Saturday, December 14, 2013

Somerville Artist Matthew McCosco: Portrait of a Portrait Artist By Doug Holder

Somerville Artist Matthew McCosco: Portrait of a Portrait Artist
By Doug Holder

 Matthew McCosco by his own description is a private person, and being interviewed is not his favorite pastime.  However he agreed to be my subject after I was introduced to his work by Gil Barbosa, owner of The Book Shop in Ball Square—right across from the office of The Somerville Times. In Barbosa’s fine, independent bookstore I noticed the usual eclectic collection of books, but also accomplished pencil sketches (That McCosco recently framed) of such noted authors as Ernest Hemingway, Edgar Allen Poe, and Mark Twain.

 Because of a hand injury some years back the artist perfected his pencil sketches because he was unable to do his usual watercolors. I asked McCosco about his method; he told me: “I like the preciseness of the pencil sketch. I am able to have much more control of a person’s face. The shadowing of the face is very important. I apply graphite, and smudge it in the contours—I shade and smudge.”

After viewing a number of his sketches, I was impressed how McCosco captured the eyes of his subject—the eyes being the windows of the soul, etc… McCosco told me he makes a very detailed study of a subject’s face, usually relying on a photograph. This process--the measurement of the eyes--can take many hours. And to maintain a clear head McCosco has to take periodic breaks during this arduous procedure.  His portrait of Mark Twain was more difficult to undertake than, say, of Hemingway because there are a limited number of photos of Twain, and the quality of the photos are not as sharp as more contemporary images usually are.

McCosco grew up in Cambridge, Ma. and now lives in the Winter Hill section of the city. He said his style is hyper realistic – a style that requires photographic precision. He feels that many of the artists in Somerville are impressionistic—putting their personal view into the image. McCosco likes being around all the artistic fervor that Somerville has to offer, and it informs his own work.

McCosco studied at the Pratt Institute in New York City, and has done work for the Alvin Alley Dance Company, as well as creating tourist brochures for the city of Brookline.  McCosco feels the best way to learn the craft is through the life and practice. He feels his formal education has taken second place to his practical one.

There will be a showing of his artwork at The Bookshop in Ball Square, Feb. 7, 6 to 9PM.  If you want to commission a portrait from McCosco contact him at:  and look at his website

Review: What I’ve Stolen, What I’ve Earned by Sherman Alexie

Review: What I’ve Stolen, What I’ve Earned by Sherman Alexie
                           Hanging Loose Press
                           Copyright 2014
                           156 pp.

            Review by Myles Gordon                                                                                               

            Author of twenty-four books, and winner of the National Book Award, Pushcart Prize, PEN/Malamud Award,  and a slew of other prizes, Sherman Alexie remains a prolific and successful writer in multiple genres: poetry, short story, essay, novel, and screenplay. A member of the Spokane/Coeur d’Aleve tribe, Alexie currently lives in Seattle with his wife and two sons. He also has spent much time living on various Native American reservations. Tribal culture and topics deeply influence his work and create a central conflict in many of his poems: how does someone whose people were crushed by America come to terms with the America where he’s earned his golden ticket?

            In What I’ve Stolen, What I’ve Earned, his thirteenth book of poetry, he does so with brilliant writing, a deep appreciation for life’s grey areas, wit, and an often self-deprecating sense of humor, as in this excerpt from “Happy Holidays!”:

I am asked this question at least a dozen times every year: “Do Indians
            celebrate Thanksgiving?”

That’s like asking: “Do Jewish people celebrate Oktoberfest?”

The answer is: “Yes. Indians celebrate Thanksgiving.”

            This ambivalent push pull with the ironic assimilation into the culture that nearly destroyed his own permeates the collection. In the poem, “Rest Stop,” the protagonist pulls off the freeway at 3 A.M. to relieve himself. As his eyes adjust to the darkness, he realizes he is peeing in the front yard of a small church of a small town. He notices the houses, the gas station, the town common. Although the protagonist professes a love for American small towns, one senses the malevolence of the gesture: a full Indian uprising may be a pipe dream, but at least he can piss on America, if only covertly. As he finishes, a herd of mystical deer surrounds him and they sprint off together into the wilderness, but he can’t keep up:

And then I do fall. If one hopes not to fall
Then one will surely fall, and so I do fall,
Falling and rolling down the hill, as the deer
Leave me behind, as I thud to stop against

The base of a tree, as I stare up through
The branches to see the night sky, the stars
The new constellation of one sad and lonely man
Chasing and failing to catch a herd of deer.

