Friday, May 30, 2014

after that By Kathleen Aguero

after that
    By Kathleen Aguero
    Tiger Bark Press
    Rochester, NY
    75 Pages

Review by Myles Gordon

    Kathleen Aguero’s exquisite collection, after that, begins with a devastating punch: a dozen poems focused on a mother’s dementia and eventual death. The pieces are unflinching, forcing the reader into the illness’s visceral circle of despair.

    When she chews the napkin mistaking it for hors d’oevre,
    when she eats the teabag that rests by the side of her cup,
    I want to be the one to gently take the plate away,
    to give her something tastier for lunch…

begins “Leftovers,” capturing the stark, physical reality of the psyche’s diminishing. The title poem, “after that,” presents a laundry list of worsening symptoms, ending with the knock-out:

    She ripped her good dress into pieces
    and cut her father’s photograph in half.
    We didn’t know how to think of her after that.

So powerful is this opening series, one wonders how to approach a book that has hit its emotional peak in its first fifteen pages – the rest of the poems musings on more standard fair such as motherhood, growing up and literally wrestling life’s mysteries in a section devoted to pubescent sleuth, Nancy Drew. But that’s precisely the genius and point of the book: we can’t pick and choose when life’s devastations will occur, and often have to maneuver through the relatively mundane aspects of our experiences “after that.”
    The book, then, covers largely common, and shared experience. It succeeds because of Aguero’s facility with the language. There are no wasted words, and conversely no lines thirsty for nourishment. Her delightful “Aubade” wakes readers to a magical, lyrical landscape of a morning.

    Sheen of wet sand,
    smooth back of a whale the world rests on.

    Pearl gray, blue gray,
    the mauve tinged gray east.

    Gray thread of bird song
    spinning clouds overhead

    where the mass, gray underside
    of a vast bouquet of flowering white…

This is fine free verse, tinged with an almost Zen-like Asian descriptiveness. Many of the poems spring at us like lyrical gifts, as in the start of “Landscapes.”

    How pleasant to imagine a figure in a Chinese scroll
    spending a summer’s afternoon among the mountains and mists.
    I could be the man standing in a boat dwarfed by the cliff,
    my large hat flapping as I let down my net…

    This dreaminess isn’t just confined to descriptions of far-off vistas. It penetrates close to the heart. In “Inward Dive,” the protagonist is a mom at her son’s diving meet. Watching him test the board with a few mild bounces she must now prepare herself for the part of the launch for which she’s never prepared: the diver’s need to descend with his head just inches from the board, to receive the highest total of points. But, as always, she can’t look, imagining the worst:

    In that instant I could glimpse
    the soft moon of your face
    just before it goes under, but with eyes closed
    I see you unconscious, bloody, in the water.

    That mother’s protectiveness lurks everywhere in the collection. In “Bird Seed,” birds “contra dance” on a table that serves as a feeder, angling position for scattered seeds. Soon, the scene turns grim as two birds

            …face off.
    She’s standing her ground
    though that jay must seem big as Aeneas
    who said to Achilles:
    Our parents – one pair or the other will mourn
    a dear son today…

Then the conceit is lifted. The poem pulls back to reveal a literature professor who has just learned that one of her students, a member of the military, has just been called up to serve in a war overseas.  The professor impotently muses:

    Hey! We have a syllabus!
    I wanted to shout, flapping
    like that small bird at the feeder.

One can almost see her, like a slow pull back in a film, grow smaller and less significant as the student departs to a dangerous, uncertain future.
    Perhaps this realization of lack of control leads the book to its second, and final section: twenty poems focused on pre teen girls’ detective hero, Nancy Drew. Life, by nature, can often be unbearable, and eminently unsolvable, but maybe Nancy Drew can set things right. In “Mystery Of The Girl Sleuth, a poem written on Drew’s fiftieth birthday,” a confident tone acknowledges the mystery, though painful to tackle, can be figured out:

    Although you wish you’d never started on this quest
    for the missing map, you must follow it
    to the message in the hollow oak, across
    the haunted bridge to face the wooden lady
    and the statue whispering what you do not
    want to hear.

But as the sequence continues, the pain remains, but the confidence diminishes. Toward the end, the book comes full circle, as Nancy Drew is drawn into the riddle of a mother’s dementia, in “The Case Of The Impersonator.”

    Another clue –
    I tell her I want to talk
    about something important.
    Sex? she snickers. My mother
    never used that word with me.
    But when I say, Going to the doctor,
    no, she snaps, in my mother’s voice.

