Saturday, January 25, 2014

Poets in the Asylum: The Poets of McLean Hospital: Mass. Poetry Festival May 2013

Poets in the Asylum: The Poets of McLean Hospital

*****This panel will present during the Mass. Poetry Festival May  May 2 to 4, 2014

This panel will discuss three noted McLean Hospital associated poets: Robert Lowell, Anne Sexton, and Sylvia Plath. All three of these Confessional poets were psychiatric patients at one time at McLean. Lowell wrote his canonical poem "Waking in the Blue," about his experiences at McLean on Bowditch Hall. Sexton led poetry groups there and was once hospitalized briefly at McLean; Plath was hospitalized at the hospital and her novel The Bell Jar was based on her experiences during her tenure there.

McLean Hospital, a psychiatric hospital in Belmont, Mass. has been declared a national literary landmark, because of the  many creative geniuses afflicted by mental illness that have been treated on its wards. The panel will discuss each of these poets, ((Lowell, Plath and Sexton) their experiences as patients, how their experience is reflected in their work, and how and what they managed to create with such a heavy burden of psychiatric illness.

Panel members will include Lois Ames author of the biographical note to  The Bell Jar and Anne Sexton: A Self-Portrait in Letters,  Kathleen Spivack author of  With Robert Lowell and His Circle... and Bob Clawson--confidante to Sexton and manager of her folk/rock band Anne Sexton and Her Kind.

The moderator will be Doug Holder, a poet, counselor and, author of the poetry collection:  From the Back Bay to the Back Ward... Poems of Boston and Just Beyond  and poetry group leader at McLean Hospital since 1982.

The Truth that Must Out in The Telling, a new book of poetry by Denise Bergman


The Truth that Must Out in The Telling, a new book of poetry by Denise Bergman

reviewed by Michael Todd Steffen

Denise Bergman’s new book of poetry, The Telling (ISBN: 978-0-9910091-4-5/Cervena Barva Press/
P.O. Box 440357/W. Somerville, MA 02144-3222) with its hushed voice invites the reader to lean into the space of a shared secret that resists being told yet has to be. It is a secret a grandmother imparts to a granddaughter with stunning unexpectancy. It is a shock equal to the breaking of a jug full of water caused by a frail child’s stumble. And in poetry how could this recurrent image of the broken jug in Bergman’s memory of herself as a girl not get confused with the image of the secret, another child lost long ago to the grandmother, because of a premature birth, or because accidently dropped?

Yet the subject of this meditation in poetry undergoes, almost immediately, a shift from that overwhelming loss itself to the difficulty of how to talk about it, what to say. The uncertainty of the circumstances, the event’s remoteness in time, the shock and trauma amplify with an odd grace and relief the act of relating the tragedy, the telling of it, hence the choice of Berman’s title for the book.
That was the telling,
    my grandmother fleeing.
    A sepia memory
    mildewed, perhaps, or not

    the telling, as if a coin lifted from a box at the back
    of the bottommost drawer in the darkest
    most airless corner of the shadedrawn room

    her telling

    told to no one but me
    and that time only…            [p. 4]

Circling again and again around the sharing of this secret, echoing a smattering of images – the broken jug, the granddaughter’s “matchstick” thinness, blueberries from muffins, nest of elbow, a coin’s faceless verso – far from affirming the tragedy, Bergman’s task in poetry here is to witness perhaps beyond, or shy of, judgment, hovering at the process, the hashing out of what’s being told and the symbolic surrounding of the moment between grandmother and granddaughter. What surfaces as a result of this patient approach at truth and fleeing from it is an existential innocence wherein happening (verb) has equally violated those (subject) involved in what happened. In a striking sense, Bergman’s sympathy and con-fusion with her teller is a sharing, across generations, of grief’s burden. This book gives us an extended, original undertaking of the compassion and advocacy for the guilty by people of faith. Bergman’s task at the page confronts again and again the buffeting of the guilt involved in what happened to her grandmother in her attempt to understand it.

