Saturday, January 11, 2014

The Eternal Present of Joan Houlihan’s Us Cycle, Ay the Sequel

The Eternal Present of Joan Houlihan’s Us Cycle, Ay the Sequel

by Michael Todd Steffen

Joan Houlihan’s previous book, The Us, named a 2009 must-read by the Massachusetts Center for the Book, concluded its narrative sequence on a note of irresolution, with its protagonist Ay wounded by an act of malice and, in recovery, getting his first glimpse of a vision of the other world, “ours father come as never killed, as tall/and with a look that bathed me warm” p. 63), leaving the possibility of, if not suggesting, more to come.

Now, five years later, the poet has brought out the sequel. Released by Tupelo Press, bearing the
protagonist’s name as title, Ay (ISBN 978-1-936797-41-7) continues the narrative of the young survivor’s recovery, restitution and encounter with the other world, his reconciliation with misfortune and with his assailant, greb, another member of the tribe called the us.

As in The Us, the narrative of Ay is defined and carried by the headings of its 5 parts. (I. Wherein Ay recovers his speech & mobility & is treated as a god, II. Wherein Ay leaves the us & meets the dead…)
Portraying a people in their primitive life as hunters and gatherers, in times out of mind, the individual poems work at the counterfeit of primitive expression, in a language conspicuously of Houlihan the poet’s forging, keen in elementary perception of basic phenomena, seasons, plants, animals and birds, night and day, sea and land, in a language stripped almost entirely of concept and abstraction, of Latin or Greek derivatives or terminology:

            SUMMER RIPE in the ground, deer fled
            red-gold in the wood. Sticks put sharp
            in the side bled the trail.

            For antlers the us downed the dying
            day-long they would build
            what must be built by digging down.

            As day burnt low the tinder piles were tossed.
            Hemp stalk held above, one took from a tall
            and torched them all to rising. In the wood, a deer,
            head bowed, showed its blood spots brightening.              (p. 6)

In light of the rudimentary and partial or fragmented presentation of the separate poems, the part headings, an essential map for readers, could almost be read as scholarly addenda, like indications in a reprint of a Sioux Indian hide painting or a hunt sequence from a cave at Lascaux. (They remind me of the Latin captions describing the scenes and action in the Bayeux Tapestry depicting William of Normandy’s conquest at Hastings: UBI HAROLD SACRAMENTIUM FECIT WILLELMO DUCI.)

The immediate effect of the language used in The Us and Ay is jarring, puzzling, as risky and fragile in its emotional venture as it is alluring, like a riddle, for its difficulty and resistance, the abruptness of the violence it depicts and its thoroughly physical appeal. The idiom, however, is generously sustained for over 60 pages in each book, and readers as generous with the suspension of their disbelief will be rewarded with pleasure and many insights, among them the convincing continuity between the poet’s subject and its tailored language. The expectations proposed at the onset of the work are fulfilled in its working out. Like Auden using old English alliterative prosody in The Age of Anxiety, Houlihan asserts herself in these books as a smith of language, plyer of medium. Readers who tune into this will marvel at both her rigor and liberty.

Yet far from being an exercise or demonstration of linguistic management and invention, Houlihan’s narrative resonates substantially with potential concerns of our society today. The story of the us and Ay apparently is set in a pre-historical age, apparently deep deep in the past, before Christianity (hence the absence of Latinate vocabulary), when stone sun temples like the one at Stonehenge were being built:

            The us pry stone from stone,
            raise a wall with cracks and watch
            how father makes a shape of sun between.         (p. 9)

To leave the reader’s curiosity whetted, I’ll limit myself to saying that transposing her story to an a-historical time allows the poet creative space to comment about society without risking identification with any specific persons of her time and place. That is partly why Shakespeare liked to situate his stories in Venice or Denmark or pre-Christian Scotland. Maybe another, more profound motivation for the narrative’s pre-historical setting stems from a concern with permanent human nature. Its central tragedy identifies with the story of Cain and Abel, and though of such a primitive region of our psyche, to this day it continues to be a major source of parental woe and daily news.