Sadly, this is a mystery that neither Nancy Drew, nor the poet, can solve. A beloved mother sinks into dementia before diminishing into death, and, “after that,” she must still live the life that unfolds.

Myles Gordon is author of Inside The Splintered Wood (Tebot Bach), and the upcoming Until It Does Us In (Cervena Barva)

Thursday, May 29, 2014

What Happened Here by Bonnie ZoBell

Author Bonnie ZoBell

What Happened Here by Bonnie ZoBell ( Press 53 Winston-Salem, NC)  $17.95
Review by Doug Holder

The North Park section of San Diego, the setting for Bonnie ZoBell’s novella and collection of short stories titled: What Happened Here  is not unlike Somerville, Mass. It is an artsy, offbeat section of the city that like our town (Until gentrification digs its claws in) houses stories about artists, beautiful losers, misfits, teachers, and other eclectic types. But unlike our burg these people live in the shadow of the 1978 airline crash that decimated the city. I noticed that the title What Happened Here doesn’t have a question mark. This may be true because the denizens of this neck of the woods are painfully aware of their tragic history. In one harrowing passage in the title novella, Lenora, the narrator of the story, tells us about the destruction and carnage:

“ A few neighbors who happened to look up when they heard a loud crunching sound and saw the out-of-control jet careening to the right, fire and smoke shooting out from behind before the plane slammed into the earth at 300 miles per hour just behind my house. The explosion was instantaneous—an enormous fireball whooshed into the sky, a mushroom of smoke and debris. Scraps of clothing leaped onto telephone poles, body parts fell on roofs, tray tables scattered across driveways. Airplane seats landed on front lawns, arms and legs descended on patios, and a torso fell through the windshield of a moving vehicle.”

Behind this backdrop of tragedy—the small everyday struggles of ordinary folks continue.  The neighborhood and its people slowly heal, but the open wound is just beneath the scab. Having worked as a mental health worker at McLean Hospital (Outside of Boston) for the past 30 years or so I admired the way ZoBell portrayed John, Lenora’s husband—a manic depressive journalist deeply mired in a clinical funk as he researches the disaster for the newspaper he writes for. ZoBell has Lenora describe the cycling down of her husband with clinical and emotional acuity:

“… the monster had swallowed my husband whole. He couldn’t sleep, concentrate, get food down, remember, or forget. When we went out to dinner, he didn’t speak. I dragged him to a play, but he couldn’t follow the plot….He kicked one of the dogs. Suddenly he slept thirty-six hours straight…
He took solitary walks around North Park to get his endorphins going. ‘It’s weird,’ he told me when he got back. ‘It’s like I can’t tell the difference between me and the outside world, like the same problems out on the street are going on inside me. A spiraling vessel shrieks to the ground, the trees are burning, fruit sizzles on the branches. Hands are hanging from telephone poles… the smell, faces missing, the earth churning like an earthquake. I can’t tell whether I’m awake or in a dream.”

Throughout the novella ZoBell has fully fleshed characters in a fully fleshed neighborhood striving to find a modicum of peace.

One of the short stories that I thought was beautifully rendered was “Sea Life.” Here we have Sean, a young man newly graduated from college and decidedly adrift. Again with ZoBell’s genius for setting, she has her character adrift at sea, on a surfboard, guided spiritually by a school of dolphins. If we are aware—nature signals us all the time—but we have to unplug our earphones, all the complicated wires, and look, listen and feel. And in this story the dolphins seem to signal something about simplicity, and following one’s own path. Here Sean describes a mother dolphin and her calf as they follow him and offer him insight and a bigger picture of the world than he can see now with his tunnel vision:

“She glides away, then back—and the calf does, too, in concert. Like any mother in the wild, whenever her calf drifts too close to Sean, she shepherds him away. But then she turns back and clacks and tattles and clicks, making creaking sounds, whistles. Every time her head surfaces and he can’t see, she’s got that dopey smile on. Guiless. Ridiculous. Sincere.
He feels honored, a diplomat to the sea. He knows that this isn’t common, that dolphins don’t careen up to human beings to visit unless they feel utterly safe. The dolphin must know he’s a good person, that he only wants peace. Simplicity, Freedom. He reaches his palms into the liquid velvet, launches himself and his board further away from what he knows, toward the horizon, realizing this dolphin is less menacing than many of the humans he knows.”

