Friday, October 03, 2014

From the Desk of a “B” Student: A Review of Wesley McNair’s The Lost Child: Ozark Poems: Review by David DiSarro

From the Desk of a “B” Student: A Review of Wesley McNair’s The Lost Child: Ozark Poems

Review by David DiSarro

Consider the following paragraph a disclaimer.  When asked to review Wesley McNair’s latest book, The Lost Child: Ozark Poems, I had to pause – not because of a lack of interest (far from it), but because I had to contend with a potential dilemma, or, more accurately, a possible conflict of interest.  Specifically, I spent three and a half years as a long-haired, unshaven, and somewhat dimwitted student in the undergraduate creative writing program McNair helped to establish at the University of Maine at Farmington; a program where his reputation brought poets like Philip Levine, Lucille Clifton, Donald Hall, and Sharon Olds (just to name a few) to us enthusiastic, doe-eyed, and occasionally blubbering creative writing students; a program where I had the privilege of his mentorship, albeit for one semester in my junior year.  And now, nearly 12 years since sitting in his classroom, with considerably less hair and slightly more wisdom (well, hopefully, anyway), I find myself in the unique position to give McNair’s book a read and provide some semblance of a review, all while trying to remember one of the valuable tools he taught me in those early workshops – to separate the work from the author.  This, of course, is a tough chore, even for McNair to follow, considering the central figure in The Lost Child is his mother, Ruth, and “the homeplace that shaped her,” but I figured, why not?  I might as well give it go, if only to make myself feel a little better about that “B” I earned in his class. 

Hyperbole aside, it should be no surprise to readers of McNair’s work that the concept of “place” plays an important role in the text.  As with many of McNair’s other volumes, characters constantly attempt to reconcile the physical “places” they occupy and those internal “places” frequented in the mind.  Ruth, in poor health and moved to a nursing home in the opening poem (“When She Wouldn’t”), is a protagonist continuously under siege throughout the book, surrounded by an array of eccentric and disillusioned family members, struggling with an aging body, deteriorating mind, and the disorientation of being forced into unfamiliar surroundings.  McNair skillfully illustrates the sorrow involved when those things we remember or cherish fade, change, or are violated, and yet he also leaves room for contemplation, resolution, and even comfort amidst chaos.  Remaining true to his reputation as a storyteller, McNair preserves the places of his mother in the cadence of a southern drawl, the depiction of a dysfunctional family barbeque (“The American Flag Cake”), those quiet moments by Ruth’s deathbed (“Dancing in Tennessee”), and, finally, her journey home so that “she would never, ever again, be gone” (“Why I Carried My Mother’s Ashes).  Indeed, while numerous poets focus heavily upon image or, to borrow a phrase from William Burroughs, a “frozen moment,” and unpacking the emotional baggage of the speaker or characters therein, McNair is one of those rare poets who balances the delicacy and nuisance of image with the plot of the poem, the storylines woven between characters, and ultimately the craftsmanship involved in revealing those uniquely human emotions of love, jealousy, resentment, and compassion. 

While the story of Ruth and her family is compelling (and even wrenching at times), McNair offers some relief in poems such as “Gratitude,” which chronicles the homecoming of a veteran by the name of Elgin, a soldier recently deprogrammed upon his return from Afghanistan.  Struggling with what one ancillary character refers to as “homefront syndrome,” or when “…the people back home don’t understand the war and his sacrifice,” the poem is removed from the usual suspects of Ruth and her family, and McNair skillfully portrays the psychological complexities of returning from war – of faces familiar, yet somehow not.  While there are certainly brooding passages in the poem, one of the most poignant moments, perhaps in the entire collection, transpires when Elgin reconnects and recognizes beauty for the first time since coming home; not from some foggy memory or a rekindling romance, but in the aging face of his mother:

So none of the others were there to see Elgin’s mother,
uncomfortable with expressions of love, brush
an imaginary fleck of dust from the lapel
of his uniform and say how much she enjoyed
his speech as Elgin looked down at her, studying
her face and hair.  Then he held her in his arms

and said thank you, this time for just growing old,
which had made her beautiful, he said, a word
he had almost forgot, causing her to weep all
over again in the blinking red, white, and blue light
of the crèche, while Myla, nudged between them,
cried to hear how loud her grammy cried.

This moment, I would argue, is a metaphor for speaker in The Lost Child coming to terms with the deterioration and death of his own mother, in realizing the inherent beauty in those moments that cause us the greatest difficulty and pain, and to remember those people and places (whatever their faults), even after they have gone.

Wesley McNair’s The Lost Child: Ozark Poems is a compelling read that solidifies his reputation at the forefront of contemporary poetry and storytelling.  Not a collection for the emotionally weary or fainthearted, The Lost Child takes McNair’s mastery of language, his penchant for certain subject matter, and implants these musings in the landscape of Southern Missouri for all to see.  Whether coming to McNair’s work for the first time, or, in my case, for the first time in a long time, this collection is a must-have for any bookshelf.  And, hopefully dear reader, this was an “above average” or “B” review for what is undoubtedly a remarkable work.


