Saturday, August 31, 2019

The 6th Annual Seamus Heaney Reading Sept 4, 7PM

Voices of Dogtown By James R. Scrimgeour

Voices of Dogtown
By James R. Scrimgeour
Loom Press
Lowell, Massachusetts
ISBN: 978-0-931507-16-8
87 Pages


James R. Scrimgeour communes with spirits and he does it with wit and wisdom. In Scrimgeour’s new poetry collection, Voices of Dogtown, he conjures up the denizens of a long abandoned New England village on the outskirts of Gloucester, Massachusetts. The few specters that still haunt this plot of land, called Dogtown, are not happy campers. Without any mollycoddling, the poet gives them voices and listens to their grievances, all the while working into these poems a jumble of scholarly citations, guidebook descriptions, ekphrastic commentaries, and even conjectures from an earlier eminent poet. Consider this book a topographical and historical adventure. At the end of his introductory poem entitled Dogtown, Scrimgeour sets the tone,

The settlement at Dogtown was merely something
of an eddy in the… history of Cape Ann.” (C&R, p.43)

It is the lonely highland of Cape Ann,
empty of habitation, abandoned by the dogs
and even by the cows that used to find
thin pasture there, left to the ghosts
of its deserted village. It’s where you’re off to…
when the world is too much with you.” (Garland, p.57)

O.K. We’re off…

In short order the reader meets Tammy Younger, Queen of the Witches. Foul mouthed Tammy does not suffer fools lightly. Her five timely narrations inform and enliven the book. The first of those narrations, entitled Thomasine (Tammy) Younger (1753-1829)—Introduction, inserts eeriness into the landscape and reveals the onset of a relationship between Tammy and Scrimgeour’s persona, whom she calls “old geezer” throughout. Here Tammy explains the soft spot she has for the poet,

f…in’ weird how I see so clearly into and through him,
an’ he sees into and through me—hafta admit it’s kinda nice
to finally have someone tell our story from my point a view—
tho I wish he wouldn’t clean up my language so much—
all those f…in’ dots—aaarrrgggh!!! Whassee wanna do
sell his book in the tourist shops—hmmmmm, might do
the tourists some good to read somethin’ a little nearer
the truth—an’ the geezer has an edge I kinda like…

The hilly area chronicled by Scrimgeour is strewn with boulders left by the last glacier as it recoiled from the sun’s new warmth. They are accentuated by shrubs, bushes, new growth trees, and berry patches. Even on hot days a mysterious chill (perhaps from nearby swamps) seems to hang in the air appending melancholy inflections. Groupings of smaller rocks signify abandoned cellars, each having a story to tell-- sometimes known, sometimes unknown. Some of the larger boulders the poet imagines as self-sustaining homes, scarred with individual markings. Scrimgeour’s poem A Community of Boulders begins this way,

large and small, beige and grey houses
deposited centuries ago by a retreating
glacier—homes, rounded and smooth—

no doors, front or back—cracks for
windows, rare bluebirds resting on or
beneath the eaves—wild shrub hedges

here and there, bayberry bushes imported
by colonists—with thorns and cluster
of shiny red tear-shaped berries—guarding

the non-existent doors…

A second ghost that consorts with Scrimgeour (although grudgingly) is the ill-fated Abram Wharf. Wharf, the most educated man in Dogtown and a cousin of Theophilus Parsons, Chief Justice of Massachusetts Supreme Court, played by the rules and for a while parleyed his respectability into prosperity as a shepherd and a farmer. He married young and apparently his own fortune declined as the town declined. His sheep died and his own house became “hardly habitable.” Scrimgeour’s piece Abram Wharf (1738 ca—1814) records Wharf’s demise,

one day in 1814, Old Abram (aged 76 years)
sat by the fire sharpening his razor.
“’Sister,’ said he,
do you think people who commit suicide go to heaven?’

“’I don’t know; but I hope you will never do such a thing,…’
Was her answer. ‘God forbid,’ was his solemn response.

Soon he slipped the razor into his shoe, … went out,” (Mann, p.54)
and “put [the] razor to his neck and crawl[ed] under a boulder
to die.” (Dresser, p.15) Legend says no moss will ever grow
on that rock…

Another of the ghostly voices used by Scrimgeour to provide insight to his readers is that of Captain Jack or John Morgan Stanwood. Stanwood’s silky utterances demand attention. He insists that the poet read the information embedded in dead leaves found at the site of his old cobbling shop (or boo). The leaves, turned book fragments, then reveal key background elements pertaining to the other characters and Stanwood himself. Ol’ Abram, the suicide, for instance, believed that Tammy Younger caused much of his misfortune with her malevolent spells. Stanwood, through his leaves, clarifies the situation in Scrimgeour’s poem entitled Fragments from the Book John Morgan Stanwood Kept in the Corner of his Boo,

