Thursday, July 28, 2016

Kathleen Spivack Speaks about "Unspeakable Things"

Kathleen Spivack with Doug Holder at the Cafe Juliet in Somerville, Mass.

KATHLEEN SPIVACK is an award-winning writer. She studied with Robert Lowell and remained friends with him for eighteen years, and is the author of many books, among them Moments of Past Happiness, A History of Yearning, and With Robert Lowell and His Circle. She has had residencies at the Radcliffe Institute, Yaddo, The MacDowell Colony, and the American Academy in Rome, and has been the recipient of grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Fulbright Commission. She teaches in Boston and Paris. Here latest book is a novel " Unspeakable Things" According to Spivack's website it is: " A strange, haunting novel about survival and love in all its forms; about sexual awakenings and dark secrets; about European refugee intellectuals who have fled Hitler’s armies with their dreams intact and who have come to an elusive new (American) 'can do, will do' world they cannot seem to find. A novel steeped in surreal storytelling and beautiful music that transports its half-broken souls—and us—to another realm of the senses." 

The setting: the early 1940s, New York—city of refuge, city of hope, with the specter of a red-hot Europe at war.

I spoke to Spivack on my Somerville Community Access TV show: Poet to Poet :Writer to Writer.

 Kathleen Spivack Speaks about "Unspeakable Things

With Doug Holder

Doug Holder: Can you tell me about the genesis of this first novel that you have written?

Kathleen Spivack: I had written two other novels before but I threw them out. I didn't show them to anybody because I thought they were horrible. I didn't want them to be around. When I was teaching in Paris—my friends wanted me to stay and they wanted me to apply for the Fulbright. A Fulbright Scholarship is funded by American universities-- not French-- so this took a lot of pressure off me. So I got the Fulbright, and I wrote three pages, and those three pages became a novel.

Doug Holder: How much of this novel was inspired by your own immigrant family?

Kathleen Spivack: A lot. When my family came to this country they were incredibly poor. We all lived in a one room apartment. My family came from Austria, Russia and Germany. They seemed to be coming from all over. I often had to share my bed with an old lady. Now, a lot of my people had been through the concentration camps. And a lot of them had lost family. They were pretty broken people. Getting back to this old lady who my character of the “Rat” is based.--she was a woman who came out of the camps and experienced incredible hardship. She would tell me stories in the middle of the night. The “Rat” would tell her story over and over again to the young girl she shared the bed with.

Doug Holder: The “ Rat” in your novel is a hunchback woman with a beautiful face. She was the objection of affection of Rasputin, a doctor, and others...

Kathleen Spivack: Yes—this woman that I slept with told me that she “Sold herself to Rasputin.." I listened to her—terrified by the whole story. And she said: “ Then we did unspeakable things.” She didn't go into detail...I was a kid.

Doug Holder: You have very graphic scenes of the sexual liaison between the Rat and Rasputin.

Kathleen Spivack: I imagined what she might have done with him. I think I went a bit overboard. (Laugh). But in reality she was beautiful and compelling. Yet she had whiskers and was hunched over...but she definitely had something about her.

Doug Holder:  Tell us about Herbert your main character.

Kathleen Spivack: My main character was based on my grandfather—Herbert. The reality was that during World War ll in New York City none of us could get a job. My mother managed to secure something. She would send the kids to the New York Public Library with my grandfathers. In the winter libraries had heat. One of the reasons that Marx used the British Museum in London was because it had heat. My grandfather was a minister of finance and commerce in Austria. He had been trying to raise funds to get people out of Austria, and the library was a place where people cut deals, etc... My dad was a decoder during the War, just like Herbert's son was in the book.

Doug Holder: The character of Felix was a bizarre one. In the book he pleasured himself in front of a picture of Hitler.

Kathleen Spivack: You have to remember the book is based on fact and fiction. Felix is a true villain. He is based on our family pediatrician back then. He delivered my mother. Like Felix, he called his child charges “ bad girls” and threatened to have them “ turned them into liverwurst.”

Doug Holder: I always find coffee shops, libraries, etc... as a gathering place for eccentrics. You use the New York Public Library and the Automat in your book. I remember writing a poem: “The Eccentrics of the Reading Room: Boston Public Library,” that was published in a number of places.

