Friday, September 14, 2012

Winter Tales II: Women on the Art of Aging edited by R.A. Rycraft and Leslie What


Winter Tales II: Women on the Art of Aging
            edited by R.A. Rycraft and Leslie What

 Review by Alice Weiss

            If there  is an art to aging it is one we invent as we go along.  Art involves at the very least a particular way of seeing experience.  In this anthology there is a broad variety of such visions in  poems, essays, memoir and cartoons from women writers engaged in the project of inventing their old age.  The intended audience is also women and women “of a certain age.”  But I don’t think this is unjust.  Such an anthology has more than an underlying theme, it has a thrust, a purpose.  That is to counter the messages of the dominant culture. It hardly needs mention that for women age compounds the already difficult project of creating and sustaining an independent and autonomous self.  Speaking, writing words is a way of contending with that.  These are the words of that project.
            The scope of the material is broad and various, but the editors have not explicitly organized the material into themes, nonetheless certain themes do emerge, problems are defined, challenges explored.  Without intending to limit the richness of the individual pieces, I will explore some of these as they thread through the collection.  
            Here is the first theme, the clear challenge of age: the body.  It’s no longer the one you knew.  Every piece deals with this one way or another, some explicitly. Here are only one or two examples. In a poem that regards the body as an ironic “House of Mercy” Hester L. Fury recognizes, “I have to live here/ in these guts, these bones.”  In another poem, “The View from Here,” Betty Lynn Husted’s younger self cries out in horror at “A bent and hobbling woman /crossing the highway. . .”     but now through “joint pain.  Bone loss—lace designs on X-rays” she honors her.  Now she understands something in her “is already broken,” but she is still dancing across the kitchen floor.  Leigh Anne Joshaway in her essay “Facing Facts,” (note the pun) laughs her way through the shock of looking in the mirror and seeing, not her own, but Phyllis Diller’s lined and twisted mug.
            Another challenge: age has a bad reputation. This is nowhere clearer than in Jan Eliot’s comic strip, “Stone Soup,”  three panels of which are included. Grandma announces she is hosting her weekly poker game at their house, and the granddaughter says, “ I thought little old ladies played Bridge.” Grandma  in a last frame, “I could arm wrestle you into the DUST, Missy.”  Despite the bad rep or maybe because of it, age has hidden treasures and they are not here the traditional clich├ęs. Elizabeth Murakowski, “I sin so much harder now.”  Ursula Le Guin; “the expertise of being lame. . . the silent furtive welcome of delay.”  Dorianne Laux, “Eventually the future shows up everywhere. . .[you] name the past and drag it behind/ bag like a lung filled with shadow and song,/dream of running, the keys to lost names.” 
            Michelle Bitting’s poem “Patti Smith after the premiere of ‘Dream of Life,’” takes that bad rep and shakes it like a dog shakes off water.  She builds from complex series of traditional and pop culture allusions.  The movie the title refers to is an account of the life of the seminal rock star as she returns to her career after a two decade break, a woman on stage with a “mannish mug,” “razor chin and dingy teeth,” “unshaven pits,” in short, a woman who defies conventions of female attractiveness yet who still brings an audience to “the hellfire heavens…[belting] the soaring refrain: G—l—o—r—i—a.”  Imagined  at first in the voice of two puzzled Jersey matrons wishing oddly to have been something like her, the speaker turns to her own sense of the singer in the final lines to address Patti Smith with this extraordinary invocation: 
 You are tracking Blake’s ghost
though the cemeteries, parks
and urinals of Paris,
every place his bony
misunderstood ass
is know to have squatted
and scribbled something beautiful
while taking an ordinary
everyday, entirely human piss.

            To evoke Blake’s  ghost is to remind us of another aspect of our lives, How things continue across time no matter what.  Just as we still read long dead poets, our lives contain facts that move through time as if there were no change and yet we see them anew as we change.  Diane McWhorter’s essay, “Stay Calm, Nothing Is Under Control” explores her life as an independent crafts person in a long lasting hippy community in California. She reaps the warmth and inventiveness of a life outside the ordinary institutions, but also recognizes the requirement to reinvent all the time grows wearying and dangerous she grows weaker.  In Lauren Davis’s essay, “Breaking Down”  the writer shows how age magnifies the always strange, strained relationship of mother and daughter.  The disintegration of the mother’s body becomes a metaphor for the difficulty of the relationship.  There is the failure of skin to maintain its protection of the body.  She sees an elbow bone all too clearly as if the  mother’s pain is demanding to be seen, as if that exposure were what love is.
            Pain is not the only continuous thing. Pleasures continue. In Alicia Ostriker’s wonderful long poem, “Approaching Seventy,” she explores the presence of past in the loving relationships with nature and with her husband.   Daring also continues. In ‘White Chin Hair and a Lonely Female Ccardinal,” Roisin McClean’s first person speaker relates an incident: she is masturbating in her bedroom with audible cries and sighs, sure that the house is empty, only to discover that her visiting daughter’s boyfriend had remained in the house and heard everything. This is defiance, the comedy of age.  Everything continues.
            And nothing continues. Finally we come up against the true thing, to age is to approach death.  It is to feel a fear with an intensity only glanced at earlier, perhaps after one has avoided a car crash on a rain slick highway, slipped at the edge of a balcony, or at the Grand Canyon.  In an essay notable for its calm acceptance, Supriya Bhatnagar’s “Memories and Misgivings: Death of a Friend” explores the imminence of  death in the loss of a friend.  She includes a careful and simple discussion of  Ashrama, the four stages of life in the Hindu religion, information added, almost it seems, for our comfort. In Elizabeth Murawsaki’s poem “Incense of the Blythe” she holds on, with humor and beauty, “It kills. . .[ her]. . . to die/ in the midst of orchards.”  And in another  Alicia Ostriker poem, a confession and  subtle metaphor in “Insomnia”
you brag to friends you won’t mind death only dying

