Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Two Colors Of The Soul: The Selected Poetry Of Dmytro Pavlychko


Two Colors Of The Soul:
The Selected Poetry Of
Dmytro Pavlychko
Copyright 2012© by Dmytro Pavlychko
Cervena Barva Press
Edited and with an introduction
by Michael M. Naydan
Somerville, Massachusetts
Softbound, 90 pages, $17
ISBN: 978-0-9883713-0-9

Review by Zvi A. Sesling

When reading a translation of poetry, usually one poet has translated. In this volume of Dmytro Pavlychko’s verse the Ukrainian-to-English is accomplished by eight translators.
One would think that eight different people bringing a Ukrainian poet to the English speaking word would result in an uneven, choppy book. However, the opposite is true in this presentation by Cervena Barva Press. The eight translators have made a unified collection, bring to English readers a Ukrainian poet who deserves wider recognition.

In the poem I Must, translated by Dzvinia Orlowsky he presents us with what Americans would refer to as a “bucket list” but is more like a self-awakening:

I Must

I must read books
so that I won’t become blind.
I must speak
so that I won’t grow mute from grief.
I must hear a song
so that I won’t fall deaf with silence.
I must fall in love
for joy to move toward me.
I must see my friend
for the day to become brighter.
I must write a poem
for my heart not to break.
I must work
to feel worthy of bread.
I must die at midnight
so the in the morning I may rise again!

In a poignant encounter with the Chernobyl dead zone, Pavlychko tells us how a possession once owned by someone might feel about no longer being owned.

The Plaything
(translated by Aliona Sydorenko)

In the Chornobyl dead zone
in a hut on a bench
there sits a man
sculpted of clay
the likeness of a god
unafraid of the radiation

He has been sitting for fourteen years
looking at the door with sadness
waiting for it to be opened
by his maker
the blond-haired boy
But the boy does not come
does not open the door
and the clay man
continues to sit and wait

A number of Pavlychko’s poems have built in irony, none more ironic than Too Late Too Soon in which we discover how unnecessary we are:

Too Late Too Soon
(translated by Aliona Sydorenko)
In whatever century
you’re born,
it will always be too late and too soon!
Too late, because everything most important
in this world
has already happened without you,
too soon, because everything most important
in this world
will happen without you too.

Pavlychko’s poetry is truly in the Eastern European mold which if you have not discovered you should. The photograph of him on the back cover is one of a stern, hard person who has lived through a lot, seen even more. Graying, balding with thick eyebrows and deep set blue eyes, Pavlychko looks more the stern politician than poet.

However, make no mistake his poetry is deep, accessible and worth a reading – and to be sure you enjoy its fullness, read it twice.

Zvi A. Sesling
Reviewer, Boston Area Small Press and Poetry Scene
Author, King of the Jungle and Across Stones of Bad Dreams
Editor, Muddy River Poetry Review
Editor, Bagel Bards Anthology 7
Editor, Bagel Bards Anthology 8

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

John Keothe’s 9th, ROTC Kills: the Poetry of Articulated Consciousness

John Keothe’s 9th, ROTC Kills: the Poetry of Articulated Consciousness

by Michael T. Steffen

Poets dissolve or digest their inherited turns of mind and come into their own unique idiom, and from there can talk themselves into what they become. Few un-shield this talent as does John Koethe. In “Like Gods,” one of the inserted prose meditations of his new book of poems ROTC Kills (HarperPerennial), the poet unravels this line of thought:

despite the certainty I have, I’ve no idea what I really am, or where, and as for “searching nature,” I have no idea even where to start. These matters mean the world to me, and yet no matter how I come to grips with them, they slip away. I and here and now are ever present, yet they vanish in the act of apprehension, as a poem turns into language as you write it down (p. 37).

How agile a thought: something disappearing is like something appearing, so long present being, hello poem. The representation of a thing supplants the thing itself, which isn’t even a thing since Koethe’s scrutinized and elusive ideal, topos, inspiration is “the whole of creation, through the long song of myself” (“The Whole of Creation,” p. 21). For all the grandeur and homage to patriarchy in the spirit of this declaration, which underlies a continuity of optimism or acceptance throughout the book (“acknowledgment” may be the term, Koethe’s correlative for Whitman’s “embrace”), the composite of his discursive and fluent self portrait is well dampened, ordinary, anecdotal—and riddled with self-examining insights that transcend confession as they transcend personality into a broader sphere of cultural and philosophical supra-common place.