Kathleen Spivack: These refugees met in public places like the Automat. My grandfather met in the periodical room—the newspapers were on rolls—the children in the novel sit all day and wait for Herbert to be done with his business.

Doug Holder: There seemed to be a dose of Magic Realism in your book.

Kathleen Spivack: There is an element. The book was somewhat based on German Expressionism. I didn't think of it as Magic Realism. It was useful to write this way.

Doug Holder: There was a recurring subtext in the novel of the Old World of Europe vs the New World of America. There is a lot of music in the story as well.

Kathleen Spivack: My parents were civil servants in Austria, and they loved music. I went to Oberlin and I was a cellist. I think music is the heart of the book. I write to music. I set the book up in a symphonic structure. My son was very into the saxophone—and he would sleep with his instrument. I used this in the novel—where a group of musicians sleep with their instruments to the neglect of their wives. I did a lot of research into the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra for this book. My book is full of music, and so is my life.

Neila, Evening Song: Last Poems of Yvan Goll Translated by Donald Wellman

Neila, Evening Song:
Last Poems of Yvan Goll
Translated by Donald Wellman
Spuyten Duyvil
New York, NY
Copyright © 2016 by Donald Wellman
93 pages, softbound, $15

Review by Zvi A. Sesling

Unreal as mist in the silent machinery of night
Your face flies past with moon sails
O Neila, blue offering-smoke

The red songs of the father resound in your mouth
A golden animal horn of fervor
Announces you to fate

I hear rustling in your dark magic
The old seas of midnight
I know, you’re no daughter of man

Unearthly you, beyond blood
Neila, the scent of jasmine signifies you
When it announces the spirits of the deep

Thus begins Donald Wellman’s translation of Yvan Goll who straddled the worlds of German Expressionism and French Surrealism, whose life was disrupted and changed by Nazi Germany and bound to the intellectual scene of New York City.  Diagnosed with lukemia in 1945, he died five years later-- less known than other poets, nearly forgotten until Wellman’s excellent translation.

In “Death-Chemistry” we see Goll’s fear of death in its many manifestations. His work here combines the surreal with  anguish and tenderness and an inevitable slow ending :
In the alembic of the dream
You turn yellow red yellow
Fever blossom
And belladonna of anxiety
On the slopes of darkness

Blood’s night-chemistry
Reeling puss-cup
Dewy with tears
That drain her worn-out sleep

Breathe slowly you sick ones
At the wounded wall
Birds from ashes settle themselves on your hands
On your fragile fingers
The last day crumbles

For those who enjoy both expressionist and surreal poetry, Goll provides ample works for which Donald Wellman has provided inspired translations. As the blurb on the back cover states [Goll’s poetry] is “…a work of restless paranoia and gripping intensity.”  

To engage Goll’s work is to resurrect a poet whose work should not be forgotten and deserves its place not only among those who were forced from their native lands by the Nazis, but whose work outlives those who tried to destroy them.

Zvi A. Sesling

Reviewer for Boston Small Press and Poetry Scene
Author,  Fire Tongue, King of the Jungle and  Across Stones of Bad Dreams
Editor, Muddy River Poetry Review
Publisher, Muddy River Books
Editor, Bagel Bards Anthologies 7& 8

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Drawing to More: Standoff, Poems by David Rivard

David Rivard

Drawing to More: Standoff, Poems by David Rivard

Review by Marc Zegans

A central concern when taking up a book for review is whether the volume in question is worth the reader’s investment.  For many collections of poems the answer is a nonchalant yes in the sense that if a reader picks up the collection and thumbs through it, more than likely this reader will find a few pieces to his or her liking.  A critical reader may also find some elements of the material fresh, novel, engaging, and possibly worth unpacking and assimilating.   From a reviewer’s perspective, collections such as these function in much the same way as the old vinyl record album, a container for a single and a great, quirky b-side, along with a a few other pleasant but unremarkable tunes to fill out the package.  Such collections—because the stakes for the reader are low—are easy to recommend.  It’s not hard to say, “This is a gatherings of poems well worth thumbing through.”

Less commonly, we come across a collection which functions effectively as a sustained and directly engaging performance, a collection that draws us into its world and makes us want to stick around.   Such works manage the trick of tautly sustaining a project, generating willing attention to the line, the stanza, the page and the poem, while cultivating a sense of urgency, and desire in the reader.  The latter aspect can and often does represent, for the reviewer, a kind of deceptive seduction, an encouragement to relinquish critical faculties and simply be swept up in the succulent moment. If we honor our craft, we find an eddy amidst the rush to consider whether there is something worth giving over to with such abandon. When the answer is yes, we rejoice and commend the book to our readers with verve.

