Saturday, February 22, 2014

Song of the Owashtanong: Grand Rapids Poetry in the 21st Century Edited by David Cope


Song of the Owashtanong:
Grand Rapids Poetry in the 21st Century
Edited by David Cope
Ridgeway Press
Roseville, MI
Copyright © 2007- 2013  the poets
179 pages, softbound, $12.95
ISBN: 1-56439-135-3
Review by Zvi A. Sesling

A number of poetry groups print anthologies of their members’ works. In the Boston area for example is Bagel Bards Anthology (in which I have been both included and served as editor twice) and PowWow River Poets Anthology which contain many works of merit. In fact, San Diego, Dallas and other large cities have similar works, so why not Grand Rapids, Michigan.

As editor David Cope points out in his Foreword this volume “…includes poetry that is firmly rooted in the people, soil and rivers of West Michigan, as well as work that ranges from Bucharest and Gdansk to the coast of Ireland, St. Petersburg, the battlefields of the Civil War and the swamps of Vietnam.”

Cope began laboring as a custodial worker for 18 year and retired last year after years as a professor. He has served as Grand Rapids Poet Laureate,  has seven books of poetry to his credit and has a list of awards and credits longer than most books of poetry.  A friend of Allen Ginsberg and other well-known poets he has put together with this offering of 16 poets a fine collection.

Many of the poems are too long to reproduce here and only parts would make little sense, so shorter ones were selected.  For example, David Landrum, who teaches literature at Grand Valley State University, had a number of entries of which this is the most poignant dealing with the dark basement of living:

Life Before Age Twenty-Two

Nightmare after nightmare
but waking up was worse.

The bullies on the street were kinder
than the bullies living in my house.

Life as a bowling pin, life as a cutting board.

Never being called by my own name
and someone threatening to kill my dog.

L. S. Klatt graduated the University of Georgia in 2003 and teaches American literature and creative writing at Calvin College. The “May Day” could apply to any who has experienced troubled times with an ending that may or may not be satisfactory.

May Day

I am adrift in a burned-out canoe
without a helmsman. It was once a birch
straight & narrow made swift. The planets
revolve behind the blue sky but I don’t
witness. The new is good. The willow
has waded into the pond, & the purpose
of the pond is outside of me. The bow
of the boat follows the breezes. Light-
years from Zero.

A past Grand Rapids Poet Laureate, Rodney Torreson is the author of  The Ripening of Pinstripes: Called Shots on the New York Yankees, fine poetics on the players who make up what used to be baseball’s best teamHe has several other books and chapbooks to his credit and teaches elementary and intermediate grades at a parochial school. In this poem, Torreson captures moments in the country that city folks never experience, or is it all a dream?

On a Moonstruck Gravel Road

The sheep-killing dogs saunter home,
wool scraps in their teeth.

From the den of the moon
ancestral wolves
howl their approval.

The farm boys, asleep in their beds,
live the same wildness under their lids;
every morning hey come back
through the whites of their eyes
to do their chores, their hands pausing
to pet the dog, to press
its ears back, over the skull,
to quiet that other world.

For those who enjoy reading poetry anthologies from different areas of the country, produced by those local poets, this is a welcome collection from an area that is not always recognized for the fine poetry written there.
Zvi A. Sesling
Reviewer for Boston Small Press and Poetry Scene
Author, King of the Jungle (Ibbetson Street Press)
Author,  Across Stones of Bad Dreams (Cervena Barva Press)
Author, Fire Tongue (forthcoming, Cervena Barva Press)
Editor, Muddy River Poetry Review Online Poetry Journal
Editor, Bagel Bards Anthologies 7& 8
Publisher, Muddy River Books

Friday, February 21, 2014

Tea In Heliopolis By Hedy Habra

Tea In Heliopolis
    By Hedy Habra
    Press 53, 2013
    83 Pages
        By Myles Gordon

    Heliopolis once stood as one of the grand cities of the ancient world. Located in what is now Cairo, Egypt, Heliopolis was a center of culture, commerce, and learning, attracting Homer, Pythagoras, Plato and other to its schools of philosophy and astronomy.  Today, the city remains barely visible – a few relics in a northeast suburb of Cairo. Most of Heliopolis lies buried beneath the neighborhoods of Egypt’s capital, the Al-Masalia obelisk, from the Temple of Re-Atum, the largest of its few, visible surviving monuments. After reading Hedy Habra’s Tea In Heliopolis, one understands why this city, largely destroyed and forgotten, is the namesake for her powerful book.