His tribe “departed,” he remains awkwardly alone, his uncertain identity mimicked by the night sky.

            No single theme poet, Alexie proves equally adept at riffing on Aristotle, 1980s pop culture, and paying homage to Wallace Stevens’s “The Emperor Of Ice Cream,” with his own “The Shaman Of Ice Cream.” The scope of his skills also impresses. He creates dozens of sonnets that are prose poems broken into fourteen sections, allowing for wistful ruminations unachievable inside a standard sonnet’s constraints:

14. If you punch a kid once, then he’ll cry. If you punch a kid once an hour for a year, then he’ll learn how to make the fists feel like flowers.

            But he also knows how to fling the rhymes. Noted as a tremendous lyrical poet, the poems in this book live up to the hype, as in these couplets from “Possible Epitaphs For My Gravestone”:

Why did you bury me with this hand drum?
This whole Indian thing is overdone.

Is this death? Is this death? Is this death? Is this death?
If life is a marathon, then I’m out of breath.

            The fragility of life, particularly on the reservation, occupies many of his poems. He frets for his brother who has lost several good friends to drunk driving accidents. He grieves for his late father who also died in an accident. He rejoices in his own hard-fought sobriety, an ongoing theme that often relates to the joy he takes in his own, young family:

My wife, two sons, and I celebrate the New year by drinking root beer
            Floats. I hereby establish the root beer float as the official Native
            American New Year’s Eve drink. It should be the only drink
            Allowed for Indians on New Year’s.

Ain’t gonna happen.

            Alexie also takes on social issues. He dabbles in politics, writes heartbreakingly about loss of life in the war in Iraq, and speaks unflinchingly of the devastation wreaked by drugs and alcohol in Native communities. Humor often proves to be his sharpest weapon. In one hilarious exchange from “Another Proposition,” he offers a slick take on the “threat” of gay marriage:

“But, Sherman,” he said…”gay men threaten the institution of marriage. Gay men threaten your marriage.”
Actually,” I said, “Gay men catered my marriage. You want to know who really threatens my marriage? Who threatens any straight man’s marriage? Beautiful straight women with no boundaries.”

            Sometimes, though, the author offers too much commentary. If there is anything to criticize (and it’s a small criticism), it’s that sometimes Alexie goes on too long with some of the poems, and that some of the poems just aren’t up to the same top shelf standard as others. He is a successful writer and the press has put out a 156-page collection – more than double the usual length of poetry books. But do we really need his tribute to “My Sharona,” one of the most annoying pop songs of all time? And to make his point that rhyme is more memorable than free verse, does Alexie really need to list the top 100 rock hits of 1984? Wouldn’t ten suffice, or even just number one, When Doves Cry, by Prince?
            Still, after 24 books and a raft of major awards, leeway must be made. A little self-indulgence can be forgiven. After all, almost all his long poems pack a punch, his final poem, “The Naming Ceremony,” in particular:

My Indian name is Lies, Lies, Noun And Verb,
My Indian name is Do Not Disturb.
My  Indian name is Bitterroot.
My Indian name is Secret,
So let me share it with you.

Alexie shares his soul in this book and it’s a terrific read.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Endicott College/Ibbetson Street Press Young Poet Series Releases The Girl Who Wore Sunshine by Meghan Perkins

The Girl Who Wore Sunshine

Meghan Perkins' poems are a pleasure to imbibe. They are straight-shootin' charms of incidental show-downs and revery of memory. Her endings are crafty without being too lick and she seems right at home in her bones and her vision of things. These poems represent a very promising first collection, sharp, concrete and humorous, walking a line between a reverence for life and a discerning and ironic laughter at its ironies and twists. --Lo Galluccio (Cambridge Populist Poet) With disarming precociousness and pearl-like insights Meghan Perkins pulls on life's loose threads and unravels them before our eyes. Her poems speak to what she knows best and her powers of sassy observations amaze.--Dennis Daly (Author of The Custom House) 

