Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Review of Mary Harpin’s poetry collection Shadowrise, Dos Madres Press, reviewed by Gregory J. Wolos

Review of Mary Harpin’s poetry collection Shadowrise, Dos Madres Press, reviewed by Gregory J. Wolos

            Mary Harpin, author of the excellent new poetry collection, Shadowrise won my heart through her treatment of birds. As a devotee of poetry since hearing my first nursery rhymes, I’ve long been aware of the importance of birds to the concept and history of poems. While other animals struggle for attention (such as Robert Burns’s mouse and louse, the tortoises of D. H. Lawrence, and Maxine Kumin’s gassed woodchucks), it is the bird that is without question the go-to favorite creature among poets. Where would we be without Shelley’s “blithe” skylark, Keats’s hypnotic nightingale (“Do I wake or do I sleep?”), Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner’s bad-omen albatross, Hopkins’s “dapple-dawn drawn Falcon,” Dickinson’s “side-wise” hopping friend, and Stevens’s thirteen ways of looking at a blackbird”?

            The thematic attractions of birds in poetry are obvious: birds inhabit the air, experiencing reality in ways we can rhapsodize about but never fully understand; they sing transducing songs; they force our attention upward, off of the earth into the heavens. But isn’t reliance upon our feathered, flapping friends a bit too easy? Too often the traditions of “bird poems” inhibit originality: the mere mention of birds flying or singing or nesting might seem sufficient to convey a satisfactory poetic experience. Mary Harpin’s subversive treatment of birds in Shadowrise provides an antidote to such a misconception. Her bird poems fracture expectations and create new ways to see a familiar world. As such, they not only lead us to the kind of experience originally sought by the canonical composers of bird poems, but also teach us how to appreciate the art and wisdom of the “non-bird” poetry in her collection.

            Let’s begin with the simplest example: In “Haiku,” the first line of Harpin’s poem is “Cliché, poem with crane.” Harpin knows what she’s about. The haiku is a Japanese poetic form, and cranes are associated with Japanese art and literature. But having established that “crane” poems are so common as to be clichés, Harpin attacks the reader’s expectation with the “But” beginning the second line, which draws our attention to the bird’s “murderous beak,” and finally to “Her/Bridal Veil, tattered.” The violence of the concluding image, contrasting with the positive associations often connected with things “bridal” jolts with its hidden back story in much the same way as the “shortest” story attributed to Hemingway (“For sale: baby shoes, never worn”)

            The title of another of Harpin’s bird poems gives away the poet’s subversive intent: “Must We Pen Another Poem with Birds?” The bird in this poem is a stunned sparrow, which was unceremoniously “whapped” by a car windshield. The poet struggles to create a narrative for this bird, at first searching for a better name then just “sparrow”: “Let’s use the word flycatcher,” and later “Let’s call her/ swamp sparrow, or clay, and say she’d/ come in from the orchard.” The bird was handed her by a colleague who “didn’t know what to do with her and/ handed his problem to the first woman he saw.” Eventually, the “trapped creature” in the narrator’s hands recovers enough to speed “as far away from the corporate park as she could get.” “She flew South./ Yes, let’s agree on south,” the poet concludes, having shaped a story for the bird: “A smart bird doesn’t look back,” Harpin writes, true not just for birds, but for all who have suffered a traumatic experience.

            Harpin reveals her technical skill and inventiveness in another bird poem, “A finch leaps from a window box,” in which she leaves blanks among the lines, inviting the reader to choose the word or phrase that will dictate one of several possible directions the poem might take. The poem increases in intimacy all the way through to its final stanza, in which a child hugs her pregnant mother, asking her questions, always answered in the affirmative:“If we hug, does that mean/ I’m also hugging her?/ Yes./ Do you think she knows me, Mama? Do/ you think she wants to know her sister?”

