Friday, May 22, 2015

Albatrosss by Matthew Spangler & Benjamin Evett

Albatrosss by Matthew Spangler & Benjamin Evett
Directed by Rick Lombardo
New Repertory Theatre – May 21-24
Reviewed by Lawrence Kessenich

“The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge is a classic of Romantic poetry. The long narrative poem tells the story of an old sailor doomed to tell his tale of woe to all those he recognizes as needing to hear it, for the rest of his life. Although it’s a sad and disturbing tale, the poetic rhythms of Coleridge’s narrative allow us—at least, today—to keep some distance from the story. For the most part, Albatross, a one man show originally produced by the Poets’ Theatre and now at the New Rep (but only for four days!), mostly strips away the poetry to reveal the gritty tale of an 18th century sailor that the Fates deal with most unkindly.

This is not a Romantic sailor, in any way—except, perhaps when he first appears on stage spouting Italian, not being immediately aware that he’s in front of an English-speaking audience. There is some bawdy humor in this opening, humor one comes to wish would appear more often in what devolves into a nasty tale of selfishness, violence, pain, and suffering.

Our sailor’s Irish-accented narrative is liberally sprinkled with the adjective “fuckin” (and when he senses this might be too much for some of his listeners, the sailor reminds us of the expression, “Swears like a…”). At the outset, his “fuckin” son is on his deathbed, his body covered with lesions, his “fuckin” wife is a stinking drunk, and Bristol, where he lives, is a “fuckin shithole.”

But things go from bad to worse quickly, when someone gets our sailor drunk, knocks him out, and throws him on a ship bound for South America. The ship’s captain is a nasty piece of work, known for biting with his canine-like teeth—and we’re treated to more that one unnecessarily graphic story of his use of those teeth. (In fact, be forewarned that there are many parts of this story that are not for the faint of heart, involving faces being beaten in, torture via vermin, blackened frostbitten toes, loss of limbs, drinking urine to slake thirst, vomiting, and so on.)

The trip to South American goes well enough at first, although there’s not much pleasant about shipboard life as described by our sailor. The crew feels lucky when it spots a Spanish galleon and gives chase. But this is the spooky ship of the poem, which, when finally captured, much further south than expected, turns out to be manned by a crew of one. The attack on the ship—which manages to fire back, despite its crew of one—is described in the kind of detail usually reserved for naval adventure tales, complete with sound and lighting effects. Gold in great quantity is found on board—enough to make every crewman rich—but, as we know from the poem, all goes south (so to speak) after that.

On the other hand, this sailor’s life has been miserable from the start of the play, so I have to admit that I got a bit tired of one thing after another going wrong for this guy. Someone once said that “there’s a fine line between sympathy and disgust,” and there’s also a fine line between sympathy and boredom, and I finally found myself a bit tired of this mariner’s woes. I blame the script for this, because Benjamin Evett, the actor who portrays our sailor, certainly puts heart and soul into his character. It’s one of the most energetic performances I’ve ever seen, with Evett bounding about the stage, not only making the mariner come alive, but portraying all kinds of secondary characters with perfect definition.

Another oddity to be prepared for—although the script makes it work—is that our sailor is alive in the contemporary world, making references to things like cell phones and recent historical events. And he’s not ancient, just middle-aged, despite the fact that he’s apparently been telling his tale around the world since the 18th century. It’s all a part of the “willing suspension of disbelief” for this play, which I found easy enough to do.

The attempt to connect the story with the contemporary ecological crisis felt forced to me—although it’s pretty much tacked on near the end, anyway, so the attempt isn’t all that forceful. What’s somewhat more moving, as it is in the famous poem, is our nasty sailor’s realization that he needs to pray for all the people and things—including himself—that he’s been abusing all his life. Evett, finally quiet for a moment, delivers this moment of conversion with real heart.

Tickets for Albatross are available at but if you want to see it, you’d better hurry, because it’s only a 4-day run this weekend!

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Interview with Novelist Margot Livesey

Interview conducted by Doug Holder

Margot Livesey

Margot Livesey has published six novels: Homework, Criminals, The Missing World, Eva Moves the Furniture, Banishing Verona and The House on Fortune Street. Her seventh novel, is The Flight of Gemma Hardy.

Margot has taught at Boston University, Bowdoin College, Brandeis University, Carnegie Mellon, Cleveland State, Emerson College, the Iowa Writers' Workshop, Tufts University, the University of California at Irvine, the Warren Wilson College MFA program for writers, and Williams College. She has been the recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the N.E.A., the Massachusetts Artists' Foundation and the Canada Council for the Arts. Margot is currently a distinguished writer in residence at Emerson College. She lives with her husband, a painter, in Cambridge, MA, and goes back to London and Scotland whenever she can.