    There can be a solemn perspective gained by those who lose their homes and possessions to natural disasters. While all the things are lost, the people survive and have each other. Things are merely transitory items that can be replaced. But the family and loved ones, and the love shared: these transcend the flood, hurricane or tornado. But for those who have lost their homes and way of life through man’s malice toward man, there is a poignantly, tragic edge to this perspective: things did not have to turn out this way. People did not have to act like this. Habra’s family lost their idyllic home and all they worked for and achieved during Lebanon’s protracted civil war fought from 1975 to 1990. Like a million other Lebanese citizens, Habra and her family fled the country. She ended up in Michigan, where she now teaches Spanish and literature at Western Michigan University. She has already published a short story collection, Flying Carpets, and is an accomplished painter (she painted the lovely motif for this book’s cover). She has achieved great success in her chosen profession, but her poetry is haunted by a once tranquil life lost in war-torn Lebanon, in remnants that emerge like the ruins of Heliopolis, the once-grand ancient city.

    The desire to recapture what was lost emerges again and again, as in “To My Son Upon His First Visit to Lebanon” when the protagonist visits the tenants in the summer home lovingly built then tragically abandoned by his grandfather:

    He called us excited, said he wanted to buy
            the house back.
            We could spend summers there.
    Time regained, he thought…
        eager to relive our dream,
    retrieve its lost broken pieces

but the poet’s perspective is revealed in a hard-gained lesson to her son:

    I tried to explain what does belonging mean exactly?
    And does it really matter?

    This restrained, stoic outlook centers “Lost and Found” where the poet and her mother visit a hall filled with lost items from the recent Diaspora, to see if they
can find any of their sentimental family treasures:

    I’m afraid to go to someone’s home in Lebanon
    and see my life scattered all over,
                 fetishes sold at black markets
    As if I owned a palace
    As if it mattered
    As if anything mattered
        since our children left
        untouched, unharmed

    What matters in the highest sense are one another and the bonds and love that still remain. All well and good, but sometimes the gloves come off. Habra’s usually elegant, measured voice can explode in searing, though justifiable, rant. From “Raoucheh”:

    …we cannot silence
    …the song of the windshields constellated with stars of death
    the song of the driver forced to leave his car at an intersection
    the song of an entire school bus emasculated because they were Maronites
    the song of mothers and children blown up because they were not Maronites
    the song of a town torn apart, its children hanging like heavy fruits from olive
         and almond-trees, nipples and testicles dripping with blood on the
         lower branches…

    Like Heliopolis, Raoucheh was a thriving urban center, a cultural and social neighborhood of Beirut that has become a symbol of violence and loss for Habra, through the displacement and the brutality of Lebanon’s civil war.  Powerful stuff, and her power covers the local and personal as well as the global. Most of Habra’s work evoke family: the father she adores who can turn on her in a heartbeat, most likely because of the national turmoil at hand. In “A Seaside CafĂ©, My First Taste of Fresh Oysters,” the poet’s father teaches her the intricate method of eating the delectable creatures, first slathering them in lemon juice. Then, inexplicably, he bursts into anger:

    Yet one day you chased me
    around the house, menacing,
    a slipper in your raised hand.
    No one recalls what I had done.

    There is the elegant mother who taught life lessons on being an artist and a woman, from “To Henriette”:

    “There’s no such thing as true love,” you’d
    say, “the greatest passion melts like ice.”
    How I wanted you to be wrong. Your canvases’
    message reaches me, muffled by time and

    And, in some of the book’s most powerful sequences, there is the poet’s grandmother, also elegant and cosmopolitan, who suffered a freak accident that left her in a wheelchair. From “The White Brass Bed”:

    You live with us, Nonna.
    You are always sitting,
    you push the wheels
    forward, backward,
    one motion, both hands,
    your only exercise.

    You brought your bed along.
    It is too high for you, now.
    You sleep on your couch in a corner.
    The white, brass bed stands
    In the middle, empty, useless.

    Like Heliopolis, the poet’s grandmother retains for the poet the greatness now unseen by the rest of the world. Habra, the painter and scholar sees it as only an artist can. Many of her poems are about her process of painting and sketching, and the subtle nuance of brushstroke fills her work. In “Waiting in a Field of Melted Honey” she actually places herself in a painting by one of her inspirations, Vincent Van Gogh.

    I am waiting in a field of melted honey, hiding behind a blue tree
    that is not really a tree, a root Vincent chose to paint as a tree…

    As in Van Gogh’s paintings, the canvases of Habra’s poems come to life, bringing back worlds that aren’t there anymore, for the reader to embrace.