In Burnt Norton T.S. Eliot says, “If all time is eternally present/All time is eternally unredeemable.” Rather than seeing the narrative of The Us and Ay in some remote, long-forgotten past, being that a contemporary poet has placed the story before us, presently, we do and in a sense can only understand it as taking place in the eternal present, not the cultural or historical present, as the poet has omitted these from the poems. Seamus Heaney used the same strategy in his poems on the primitive bog corpses and the Vikings who ruled Dublin in the dark past. Heaney did this to speak covertly or differently about the political and religious troubles of Ireland in the 1970s, in terms of ancient ritualistic violence whose origins far preceded differences between Catholics and Protestants.

Radical portrayals of a subject, psychedelic air-brush portraits of Marilyn Monroe or a hunter-gatherer stone-age narrative of homo sapiens, reveal that subject for its subtler, more hidden, otherwise imperceptible characteristics. The primitive approach Houlihan uses to talk about them underscores a timelessness about her characters and about human nature. It is a nature that may yet have the chance to surprise us by outlasting our civilization and its wonders of science and technology. We may one day be tasked with surviving our advances’ breaking point as well. Glimpses of the future, near or distant, in many of our minds today include survivalist scenarios on a planet ravaged, unplugged and bewildered.
In this context, it has been wondered if Joan Houlihan’s poems are taking place in a post-historical setting, in a recurrent future rather than the once-and-forever past.

In the first poem of Ay, longing for comfort and thinking of g’wen, his mother dead early in The Us, the young survivor speculates about the mother’s resurrection in images that are at once archeological and scientifically very advanced, suggestive of DNA research and engineering, with a nod at Steven Spielberg:

            WHO KILLS the past
            knows it is buried
            in the same air Ay breathe.       
            Only a hair is needed to keep you, mother.
            Only a bit of bone…

Giving us all that is needed to re-imagine ourselves in what Martin Heidegger terms the “throwness” of being, our being cast into a world, however evolved, advanced and equipped it may seem, these narratives set us precisely in the jaws of this world, where our survival and witness toe the line, cross that line and fall, have to get up and walk again.

In your and my English, yet as you’ve never encountered it before, Joan Houlihan’s Ay reads with the elements of great poetry, with an immediate simple if disconcerting charm haunted by profound resonance.

Thursday, January 09, 2014

Chewing the Fat with Somerville’s Media Moguls

( Left to Right) Doug Holder/Erica Jones/Gordon Nelson


Chewing the Fat with Somerville’s Media Moguls

By Doug Holder

  I braved the unforgiving winds of the Polar Vortex on a recent January afternoon to reach the warm shelter of the Somerville Community Access TV studios. There I was to interview two key staff members of this fine organization: Erica Jones and Gordon Nelson. Jones, an upbeat woman hovering around the 30 year old mark, has a slightly subversive sense of humor, and a knack for snappy dialogue. For the past year or so Jones has been the Program and Outreach Coordinator for SCAT. Nelson, a laid back man, with a graying beard and an avuncular manner, is the Youth Coordinator for this non-profit.

Jones is originally from upstate New York and attended college there, later receiving her advanced degree from Suffolk University in Boston. I asked Jones ,a resident of Teele Square, why she chose Somerville to put down her walking cane. She said: “I love the fact that everyday something is going on here. I also like the accessibility to Boston and the sense of community Somerville offers.”

Nelson, a Pittsburgh native, is an independent filmmaker and although he lives in Malden with his wife, he said: “I feel spiritually committed to Somerville.” He told me that his films have been shown at the ICA, the Mass. Art Film Society and at various venues in NYC.

Since Jones has come on board at SCAT over a year ago she has worked to connect SCAT to the community through social media, and planning events like the “Potluck Lecture Series,” as well as forming partnerships with such institutions as the Cambridge Heath Alliance, and other organizations.