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

A Girl Goes Into The Woods selected poems Lyn Lifshin

A Girl Goes Into The Woods
selected poems
Lyn Lifshin 2013
New York Quarterly Books
ISBN: 987-935520-32-0

Many years ago Lyn Lifshin submitted her poems to the Wilderness House Literary Review where I was new to the poetry editorial position. When an email arrived with at least fifty poems, I was overwhelmed. Who was this poet, Lifshin? I learned to take to reading her poems slowly.
Reading the poems one at a time I came to understand or at least I thought I understood what the poems were saying or not saying. Sometimes Lifshin would submit the same poem written three or four different ways and ask me to chose which one to publish.

Through that experience, I realized a poem could work in many different forms and words began to take on many meanings at the same time. The word choices were not better for the poem or not worse for the poem, the words were just different, inferring differences when read in the same context. Instead of thinking of poems as revisions, I thought about poems as individual, momentary explanations, in which one word's meaning could differ, depending on the location the poem presented:

Some Days

Don't you want to just
be invisible? Go out
in one of those full-body

The beginning verse in 'Some days' we find how, line end words, as in the first two end lines, 'just' and 'out', are short, curt and set the tone, the poem rhythm, which then lends the writing its atmosphere. The poem severs itself, meaning, the end line words, are not extending, to make an easy turn, instead, the end words invite us the reader to pause, to come to an explanation, of the, 'just'. The poem asks us to read, relate, take each word as one would in a haiku, fraught with intention, seen and unseen, visible and invisible. By the time we get to read the word 'burkas' we understand why we are dressing ourselves with the poem. Lifshin uses subject matter, in almost every word, just as early Hebrew writing, uses each word to depict God. Lifshin can be recognized for the writer she is, her mood, her juxtaposition of mood and phrases:
of course even
then people would stare.

Those two lines reveal through the use of 'even, and stare.' I take 'even' as equality. An emphatic equality, even in wearing a burka the poem is seen as naked. We come to be seen, at any moment, even when we cover ourselves, this poem uncovers us from our need to please, to profit from being seen in the right out-fit, shoes, labels, the right body parts lifted to heaven:

Haven't you ever wanted
to at least get rid of parts
of your body you can't

Wow! Who would write such a thing! Only a woman? No! Yet we are sure the poem is about a woman because the only word so far that references woman, is the word burka, until we get to the “I.” The drama, the burka invokes leads us to an uncovering or cutting off from what is meant to be hidden:

Belly and chin,
maybe thighs and every -
thing that isn't as it could
be? I could tell something
was happening when I
stopped lusting for clothes
as if they were a man's
body, stopped dialing
VS late at night like
whispering to a taboo love.

Again a line cuts off the meaning, 'every – thing. The poem is being written by and with a simple gesture, a hyphen, as Dickinson inserted her hyphen. Make of that what you will. I see the hyphen as a fragment, a space in time to meander into the unseen. Just as a nun might cloister herself, as an anorexia girl who seeks the body perfect, which seems demanded of her by her environment, to be perfect, untouched by life or even untouched by sight:

In fine – line diary entries
I often put down a favorite
or hated dress. Other
friends still bury depression
in shopping. Tho I did, it
no longer works, ineffective
as certain long – used drugs.

It”, that word, 'it'. “tho I did, it”. The poem reduces itself to, 'it'. I am it, “tho I did, it.” the saving grace becomes the word “did.” Did, becomes or takes us to the past and we lose the tense feelings, “it no longer works.” First we the reader must get around the corner after it stops the line with its it:

look at me now, at the
kitchen table in faded yoga
pants and mismatched top
and my hair hardly flowing.
Don't you want to some -
times just not make nice or
look nice?

Just as we read 'just' in the first part of the verse, we encounter, just, in the middle of the poem. Finally the poem finds comfort in being itself and perhaps asks the reader to read the poem on its own terms. The poem becomes a poem because it doesn't have to look nice or read nice. It just has to be accepted as the poem it is:

keep the phone
off the hook, stop checking
email, not have to hear
about anybody else's prizes
or degrees, new books and
just decide to never again
go to any graduation,
any place you have to pretend
to be anything you're not?”

