Friday, November 07, 2014

Chosen Child: Boston Playwrights’ Theatre

Chosen Child
Boston Playwrights’ Theatre
at Boston University
949 Commonwealth Avenue
Boston, MA
Now Playing through November 22
A Play by Monica Bauer
Directed by Megan Schy Gleeson

Review by Zvi A. Sesling

A schizophrenic wants to find his sister; his sister does not wish to be found. But is his sister actually his sister or someone else. And who is the woman doing her wash? Do we believe the woman talking to her is who she says she is? And what does Omaha, Nebraska have to do with all this? Questions, questions.

It all unfolds over approximately 90 minutes revealing a favorite subject of so many playwrights – dysfunctional families. However, there are some twists in this family, some of which are suspected, others come as a surprise; the unexpected is always lurking. And seeing Chosen Child will reveal the secrets embedded throughout.

In a discussion with the audience following the play, Ms. Bauer stated that parts of the play are autobiographically-based. This adds to the intensity and the interest in the characters. Ms. Bauer also said that while autobiographical the plot was heavily fictionalized with some things based on real happenings and others created to fit the play. However, one wonders how much was fictionalized, perhaps the dialogue is, and we are left to wonder if the characters are based on the real and where and where do the author’s life events begin and end.

The play is set in the New York City Port Authority Bus Terminal where David is trying to get to Omaha where he believes his sister lives. As the play progresses her location could be Omaha or somewhere in New York City. The play skips back and forth in time and moves to different places.

Playing David is Lewis D. Wheeler who speaks about people who may be imagined. Is his sister flesh and blood? Is the Rabbi he quotes real? Did his mother just die? More questions.

Lewis does an excellent job portraying David’s range of emotions. With shaking hands during heightened anxiety, he does a twirling dance common to schizophrenics and has a rising voice as he attempts to explain his situation and get what he wants, Lewis has created a memorable character who stays with the audience long after the play ends.

Margaret Ann Brady is a sorrowful, restrained Lee in her first Boston Playwright’s Theatre performance. Debra Wise (Donna) presents Donna, a psychologist, a person who has difficulty with her own emotions and needs to uncover her past and deal with the present. Claudia as Lee Mikeska Gardner portrays her as a young girl, young woman and finally as a dying mother is eclectic and unsympathetic as it should be played. Melissa Jesser as Anne, the Port Authority ticket seller displays the patience of a much older person trying to help David deal with his dilemma.

Overall there is a genuine value of seeing this play, an original by a Boston Playwright. It delivers an important message, sometimes difficult to watch, painful in so many ways. However there is a need for writing about adoption, a topic sometimes left unexplored on the stage, but one that is vital to society. That, plus the plot and the excellent acting make this a stage production worth seeing.

Zvi A. Sesling
Reviewer, Boston Small Press and Poetry Scene
Author, King of the Jungle and Author, Across Stones of Bad Dreams
Editor, Muddy River Poetry Review
Editor, Bagel Bards Anthology 7
Editor, Bagel Bards Anthology 8
Publisher, Muddy River Books

Monday, November 03, 2014

Minds of McLean Hospital: A Creative Balance: A Report on the Poets in the Asylum panel at the Boston Book Festival (Oct., 2014)


Minds of McLean Hospital: A Creative Balance: A Report on the Poets in the Asylum panel at the Boston Book Festival (Oct., 2014)

By Emily Pineau

    “McLean is a very beautiful place…the environment, the landscape…There are fake coyotes and wolves to scare off the geese. [But the] geese are not afraid of them because they know they aren’t real and I love this,” said poet and psychotherapist, Wendy Ranan, at the panel “Poets in the Asylum: The Poets of McLean Hospital” during the Boston Book Festival on October 25th, 2014. The panel was hosted by professor Doug Holder from Endicott College, who also has been a poetry group leader at McLean Hospital since 1982. The panel included Boston Globe columnist Alex Beam  (Gracefully Insane), Wendy Ranan ( The Quiet Room), Kathleen Spivack (  With Robert Lowell and his Circle), and Lois Ames (Confidante to Plath and Sexton--introduction to The Bell Jar).  McLean Hospital, a psychiatric hospital located in Belmont, MA, has been declared a national literary landmark due to the number of creative geniuses who have been treated there. Lois Ames opined that through poetry especially, patients are able to look at themselves, outside of themselves.  Poetry also allows patients to “develop their sense of continuity,” and to feel like there is a part of them worth seeing and exploring,

