Saturday, April 03, 2021

Henry Weinfield’s As the Crow Flies

Henry Weinfield’s As the Crow Flies (Dos Madres Press, 2021), reviewed by Gregory J. Wolos


I have read Henry Weinfield’s new poetry collection, As the Crow Flies, with a certain kind of limited pleasure. There is wit in these poems, satiric allusiveness, clever puns, unexpected rhymes, all delivered in classic (some might call archaic) forms. As I read, however, I found myself measuring the gap between my admiration for the poetic conventions Weinfield cleverly employs and my exasperation at the “straightjacketing” effect these forms have on the thematic and philosophical values he attempts to render through them.

In the collections opening poem, “The Ironies,” Weinfield establishes his poetic modus operandi. Heavily dependent on rhyme, meter, and repetition, the poem is a rumination on the vicissitudes of that determine the course and shape of one’s life: “What was it that you thought you had to say?/--Though possibly you said it anyway:/ It turned out different than you thought./ . . . / The things that you evaded or forgot/Were details deeply woven in the plot./ You couldn’t ever have imagined it.” There is truth in what Weinfield’s asserts in his verse, but it is a truth we’ve heard many times before, as in Robert Burns’s “To a Mouse,” (composed in 1785) in which we are told “The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men/ Gang aft agley,/ An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,/For promis’d joy!” There are disappointments in life we can’t anticipate, Weinstein similarly reminds us: “It didn’t seem impossible to seize/ The golden apples of the Hesperides/Where the eternal verities prevailed.” But, philosophically, Weinstein doesn’t take us much further. His “Ironies” concludes with the limp assertion that we can’t have all that we want: “Like everyone you wanted everything/ (The autumn simultaneous with the spring)—/ For which no kind of medicine availed.” This ending contrasts unflatteringly with Burns’s, who doesn’t merely reiterate our desire to “collapse” time (i.e., deem “autumn simultaneous with spring”). Rather, Burns, by contrasting the human epistemological state with the mouse’s, takes the philosophy to a more compelling conclusion: we are congenitally more miserable than the mouse precisely because we can’t help but distinguish past, present, and future: “Still, thou art blest, compar’d wi’ me!/ The present only toucheth thee:/ But Och! I backward cast my e’e,/ On prospects drear!/ An’ forward tho’ I canna see,/ I guess an’ fear!”

The question remains: does an adherence to well-travelled conventions limit one to equally hashed over conclusions? Does Weinstein’s cleverness in rhyming “seize” with “Hesperides” (while at the same time providing the reader with an allusion to classical mythology) truly enlighten the reader with something new? Or are the allusions and formal conventions simply ornaments to disguise shopworn philosophy? I’d like to believe that Weinfield is, in fact, satirizing the conventions, and that many of his poems are intended to demonstrate what leaky vehicles these forms prove to be for fresh thought. But if Weinfield wants us to take the theme of “Ironies” and many of his other poems at face value, he fails to achieve Pope’s idea of “true wit,” which is to satisfy the reader with “what oft was thought, but ne’er so well expressed.”

Don’t get me wrong—there is much to admire in Weinfield’s ambitious (and often entertaining) long poems, such as “L’Dor V’Dor: Chant of the Jews of Michiana As They Contemplate the Past and the Future,” which provides a capsule version of the Jewish diaspora from shtetls to the Midwest of the United States. But the poet’s insistence on traditional forms too often yields unfortunate rhymes and twisted syntax: “Living in constant fear of a pogrom,/ Not knowing when the Cossacks next would come.” Similarly clever in conception, if not execution, is Weinfield’s “Paradise Lost: A Poem in Twelve Books: The Shorter Version.” The poem is introduced by a pair of epigraphs which inform the reader of the poem’s satiric intent: Samuel Johnson states of Milton’s masterpiece, “None ever wished it longer than it is.” And Milton himself refers to “the troublesome and modern bondage of Riming.” And so Weinfield’s version proceeds, ingeniously compressing Milton’s work, while at the same time illustrating the points made in the epigraphs. But such efforts can be extreme and tedious, as with “Book XI” of the poem, in which eighteen of the first twenty-five lines have end-words that rhyme with “plight.” To my mind, “true wit” is not “expressed” by emulating problematic verse form. As Tom Stoppard’s Player suggests in his play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, establishing a point through verisimilitude doesn’t necessarily yield great art: “I had an actor once who was condemned to hang . . . so I got permission to have him hanged in the middle of a play . . . and you wouldn’t believe it, he just wasn’t convincing! It was impossible to suspend one’s disbelief . . . the while thing was a disaster!—he did nothing but cry all the time—right out of character.” The Milton epigraph seems to be sufficient on its own: it’s both amusing and sobering that he found rhyme to be “bondage.” It’s neither entertaining nor enlightening for Weinfield to prove the point with a flood of rhyme—it’s only boring.