            What is beautiful in the poems of Harpin is the honesty and simplicity of images that depart from cliché while imparting truths about life, death, and love. There are poems in Shadowrise about impending birth and motherhood, such as “Geophagy,” which describes how the narrator’s sister collects soil “from the riverbed in the town of our childhood,” to feed the narrator, who “who ache[s] with early labor,” the miracle being that the sister is somehow “teleported from a thousand miles away” to offer spoonfuls of the dirt: “This will help you, she says,/“Open up.” The complex miracle of parenthood is captured in “Walk with Sobbing Toddler on the Longest Day of the Year,” which contrasts the abstract wonder of a child’s existence: “Incarntation: a contradiction, an/ imploding star in reverse—/ stellar and brilliant. Sometimes/ white with fire” with the daily struggles and joys a mother encounters. After being told “You are the/ meanest mommy of all the/ mommies I have ever had,” the child, when asked to tell a story, begins “Before I came here/ I was a really old lady/ and daddy was a little boy/ . . . He always/ picked me the tastiest apples.” In “Quiddam Woman” the narrator contemplates her complex identity as a mother. “Am I the/ porcupine mother from my child’s book?/ . . . I may be the witch in the cookie house/ . . . Perhaps the stepmother, horrid and gorgeous . . ./ I could be the dead mother expired before the/ story starts . . ./ the one who hears at a bar,/ She doesn’t look like a mother.” But when she directs her child’s attention to the pink clouds, “For a minute, I’m the mother who is/ magical.” And though the experience is momentary, and the “sun has vanished,/ [t]he pink clouds returned to gray,” by poem’s end the potential for beauty is revealed as something that is always imminent.

            Harpin portrays Death and the absence it creates as memories collected in a series of images that bring one to a kind of transcendence, as in “Gifts as You Leave this Shimmering Planet,” which progresses from the concrete to the spiritual: “Here is the cactus, golden flowers next to a thousand/ fine needles. Here is a cup of gelato made from its/ fruit . . . There is the memory of you diving in, diamonds rolling/ into the water. Here I am, waiting for a sign from you, anything.” Eventually, the narrator asks the departed to share a memory of a foal “searching for his creator.” In “Transubstantiation After Aneurysm,” Harpin describes, “From then on, you were the/ clink of the chalice on the chain, the puff of flour on the/ cutting board, an albescent flag iris rising from under unseasonal snow,” contrasting these simple but vivid images with the story in the poem’s second stanza of a farmer who described a return to life after a near death experience as “putting on/ a pair of muddy overalls, rustling back in that old/ body before dawn . . . chores to do.”

            Through simplicity and specificity of image, Harpin’s love poems teach the reader by example where to find meaningful experience. In “Origin Story,” the narrator translates an abstraction into an observation: “It is you,/ loving, that builds/ the universe, you,/ looking at me/ this morning, as/ profoundly common as every morning/ for twelve years, you, not looking away/ because you’re listening/ to me talk, you, stirring cinnamon/ into foam with our fingertip.” In “It Comes to Rest,” a series of familiar yet evocative images portray the comforts and security possible in domestic life as another day draws to a close. Father, mother, and children drowse after baths, books are left “half-read,” drinks unfinished, as “The dryer chimes. The click of/ zippers and buttons stops./ The last load of the day stops spinning.”

            Again and again the poems of Mary Harpin’s Shadowrise remind us that we can achieve transcendence, wisdom, and satisfaction through the careful observation of even the most mundane details of our lives. With open minds and hearts we can be transported even if we can’t find a clichéd bird to take flight with our imaginations. “Nevermore.”

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Before the Big Bang Makes a Sound by Carolynn Kingyens. Kelsay Books, 2020.

Poet  Carolynn Kingyens

Before the Big Bang Makes a Sound by Carolynn Kingyens. Kelsay Books, 2020.

Review by Ed Meek

Although we have all recently been made aware of the growing disparity between the rich and everyone else and the heretofore unremarked class-system we’ve all been toiling in for years, (see Parasite) there has also come to light of late a number of works that remind us of our common struggles. Big Little Lies, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Marriage, Sanditon, The Slave Play, etc. Carolynn Kingyens debut book of poems, Before the Big Bang Makes a Sound explores the world from the point of view of a married, middle-class mother of two who, like many of us, encounters illness, questions faith, is concerned with gender roles and sexism and the way class plays into these issues.

Don’t let the title fool you into thinking these are poems about Stephen Hawking’s universe. The title comes from a poem called “High Anxiety.” Who among us isn’t anxious today? If you live in a city you are probably not too far away from a “dive bar, / an F-bomb away / from spontaneous / combustion… where “a thumb hovers / over an invisible trigger, / before the big bang / makes a sound.” There are a number of good poems like this one that examine how class struggle overlaps with sexism.

Kingyens grew up one of seven children in North Philadelphia and even though she now lives in Manhattan and drives an Audi Q5, she has not moved too far from her working-class roots. In “No one is Immune,”

…a house built on shot
glasses, pill bottles
and ash trays will age
a body strangely—
broken biology,
the way a fresh face
can turn into a catch-all
mitt, weathered before
its time; the way a delicate
voice can turn into the bark
of a seal, while the body,
from the neck down,
remains preserved
much longer.

