Friday, April 24, 2020

Poem during the Plague: Poem 20

The Sign of Spring 
by Debbie Wiess, April 2020

Spring announces 
itself with the chirping 
of a pair of red finches 
who return each year
to remake their nest,
preparing it for their young,
under the eave of 
our apartment balcony.
Taking up their 
daily occupations -
flitting, flying, hopping,
roosting, singing,
they live in parallel with us.
Their arrival reminiscent 
of that of the celebrated 
swallows of Capistrano. 

******Debbie Wiess is a Boston-based writer, who writes in French and English. She has created a wide variety of projects for stage and screen, poetry and short stories, in both languages.  Her work has been presented throughout the US and abroad, in traditional theaters and alternative venues (including in a moving trolley during the Somerville Open Studios several years ago), as well as on cable, radio and the internet. She is a published author and two of her short plays and a poem were included in a text book on International Creative Writing. In 2010 she was a guest artist at the Kennedy Center Playwights’ Intensive. In addition to writing, she also directs and produces projects and events. She is very involved in the local art and culture scene. 

Thursday, April 23, 2020

Poem during the Plague: Poem 19

John Cuetara has published several collections of poems and short 
stories and his work has appeared in over a dozen literary reviews.
In the seventies he studied with Bernard Malamud and John Gardner
at Bennington College.  John works as a therapist and lives with his
wife on the Mystic Lakes in W. Medford MA.

A Cruise to Nowhere
By John Cuetara

We’re driving through ghost-town/Boston,
the city of my birth, admiring the
empty silver buildings of the waterfront,
passing a lonely fleet of casino boats.
I long for a lobster from one of these
shuttered seafood joints, I’d love to
take a booze cruise on that tour boat
or visit the modern art museum.
I’m ready to throw a party celebrating
spring and the end of hard times
like they did after World War II.
I love this old city and can’t wait
for it to come back.    

Living Weapon by Rowan Ricardo Phillips


Review by Ed Meek

Living Weapon by Rowan Ricardo Phillips, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020. $24.00.

Poetry is always the subject of the poem—Rowan Ricardo Phillips

I had NPR on in the fall and I heard poem called “Violins” read by Rowan Ricardo Phillips. I loved the sound of it. Words are repeated and then rhymed and off-rhymed linking sounds and concepts and combining jarring images and language. The poem ends with a date: 1916 and it expresses a bold vision of the 20th century. It’s the best poem in Phillips’ new collection. It begins “He never saw a violin. / But he saw a lifetime of violence.” Right away Phillips makes this unlikely association of violins and violence—a apt comment on our current era of privilege and Black Lives Matter. He goes on:

This is not to presume
That if he had simply seen

A violin he would have seen
Less violence. Or that living among

Violins … would have made the violence
Less crack and more cocaine …

That is a cool phrase comparing the explosive effect of crack to the more sustained cocaine and perhaps making the statement that even if you inhabit the world of Harvard and Brown, if you are African-American, you may still be subject to violence, “why god oh why” Phillips says. He goes from there into a meta-comment on poetry, something he does throughout the book:

More of one thing
Doesn’t rhyme with one thing.

A swill of stars doesn’t rhyme
With star. A posse of poets doesn’t rhyme

With poet. We are all in prison.
This is the brutal lesson of the twenty-first century.

Phillips then brings in the “fiddler” who watches us while we eat. Ironically, Trump posed as a fiddler recently.

So, there’s a lot going on here. In this poem, Phillips seems to be embodying the “living weapon” who is striking out against injustice. If the “we” he refers to represents African-Americans, the claim that we are all in prison makes sense. For the rest of us, not so much. Although, as this Pandemic goes on, it is really beginning to feel like house arrest. Throughout the book, Phillips makes a commentary on poetry, on what it is and what its role is. John Gardner in The Art of Fiction talks about the fictional dream and how if the author steps out of the story to talk about the story, as a lot of meta-fiction does, the author risks losing the audience. That happens often in Living Weapon. All poems make a comment on poetry without explicitly saying so. Whenever Phillips explicitly does so, I want him to just get back to the poem.

In Living Weapon Phillips has a running commentary on history, myth and poetry, and how it bears on life in the present. He is an erudite poet and he likes to make reference to earlier poets, Wallace Stevens, Elizabeth Bishop, Eliot, Donne, and all the way back to Homer. It isn’t a big surprise to find out that he has a PhD in English Literature from Brown. This is his third book of poems. He has also written essays and translations. He has won many awards including the 2013 PEN/Osterweil Prize for Poetry, a Whiting Writer’s Award, the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award. He’s been a Guggenheim Fellow and he has taught at Harvard, Columbia, Princeton. He lives in NYC and Barcelona.

Here is Phillips talking to Orpheus in “The Testament of Orpheus.”

You start to tell me, then you simply tell me,
And as soon as you do you disappear
From the cab. It happened so quickly,
The turn. I remember you singing. Here
I am and my body is, my mind is
All labyrinth laired with trillium and word
And sun and moon and echo and I think
To keep going but shut the hell up, fold
Back into the cab, and close the door.
This is not about us. The drained sky meets
The drained moon in a compromise of dawn.
We are the morning’s lingering lamplights
Mulling lullabies in our useless heads.
And love is the sun’s power as it spreads.

Living Weapon is prefaced with a poem by Wallace Stevens that begins: “Far in the woods they sang their unreal songs / Secure.” Phillips sees himself in the tradition of singing and poetry as song so the poem to Orpheus fits into that notion. The poem is, you may have noticed, a sonnet. Philips is comfortable using forms. He is at times eloquent: “labyrinth laired with trillium” and “morning’s lingering lamplights” and “Mulling lullabies.” And he’s not afraid to make a statement about love; our heads may be useless these days, but love still has power.

It’s a compelling package that Phillips brings to the table. He quotes Jessica Care Moore in the opening pages: “I ain’t scared of none of this.” The quote follows the poem by Wallace Stevens (one of the most cerebral of our poets) at the beginning of the book. Phillips attempts to combine a woke perspective with his vast knowledge of poetry from the past. In the final poem “Dark Matter,” Phillips is projecting into the future, speaking to a child in a crib:  “That you asleep in your crib were a god / In the machine and that poem your father / wrote you was a fucking living weapon.”

Language can be as Donne said, an “instrument,” a “weapon.” Can poetry play that role? Is Rowan Ricardo Phillips a warrior and his poetry a living weapon? He certainly has a few arrows in his quill.

Are there other poets who are living weapons? Lawrence Joseph maybe. Robert Bly back in the day. Alan Ginsberg in Howl. Writers of nonfiction like Naomi Klein, Bill McKibben, Ta Nehisi Coates. Rappers like Kendrick Lamar, Eminem, (and many others), activist Greta Thunberg. Because of the artificiality of our age, the simulacrum we inhabit, we search for authenticity in our artists. The artists and activists listed above all have it. It is highly valued in our culture. Lizzo, Cardi B., Beyonce, Drake, all have it. Jay Z once had it but he’s now a long way from Bed Sty. Rowan Ricardo Phillips claims to have it but in doing so, he’s entering Kanye territory. I’m not a fan.

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Poem During the Plague: Poem 18


Born in Buffalo in 1930, Bert Stern is Milligan Professor of English Emeritus at Wabash College  He taught at the University of Thessaloniki from 1965-67 as Fulbright Professor of English and at Peking University as an exchange professor in 1984-5.  Stern published a pioneer study of Wallace Stevens in 1965 (Wallace Stevens, Art of Uncertainty, University of Michigan).

It’s clear now:  we need each other
and are alone.  Facetime helps, 
but poignantly:  pixels can’t sub
for flesh.  Still, heart reaches out
toward heart.  It’s finally clear:

we need each other but are alone.

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Poem During the Plague" Poem 17

Robin 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, a memoir in poetry form, and a writing guide. A four-time Pushcart Prize nominee, she's 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's 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 leads the popular "Six Feet of Poetry" and "Fiction by the Foot" series. 


After you finally stop thinking this
is no worse than the regular flu

After your last dinner party when you
didn’t hug hello but you recklessly hugged goodbye

After your last guilt-free non-essential
jaunt to Crate & Barrel

After the last puzzle is done and
the banana bread is gone

After you’ve posted on Facebook the covers of
ten record albums that influenced you most

After you’ve sought recommendations for
movies to watch and books to read

After you’ve accepted that you can’t stay
focused long enough to read a book

After you’ve watched season one of
Gray’s Anatomy again, and also season two

After you post your 40-year old high school graduation picture because
you think that will somehow bring comfort to the class of 2020

After you see that drone shot of
the mass graves in New York City

After you hear that people have 14
days to claim the bodies of their loved ones

After you stop being shocked

After you stop keeping track

After it starts to feel a little normal

After you’re able to go back to reading a book, even if
it’s only a biography of the Bee Gees

After all of that what
will you do and who will you be

After the virus?

Monday, April 20, 2020

Poem During the Plague: Poem 16

Richard E. Brenneman has returned to writing poetry and breaking bread with the Bagel Bards. This of course is now virtual on Zoom and commiserating with new friends on Facebook. He has recently been published in Muddy River Poetry Review, Ibbetson Street and Nixes Mate Review.


Separated in place, homebound
as in lazarettos in ports of call
where infected sailors were kept
in quarantine
so their ills did not infect
the market places beyond the walls.
Only silk, lapis, rubies, or
foodstuffs passed those portals.

We rage against the lack
of human voice or sight,
seized and held
by this painful despot of our isolation,
vulnerable as  tossed to and fro
on a raft in boundless ocean.

