I met Magoun Square resident Jennifer Swanson Downes at the Sherman Café in Union Square one morning recently, she described herself as a Low Brow/ Pop Surrealist artist. She told me that in her mind this genre examines the grimier and seedier side of life. Her work seems to subvert banal realistic images and infuses them with her own unique sensibility. Her art is colorful, well, like Downes’ background is. She has a Black Belt in Karate, plays the harmonica, flute and mandolin.  Jenn-O-Matic (Her moniker), also has a cat and dog grooming service and has worked as a kindergarten school teacher.

 I was interested in her use of bright color in her works as evidenced in her Tiki series—a Polynesian flourish of artwork she has created. As I picked at the crumbled remains of my luscious Sherman Café oatmeal scone she told me:

  “I really learned about color by drawing in black and white. I mean there are a million shades in between. So it was a natural progression to experiment with different vivid colors.”

Swanson, like many an artist, uses her travels as an inspiration for her work. She has visited Belize, the Mayan Pyramids, and has a particular fascination with ancient civilizations—all reflected in her art.

Swanson loves living in Somerville. She finds the close proximity to other artists, culture, music festivals, etc… very inspiring. Like many creative people she has found a home in the Paris of New England, Somerville, Mass.

*** For more information about Swanson go to:

Thursday, May 24, 2012

The FSG Book of Twentieth-Century Latin American Poetry An Anthology Edited by Ilan Stavans Introduction and Selection Copyright 2011 by Ilan Stavans

The FSG Book of Twentieth-Century Latin American Poetry
An Anthology Edited by Ilan Stavans
Introduction and Selection Copyright 2011 by Ilan Stavans
Farrar Strauss Giroux
New York, NY
Softbound, 728 pages, $25.00
ISBN 978-0-374-53318-2

Review by Zvi A. Sesling

Poets you know, poets you don’t know. Male and female. Spanning the late 19th century through most of the 20th century, Latin American poetry has much to attract both readers and writers of poetry and The FSG Book of Twentieth-Century Latin American Poetry fills that bill to perfection.

First there are the eighty-four authors from sixteen countries who write in Spanish, Portuguese and seven other languages, including indigenous Central and South American ones. Another plus for this volume are the translators who include:  Samuel Beckett, Ursula K. Le Guin, Martin Espada, Willis Barnstone, James Merrill, Mark Strand, Elizabeth Bishop, W.S. Merwin, Richard Wilbur and others.

Aptly edited and selected – and occasionally translated – by Ilan Stavans, Lewis-Sebring Professor in Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College, one can thoroughly enjoys the selections of Pablo Neruda, Gabriela Mistral (Neruda’s teacher), Jose Marti, Julia De Burgos, Cesar Vallejo, Juan Gelman, Jorge Luis Borges, Octavio Paz and Carlos Drummond De Andrade, to name a few. There are also many other poets and Prof. Stavans delivers delicious selections, many of which are worth reading several times as they inspire and motivate poets to write and readers to admire the talent in this book.

Stavans’s Introduction: Translation and Power provides, for those who have not had the opportunity to hear his class lectures, the opportunity to read a semester or two of informative poetic history in the context of sociology and politics.  Stavans who grew up in Mexico states that he became familiar with those speaking indigenous languages and this too shows in his selection of poets writing in their native languages rather than Spanish or Portuguese. Of interest to readers too is the inclusion of Ladino poetry, the equivalent of Eastern European Yiddish, but used mostly by Spanish and Portuguese speakers and writers. 

Reading these poems you can taste the flavors of Latin America and savor the richness of the poetry presented by Stavans. Whether or not you are familiar with Latin American poetry, this is a must have book for your shelf, and take the time to read it all thoroughly.

Zvi A. Sesling is author of King of the Jungle (Ibbetson Street, 2010), Across Stones of Bad Dreams (Cervena Barva, 2011) and the soon to be published Fire Tongue (Cervena Barva). He is Editor of Muddy River Poetry Review and Bagel Bards Anthology #7.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Somerville’s Gil Barbosa: From Towing Cars to Towing Books.

Somerville’s Gil Barbosa: From Towing Cars to Towing Books.

