Saturday, October 27, 2018

The Sunday Poet: I Am A Jew By Doug Holder

Doug Holder

In light of the massacre in Pittsburgh...


Do I have a choice?
They changed the name
trading in the awkward scrawl
for the short, spare efficiency--
is now on my back.
This Jew
still peeks through
my body stoops
as if to "daven"
a hint of Yiddish urchin twang--
the monkish bald spot
a Yarmulke
fits perfectly.
At dusk
I down the white bread--
secretly savor
the dark rye
and realize in
the dead of night
that the
doesn't lie.

---- Doug Holder

....Originally posted in Buckle magazine--Buffalo, NY

Just a Note of Reflection on my Retirement from McLean Hospital

****The Director of Residential Services at McLean wrote me a note: "Thank you for your years of service to the hospital, for the many years you worked at the Pavilion and for the time you spent working at other residential programs prior to coming to the Pavilion. I especially appreciate your efforts to help our patients find creative writing outlets for expressing their inner demons."

 Just a note of reflection… on my Retirement from McLean Hospital 

By Doug Holder

I remember starting at McLean in the summer of 1982. I was 27 and had some experience working at the notorious Fernald State School   (Post Judge Tauro Decision), and at Dr. Solomon Carter Mental Health Center in the South End of Boston. My experience had basically been with severely retarded clients, and kids with criminal backgrounds from the Roxbury and Dorchester sections of Boston. But McLean Hospital was a totally different experience. It was and is a private institution,  very well-regarded, and still had the remnants of its Boston Brahmin past. The unit I first worked on was East House. At that time East House was a high security unit, with a number of quiet rooms, that usually had no vacancies.  As I sat in the conference room waiting for my first staff meeting, I remember a night mental health worker, with a halo of Harpo Marx hair and an arsenal of cornball jokes--bound through the room --his eyes bulging--anxious to get out to the parking lot. Just then a young, muscular Dr. P  made a dramatic entrance like a modern-day Dudley Do-Right, the sleeves rolled up on his crisp white shirt-- he grabbed the phone like it was a barbell. He said something like, " Tell them I have to be in Morocco in the morning, and forward that call to Tangiers to me immediately!" I knew there was something unique about this institution from that day on.
Over the years I worked on a number of units--and encountered many patients and staff who affected me profoundly. I remember one client said to me, " Doug, you are my finest creation." He then congratulated me for a clap of thunder heard outside the walls of the ward. You see, to him I was a minor deity that he created and he was giving me a pat on the back for a job well-done. For years whenever I would run into him he would look at me with great pride.
I have experienced very withdrawn patients on the units I have worked on come alive in poetry groups that I have run. I have sat hours on end outside quiet rooms checking on the safety of agitated patients--the rise and fall of their chests--answering their questions from their fever dreams the best I could. I have had patients rage at me in anger and come to me for comfort --some balm for their inner torment.
I am grateful to McLean Hospital for many things. The hospital helped pay my tuition for graduate school --it provided a steady job and benefits, not to mention flexible hours that I needed to pursue my writing and publishing. Back in the day we used to call McLean  "The Mother" because she nurtured her patients as well as her employees. Fredrick Olmsted, the great landscape architect designed these grounds with the thought it would provide a meditative and soothing respite for healing. And despite all the upheavals  to healthcare--to a great deal --it still is.
I will miss the folks I have worked with across the hospital. In many cases you have been very supportive, and I feel I was part of a family of sorts. I have worked here more than half a lifetime, and have shared a long history with a number of folks. I will continue to teach and publish, and who knows I may have a second coming as a Per Diem in the any case I will miss you all...
Doug Holder

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Thousand Star Hotel by Bao Phi

Bao Phi

Thousand Star Hotel
by Bao Phi
Coffee House Press 2017
Minneapolis, Minnesota

Thousand Star Hotel is an unusual memoir of some 62 poems in 105 pages with a one page lyrical introduction. It tells of a life of escapes, from Saigon, as a three month old, in a C-5 transport while his father looked “over his shoulder once/to see shells dropping where we once stood,” and, as a teenager and adult, from the fate of many in his neighborhood who “At a prison reading … [have] come to listen to the art that kept me out of this place.”

It is a memoir that chronicles a bigotry he can't escape:

It's not a majority white school. In seventh grade, the tall blonde tomboy asks you to dance. You have no idea all the boys have a crush on her; you've been busy with comic books, and the only romance you know are tragedies from Greek mythology and Arthurian legends. She's your best friend and you've laughed together every day, so of course you say yes. … Suddenly you notice three white boys looking at you, two snickering. They come right up to both of you, and whisper in her ear. Loud enough for you to hear. Everyone can see you dancing with that gook, they laugh. She responds by flicking them off, pulling you closer. Years later you'll wonder how she created her armor.