    Anne Sexton, who had taught poetry at McLean hospital, struggled with the concept of teaching patients at first because she did not want to hurt anyone’s fragile feelings.  This is when she turned to her friend and confidant, Lois Ames, and asked Ames to monitor her  poetry group and to give her guidance when needed.  Though, after watching Sexton, there was no critique to give because her method was immaculate.  Sexton later said to Ames, “I looked at the faces and looked at the eyes and all of [the patients] submitting poems.”  It is clear that Sexton deeply cared about teaching and how her words affected each of her patients.  Kathleen Spivack, author of With Robert Lowell and His Circle, added, “You knew you had Ann Sexton’s entire attention and that she cared.”  This type of dedication is what patients carry with them.  It is also this kind of love that has the potential to impact many patients’ lives and their writing. 

    After Ames talked about Sexton and the benefits of poetry at McLean, there was an opportunity to ask questions.  A patient (or past patient) at McLean attending this event was the first to take the microphone when this open discussion began.  When he started to speak, his demeanor and tone made it feel like he was starting a poetry slam.  He began, “This sums up Mclean,” and then he took a breath.  Every other word became the “f” word.  He continued and said:

    "We talk about fucking humiliation?  Every fucking night I stay in fucking ... McLean is fucking humiliating.  In the fucking quiet room...You want to know ...why I didn’t fucking kill myself?  Because I fucking failed.  At McLean I don’t... have a fucking creative bone in my fucking body.  It fucking drained it all out of me.  [Do you want to hear] the fucking truth about Mclean? [A patient there] fucking told me he was raped by [one of the workers] there." 

Doug Holder, the moderator of the discussion, encouraged the speaker to give someone else a turn to talk after he went on for awhile, and emphasized that the speaker had the right to his opinion, but that McLean has also helped a great number of people.  When the speaker put the microphone down and made his way to the door he added, “It’s not my fucking opinion.  It is the truth about what happened.”  After he left, Kathleen Spivack stepped in and talked about how the man was not wrong, and how she wishes that he did not leave so that they could have an open and honest discussion.  Unfortunately, not everyone is going to have a positive experience at McLean or any psychiatric hospital.  Also, not all psychiatric patients feel creative or want to write poetry.

    Once the awkward stillness of the room was cleared more questions were able to bring the calmness back.  Someone asked, “Is manic depression part of the creative picture?”  Spivack answered by explaining that it is a case-by-case thing.  If you are mentally ill this does not automatically mean you are creative, and if you are creative this does not indicate that you are depressed.  Also, earlier on in the discussion Ames stated, “[When it comes to creativity and mental illness] people write poetry in altered states of consciousness.”  In some ways mental illness does have a way of fueling creativity, and creativity allows someone to use an uncontrollable part of him or herself in a beautiful way.

    As the discussion came to a close Ames said, “I am 83-years-old, and you have to just keep pushing.” This relentless attitude can be used when writing poetry and when struggling with the battles of your mind.  Resources such as McLean hospital, poetry, and teachers give mentally ill people the opportunity to reach out.  And with this opportunity people may find the strength to “keep pushing.”


 Emily Pineau studies creative writing at Endicott College. Her poetry has appeared in the anthology, Like One: Poems For Boston, and in newspapers and literary journals such as the Somerville News, The Endicott Observer, The Endicott Review, Ibbetson Street, and Muddy River Poetry Review. In 2012 her poem, "I would for you" was nominated for a pushcart prize. In 2013 The Ibbetson Street Press published her poetry collection, No Need to Speak as part of the Endicott College/Ibbetson Street Press/Young Poet Series. She is currently an intern at Agni magazine at Boston University.

Sunday, November 02, 2014

The Afterimages Poems by David P. Miller

David P. Miller

The Afterimages
Poems by David P. Miller
Cover Artist—Jane Wiley
Cervena Barva Press
Somerville, MA
43 Pages

Review by Dennis Daly

Scientists argue that the observation of any physical event changes it forever. I suspect that the same holds true for mental constructions entertained by the human mind—like memory. Memory needs distance and a delicate touch to keep it relatively undisturbed. Overly ambitious seekers of densely packed mnemonic truths and ham-fisted psychologists promising new age detective tools show very little for all their well- meant delving. On the other hand poet David P. Miller eases into his personal memories with a gentle touch and his efforts pay off with impressive poetic dividends.