Nelson said of the team at the TV station: “All of the staff at SCAT are involved with all aspects of the operation."

Under SCAT director Wendy Blom’s steady hand Jones and other staff have updated the website, and started a news program the “Somerville Neighborhood Network.” This nightly news program has a number of rotating anchors and reporters. One reporter of note is state rep. Denise Provost. Jones said the program fills a void for in-depth coverage of local stories. (Of course The Somerville Times also supplies great coverage!). Some of the stories the news program has covered have been the Green line Extension, Homelessness in Somerville, Heroin abuse, Labor Rights issues, etc… The show even has a high school reporter who brings news from the hallowed halls of secondary education.

Another relatively new development at SCAT is “Boston Free Radio.” This internet radio station is open to all Massachusetts residents. Here folks can produce their own radio shows, and there are very few limitations on subject matter. There is one show “Love Scene” that deals with relationships and “healthy” sex. Jones, with a sly look in her gimlet eyes told me it is “Hot and steamy.”

All in all SCAT seems to be a vital organization in the Paris of New England, Somerville, Mass. The staff members I have known for the past 11 years that I have produced my show have been accomplished, and accessible. SCAT can help you realize your personal goals and even your professional.

Check out what is happening at SCAT

Pilot Season by James Brubaker

James Brubaker

                                 Pilot Season by James Brubaker    (sunnyoutside, Buffalo, NY, 2013)

Review by Pam Rosenblatt

What do you say when you read a book, and feel just as empty and confused as when you started?
You probably wouldn’t recommend the book to others to read. But in James Brubaker’s Pilot Season,
the alienation and loneliness found throughout this 5” x 4” paperback of 69 pages actually makes you want to re-read it a couple of times to figure why Pilot Season is such a negative read. And maybe this dull feeling would entice you to suggest this book to others to read. Is this sense of alienation what Brubaker wants you the reader to experience?

    Through the techniques of monotone voice, sarcasm, and archetypical characters, Brubaker captures an emptiness present in American culture with 19 short short fiction pieces. He opens the book with “Pilot Season 1” and this paragraph:

In this hour-long drama, a beleaguered televi-
sion network executive fights to keep his job
and earn the respect of his family. The Execu-
tive is in charge of programming and project
development at a fictional television network.
Unfortunately, for The Executive, The Net-
work’s ratings have been in decline for three
years, and the series begins with The Net-
work’s CEO informing The Executive that if
The Network’s fortunes aren’t reversed in the
upcoming television season, the entire pro-
gramming and project development depart-
ment will be replaced with younger, hipper

With this despairing beginning, you may expect lively, positive chapters to follow. But what does proceed are short sections, either realistic or imaginative, that are purposed pilots to the following season’s television shows. Some of them have possibilities, while the other pilots talk nonsense.

    In “Outside the Box 4”, Brubaker writes about:

“This reality-style, elimination-based game
show (that) brings together a group of young misfits
to socialize, drink, and squeeze themselves
 into boxes. Outside the Box is a weekly contest
designed to test contestants’ flexibility. The
focus of each episode is a “Box Challenge” in
which contestants attempt to fit themselves
into various containers that shrink and change
shape every week. The “Box Challenge” runs
throughout each episode, intercut with foot-
age from the week leading up to the chal-
lenge, which shows the contestants training
and fraternizing with each other. At the con-
clusion of each episode, the contestants vote
one of their peers Outside the Box. The only
contestants safe from each week’s elimination
are those who fit themselves into their boxes
during the challenge. In the pilot series, The
Audience will learn that one of the contestants
is a contortionist— a plant introduced by the
producers to provide added tension and dra-
ma. Over the course of the season, the contes-
tants—including the young one, the sexy one,
the homosexual one, the belligerent one, the
old one, and the one who is a mother—will try
to squeeze themselves into a diverse array of
containers such as the trunk of a small car, an
industrial-sized oven, a tuba case, a tuba, and
a series of drain pipes from beneath a kitchen
sink, among others.