I think ZoBell is a poet of sorts of her city—the common man and the yin and yang of existence.
Highly Recommended.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Susan Tepper: A writer with one foot in New York City and the other in Somerville, Mass.

Susan Tepper

By Doug Holder

I have known Susan Tepper for a number of years now, and she has not slowed down an iota. She is a consummate New Yorker--she moves fast, talks fast and thinks on her feet. I have read for her at the KGB FIZZ series in the lower east side of NYC, have been on a small press panel she organized for a literary festival at Hunter College and I have published her poetry in The Somerville Times and the Ibbetson Street magazine. Tepper will be in Somerville, Monday June 16 7PM, to read from her latest book The Merrill Diaries, which is a novel told in stories that link one to the next. She will be reading in Gloria Mindock's Cervena Barva Press Art Space located in the Somerville Arts Armory building. It's a gathering of writers and poets published by the Cervena Barva Press and the MadHat Press.

Hundreds of Tepper's stories, poems, essays and interviews appear worldwide in print journals and online venues. Her bi-monthly MONDAY CHAT Interview column ran on the Fictionaut blog for more than a year and is archived on that site. Tepper is host of the reading series FIZZ at KGB Bar in New York City. She has been nominated nine times for the Pushcart Prize. Deer, the title story of her collection, was nominated for NPR Selected Shorts. Her novel WHAT MAY HAVE BEEN: Letters of Jackson Pollock & Dori G (with Gary Percesepe) was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.

Doug Holder: Can you give me a brief history of your experience in Somerville? 

Susan Tepper:  My first experience of Somerville was several years ago when my collection ‘Deer & Other Stories’ came out from Wilderness House Press which is located in northern MA.  I had been invited to do a TV spot in Somerville with a certain Doug Holder(!)  I found Somerville to be diverse and charming.  After the TV interview, a small group of us had a lovely dinner outdoors (I believe you had the salmon, Doug).  I always remember what people eat.  It’s bizarre.  I also remember it was a balmy night in early fall.  My 3 city MA book tour.  You try and cram in as much as possible since you are paying for hotel nights.  I also taught a fiction workshop at Grub Street in Boston which was delightful, and I read at Four Stories Reading Series in Cambridge.  It was a whirlwind few days in MA!

DH: How did your life journey lead to writing?

ST: Becoming a writer was not in my game plan.  I’d been an actress since I was seventeen, and that was my primary focus.  To make money I sang with the bands, any gig I could land.  Six sets a night was standard.  Hard times require hard measures (or some such thing).  I was young and that made all the difference.  I didn’t start to write until I hit forty.  I wrote a story, took it to The New School and watched it get massacred.  Then the teacher told me it was a good story and that I should keep writing.  Green light!  I was waiting for something new and there it was.  That class was life-changing.  I became a writer.

DH: Can you describe your involvement with Gloria Mindock’s Cervena Barva Press? 

ST: Gloria published my poetry chapbook Blue Edge, as well as a novel I co-wrote with Gary Percesepe called What May Have Been, which traces a fictional account of a love affair between the surrealist painter Jackson Pollock and a made-up young woman.  Gloria and I became great friends and I was her assistant editor at the Istanbul Literary Review for a few years.

As for my current book The Merrill Diaries, which I’ll be reading from, that was published by Pure Slush Books  out of Australia.  The novel begins in 1976, at the end of the Vietnam War.  I grew up during those years, and the time period, though tumultuous, was also one of great personal expansion and change for many.  It fascinates me to think back on those days.  The Merrill Diaries spans ten years and follows the main character, Merrill, over two continents, two marriages, and quite a few quirky relationships.  Merrill, like me, is a traveler.  Life for her is about seeing and acquiring new adventures. 

DH: Is there a recurrent theme in your work?

ST: A recurrent theme in my work is the search for love.  I find love to be mostly elusive.  Not just romantic love, but familial love, friend love, all of it is transitory in my experience.  It’s around for a while then it can do all sorts of unpredictable things.  It can hide like a bear in a cave, or take a long walk off a short pier.  In essence, love is not a static thing.  Love cannot be depended upon to bring you happiness.  You have to get that on your own.  And so it comes into my prose and poetry with regularity.  I examine love as if I was a scientist and it was a smear on a slide. 

DH: Do you think women writers still get the shaft in the literary world?