She’s describing the people outside the mainstream, left behind by neo-liberalism. No one is immune to aging yet it is women who feel the effects most in a culture that puts a premium on female youth and appearance. In “Break the Mirror in Your Youth,” she says:

The beauty of babes
Is currency.
But beauty has less
of a shelf life
than vegetable oil
or MSG…

Today, a stale cookie
shaped like a deformed
pilgrim collar tells me:

Break the mirror
In your youth.

Kingyens combines the everyday materials and objects of our lives in economic and surprising ways. The fortune in the cookie was probably referring to luck but Kingyens turns the meaning to critique our selfie culture and its obsession with female beauty.

In “Small as a Mouse” she writes about the tendency of women to always be apologizing. In “The Weight of Words” she finds a compelling intersection, reminiscent of the TV show Girls, between the way we use language and how young women find themselves compromising in ways they would not have expected.

Now imagine a naïve girl
who hasn’t learned respect
for the weighty word
never, who uses it
too loosely when speaking
Like I’ll never do that
to only do precisely that
and more.

Growing up Catholic imprints us with some indelible images and habits even if we no longer practice. In “Bathroom Crucifix” Kingyens remembers

The first time I touched
a crucifix
I was five years old
in my grandmother’s
powder blue bathroom
unaware of suffering
and sacrifice;
unaware of the million
and one ways
a sinner could torture
a saint and get away
with it…

Readers will also identify with Kingyens when in her first poem “Autoimmune” she talks about slowly becoming aware that there was something wrong with her.

Some diseases take time
to manifest,
turning your body
against your body slowly;
cellular changes so subtle
they are imperceptible
for decades…

In this and many other poems in Before the Big Bang Makes a Sound, Carolynn Kingyens gives us much to think about and consider. She draws back the curtain hiding what we don’t always see in poems that express our common vulnerability and humanity. Hers is a new voice worth listening to.

Friday, February 14, 2020

XXX Poems By Raquel Balboni

XXX Poems
By Raquel Balboni
Arts & Letters
Cambridge, MA
47 Pages

Review by Dennis Daly

Raquel Balboni butters her readers with luscious phrases and salted cream stanzas in her first book entitled XXX Poems. She churns her verses with naked abandon in an avant-garde display of unabashed kisses ingrained with unabashed cravings.

In her poem Girl in the Picture Balboni meditates on the smallness or largeness of things. A blue landscape forwards into a sweetness of bright and sunny days. But, inside, weather refugees fog up windows and mark a certain heart sickness as the world’s evolution inexorably continues, offering ancient songs to those avoiding the snow. The movement through the piece turns upbeat and centers on the power of the pictured girl. With a spreadable touch Balboni leads her readers into the largeness of her tableau this way,

A guideline in the blue landscape
feels like a small room that feels giant because everything is
There is no distinguisher of the shapes or walls of the room. The
            blue dominates.
Leopards move outside in the dust hills
away from the means to be certain direction of translation when
the stars the moon and the sun are certain
             of other things.

Funny Place, Balboni’s poem of winking admonishments, leads its reader into a definable destination before assailing him or her with the sharp edges of extraneous, even alien images. Once set into the piece, the sharp edges become part of an overriding two-dimensional poetic cubism with its own logic. A stone altar, borrowed from nature, centers other religious implications in this strange, angularly sensual, funhouse. Consider these lines,

Over a table of stone from the edge of the forest where the
            vines made you bleed
A stone from there cast upon a four legged standing statue
So sturdy as the mirror made to look us 100 years older and
             suddenly with a lot of miracles to be held
Never try again to photograph the four unlit candles on the
             mantle in the funhouse mirror
Did I mention this strange bed in a room of blue almost furry

Beware the unsatisfied preying mantis. Or pity her in her sleeplessness and attempts to connect, not by preying, but by praying. Balboni’s poem Praying Angel Insomnia kisses and tells. Initial sexual innuendos take flight as mystical and transcendent flame, a white light of longing. Her persona flees the indifferent world. She craves connections from ritual magic, the angelic type (I think).  Here the poet’s persona contemplates abandonment,