And it is a memoir of a single parent wondering what do I do “When My Daughter Asks Me to Check and Make Sure Racists Can't Come In and Kill Us.”

It has powerful prose written in the short lines of verse:

The worst powerlessness
is when wicked men and boys
come for your family
and you can do nothing.

And lyrical language in prose, “That a raindrop can weep inside of itself so hard it drowns and, looking at it, you would never know."

The reality described in the poetry of Thousand Star Hotel, is discomforting; most of the time we avoid looking at it, but, as Bao Phi presents it, you can’t. Flip to any page and you will find lines like these from “Shell”:

Brown people getting bombed –
how can you
even think


But you do.

That accusatory “you” implies, if they were white people getting bombed, our response might be different and, reluctantly, you have to admit, “He’s right.” However, that “But you do” is also a colloquial equivalent for the formal “But one does” so that Bao Phi is asking of himself the same question he asks of us. The fact that, in the face of the daily bombing of brown people, both he and we “even think//about//love,” creates the possibility, if we are willing to tolerate our discomfort, for a shared humanity.

But this poem and these poems are not going to let us off easily with the question, “What else is more important to think about in the face of horror than ‘Love?’” Later in “Shell” Bao makes the impersonality of contemporary war, the consequence of bombing, and our passive witness more explicit:

The news crackles
drones drop
the heads of children
no science fiction
to save them.

To the extent that, as we watch the news we are passive witnesses to bombings, we are complicit in them and our agency becomes remote; children get their brains blown out by explosions that look like blossoms from our distant vantage; and we are helpless.

Many of the raw images of these poems are the traumas of his life and the lives of his family; traumas such as the one he would have witnessed at three months old, and to which he alludes in the poem, “To Combust”:

When his oldest son comes home from the corner gas station
beaten for no reason
we can venture to guess Dad sees blood and thinks
how he risked his life to get us all on that plane,
jumping in, last minute,
prayer and opportunity,
looking over his shoulder once
to see shells dropping where we once stood
before becoming an alien to his homeland for ever.

Later, during the narration of a trauma in the poem, “Cookies,” he introduces another thematic question of his memoir: how should he share this history with his daughter?

For the holidays, our Lutheran sponsors used to give us a blue cookie tin. … For Christmas my sister gave my daughter a box of shortbread cookies. … She wanted to share them with me, and they tasted so much like those cookies from our childhood I had to close my eyes and look away. Her five-year-old eyes track some commercial in which white men are playing at battle and she asks me about war. I want to tell her that her grandpa once told me how one of his friends in the front lines got hit in the side with the rocket while crawling out of a foxhole, and he had to pick up the smoking pieces of him and put them in a cookie tin to send the remains home to his family.

Because of the eloquence of its expression, the pain of these poems is tolerable. In “Say What?” a short poem that introduces the collection, Boa Phi reveals one source of that eloquence by parsing the variations in Vietnamese for “ma,” where it has six different meanings depending upon the tone of expression [Ma–ghost, Mà–but, Må–tomb or grave, Mã –horse, Má–momma and Mā–to plate].” The poem concludes:

Vietnamese people have always been spoken word poets.
How you say it
is as important to the life of the word
as the word itself.

In the Minneapolis of their exile English replaced the music of Boa Phi’s parental Vietnamese, yet he has managed, with this adopted English, to create a music, which, though it must often be a dissonant music, is worthy of our attention.  

These poems are difficult, but not in an academic way, nothing to puzzle out, no obscurities to excuse by calling them “experimentation”, just a clarity of vision that is hard to take but impossible to ignore. Thousand Star Hotel is evidence that our War in Vietnam won't be over until all of its wounds have healed. We encounter some of those wounds in the faces of homeless veterans on our corners holding out cups for alms. These poems are evidence of other wounds, which have an importance we have yet to acknowledge. What are these injuries, caused by being torn from home, if not “wounds”?

The value of these poems is that they erode the denials that interfere with our healing and in doing so encourage us, give us the heart we will need to persist in our own repair. These 14 lines at the beginning of “It Was Flame” describe as succinctly as anything I have ever read the history, which we must cease denying if we are to heal:

indentured servitude
migrant labor
genocide to clear land for theft
minimum wage so low
we can see the ceiling:
America has been in business.

Shackled to sow.
Smallpox to blanket.
Guns bristled the border.
Lighter kisses hooch,
and how many times would you burn down Chinatown,
or what ever enclave we have been forced into,
to manifest your destiny.

This collection is worth owning if only to have those 14 lines close at hand as a reminder of the history, which we must acknowledge, if we would heal.

–Wendell Smith