Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Gallery of Harlem Portraits by Melvin B Tolson

Gallery of Harlem Portraits
Melvin B Tolson
Edited with an afterword by Robert M. Farnsworth
University of Missouri Press
Columbia, MO 1979
Copyright © 1979 by The Curators of the University of Missouri
276 pages, softbound, no price given

Review by Zvi A. Sesling

Melvin B. Tolson was an interesting man who was born in 1898 in Mississippi and died sixty-eight years later in Dallas, TX.   A black man, he was a poet first and other things second. He is the author of several poetry books, but his masterpiece is considered Gallery of Harlem Portraits.  Its more than two hundred pages of poetic portraits of those living in Harlem in the 1930s and 1940s, though by the titles (often the names of his subjects) one cannot tell if the people are real, or just the title is made up. Nonetheless it is a fascinating read of Harlem lives.

With language born of Langston Hughes, French surrealists, blues singers and the imaging of white poets, Tolson produces numerous memorable lines. Here is part of the poem Augustus Lence as an example.

When a man is down
He’s all alone.
When a man is down
He’s all alone,
Like a homeless dawg
Without A bone

Augustus sat on the stoop in the November night.
Oblong patterns of yellow radiance
Shaped themselves
Along the naked ugliness of tenements.

A block away,
A homing elevated train
Stabbed the Harlem night
With blades of light and sound.

When you’s got de blues
‘Tain’t no use to pray.
When you’s got de blues
‘Taint no use to pray.
Takes a brown-skin gal
To chase de blues away.

In the first stanza or two of every poem the reader is quick to understand where Tolson is headed.  In Duke Huggins we are treated to:

Duke Huggins was master of the Subway,
A gambling den housed in the sheltering shadows
Of a chambered basement on Upper Lenox Avenue.

He was a bronze colossus of a man
With restless gray eyes
Whose hollow chest was framed by enormous shoulders
Bowed from sitting over gaming tables
Through long, tightening hours.

Or there is the man of the cloth who Tolson describes:

The Reverend Isaiah Cloud preached a doctrine
That wormed its way under the skins of churchgoers.
Like an expert sharpshooter,
He hit tirelessly the bull’s-eye of their egotisms.

He never preached in pleasing generalities,
But discoursed on specific private sins and social corruptions
That left no hearer with that lofty hypocrisy
“I thank God that I am not like other men!”

Tolson’s Gallery of Harlem Portraits is interesting from a number of angles. First, the “bios” of the individuals. Second, the poetry. Third, from an historical view of the people who roamed and lived in Harlem in the 1930s and 1940s and finally, for those interested black literature, blues poetry and some history when blacks were Negroes and life was different, this book is where to begin.

Zvi A. Sesling
Reviewer, Boston Small Press and Poetry Scene
Author, King of the Jungle (Ibbetson Street, 2010)
Author,  Across Stones of Bad Dreams (Cervena Barva, 2011)
Editor, Muddy River Poetry Review
Editor, Bagel Bards Anthologies #7 and #8.
Publisher, Muddy River Books

Monday, December 30, 2013

Devotion: A Memoir by Miriam Levine

Miriam Levine

Devotion: A Memoir by  Miriam Levine ( University of Georgia Press) http://www.ugapress.org

Review by Doug Holder

  Each family and each life have their own secrets, their own beauty, and their own warts. Yet each has its own universal characteristics, after all as the song goes "It is still the same old story." And though Levine's story has her own distinct flavor, every person can relate to the overall themes presented in this book. In Miriam Levine's memoir Devotion, Levine an accomplished poet and writer, recounts in stunning detail about her life as a Jewish kid in New Jersey with an idiosyncratic family, and her maturation into a scholar, writer, wife and mother. There are no stick figures in Levine's lush memoir. The people are fleshed out, and Levine, with her gimlet eye, does not miss nuance , affectation, the stray aside, or the damning gesture. In this passage Levine describes her grandmother Molly, and at the same time her own emerging artistic sensibility:

  " The memory of Molly's serenity does not interest me: there are no quirky bumps, no sticky places, and certainly no passion. If she had a personality, her clothes did not reflect it. They were like a habit: old woman's costume. She wore cotton self-belted house dresses, sometimes a white linen babushka, blue felt slippers...She never wore jewelry. Molly was unadorned as a nun--even more so: she had given her wide gold wedding band--it had come from Europe-to a daughter-in-law. Thinking of Molly's hands disturbs me. I wish I could have given her a ring--two rings. She never knew the exact date of her birthday. Sometime in the spring, I believe. Peasants don't keep those type of records."

