Sunday, December 29, 2019

Sarah Kramer: The Artisan's Asylum's Dinosaur Lady.


                                                                   By Doug Holder

I met crafter Sarah Kramer at the Artisan's Asylum right outside Union Square in Somerville. This is where Kramer works amidst all the high tech gadgetry, and cutting-edge art the other members are involved with. She talked with me about her craft-- creating what she calls semi-saurs which in a nutshell is taking small plastic dinosaur figurines, cutting them in half, add a magnet, and let the consumer mix and match body parts of many types of dinosaurs. She also makes gift magnets, with intriguing images under glass. She places them in gift boxes with colorful Japanese Washi paper.

Kramer lived in Somerville for three years. She now lives in Somerville with her husband. Kramer laughed and said, " I made a big sacrifice moving to Somerville--giving up a rent-stabilized apartment in New York City for love."

Kramer has quite the eclectic background. She studied theatre at New York University, as well as the Lee Strasberg's "Actors Studio". She has worked on the technical side of theatre.  She had a stint  on  the play "Heidwig and the Angry Inch," as well as working on the Macy's Thanksgiving Parade.

The she found another calling. That was-- tutoring students for the Law School Admission Standardized Test. She told me, " I love to use logic in my teaching. This was a great fit for me. I helped students prepare for the test, and even more importantly I helped with deciding if the law was the right fit for them."

Unfortunately, the black dogs of depression found her, and she was unable to teach this demanding material. She went through a number of clinical trials. She was in a major study at Mass. General Hospital about the use of the drug Ketamene. With Ketamine her depression lifted, but there was still cognitive impairment from the many treatments of  ECT, and the other drugs she has taken over the years.

Kramer told me that she buys mini plastic dinosaurs on Amazon.She uses a drill press to secure a space for the magnets inside of the inanimate creatures. They have been quite popular, according to Kramer, and  she is starting to make a small profit.
Kramer hopes to get back to teaching, but for now her little creatures, magnets occupy her time, and keeps her creative juices flowing here--in the-Paris of New England.

For more information about Kramer and her work:  go to

Thursday, December 26, 2019

Jacob Kramer: A children's writer who brings noodles and critters to life.

Jacob Kramer: A children's writer who brings noodles and critters to life.

By Doug Holder

Jacob Kramer met me at my perch in the backroom of the Bloc 11 Cafe in Union Square, Somerville. The fireplace was on full blast—to foil the frigid winter winds just outside the window. Kramer, is a youngish man with a scruffy beard, and wears his long hair in a ponytail. I noticed something wide and child-like in his eyes—undoubtedly some seminal flame that still burns with a kid's wonder.

Kramer is a graduate of Harvard University, and has lived in our burg for six years. Originally from Providence, Rhode Island, he lives in what I consider a well-appointed spot in Union Square—close to that U.N. of  supermarkets, Market Basket. Kramer told me,“ I love Somerville—I have a number of friends here. The Somerville Arts Council has been very supportive of my work, not to mention the Somerville Public Library, Porter Square Books, and the Somerville Museum.”

Kramer revealed to me that a person has to have a good sense of humor to be a children's writer. He elaborated, “ You have to try to understand what you care about, and why you care about it on the most basic level. Then you have to deliver to your audience. And for children that means delivering it in the most straightforward way.

I asked Kramer if his study of film at Harvard informed his work as children' writer. He replied, “ With film making you have to think in scenes, cuts and edits. This is in some ways like my genre of writing. You always have to have a page turner to keep the kid's attention. You have to have one scene, then cut to the next surprise on the following page.”

Kramer's beautifully illustrated book “Noodlephant” is about a bunch of despotic kangaroos, who take over the production and distribution of noodles, much to the chagrin of noodle-loving elephants and other critters. It is a story which has a social message—and Kramer, as an activist, is very much into this kind of narrative. Kramer opined, "Kids have a natural interest in what's fair, and what is not. So this kind of theme will appeal to them."

Kramer also wrote a light verse book that he calls “Critterverse.” He feels light verse is sometimes looked down on as too shallow or trite, but he finds that it can be a teaching tool for kids, as it mixes easier and harder words. Kramer feels the kids will understand the harder words through the context of the story. He believes that kids are intuitive, so they don't always need a parent next to them to explain things."

The illustrator Kramer often works with is K-Fai Steele. Her vivid and colorful work goes well with the inventive text.

Kramer is a man with many interests. He was a founding member of the Union Square Neighborhood Council, and has worked to make sure that the community's interests are met by the developers of Union Square.

Kramer told me he is writing a sequel to “ Noodlephant, "Okapi Tale," and if I were you, I would secure an advance copy as soon as they are available.

To find out more about Kramer go to:

Friday, December 20, 2019

Ibbetson Street 46: Due out Next Month!