There’s a different kind of collection, more challenging for the reviewer to engage and assess, the kind written by an older poet, one skilled in the craft, wise enough to know the field’s present boundaries and limitations, and concerned with its expansion. Such a poet may proceed by arranging a set of interconnected and mutually dependent poems, not as series or cycle, but as consort—a gathering of associates who know each other’s ways, and who—we hope—play well together.  

While such gatherings of poems may be accessible to and while they may reward serendipitous inspection, their claims to value do not fundamentally depend on such fortune.  Their worth depends rather on how the collection functions as a whole, truly functions, which is a different matter from how it plays as gestalt.   Such books are harder to assess and harder to recommend both, because the aesthetic bar they set for themselves is radically higher than the other types of collections I have described and because a reader may have to do some substantial wading before getting to solid ground.   In order to judge whether the slog was and will likely be worth the effort, a reviewer has to undertake the full journey and weigh the effort before expressing an honest view.

Standoff, by David Rivard, an established poet with five prior collections to his credit is a volume that puts us to this harder test.  Rivard’s collection develops as an encounter with and passage through a poet’s experience of a fierce conundrum particular to, and sharply battled in, late middle age—what comes when our best may simply be to have struggled to a stand-off with the forces and internal failings that threaten full and final dissipation.   The topic is by its nature challenging and it begs disappointment, or, should standoff be the result, perhaps a wan version of Sisyphean nobility—a grudging acceptance that our freedom lies in rolling the rock yet again up the hill.  Why would we want to read a book that might arrive at this conclusion, and what about a journey into the experience of standoff, as poignant and honest as this may be, would make us want to spend the time there? 

Perhaps, because it addresses pressing concerns.  Rivard speaks in honest voice to a reader on the cusp of such dynamic blockage; to a reader in its midst, and perhaps one who has passed through to something else and can appreciate the nature and experience of standoff and what follows in or perhaps as its wake.  For readers such as these, and I count myself one, Standoff, takes us with vulnerability, but without self-pity into this world and invites us to walk with the narrator through it, one difficult poem at a time.  We learn quickly that we won’t find a quick fix in a single poem, nor will we find satisfaction by flipping and dipping.

The cover of Standoff is somewhat at odds, with its project, and this creates difficulties of induction.  Below the title, we find in a smaller black font, the word “poems,” implying that we can take these as one-offs, clustered around a theme, rather than as a collection of poems, functioning as a consort, that do work together.   This is simply not true: The power, beauty and wisdom in this collection lies in how the poems inform each other and in how they proceed.  To access these qualities, we must read and consider each one in relation to the others.   By suggesting that the books contents were more gathered than allied, the cover disserves the enterprise. We would have been better met and more effectively led had perhaps the cover said less and signaled more.

Structurally, Rivard draws us into Standoff, the experience and the book’s title poem (set as a hinge in the book’s middle) by giving us a string of poems that force us to enter intimately and uncomfortably into the tense realities of the narrator’s situation. The first five poems scream for stanza breaks, but he doesn’t give us a single one.  Instead, he places us in the numbing run-on of the stanzaless situation, so different from the experience of life as a pearled-string of moments entered fully.  

The first poem, “Greenwood Tonight, “ thrusts us quickly into difficult and unpleasant questions about, the poem and its construction, or perhaps the narrator as character and what he’s choosing to share.   After the narrator observes, “I miss myself most/these days with friends/I feel a distance from/when talking to;” he rapidly raises the stakes, describing how he stands, “clear-eyed & cold/amidst the murderous/machinery of our birthright—“The careful consonance of  mmmmms denoting both self and situation tells us that these things are somehow related: But why?  What is his pre-occupation with a situation writ so large?  Why is he invoking in this poem forces on such a grand scale? And why does he then shift to cheap, commercial surreal imagery, “…in the  telenovela/based on my life/tall prairie grasses bent/by an Alberta wind/would sprawl snugly/I’ve been told/ behind a woman vaulting/In blue pajama bottoms”  Rivard drives us toward questions, making them pile in our mind, until we reach poem’s bottom, on which there is no line, simply a statement made question by dint of a mark, “greenwood nightfall--/that’s what calls me now?”