Levine recounts her years as a student at Boston University; her courtship with an older man who she really did not find attractive, but at the same time she was drawn to. His satyr-like face haunted her for years, and she realized the devil in this man's details was an aphrodisiac. While driving through
Somerville, Mass, the memoirist had an epiphany:

"..I remember Mike's face, the habitual smirk was now a genuine devilish leer, unselfconscious; his head was tossed back; he was about to speak, or rather, make a sound, one of his buzzing sounds of pleasure. There he was-naked, his high broad chest, the glint of fair hair, the flat belly, and narrow hips, and strong, well-shaped legs. His penis was erect, pointing up. His skin was delicate and pink. I found myself grinning into his awful satyr's face. He was ruined and potent. I laughed out loud and let myself remember."

 So often today our writing is in tweets, bytes, flashes--punctuated with LOL--inexpressive fragments of frenzied 21st Century life. Levine is decidedly old school. She is not plugged in to some high tech device, but she is plugged into the world. She stops, she listens, she breathes in deeply, and exhales so the reader can take it all in before returning to the endless rush, the press of the flesh, and the pounding heels of the crowd.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Jacquelyn Malone: A writer of historical verse and poetry of memory lost.

Jacquelyn Malone

Jacquelyn Malone:  A writer of historical verse and poetry of memory lost.By Doug Holder

 Jacqueline Malone has recently written a historical verse novel, and a collection of poetry dealing with her father’s dementia. In many ways she uses research in her creative writing to bring back the memory of the past, and in her new poetry collection she explores the existential crisis of loss of memory and loss of the “self.”

  Malone has been a recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship grant in poetry. Her work has appeared in Poetry Magazine, Beloit Poetry Journal, Cimarron Review, Cortland Review, and Poetry Northwest. The poem published in the Beloit Journal was nominated for the Pushcart Prize. One of the poems published in Poetry was featured on the website Poetry Daily. Her chapbook All Waters Run to Lethe was published by Finishing Line Press in 2011.  She is the editor and writer for masspoetry.org.

Doug Holder: You are editor for http://masspoetry.org-- the website for the Mass. Poetry Festival.  Tell us about your work.

Jacquelyn Malone: Yes. I have been doing it for about two years. It reminds me a great deal of what I did for IBM and Lotus. And that is to make a homepage story that is interesting. I get a lot of stories about the Mass. Poetry Festival up as the event comes closer. I created a series “ The State of Poetry.” And what I find interesting about everyone who writes for it (and there are 14 all together so far) is that everyone has a different sense of what the state of poetry is. I loved learning how different people viewed poetry years ago vs. now. There is an interesting essay from a poet in Western Mass. about the small press and reading scene in that part of the state. We have had such well-known poets as Richard Hoffman, Jennifer Jean , January O’Neil, Charles Coe and others in this essay series.

DH: I read somewhere that you studied poetry with Louise Gluck. How was she as a teacher?

JM: She was very good. I had her my last semester at Warren Wilson. I worked with a lot of accomplished faculty. You had to write a contract about what you were going to do during the semester. I studied with Stephen Dobyns, and well as Gluck, and they both had very different ideas about what makes good poetry. For instance: Dobyns wanted to know how the poem went from here to there, and Gluck would feel you didn't that detail. So it was great...very challenging.

DH: You wrote a historical verse novel “James and Lottie.” It concerns the founding mother and father of Nashville, Tennessee.

JM: Yes. James Robertson and his wife Lottie led the first settlers from the mountains in North Carolina to the Cumberland River in the 1770s. This was about 250 miles if you went overland. The women went by the river route that was supposed to be easy--but they didn't expect the whirlpools, rapids, small pox, Indian attacks, etc...

DH: Why did you choose this to write about?

JM: I am from Tennessee.  I chose it because as a kid I would vaguely hear these stories and never really paid  attention, until all the people I could have asked about it were dead. Then I happened to be in the state archives in Nashville, and started read these journals about this time and the perilous journey these people undertook.

DH: You also explore in this novel how cultural differences and misunderstanding can spark brutality.

JM: When I first became interested I was primarily interested in the women, and what it must of been like to be a mother of two of three children and traveling to a place where you couldn't use a wagon and you had to ride on horseback, and all all the hardships it evoked. Later I became interested in the relationship between James Robertson and the Cherokee Indian chief, Attakullakullah. They got along well...the chef having been to England and fairly literate and Robertson was a very literate man. But things didn't turn out well in the end. The chief's son realized that if the white man came over the mountain it was the end of the Indian way of life.