And yet, when Weinfield is at his best, he is a skilled craftsmen and thoughtful philosopher, capable of producing poetic gems that are more than the “gestures of a jester” (my own brief parody of Weinfield’s poems in this collection, many of which are rife with punning). “Fragment of an Injunction to the Poets of the Future” begins with the simple assertion, “There is no God,” and concludes, “Forget the myth,/ The heroic journey to the Underworld./ The underworld to which you have been hurled/ Is this world—here you are and here it is./ You must abandon all mythologies.” Here Weinstein’s rhymes and allusions support his thematic intent: “hurled” and “world” work together in lines that are syntactically straightforward, and the whiff of Dante’s warning at the gates of Hell drives home the irony of Weinfield’s theme. The brief poem “The Afterlife” is clever and thought-provoking without being rendered in torturous diction and uncomfortable rhymes; the repetition and punning are central to the poem’s impact:

“The afterlife/Was after life./ There was no life/ That was not life.”

The poems that touch upon Weinfield’s personal memories are breaths of fresh air in this volume. “To Carla, in Lieu of the Lost Poem I Gave her in High School” reveals an irony that is more than simply clever; it is heartfelt. Regarding his youthful romance, Weinfield writes, “You never let me go too far,/ Wise young virgin that you were/ . . ./ So every afternoon I’d burn/ With longing, which itself was sweet./ It was too soon—we had to wait./ But then too soon it was too late./ For waiting soon became too long/ For so much longing—we were young: / Ours was an old familiar song.” “Old” and “familiar,” yes, but also vivid and poignant, personal, yet universal—the irony in the poem is meaningful, not mere cleverness.

Too often the poems in As the Crow Flies seem like exhibition for exhibition’s sake: rhyme, meter, and allusion are the sparkling things for which his crow seems to be searching. An exception might be found in one of the volume’s later poems, found in the section “From Old Notebooks.” This poem, “George Oppen’s Eyes,” (I think we can forgive in this instance Weinfield’s title pun), reveals without artificial adornment what Weinfield values in poetry: “Among the poets, yours were the only eyes/ That never dimmed themselves in fantasies,/ Or looked to compromise the poet’s craft/ Out of a vain desire to be heard./ The only motive for your poetry/ Was clarity, you said, your favorite word./ I looked upon you as another father,/ And hoped I might find favor in your eyes.” The values expressed in this poem seem to contradict those evident in too many of the others in the volume. Perhaps it’s only a matter of taste, but I prefer the succinct crafting of a poem like “The Afterlife” and the pathos of the personal “To Carla,” both of which provide “clarity” without “compromise[ing] the poet’s craft.

Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Somerville Media Center Director Kat Powers: A Born Storyteller brings us the saga of our city on the screen


Like myself, Kat Powers has had a long love affair with the City on the Mystic, Somerville, MA. Kat has a long and accomplished journalistic background, and will continue to bring the saga of our unique burg to the TV screen, through the Somerville Media Center.

Congratulations for being selected the new director of the Somerville Media Center. You are coming in at a time when the station is planning to move, the pandemic has changed the nature of operations. etc.... What is your mission statement--what are your goals?

Thank you! Yes, there’s a lot of change at SMC, but any change means there’s room for opportunity. The pandemic has changed how we relate to each other, and community media has to change too.