By Doug Holder

  Gil Barbosa doesn’t look like a stereotypical bookseller. He is a burly man, with a plethora of tattoos on both of his muscled arms. His hands look like they have clashed with metal rather than a rarefied page in a brittle tome. Yet this former head of a towing business handles his new charges with great delicacy. Since June, 2011 he has been the proprietor of the Book Shop at Ball Square. And although he is not getting rich, he is getting by, not a small accomplishment in the indie book biz.

  Barbosa told me:

  “I have lived in Somerville all my life. Currently I live in the Spring Hill section of the city. The residents and the shop owners of Ball Square have been very supportive of the store. Somerville is a great place to do business.”

   For 25 years Barbosa was in the towing business, and decided not to bring his enterprise to the next level. It required a huge investment of time and money and Barbosa was tiring of doing this for over two decades. After being laid off from a state job at the Charles River Dam, he helped his aunt out at her bookstore: Annie’s Book Stop in Belmont, Mass. When his aunt gave her store up he inherited her inventory. He snagged a great deal on a lease in Ball Square, and the rest, as they say, is history. Barbosa reflected:

  “The people in the neighborhood are very appreciative that we are here. One person was surprised that places like my store even exist anymore. He thought they were extinct...”

  Barbosa feels stores like his creates nostalgia for a past when people had more time to browse much less read. Barbosa is a reader as well as confirmed bibliophile.  Currently he is reading “Ten Hills Farm” by C.S. Manegold. The book deals with Ten Hills Farm (which in the 1600’s occupied land that is now Somerville) that once held a large population of slaves. Who would of thought of it? The slaves of Somerville. Barbosa is also a big fan of the True Crime genre, and reads about everything from gangs, thugs, to serial killers.

 Although in his aunt’s shop in Belmont Romance novels were big selling items, here in the highbrow ‘hood of Somerville, the big ticket items tend to be Science Fiction, Classics, Fantasy, Novels, etc… This is not to say Barbosa does not have Romance on hand—you always have to something about lust and love—right? Barbosa also has a poetry section, and sells used CDs and posters.

Barbosa is a champion of local authors. Writers like Peter David Shapiro “Ghosts on the Red Line,” and Bobby Martini “Citizen Somerville” have read at the store. And Barbosa has even ushered in local poets at a recent reading. Barbosa told me that he encourages Somerville’s active small press community to bring in their books, etc… to sell. And publishers—they have a very generous consignment policy!

 Barbosa feels there is a future for the “book” and the “bookstore.” He feels independents have created their own niche market and provide personal services that big chains don’t. Barbosa is optimistic about his prospects and hopes to be on the scene for years to come.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

A Few Forms of Love Richard Brostoff

 A Few Forms of Love
Richard Brostoff
Finishing Line Press

Review by Rene Schwiesow

Richard Brostoff is a psychiatrist who finds that writing poetry in the morning enables him to return to his office in the afternoon with his mind “more fluent and at ease with trope.”  He feels that his writing helps him to better address another’s wilderness.

What better way to address his readers’ wilderness than through forms of love?  Erich Fromm, the German psychologist and philosopher stated:  “Love is the only sane and satisfactory answer to the problem of human existence.”  Brostoff’s poems on love speak to the love of nature and to the love and loss of an other.

In “Green Song” Brostoff combines nature and human love as he often does throughout the book:

I miss the swampland of our wanting
where a low lit creature crawls
by stealth
reptilian in my veins.

“Beneath a Storm” takes a look at Valentine’s Day, showing us that romance can be found even in the ordinary moments coveted during a winter snowfall.

It’s Valentine’s Day, and in the early light
at six a.m. I am dozing by your side.
Other men will rush to buy their wives
red hearts of cinnamon, carnations bunched

with baby’s breath, red lacey cards.
I buy you white pajamas
of fine Egyptian cloth,
not certain what the color means.

When Brostoff talks of loss and grief he is fluid and we can see the beauty even in the melancholy.  In “Canyon”

Grief finds, like water, slow erosions,
drifts and stammerings
and wears things down
in geological time, transforming
what it touches
making us what we are,
layered as the canyons forms,
both beautiful and sad.

The work entitled “Grief” ends with a blockbuster three lines:

You hold an absence
at your center,
as if it were a life.

If the question is what is love?  Then Brostoff has, indeed, given us a satisfactory answer.