ST;  There is a lot of controversy over male vs female writers, who gets which prizes, which gender is favored over which.  I don’t buy into that.  If you write a really good story or book that takes risks, you will get it published and possibly even win a prize.  Or at least be nominated for one.  A lot of women writers feel the men are being favored.  I don’t agree.  I conduct author/book interviews and I will be dead on honest here when I say that I have a hard time finding really good novels written by contemporary women authors.  The ‘mommy books’ that are popular amongst the 40-something readers leave me cold.  I end up mostly interviewing women about their story collections or poetry books (I can feel the rotten tomatoes being hurled).  But, seriously, there is a reason certain books get prizes and nominations.  Women need to break out of traditional themes and go where the men go.  Risk Risk Risk.  An example of a fabulous woman novelist is the late Susan Fromberg Schaeffer who wrote the Vietnam book ‘Buffalo Afternoon’.  Now there was a woman who understood risk in writing.  I think it’s the best book ever written about the Vietnam War.  And by a woman who never served as a soldier!

For more information about the reading go to:Cervena Barva Press

Directing Herbert White By James Franco

Actor/Poet James Franco

Directing Herbert White
By James Franco
Graywolf Press
Minneapolis, Minnesota
ISBN: 978-1-55597-673-6
83 Pages

Review by Dennis Daly

Even unrequited love arouses only glassy-eyed tedium in Directing Herbert White, a collection of limp, low-rent gossipy sketches by James Franco. Other pedestrian insights, masquerading as poetic revelation and scattered throughout this oh-so-precious Hollywood pseudo- production, fall embarrassingly flat and beg the question: why would renowned Graywolf Press publish these sophomoric jottings?

The opening poem entitled Because chronicles an actor’s loss of self in his romanticized character. Nothing original here. No verbal music. No imagery worth a second look. Franco opens his Heath Ledgeresque poem thusly,

Because I played a knight,
And was on a screen,
Because I made a million dollars,
Because I was handsome,
Because I had a nice car,
A bunch of girls seemed to like me

But I never met those girls,
I only heard about them.
The only people I saw were the ones who hated me,
And there were so many of those people…

Hand in Glove, the third poem in a series called The Best of Smiths, Side B devolves into uncomfortable cliché almost immediately and it only gets worse. Unrequited love should quake under you; it should wrench the neck of merciless time. Not this poem. Consider these lines if you dare,

…I see you drive in your Mustang—
Arched behind the wheel,
Ray Bans
It’s sexy Satan.

Graduation day,
I’ll be gone
And you,
You never knew me.

I’ll keep a room
For you
In my mind.
There is a table, a chair
And a candle
That burns forever.

Using the poem Chateau Dreams as a rather uninspiring vehicle to choreograph the seediness and diseased dreams of Hollywood, Franco drops a number of names, who stayed at this veritable hotel hell, to try to enliven his dead-on-arrival lines. He includes Natalie Wood (at 15 she was raped there), John Belushi (he died ingesting a speedball there), Lindsay Lohan (making a nuisance of herself) and of course himself (reading Jacobean plays). How wonderful it must have been for him! The poem ends this way,

In Bungalow 89
There was the sailor on the wall,
Glass eyed and pale.

The room was on the second level,
The exterior walls hugged by vines.

Every night Lindsay looked for me and I hid.

Out the window was Hollywood.

One of Franco’s poems, Acting Tips, belies its own title. In fact the purpose of the poem seems to be a listing of Franco’s acting credits, which the publisher already enumerates in the author’s overly credentialed biography (He has five MFAs. Is that some sort of record?) at the back of the book. Here’s a bit of the poem with one such credit,

Then I played Scott Smith,
Harvey Milk’s lover.
I’m still surprised
By the response
To that character.
The secret there:

The film is called Milk,
Not Smith,
And that’s how I played it:
A supporting lover,
Thus, as a supporting actor
To support Sean
Whom I love so much.

Over half way through the collection a strange little admission entitled Fake appears and exhibits not a little self-awareness. In this poem the persona disses his voice or voices relating these poems. I guess that means the poet’s persona negates his own persona’s legitimacy. The poet confesses,

…he’s the one that writes
These poems.
He has attitude and swagger

That I don’t have.
But on the page, this fake me
Is the me that speaks.
And this fake me is louder

Than the real me, and he
Is the one that everyone knows…

In the piece Sal Mineo Franco details the pointless death of the actor Mineo in an equally pointless poem. The first two lines that follow, apparently meant as irony, I found particularly repulsive.  The poet explains,

Stabbed near his heart,
In the heart of Hollywood.

For a year they didn’t capture his killer.
So the tabloids said he was killed for drugs,
Or because he was gay:
But it was none of those things,
None of those things.