        Blue finger-
    on the faceless verso

    pulled from a place where memory
    is a crime
    and not remembering not
    a possibility.                [p. 52]

There is an imagistic, haiku feel to Bergman’s verse in its surrender of forbidden information, with a stubborn refusal to engage or speculate with the suspensions and deflections of rational discourse in conceptualized language. Through to the other side of the inadmissible and condemnable, the artist in Bergman has found this liberty of constriction, this poetic speech of things and sensations in their associative arrangements:

    Pink, chirping
    round of flesh from the V of her mother’s thighs
    wailing, arms and legs flailing

    drapes over her shoulder, nests in her elbow… [p. 34]

In this dissolving of conceptual boundaries for identity, the act or capacity to sympathize or identify is intensified in its moments of realization. We cannot help but fall in love with Bergman’s birches:

    Feckless trees.

    The leaning-in birch, weeping birch, white and paper
    birch swinging lank empty limbs.

    Spare and spared, undressed.
    Peeled-off pages of bark a mess of blue stain… [P. 50]

The blue of that stain is for the ink all over those “Peeled-off pages.” The trees mirror as it were miscarried humanity and also a troublesome manuscript in disarray.

In her praise of the poet’s originality, Martha Collins has noted Bergman’s resourcefulness, using “something so small to such large effect.” When we read the epithet “weeping birch,” for example, fleetingly somewhere in the back of our minds the usual cognate “willow” for the adjective “weeping” wants to emerge. Birch (willow) birch (willow), one written or spoken, the other implied, omitted, teasing our minds, until a joining of the two words (intentional?) erupts pages later in “a billow of steam” toward the unraveling of the book’s meditation:

    cloudless overhead, a dry
    dirt path

    a girl
    crumbling into bitten ground.

    Rain or shine
    a mother’s eyes track a billow of steam

    a blazing red
    sky.                    [p. 69]

The utterance of the word brings the reader an odd sense of resolution that retains its evasive burial. Penetrating the depths of loss and grief, hesitating around and withdrawing from those depths, the whole of what Bergman has shared with the reader here roves amply between the polarity of trauma and survival. It really hurt that bad. It hurt. It hurt. And that’s life. As the grandmother shared the blueberry muffins, something wholesome and sweet, with the granddaughter to sustain the revelation, Bergman graces the reader with shrugs of understanding, “no one dies/from a jug of boiled water” [p. 77].

The edition of The Telling by Cervena Barva Press – not Gallimard or Knopf – is impressive in its presentation of Bergman’s solemnity and silence, at times scarcity, denoting the thoughtfulness of her writing.

Denise Bergman will be reading from The Telling on Thursday January 24 at 7 pm in Basement Room B8 at the Center for the Arts at the Armory, 191 Highland Avenue in Somerville. Poet Kathleen Aguero will also read at this segment of the Červená Barva Press Reading Series.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Interview with Somerville Publisher, Poet, Professor Ralph Pennel

Ralph Pennel


Interview with Somerville Publisher, Poet, Professor Ralph Pennel

With Doug Holder

Ralph Pennel, like many Somerville residents I know, has many creative outlets. He brings his creative flair to the classroom at Bunker Hill Community College; he is the fiction editor of a well-regarded online publication the “Midway Journal” and he is a published poet and fiction writer. I recently spoke to Pennel on my Somerville Public TV show  “Poet to Poet: Writer to Writer.”

Doug Holder: Since we last sat down for an interview a couple of years ago, a lot has changed for you. You are now a lecturer at Bunker Hill Community College. How has the teaching experience been for you, and do the students differ in any way from the Midwest where you taught for many years?

Ralph Pennel:  My experience—teaching World Literature at Bunker Hill—has been great. I am always surprised by the experience the students bring to the classroom. The discussions are always lively—it is obvious that they are working towards something.

Many are working to transfer to a four year school. And their efforts to make that happen in terms of how they prepare themselves for class are apparent. A larger percentage of my students in the Boston, than say the Midwest, come prepared and have fewer excuses. At least in the classes I teach they are more than willing to participate.

DH: You told me that the Midway Journal,  which you are the fiction editor for, has been redesigned. How does it differ from the past?