Angel in a field oh my darlin
a black and white ghostly film grain
oh my darling, coffee cup
full of ice and dark like sleeplessness
on a bus for far too long
walking in the city with long hair
the sky is predicted to come out tomorrow
to sing a weeping lullaby
my skin feels like it is moving
as i crawl out from my own throat
i can see the otherside of trust
when i stand on the tip of my big tooth

Accept, a poem of self-recognition and indulgence, drizzles onto the page in distinct moments. In this geometric world that Balboni creates alertness is everything. The poet’s protagonist flourishes by mingling with timelessness and the tolerance of night. She ignores limits. In the end the intimate details coalesce,  

The night is pleasant and inside a blend of time limits
A grey braid and a purple coat, trying hard not to notice the
Because the pot of honey is translucent anyway, the sun shows
              behind the slow drip
Staying here with her much longer and coming home to long
staying here until everything matches

Obsession sneaks into the lover like an unwritten poem. It expands, takes odd turns and seeks to control a universe of desire. Balboni’s piece entitled She details such a compulsion. Mystery and secrecy conspire against the determined lover, creating delusions along the way. The narrator consumes bits of knowledge about the object of her affection hungrily: where she goes, what she wears, the books she reads. In the end sagacity prevails. The poet’s persona finds a certain serenity but bemoans the inescapable,

all I wanted was to see her up close
to see the way her arms blended with her neck
the sweet creamy skin, the smooth organ so there and soft
although it seemed my eyes played tricks on me when i looked
            at all

never will i be allowed to follow her into the secret woods
like a magic trick you ask how but never want to know
the mess in realizing nothing is as special as it may seem
in the blissful dank smell of moving soil
peace is left to be

How can you quibble with midnight coffee? Balboni clearly delights in coffee (in this as well as other poems), among other bedside pleasures. Her poem City and Awake mesmerizes with a slow delineation of image and passion beginning with her black coffee, through her meditations on cutlery and monkeys, and finally love. The poem opens thusly,

with midnight coffee by my bedside
i got invited to a poetry party that i did not go to
poetry in my fade parade
operating this body this tool this wave
on the morning bedside:
green juice, black coffee
in a monkey mug & in the constellations mug
prove it worthy a restless time to consider the cleanest cup

Don’t underestimate restlessness in a poet. And especially don’t underestimate Raquel Balboni and her “wakey wakey,” caffeine-powered, poetic kisses. They are top drawer.

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Child Ward of the State By Eileen Cleary

Child Ward of the State
By Eileen Cleary
Main Street Rag Publishing
Charlotte, NC
ISBN: 978-1-59948-746-5
56 Pages

Review by Dennis Daly

Poignant to the point of defining poignancy, Eileen Cleary’s first book of poems, Child Ward of the Commonwealth, shakes the soul with her truth-telling narratives of childhood trauma and dysfunction. Cleary somehow melds a mature poetic sensibility with a child’s wide-eyed ability to see the world’s wreckage with wonder and awe. Her persona relates adventures of fairy-tale-like brutality, not unlike fables from the Brothers Grimm. However, Cleary’s anecdotes are not mythologized; they are direct and very personal.

One of the collection’s most compelling poems entitled On What to Forget stakes out the mnemonic territory utilized by Cleary and delivers illuminating slivers of juvenile reasoning and adult pathos to boot. The piece begins with a four-year old cowering under a table as the skin of her sister’s arm, aflame from a kitchen fire, literally melts. Through negative constructions the narrator tries, through time, to assuage the little girl’s guilt and place it where it belongs. The poet says,

Not your mother.
    She wasn’t cooking,

didn’t leave that pan to boil,
     didn’t leave her children

under the porch,
    hide-and-go seeking

through its lattice.
    Ready or not here I come!

into the kitchen,
    She wasn’t even there.

Grow older, grow smaller
    because you did nothing, you

did nothing but hide

Left to their own devices, human youngsters turn feral like other mammalian offspring in synonymous circumstances. In her poem When the Social Worker Took Me, Cleary’s persona explains with perfect juxtapositions and impressive, if hair-raising, choice of specifics. Consider these lines,

…I watch
over myself—teach myself
to speak. I say lipshick or pisgetti,
poke holes in my tights, pull snarls
from my hair, toss and catch
a puppy on the stairs—I hide
in an attic, clamor through the halls,
map my slap-dash kingdom
in crayon on the walls. The neighbors
dial phones, shut behind their doors.

Childcare in the best of circumstances can on a bad day lead to neglect or dubious disciplinary behaviors.  Without the presence of permanent kinship, the possibilities of cruelty multiply exponentially. In her piece Toaster the poet describes in straightforward language one such unseemly incident, an assault on her little brother,

The baby sitter shouts.