Franco here rightly rails against tabloid journalism. The problem is that Franco’s book reeks of tabloid poetics—to put it nicely. Supermarkets have better material available for the queued up frustrated patrons of which I’m often one.

Directing Herbert White, this collection’s title piece astonishes with its irrelevancy to anything poetic, at least in this collection of supposed poems. Put simply, it is not and never will be a poem. The piece does, however, prosaically elucidate another poet (namely, Frank Bidart) and his inspiration for Herbert White, a poem that Franco made into a movie. Franco also chronicles Bidart’s background and Bidart’s hesitancy to read this poem on necrophilia in public.  Fair enough, and perhaps interesting, if one doesn’t know much about Frank Bidart, a Bollingen Prize winner. The piece also discusses in a little detail how Franco adapted Bidart’s poem to film.  And that’s it: a non-poem about an adaptation of a controversial poem. Here are two of his snippets unabashedly admiring Bidart,

His first book, golden State, was published by Richard Howard. None of the poems had been published in magazines.


Golden State, what a fucking title. Frank is the loving son of Lowell and the rebel son of Ginsberg. He is the recondite and the hip.

The local Barnes and Noble, where I purchased Franco’s collection, stocks in the contemporary poetry section Billy Collins, Sharon Olds, Mary Oliver, and all the recent publications of Graywolf Press and not much more. I’m beginning to wonder about Graywolf Press—and that’s too bad.

Monday, May 26, 2014

SOMERVILLE ARTIST BRIDGET GALWAY: A Provincetown Artist Makes a Home in the Paris of New England

Artist Bridget Galway

By Doug Holder

  One of the first things I noticed while talking with Bridget Galway was the tattoo flowers that tangled their way up the sides of her expressive hands. And then there was the silver hoop earrings with yellow stones—in some ways she is a living piece of installation art. And no wonder… Bridget Galway has always been involved with the arts. In Provincetown, Mass. (where she grew up) her mom owned a sandal shop and was a model for the artist Hans Hoffman, and her father was a writer. And as a young artist Galway was intimately involved in the arts scene. Later she founded a free arts center in Holyoke, Mass. There she developed innovative art programs for city youth and others. She has designed book covers for a number of poets including Eating Grief at 3A.M. (Muddy River Books) by yours truly and the upcoming On the Wings of Song (Ibbetson Street Press) by Molly Lynn Watt, a memoir in verse that deals with the Civil Rights Movement of the 60s. 

  Galway was the arts/editor for the Wilderness House Literary Review, an online journal, where she interviewed and featured the work of a number of locally and nationally known artists. She has had a number of her paintings featured on the front cover of the Pushcart-Prize winning journal Ibbetson Street.  Most notably her pensive woman in the “Red Beret”, and a haunting portrait of the Beat writer William Burroughs adorned the magazine. Recently the Small Press Review lauded her cover for Ibbetson Street 34, which was titled “Birds of a Feather.” This painting portrays a man and a woman shedding tears as black birds fly like bitter words from each other’s mouths.

 When Galway arrived in Somerville from P-Town she was unconnected and isolated. But one day she wandered into the Au Bon Pain in Davis Square for a Bagel Bard literary group meeting and slowly got her feet planted in the rich artistic soil here. Now she works under the direction of Lea Ruscio at the Arts Armory as an Education Programming Coordinator. One of her duties is to work with youth on art initiatives . One such program is titled: Youth, Arts, Arrive. According to Galway this program  “…provides multi-disciplinary art instruction to youth 11 to 19 years old, and incorporates peer leadership.” And Galway, an experienced grant writer will be working to find more funding sources. Galway is also working on a found objects project. This would have kids make art pieces out of objects that they might throw out like old toys or dolls, etc…, and turn them into permanent fixtures.

Galway who holds a degree in painting from U/Mass Amherst among others, recently had an exhibit at the Somerville Public Library that featured a selection of her work from the past thirty years. The opening for her exhibit included a poetry reading that featured many of the poets she met through the Bagel Bards. About her own art Galway told me: “A lot of my work is studies of people, portrayed in an intimate way”. According to Galway, through her renditions of people she processes her own thoughts about her relationships and the world. Galway said: “What I am feeling I express through a person I paint. You can feel it from the colors I use, from the environment, and the setting of the picture.”

Galway’s unique perspective and tireless advocacy of the arts is a welcomed presence in the Paris of New England.

To see more of Galway’s work go to: