Saturday, October 16, 2021

The Clearing by Allison Adair


The Clearing by Allison Adair

Milkweed Editions, 2020

Winner Max Ritvo Poetry Prize

Review by Marcus Breen

There are moments when reading these exceptional poems by Allison Adair that the reader must stop, take a pause to put the puzzle of language together, then move on. Yet in reading, the pieces fit together like a multi-dimensional structure, opening then closing, generously giving energy.

Poetry like Adair’s, offered in this prize winning first book, takes language on two trajectories: one that offers opaque connections into subconscious sensibilities; the other, narratives that search into the poet’s childhood memory in rural Pennsylvania. Both offer enchanting entry points to a poet who combines the craft of language along with the art of writing as a means to unlock deeply held emotions.

Her schooling in poetics is grounded in academic engagement, teaching writing at Boston College and before that at Boston University. This foundation for her deft poetic skills should not be underestimated, as university teaching provides resources for enhancing one’s capabilities through constant review and criticism of student work. (Full disclosure – I met Allison when she worked with my partner at BU. She is now a colleague of mine at BC). These are not however, academic poems.

The pleasing persistence of her writing is in the lively way the language works to suggest meanings with open potential for interpretation. It is poetry, in the words of the Italian theorist Franco “Bifo” Berardi, “as excess of language, a hidden resource that enables us to shift to the suggestive dimension of language.” The suggestions of Adair’s language emerge out of complex wording arrangements within a determined imaginary.

“Fable” begins with the lines:

What if this year the scrawny splinters of winter refuse

spring’s reckless flesh: its shameless, podgy vining

around stark limb, its honeysuckle undressing raw

to the fruit – profligate, easy with perfume, collagen

accreting in stalks with the slow-boiled gel of a bone

broth. The cold seems tired but has some good fight yet.

Moving in lines that persist in checking in on themselves, using language to offer glimpses of the observed, changing world, Adair connects the materiality of the personal to the objective. She persists in reminding the reader that there are many, often contradictory ways of observing the world: as one is exploring one’s inner life, one is doing so while living fully conscious of the external world. It is poetry that makes the dialectic effective as a truth telling mechanism.

More personal poems express emotion as nearly raw energy. “Memento Mori: Bell Jar with Suspended Child” demands attention, as she writes:

Explosions of promiscuity: coral peonies, lady slipper.

Gape mouthed jewelweed.

Where do I put the rage?

The mother is very present in many of the poems, sharing fears and uncertainties that are best displayed in art such as this. They are, as I wrote in the margin beside these lines when reading this poem, “female sensibility, revelatory sensations.”

Indeed, Adair’s poems collected in The Clearing are rich in the way they compose the inner life of a woman, from personal allusions to sexual suggestivities amid memories of fecund forests and rambling country barns and warm yet unsteady homes; places that emerge out of a desire to tell the truth about the difficulties of negotiating the inner and external world.

She sees real people in their need, miners at the coalface, farmers with their families, all dirty yet dignified, albeit not knowing much, yet loved. Avoiding the sentimental, the language hits some impeccable notes: “we’re the thin pink lung of a wounded canary” she writes about swimming in oil-soaked streams as a child.

One significant aspect of this beautifully presented collection in hardback, is the detail the poet provides in Notes about the life of each poem, especially how they emerged. These confessions as it were, add insight into why Adair writes, the passion to put pen to paper, or finger to keyboard. The Notes inform the ideas and images that stimulate her poetry as well as drawing attention to the networks of people and texts who influence her work, including watching You Tube videos late at night.

This fine collection should be widely read, re-read and studied because like all poetry worthy of the nema it bears returning to, as the gems of language already in place reveal themselves in fresh new ways.

Friday, October 15, 2021

The Red Letter Poem Project The Red Letters 3.0: A New Beginning

The Red Letter Poem Project


The Red Letters 3.0: A New Beginning (Perhaps)   

At the outset of the Covid pandemic, when fear was at its highest, the Red Letter Project was intended to remind us of community: that, even isolated in our separate homes, we could still face this challenge together.  As Arlington’s Poet Laureate, I began sending out a poem of comfort each Friday, featuring the fine talents from our town and its neighbors.  Because I enlisted the partnership of seven local arts and community organizations, distribution of the poems spread quickly – and, with subscribers sharing and re-posting the installments, soon we had readers, not only throughout the Commonwealth, but across the country.  And I delighted in the weekly e-mails I’d receive with praise for the poets; as one reader recently commented: “You give me the gift of a quiet, contemplative break—with something to take away and reflect on.”


Then our circumstance changed dramatically again: following the murder of George Floyd, the massive social and political unrest, and the national economic catastrophe, the distress of the pandemic was magnified.  Red Letter 2.0 announced that I would seek out as diverse a set of voices as I could find – from Massachusetts and beyond – so that their poems might inspire, challenge, deepen the conversation we were, by necessity, engaged in.


Now, with widespread vaccination, an economic rebound, and a shift in the political landscape, I intend to help this forum continue to evolve – Red Letter 3.0.  For the last 15 months, I’ve heard one question again and again: when will we get back our old lives?  It may pain us to admit it, but that is little more than a fantasy.  Our lives have been altered irrevocably – not only our understanding of how thoroughly interdependent we are, both locally and globally, but how fragile and utterly precious is all that we love.  Weren’t you bowled over recently by how good it felt just to hug a friend or family member?  Or to walk unmasked through a grocery, noticing all the faces?  So I think the question we must wrestle with is this: knowing what we know, how will we begin shaping our new life?  Will we quickly forget how grateful we felt that strangers put themselves at risk, every day, so that we might purchase milk and bread, ride the bus to work, or be cared for by a doctor or nurse?  Will we slip back into our old drowse and look away from the pain so many are forced to endure – in this, the wealthiest nation on the planet?  Will we stop noticing those simple beauties all around us?  The poet Mary Oliver said it plainly: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”  I will continue to offer RLP readers the work of poets who are engaged in these questions, hoping their voices will fortify all of ours.