what a liar you are—
all the other fears, of rejection, of physical pain,
of losing your mind, of losing your eyes,

they are all part of this!
Pawprints of this!  hair snarls in your comb—
Now notice the clock is the single light in the room—

            What the editors have done with this anthology is to define and redefine the “art” of aging.  It’s unquestionably worth a good read.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Terezin B.Z. Niditch


B.Z. Niditch

Phrygian Press

58-09 205th Street

Bayside, New York


31 Pages

Review by Dennis Daly

These deadening lines of sometimes discerning, sometimes defiling dissonance bestir us, hector us like some Old Testament prophet enumerating past horrors, here and there naming names and, above all, accusing the future, which harbors all of us, of ignorance or worse—complicity.

In the title poem Terezin the Eastern European world of 1942 passes by the cattle cars carrying the stunned Jewish families to the holding town or ghetto of Terezin, where many of them would be sent on to their appointed concentration camps and, of course, their deaths. The poet laments,

I carried my days

until we remain only a body

a historian’s vague nightmare

to a destination marked Terezin

with our aims throwing off

thin suitcases, blankets, towels

up to our waist in human dirt.

And this is just the beginning. The intensity and stridency of horror continues,

my father simply puffed out

by terror and night after nightmare

jumped off the train

from the bare-iced sheets

by howling hysteria

of mother pregnant with another life.

I know of no appropriate frame of mind or mood that can be easily summoned to handle this type of unrelenting assault well. But the insistent poem presses on. The prophet /poet wisely modulates the tone in two places by describing a child with a serious injured eye. Pathos is momentarily accommodated but barely acknowledged. Here is the earlier of these two affecting sections,

a warm boy holds out his hand

with tightly sweated fingers

his injured eye resembling

a yellow flamed torch lamp

no one wishes to acknowledge.

My Century, the very next poem in this disquieting collection, continues the righteous hectoring and the dissonance. It ends this way,

Those who forgive evil are the unforgiven.

Those who are good are known to the unknown.

Statistics cry in the night.

Statisticians of death have clean bureaucratic faces.

Historians move over the bodies.

Theologians move no one, not even


Another poem that reflects on the tyranny of the Nazi years is 1944: Mid Europa. It works as a litany. Here is the Vichy France section,

death angels are desolate

hungary for children’s O negative

Quisling eats a four-course meal

Maurice Chevalier bows

Celine asks for human freight

Genet asks for primal sympathy…


Sartre is recreative

Edith Piaf loses herself.

Niditch’s cumulative jeremiad reaches a crescendo with the poem, Berlin. Here the poet harangues,

Alleys close to joyless beggars.

A mighty fortress topples from metaphysics.

Wittgenstein has a solipsis of schoolboys.

Elan has its own gauntness for Heinrich Heine.

One’s cheekbones show our injustice.

Fashion coexists with fascism.

Believe it or not, the poet does back off for breath on occasion. The result is positively efficacious. The poem Exile of Boston contributes this persona-revealing piece of self-knowledge embedded in a striking image of an immigrant,

What playfulness

or riddled disasters

can I offer Boston

an exile in tentative sadness

when bitchery enthusiasms

self-indulgent necrologies

are put on this shoeless

pawned overcoat of a man

holding up a foreign body…

Also imagistic and a bit romantic is a piece called Boston Waterfront. The poet limns the scene this way,

A stranger’s tongue

squares off

I overheard

the freshness of water

and the fish bleed

in the delirium

of an exiled morning.

In the latitude

of transparent wind the blue-green ocean

outspoken in mortality

in the sanguine port calls

I am not ashamed

to weep along the sea wall

counting voices on the wharf.

In the poem Another Tryst Niditch reveals a well-wrought set of Kafka-like images. Nightmares and long corridors certainly seem to go together. The poet describes,

Now silence

is frozen in a well-lit

night spot

your spiky heels

will offer daily nightmares

and your understanding

creaking blows

of the cold long corridors.