He continues and escalates the jumble in “Less Than More Than,” blending images of a used Mazda, Peshawar, Murdoch and privatization, into “ideas,” then question again, landing finally on a double assertion—“a little foolishness/goes a long long way, I’d say;/a lot drops dead/in it’s tracks”—offered without persuasive image, evidence or logical support.   Arriving at these flip, clichéd conclusions orthogonal to the text that preceded them, we are left to throw up our hands and say, “So what?” 

It’s at this moment, and at many that follow in the string of poems leading to “Standoff,” that we’re forced to the dilemma of whether to put the book down and walk away, or to seek a real answer, and Rivard having led us into the predicament of a late-middle life standoff offers neither encouragement nor direct answer.  Having committed to reading the collection, I chip away: “Why the cliché?”

I know from the preceding material that the poet is capable of original image, tightly crafted line and novel thought, so is it possible that these flaccid assertions are a device meant to represent the character and the motive structure of the collection’s perhaps fictive narrator?   If I take the answer to be yes and place the poem’s entire narrative in quotes, thereby making its lines expressions of a character constructed by the poet, the cliché’s begin to make sense.  They’re the utterances of a man in pain, the flailings of one gesturing without conviction at freedom through regression in light of the deeper fear of a futile ending.  We know that he does not believe that foolishness is a solution to a problem that has no answer better than standoff, and yet, having not come yet to this place, the character dissipates his energy and ours with hackneyed and fruitless assertion.  

By so doing, Rivard makes us enter viscerally the experience of a scared, limited, struggling individual, fraught with resistance, reluctantly traveling down the path to a balance of forces in which survival without progress may be the most that this protagonist (or any protagonist) can achieve.  The clichés bring us to this dispiriting generalization, and in the succeeding poems, the poet pushes us to this place again and again.  If we continue, we will share this brutal path to its likely foregone conclusion.

In “Birth Chart,” he begs “Simone,” presumably his daughter, “…don’t think badly/of me when I’m dead & you’ve gone deep/ into the distance of love tangles, moneyed/
Interests & old-fashioned commutes…”  He wants more, and vests in her life beyond his perhaps the possibility of something more than standoff.   The plea is earnest, because the character has come to grief but not acceptance of the inevitability of standoff,  “out of my reach/ your life will make itself in struggle & love perhaps/dependent on the strength that will come/if only I let go when you step out the door…”  But why should we believe him?  In part, because we know that the book does not end with “Standoff,” there are many poems that swing beyond this hinge.  If we stay with it, we will learn what happens when this character meets and passes the point of balance as dynamic tension under threat.

Will the poet teach us how to live in this state?  Will he offer us something different and more?  Will standoff be a stasis that breaks leading to a life richer and deeper?  For me to answer  these questions would be to strip from this collection the method by which it’s author realizes his project, and realize it he does.  If you come to Standoff do so knowing that it’s virtue lies in its completeness, its challenge in that you must travel entirely its crags and bogs without guidepost or encouragement, and that you will gain its treasure only if you stay the course.  Standoff is a demanding work by a mature poet that goes to a place many of us face, but about which few of us speak with humility and candor.  In giving us Standoff, Rivard opens for us the possibility of drawing to something more.

Marc Zegans  Left--Doug Holder--Right

Marc Zegans is a poet and creative development advisor. His most recent collections, The Underwater Typewriter and Boys in the woods are respectively available at

Sunday, July 24, 2016

The Sunday Poet: Susan Tepper

Susan Tepper

Susan Tepper is the author of six published books of fiction and poetry. She lives in the NY area with her husband and her dog Otis.  She has been a writer for twenty years.

AFTER/DURING for Chris Nguyen

In a pleasant corner of the garden
we sip tea and crunch biscuits

Each telling what we remember
about that war

You what you remember
After— when
our country conceded
to that split country: North & South
leaving it in ruin

Once divided as we are now
but only by a garden wall
shared and tended,
slathered in honeysuckle,
primrose, vine.

I didn’t see that country
when you saw it
Not nearly one percent
of what you saw.

I saw it during the
loading of soldiers and
the half dead onto planes
then from the air where
everything’s small and
smudged like in a painting

While what you saw were
beginnings of a level plane
on which to finally land.