 David R. DiSarro is currently an Assistant Professor of English and the Director of the Writing Center at Endicott College in Beverly, MA. He received his Ph.D. in Rhetoric and Composition from Ball State University, his M.A. in Creative Writing from Southern Connecticut State University, where he was also a graduate research fellow, and his B.F.A. in Creative Writing from the University of Maine at Farmington. David's creative work has previously appeared in The Hawaii Pacific Review, Shot Glass Poetry Journal, The Ibbetson Street Magazine, The Orange Room Review, Breadcrumb Scabs, Third Wednesday, among others.  In addition, David's article entitled "Let's CHAT:  Cultural Historical Activity Theory Goes into the Creative Writing Classroom" will be forthcoming (Spring 2015) in New Writing:  The International Journal for the Practice and Theory of Creative Writing.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Reconsidering Hanna(h) By Deirdre Girard : Boston Playwright's Theatre

Reconsidering Hanna(h)
By Deirdre Girard
Directed by Bridget Kathleen O’Leary
Boston Playwright’s Theatre
September 25 to October 19
Lighting Design by Karen Perlow
$30.00 Adult admission
$25.00 Seniors
$10.00 Students

Review by Dennis Daly

Hanna(h) stalks over the main stage with murder in her eyes and a hatchet in her hand. Her insane scowls drift into the full-house audience at the Boston Playwright’s Theatre demanding answers, two sets of what will become seat-squirming, unsettling answers. Each set belongs to a very different Hanna(h). First, there is the Puritan Hannah Duston, mother of eight children, whom the Abenaki Indians took hostage in 1697 during a raid on the town of Haverhill. Second, there is present day Hanna, an international career journalist recently returned from Afghanistan and now dealing with the murder of her journalist husband. This Hanna directs obscenity-laced barbs at friends and antagonists alike as she investigates her seventeenth- century namesake with intellectual stubbornness and a developing sense of intimacy.  Celeste Oliva plays both Hanna(h)s seamlessly, so seamlessly she changes clothes and personalities in front of us, her ego-altering facial expressions successfully suspending any notion of pedestrian disbelief.

At almost regular intervals throughout the play I internally projected the trajectory of the plot line. On each occasion I guessed wrong. Deirdre Girard, the playwright who authored this masterwork, has layered her production with multiple thematic motivations and deepening plot twists. That’s not to say that the play clutters itself with clever academic arguments. It doesn’t. On the contrary every movement of the plot adds to the dramatic force. Good directing makes this happen and Bridget Kathleen O’Leary nails this play with intelligence and a perfect sense of timing.

Girard deals with the universal theme of innocence in wonderfully novel ways. Hannah Duston epitomizes the innocence of victim hood. Her family has been torn apart. Many of her friends were likely killed, 27 colonists in all. Another 12 joined her as prisoners. The captives were tormented with stories of future torture they would have to endure. Hannah may have been raped. Her captors killed her newborn, Martha, by smashing her head against a tree. Hannah’s psychic injuries and depression evolve into rage and a bloodthirsty survival strategy. When the Indian band divided into smaller groups, Hannah saw her opportunity. She, her nurse, and a young boy slaughtered all ten of the group that held them captive. That’s the history of it. 

So is this the case of a woman tigress, a feminist icon, overcoming adversity and striking a blow against the savagery of her times? The townspeople erected a statue of Hannah, the oldest statue of a woman in America. And, yes, she has a hatchet in her hand. Today bobble heads of Hannah are on sale at local tourist shops. 

However there are some inconvenient facts associated with this story. The Indian group that held her captive was not made up of the same individuals who had abducted her in the first place.  This new group treated her well and shared their food with Hannah and her fellow prisoners. Only two of the ten dead Indians were warriors; the others were women and children. Before escaping into the wilderness, Hannah went back and scalped all ten. The general Court of Massachusetts paid her very well for the scalps.
Years later in her application to rejoin her church she seemed to deny that any rape had taken place.

Today’s Abenaki tribal councils have argued that Native Americans were fighting for their stolen lands and, besides, the hostages would have been ransomed by the Indians and returned to their families. In fact, many were. They also dismiss the suggestion  of  rape, contending that other woman taken in the same time frame were apparently not raped (true enough). They even argue that the killing of the infant was a mercy killing of sorts (that is bullshit, of course).

Even Nathaniel Hawthorne in his time had strong views on the Hannah Duston affair. He pretty much demonized her while lauding the heroics of her husband as he protected their remaining seven children.

Modern day Hanna mulls over these facts as she deals with another set of inconvenient facts surrounding her own life in Afghanistan (Was she raped there?) and the details of her husband’s murder. As Hanna does this, Mary, puritan Hannah’s nurse, played convincingly by Kippy Goldfarb, watches her from a side stage and across the bounds of time, transfixed by what she is seeing.

Both of modern Hanna’s colleagues, Matt, played by Barlow Adamson, and Joanna, played by Caroline Lawton, effectively draw out the hidden, thematic details of Hanna’s dark side. They become their characters so well that they append further authenticity to the merging central characterizations of Hanna(h).

One comment about the lighting: it mesmerized with its magic and brought the production together in a pseudo-time, transcending historic barriers. Congratulations, Karen Perlow

Where else can an audience view such a thoughtful dramatization of multiple contending realities, politically correct or not. Your head will buzz with ambivalence as you walk away from this refreshing production. Bravo to all involved. It closes October 19th. Don’t miss it.

(Reviewer’s note—I knew a bit about the subject before I agreed to review this play. I have a published poem entitled Rage Along the Merrimac [Wilderness House Literary Review] about Hannah Duston that I wrote many years ago. It gives me some discomfort and I excised it from two different books during the proof reading process.)