DH: What are the challenges of writing historical verse?

JM: First of all I read a lot of novels in verse. The challenge is to lead people through the story and not be monotonous. I was very influenced by Christopher Logue  who sort of re-created the Iliad.  It was wonderful-- full of great dialogue--it made quite an impression on me.

DH: You have a new book of poetry  "Playbill for the Gray One." This deals with your father's Alzheimer's Disease.

JM: Yes. There are so many elements of Alzheimer's besides loss of memory. There are personality changes--depression--anger. It was hard to say when it started with my father. My mother reported that he was doing strange things like putting mail in the refrigerator. My brother and I thought my mother was exaggerating. And then one day my parents came  to visit. We all played Scrabble. And he put down the word "puppet" but instead of starting with a "P"--he started with a "T." My daughter laughed and he picked up the card table and threw it in the air. He was furious. And he always had been this gentle man. He still retained certain things. He would tell stories that didn't make sense at all--but he would still have the cadences, etc...of a storyteller.

DH:  In your poetry book you have a scene out of Hamlet-- and your father is a player of sorts in it. He has an existential crisis of being.

JM:  There are 8 segments to that poem, and the segment you discuss he plays Hamlet's father. He is a puppet also. He goes on stage after the guard says: " Who goes there?" The play ends when my father can't say whether he is king, a player, a fool, etc...

A Quantum Elegy
                                                                for E.K. Malone  1940 - 1986

Each seed drifts toward the windshield like a daytime star
or a floating aura around an invisible force.
They lift with the airstream, riding it the length
of the hearse. The train of cars approaching the hillside
hardly disturbs the peaceful procession
of wave on wave of dandelion puffs, one wave
at a time over one grave after another.
They pass the stone wall and flow down the pasture
alongside black and white cows, the rolling hills
green and pink with spring, the seeds
lifting and falling on their way to rest.

O let one of them be that invisible mass
that can become motion and speed backward in time.
Let it — genius of the corporeal world — move me
to an earlier spring where inside a barnyard fence
a brother and sister vie to scatter first
the dandelion heads we each hold;
in the backward flow of time, let the scattered seed
return to each head. For a moment —
o quantum dream — let regeneration wait
while at this graveside we each indulge ourselves
in the fantasy that memory isn’t all we have.

                        Published in Poetry Northwest..

Bagel Bards Celebratory Reading Jan 15, 2014 at Somerville Public Library

Portrait of the Bagel Bards by Bridget Galway

There will be a Bagel Bards Celebratory Reading at the Somerville Library (main branch) , Highland Avenue (next to the High School) on January 15th. There is a pot-luck reception at 6:15 to 7:00P.M. . The reading is from 7:00 P.M. to 8:30P.M. This reading is to celebrate the occasion of the Somerville  Library accepting # 1-8 of Bagels With The Bards Anthologies for permanent archiving in the Local History Room. The Bagel Bards is a literary organization founded by Doug Holder and Harris Gardner in 2004. This group of poets, novelists, playwrights, poseurs, stumble-bums, and whoever joins us on Saturday mornings at 9AM at the Au Bon Pain in Somerville, is an egalitarian group, an informal band of brothers and sisters, outside the mainstream, outside the academy, and just outside from the mandarin environs of the Republic of Cambridge, and the Brahmins of Boston. Some of the readers for the said event:
                                                                  Joseph A. Cohen
                                                                  Dennis Daly
                                                                  Bridget Galway
                                                                  Harris Gardner
                                                                  Steve Glines
                                                                  Lawrence Kessenich
                                                                  Irene Koronas-
                                                                 Gloria Mindock-
                                                                  Limin Mo- 
                                                                  Tomas O'Leary
                                                                  Denise Provost-
                                                                  Lainie Senechal
                                                                  Zvi Sesling- 
                                                                  Wendell Smith
                                                                  Kim Triedman
                                                                  Chris Warner
                                                                  Afaa M. Weaver

Friday, December 27, 2013

Riding Together: A Close Look at Boston Below

Riding Together: A Close Look at Boston Below

Review by Emily Pineau
English major--Endicott College

    It’s more than just deserted subways seats and stairwells in Boston Below, a photographic book and journey through the oldest American subway system by Joseph Votano and Karen Hosking.  In many of images people are shown to be alone, yet they seem to be immersed in another world.  One of the first black and white shots is of a man sitting by himself on one side of a bench in a subway station.  The man’s cane is resting beside him, and he is writing something on a newspaper.  Even though no one is with this man, loneliness is not depicted in this image.  The way the cane is propped next to the man looks like it is connected to the newspaper and pointing towards the empty seats on the bench.  This setup indicates that the newspaper is sufficient enough company for him.  In addition, similar to the shot of the man on the bench, there is a black and white shot of three people leaning up against their own poles in the subway station, but they are all separate from each other.  Even though each of these people is not with someone else, they still have company.  This image shows that these three different people all have something in common; they have a place to go.

     The image that I thought to be the most powerful is of a little boy and girl looking out the window of the subway. The shot is in black and white and the little girl is blurred.  Also, the boy and girl are squished up against each other and only the backs of them are shown.  In this image the lighting makes it look as though the children were painted with watercolors.  It is this painted look that emphasizes the innocence of the children watching the world go by.  The fact that the girl is blurred makes it seem like she is in many places at once.  Not only is she with the boy, but she is also with the people she sees out the window, and in all of the next panels of her journey. 

     Looking at people from an outsider’s perspective helps us to see how we are all connected to each other and to our surroundings.  This feeling is more accessible with just black and white because it makes everyone seem like they are coming from the same place.  Though, the shots that do have color still hold a lot of power, especially since the bright red and oranges reflect the liveliness  of the trains themselves.  The vibrant surroundings of these subways in some of the images show that not only does the subway bring life to the people, but the people bring life to the subway.  Also, Votano’s and Hosking’s images of hands grasping the poles to stay steady on the train are very symbolic to how we all need something to hold onto and how we are all connected somehow. It is very important to recognize that everyone shares the same journey, but we all just get off at different stops.

---- Emily Pineau's poetry has appeared in the anthology, Like One: Poems For Boston, and in newspapers and literary journals such as the Somerville News, The Endicott Observer, The Endicott Review, Ibbetson Street, Muddy River Poetry Review, and Notes from the Gean: Monthly Haiku Journal.  In 2012 her poem, "I would for you" was nominated for a pushcart prize.  In 2013 The Ibbetson Street Press published her poetry collection, No Need to Speak.  The Aurorean chose No Need to Speak as the Editor’s Chap/Book Choice to be featured in their October issue in 2013.  Pineau was also featured on National Public Radio on a station in New Mexico in 2013.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Flying Cats (actually swooping) New and Selected Poems By Dan Sklar

Flying Cats (actually swooping)
New and Selected Poems
By Dan Sklar
Ibbetson Street Press
ISBN: 978-1-304-45004-3
161 Pages

Review by Dennis Daly
In this underground world of spreading fungus, where Fusarium Solani reigns as overlord, Dan Sklar’s crudely drawn, undainty poems of reindeer people and curious animals survive and flourish and we are the better for it. He also etches, in these same chambers, a handful of prose pieces and one act plays shorn of the usual civilized accoutrements, but each with a point that can’t be missed. Past the Hall of Bulls, beyond the Nave of Hand Prints, next to the Hyena Apse, you’ll find the Chamber of Flying Cats. Here the primitive Sklar, using red ochre and carbon black, composes his original art of not-too-serious insights into the nature of human kind and cats—actually, swooping cats.

Sklar, donning his trademark faux bearskins with untucked tee shirt showing, attacks each poetic piece in this throwback bare-boned collection with Paleolithic verve. His inbred Neanderthal genes speak to our own inherited sensibilities and basic needs, our own troglodyte traits. Early-on in his book Flying Cats (actually swooping), the poet stakes out his primordial territory. The second poem in this collection Sklar calls To Be Reindeer People. He chants his way into this Rousseau-like vision. Here’s the heart of the poem,

…Why do you
have to achieve anything
why can’t you just live
and smoke a pipe or
something. When you
are a nomad you
cannot accumulate things.
When you are a nomad you
just can’t do it.
Maybe you read
a book but you have to give it
away or leave it somewhere.
Maybe one book you can carry.
Maybe you ride reindeer
and have sleds
pulled by reindeer.

Notice the phase “or something” in this selection’s third and fourth line. He is in essence arguing his unsophistication and the questionable import of his words. I’m not so sure I’m convinced. The term “holy fool” comes to mind.

Sklar lives and evolves in a futuristic, but natural world where men and animals, cats in particular, attain mystical powers and live in common happiness. Say what?? Okay this may not be our world but it is the world fashioned by this poet and his creative powers are prodigious. In the title poem Flying Cats (Actually Swooping) Sklar posits an outdoor universe of wonder where time slows down, presumably agrarian time. The poet says,

…This is the future
I am thinking of—flying cats in canoes
and  bicycles. Sometimes when
you’re riding your bike a flying cat
will land on your back, sit down
look around, knead your back a little,
then fly off. In the future the principal
means of transportation will be horses
and horse drawn things and bicycles
and walking and trolley cars
and slow trains, not too many motors
for the most part…

Sklar’s poem entitled Primitive is just that, both in technique and subject matter. The poet strips down the syntax and presents us with a triangular standoff of three rather common creatures: a squirrel, a cat, and a human. All seem to be collected around a mythical fire with the human especially entranced. The word repetition adds to its mythic quality. The fire itself gives the piece a strange depth. This is not simply an imagist poem, it strength comes from its aural qualities and its connections with other poems in its vicinity. The poet begins his piece this way,

Shows off

Very primal, very strange! But it does strike a number of interesting atavistic chords.

Keeping his eyes open to details, securing goods for his family, looking for opportunity, Sklar treks to the exotic Eastern climes  in the poem What Is This Poem About. The poet is in search of Thai food and that entails a drive to Ipswich. But hunter-gatherer that he is, a stop must first be made to Brooks Drugstore, where graph paper and notebooks must be secured. The elements oppose the poet’s mission and his communication system has been knocked out (broken car antenna). In the end he emerges from the meadows and the woods to provide for his presumably grateful kin. The poet begins by questioning his own importance,

I don’t know why this is poetry
and why I think it’s important.
I drove to Ipswich in the rain to pick up Thai food.
The evening was still light at 7:00. I went to
Brooks Drugstore first. It was still
raining. I drove into the wet parking lot.
I had on my green cap and navy blue overcoat,
Tee-shirt and sweater. I was 51.

Unpretentious utility has its place, even in poetry. In Sklar’s prose poem Galoshes, literature stretches through space and time as a continuum. He resents those, who would use truth-telling and art (as he believes it to be) to secure fame or elevate their own ambitions. The purity the poet seeks is, of course, unattainable, but appealing nevertheless. His repeated sentence “The world stops at the word galoshes” embraces everyday usefulness and straightforwardness and rejects the artsy-fartsy route. The poet rants,

…I have taken my spirit out of
The poetry business. I would trust a lying, cheating, dirty, crooked
businessman over an ambitious poet any day. The world stops at
the word galoshes…

Sklar’s one act play Jeff and Walt in New Orleans portrays Walt Whitman and his brother after they have helped create a viable newspaper in New Orleans, been let go, and are having second thoughts about their milquetoast interaction with the local slave trade. In the end the author reduces everything to a climatic punch in the nose. How barbaric. How satisfying.

The last piece in the collection is a poem entitled Going to The Opera. Ever the philistine Sklar reduces the experience of opera to cleanliness, attractive scents, argyle socks, and bare shoulders. The poet says in explanation,

…you must
take a shower before going
and put on clean clothes
and dress up very neatly.
It is good to be clean
With other clean people.
Some women wear perfume.
It smells good.

Sometimes the primitive experience can liberate the soul in elegant simplicity. Sklar’s work does this. You want to reread and revisit his utilitarian artistic visions over and over. Besides, they smell good.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Drunk with Richard Yates, sipping soda with Liberace, and the author of a new novel: Interview with writer Daniel Gewertz

Danile Gewertz

  Somerville resident Daniel Gewertz made a living as a Boston-based freelance journalist for 28 years, writing largely about music, theater and movies. From 1995 to 2005, he wrote a weekly Boston Herald column on folk and blues music. Over the years, Gewertz has written for periodicals ranging from Harvard Magazine, Boston Globe Magazine and  New York Times, to the Cambridge Chronicle and The Tab.  

In the last 10 years, Gewertz turned his attentions toward more creative writing, namely personal essays, short memoir pieces, story-telling and fiction. Recently, he completed his first novel, "Ghost To Genius." He frequently performs his work on stage.  He has taught writing at Cambridge Center for Adult Ed., Brookline Center for Adult Ed., Lesley University and Bay State Community College. He holds a B.S. from Boston University in journalism. Or rather, he keeps it in a bottom bureau drawer.

With Doug Holder

Doug Holder: In your career as a journalist at the Boston Herald and elsewhere you have had many experiences with significant figures in the arts.  You told me you had lunch with Glen Close, a soda with Liberace, and you got drunk with the novelist Richard Yates, author of the novel Revolutionary Road. Tell me about your experience with Yates—he is a favorite author of mine.

Dan Gewertz:  That was a strange thing. This was during the time The Boston Herald had a pretty decent sized Sunday magazine back in the 80s. I needed a few hours of interviews for a good story. He was teaching at Boston University at the time. I don’t believe he wrote his last novel yet. But he was drinking extremely heavily. We were at the bar  the “Crossroads” in the Back Bay of Boston. Both of us drank an enormous amount during the afternoon. I got 3 hours of him on tape. After the first hour he became more and more slurry and confused. I ended up being baffled what to do with the interview because I I didn’t want to show him in a bad light. So I never used it until it the interview was used on Robin Young’s radio show on WBUR. So I was able to use the interview after all the years that had past.

DH: Recently you finished writing a novel Ghost to Genius. One of the themes is the disconnect between commercial success and artistic talent.

DG: The novel is an emotional journey not only a message novel. But—on that theme—especially with music and movies—I feel that they have been brought down to the lowest common denominator. It has always been true that intellectuals looked down on anything that was popular. The Golden Age of Hollywood in the late 1930s and 40s was dismissed by people of this ilk as sentimental garbage. But the studios really knew how to create art in those days. And now…well..with Hollywood today, they found out that people under 45 weren’t going to the movies, so they made movie for 20 and 30 year old people.. Then they found out people in their 30s weren’t going to the movies so they made movies for people ages 10 to 24  The blockbuster has taken over…same with music. When I wrote for the Herald I mostly wrote about the blues, jazz, American roots music…stuff that was outside the mainstream.

DH: The future of journalism, at least print journalism, looks pretty bleak. 

DG: Yeah. I left the Herald in 2011.  As far as I know the Herald is presently operating with a skeleton staff. The days when newspapers look for local-out of the way-stories, is a thing of the past. Now, an art/entertainment critic, has to write about the biggest productions and try to find something interesting to say about them. Lady Gaga  is written more about than other serious artists.

My book Ghost to Genius takes all this as an underpinning. The story of the book is about a little known, middle-aged singer/songwriter Philip Levinson. He is making a bare living with his songs despite having a sterling critical reputation. He has been at it a long time and he is becoming demoralized. He is a widower, a loner, and he gets an opportunity when he meets a high-powered entertainment lawyer in New York City. The lawyer wants him to be a ghost writer for a legendary singer/songwriter who can’t write anymore. The legendary singer is playfully based on Bob Dylan. So it is a secret job—if Levinson tells anyone he loses it and all the money that comes with it. But this is also a fun novel. There are depictions of Cambridge and Somerville that is full of eccentric people.

DH: You teach memoir writing.  Aren’t the same essential elements of fiction true for memoir: character development, realistic dialogue, vivid description, setting, etc…?

DG: Those are all good. I tell students that the bottom line for  a good memoir is one that provides an emotional punch and a great story. All of memoir is based on memory—and why this memory mean so much to the author. In terms of getting all the facts right , I try to research things because the reader may think why should I believe the author if many of the facts are wrong or inaccurate.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Greek for Beginners at the Grolier: Therese Sellers’ ALPHA IS FOR ANTHROPOS

Greek for Beginners at the Grolier: Therese Sellers’ ALPHA IS FOR ANTHROPOS

article by Michael T. Steffen

Last Friday evening, 13 December 2013, in the Grolier Poetry Bookshop among an animated gathering of bibliophiles there stood a woman of pronounced Hellenic features with a generous smile chanting children’s rhymes to the tunes of “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow”, “Row Row Row Your Boat”, “The Itsy Bitsy Spider”, “Sur le Pont d’Avignon” and “Dona Nobis Pacem” among others. While the melodies rang familiar, the words being sung by Therese Sellers were, well, Greek to me—and to the rest of the audience.
     “Life is beautiful” one song told us. “The bridge is falling down”another song reminded us, while yet another celebrated our love for all animals.
     Sellers was at the Grolier to promote her new book ALPHA IS FOR ANTHROPOS: AN ANCIENT GREEK ALPHABET, comprised of a chart of the Greek alphabet and twenty-four nursery rhymes featuring rudimentary words in ancient Greek each for one of the letters in the alphabet. The songs are presented on the left-hand pages accompanied on the facing pages with illustrations done by Therese’s sister Lucy Bell Jarka-Sellers. She was also present at the book promotion.
     “The drawings are not intended to reproduce the style of Greek vase paintings exactly,” Sellers explains in the Preface to her new book. “Instead they present the motifs and style of red-figure vase painting in a way that both appeals to children and prepares them to look at real Greek vases with pleasure and understanding.”
     In the Preface the author also tells the story of how she invented the Greek nursery rhymes and set them to familiar tunes as a mnemonic aid to introduce Ancient Greek to children, using her godson Alexander as “my guinea pig.”
     This is stolen from the cover jacket comments:
Therese Sellers and Lucy Bell Jarka-Sellers began studying Ancient Greek as teenagers and went on to study Classics at Harvard. Their first artistic collaboration was a production of Euripides’ Bacchae in the Harvard football stadium for which Therese directed the chorus in Ancient Greek and Lucy Bell drew the iconic publicity poster in the style of a Greek red figure vase. After graduate studies in Classics, both sisters became teachers. While Lucy Bell teaches upper-level Greek and Latin, Therese specializes in teaching Ancient Greek to younger students.