Well--  we ordered a number of sample copies of the new issue from our printer-- if those are okay-I hope to be sending comp copies to contributors by early to mid January.... A little late this year--but it will be worth it!  You will notice the wonderful front cover photo from photographer Bonnie Matthews Brock.   *** Ibbetson Street is formally affiliated with Endicott College in Beverly, MA.

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

The Human Half: Poems by Deborah Brown

The Human Half: Poems
by Deborah Brown
Rochester, NY: BOA Editions Ltd., 2019
ISBN 978-1-942-68382-7

Reviewed by David P. Miller

In The Human Half, Deborah Brown wrests vitality and insight from doubts, contradictions, cul-de-sacs, and seemingly wrong turns. Her rich, unexpected diction reminds us that each starting point is fraught with multiple, buried potentials. Nevertheless, our lives’ permanent unpredictability need not be simply disorienting; with proper attention, we can understand, maybe experience, fluidity and depth.

“Voices,” the opening poem, testifies to the slippery relationships of sound with speech, speech with identity and personhood. At the start, something has gone missing:

                This isle, my ear, is empty.
Before, voices hummed in my ears,
they piled up, black cannon balls
stacked on the town green, geometric,
perfect, all memory of death
swept under June’s mown carpet.

Many different things occur here. The remarkable image of voices as cannon balls pivots into their assurance and tangibility. At the same time, their perfection is petrified, as the speaker can’t help but bring death into the picture. In any event, the voices no longer have stability: they mutate into other sounds, vocal and otherwise, “rarely songs.” She wishes “for tones / that shimmer, sounds that twangle, a poem / in the swill of speech” but must settle for “dried peas in a coffee can. The day rattles / empty as a gourd.” Notice that although she concludes “My ear’s been alone too long”, it’s clear from the language itself that her ear is well and thoroughly tuned, whether to voices or tones.

There are poems that suggest a difficult family history, often embedded in seemingly simple memories. In “The Unpainted House,” the speaker as young girl has either just fallen from her first bicycle or is “on my knees in the woods / scraping pine needles left and right / with cupped hands to make neat trails.” One or the other (or both) of these moments is wedded to remembered voices both definite and tentative:

[ . . . ] From the woods –
I think I heard it—anger so loud
trees and rocks and earth piles trembled
and then—I think I remember it—
a screen door from its hinge
left to flap like a demented tongue.

The rage that disables the door from speaking carries forward in an encounter with a mother, likely in later life, bound up again with voices both frank and stifled:

I hear my voice, stuck in memory,
“Pull your nightgown down, Mother.”
And my name in my mother’s voice,
a growl in her throat, the taste of tannin
and fear in my mouth, the burnt
crust of the edge of ever[y]day.

In “What I Know About the Night Sky,” Deborah Brown fuses the qualities of light and darkness, almost to suggest them as inextricable. “The new moon is never visible / on the night of the New Moon.” There’s a failure, as the night betrays its own name, “though when the sky is darkest / you sometimes see fireballs flash.” This image pivots in two more lines to the speaker’s brother, suffering during that same night the explosions of electric shock therapy. At the same time, light arrives from a dead time: “Andromeda / so many light years away that the rays / I see tonight were emitted / when wooly mammoths and saber-toothed tigers / roamed here.” A moonless night named for a moon; light in the night sky like the bursts in a wounded brain; starlight from a possibly extinct source; and finally

The next day my brother
reaches out to me from the darkness
he’s wrapped in. He tests the light.

Many poems in The Human Half express the radical uncertainty of knowledge, or instability of perception, with what appear to be simple premises that go to pieces as one contingency evokes the next, the poems escaping the speaker’s (and reader’s) control. “Here’s Looking” is an outstanding example. The lead-in title evokes “here’s looking at you,” and at first the poem seems genially autumnal: “at the way fingers of birches tangle / as roots reach up, reach out”. That’s the first couplet; the second quickly undoes it: “at the row of colored bottles lined up / that you’re taking aim at”. While in that first line, the bottles could have been decorative finds or souvenirs, with the second there’s immediate violence or its threat. This pace slides into further rapid-fire images of danger and threat:

and at the mulberry bush we hid under
together and at the father speeding

into the garage, ramming the bins
after you jump out of the way

There’s an attempt to recover with another “Here’s looking” and some quiet expressions – “through the keyhole, out the window, / down the rabbit hole” but that can’t be sustained either. The poem hurtles toward a conclusion of forced looking/refusal to look. The title finally becomes impossible, with even “Here” unbearable:

Am I still looking for, at, out

for you? Not. And not
under the bed. Looking past

the house, the car, the guns.