While the “Box Challenge” seems to be a humorous idea, the archetypes, or ideal models, are so stereotyped that the show “Outside the Box” doesn’t seems destined for success. For example,
“the contestants—including the young one, the sexy one, the homosexual one, the belligerent one, the old one, and the one who is a mother—“ all are predictable, and not in positive ways. It’s all so impersonal.

    Perhaps Brubaker is trying to take archetypical characters and show that things don’t always happen the way expected, as seen in “Sober 14”, when he writes a pilot about “A sitcom about a relationship between an effeminate man and his recovering alcoholic girlfriend who is prone to relapses.” Brubaker treats the situation as if there’s no hope for the girlfriend, especially because of the situation she and the boyfriend are in. As is typically seen with main characters described throughout the book, Brubaker impersonally capitalizes the words “The Recovering Alcoholic Girlfriend Who is Prone to Relapses”, which calls attention to the female character being a negative archetype.

    And while the girlfriend is an alcoholic trying to reform herself, Brubaker satirizes the situation by having “The Recovering Alcoholic Girlfriend Who Is Prone to Relapses wakes up, she calls her boyfriend a pussy for buying flowers, which the audience finds quite funny. Then she eats an entire box of Triscuits, which the audience finds even funnier because recovering alcoholics who have relapses are funny when they eat triscuits, and goes to the toilet to be sick…”

    There’s something distasteful about the tone in this short short story. It doesn’t make the reader want to read on, but he or she probably will, especially since Brubaker ends this story with “The Famous Baseball Player Who Is Also a Recovering Addict, who speaks out against the dangers of substance abuse” – a character who is a positive amidst negatives in “Sober 14”.

    James Brubaker has written a book that makes you the reader think about stereotypes in America, especially in the television industry.  When you think of archetypical characters in literature, you usually think of a hero like Odysseus in Homer’s Iliad. But in Pilot Season, Brubaker has created may fictional characters who assume archetypical roles in a very alienated, commercial society.

Wednesday, January 08, 2014

THE FIRST AND LAST WORD POETRY SERIES Finkelstein, Holder, Sklar Jan 21 7PM


7:00 PM/ADMISSION: $4.00

Hosted by: Harris Gardner and Gloria Mindock


Deborah Finkelstein Deborah Finkelstein is the editor of Like One: Poems for Boston, an anthology of healing and humorous poems that raises money for The One Fund. She has an MFA in Creative Writing from Goddard College. Recent publications include Magnolia, Ibbestson Street, Cradle Songs, and Lumox. She also writes haiku, tanka, and plays. She teaches creative writing.

Doug Holder Doug Holder is the founder of the Ibbetson Street Press. His work has appeared in Caesura, Northeast Corridor, Main Street Rag, Rattle, the new renaissance, Muddy River Review and others. He teaches writing at Bunker Hill Community College in Boston, and Endicott College in Beverly, Mass. For the last 25 years he has run poetry groups for patients at McLean Hospital. His latest collection of poetry is "Eating Grief at 3A.M." (Muddy River Books)

Dan Sklar Dan Sklar teaches writing at Endicott College in Massachusetts. Recent publications include the Harvard Review, New York Quarterly, Ibbetson Street Press, and The Art of the One-Act. His one act play "Lycanthropy" was produced at the Boston Theatre Marathon in 2012 and was reviewed in The Boston Globe. His poem "Flying Cats (Actually Swooping)" was nominated for a Pushcart Prize by the editors of Writing that Risks.

The Center for the Arts is located between Davis Square and Union Square. Parking is located behind the armory at the rear of the building. Arts at the Armory is approximately a 15 minute walk from Davis Square which is on the MTBA Red Line. You can also find us by using either the MBTA RT 88 and RT 90 bus that can be caught either at Lechmere (Green Line) or Davis Square (Red Line). Get off at the Highland Avenue and Lowell Street stop. You can also get to us from Sullivan Square (Orange Line) by using the MBTA RT 90 bus. Get off at the Highland Avenue and Benton Road stop