An honored poet disciplined in Philosophy, Koethe also surprises us with his utterly contemporary candor and unflinching fluency. In this sense, the poet makes himself plain, accessible, identifiable—especially at the opening of his poems which seem just to come out as from a breath momentarily held:

There are feelings you expect to have

And satisfactions you hope to find

In the course of an ordinary day…

(“The End of the Line,” p. 1)

There are four movies that I saw

Between the ages of ten and fourteen that became

Parts of my life, for what that’s worth…

(“Alfred Hitchcock,” p. 12)

Even Koethe’s more speculative topics are brought up in this direct, easy manner:

I love the past tense, but you can’t live there.

I love the stories you believe add up to you,

Though they never do…

(“Stele,” p. 17)

No one has to write any special way—

You make it up as you go along. I started

Writing this way—no thoughts at first,

Then a lot of words in the guise of thoughts,

Then real thoughts—a long time ago.

You can write or think about death directly,

Or you can write about it by indirection

And delay…

(“1135,” p. 52)

The self-possessed poet can also talk himself out of whatever it is from his cultural inheritance she or he can no longer embrace. Identifying illusions, specious persuasions and disappointments provides a major current in the poems of ROTC Kills. The mere passage of time makes an illusion of things and ideas which once were able to animate. This is a pivotal theme in the collection’s title poem “ROTC Kills.” In the articulate consciousness of the time being, memory, past events, for Koethe, crop up not to merge with and season the present but to stand in contrast to it, for comparison:

I’m retired, I’m sitting in a house I made

In my imagination years ago, that now is real.

On the walls are posters from the Harvard

Strike in 1969 I saved for their designs

And then forgot about, and now they’re here:


FOR THE 8 DEMANDS, and then the best of all,

In small red letters with three red bayonets,

rotc kills (pronounced rot-cee kills). From here inside

Time seems unreal, I’m back in graduate school,

But then the mind ascends and time becomes objective,

I’m myself again, at home again, and sixty-four.

Time becomes objective, not because Koethe is repossessed by lost time that has come to suffuse an otherwise tenuous, somewhat hollow present. Unlike Proust’s madeleine, the posters from the 1969 Harvard student strike conjure nothing any longer memorably tangible or attainable for Koethe. In this instance of confronting particularly the cultural revolution of the sixties, time becomes objective because Koethe goes back and forth between the breech of then and now, separating himself from the perishable enthusiasm of that time (whose martyrs include John F Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and no less Janice Joplin, Jim Morrison and Jimmy Hendrix, to name only a few).

Just what it was that made Koethe an apostate to the age of Aquarius, he himself is at a loss to pinpoint. Yet that choice, or inclination, has come along with him to this September day of his memory, metaphorically in the September of the poet’s life as the days grow short, and also suggestive of another September day when the U.S. was again sorely protested, even contested. Moving from a Four Quartets-like aerial view of the big picture, with a pinch of Stevens, back to his personal journal voice, Koethe confronts his break-up with the protest movement:

The particulars of a life, the pattern of a life:

These are the poles the mind, in the guise of a poem,

Floats back and forth between. The calm elation,

The deflating sigh: the trees are tossing in the wind, the leaves

Unfurl their silvery undersides, the soft clouds drift across the sky.

Time may be an abstraction, but it makes the days go by,

The days I never thought I’d see, when the music of the sixties

Lost its way, became too faint to hear, the voices fell away,

And then it all came down to me. What were those eight demands?

I can’t recall to save my life. I lived there, I breathed that air,

And sometimes some of it drifts back to me. “You should join PL,”

Paul said as we were sitting in the lounge. Picketing

The GE plant in Lynn didn’t much appeal to me, so I just

Said it seemed too hard to square with being married

And finishing my degree. “Yes! That’s what’s so great about it!”