“What to Call a Chicken,” complete in six couplets, similarly seduces at its opening with a curious question: “Why call a chicken a chicken when you could / see it as a yellow feather in the eye of the morning?” An interesting, fresh metaphor. Then, as with “Here’s Looking,” the poem plummets almost instantly, one image falling into another in stunning succession. An unsettled farm (“the broken eggs, the goat’s sad bleat”) slides through an empty bed to an empty, collapsing house (“the shattered wall, the crumbling / bedroom door”) , to hanging, crumbling stone and even a snow that fails:

The stone wall has toppled all over itself,
the snow failed its banks, its whiteness.

Quieter on the surface, but finally as unsettled, “The Green Scent of Snow” begins with a modest sensory image:

Snowfall fills the crevices
in my dreams, a scent fresh
as green. My neighbor
leaves for the night shift,
snowbanks reflect car lights.

Looking into the night, the speaker searches for Pluto but remembers it’s not possible with the naked eye: “Another one / not seen anymore.” That disappearance is followed by an understatement of willful collective suicide: “We clear our neighborhood / of the atmosphere we need to live.” A state of complete obscurity, created by us, ends this brief poem:

For weeks now no one in Beijing
has seen a neighbor
walk through the thick gray air
towards her at noon.

Although every perception is provisional, every conviction unstable, what consistently stands out in these poems is a lack of rhetorical distress. There’s no melodrama in Deborah Brown’s language: the insecurity of our existence comes through in what almost seems like a succession of rudimentary facts.

This selection doesn’t do justice to The Human Half’s range of tone and subject matter. There are insightful ekphrastic poems, such as “In Black and White and Red,” concerning a painting by Matisse, and “A Woman Holds a Balance in Jan Vermeer’s Painting.” In contrast with Matisse’s work, where a female model representing a maid is subjugated to function as a compositional/color element, the Vermeer painting seems to model the speaker’s own longings for reason and harmony. “A Woman” is also one of the few poems in the book that speaks in short lines, and the only one with lines of a single word. Its line-broken diction skillfully enacts its images, as in:

of this
derangement of mind
and senses inflicted
on me—perhaps not
on me alone—

“Various Rains” stands out with the remarkable imagination brought to bear on its subject. These rains are sometimes personified (“sooty city rain that grabs your lapels”), sometimes not (“rain full of molasses”).  Each has an unexpected relationship with human moods or emotions, but resists stereotyped associations, as the feeling-tone of each is experienced for itself.

“In the Snowfield,” the book’s concluding poem, evokes blankness, a potential fall off the edge into a void. At the same time, this hazard is countered by her actions and the imagination she brings to the place:

[ . . . ] My skis
carve an equator. The wind
sketches meridians. So much
that I see is not there.
The map I make
guides me through the blank fields.

But these markings are provisional, to be taken back by the world which includes us but does not depend on us. “The straight lines / are longing. Drifts / erase our path.” We desire, we pass through. We leave our traces, we are erased. Until then, as “In the Cambrian” reminds us, there is “that flare of life in me, through you.”

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Poet Lyn Lifshin has passed at 77.

  The " Queen" of the small press-- poet Lyn Lifshin has passed at the age of 77.  Lifshin was published in almost every magazine out there including my own.You always knew it was a Lifshin submission because it was an overstuffed envelope with 50 to 100 poems--and many of them were very good. I met Lynn in the North End of Boston at the late Jack Powers' house, and later attended a reading with her and Jon Wieners at the Old West Church in the Beacon Hill area. I interviewed her in a funky little restaurant in the North End in the 90s. She was a very engaging woman, very kind, and wore an in your face red mini-skirt and high heels. She loved talking about her love of dance as well as poetry. Here is the interview I conducted with her--may she rest in peace... The taped interview is held in the Harvard Woodberry Collection...

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Dec. 2019 Somerville Poet Laureates reading. Lloyd Schwartz, Gloria Mindock, and Nicole Terez Dutton

Five years ago I founded the Somerville Poet Laureate position with Greg Jenkins and Harris Gardner. This reading took place at the Somerville Public Library. Lloyd Schwartz, our current laureate, and our previous laureates Gloria Mindock and Nicole Terez Dutton read at the event. I was honored to read an introduction, and very grateful to Michael Steffen--who organized the event.

Monday, December 09, 2019

Doug Holder's Poem "Oh, Don't, She Said," put to Dance and Music

A wonderful rendition of Holder's poem about his 93 year old mother, " Oh, Don't, She said..." performed by the textmoves dance collaborative ( Founded by Karen Klein) music by Jennifer Matthews--this was part of the Third Life Choreography Series that was presented in the South End of Boston ( Urbanity Central Studio) in Dec. 2019. The dance has been performed in other venues around Boston.