July 28, 1814

had a talk with ol’ Abram today—
I almost felt sorry for him—a sad spectacle, so ol’
an’ feeble, so depressed—feelin’ evil in the place, he said,
silly fool, still blamin’ ugly ol’ Tammy for his dead sheep,--
kinda strange, I tol’ him, you believing in witchcraft,
even though you don’t believe in your religion—
not any more than I do…

Scrimgeour gives Tammy Younger the last say as he concludes his book. Here his Dogtown meditation take a quite serious turn. Tammy, in the piece Thomasine (Tammy) Younger—Conclusion, ponders the nature of eternity and, specifically, the hell of bitterness and spite she has created for herself amidst the boulders of her former home, now abandoned town. She seems tired of it. She says,

I is getting’ soft—beginnin’ to think about thinkin’ kindly
of others—mebbe, as I said afore—it’s getting’ close
to closin’ time—
mebbe… mebbe not.

Poems of place, like Scrimgeour’s Voices of Dogtown, often proffer visions, ghostly or not, of lost hard scrabbled cultures that wake readers to their own mortality and tenuousness. Delicate, hopeful perceptions need the damp cellars of historical grounding. Read this collection and it will alter, or even redeem, you. Mebbe.

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Sep. 3 Documentary Screening at the Cambridge Public Library –– Grolier Poetry Book Shop: The Last Sacred Place of Poetry

Weiying Olivia Huang, Director/Producer (left), and Mengyuan Lin, Cinematographer/Editor (right) (CREDIT: Ru Fang)

Sep. 3 Documentary Screening at the Cambridge Public Library –– Grolier Poetry Book Shop: The Last Sacred Place of Poetry

Article by Meia Geddes

Filmmaker Weiying Olivia Huang’s beautiful documentary featuring the Grolier Poetry Book Shop, “the last sacred place of poetry,” will be screened at the Cambridge Public Library this Tuesday, September 3rd at 6:30 p.m., followed by a discussion between Huang, director and producer of the film, and local poet-publisher Doug Holder.

The Grolier, the oldest continuously running bookshop dedicated to poetry in America, is a light-filled room beloved by countless bookish souls. It has been frequented by well-known poets and writers including T.S. Eliot, Elizabeth Bishop, e.e. cummings, Robert Lowell, Anaïs Nin, and Seamus Heaney. This, coupled with the shock and sadness accompanying long-time owner Ifeanyi Menkiti’s unexpected death this past June 17, 2019, lends the documentary a certain gravitas.

Yet there is a kind of lightness that lifts the spirit, as well –– Huang captures her subjects’ love for poetry and poetry’s power to change the world with a quiet, urgent energy. The film is, in essence, serenely invigorating, in a way that makes one want to go buy and write books, and support those who do.

This store as a cultural place belongs to all of us. So the thing for me is to make sure that we can keep it open,says Menkiti, a poet and professor who bought the Grolier in 2006 to save it from closing and ensured its continued survival despite difficult finances. Menkiti’s kind aura and belief in uniting people through poetry makes for an uplifting time spent in this magical place. Watching the film, one senses the welcoming, open atmosphere fostered at the shop, which continues on to this day.

There is a lovely, unassuming accuracy to the documentary that warms the heart: long shots of customers browsing shelves of books, animated readings, those cordial-yet-somehow-intimate interactions at the cash register, local small-town gossip. Huang has an eye for lighting, living in the moment, and letting us, as viewers, linger on with those moments.

Those featured in the documentary include Menkiti and his wife, Carol Menkiti; staff Elizabeth Doran and Celia Muto; and local poets including Susan Barba, Doug Holder, Ben Mazer, Patrick Sylvain, and Gloria Mindock.

The footage Huang has captured is of immeasurable value to those of us in Cambridge, Boston, and beyond, who care for the Grolier and our literary destinations in general. It also serves as a reminder to support our local shops. “I want to make sure the bookstore continues for the next generation,” says Huang.

Many stores in Harvard Square alone have had to close their doors: Schoenhof’s Foreign Books, founded in 1856, closed its brick-and-mortar store in 2017 due to high rents and online competition. Crema Café, at Brattle Street, closed in 2018 after having trouble securing a new lease. The Menkiti family plans to continue keeping the shop open for the foreseeable future. I hope we can support their efforts as a community.

It is splendid what one room –– for it is a room, beloved and renown –– can do for the being. That Huang could create a documentary featuring this room and just some of the many folk who frequent it speaks both to her skills as a filmmaker and the way this humble, historic place has made it into our hearts.