The poem, Some Days, asks questions. Do we have to pretend we are reading a poem. Do we pretend to read a poem by comparisons, by our cover – up phrases, we expect, from a poem, instead of the poem as it being its own poem? Lifshin's poetry continues to challenge me and I’m glad 'it' does:


Things I have and
don't have
come from this
moving between
people like
smoke. I've been
waiting the way
milkweed I
brought inside two
years ago stays
suspended, hair in the
wind it seems to
float, even its
black seeds don't under-
stand how any-
thing could stay
that way
so long

Every poem in this giant of a book, A Girl Goes into the Woods, leads the reader to an entirety. Each reader will be able to clarify for themselves what the poet is saying and how the meaning effects each life in different ways. We are privy to the way poetry grows wild, as we walk into a woody area where one can find an assortment, vegetation, sky, animal, bug and leaf. The poems teem with wilderness. “sometimes I'd come in I couldn't tell it was me except for my shape.”

I think this is the best poetry book of 2013.

Irene Koronas
Poetry Editor: Wilderness House Literary Review
Reviewer: Ibbetson Street Press
Reviewer: Cervena Barva Press

Sunday, December 08, 2013

I Am The Beggar Of The World Landays from Contemporary Afghanistan Translated by Eliza Griswold

I Am The Beggar Of The World
Landays from Contemporary Afghanistan
Translated by Eliza Griswold
Copyright © 2014 by Eliza Griswold
Farrar, Strauss and Giroux
New York, New York
Hardbound, $24 (tentative),147 pages

Review by Zvi A. Sesling

I call. You’re stone.
One day you’ll look and find I’m gone.

The teenage poet who uttered this folk poem called herself Rahila Muska. She lived in Helmand, a Taliban stronghold and one of the most restive of Afghanistan’s thirty-four provinces since the U.S. invasion began on October 7, 2001. Muska, like many young and rural Afghan women, wasn’t allowed to leave her home. Fearing that she’d be kidnapped or raped by warlords, her father pulled her out of school after the fifth grade. In her community, as in others, educating girls was seen as dishonorable as well as dangerous. Poetry, which she learned from women and on the radio became her only continuing education.

Thus begins the introduction to this most compelling book of two line poems called “landays.” A landay, according to Ms. Griswold, “has only a few formal properties. Each has twenty-two syllables: nine in the first lines; thirteen in the second. The poem ends with the sound of ma or na. Sometimes landays rhyme, but more often not.”

And with these two explanations begins an astounding volume of poetry with two line poems which while are often jokes or insults, reflect the heart as in:

Unlucky you who didn’t come last night,
I took the hardwood bedpost for a man.


Embrace me in your suicide vest
but don’t say I won’t give you a kiss.


My love is a suicide bomber who stalks
the home of my heart and waits to attack.

These poems show the insight of women as in the first poem where the woman taunts the man for not making love.  The second poem explains that the woman would rather be blown up than lies told that she won’t kiss her lover. While the third says the man cannot confront her directly.

Two landays regarding American forces in Afghanistan show that race can be a factor:

My lover is fair as an American soldier can be.
To him I looked dark as a Talib, so he martyred me.

and also

Because my love’s American,
blister blossom on my heart.

In the first the obvious is that the white American soldier cannot distinguish his Afghan girlfriend from the Taliban and so she expects to be killed by him during a battle. Griswold notes that in this landay American replaced British when England controlled Afghanistan in the 1800s.  In the second landay Griswold points out that American replaced the word liar.   And so you see, even American lovers are viewed poorly by Afghan women.

There are many more landays in this compilation.  They deal with war often in a fantasy such as the ones which put down Russia and America or which hope to destroy President  George W. Bush even if they know it will not be accomplished, though they consider themselves victorious over Russia and see the same for America.

This is an exciting, thought provoking collection of two line poems, with commentary by Griswold and photographs by Seamus Murphy that put faces and places to the Afghanistan battlefields.  A highly recommended volume for those interested not only in the events, but the people—especially the women—of this far off battleground.

Zvi A. Sesling
Author, King of the Jungle and Across Stones of Bad Dreams
Editor, Muddy River Poetry Review
Publisher, Muddy River Books, Brookline, MA
Editor, Bagel Bards Anthology 7
Editor, Bagel Bards Anthology 8