Saturday, December 07, 2019

REVIEW: Phillip Arnold’s The Natural History of a Blade Dos Madres, 2019

REVIEW: Phillip Arnold’s The Natural History of a Blade
Dos Madres, 2019

Two important things about Philip Arnold’s poems: they are faithfully attentive to etymology, and intently focused on the natural world while not self- consciously showing off his considerable knowledge. His plain subjects—earth and leaves, changing light and shadow, the fall of snow, the death of everything, suggest with exquisite sensitivity our parallel human experience, our struggle, even as his poems enrich the mind with gladness and ease. They do these things with so little showiness that one can easily miss the deep moments as they pass by in modest expression. 
By my sights, Mr Arnold is a poet to watch for—or better, to listen for—as time goes by. His future poems may leave behind some of their delightful but occasionally distracting linguistic eccentricities, stuff that sounds really good or obscure, but that can baffle the earnest reader or cause her to lose her pace or place, or progress. But there will be a Casino Real payoff.  For all of us.
Arnold’s interest in etymology is one of the quiet pleasures of this collection. We learn immediately that the word blade is derived from Middle English, German, and Old English and that it can denote (or suggest) a leaf, a blossom, a blade (knife, spade). It can also bring to mind the voices of other great poets. When we read a single line like “at night/ we become the delicate tongues of bees” and have a sweet sense of Walt Whitman who sits nearby, contemplating “a blade of grass” at the beginning of Leaves of Grass. Or we may be surprised with one of Thomas Hardy’s fine tetrameters rhythms that feels almost uncanny and which is not copying Hardy in the least, but instead riffing on rhythms that conjure his genius. Arnold is on firm, familiar, rich ground in these poems, and he knows it. I take that as a sign of good courage as he grows as an artist.

The title piece of the collection, “The Natural History of a Blade,” is an example of a poem with an original voice and something important to say.  Without ever sounding astonished Arnold astonishes:
The scored sapwood opens the mouth
Of the forest: brown petals open

In a dream of thirst, a throat as wide
As the mid-winter sky.

In “The Appalachian Character for Death,” with its revelation of ravishing, frightening brevity:

“spell out nature’s shorthand /across wet branches” in “winter ink” for the sign of death. Before long, after some thoughtful consideration the poet settles into a Keatsian/Hemingway/Camus musing with:
It isn’t how a life will be erased
That unsettles me, but how hunger grows
While the dying are now on our time.

Our time

In “Black Mountain Point” where the poem’s speaker remembers “to isolate the details / of your silence” (just try it), you have a hint of Arnold’s considerable linguistic powers under the cover of understatement and ambiguity.  Whose silence, we don’t know; and the mental impossibility of isolating the details of a silence?  There are many examples of such skill and innuendo. At the end of this poem his speaker says only “Nothing is sudden.” (Was it Freud who said, “all change is incremental”?)
Of the several remarkable poems in this collection, there is nothing to criticize except perhaps a tendency. Arnold can be thrilling, provocative, and insightful in bringing together the reality of a living nature and the catastrophe of living, for all creatures. At times the level at which he unearths showy or strange uses of language can distract; it can sap the flow of meaning from his more predominant and expression of humble suggestion and modesty.
I believe he has the makings of a great poet.

--Marcia Ross

Sunday, December 01, 2019

Robin Stratton brings a lot to the table with Big Table Publishing

Robin Stratton

Robin Stratton is a dynamo in small press publishing.  But this founder of Big Table Publishing  extends beyond publishing quality books of fiction and poetry. Now based in San Francisco--she remains a big presence in the Boston area literary community. I caught up with Stratton recently to talk about her release of two volumes of  The Very best of Big Table Publishing.

Stratton is the author of four novels, including one which was a National Indie Excellence Book Award finalist (On Air, Mustang Press, 2011), two collections of poetry and short fiction, and a writing guide. A four-time Pushcart Prize nominee, she has been published in Word Riot, 63 Channels, Antithesis Common, Poor Richard’s Almanac(k), Blink-Ink, Pig in a Poke, Chick Flicks, Up the Staircase, Shoots and Vines, and many others. Since 2004 she has been Acquisitions Editor for Big Table Publishing Company, Senior Editor of Boston Literary Magazine since 2009, and she was Director of the Newton Writing and Publishing Center until she moved from Boston to San Francisco in 2018. Now she lead the popular "Six Feet of Poetry" and "Fiction by the Foot" series. 

You just released the two volumes of  The Very Best of Big Table Publishing. There are a lot of wonderful poets and writers included. Was it hard to narrow it down?

It was, yes. In many case, it was easy to select chapter one of a book, or the Intro… but for the poets, especially, I had to keep choosing which of their poems was not just a favorite, but captured a sense of the poet him or herself, since the hope is that people will read the anthology, fall in love with some of the writing, and then buy a book from that author or poet. Some poets, especially those we worked with on more than one book, had a lot of poems that would be perfect, so I had to go through, say ten… then whittle it down to five… and then down to one or two. Sometimes that was painful, but I obviously had to make room for everyone.

What constitutes for you a " Best Of"' piece of writing?