                Reviewer Biography

Myles Gordon’s book-length book of poetry, Inside the Splintered Wood, was recently published by Tebot Bach (Huntington Beach, CA), as winner of the press’s “Patricia Bibby First Book Competition.” His chapbook, Recite Every Day, was published by Evening Street Press (Dublin, Ohio) in 2009, as winner of the press’s “Helen Kay Chapbook Competition.” He is a past winner of the Grolier Poetry Prize, and honorable mention for an AWP Intro Award – Poetry. He has published poetry in numerous journals including Slipstream and Rattle. He holds a Master of Fine Arts from Vermont College of Fine Arts, and a Master of Education from the University of Massachusetts, in Amherst. He teaches school in Revere, Massachusetts and has previously worked as a television producer for WCVB TV, where he won four New England Emmy Awards for his writing and producing efforts.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

The Wood That We Carry: Looking Inside A Shed for Wood

The Wood That We Carry:  Looking Inside A Shed for Wood

            Religion, love, death, and nature are more than just themes in Daniel Thomas Moran’s poetry collection, A Shed for Wood; (Salmon Poetry) they are what life is built around.  Moran handles these life subjects with delicacy, while at the same time sprinkling humor in-between the lines.  This refreshing way of looking at poetry and life gives new hope for things that society has lost faith in.  By playing with words with or without a rhyme scheme, comparing animals with God, and using capitalization to enhance a point, Moran is able to show how one can take control of his or her own life and how he or she views it.  Instead of being warped by society’s expectations and opinions of what is around us, we are the ones who get to choose what matters to us. 

            One of the poems that I feel like is at the heart of this collection and speaks for a lot of Moran’s themes as a whole is his poem, “Fiona”.  The poem starts off by describing the narrator’s red cat, and how she sleeps on him in the “long darkness”.  This image gives nighttime a shape, and makes me picture an unseen shadow.  Moran is able to show us this image of a cat that we cannot see, yet we can feel her and imagine her stretched out.  It is immediately evident that the connection between the narrator and the cat is extremely powerful, as are many relationships in nature.  The narrator admits that Fiona is “comforted by things of me I cannot sense”, which shows that this is a spiritual bond that they have.  Although Moran does not mention God in this line, and is not speaking of a conventional religion, it sounds like he is saying that he believes in the intuition between a cat and a man.  It is clear that in this poem and in life animals and humans have their own belief systems when they are together. 

            Another important poem that stood out to me is the one called “Blue Heron”.  Moran cleverly utilizes an elegant animal to make a statement about the way that people live in today’s society.  The narrator of this poem shows that the blue heron wants to be seen, and wants you to pay close attention.  This heron is ready for whatever he is going to be faced with, even if it comes at him fast.  I feel like Moran is saying that we can learn a lot from this heron being in this composed, Zen-like state.  The heron is not moving, unlike people who are constantly running around.  Moran writes:
            In the moving world,
            like the rock which
            is his perch,
            He must be the stillness.

Moran’s technique of having some lines stand alone really enhances the simplicity and beauty of this poem.  When lines stand alone it forces the reader the slow down. Each line should be read slowly, because in nature we rush through things and miss what is important.  As the poem moves on, it completely evolves to have a Zen feeling to it.  The heron is now one with the rain, the fish, and his surroundings.  The reader is made to feel that the heron has no worries, and that nothing bad or unexpected could happen to the heron because he is at peace with himself and the universe.  The last line says, “The fish is himself” which shows how the heron knows that by eating the fish they become one entity.  The heron is not cognitively aware of religion, love, death, or even what nature is, but he has the intuition of the earth. 

            Overall, I feel like this poetry collection is called A Shed for Wood for good reason.  For me, the meaning of this title comes from the idea that wood is crucial for housing and heat, which helps us sustain life.  And this book behaves like a storage unit for such life, and everything that it entails.  As readers, it is up to us to make each piece of wood count for something, and to carry it as far as we can go.  We are capable of creating a house of new meaning, and it is important to invite others in.  

Emily Pineau is the author of No Need to Speak( Endicott College/Ibbetson Street Press Young Poet Series)

Monday, February 17, 2014

Ethics of the Undead By Loren Schechter

Ethics of the Undead
By Loren Schechter
Merrimack Media
Cambridge, Massachusetts

Review by Wendell Smith

The misdirection of Loren Schechter’s first sentence, “Edna LittleHawk hurried after the three young hunters as they raced down the canyon’s slope toward the dying campfire and a midnight meal,” and what followed hooked me. The tempo with which the scene developed set the hook and pulled me into the first chapter of Ethics of the Undead. The anticipated midnight meal that drove these hunters as “Light on their feet and full of confidence, the teens hurdled over brush and used low rocks as if they were trampolines, oblivious to the risks of falling with rifles and packs on their backs …” was not cooking the results of a successful hunt. The midnight meal was the campers by that campfire. Edna and these teens were vampires.