RP: Anything on the internet has got a built destruct button in terms of looks and functionality. When we first went live in the fall of 2007 our site was very indicative of sites that were going up at that time. And if course if you don’t make any changes to your site it looks outdated. So when we redesigned the site we cleared up some of the functionality issues. There were certain problems with navigating the site. The new site makes things easier. The site just looks newer. The person we hired really had her thumb on what was current. Assuming we are around the next two or three years, we will do it again. We are in the process of growing. We brought in new fiction editors. We have an intern to help with Facebook and Twitter.

DH:  Your new poetry manuscript is titled: “The World is Less Perfect for Dying In.”  Tell us a bit about this.

RP: The manuscript is broken into two sections. The themes are loss, rebirth, literally and figuratively. I am grateful to the Cervena Barva Press for agreeing to publish it.

DH: Has your Midwestern sensibility been jaded by your exposure to the Northeast?

RP: Sometimes I forget that I really have been in the East Coast for four and a half years, and that I lived in the Midwest for most of my life. I don’t know if I truly fit in in the Midwest. I tried to be a little more straightforward than folks usually are there—so that brought conflicts. But still people easily identify me as a Midwesterner. Everything in the Midwest is planned on a grid—so it is not as conducive to the out-of-the box creative thinking. When you live on a grid you don’t really need to know how to get places. In New England it is more random type of lifestyle.

DH: I read a poem of yours “Nighthawks” Why do think so many poets are influenced by the paintings of Edward Hopper?

RP: I think it is the paradox that is reflected in his work. He uses bright colors often. The thing he does is set his characters in isolation-- the isolation of the American image. I think that is an interesting idea for poets. There is also an ironic aspect to Nighthawks—it has an everyman level to it. It is heartland America—with failed expectations.

DH: I find in your recent work a premonition of death, and the pull of gravity.  Dark stuff—are you a brooding bard?

RP: I take things hard—I am a poet after all (Smiles). I am emotional. No one is interested in poems where things go well. There is always hope in my work though—after all there is always birth and renewal.

“Planning Our Departure” by Ralph Pennel
Leaving nothing to chance, we start the day
by sharing our only surviving dreams.
Mine is simple.  The two of us driving nowhere
with little regard for the drive.
In yours, we are rowing.  Taking our time.
Taking turns at the oars.
We make nothing more of them than that,
that we have shared them.
You roll away from me, hand dropping
against the box spring,
as if to usher this bed into motion, into
one last feat of greatness though nothing on it stirs.
While we lie here, storm clouds
settle in above us,
rain gathers in their sagging bellies, felled cotton seed
invades every grassless patch of ground below.
I half expect to find this bed covered too,
mistake loose down against my pillow
for some ambitious seed that made it through
the screen beside this bed, seeking some higher,
safer place to land, who knows what falling is,
how it ends where no light reaches and never has.
Not even in the highest noonday sun when
the shadows are but charcoal blemishes no bigger than a sigh.
So much goes unsaid between us now.
The day passes us by slowly, drifts over
the trenches where we lay, the hours ahead
still unfulfilled except by all we cannot manage
the strength to save, by the rain, cold and hard,
falling from the sky to the earth where we wait.
We insist on waging our losses against an hour more
of sleep, against facing our certain departure from this room,
or from any room just like this where we may have landed
seeking shelter from all we can’t possibly begin to begin.

 ****** From the website

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Stag’s Leap By Sharon Olds

Stag’s Leap
By Sharon Olds
Alfred A. Knopf
New York
ISBN: 978-0-307-95990-4
89 Pages

Review by Dennis Daly

Confessional poetry never caught my imagination. But I do remember some breathtaking exceptions. I’m thinking of the intensity of Sylvia Plath’s Daddy and W.D. Snodgrass’ affecting Heart’s Needle. That’s a bit of my background and part of my peculiar bias.

Sharon Olds’ 2013 Pulitzer Prize winning collection entitled Stag’s Leap (the name and cover logo borrowed from a cheesy wine bottle trademark) spotlights all the worst faults of confessional poetry with few off-setting virtues. One of this book’s blurbs calls Stag’s Leap a “stunningly poignant sequence…contemplative and deep.” I find the same sequence, for the most part, pathetic shallow pabulum.