John, when will you get serious?

She jams Johnny’s hand
into the toaster while I freeze,

bury my own unbuttered fingers
into the pockets of my jumper.

He screeches like a barn owl,
hissing, and flapping his arms

against the brute walls
of the too-small room.

Children on the outside of family life hunger for inclusion. They dream dreams of especial treatment, stability, and comforting acceptance. A full belly and an unchangeable name are part of the deal. Denial of these perks breed resentment and pugnaciousness. Cleary’s poem Foster Care Definition ends via a fantasy culminating in a very real demand,

I learn the zebra knows its herd
because patterns dazzle
their family names across the green.
I want my name to dazzle too.

I begin to wish myself an elephant.
At St. Boniface’s, St. Mary’s, St. Joseph’s,
St. Francis’, back to my third grade
report on pachyderms, how I pray:
make me an elephant, God.

Let my skin wrinkle over my hide,
Not for the size, Not for the skin.
I want to be family. Let me in.

Throughout the bulk of these poems the narrator’s mother takes center stage, even when she is not there. Sometimes it’s not pretty. Family bonds, even in dire circumstances, resist tampering. Children love unconditionally. The poet’s piece How the Goldfish deals with strategies of remembrance and forgetting. Here is the heart of the poem,

My foster mother tells me forget,
but not to forget my birth mom
passed out across the front threshold,
how we kids only use the back.

So I forget:
How-dee-dow-dee-diddle o  
Through our days and how she
Hums herself into a blanket.

How after again the ambulance
takes her, we play Wizard of Oz,
follow bricks through Flaxen
Park to a blackbird tower.

How when she’s back home
we think we wished her there.
How even on bad days,
her scoring paragoric—

Acceptance and reconciliation with old ghosts can be part of a healing process after years of hard knocks and open wounds. Cleary’s poem I’m Thinking of Re-entering My Body delineates such a curative progression. A damaged soul needs to be well grounded in flesh and blood. The poet’s persona seeks out her earthly shell in these lines,

We’ll have this reunion before it
thinks I’ve died and follows.
While it’s open to my custody,
keeping its musts of eat and drink.
When I re-enter, I like to think
we’ll scribble its history,
its journey erasable
without the ink of me.        

Confessional poetry such as Cleary’s that dwells on brittle emotion and memory is difficult enough to write. But, when told through the eyes of a child or a maturing adult, that same poetry becomes both magical and medicinal.  An amazing debut of an astonishing poet.

Sunday, February 09, 2020

Stephanie Schorow Brings Her Naked Eye to Boston's Infamous Combat Zone.

Stephanie Schorow Brings Her Naked Eye to Boston's Infamous Combat Zone.

Interview by Doug Holder

Inside the Combat Zone: The Stripped Down Story of Boston’s Most Notorious Neighborhood

"Upscale restaurants, majestic theaters, and luxury condos line the streets of downtown Boston today. Students, office workers, doctors, and shoppers navigate the busy sidewalks along Washington and Boylston Streets, giving little thought to the historical significance of their surroundings. The bustle distracts passersby from what may be the city’s dirtiest little secret: these blocks were once home to Boston’s most notorious neighborhood. The Combat Zone, a five-plus-acre, city- sanctioned adult entertainment district, was as sordid and alluring as anything found in Amsterdam or Vegas. Indeed, Boston’s now tony neighborhood once resembled the set of HBO’s The Deuce, all with the blessing of city officials."   (From the authors website)

I had the pleasure of interviewing journalist Stephanie Schorow on my Somerville Media Center TV show  Poet to Poet Writer to Writer.

Doug Holder: When I was at Boston University in the 1970s, I visited the Combat Zone to get a taste of  “real life.” I remember I walked into a bar, and a lady of the night looked at me and told the bartender: “Get this kid a glass of milk.”

Stephanie S: (Laughs). Yes a lot of young men went there. Someone once told me that they went there so they would have a story to tell for a lifetime.

DH: Why did you decide to choose the Combat Zone as the subject of your book?

SS: Well I have written extensively about Boston. I have written books on Boston's drinking history, the Brinks Robbery, etc... My subjects are usually offbeat. An editor said to me ,when I was looking for a new subject, “ What about the Combat Zone?” I knew immediately that was it---a real Boston story!

DH: Ironically the Combat Zone was set up to stop the spread of pornography.