Alice Sebold says, "Every novel of Margot Livesey's is, for her readers, a joyous discovery. Her work radiates with compassion and intelligence and always, deliciously, mystery."

I had the pleasure to talk with her on my Somerville Community Access TV show " Poet to Poet Writer to Writer."

Doug Holder
:  How did the idea come about for your novel The Flight of Gemma Hardy?

Margot Livesey: If six years ago you told me that I was going to write a re-imagining of Jane Eyre—I would have sent you on your way to McLean Hospital.  It is hard enough to write a novel, much less in the shadow of a master. But I was part of a book club and we discussed Jane Eyre. It was a novel that I read when I was a mere 10 years old. I chose it because it had a girl’s name on the cover. And from the first pages I feel in love, and I also identified very much with Jane. She grew up in the Scottish moors, which seemed a lot like the Yorkshire moors where I grew up. I had a severe stepmother who seemed a bit like Jane’s cruel aunt. I also went to an all girl’s school—so I seemed to have a lot in common with Jane. Later I went on to teach the Jane Eyre. Then I found myself in this book club in Cambridge, Mass. And the room was filled with ardent readers who all loved Jane Eyre. I just started thinking about how amazing the book is.  It reaches all kinds, all ages, and nationalities. I started to think what would it be like to tell the story in more modern times—about a girl who finds herself without parents, and who has to make her own way in the world. I thought about setting the novel in 2000 or 2005. But I wanted the novel to take place before that great wave of feminism. Even though a great deal of the novel takes place in the 60s—it doesn’t feel like the “Swinging Sixties.” It is a very old fashioned story.

DH: Are you an old fashioned novelist?

ML: I do love a good plot. I grew up reading those great Victorian novels. I love what plot can do for a novel. Readers still love a great story.

DH: You weaved in Icelandic sagas in this book—why?

ML: I thought it was very important that my main character Gemma was very different from Jane Eyre. So I decided to give her a very different family background. I tried to find a country near Scotland that had a strong connection to Scotland. I traveled to Iceland. Iceland has a remarkable landscape—the island is still full of active volcanoes. When you actually see a field of green—you gasp—because much of the island is black, volcanic rock. There is all this wild beauty there.

DH: Throughout this novel, the main character has a strong connection to birds. What is your relationship to birds?

ML: I think my relationship to birds is a very positive one. My father was 50 when I was born. He was an elderly 50—and one of the things we did together was bird watch.  He taught me all about the Scottish birds, and I still recognize them instinctively. I never lost that interest with birds and that feeling that they are visitors from another world, as well as from this one, stay with me.

DH: Did your experience in a boarding school parallel that of Gemma’s?

ML: My father taught at a boy’s boarding school—my mother was the school nurse. The school my father taught at always seemed like a benign institution. Girls were forbidden there. I was sent to a girl’s school which I thought was anything but benign. I spent my years there praying that the school would close down, and eventually it did. And like my novel, there was that sense of class division and privilege among the girls there.

DH: The characters of George and Donaldson are both infirm old men, who Gemma has a sort of relationship with. Donaldson was lost in the haze of dementia, but came out of his haze to give Genna  his keen insight. George, who was very ill and out of it, came through in the clinch as well.

ML: In the case of Mr. Donaldson and Alzheimer's, a family member of mine had Alzheimer's disease and for a number of years I visited her. And there were these wonderful moments when she was clearheaded and had these piercing insights. So—Donaldson was part of my experience. And of course we always get wonderful perceptions from the elderly.

DH: Sinclair was a worldly and much older man than Genna. It seemed she was an unlikely match for this gentleman.

ML: I wanted to be faithful to the plot of Jane Eyre. I had to come up with a plausible version of Mr. Rochester. I thought the real interesting question was why this man would be interested in this young woman, rather than a woman of his own class and intellect.

DH: You are a Writer-in-residence at Emerson College in Boston. How does that work for you?

ML: I like it and I find it a challenge. I try to help the students find their material and I help them shape it. It is hard, but at the end of the semester I have learned as much or more that they have.

DH: Your husband is an artist. Does your work inform his and does his work inform yours?

ML: I wish that I can say my novels were like his beautiful paintings. I learn from his dedication, his vision, and his motivation.

DH: Do you have another novel in the making?

