Saturday, September 10, 2016

The Hastings Room Series’ Seamus Heaney Memorial Reading with feature reader Meg Tyler and Celebrating the 50th Anniversary of Death of a Naturalist

Meg Tyler

The Hastings Room Series’ Seamus Heaney Memorial Reading with feature reader Meg Tyler and Celebrating the 50th Anniversary of Death of a Naturalist

Wednesday September 14th at First Church Congregationalist
11 Garden Street near Harvard Square, at 7pm

by Michael Steffen

The book Death of a Naturalist, with its well-known title poem, was published in 1966, fifty years ago this year. Seamus Heaney’s first major published collection, it won the Cholmondeley Award, the Gregory Award, the Somerset Maugham Award, and the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Award—an auspicious welcome in publishing for the Irish poet who would go on to receive the Nobel Prize twenty-nine years and many collections later in 1995.

Death of a Naturalist consists of 34 poems based on childhood experiences and the coming to age of adult recognitions, family relations and life on the farm and in rural Ireland.

Helen Vendler has written about the identity groups Heaney confronted in forming his early poetic character, his family name “Heaney,” his national conversation with Ireland and the Irish, as a Catholic, as an English speaker, a European, a member of rural rather than urban background. Vendler writes, “If Heaney is to write about any of these several groups, he vows not to be intimidated by what those groups think of him and of his work… This vow is one all poets must take, and one which is always very difficult to keep; but it becomes particularly hard when the claims of affection and solidarity attempt to establish confines around what can be said or written.”

Vendler also speaks of the anonymity the child’s persona takes on in the poems of Death of a Naturalist and Door into the Dark, of the “outsideness” of the perception. In one of his books of essays on poetry, Preoccupations, Heaney writes with admiration for the childhood poems of Theodore Roethke. Like Roethke’s greenhouse poems, Heaney’s early pieces, especially the poem “Death of a Naturalist,” make a broad, nearly immediate appeal to readers. In these lines which begin—“All year the flax-dam festered in the heart Of the townland; green and heavy headed Flax had rotted there…” —the poet is acknowledging and confronting perhaps his most encompassing identity mirror, nature/sexuality, in the image of the frogspawn which fascinates the young Heaney, then of the frogs themselves, who with their coarse croaking voices take on a transcendent, demonic aspect which frightens and turns the child away.

On Wednesday evening, the poem “Death of a Naturalist” will be read, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Heaney’s marvelous international debut, in the introduction to our readers,
George Kalogeris, David Blair and Meg Tyler. We’re putting Meg on the spot this year as the “feature” guest. All three readers are equally wonderful.

Tyler is the 2016 Fulbright Professor of Anglophone Irish Writing at the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry at Queen's University in Belfast. She's the author of a monograph on Seamus Heaney, A Singing Contest (Routledge 2005), and is now working on a book of essays about the Irish poet Michael Longley. Her first book of poems, Poor Earth, was published by Finishing Line Press in 2014.

It’s a pleasure and so interesting how Tyler talks and writes about poetry. She takes less-traveled paths to look at Heaney’s poetry. Edna Longley and Ciaran Carson have caged the power of Heaney’s pieces on history as “dangerously mythologizing” and mystifying. But Tyler’s opening, almost thesis-like view of the poet’s “impulse” as one “towards unity and regeneration” both is unexpected and makes great sense in the overall estimation of Heaney’s poetic character, which time and again attests to wariness for the superficial arguments and identifications that give rise to enmity and conflict.

Meg speaks of Heaney’s “working model of inclusive consciousness” for poetry, including
“an engagement with the past.” This opens an inexhaustible door to the influences and conversations with other poets that have sparked Heaney’s interest and imagination. Tyler reiterates that Heaney did not make giants of his predecessors, but equals of them. And like
a faring poet, Heaney conversed with so many poets, from the speaking yesterday of Virgil, Dante or Kavanaugh, Lowell and Larkin to his contemporaries at home, Derek Mahon, Michael Longley, and abroad, Joseph Brodsky and Czeslaw Milosz.