SMC has always been the cool place to be, where artists and producers and ideas were thrown together, edited on tape and shared widely. We need to make sure we can support that community with a new center, with new equipment that’s more mobile.

We are all missing that opportunity to bump into someone and learn about the newest project. We’re learning new ways to foster that sense of community virtually, but it will be exciting when we get back to seeing all these producers in person.

My mission is to work with our community to find a path forward, with a new site and stable sources of funding. Community media access centers all over the U.S. are finding ways to adapt to changes in cable funding, but it’s not all doom-and-gloom. Some fund access programming by developing software and selling it to other access centers. Some consolidate into regional centers. Some sell video production services. We need to work together to find our path.

So, that’s a Mission of Message, Members, Money and Moving? Let’s get to work.

You were a reporter and managing editor for The Somerville Journal for a number of years. Community newspapers are disappearing from the map. You will be continuing with community journalism at the Somerville Media Center. Do you think cable/access TV organizations may be the last stand for hyper-local reporting?

SMC has always been part of hyper-local reporting. I’ve been watching the archive process we’re undergoing at SMC. We have hundreds of 20- and 30-year-old tapes we’ve put in our main studio and we’re sorting through what gets preserved for posterity. All those call-in shows? Those local election debates? Those reports from the hot set on local business? That was hyper-local reporting in the 80s before we called it hyper-local reporting. I don’t think coverage of Somerville is going to go away, but I do know it has to evolve to something digital, and SMC is going to be part of that future.

One of the first meetings I had with the Somerville Media Center Board of Directors involved them telling me fantastic stories of what they liked about the Somerville Neighborhood News, and how they’d like it to thrive again. We’ll get there, and we have some pretty awesome partners to work with to build a news network.

You used to live in Somerville, but you are now in Watertown. How does Somerville compare to other cities you have lived in. What makes it unique?

Somerville. It’s magical. Its waters are Mystic.

Somerville, like some of the greater cities of the world, has its land and its streets marked by progress and ambition. Every single group of people in the world have come through and changed it. They chopped hills, burned nunneries, buried the enemy in the street. They planted trees, kilned bricks, set stone, chopped down orchards and built the triple deckers and the trolleys, and then paved their yards to make room for cars. Now those triple deckers are condos and we fight for bike lanes and parks to eat outside.

Somerville is a story of progress – not always good – but every single story in our nation, Revolution to opioid epidemic, had a part of the tale set in Somerville.

I am a storyteller. How could I not love Somerville?

You have a unique knack for picking up jobs. Not the traditional--resume/interview type of deal. Can you talk a bit about this?

I like to build ideas and organizations. I’m told it’s a perspective used in sales … you have a unique problem, let’s reframe in in a certain way and see what solutions fix the problem. For example: I was at the Red Cross and I needed a few volunteers to answer people who reached out to us on social media, and those people had to be nimble enough to also spread the word about what we were doing. No one wanted to be a “social media volunteer.” When I changed the job description to “Twitter Ninja” I had so many applicants I had to turn away free help. I seem to fit in the jobs where you have to take a step back and think about the problem your work solves, and then build the solution.

But yes, I’ve worked for a state senator, I was a journalist leading a newsroom, I was the chief of disaster public affairs for the Red Cross during the Marathon Bombing. But those jobs had something in common: I had to figure out a process to work to move a lot of people forward in the same direction. I also worked as a secretary in a prison and I unloaded trucks at Marshall’s. Those were great examples to me of places that didn’t work, and I saw what happened when people were punished for attempting to fix problems.

You have an extensive background in marketing. How will you market the station? Any new approaches?

Community media is really nothing without its community of artists and producers – and that’s something the pandemic hit. You cannot stick your head into the control room to see who’s taping a show if we all have to stay in our homes. But you take someone like yourself, Doug, or JoJo LaRiccia, folks who have produced shows remotely and engaged others, and it’s just inspiring to watch. Every time I hear a story about a hurdle overcome, or a new member excited to learn, I just want to step up and make sure we preserve access media for everyone.