Over the years, many of the poems, short stories, prologues, or intro chapters have stayed with me, either on an emotional level, because I could totally relate to the theme or character, or because I so admired the literary skill; sometimes I read a poem or micro fiction piece that is a million times better than anything I could ever write, and I find myself wondering if I could ever even come close. When we did Every Day There is Something About Elephants with Timothy Gager, I loved so many of the pieces that I felt like never writing again! At the launch I asked him if he would allow me to read one of them (“Jack” appears in Volume Two) because I was so head over heels in love with (and jealous of) it. So those pieces were where I began, and as I went through all our titles, so many of them made me think, Oh yeah, I forgot how brilliant this is! and I’d grab those, too. And before I knew it, I had two full volumes that represented almost all of our authors. Almost no one got left out, and only one author didn’t want her piece to be included. 

It has been noted that you like writers who are not ashamed to show their vulnerabilities.  Do you think there is a lack of that in contemporary writing?

I try not to judge “contemporary writing” because I understand how society shapes literature and art, and it’s just part of human nature, so if there is a lack of vulnerability out there, I don’t think I would particularly notice. On the other hand, yes, if it’s there, I am drawn to it. Our hottest seller of all time is Fat Girl, Skinny, by Amye Archer, a blazingly raw account of how her self esteem issues and food addiction led to really bad life choices. She didn’t hold back at all, and I found myself admiring her so much for having reached a point in her life where she could just say Here’s what I did, but here’s why I did it, and now that I understand that, I’m not going to do it as much. It’s not as if she now has a talk show where she teaches other people how to live in a constant state of bliss – she still struggles. But in addition to being a fabulous writer, she is a very sweet human who wins you over. She inspired me to start writing poems that exposed my own vulnerabilities… my own serious, crippling self-esteem issues. She made me see that putting that stuff out there doesn’t make it go away – but it empowers you because you found the guts to put it out there. She is my hero. The Prologue to Fat Girl, Skinny kicks off Volume Two.

I also loved the book we did with you, Portrait of an Artist as a Young Poseur, because the whole thing was brilliant, amazing you now making fun of dreamy, idealistic you then… I loved how you told us that when your apartment was excavated because of a fire, you “ran down the stairs in my blue corduroy sports jacket—a slightly irregular affair—from the depths of Filene’s Basement… padded shoulders to bolster my narrow ones and a frail ego—a waxed mustache—with a red scarf around my skinny neck—like a poor man’s ascot” and heard the reporter Kirby Perkins say to someone,  “Look at this fuckin’ character.” Your “271 Newbury Street” was the first piece I chose for the anthology, and it appears in Volume Two.  

I feel you have achieved a real community of writers at Big Table Publishing. How was that brought about?

Thank you for saying that, it’s one of the accomplishments I’m most proud of. When I see on Facebook how many of our Big Table authors have become friends with other Big Table authors, it just makes me feel so good! I think all literary communities naturally come together when they discover that there are others out there who feel the same way about the importance of writing and creating, and have a place to gather. You and I both know how many literary events are not about selling books, but are about sharing our own writing and encouraging others. I feel so fortunate to be part of that, because that is a HUGE thing to be part of. Now more than ever.

There is real sense of eclecticism in the works presented. It can range from the high holy, the rarefied, and the down and dirty.  So you don't favor any school of writing?

Thank you for noticing! Yes, one thing about Big Table is that we’ll consider just about any genre, and I think writers appreciate that. Volume One includes the four Prologues to Still Here Thinking About You (which was our hottest seller before Fat Girl, Skinny.) This book is a compilation of four incredibly talented women writing about their troubling relationships with their mothers, and is told in a loving, tender, powerful way. I always say, “If there is a better Mother’s Day gift than this book, I don’t know about it.” Volume One also includes some macabre from Phil Temples (from Helltown Chronicles) and Michael Keith (a real favorite of mine, “The Smoking Olympics”) a chapter from The Flaws that Bind, Rebecca Leo’s fictionalized autobiography of spousal abuse, and closes with one of my favorites from Richard Fox, the sweetly-sentimental “To Katrina, Wherever You Are xoxo.”

What's in the works?

So glad you asked! We are bringing back Boston Literary Magazine in January, 2020 – in a new format. Instead of making you wait three months for each new issue, we’ll be posting a monthly issue on line, and at the end of each year, our favorites will be compiled into a print volume. Check out our submission guidelines at! We are so excited to be back!

Saturday, November 30, 2019

Softly Glowing Exit Signs By Georgia Park

Softly Glowing Exit Signs
By Georgia Park

Softly Glowing Exit Signs is a book of poetry with three longer pieces included: one of non-fiction, one of fiction, and an excerpt taken from Georgia Park’s writing catalog.  The takeaway from reading Softly Glowing Exit Signs, is that the writing is real life, and that overall poetry is real life, and that real life can be measured and unmasked within writing itself. When reading Softly Glowing Exit Signs I felt I was left in a room with Georgia Park, and she is telling me everything with a vulnerability she has not shown many people. It left me needing to read more, or sit and listen because anything else would be unjust.