SS: Yes it is ironic. In the 1960s the sort of red light district was Scollay Square—around where Government Center is today. It was a warren of little streets. It was a seedy area, and had a lot of burlesque houses, sailor bars, and tattoo parlors. At the time it was considered very risque. But it was nothing like the Combat Zone. A lot of folks went to the old Howard—a popular burlesque hall—that was more popular than the Bunker Hill Monument and the Fanueil Hall landmark, for instance. The centerpieces of the Combat Zone were the old Pilgrim Theater, and the Naked i. There were many other clubs-- there were at least 34 adult entertainment businesses in the area from bookstores to strip clubs—a lot of “adult options.” City planners, city elders, like Barney Frank, wondered “ What are we going to do about this?” We are trying to create the new Boston. We can't just close establishments down—there are Supreme Court precedents to consider.” So they started a zone—with the hope that all the adult businesses would stay there—and not travel anywhere else. Basically they said, “”If you have it here—you can't have it there.”

DH: Where there isolated pockets that developed outside the Combat Zone?

SS: Some cropped up near Kenmore Square, and Allston, but there was no concentration like the Combat Zone.

DH: A lot of musicians cut their teeth in the Combat Zone, right?

SS: I interviewed a couple of musicians from Berkeley. They wanted to go nameless. They talked about getting gigs at the strip clubs.  Comedian Jay Leno got his start playing the strip clubs... this is true of many comedians. From the early 1960s to the early 1970s many clubs had live bands. Later taped music, etc... took the bands' place.

DH: There was a quote in your book that said the average guy who went to the Combat Zone was a middle-aged, accountant from Newton--a family-man sort of guy.

SS: Well the business conventioneers were big business for the Combat Zone. Often while these men's wives were shopping they would ask a bellboy or such, “ Where is the action?”

DH: Were there mixed uses in the area?

SS: Yes there were some—like the famed Hand the Hatter hat shop and the Essex Deli.
The deli was housed in the Liberty Tree building.

DH: You wrote about some of the strippers, like Chesty Morgan, and Julie Jordan.

SS: Julie Jordan is very memorable. She went to one of my book events. She is a very sweet and articulate woman. Back in the day Jordan was a hippy sort. On a lark, she danced at one of the clubs—and then got hooked on it. She became know for her native-American costume, and was dubbed Princess Cheyenne. She was a real attraction for men back then.

DH: So,  was the cliched answer from strippers when asked why they do what they do: “I am working my way through college” to some extent true?

SS: Yes. I have talked with a number who said that. And some of them are highly regarded professional people now. And surprisingly they said they didn't regret dancing, but they are glad they got out of it.

DH: How did the Combat Zone get it's name?

SS: It started in the 50s. There were a lot of sailors and soldiers who went to drink there, and eventually some got into brawls. The military police were in there all the time. In 1950 a judge opined, "This is really a Combat Zone." But it was really coined by a series of articles in the Boston Herald American in 1964, in which they used the word throughout. 

DH” What caused the demise of the area?

SS: In 1976, there was a killing of a Harvard student-a native of Boston's North End—outside a bar in the zone.   Its reputation started to really go downhill then. The Combat Zone went on for another decade—but after this it was clear its days were numbered. Eventually legislation and city ordinances killed it.

Saturday, February 08, 2020

J. M. W. Turner Watercolors Mystic Seaport Museum Mystic, Connecticut 06355

J. M. W. Turner Watercolors
Mystic Seaport Museum
Mystic, Connecticut 06355
Thursday through Sunday, 10-5 until February 23

This exhibit of Turner’s works may be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for us to enjoy the visual equivalent of sitting in the corner of a music studio listening to (pick your composer – Beethoven – Mozart – Paganini –…) practice and compose. I say maybe once-in-a-lifetime because these Turner’s so rarely travel from the Tate in London and this will be their only venue in the United States this trip and who knows when they might come again.

Turner was a prodigy who enrolled in the Royal Academy of Art at 14 and was included in their annual exhibition at 15. When he died 61 years later he left over 500 oils, 2000 watercolors and 30,000 works on paper. He was famously eccentric; when he chose his pigments he was interested in color and not in longevity, so much of his work is at risk of fading if exposed to light, which is one reason the Tate so rarely allows them to travel. We have this opportunity because the gallery at Mystic Seaport’s North Gate was designed so that it might safely display the Turner’s.