While Tyler’s scope is broad and far-reaching, she can be wonderfully forensic in her prosodic analyses. In one, of many instances throughout A Singing Contest, Meg compares Heaney’s translation of passages from Virgil’s Eclogues with those of David Ferry. “Ferry’s puzzles are subtle,” Tyler writes—

as he relies less on dialect, which heightens the line’s rhythmic movement in Heaney. Ferry adheres to a pentameter line. However, the line that reads, “Heartbroken and beaten, since fortune will have it so,” displays metrical ingenuity with a spondee in the first foot followed by other anapestic substitutions. The variations…express the strain and stress of circumstance, a weight too great to carry… (A Singing Contest, Routledge, 2005, p. 63)

Drawing our attention to the line and its meter, she appreciates the subtly signifying and illustrative dance of the language’s rhythm composed in its metrical difference. It is as fine an observation as that rare diner’s who tastes a sauce and then proceeds to analyze the wine, vegetables, herbs and saltiness of the butter used to prepare it.

So, looking forward to Wednesday evening: Because “Death of a Naturalist” will be among the poems read for the audience, I’ve chosen a poem of a very different inspiration to leave our readers with this week, in a far different situation and meditation from the child’s instinctual attractions and dreads.

St Kevin and the Blackbird
And then there was St Kevin and the blackbird.
The saint is kneeling, arms stretched out, inside
His cell, but the cell is narrow, so
One turned-up palm is out the window, stiff
As a crossbeam, when a blackbird lands
And lays in it and settles down to nest.
Kevin feels the warm eggs, the small breast, the tucked
Neat head and claws and, finding himself linked
Into the network of eternal life,
Is moved to pity: now he must hold his hand
Like a branch out in the sun and rain for weeks
Until the young are hatched and fledged and flown.
And since the whole thing's imagined anyhow,
Imagine being Kevin. Which is he?
Self-forgetful or in agony all the time
From the neck on out down through his hurting forearms?
Are his fingers sleeping? Does he still feel his knees?
Or has the shut-eyed blank of underearth
Crept up through him? Is there distance in his head?
Alone and mirrored clear in love's deep river,
'To labour and not to seek reward,' he prays,
A prayer his body makes entirely
For he has forgotten self, forgotten bird
And on the riverbank forgotten the river's name.

Friday, September 09, 2016

Marc Zegans The Book of Clouds

Marc Zegans
The Book of Clouds
Kite-string Press
Copyright 2016

Review by Lo Galluccio

In Italo Calvino’s ‘Invisible Cities” Marco Polo is a messenger to Kublai Khan and his reports to the Emperor are dream-like and baroque descriptions of cities to which he’s traveled.  In the middle of the book, Polo admits that all of these cities are tropes on Venice, so even though they are all unique in design, style, purpose, essence, they have a Venice-like template.  In short, all the cities are the same city.  

In Marc Zegans latest collection, “The Book of Clouds” he relates an offering made to a loved one-- a friend or lover-- of a flange of clouds.   In this assortment, there are many different kinds of clouds, yet one wonders if they are all variations on the very first cloud in the book, given to the loved one as pleasure, diversion, protection and whim.  

In the first poem, the beloved asks for a “cloud tonight/a cloud hanging over the Pacific/high above the sunset, glowing with dusk.”  At the poem’s end we understand that the author and object of the cloud will be tethered together –“you sit on the beach in a small chair/your stringed toe rocking me on my cloud gently.” It is a beautiful image of a cloud, like a balloon tied to a toe that is rocking, while the lover sits on the beach.  We can picture dusk, perhaps the most lovely time to be on any beach as the sun starts to set.  The second poem is quite simple – “Would you like a cloud tonight?/ I think so./What sort of cloud?/ A simple cloud that you will pull with you as you walk the beach.”  This is a compacted version of the first poem story.  It echoes the first one, like a bell’s resonance.
There are all wonder of clouds in this collection: clouds heavy with night rain, clouds of magnificent colors, clouds of wakefulness and sleep.  Each cloud intended as a lullaby, a cushion, a spectacle for the beloved.  In number 7, denoted by a roman letter, the poet writes:

“As though dropping from a wall/you fall into tonight’s spun grey-cloud/softer than lambs wool, stronger than silk. It stretches around your sides, cradling your leap into dreamless sleep.”
Thus cloud as cradle or hammock leading to a sleep without dreams.  Sometimes we just want to sleep and not be beset with dreams, good or bad.  This is one condition that this poem grants the beloved with a magical grey cloud.  There is also this cloud’s opposite coming right after, “Free and festive, rested now for many days/you ask me for a cloud of vivid dreams/and I give you this cloud of radiant white/from which you can draw a million colors/strand upon strand/on which to weave your dreams.”  

Cloud 14 is a simple play on words: [c]loud/thunder/clap! The loud noise of the thunder is derived from the thunder cloud that claps to herald a storm.  There are thin clouds, and shy clouds that cleanse the day from weary eyes.  The most obvious benefit of these story-book clouds is that they promote sleep.  In cloud 19 the cloud’s colors transmute “From byzantine to aubergine/amethyst through mauve into orchid/eggplant entwined with English violet/the varied purples of your cloud/remove the robes of public office/leaving you only, ready for sleep./

In number 22, we find another cloud offering by the poet: “Your cloud glows Venetian Red/it has the scent of history/and the lushness of ripened fruit./  And in number 24, “Your cloud tonight is a delicious/confection of oranges and lemons/with enough cream to make a Pavlova.”

So the author explores the cloud as being a confection, like cotton candy, or full of cream like the Pavlova cake mentioned.  These poems are delightful offerings to the loved one’s hunger and add a dimension of taste to the clouds.  There is also an overall quality of parfait to these poems.  They are easy to take in, like a light dessert, something that cleanses the palate after a heavy meal or nourishes the dreamer with beauty and devotion.   

In number 25, “this cloud floats over horses/grazing on the salt-breeze grass by Muir Beach./ and it travels “by jet stream to meet you/the scents of eucalyptus and sea sliding you into enchanted sleep. We are keenly aware of the fresh and minty perfume emitted by this cloud and how it provokes a wondrous night’s sleep.

I should mention that this book was set up so that there is only one poem for every page and nothing but space adjoining that page.  The author wants the reader to be able to envision his clouds without any confusing juxtapositions.  So the poem, like a cloud, inhabits its own piece of the sky.  Each page tells a story about a cloud enchanting the beloved’s existence and mainly his/her’s sleep.  There are many delightful stories in this collection, dedicated to those ephemeral yet clearly manifest phenomena, clouds.  In the final poem, number 31, the poet concludes:” Tonight’s cloud is the cloud you have made/the cloud in need of no other/the cloud drawn from the light you have bestowed.”
Marc Zegans is the author of “The Underwater Typewriter,” “Boys in the Woods” and “The Book of Clouds.”  He is also a spoken word artist and an artist’s consultant.  

The book is presently available only at Lulu.  It will go into broader distribution in a few weeks.  Here’s the link to the book page on Lulu.

Wednesday, September 07, 2016

The Launch of the “New Saturday Club” A Literary History Celebration and Re-Creation at The Omni Parker House Hotel Kennedy Room


The Launch of the “New Saturday Club” A Literary History Celebration and Re-Creation 
at The Omni Parker House Hotel Kennedy Room followed by Parker’s Bar Saturday, September 17, 2016, 3:30 p.m.