He replied, as I rolled my eyes. Or Jonny Supak’s plan

To hold the chairman (Rogers Albritton) hostage in his office:

“The kids are stealing underwear from Filene’s Basement,

Asking for the Red Army! ‘Where’s the Red Army?’ they’re asking!”

It felt so all-important at the time, in a surreal way, the endless

Back-and-forths, the forums, teach-ins, meetings and analyses, strategic

Planning sessions (“But—but that would be capitulationism!”),

And look at what it came to. I didn’t even vote in 1968

(Chicago was too fresh), but on election night found myself

Nostalgic for the Hump, only by then it was too late.

(“ROTC Kills,” pp. 30-1)

This passage was especially resonant as John Koethe read it at the Lamont Library at Harvard on Wednesday November the 7th, the evening after this past autumn’s elections. He chatted before the reading about the election results without indifference, though he wasn’t demonstrably political either. An impressive introduction was made for the poet by the Woodbury Poetry Room’s curator Christina Davis. She had just returned to Cambridge from helping her family in New Jersey in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. Koethe read from the book at a table in front of a microphone, being recorded—though this wasn’t Beethoven’s 9th , it was Koeth’s 9th book of poems—for NPR.

Though nothing especially was made of it that evening, the reading at Harvard was significant as a return to the place of social events and the poster that gave the book its name. It may also be significant that very recently Harvard had occasioned another event which also marked a turn-around in attitudes between the community and its military presence. On September 21, 2011 Globe journalist Mary Carmichael wrote,

In a ceremony freighted with symbolism, Drew Faust, Harvard University president, lauded the Navy’s ROTC program and officially welcomed it onto campus yesterday, ending four decades of frosty relations between the university and the military and laying the groundwork for increased recruiting at the school.


During the reading, Koethe clarified that he had taken the title for his book, not as a provocation against the ROTC, but in recollection of the posters as symbolic for the sixties protest movement, and went on to mention he had known many students who had benefited from participating in the ROTC by getting into good colleges.

These are considerations good to keep in mind approaching the title as it is with its undeniable self-contained meaning: ROTC Kills. And so Koethe gets to say two things at once. Poetry may differ from other kinds of writing in several hardly tangible or provable ways. Defiance of logic may have a special haven in poetry, where every coin can be turned for its two sides. Koethe’s poetry, beyond the ambiguities of his feeling for the sixties, doesn’t flinch at contradictions, which evolve rather as paradoxes and polarities.

Even one of Koethe’s main premises, the song of the self, is scathingly self-examined:

I’m a sucker for the private place,

Though it’s boring once you’ve found it:

You’re always right, which makes being right

Worthless, and yet you want to stay there

Even though you hate it…

(“Locus Solus,” p. 39)

Good books of poetry surpass the simple review’s capacity to betray them much. ROTC Kills is a work of personal mastery in its scope, generosity and forthrightness that holds the reader’s attention with a lot of familiarity in idiom for our ease and some truly breathtaking insights for our wonder. It is good for several reads.

ROTC Kills

Poems by John Koethe



Monday, February 04, 2013

Somerville Writer Thomas R. Bransten Brings a Novel of Abduction, Intrigue and Romance set in France to the Paris of New England.

Somerville Writer Thomas R. Bransten Brings a Novel of Abduction, Intrigue and Romance set in France to the Paris of New England.

By Doug Holder

   A Somerville writer acquaintance of mine took me to task recently for using the phrase “The Paris of New England” to refer to Somerville. He said anyone who would compare Somerville to Paris has not been to Paris. And he is right, I haven’t been to Paris. So I was a glad to meet Somerville resident Thomas R. Bransten at meeting of the Somerville Bagel Bards.  Bransten was in Paris working as a reporter for the United Press International and the International Herald Tribune where he covered among other things the protracted French war with Algeria, and two kidnappings:  one of four year old Eric Peugeot, heir to the automobile fortune, and the kidnap-murder of seven year old Philippe Bertrand, which had most of the world in  a state of shock and outrage. The novel Bransten wrote “A Slight Case of Guilt” also involves a kidnapping of a young boy from a prominent family.