***Rene Schwiesow is co-host of the popular South Shore venue The Art of Words in Plymouth, MA.  She writes a monthly column for the arts in Plymouth’s Old Colony Memorial.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Trojan Women By Euripides Translated by Francis Blessington: Whistler in the Dark Theater Company

The Factory Theater, 791 Tremont St. Boston

May 18th to June 2nd, 2012

Director Ben Evett

Light Design PJ Strachman

Set Design Natalie Laney

Sound Design Chris Larson

Contact Jen O’Connor:  508-944-2939

Admission $20.00  Students  $10.00

Review by Dennis Daly

Scurrying along the base of the looming, chemically-stained building, through the parking lot, under the steam pipe, down the twisted steps and into a forbidding white-washed brick, claustrophobia-inducing passageway, the door wedged open with a boulder, I arrived at the Factory Theater.  And then it got better, much better.

On opening night the Trojan Women played to a packed theater. The experience was unforgettable. The light, set, sound, and costume designers worked magic. You could hear the creaking of Greek ships and almost smell the tide as it rolled in. Audience members sat among the cast on the gritty stage as the play began and crazed, damaged women in torn dresses roamed among them, obviously in shock. 

The intimate seating arrangement I liked very much; it produces an edgy magic. One moment Helen of Troy seduces you with her eye contact, the next moment a Greek chorus addresses you with a heart-rending dirge. We were all amazed when, in the distance, Troy burned, and we all watched that awful spectacle together in the same confined camp-space.

The acting ensemble consists of eight players and two of them have multiple roles. The three women that make up the chorus mingle silently with the audience when they are not reciting a choral piece. Their facial expressions and their graceful movements would put many professional mimes to shame. They are that good.

Nathaniel Grundy storms onto the stage as an angry but resigned Poseidon. He wants revenge for the destruction of his especial city and will eventually get it, albeit, after the action of the play. As Menelaus he convinces both with his gratuitous cruelty and with his weak-kneed surrender to Helen’s charms.  But it is in the role of Talthybius, the herald, which he really shines. His occasional humanity as he delivers his messages in the midst of horror surprises and reassures us that some vestige of goodness still survives this scenario of total devastation.

Aimee Rose Ranger rules the stage in all four of her roles. She is clearly doing what she is meant to do. As Athena she is spiteful and conniving. As Cassandra knowledge leads her to insanity. As Andromache she brings us to tears with a mother’s pathos. And, as Helen, Ranger truly soars, exuding sex and guile throughout her amazing performance. 

Rosalind Thomas Clark convinces as Hecuba, the fallen queen of Troy. Her strength in facing the apocalyptic terrors is moving and understandable to modern sensibilities. The dark stories of Cormac McCarthy comes to mind.

But the glue that keeps this all together and makes it work is the writing of the translator Francis Blessington. His lyrical tone builds an airy and transparent  atmosphere about the action that seems to keep everything in motion, even when the subject is havoc and slaughter.  Listen,

What’s not for me to cry about?

My country, children, husband all have perished.

The grandness of my ancestors

Cut short: how are you nothing now.

Why be silent? Why not?

Why lament?

Miserable I am, under a heavy fate

That lies upon my limbs—what torture!

My back stretched on a hard bed.

My head! My temples!

My ribs! I wish to pitch

And roll my back and spine

On both sides, always

Weeping elegies in song.

And even this is music to the wretched:

To sing their ruin without a dance.

I notice that on occasion a contemporary phrase sneaks into the poetic speeches and this technique works quite well. When Helen is defending herself before her Greek husband, Menalaus, she recounts her side of the story and argues that she was a pawn in a game played by the gods and was in fact abandoned before she was abducted from her home in Greece.  She seems to take a momentary break and then says,


Not you, but I, shall question myself:

What was I thinking…

That’s pretty funny considering the awful context of this defensive speech.

Euripides’ Hecuba, as portrayed in Blessington’s often riveting poetry, is an existential character. She believes life is preferable to the alternative—even in a concentration camp. She prays to the gods but she is not too sure that they are there. At one point she prays,

O support of earth, having your seat on earth—

Air or Zeus—whoever you are, difficult to know,

Either necessity of nature or mind of man..

See this extraordinary play. You’ll not regret it.