Program    • Brief Introduction of the New Saturday Club    • Presentation by Susan Wilson, Official House Historian for the Omni Parker House, on the original Saturday Club and its literary members

  • Group discussion of literary conversation then and now at Parker’s Bar  Advisory Committee: William F. Bagley (Director Of Development, St. Mark’s School); Joe Bergin (Poet); Sam Cornish (Boston Poet Laureate Emeritus); Danielle Legros Georges (Boston Poet Laureate); Tom Johnston (Mayor’s Office of Arts and Culture); Susan Wilson (House Historian, Omni Parker House). 
The Original Saturday Club: “Founded by Harvey D. Parker in 1855, the Omni Parker House is the oldest of Boston’s elegant inns and the longest continuously operating hotel in the United States. It was here where the brightest lights of America’s Golden Age of Literature—writers like Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, and Longfellow—regularly met for conversation and conviviality in the legendary nineteenth-century Saturday Club.” —Excerpted from Heaven, By Hotel Standards: The History of the Omni Parker House by House Historian Susan Wilson
SUSAN WILSON, the official House Historian of the Omni Parker House, is an award-winning photographer, writer, educator, and lecturer whose stories and images about the arts, entertainment, history, and culture regularly appeared in the Boston Globe from 1978 to 1996. In 1994, she began writing and photographing books on Boston history, including Boston Sites and Insights, The Literary Trail of Greater Boston, Garden of Memories: A Guide to Historic Forest Hills, and Heaven, By Hotel Standards: The History of the Omni Parker House. Susan has long been a consultant to and member of a variety of historic organizations in Boston, including The Boston Women’s Heritage Trail, the Massachusetts Historical Society, the Old South Association, The National Park Service, Boston By Foot, Forest Hills Educational Trust, The Dimock Center, and the City of Boston. She was project director for both Harborwalk signage and the Maritime Museum at Battery Wharf.

  Free Donations welcome for future honoraria. Food and drink at Parker’s Bar not included. RSVP and more information, Joe Bergin: or 617-834-7631.  60 School Street, Boston, 02108 Paid Parking available • Near State Street and Government Center Stations

Monday, September 05, 2016

Loom By Kevin Gallagher


By Kevin Gallagher
MadHat Press
Asheville, North Carolina
ISBN: 978-1-941196-32-8
101 Pages

Review by Dennis Daly

In the pre-dawn hours of August 21, 1863, during the American Civil War, William Quantrill led his infamous raid on Lawrence, Kansas, murdering at least 185 men and boys. The Confederate irregulars rode into the city, about 400 strong, with lists of their intended victims. Once there many of them simply shot any male that they could lay their hands on. Northern abolitionists, who largely populated Lawrence, were the hated targets. This attack culminated years of strife in pre-war “Bleeding Kansas” between the pro-slavery and anti-slavery forces, as well as the strange lead-up to this discord rooted in New England’s textile industry decades earlier.

Kevin Gallagher, in his new book Loom, searches through these Massachusetts mill roots and unmasks the little-known unholy alliance between capitalists of the North and slavers of the South. Gallagher does this by resurrecting a public genre of narrative poetry and then uses it to impart prosaic information (in this case history) with an effective didactic force. Aside from mnemonic considerations, verse employed in this way by a skilled poet can effectively direct emphasis and insert emotion like no prose piece can. And Gallagher is nothing if not a skilled poet.

Pirating the Power Loom opens the poet’s collection by recalling Francis Cabot Lowell’s momentous foray into industrial espionage. Cabot memorized the design of the power loom used in English factories and, with his partners Nathan Appleton and Paul Moody, established his own manufacturing facilities in Massachusetts. Here Lowell details his theft,

I stole their designs with my own two eyes.
I smuggled them to Boston in my mind.

Exporting designs meant jail in Britain.
Workers of looms weren’t allowed to leave.

So I snuck into Manchester myself.
I made it back two days before the war.

I saw iron cards and spinning jennys!

Not too different from the way other industrial countries have stolen manufacturing secrets from the United States. You can also feel the larcenous excitement in Lowell’s words.