This hunt completed, the chapter continues in a ghoulish, comic vein as Edna slows their attack  “‘Enough, … There’s no need to be cruel,’” and assumes her pedantic duties (she is an ethics instructor).

“I know you are hungry, and I’ve put the cruelty issues on hold, but there’s an ethical question needs to be discussed before you eat – how do three vampires fairly divide up the blood of two humans?”
A muffled cry came from the gagged camper.

On the whole Ethics of the Undead will fulfill the promise of this first chapter. Schechter maintains the pace he has established and the ethical problems created by the demands of loyalty and love will be more complex than this cartoon question of dividing blood.

The book has a dramatic structure with eight Parts, which are roughly equivalent to a TV episode and each episode has 6-10 chapters or scenes. All of the scenes have a emotional tension, and no superfluous exposition slows the pace.   The three teenage vampire hunters of this first scene are students at the Sawtooth Wilderness Academy in Idaho. The Academy is in financial distress and it recruits four “gifted out of state students” so that it can be “diversified” enough to qualify for a federal charter school grant to relieve that distress.

After we meet the vampires, Part I introduces the “normal” recruits beginning with the book’s heroine Kathy Campion-Swink, a 16 year old from the Connecticut shore who keeps dropping out of the boarding schools where her parents store her while they are out do-gooding. She is a library rat reading Thomas Aquinas, John Wesley and Martin Luther. When she hitchhikes “Drivers who were tempted to put a hand in the wrong place were discouraged by an icy stare from her cold blue eyes and the display of a Marine Corps survival knife borrowed from the military academy.”

Kathy has a supporting cast of three other “normals”. Hector Julian Campos is from a barrio in Los Angeles. He tells his sister he has not chosen to go to Idaho, “What I chose is not to go to juvie. There are some very bad dudes in there.” He is travelling in a kaki muscle shirt and faded because “‘It’s a wilderness school. I don’t have to impress the bears.’ but no harm in showing the farm boys that a city kid had the muscles to take care of himself.”

Lionel Worthington is an asthmatic black kid from Chicago who wants to play classical violin. He has a single mom and four siblings and is despondent because he did not get into the Chicago High School for the arts. He is going to Idaho on a scholarship because he has been promised “an individual study program with a world-class violinist who’s been with us a very long time.”  In Part 2 Lionel will discover that “a very long time” means centuries. His world-class violinist is Mr. Vendetta couldn't get enough work as a violinist after he’d been turned into a vampire and “Sucking blood in pre-unification Italy didn’t give him the life style he’d known as a violin virtuoso in Padua. So he retooled in Sicily for the Costa Nostra.”

The last “normal” is Jung Soo, a Korean. We learn less about her in Part I than any of the others but that does not mean that she is less important. Her Tae Kwon Do training will give her an endurance, a strength and a will that is important for the group’s survival.

The diminishing amount I learned about each character through Part 1 actually accelerated me into the book. By the end of Part 1 I was so at ease with Schechter’s technique of presenting details, that I was ready to get on with it, secure in my aroused curiosity that Schechter’s characters would gradually be revealed as they faced each threat that confronted them.

Schechter throws the quartet into a perilous situation that provides plenty of opportunity for action. Will these four be bled to death as the campers in the first chapter, be “Turned” i.e. become vampires themselves (several ”normals” in the book are turned, including Soo’s mother) or escape? That is the question that drives the plot. They are trapped underground because the school is located in an abandoned mine high in the mountains and it’s winter and their boots and other winter gear have been taken and vampires, who are prevented from feasting upon them by the tenuous need to secure the federal grant, surround them.

The vampire community is not uniformly evil in fact it is roughly divided into three groups: the morally indifferent, the amoral Satanists and the morally and ethically troubled. The later group is made up of those vampires who know they have a fate worse than death, i.e. they will not die (unless a stake is driven through their heart or, as it turns out in this book, they are torn apart by wolves) nor will they age.

Schechter writes with wit; these exchanges with the school guidance counselor, Isadore Finkelstein, who laments being turned into a vampire because “blood is never kosher,” are fair examples from early in the book:
“Why did they put your office so far away from Admissions? asked Kathy.
“Why? Because administrators do what administrators do — they suck your blood and piss contempt. In this case whether the contempt is for guidance or for Jews, I’ve never been sure. Probably a little of both.”
“Vampires are prejudiced?” asked Lionel.
“You know anyone that’s not?” said Finkelstein.