But enough of those sorts of details; if you feel the need for more of them, the review by Murray Whyte in the Globe would be a good place to start; the digital reproductions of the Turners in the online version are much better than those in the paper but no substitute for the real thing. https://www.bostonglobe.com/2020/01/08/arts/swimming-dreamy-romantic-world-jmw-turner-watercolors/

However, given the rare opportunity to witness these watercolors, which this exhibition affords, I suggest they should be approached in the romantic spirit with which they were executed. Don't drive down and arrive with your mind buzzed out by the realities of Expressways and Interstates; instead, use public transportation and travel with a compatible companion to arrive with your mind quiet, engaged and open for what these Turner’s have to show us.

My sister and I chose the Northeast Regional 93 (let us mourn for a moment the romantic past when it was The Shoreline of the NYNH&H and the trains had names like "The Owl"); it left the Back Bay about 9:30 and deposited us in Mystic an hour and 20 minutes later. The museum was a pleasant three quarters of a mile walk north, so we arrived at the gallery relaxed, warmed up and ready to receive. When we filled up on a first course of the Turners we paused for a light lunch (at Latitude 41 right next door) and conversation to digest what we had just seen. Then back to the museum for another helping, which we followed with a leisurely mile walk north to get the local bus to New London where we would catch the Northeast Regional 174 for our return.

Standing on the platform as our train approached, we shared an appreciation of the “Turner Sunset,” to which we were being treated. Turner had taught us, Turner was teaching us, how to look at the world, how to see.

--Wendell Smith

Friday, February 07, 2020

In Ibbetson Press #46 out of Somerville, MA, 2019. Doug Holder, publisher.

In Ibbetson Press #46 out of Somerville, MA, 2019.  Doug Holder, editor.

Edited by Harris Gardner, and Julia Cirgnano

Design: Steve Glines

Front/Back Cover Photos:  Bonnie Matthews Brock

Arts/Editor Jennifer Matthews


If there were a contest of best first lines in Ibbetson Street (#46) the winner would have to be a toss up between several contenders. Mary Buchinger’s brief “Song” begins with “The river didn’t say” – an effortless glide into the exquisite (but never fancy) river of the language of imagery and sound that comprises the entire poem. In a distinctly different way, Denise Provost’s first line, “You might have crept up, grabbed us by surprise–“ is, like the rest of the poem, in fetching Petrarchan sonnet-form, trying to fend off a brutal hurricane’s dreaded arrival. These two have many rivals, but first lines are important.

 As for last best lines, another tie. Michael Ansara’s closing for his tender poem, “As a Child I Felt the Wind,” echoes and resolves the entire drama of learning how to listen in the last lines “. . . that passed quickly / As a sigh, skimming the surface of this, my one, life.”  By contrast and equally exceptional, Dennis Daly’s final line in “The Harrowing of Hell” produces a gaze of sudden desire: “Eve, bedazzled, eyes transfigured Adam” (eyes is a verb here). This line ends the packed and powerful poem that never lets up for a second, and finally crashes into the lustful ruin and guilt of the world’s first couple.  And, as for pure and brilliant finale, there is Harris Gardner’s “This masquerade unmasked in empyrean au bade” at the end of four full dancing stanzas, in “Acolytes of Terpsichore.”

Not counting Doug Holder’s gold nugget interview with the esteemed Ifeanyi Menkiti, there are 62 entries in the fall 2019 publication of Ibbetson Street.  Of these, if I may say so, at least half are worthy of the ink for printing the issue, and half again of those are worth reading at least twice (or sometimes twelve times); a handful can make your head spin and cause you to shift in your seat, and a final few that are right up there with Milton’s “fittest though few.” My growing feeling is that to read a poem once is to have looked at only the gift wrap on a package, which, as we all know can be a poor representation of the quality of the gift itself, or even a garish overstatement. Even with such limitations there are many more poems here than can be given their due. The poets themselves range in age from grownups to grandparents and write with everything from urgency and anger to humorous winks or grateful or subtle praise for life itself.  They also vary in world view, sexual definition, and political positions, if any. All of the usual subjects are here, with mothers perhaps outnumbering fathers, then, in no order, children, friends, lovers, siblings, uncles, neighbors, ghosts or cats and dogs, crows, bicycles, smells, desire, Zen, death, rivers, weather, clothing, food, crops, ageing, grief, rage, revenge and Fine! I’ll not go on. (You’re welcome). By virtue of basic arithmetic, each of these fewer-than-62 subjects has its very own own poet.  Some of these poets are well known, some are unknown or ingénue or gifted, and some could benefit from examining what makes a poem a poem or simply practicing their craft with more diligence. (And of course the writer of this review has been known to be dead wrong.)