When New England’s cotton industry took off it triggered some unintended consequences. Although the international slave trade had officially ended in 1808, slavery within the country was still legal, although a dying institution. Cotton plantations in the South needed workers and a multiplication of existing slaves through breeding seemed the answer. Gallagher’s piece Breeding Negroes captures the banality of these evil times perfectly. Consider this observation,

There’s a cotton nigger
for you!

Genuine! Look at his toes!
Look at his fingers!

There’s a pair
of legs for you!

He’s just as good
at ten bales

as I am for a julep
at eleven o’clock!

Among the textile captains of New England the Lawrence family positioned itself in the first rank of importance. They founded the mill city of Lawrence Massachusetts and nurtured strong connections with the Southern plantation system. Amos A. Lawrence, known as the Prince of the Cotton Whigs, directed the second generation of the family business. Gallagher chronicles a business tour of southern plantations that Lawrence took as a young man in a poem entitled Goodwill Tour—The Prince’s Diaries. Lawrence observes that not all is well in Georgia,

The countryside is very beautiful.
The ladies are pretty and polite.

What I had imagined as the Southern
planter is an exceedingly rare sight.

Some days when it is hot as hell
every man is burning for a fight.

I am finding it very different here.
Shake hands and try not to stare.

Years later the case of fugitive slave Anthony Burns affected this same Amos Lawrence greatly. Burns was captured in Boston and, after a violent attempt to free him by an angry abolitionist mob, the authorities returned Burns, under very heavy guard, to his “master.” Lawrence renounced his family’s ties to the Northern mill/Southern plantation system and became an activist with a vengeance. In his poem, The Stark-Mad Abolitionist, the poet lets Lawrence speak for himself,

I put my hands in my face and I wept.
I went to bed an old-fashioned conservative,
I woke up a stark-mad abolitionist.

Look what you’ve done. I can do nothing less.
You’ve given me a new purpose to live.
I put my hands in my face and I wept,

Then I put myself into his footsteps.
Burns is a hero, not a fugitive.
I am a stark-mad abolitionist.

I will see to it that we free Kansas.

When the Kansas-Nebraska Act passed the US Congress in 1854, the Missouri Compromise was overturned and the game changed. Now popular sovereignty would determine whether new states were slave or free. Amos Lawrence pushed his new abolitionist agenda by bankrolling anti-slavery settlers and building up cities such as Lawrence Kansas—appropriately enough, named after him. In one of my favorite pieces, Gallagher versifies a letter from Amos Lawrence to President Franklin Pierce, another New Englander. Lawrence states his position,

You have a problem with the settlers

from the “free States” opposed
to the introduction of the slave trade.

I note that you have now forced those settlers
to the conclusion that if they be safe

they must defend themselves out there.
I too have come to the same conclusion.

I have therefore rendered them assistance
By furnishing such means of defense.

The pro-slavers fought back by harassing and attacking the new settlers. Lawrence countered, fighting fire with fire. In Gallagher’s poem Farmers Turned Soldiers Lawrence explains,

To protect your freedom I send John Brown.
He has the look of a determined one.
When farmers turn soldiers they must have arms.

This is a simple case of right and wrong.
I send Sharps rifles so the ruffians run.
Never again shall they burn down your barns.

You must defend yourselves. Sound the alarms!

Amos A. Lawrence, like others on the wrong side of history, realized his mistakes, albeit a bit late. And, as often happens, shame and guilt bred brutality or at least the promotion of brutality in the person of Lawrence’s surrogate, John Brown.

Brown met terrorism with terrorism. At Pottawatomie Creek he slaughtered five individuals with pro-slavery ties. None of them, however owned slaves. The bleeding of Kansas had begun in earnest. Quantrill’s villainous exclamation mark on this matter waited for the cover of civil war.

Poetry collections this provocative and informative are rare. Gallagher’s Loom demands a large readership. I predict he’ll get it—and deservedly so.