     To assist the reader with the melodies and the drawings, a KEY TO THE SONGS & NOTES ON THE ILLUSTRATIONS is provided at the back of the book.
     It is a handsome 11 x 8.5 hardbound edition, the kind kids love to look at held up before them while reading along. Well worth its value, ALPHA IS FOR ANTHROPOS makes an ideal gift and keepsake for Greek students of all ages.

by Therese Sellers, illustrated by Lucy Bell Jarka-Sellers
published by Cricket Press
Ascanius Youth Classics Institute  www.ascaniusyci.org
56pp, is available for $35
at the Grolier Poetry Bookshop

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Lorna Goodison’s Supplying Salt and Light poems

Book review: Lorna Goodison’s Supplying Salt and Light poems

Reviewer:    Pam Rosenblatt

Title:        Supplying Salt and Light

Author:        Lorna Goodison

Publisher:    McClelland & Stewart, Toronto, Ontario, 2013

Pages:        121

Binding:    Paperback

Cost:        $18.99

To most people, religion is simply a belief in a god or gods with rules to abide by. But this word “religion” represents even more to you personally when you think about its importance in everyday life and about why it is so important to you.

    Lorna Goodison’s Supplying Salt and Light is a 121 page poetry book, published by McClelland & Stewart in 2013, that deals with a lot of themes: identity, home, journey, art, music, family, etc. And these subjects all seem to stem from the major topic of religion. In this review, identity is discussed while Goodison takes you on journeys from Jamaica, where she was born and raised, from Spain and Portugal, from Africa and Europe, and from the United States. She really keeps our minds travelling through her reestablishment or confirmation of her identity. While the topic of religion may make some people uncomfortable, Goodison  writes about religion without forcing you, the reader,  to take sides.  Her religion is part of her Jamaican heritage, and she’s at ease trying to figure out what part it plays in her life.

    In her opening poem, “To Make Various Sorts of Black”, Goodison writes about different types of “black” colored objects.  Although she is African from Jamaica, she doesn’t use the word “black” as a colloquialism for people of African descent in this poem. She refers mainly to “several kinds of black colours” that are “derived from soft black stone./It is a fat colour; not hard at heart, a stone unctioned” or “a black that is obtained from vine twigs” or “the black that is scraped from burnt shells” or the “Black of scorched earth, of torched stones of peach;/ twisted trees that bore strange fruit” or “And then there is the black that is the source of light/From a lamp full of oil such as any thoughtful guest/Waiting for bride and groom who cometh will have.” While the pain of the indentured slaves who traveled from Africa in the slave boats is present here, and Goodison refers to those buried at sea when she writes “Markers of Atlantic’s graves”, the poet never directly writes that her ancestors or she are “Black”. She only implies it. This point makes the opening poem more abstract and difficult to understand. But after reviewing “To Make Various Sorts of Black” many times and reading the other poems in the book, you probably will understand that Goodison’s identity is not “Black” but African along with a mixture of artist, poet, mother, daughter, traveler, and religious person. Here is the opening poem:

To Make Various Sorts of Black

According to The Craftman’s Handbook, chapter XXXVII
“Il Libro dell Arte” by Cerrino d’Andrea Cennini

who tells us there are several kinds of black colours.
First, there is a black derived from soft black stone.
It is a fat colour; not hard at heart, a stone unctioned.

Then there is a black that is obtained from vine twigs.
Twigs that choose to abide on the true vine
offering up their bodies at the last to be burned,

then quenched and worked up, they can live again
as twig of the vine black; not a fat, more of a lean
colour, favoured alike by vinedressers and artists,

There is also the black that is scraped from burnt shells.
    Markers of Atlantic’s graves.
Black of scorched earth, of torched stones of peach;
    twisted trees that bore strange fruit.

And then there is the black that is the source of light
from a lamp full of oil such as any thoughtful guest
waiting for bride and groom who cometh will have.

A lamp you light and place underneath – not a bushel –
but a good clean every day dish that is fit for baking.
Now bring the little flame of the lamp up the under

surface of the earthenware dish (say a distance of two
or three fingers away) and the smoke that emits
from that small flame will struggle up to strike at clay.

Strike till it crowds and collects in a mess or a mass;
now wait, wait a while please, before you sweep this
colour – now sable velvet soot – off onto any old paper

or consign it to shadows, outlines, and backgrounds.
Observe: it does not need to be worked up nor ground;
it is just perfect as it is. Refill the lamp, Cennini say.

As many times as the flames burns low, refill it.

    Just the lines read “Refill the lamp, Cennini say./ As many times as the flames burns low, refill it”, suggesting the reader keep renewing his or her faith as in religious and/or ethnic identity as well as imagination, Goodison writes how important it is for you to use “Bookmarks for Eyes”.
In this poem, “Bookmarks for Eyes”, she has created a persona of a puppeteer who may or may not be representative of Lorca. This puppeteer says, “Bookmarks, he says, they will keep reading/for you long long after you close your eyes.//So we buy a purple one and pray it will not strain our sincere tries at clean clear prose.”  Goodison has abstractly caught your attention. The image of a bookmark pressed against the words written on two pages of a closed book is visually present through the imagination.
Then Goodison interjects her own personal and religious fears and conflicts about reconstructing her identity. In the two stanzas below, she nervously questions God:

        What do You want from me? All I desired
        Was a quiet life grafting poems onto roses
        singing slow at home near blue mountains.

        What am I searching for outside this known
        World, why am I a followfashion Columbus
        gone off the map, and here there be dragons.

Having journeyed such places as Spain, Portugal,  Denmark, and parts of the United States, the narrator is an explorer, interested in finding new experiences through traveling new countries as well as through the mind’s imagination.  She is “a followfashion Columbus/gone off the map, and here there be dragons.” Things are not as “quiet life grafting poems onto roses/singing slow at home near blue mountains.” She is experiencing life that she had only read about before in books while in Jamaica, and some of the experiences are not “clean clear prose” but are like “dragons”, or perhaps Goodison means sinful and frightening. Her morals are being tested through her quest to explore “outside this known/world”.
    The narrator speaks about her pilgrimages to Egypt and north and south Africa as well as the atrocities that happened to the abducted Africans during slavery times in her long and wonderfully powerful poem “Remember Us in Motherland”. Goddison writes how she hopes history will never repeat itself:

Jacob, I want to know not for recrimination
for that could make everyone criminal
all over again, I just want to know in the way

of a hard-head poet on whose left knee is a maroon
birthmark triangular: goods, slaves, sugar.
Marked by Africa.

Like “a friend who swears fear rode shotgun, sat sour/beside him, protecting him from being surprised by joy,/until the year he made African pilgrimage,” the narrator recalls, “I spoke so to the golden head of young King Tut, sweetfaced as my own son. Jacob, I went to Egypt, which too is Africa. I have journeyed to the north and south of Africa.”
    The narrator’s travels make her and her assumed-to-be son, “Jacob”, aware of the pains of her past ancestors, as implied when Goodison writes:

Jacob, your voice calls me back. “Where in the world,” you ask,
“are the burying grounds for slaves?” And my mind answers:
In the blue boneyard of the Atlantic; along whale roads, railways,

and highways; in mortar edifices of empires, field of sugar cane,
cotton, tobacco, and humus at the root of cotton trees; in Jazz,
and Rocksteady, in our music. I crossed with my people, you know

I came with them as a chanter girl.

Gladly I toil for my people as chantwelle, to sing of patron saints
of the overworked. Annoint with almond oil the limbs
of girlchildren fanning that wringing wet pile of southern girls

underdressed, hoop skirtless Kara Walker belles, Gone with the Wind….

    Goodison ends the poem with the simple request to “Jacob”, “… So Jacob, if you find the griot tell her, tell him, that till I lend/my blacktar skin into whatever earthroad I will be interred; on behalf of/foremother who pushed back downpression through muzzle-tongue of iron,//remember us in motherland.”
    Lorna Goodison has compiled a fine book of poems with Jamaican idiomatic expressions and perspective on life. Through her religious influences, Supplying Salt and Light delves into Goodison’s love of ethnic and cultural identity.  What she has to write is important as is religion vital to understanding the makeup of a person’s being, or identity. After all, wouldn’t we all like to be “remember(ed) in (our individual) motherland”? Supplying Salt and Light is an eye-opening, thought-intriguing read for you readers who appreciate a solid reach into the theme of identity.