I’m betting if others hear these stories, others will want to preserve access media too.

Monday, March 29, 2021

Mona by Pola Oloixarac.

Mona by Pola Oloixarac. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York. Translated by Adam Morris. $25.00

Review by Ed Meek

In a short 176 pages, Pola Oloixarac combines elements of a mystery, magic realism and an entertaining satire of writers, writing and our current era. The plot, and I use that word loosely here, involves the narrator Mona going to a writer’s festival in pursuit of a prestigious prize while trying to figure out how she got some painful bruises on her body. As the conference proceeds, an occasional dead animal turns up and someone may or may not be following her. The problem is that a mystery is based on logic (see Sherlock Holmes). Logic and magic realism do not exactly mix well.

Nonetheless, the plot is kind of beside the point because Oloixarac’s focus is really on writing and culture. She is very sharp and witty, her observations provocative and often on point. On literary festivals: “That’s all literary festivals are good for: the memory of them is so repulsive, and you end up so disgusted by the writing ‘community’ that you have no choice but to stay home and write. Seul contre tous.”

Her send up of writers is almost a subgenre in fiction that includes The Wonder Years by Chabon (great book and movie) about an aging writer who can’t finish his second book and the cast of characters who show up for the annual literary publication award, Professor Romeo by Anne Bernays about a writing professor who chases his female students, Old School by Tobias Wolfe, in which Ayn Rand, Robert Frost and Ernest Hemingway visit a private school and get roasted by Wolff. Straight Man by Richard Russo—a hilarious satire of an English Department at a college. Like Michael Chabon, Pola Oloixarac makes you feel smarter just by reading her. At the same time, she lets us know that she is a little smarter than we are. “Mona felt a chill as the phrase fail better crossed her mind. After all, Beckett, like Heidegger, was basically a self-help writer for the intellectual class…”


When it comes to satire, she takes no prisoners. Talking about the roles women have to play in our culture, one her characters, Lena, an obese writer talking to her while nude in the sauna says,

“these distortions are a way of being in the world…that’s why we transform ourselves into drag queens…We’re obliged to incarnate these personae…To be a woman and to write is to be trans. That’s why writing is trans, being fat is trans, and this whole entire performance of being a woman is the most trans thing in the world. Ever since Teiresias, who was of course the first trans person ever.”

A character named Sven quips, “I was a journalist for a while, and there was a time I dabbled in literary criticism, but I realized that I’d lose all my friends if I kept at it…” Sounds like good advice to me...

Oloixarac also raises serious questions. “How do we create collective forms of resistance in the current political landscape? What can we do anymore, besides tweet?... What I’m saying is that the winds of culture have changed entirely. Now that the leftish culture is mainstream, it means absolutely nothing. Think about it: What does it mean to be a leftist? Eating vegan? Marching against the banks and then posting it online with your iPad?”

How many of us marched in resistance to Trump or in the “fight” against climate change? What effect did it have? Then we go home and talk about it online in our safe political silos on FB and Twitter. Meanwhile, the earth continues to burn.

The last section of the book leaves one major strand of the plot unsolved and delves into a disturbing explanation about our heroine’s injuries that made me feel like I sometimes did when watching the show Girls, or the more recent I May Destroy You. Mona’s negativity has her ingesting drugs like candy. Still, like Lena Dunham and Michaela Coel, Pola Oloixarac has her thumb on what’s happening now in our increasingly international and diverse culture. Then Oloixarac plunges into magic realism and mythology in a hallucinatory ending which may leave you thinking: WTF?

Mona is Oloixarac’s third book. Her first, Savage Theories, was a bestseller. When it was criticized in some circles, Oloixarac responded: "[t]he book has sparked verbal violence and a sexist uproar precisely because it doesn't deal with the issues that are traditionally associated with 'women's literature,' but instead contains a sociological critique that is both intelligent and satirical, which are apparently traits solely reserved for men." How you identify may affect how you respond to that. Well, it isn’t always easy being beautiful, brainy and talented.