Having said that, I want to present several poets’ work, and have a go at saying something meaningful about them.  For starters, there are poets included in Ibbetson St. #46 who, although famous, are continuing to experiment with the genre, in this case to great comic effect. Dewitt Henry’s “On Rank” is breathlessly clever and essentially an essay in poetic form, a riff on Shakespeare, and a rollicking tease. It also has the funniest line in the entire collection. Rounding up plethora of nasty smells, the speaker spews out: “Pee-yew!” Then again, that may be a Court Jester speaking, a very low “rank”ing Fool right out of Lear or Hamlet, although Hamlet himself fooled around with the varieties of rotting flesh; his noted mention of “thinks,” rhymes of course with “stinks.” Henry’s poem fools with Shakespeare’s high-ranking Sonnet 94 which itself smells to high heaven, and presents a presumably farcical but accurate footnote to his own un-poem.

Speaking of fun, Diana Cole’s “My Father’s Annual Stint in the National Guard” presents the problem of whiskers in a marriage. Managing to induce even pathos, Cole’s verse trips through the awkwardness and hilarity of a couple’s difference of opinion about the value of a moustache. The effect upon the observant and loving daughter (poet) is both priceless and cautionary.

Another impressive yet slightly off-kilter poem is the beautifully written “Acolytes of Terpsichore,” by Harris Gardner.  Not rude or ugly or vain or guilty or clumsily losing control, it is an accomplished and attractive poem, with fine, dazzling imagery and luscious sound. It may have been written as a specimen of artifice or even sleight of hand, with glittering twirling ballerinas vacantly but perfectly dancing around in circles– in which case it has achieved his deliberation; it’s damned good, but its elegant and artificial beauties may be marred by an overindulgence in uncommon words. For a perfect poem, its stanzas split jarringly in new directions or purposes. To be fair, this poem is unquestionably meant to be artificial and pristine, and to be read with a dictionary handy. It reminds me of one of those perfect dresses that cannot express the real woman wearing it. I’m not sure how a masquerade is unmasked, either, though I admire the sound of it. Altogether impressive.

A very different kind of poem in this edition captures one’s entire attention while never for a moment explaining itself.  It’s so slender, it doesn’t even have the time! Isabelle Kenyon’s “Breakfast Is an Important Part Of the Afternoon” puts sensual pleasure and indulgence hand in hand with the discomfort and anxieties of the body in a hot Italian town. Along with these are indefinable hints of timelessness, desire, discomfort, bliss, unavailability, and physical pain. It even has pretty polka dot spider bites and sweet hands that touch the sores. However, the sores seem to be spreading. In contrast, a plain but exquisite poem by Zvi Sesling, “Ghostly Memories,” produces an old sock from a drawer that becomes a portal or arena for the return of long-held but heretofore distant memories. In another drawer, an instruction manual for a short-wave radio signals anguish for all the fine things that time has kicked aside, discarded and useless. Towards the end of the poem, long-deceased parents are about reappear, and the speaker casts an eye on bones sunk in a La Brea tar pit, embodying the worst of all possible endings in a life: separation.

 There are many more poems that should be included in this discussion. The delightful and perfect “Full Service,” Ted Kooser’s amused and poignant meditation on a windshield washing at an ordinary gas station, observed from inside the car. There’s a sad but surprised smile in this poem, with its hint of troubled vision.  We also have Gary Metras’s very physical yet mystical poem of line-casting for a fish at the ocean, in “As If a Dream.” In the midst of repetitive casting motions and physical sensations, suddenly the speaker’s dead mother’s voice cries out, “Let me go.” And the speaker complies: “I cut the line.” Linda Fischer’s poem, “As a Season Ends,” is succinct, wise, and witty. “How much is finite!” she writes:
Even the universe threatens
to self-destruct as everything
we know flies off into space—
defying gravity, eroding
the pillars of faith.

Finally, in case (like me) you are forgetful, Steven Ostrowski’s “Old Woman”­ presents a brief encounter between an old wizened woman in her “sunbox garden“ and our speaker, perhaps a young poet who happens by, not for the first time, not realizing he is learning to listen. In her mirthful voice she responds to his question about how she knows about next year’s weather: “Remember. Remember I told you.”