“I’ll take Vampires in Art and Literature and Theology.” Kathy said. “Do the Satanists have a formal religion?”
“No. They’re more of a fundamentalist antisocial club.” Finkelstein sighed heavily. “They call it the Satanic Legion and want a new world order based on absolute freedom. How you can have a Legion organized to promote anarchy is beyond my understanding, darlings, but why should faith ever be subject to reason?”

Schechter’s plot does have its romantic twists. A hunk, who is a “nuvie,” someone recently turned into a vampire, (by the school’s English teacher who seduced him) does fall into a doomed love of Kathy. And while his love makes him her protector (a protection that saves her life) it must remain unrequited, because she would have to agree to be “turned” herself which would betray her loyalty to her three fellow normals and dedication to their escape. Our quartet survives with the help of three members of the vampire faculty who are outsiders and have some principles: the Shoshone ethics teacher; the Jewish guidance counselor; and the temperamental artist, Lionel’s violin teacher. However, even as we are aware of a literary convention that should ensure the quartet would survive, they are always in enough peril so to keep us  flipping the page to see what happens next.

However, by the end, our assumption that our four “normals” will escape turns out to be another of the book’s misdirections. Kathy and Soo do get out but to do so they must leave Lionel and Hector behind in an ambiguous ending that hints at more to follow. Soo will return to her Korean family to deal with her mother who has been turned into a vampire. And, because Hector’s self-sacrifice has made their escape possible, Kathy will need to return to The Sawtooth Wilderness Academy. So, even if you are, as I am, 4-5 times the age of the intended audience for Ethics of the Undead, you’ll probably get the next installment know the how and why of her continuing adventure.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Kirk Etherton & Bridget Galway: Two different artistic visions at the Somerville Public Library.

Painting by Bridget Galway

Work by Kirk Etherton

***Our guest columnist this week is School Street resident Kirk Etherton.

Kirk Etherton& Bridget Galway:
Two different artistic visions at
the Somerville Public Library.

Bridget Galway and I both have exhibits at the Somerville  Public Library (Central Branch) for the month of February. Also, we're both Somerville residents—plus members of the Bagel Bards writing group—so Doug Holder suggested I write up a conversation/review involving our visual art. Bridget liked the idea; we met and talked (quietly, of course!) at the library.

Kirk Etherton: We admire each other's work. It's funny how there's zero similarity. Most of what I'm exhibiting—here, and also at ZuZu, in Central Square—is found pieces of picture frames, glued together, which I've taught myself how to do over the last 10 years. You're a painter, with credentials.

Bridget Galway: Yes, it's interesting. I have a BFA painting & Art Education from UMass Amherst...

KE: ...whereas I have a degree in Political Science from the University of Vermont. As a would-be painter, I appreciate your ability to work with oil, watercolors, ink& acrylic, pastels, anything.

BG: Thanks. Actually, that's made it hard for me to get gallery representation, since I don't have one set style

KE: Many of the 21 paintings hanging here are very moving character studies. One of the most striking is you, with your son as a young boy.

BG: The colors are very intense there: I squeezed the paint directly from the tube onto the canvas. No mixing.

KE: I hear people saying your paintings evoke anyone from Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, to Matisse or Picasso.

BG: So I'm in good company.

KE: Right. And they remark on your subjects' eyes—maybe soulful, beautiful, troubled, but always clear and memorable.

BG: One of my favorite paintings is Closing Time...
KE: ...where clearly, the subject coming towards us is off-balance, and you also capture something in the yellow from the streetlight, reflected in his eyes.
BG: I've been a bartender on and off most of my life. Growing up in the 1950's and 60's, in places like Key West and Greenwich Village, I was surrounded by people like that. It was part of a "Bohemian Lifestyle" which made a big impact on my art.
KE: Your show here is sort of a 35-year retrospective. What is your artistic focus now?

BG: I want to start doing more three-dimensional work. And recently I've been inspired by a lot of the things you've made.
KE: Really? In what way?

BG: One thing is how you use negative space so it becomes its own composition, like a sibling to the solid form. Then you have these shadows, and all the elements are very interrelated. It's dynamic, but peaceful. There's a certain Mondrian quality, a spirtuality, to your work.

KE: Well, thank you very much. Is there anything else you'd like to say about your current interests?

BG: I should add that I still love working  as a commissioned portrail artist. It's always satisfying to paint the essence of someone.

KE: How can prospective clients get in touch with you?

BG: They can reach me at I had a great website, but it's being worked on, seriously updated.

KE: OK. Well, this has been fun. Thanks.
BG: To you, too. And to this beautiful library