Ms. Park, a professor at North Shore Community College takes the reader through her life, from the beginning to the end, the years running through the pages. The first poetry section, FIRE!, is not about the recent fire which ran through her apartment and left her homeless, but rather some snippets of her early life totally exposed. There is a Grease Fire where her brother causes the kitchen to ignite and the narrator is left frozen and doesn’t flee until the firefighters arrive, which rings true to some of the other poems where she is left counting daisies in the outfield when a fly ball is coming, or in emotional pain when a piece of glass is imbedded in one’s heal which causes pain and discomfort in every step. These are all metaphors used deftly by Ms. Park. I was stricken by the how real objects or things are personified into visceral feelings….old broken down Volvos that are named, dead fish in a tank, and even a morning cough, are all wounds that are open inside the vision of this work.
As in the opening essay, What Happens in the Maloka, an attempted expulsion and exercising of demons via Ayahuaska, the book also travels down the battleground of spiritual growth and the feeling of being whole.  As there is growth, there are mistakes, and lessons---and sometimes outright defiance of the world we all live in. We see choices made in the poem The Last Reunion, where the poet who felt small, bookish, and invisible in High School is made to feel that way again, by a “now known/famous classmate,”  who is her date for the evening. The poet then hooks up with two of her past bullies at the event to take back some power.
The next section, EVERYBODY RUN!, starts out in Costa Rica where there seems to be an awakening. The poems which take place during times of travel, in general,  show new strength and acceptance with the ability to look back at the past. How Stupid I Was and Lost, looks at past behaviors and the growth into new ones. Other poems in EVERYBODY RUN!, explore Koi Fish as an unexpected solution to decrease angst, and anxiety, and the spiritual serenity written about in the poem Buddha’s Lap:

I am so warm
in the Buddha’s lap the Buddha
and there is buzzing
in my ears
moths and dragonflies
are settling
here and there
my cheek warms
on his stomach
and like a statue
I think of nothing

The section then morphs into some dangerous adventures featuring alcohol and lust-making followed by a repeated theme of therapy, and therapists. The jury is not out on if it is actually helpful or not, but the most hope of all is found in thinking about the possibility of running into a daffodil,
and there’s a little daffodil
I can’t see it, but I know it’s there
its strong, wild and vibrantly yellow
and someday, I’ll pluck it from somewhere

            This section is followed by what is called an excerpt, but what I would call a strong, stand-alone, twelve page story called Hot Pink Iron Lung. It is pure magic, where the metaphors can be believed, and the truth be told in metaphor, much like the underlying technique of the entire book. Poetry books can often be books people read in dribs and drabs, rather than cover-to-cover, but during any time a reader’s brain might need refreshing, I would strongly recommend jumping to Hot Pink Iron Lung immediately.
            The book ends with the final titular section, Softly Glowing Exit Signs, where we do get to the poet’s recent fire. This time, instead of being frozen, the poet continues to live and work wearing smoky clothes, and the bare minimums---the message being, she is stronger, functional, and getting through this. This is reflected upon in the poem, Spiraling Questions where the most treacherous act is What if I recklessly wrote three or four poems a day?  Near the end of the poem there again is growth, and it is shown with such beautiful self-discovery:

                                                   Could I possibly
forget what happened to me (was it me, really, even back then?)
or at least stop talking about it and just go quiet
could mine pass for a brain that’s not short circuiting?

            Perhaps the tenderest piece of Park’s occurs in the poem, Bits of a Butterfly, were vulnerability isn’t hidden or camouflaged, it just is.
I kiss you because I see
softly glowing exit signs
in your eyes

Conclusively, Softly Glowing Exit Signs feels exactly like spending hours, being up all night, with a person bearing their soul, to which all you can be is silent, and listen, and all you can say is, “Thanks for sharing all of this with me.”

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

If MenThen by Eliza Griswold.