Weiying Olivia Huang (Director/Producer) is from Guandong, China, and lives in Cambridge. She holds a master’s in Digital Media from Northeastern University and currently is working on a documentary featuring graffiti artists at “Modica Way,” located at Central Square in Cambridge, thanks to a grant from the Cambridge Arts Council. Her first documentary, “Grolier Poetry Book Shop: The Last Sacred Place of Poetry,” has been screened at the Massachusetts Independent Film Festival, Barcelona Planet Film Festival, World Premiere Film Awards, North Beach Film Festival, Alternative Film Festival, and others.

Mengyuan Lin (Cinematographer/Editor) has edited numerous documentaries and features including “Grolier Poetry Book Shop.” She received her B.A. from Communication University of China and her master’s degree in Digital Media from Northeastern University. She works as a TV Conductor at Sinovision in New York.

Disclosure: Meia Geddes is friends with Huang –– thanks to the Grolier. Additionally, her books are sold at the Grolier and she assisted Huang with subtitles for the documentary.

Sunday, August 25, 2019

One Lark, One Horse by Michael Hofmann.

Michael Hofmann

One Lark, One Horse by Michael Hofmann. Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 87 pp., $23.00

Review by Ed Meek

Michael Hofmann is in that small, eclectic, erudite group of internationally recognized poets that includes Frederick Seidel, Jorie Graham, Paul Muldoon, etc. He is well-known as an excellent critic and translator. This is his first book of poems since 1999. During that protracted interregnum he once said, “I’ve forgotten what a poem is—or worse can only remember.” In this new collection, he appears to have remembered. He has a self-deprecating sense of humor that is similar to Frederick Seidel’s. The title of the book comes from a joke about two Jewish deli owners. One, Goldberg, has a much more successful business. “What’s your secret?” Cohen asks him. “Lark pate,” he says. “But how can you afford it?” “I add a bit of horse,” Goldberg says. “How much?” “One lark, one horse,” says Goldberg. Is this a metaphor for Hoffman’s book or just a joke? Here’s the first poem:

The Years

Nothing required an account of me
And still I didn’t give one.

I might have been a virtual casualty,
A late victim of the Millennium Bug.

No spontaneity, no insubordination,
Not even any spare capacity.

It’s a brief explanation of his absence from poetry writing, and it is witty, although it doesn’t give us much to grab onto. Like Seidel, Hofmann likes to take on a number of different sources and topics for poems: a ride along the Hudson, Brexit, Australia, poems for Seidel and Auden, commentary on the age we live in.

Less Truth

More denials, more prevarication, more #real
Hashtags, and pop-ups and calculating interesticles, more clickbait,
More straight-faced, bare-faces, faceless, baseless
Counter-allegations, more red herrings, crossed fingers,
Rehearsed answers, turned tables, impossibilities
Before breakfast, more ‘accepting responsibility’, less truth.
Lusher menus. Bigger bonuses. Less contrition. More Shamelessness.
Less truth.

Hofmann nicely captures our age of truthiness and alternate facts and multiple perspectives as well as the temporary feeling of everything from the news-cycle to pop-up restaurants amidst all the money and advertising and he does this in a playful tone with internal rhymes and surprising turns.

In a poem entitled “Auden” Hoffman refers to an earlier time period, maybe the forties or fifties when Auden was in his prime. “It was another world, the world of turned collars and polished shoes…” It does seem to be such a different world today from the world those of us over sixty grew up in:

Suitcases wore characterful labels and tags on their
heavy, leather-effect cardboard…

The world of facecloths and napkin rings and coal-

And shoe trees and tie racks and plumped down
pillows and cufflinks and weskits and hats
And hardbound children’s books for our hardbound
children …

How careless, cheap and profligate we have become…

How true! Details like this bring back memories. Even if they don’t apply directly to our experience, they call up images of Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart and Katherine Hepburn dressed up for dinner in The Philadelphia Story and enjoying a cocktail by the pool in the moonlight. We were more formal then, as was the poetry of Auden. Of course, that formality had its drawbacks. The hardbound books were nice, but the hardbound children, not so much.

Later in the book, Hoffman has a funny send up called “On Forgetting.” It begins

‘Empiricism’ has been gone far more often than not;
I think I originally learned it in my teens.
Now I sometimes find it by alphabetizing, but most of
the time it’s gone and stays gone.
I don’t know if I dislike it because I can’t remember it,
or I can’t remember it because I dislike it.
It’s as though it’s on permanent loan somewhere…

He goes one to list places he has gotten lost, times he’s mixed up terms or events. “I disappear into my room to look for a book, / and emerge hours later with the wrong one, or with none at all.” For those of us getting older, this all sounds very familiar. And Hoffman is only 62! Plenty of time to write more poetry. As long as he can continue to remember what poetry is. For all of our sakes.