The poet waxes subtlety and even bit of elegance in the poem entitled In Memory of C. Day Lewis. Notice that the subject has not changed, nor has the horror receded. The poet has simply put aside his prophetic gown for the moment. He says,

He was there in the sun

when nothing but a lilac

cold shouldered in the blitz

as the face of the dusk

fought the crime of night

The final poem in this chapbook returns to the poet’s prophetic tone and uses a staccato delivery. Niditch compels us to listen,

A chemical zyclon b2

To hell with D’Annunzio

Red flags us down

Eterna, play the chamber music

Leonardo is not only your cat

Michaelangeli plays Scarlatti

The red bearded snow dances

Where the streets are palmed

boys play boccie thinking of sex

Each generation offered

out from Moloch’s olfactory steel

for bread…

This is the second book of Niditch’s that I have reviewed. The first one—Lorca at Sevilla, filled with imagistic logic, I enjoyed more. In this one, enjoyment is beside the point. The poet here conveys his words with a prophet’s shrillness that overwhelms with its import and uneasy necessity. This chapbook needs to be read.

Monday, September 10, 2012

A Strange Frenzy: 17 Poems by Dom Gabrielli

A Strange Frenzy: 17 Poems
by Dom Gabrielli
Englewood, NJ: Unbound Content
ISBN-13: 978-1-936373-29-1
43 pages
Release date: July 2012

Review by David P. Miller

Dom Gabrielli, a poet based in Salento, Italy, and writing in English, has produced this volume of responses to the works of Rumi, a 13th century Persian poet and Sufi mystic. Rumi’s ecstatic writing is probably best known in English through translations by Coleman Barks, with many other translations also available (see In his introduction, Gabrielli says that, although he had read Barks’ translations many times, his spirit took fire upon further rereading, and it was “almost as if my words were dictated to me.”

Each of Gabrieilli’s poems, titled simply with Roman numerals, is paired with a quotation from Rumi on the facing page. While it is not certain that the poems are direct responses to the quotations, it is intriguing to read them as if they were. I find that, considering the work from this perspective, Rumi and Gabrielli stand in counterpoint in different ways. In one instance, Rumi finds the beloved in every atom:

There’s a strange frenzy in my head,
of birds flying,
each particle circulating on its own.
Is the one I love everywhere?

Gabrielli’s paired poem (IV) may arise, in part, from his occupation producing extra virgin olive oil. Its physicality also points from materiality toward something ineffable:

every wane of dawn
with wicker basket and knife
with brown boots and burning fingers

i walk the same mounds of red earth
inhale perfumes of chamomile and fennel
watch the calendula open and close
its orange cup of promise

[.  .  .]

twisting black snake my basking companion

silence my mentor

my poems call Venus from the sky

Gabrielli’s poem XV seems to take Rumi’s simple expression of deep intimacy in a different and perhaps darker direction. Rumi:

How do we keep our love-secret?
We speak from brow to brow
and hear with our eyes.

Gabrielli’s poem concludes:

i do not need to look to find your mouth
nor call to hear your eyelashes caress my chest

you have grown vast also
like the deep underground rivers
without which you whole land of liars
would lie beneath us in cinders

This volume is dedicated to love, to the absolute unification of lover and beloved, beyond the ability to be expressed, and yet compelling expression. I am only somewhat familiar with Rumi’s poetry, but what always stands out is the parallelism between the discovery of matchless love between persons, and the absorption of the seeker into unity with God. As one consequence, the pronouns “I” and “you” become ambiguous, as they may refer to either level of reality, or both at once. I find this at points in Gabrielli’s poems as well. Poem XIV evinces both the ecstasy and the shifting sense of person:

[.  .  .]

throw me higher
than light falls on a leaf

kiss me there
in the vanishing dew of dawn

every word i write
has been to travel here

to where the dew evaporates

to where your fingers expose
the inaccurate beauty of love

to touch with my lips
the opening of the heavens

This is paired with a quotation from Rumi, in which the persons indicated by pronouns may be read in at least two dimensions simultaneously:

The inner secret of that which was never born,
you are that freshness, and I am with you now.

In the foreword to his earlier volume, The Parallel Body (Ziggurat Books, 2009), Gabrielli says that the writing “explores several ‘you’s’ as it travels toward a definition of love through poetry, towards a very intimate ‘you’, towards a harmony, both graceful and joyful, for which the poet can only be grateful.” A Strange Frenzy is evidently another step in that direction.

This is an elegant landscape-format chapbook, with cover art and line drawings by Emily Faccini. I wish that the Rumi translations had been credited, both simply to know whose work they are and also to allow for further exploration. Nevertheless, this encounter has me interested in reading more by Dom Gabrielli, and most likely to re-investigate the Persian mystic poets as well.