ML: I am trying to write a novel set in contemporary New England. It is a challenge to write about these American characters, behaving badly. I can’t write about the academic community because I would wind up losing all my friends.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

The Natural Light in Mary Buchinger’s new book of Poetry, Aerialist

Mary Buchinger Bodwell

The Natural Light in Mary Buchinger’s new book of Poetry, Aerialist

article by Michael Todd Steffen

To be or not to be referential and scholarly about one’s poetry, that may be one frequent question
in the air,” what with the Internet and all of the world’s information at our fingertips and at the mercy of our cut and paste tools, about how we bring the language of others’ writing into our own writing. The Modernist critic Hugh Kenner wrote somewhere that writing is mostly quoting. This was one of the points the major Modernists like Pound, Joyce and Eliot were making by using direct quotes in their texts from world class authors, from the Book of Ecclesiastes and Virgil to Flaubert and Baudelaire. Pound and Joyce left their works largely without annotation for the harvest of careful readers and scholars. More doubtful about how public his references were, Eliot wrote the famous notes to The Waste Land, which (instead of putting matters to rest about the references in his poem) only inspired more scholarly debate.

Mary Buchinger’s new book of poems is wonderfully titled Aerialist (ISBN 13:978-0-692-34196-6 Gold Wake Press, Boston, 2015) and one immediate feature of it is the evocation of major authors like Virginia Woolf, Borges, Proust, Calvino as well as of artistic oeuvres and objets, Titian’s “The Rape or Rapture of Europa,” Brueghel’s “The Fall of Icarus” (via Auden’s poem “Musée de Beaux Arts) and even a “Magnificat” which “describes the sculpture PixCell-Elk#2 by Kohei Nawa” (c.f. reference notes in the back pages of the book).

My first impression was that the quotes loomed over the poems. They were too ponderous for the appreciably local and modest themes treated in Buchinger’s poetry. But this impression changed as
I spent more time with the book, allowing the more reticent, metaphysical suggestions in the poems
to emerge. The quotes began to amplify and resonate. I like the passage from Borges’s A New Refutation of Time too much not to share it again:

Time is a river that sweeps me along, but I am the river; it is a tiger
that mangles me, but I am the tiger; it is a fire that consumes me,
but I am the fire. The world, unfortunately, is real; I, unfortunately,
am Borges.

If we get what Borges is saying, Buchinger’s poetry burns at a light perhaps closer to equal with the real world’s light. There is less “unfortunately” to be admitted between the poems in Aerialist and the world outside our windows. Yet the poems by Buchinger still have the charm and punch to furrow our brows with pleasure and concern. Her meanings are at times drawn so vividly as to become physical or spatial rather than rational. Her metaphors do what art does best, putting us in the embodiment of an epiphany or special meaning. What was it to be a child in the comfort of home?

Childhood, that nest

of gathered, broken sticks,
bark half-peeled, magic wands, lightning rods…

the slight and airy edges of this messy assembly

so close to heaven and all its wishing stars, a fall, so far.
(page 20)

The narrative arc of the book as a whole makes a lot of sense and offers congruities. In the opening poem “a bird flies all pink pink air”—nothing more precise than “a bird” and in the brief glimpse with a series of verbs—“touches, enters and is lost”—the poem’s one noun vanishes from sight like Wallace Stevens’ blackbird, evoking the wake of an appearance rather than the appearance itself. Did we see this bird or not? Was it even there? This is an overture, a real attention-grabber. To make the thing disappear before we have a clear look at it.

With a sense of symmetry and satisfaction we come to the final poem to find animals in more vivid definition, in a setting more stabilized, though this is still our mortal world of triumphs and perils:

On the river’s edge

geese float like speckled seeds.
Later, they will sprout wings, leave
the naked frogs tumbling in the current.

The geese sip air and water alike, press against
the liquids, they too feel the ice
in the upper sky… (page 107)

For T.S. Eliot, Between the conception And creation Falls the shadow. For Buchinger there fall a hundred more pages of sustaining variety, always the melodic, slightly playful intonations and earnest moments, questions and silences, an aerialist getting up on a train to use the hand straps for a brief twirl and saut, jewelry purchased from a Middle Easterner, the suggestion of an illness, more birds, the kids… The world is real…the poet is…Mary Buchinger.

This evening Mary Buchinger will be featured reading at the First and Last Word Poetry Reading Series hosted by Harris Gardner at the Center For The Arts, at the Armory, in the café at 191 Highland Avenue, Somerville, MA. Philip E. Burnam, Ruth Chad and Ruth Smullins will also be reading. $4 cover, and open mic.