The opening poem in Miller’s collection, Man with Teeth, touches with dutiful sensitivity an awkward moment shared between youth and age. It’s only a moment, but, in its oddness, one that lingers on through space and time. A four year old bus rider understands perfectly,

You contract your upper lip
toward your nose and use
your index finger
to indicate your teeth.
He takes this in.
His mother, mortified, mutters
“Don’t ask to see people’s teeth.”
But it’s too late. You and he
have shared a transgression
He will probably forget,
but you never will,
now that it’s in writing.

Buses become almost a mythical means of transportation into modes of being and remembered place. In his piece entitled Route One the poet takes us past a leviathan’s famous flukes into the city of Burlington Vermont. He searches for his own nativity. Here is a bit of the magic at the heart of the poem,

Across the cusp,
Route One begins the steep descent
toward what remains of old inland sea,
living lake still vast enough
to host its own rumored sea monster.
Gradual passage down Main Street
past the school building
where Melton and Dorothy went steady,
they who became my parents.
Where trees thin
water comes clear into view.

Miller skillfully treats another unique bus moment in his piece One Step Down. An elderly woman struggles with mobility and the dignity it brings. A chivalrous poet offers temporary assistance, not a personal relationship. The details exude subtlety. Poetic objectivity nudges the reader with its honest, but unsettling, last line exclamation. The poem ends this way,

I lurch from the pavement,
Offer my arm
As her balance worsens.

She finds vertical.
Her grip is steel.

Three steps and I
Pry her hand away.
We’re not going home together.

“Doing pretty well,” says the poet’s seventy-five-year-old father in an existential, if momentary reflection. He means it. Oh, there is irony here, but a natural brand which flows from the nasty, short, and brutish backdrop we all call home. The poem, entitled 1955, Miller sets into two scenes fifty-four years apart. I very much like his working of the juxtaposition of two age-appropriate sets of struggles. Shakespeare had it right: “What a piece of work is a man, how noble…how express and admirable.” The poet opens his piece with the younger version of his pioneer-parents,

The mother of twenty
the father of twenty-one
went away from home
together, he and she.
A boy of one month
nestled between boxes
in the back seat,
they drove, Vermont to Indiana,
left parents behind.
Her piano music packed
with the starter groceries
sent along to save the poor couple money.

I must say that I am familiar with the concept of starter groceries or tangible help with no guarantees. Shared moments like these—as simple as they are-- generously passed on by Miller, amaze with their singularity of reference and power of understated emotion.

In his poem Tangelo Peel Miller escorts us through life’s denouement with the sensual scent of citrus. His father sends a Christmas gift of Florida fruit. It affirms life loudly as the poet details whispers of death and aging. There is an undertone of religiosity here and the repetition of the word Christmas adds to it in an intriguing way. Miller puts it like this,

The scent of tangelo peel on my fingertips
midday at work.
The surprise package
of oranges, tangelos, and grapefruit
to be eaten while they were still good.
My father’s surprise
Christmas shipment of Florida citrus.
My father finding
Christmas again for himself.
My mother’s summer death…

Miller’s title poem, The Afterimages, does triple duty for me in this collection. Without question it also doubles as the poet’s master work, and thirdly it is, by the way, my favorite piece. Miller’s central character with her “rhinoceros limbs” rules the poem. She blinds gentlemen with the rudeness of her infirmities. The young, the healthy, and other mere mortals need to make way as she ascends into her mystical bus. Her staunch ally, the bus driver—a good man—supports her with absolute authority as she moves through the coach. Righteousness and civilization triumph, a poet finds wisdom, and a (perhaps) once-lovely woman finds her bus seat. Great climax! Miller describes his protagonist’s earlier journey thusly,

Supporting herself with
       A little folding grocery cart
on the bus at the supermarket
off the bus at the subway
determined smile and
the small voice of a girl
wears so many layers
dressed for November in May.
She pushes forth,
thanks the driver for kneeling the bus to her,
enormous, weak, tired.

Grab a suitcase full of your own memories. Get on this bus at the Cervena Barva Press stop. Then let first-rate poet and tour guide David P. Miller take you on his deftly-plotted magical spin.