 Bransten has lived in Somerville for a number of years and moved from San Francisco to Massachusetts with his wife so she could pursue her PhD at Harvard. For a long while he was an agent of Prudential Prime Properties in Somerville, run by Somerville native sons John and Jim Duccelli. Bransten lauds the civic spirit of Somerville, and its easy accessibility to Boston and the outlying environs.

   Bransten, 81, went to France in 1959  “To look for a woman I thought I was in love with,” he said.  He studied psychology at the Sorbonne, but realized he needed to make a decent living when he started  a family. So he decided to try journalism, and after striking out numerous times he managed to secure an unpaid internship of sorts with the International Herald Tribune.  

Eventually he was offered a job on the night shift, where he worked from 11PM to 10AM—6 days a week. Later he graduated to the day desk—and went on to write many important stories.

  Bransten recalled his days covering the Algerian War for Independence from France. Not only did Algerian rebels commit terrorist  acts in Algeria, but they bombed cafes and buildings in Paris. Bransten told me he was minutes away from being killed by a bomb planted outside the offices of the newspaper Le Monde.  Because he got sidetracked, he missed walking by the building by minutes.

   His novel “A Slight Case of Guilt” is loosely based on a kidnapping that took place during his stint as a journalist in France.  For the purpose of the novel it is set in the Burgundy wine country where a young heir to the Ville De Courtray fortune is abducted.

  Bransten will be having a reading of his novel at the Book Shop at Ball Square Feb  24, 2013  1P.M, smack dab in the Paris of New England.

Sunday, February 03, 2013

The Black Buddhist by Meikle Paschal

The Black Buddhist   by Meikle Paschal   (Ibbetson Street Press)  $15

Review by Afaa Michael Weaver

In sentences that are as sincere as they are nostalgic, Meikle Paschal gives us a valuable portrait of the journey of his life from the poor neighborhoods of Boston to the comfort of a consciousness furnished by the loving kindness of his Buddhist principles, principles that save him from the bitterness and resentment that can occupy the mind of someone who has fought adversity for his entire life. An African American man gifted with unusual intelligence and a keen intuition, he is lifted also by a penchant for forgiveness. As a reader, I am especially endeared to his portraits of a Boston I could never have known, the old Boston of the mid twentieth century. Paschal seems remarkably adept at recognizing and seizing the chance in life, even when he was not aware of the fuller meanings of his actions at the time. He implies repeatedly that something saved him, and it is that hope he offers the reader, namely that if we would just believe there is a way, the way will reveal itself to us. He is not blind to the tragedies of life, as he notes the people who did not have or see the chance, people who fell victim to things we would rather not imagine, but he offers his own encounters with those chances. He explores the vicissitudes of upward mobility in stories that are insightful and inspiring. In admitting the perfection possible in life, he admits the imperfections, the double binds, the impasses, and he continues on with life, even as the apparent paradise proves itself over and over to be only that and not something ultimately real. Paschal lets us see only the journey is real.

To order:

Afaa Michael Weaver

Simmons College


******Afaa Michael Weaver (born 1951 Baltimore, Maryland) formerly known as Michael S. Weaver, is an American poet, short story writer and editor. He is author of numerous poetry collections and his honors include a Fulbright Scholarship and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and Pew Foundation. His poems have appeared in literary journals and magazines including Callaloo.

Born in Maryland, he studied two years at the University of Maryland. Then he entered the world of factory life alongside his father and uncles and remained a factory worker for fifteen years. He started 7th Son Press and Blind Alleys, a literary journal. He graduated from Brown University on a fellowship, with an M.A, and Excelsior College with a B.A. He taught at National Taiwan University and Taipei National University of the Arts as a Fulbright Scholar, and was a faculty member at the Cave Canem Foundation's annual retreat. In addition, he was the first to be named an elder of the Cave Canem Foundation. He also studied Chinese language at the Taipei Language Institute in Taiwan.

He teaches at Simmons College, and is director of the Zora Neale Hurston Literary Center He is Chairman of the Simmons International Chinese Poetry Conference.[4] Tess Onwueme, the Nigerian playwright, gave him the Ibo name "Afaa," meaning "oracle," while Dr. Perng Ching-hsi has given him the Chinese name "Wei Yafeng."