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.

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 ingĂ©nue 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.”

Tuesday, February 04, 2020

Were We Awake, L.M. Brown

Were We Awake, L.M. Brown, Fromite Press, Burlington, Vermont, 216 pages, $15.00.

Book Review
By Ed Meek

In her new collection of short stories, L.M. Brown quotes Emily Dickinson for her title “it is good we are dreaming—It would hurt us—were we awake—.” In her poem, Dickinson goes on to say “It is prudenter to dream.” Brown refers to Dickinson to imply that reality is so painful that we need to bury it. In her stories Brown digs beneath the surface to unearth the painful truth we bury and hide. In writing as in life, it isn’t always easy to delve into tales of infidelity, accidental deaths and murder, but Brown explores those subjects with authority.

Many of the stories are written as mysteries with information slowly revealed. Someone has been found bludgeoned to death behind a bar. It is well known he cheated on his wife so it could be any one of a number of people. In another story a woman driving home at night in the rain runs over a boy who suddenly appears in front of her car. Was the boy committing suicide? Whether he was or not, Brown goes into how we might deal with something like this. In another story, a young woman finds out that the relationship between her parents and her aunt is much more complex than she thought. Most of the stories either take place in or refer back to Sligo, Ireland, the setting of earlier books by Brown. In this collection of stories as in Treading the Uneven Road, we are introduced to characters who reappear in later stories where the same event is looked at through different eyes.

In “Anniversaries” Brown has characters reflect back on the murder of Nick Moody. When Brown does this, it has the unique effect of making the reader think about the earlier stories and it brings a coherence to a collection of short stories that we don’t often find. The mother of the woman who was working at the bar that Nick Moody was found behind thinks about her daughter Margaret who left Ireland years ago to go to Australia. “Nolllaig wanted to imagine Margaret as the little girl who stood shyly on the sideline of the green watching the other children play, but just as her daughter’s smells had disappeared from the room, it was impossible to hold onto that little girl.” Although the mother is losing touch with her daughter, the reader is reminded of her and of the way we lose all touch with relatives and old friends.

In the same story, Nollaig finds herself visiting a neighbor Eilish who loves cats and takes in strays. Nollaig thinks Eilish should name one that keeps showing up. But Eilish thinks “certain things can’t be owned, like a cat or grief. But Nollaig owned her grief. She held it to her, and on a certain day every year, she examined it.” A few pages later Nollaig “thought of all the things people kept inside, like the grief for a cat, and questions about a certain night.”  Nollaig wants to ask her daughter what happened that night and why she had to go all the way to Australia to get away from it, but Brown knows there are certain questions in life that we just never get the answers to.

There are also stories in Were We Awake not directly related to Sligo. In these there is a similar sense of unease or even dread, but I found myself wanting to get back to Sligo when reading them.

Like the characters in Were We Awake, as we get older, we continue to think about people we knew who died young, Mike, a kid I played basketball with in middle school who died of “a mysterious kidney ailment.” My best friend Richard from high school who died of early Alzheimer’s. There are no good answers to these questions but L.M. Brown gives us much to think about in the hidden stories she brings to light.

Monday, February 03, 2020

In Praise of Doug Holder's Boston Area Small Press and Poetry Scene/ Robert Murphy/Dos Madres Press


In Praise of Doug Holder's Boston Area Small Press and Poetry Scene:


What is there not to like:  First of all, dear friends of literature and poetry, the online journal is beautiful. There is a richness about the visual aspect of Boston Area Small Press and Poetry Scene that is rarely matched. What is also rarely matched are the reviews that are a model of concision. (thank goodness there is such an entity that exists for the small press) As a publisher whose mission statement declares, "Dos Madres Press is dedicated to the belief that the small press is essential to the vitality of contemporary literature as a carrier of the new voice and new works by established poets, as well as the older, sometimes forgotten voices of the past. And in an ever more virtual world, to the creation of fine books pleasing to the eye and hand." I could not be more grateful. And as a writer myself of poetry, I have been blessed to have my own work come to be reviewed here. And then there is the added bonus, that even if a book is not reviewed they all go to the Endicott College's Halle Library collection founded by Doug Holder himself. So there is a place, an ever growing place that the work of the small press can call home.

So publisher's and poets, do send on your books for possible review here. In a world that can use all the best poetry has to offer, for as Dr. William Carlos Williams wrote, "It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably everyday for lack / of what is found there." Find it you will in Boston Area Small Press and Poetry Scene, that "news" that is truly newsworthy - that always ineffable, but necessary something that makes all the difference in the world.

Special THANKS to all our ace reviewers who have made this site what it is--Dennis Daly, Wendell Smith, Mike Steffen, Gregory Wolos, Lawrence Kessenich, David P. Miller. Ed Meek and many others  over the 16 years of our existence.