The intersection of style and content in poetry can be powerful and effective — a way poets can help their readers find order amid the chaos of our current era, to paraphrase Robert Frost. The trick is to arrive at the right balance of aesthetic and content. In art, the aesthetic must come first. “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold” is, after all, prose. The line works because it builds on an opening metaphor. And because the statement’s succinctness reverberates with us (still) in an age of “alternative facts” and “truthiness” — when any general pronouncement is suspect. Eliza Griswold walks this tightrope, sometimes successfully, other times, not. But because her poems often take place in war zones, she’s always provocative — even when she is tendentious.
If Men Then is Griswold’s third book of poetry. She is well-known for her nonfiction. Her book Amity and Prosperity: One Family and the Fracturing of America won the Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction this year. She has also written about Afghanistan, The Kurds, Christianity and Islam, Ethiopia, etc. In short, she is a very interesting, and engaged, person.
Here’s a short poem of hers called “Reflection” that appeared in The New Yorker:
I is a lion
who snarls
at the lion
in the water
who snarls.
How’s that for a fresh perspective? In just a few lines it captures an empowered woman’s point of view yet, though she snarls, she snarls at her own image. It’s kind of an anti-narcissus poem. She is no flower. The use of the first person to explore a split identity fits these self-involved times of ours. Just be yourself, we are told, an army of one, take the journey of self-discovery (along with countless other invitations for omphaloskepsis). Is it any surprise that many of us today feel a certain sense of dislocation? Griswold examines this perspective in a number of poems. Here is another short one entitled “Green”:
I shouldered her hobo sorrow and soldiered on.
She was warden of an angry garden,
guarding against what hoped to grow.
The bitter bud that never opens hardens.
“What have you done with the garden that was entrusted to you?” asked Antonio Machado. Griswold answers the question, again capturing our Weltanshauung. We are all a little angry these days, just ask Elizabeth Warren. The poetry here is dense, alliterative, and assonant, with internal and end-stopped rhymes. The aesthetic reinforces the content.
Griswold opens the book with a “Prayer”:
What can we offer the child
at the border: a river of shoes,
her coat stitched with coins,
her father killed for his teeth,
her mother, sewing her
daughter’s future into a hem.
In this poem Griswold takes on the heart-wrenching problem of undocumented children crossing the border. The problems immigrants encounter here in the U.S., and in other nations around in the world, is an increasingly tragic concern.  In some ways, poetry, making use of imagery and metaphor, is able to express more of the despair than newspaper reports. Here is the last stanza:
Nothing is what we can offer.
The child died years ago.
Except practice a finer caliber of kindness
to the stranger rather than wield
this burden of self, this harriedness.
The process of humility involves less us.
Griswold’s point of view rings true, but in the last line she has crossed a Rubicon from poetry into statement. She is telling us directly how we should feel and, because of that, the verse becomes less effective.
Another poem “Good-bye Mullah Omar,” takes place in Afghanistan. It begins: “Charlie says when Afghan men get together, / the number of eyes is always odd.” Griswold’s unique perspective — because she has lived in a place so few of us will ever go — combines reporting with a poet’s eye. And that makes her perspective very compelling. Although, when she ends the poem with the question (“Where are your scars now, wonderboys?”)  the devolution into prose pops up again.
“Ruins” manages to balance on the tightrope pretty well.
A spring day comes through Trastevere.
A nun in turquoise sneakers
contemplates the stairs.
Every hard bulb stirs.
The egg in our chest cracks
against our will.
The dead man on the Congo road
was missing an ear,
which had been eaten
or someone was wearing
it around his neck.
The dead man looked like this, no, that.
Here’s a flock of tourists
In matching canvas hats.
We’re healing by mistake.
Rome is also built on ruins.
In this poem, Griswold puts her finger on a number of the problems of our time. The disparities between the rich tourists and the poor immigrants, the endemic violence in certain regions, our attempts to take it all in. The end-stopped rhymes and clashing images evoke a sense of disconnection. Once again, the poem ends better in the penultimate line.

The title If Men, Then is a response to the Wallace Stevens poem “Metaphors of a Magnifico,” which begins: “Twenty men crossing a bridge/ Into a village/ Are twenty men crossing twenty bridges / Into twenty villages.” The first poem in Griswold’s book, “Prelude to a Massacre,” starts “Twenty men crossing a bridge, / into a village, / is not a metaphor/ but prelude to a massacre.” Griswold is pointing out that, in Afghanistan, metaphors have little to do with survival in a multi-generational war.
Not all is earnest here, but Griswold’s sense of humor is uneven — it comes across most successfully in “Reflection.” She includes a sequence of poems about Italy that are not as involving as those set in Afghanistan. Nonetheless, If Men, Then is well worth reading by those who believe that poetry has something to tell us about our many internal and external conflicts.

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Zvi Sesling’s Simple Game, Baseball Poems, published by Presa Press, reviewed by Gregory J. Wolos

Zvi Sesling’s Simple Game, Baseball Poems, published by Pressa Press, reviewed by Gregory J. Wolos

            Put me in Coach, I’m ready to play today
            Look at me, I can be Centerfield
                                                                        --John Fogarty, “Centerfield”

            What is Baseball? It’s a sport, of course, but it’s more than just that. It’s not a religion, but it’s close. It’s called America’s pastime, but its time is more than simply the “past”—baseball encompasses past, present, future in a way that makes the passing of time irrelevant. Which isn’t to say that baseball doesn’t live in its moments—in fact, it’s the moments that snag in our memory—a hit, a catch, a pitch, a play at the plate, an argument with an umpire, a portrait on a baseball card.