Poetically chronicling the decline and death of a marriage daunts and dispirits many writers, but it can be done. I know because I recently reviewed two of them. Mary Jo Salter’s Nothing by Design (Knopf) and Owen Lewis’ Sometimes Full of Daylight (Dos Madres) bring very different strengths to the table. Salter filters her sorrow and anger through a breathtaking command of formalist techniques. Her private emotions become public and high art to boot. On the other hand, Lewis is Everyman. He offers his gut wrenching confessions cold turkey in a free ranging way that allows him to connect with the reader, and the reader to then identify with him.  Stag’s Leap, however, provides little technique of interest and no connectivity. In fact Olds’ persona wallows in what seems like staged self-absorption. She seems convinced that her story is unique and has intrinsic value simply because she is who she is.

The collection’s first poem, While He Told Me, I found odd. After the husband informs the narrator that he is leaving her for another woman, they flirt and smile and go to bed in an oh-so-civilized but hackneyed scene. Later she awakes to an artsy image that does not have the right feel to it. Here’s how the poem ends,

…I followed him,
as I often had,
and snoozed on him, while he read, and he laid
an arm across my back. When I opened
my eyes, I saw two tulips stretched
away from each other extreme in the old
vase with the grotto carved out of a hill
and a person in it, underground,
praying, my imagined shepherd in make-believe paradise.

In a poem entitled The Flurry, Olds continues her chronicle with clichéd dialogue and tone-deaf imagery. The poet says,

I tell him I will try to fall out of
love with him, but I feel I will love him
all my life. He says he loves me
as the mother of our children, and new troupes
of tears mount to the acrobat platforms
of my ducts and do their burning leaps…

The term ex (as in ex-husband) is used in a number of these poems. It not only sounds off key in this context, but seems to cut off any subtle feelings that might inhabit these pieces. It sounds absolutely grating in the French Bra. Listen to these lines,

… it’s as if my body has not
heard, or hasn’t believed, the news
it wants to go in there and pick up those wisps,
those Hippolyta harnesses, on its pinkie,
and bring them home to my ex and me,
mon ancient mari et moi

Almost no one came to a seafood banquet Olds and her husband hosted and they both lived on the food for a week. Her husband during this time already had made plans to leave her. Yet Olds speaks of him with what sounds like a mathematically calculated unemotional sympathy. She almost anthropomorphizes her doctor-husband, in the sense that she imbues him with questionable humaneness, and she insists upon motivations and feelings that don’t seem to be evident from the bare sanguinity that she presents. Consider these lines,

…the wasted food was like some kind of
carnage. We lived on it for a week, as we’d been
living, without my seeing it,
on the broken habit of what was not lasting
love. When I remember him
at the stove, the sight pierces me
with tenderness, he was suffering, then,
as I would soon.

I hear the words but I don’t believe them. Is the poet simply deluded?  In her poem Crazy she seems to answer that question. She says,

…it is true that I saw
That light around his head when I’d arrive second
At a restaurant—Oh for God’s sake,
I was besotted by him.

Okay that I believe. But that does not, in itself, make for interesting poetry.

One of three or four decent or better pieces in the book, Olds’ poem Maritime works from start to finish. It is very good and the language dances. I can see why this poet has the reputation she does. The piece begins impressively,

Some mornings, the hem of the forewash had been almost
golden, alaskas and berings of foam
pulled along the tensile casing.
Often the surface was a ship’s grey,
a destroyer’s, flecks of sun, jellies,
sea stars, blood stars men and women of war,
weed Venus hair. A month a year,
for thirty years.

Running Into You, a poem destined to be forgotten, descends again into the pedestrian environs of who-really-cares. Consider these dreadful lines,

It was never in doubt that you had suffered more than I
when young. That moved me so much about you,
the way you were a dumbstruck one
and yet you seemed to know everything
I did not know…

Ugh! Accessible writing with little value added doesn’t deserve the notice that this collection has received. If you value your reading time, avoid Stag’s Leap.