Daily we walk and can avoid
others with their dogs.
We can look at budding leaf
and flower,
but still are  isolated,
against this pestilence,
this grief,
this fear that would rob us
of health, of life,
of voice.

We answer back with poetry
distilled from verbiage,
motley cant,
random vocabulary,
digestion of dictionaries,
sharp words, staccato sounds

beat in restless fury
from our redoubt.

Still we abide.

Sunday, April 19, 2020

Poem During the Plague: Poem 15

Sara Letourneau

Sara Letourneau is a poet, freelance editor, and writing coach. Her poems have appeared in Mass Poetry's Poem of the MomentGolden Walkman MagazineThe AuroreanSoul-LitThe Bookends ReviewThe Avocet, and elsewhere. She lives in Foxboro, Massachusetts, where she reads her work at open mic nights, roams the beaches of Cape Cod, and can frequently be found with a journal and a cup of tea. Learn more about how Sara can help you with your writing at, and read more of her poetry at  

A Strange Easter

It’s Easter Sunday, and I’m alone
in my dining room, Skyping with my parents
and my brother over orange juice, black tea,
and raisin bran with strawberries.
It’s nothing like the homemade carrot muffins
or German apple pancake we’d eat together
in Mom and Dad’s breakfast room during Easters past,
when it was safe for us to visit.
But this year, safe means washing hands constantly,
covering one’s mouth and nose in public,
and standing six feet away from each other.
This year, in the time of COVID-19, safe means
staying home, seventy miles away from my family.

Our conversation goes as usual:
How are you doing?
I’m feeling well. You?
Same here.
The rest is nothing new, either:
Mom and Dad’s projects around the house,
my brother’s upcoming (virtual) closing on his condo,
my freelance editing work,
the first daffodils to bloom in our yards.
Yet this semblance of routine is punctuated
by reminders of life upheaved:
Did you wear your face mask at the grocery story?
We’ll leave takeout for you by the garage door.
Will we get to celebrate Mother’s Day together?

And all the while, I wonder if I lied.
I may be feeling well, but my longing to reach
through the laptop screen and hug my father,
kiss my mother, and riffle my brother’s hair
pulls like a sore muscle.
Before I know it, the past rolls off my tongue:
Remember when we were kids
and we’d come downstairs on Easter morning
and read the Easter Bunny’s message, spelled out
in fridge magnets, then hunt for the exact number
of chocolate eggs mentioned in that note?

My brother chuckles, says, Yeah, I remember that.
So do Mom and Dad, and the reminiscing resumes.
And for a moment, the holiday returns to its jovial,
pastel self. Yes, it’s a strange Easter,
the distance between me and them hasn’t changed,
but we’re together in our mirth,
together in our remembrances,
together in the tender ache for what was

and our gratitude for what still is.

Poem During the Plague: 14

Nina R. Alonso

The poems in Riot Wake emerged from a summer traveling Spain and Morocco in 1970 with my late husband Fernando. We wandered for months, starting in Lisbon then north by train to the pilgrimage site, Santiago de Compostela, then to Toledo, Madrid, Granada. We spent weeks in Tangier, then back to Malaga, Nerja and Barcelona.  In Spain signs of complex, violent history were openly visible, but we were out of touch with what was going on in the states. Late August we returned to political chaos, rioting and disruption. Part one, exhausted from the trip is about colliding with dissonant reality. Poems in part to travel inward, dealing with loss of friends to distance and death, trying to find what’s needed to survive.

Nina Alonso is the publisher, founder  and editor of Constellations magazine based in Cambridge, MA.

RIOT WAKE             by Nina Rubinstein Alonso               1

Part one:  SUMMER’S END

Self after self
obsolete miniatures
up and down ramps

on a crooked day
how many ghosts
marching home

carrying summer
in overstuffed string sacks.
the long claw tows us in

time is a hook
with me yanking the end
not to go back

even though I’ve had enough
fountains and cathedrals
and don’t need more courtyard

walls with bullet holes
at the head-heart
firing squad line.

Riot Wake                       2


Sun warm yellow essences
dissolve leaving imperfect
particulars newspapers roll into
whips with photos of Franco in Spain

Nixon and anti-war riots at home
deposed dictators
coup d’etat presidents
fugitive nazis, demon terrorists

would-be emperors, mad politicians
dump them in a dark jungle
throw them on an island
to bully outwit overpower

torment and kill each other
put them in a wax museum
where barbarous heads
shrink in their own poison

nail the skulls together
lying lips sewn shut packaged
in doomed dimension
exhale violation from being.

Riot Wake                   3


We fly home on an elephant
a steel dinosaur I’m awake

too long a thin membrane through
which small suns try to shine.

so many empty seats
and the horrible bread

white squares made
by no human hand.

I don’t want to go back
to machine America.