            On one level, each of us lives within our own version of what the game means. For some of us, there are on field memories: I, like the singer in John Fogarty’s song, played centerfield; after fifty years my mind and body remember chasing down and gloving certain fly balls as if they’d just been struck. But just as firm in my memory are games I’ve experienced only as a fan: games I’ve sat through on the edge of my seat, rooting for my team with a combination of superstition and prayer. And then there’s the baseball I know through its lore—anecdotes and personalities I’ve read or been told about. So, though my idea of “baseball” is mine and mine alone, the scope of baseball is so universal that I and every other true baseball fan can recognize and take pleasure in the individual baseball world of another, especially when that private world is rendered as vividly and joyfully as Zvi A. Sesling renders his in Simple Games, his chapbook of baseball poems.

            Poetry is perfect for baseball: the form is meant to express the ineffable. Through their poems, writers strive to make their individual experiences available to the reader, and, to fans of the sport, the language of baseball is a perfect conduit for such sharing.

In Sesling’s first poem, “Sibby Sisti,” he describes his “first baseball hero,” a player whose name, to Sesling represented “a poetic sound, an alliteration.” Before reading this poem, I’d never heard of this player. But, as a baseball fan, I can identify with the attachment—I have my own cache of favorite players, and Sesling taps into my definition of what “favorite” means. But his descriptions of this and other players, sites, and events do more than just connect me to past pleasures; the beauty of these poems, and of baseball, is that the lore actually expands my own experience. For example, I’d heard of Warren Spahn, but, after reading Sesling’s poem, “Warren’s Arm,” I can now picture him, as he “let’s the ball go like a prisoner escaping/ from jail, fast and low.”  I learn about Spahn’s pitching motion, his uniform, his number, and his statistics—because, after all, one of the threads that connects baseball fans as both a private and universal phenomenon is its numbers.

            Through Sesling’s memory, skill, and generous spirit, my own world of baseball now includes Sam the Jet, the first black player in Boston, former MVP Bob Eliot, and Rabbit Maranville. And while, as a Yankee fan, I’m well acquainted with Don Larsen’s perfect game in the 1956 World Series, Sesling’s poem about the feat, “Larsen’s No-No” fills in details with the names of no less than twelve participants in that contest in  twenty-one lines. But more than just contributing to the totality of my baseball world, Sesling’s poems vitalize parallel associations. Both “Earl of Snohomish” and “Mr. Team” portray their subjects on their baseball cards. Although I never knew these players, Sesling’s descriptions, such as of Bob Eliot posed “on one knee/ in the on-deck circle leaning on his bat/ not in prayer, but studying the pitcher/ waiting to hit” evoke memories of my own card collections— of my personal favorites and of the card-flipping games I played as a ten-year old on the school playground.

            Some of Sesling’s poems lament baseball’s darker moments, such as “Kenesaw’s Revenge,” which discusses the commissioner’s decision to void a female player’s contract and a 1952 decision that “strikes out women by banning/ them completely from pro ball.” In “Black Sox,” Sesling describes a gambler in the stands, “looking every bit a rich dandy . . . /waving like he is drowning” during baseball’s most infamous cheating scandal. It is clear that the poet feels that these events intrude on the purity of the game he loves so dearly. But even these poems expand beyond the history they depict, leading me to reflect upon other times the sport has disappointed its fans, such as the decade during which the rise in performance enhancing drugs forced asterisks upon some of baseball’s most revered records.

            Zvi Sesling in Simple Game often uses baseball as a lens through which to revisit important moments of his life, such as in the poem “The First Girl I Kissed,” which equates his memory of that event with one of the sports well known tragedies. When pitcher Herb Score’s career was ended by a line drive, “just as suddenly as the shot that/ takes out Score, I break up with the girl of the first kiss.” Eventually, Sesling is “[f]orced to recover in a new town with a new girlfriend/ While the Indians pursue their first World Series win since 1948.” The use of baseball history as the palimpsest upon which to transcribe our most enduring memories is a phenomenon shared by all true fans of the game. 
            “A poem,” Archibald MacLeish writes in “Ars Poetica,” “must not mean/ But be.”  Zvi Sesling in Simple Game transforms his life experience with baseball into poetry; his poems not only afford us entry into his world of Baseball, they lead us to a fresh assessment of our own memories. John Fogarty in his song “Centerfield” doesn’t write, “Look at me, I can play centerfield”—it’s “I can be centerfield.” Because when we are part of this game, we become it: Sesling’s baseball is my baseball and is the baseball of all fans who have surrendered themselves to this game. The memories we inhabit are conjoined, and though we may seem to live and die for particular teams, it’s really one perpetual, timeless game that defines our world.