Two of our partner sites will continue re-posting each Red Letter weekly: the YourArlington news blog (, and the Boston Area Small Press and Poetry Scene (  If you would like to receive these poems every Friday in your own in-box – or would like to write in with comments or submissions – send correspondence to:


In ancient Rome, feast days were indicated on the calendar by red letters. To my mind, all poetry and art serves as a reminder that every day we wake together beneath the sun is a red-letter day.

– Steven Ratiner




Red Letter Poem #80



As I was thinking about Yim Tan Wong’s poem, “Angelfish”, I found myself bumping into odd bits of reality that seemed to coalesce in my mind.  One was a quote from the eminent physicist Stephen Hawking from The Grand Design: “A few years ago, the city council of Monza, Italy, barred pet owners from keeping goldfish in curved bowls... saying that it is cruel… because, gazing out, the fish would have a distorted view of reality. But how do we know we have the true, undistorted picture of reality?”  Indeed – especially when we seemingly spend much of our own existence in self-constructed fish bowls designed to keep us feeling safe within our own private distortions.  Meanwhile, in Congress, a furious debate was taking place about the power of Facebook and other social media companies to shape our understanding of the world.  Following the testimony of a whistleblower, we were all getting a peek behind the curtain into how their algorithms were engineered to monopolize our attention – no matter how destructive the effects on our political and social relationships, and even our most intimate self-awareness – all in order to maximize profits.  If we never hear anything that provides us with a new perspective – or challenges the unexamined truths of our own – we might find ourselves living and dying without ever fully grasping what our lives were about.  So then I took Mary Oliver’s New and Selected Poems off the shelf and turned to the wonderful poem “When Death Comes”: “When it's over, I want to say all my life/ I was a bride married to amazement./ I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.”  The poem concludes with what I’ve always considered a dire warning: “I don't want to end up simply having visited this world.”


Yim Tan’s sly imagination coaxes us, not only to shift our point of view, but to consider the very medium of consciousness in which we swim.  There is both a childlike joy and quiet menace mixing just below the surface; it made me feel that thin layer of glass between me and, well, everything – and I wondered whether it might possibly give way.  Born in Kowloon, Hong Kong, Yim Tan spent her formative years in Fall River, MA – and so her mind had no choice but to learn to negotiate the crosscurrents of her circumstance.  That she attained an MFA from Hollins University, became a Kundiman Emerging Asian American Poets Fellow, and began placing poems in numerous literary journals attests to her mastery of those challenges.  Her first poetry collection has been a finalist for poetry prizes from both Four Way Books and Alice James Press – and it’s only a matter of time before we all will get to enjoy more of her work.


On the radio now, I’m hearing Phoebe Bridgers’ plaintive voice singing: “When I grow up, I’m gonna look up from my phone and see my life.”  Our fishbowls can only contain us for so long – if we truly desire more.  Yim Tan’s poem makes me want to leap free, no matter what I find on the outside.






Do they believe the world
undulates beyond artificial
vegetation, fins, and algae?
Do they trust bite-sized food
drifts from a Greater Above? 


Ahoy from Upper Here,
I say, and tap the glass.
Fogging their view,
I introduce myself, as
God, water, weather.


Then, they surge and heave
their bodies over the wall
to feel my palms ignite their skin,
each scale a small factory
manufacturing mirrors and prayer.



                        –– Yim Tan Wong 

Wednesday, October 13, 2021

Class Dismissed, by Kevin M. McIntosh

Class Dismissed, by Kevin M. McIntosh

Regal House Publishing, 2021 218 pages, $16.95

Review by Denise Provost

I’ve just finished one of the most intelligent, funny, and beautifully written novels I’ve read in a long time. It leaves another novel I’ve recently read – a former Booker Prize winner, which shall go unnamed – in the dust. On the chance that this novel may not receive the same attention as some of the trendier material out there, I’ll tell you why Class Dismissed is worth seeking out.

Class Dismissed is a tale as unpretentious as its protagonist, Patrick Lynch, who pursues a vocation as an English teacher in under-resourced public school. “Marcus Garvey High School” in New York City serves mostly black, Latinx, and immigrant students, and Lynch learns soon enough that teaching these students is a low-status occupation. Most women Lynch’s age, on the prowl for investment bankers or attorneys as potential partners, keep their distance.

Yet Lynch pushes on, determined to connect with and educate his students. He finds his opportunities to do so by striving to understand of them and their world, which he absorbs with such clear-eyed perception that observant readers, too, may begin to parse and diagram social situations in a similar way. For instance, Lynch has the discernment to know that when his student, Abdul, “chairman of the too-cool-for-school crew,” finally turns in his late homework, he could do so “without damaging his rep, for the act of handing in an assignment was understood by his cronies as the highest form of satire.”

McIntosh’s book, for all its wit, is not satire, but is undeniably a novel of manners; specifically of the subgenre New York City fin-de- 20thcentury novel of manners. Like Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities, it skewers that city’s self-regard, political posing, and virtue-signaling. But unlike Wolf, who seems to hate all his characters (except the beleaguered judge in the final courtroom scenes,) McIntosh displays a generous spirit towards his characters, making his book as humane as it is laceratingly funny.

Class Dismissed is also a coming-of-age novel, chronicling Patrick Lynch’s growing up as a school superintendent’s son in a small Minnesota town. We meet his family, his brilliant and disreputable best friend, his first crush. We see for ourselves Lynch’s pattern of conformities and rebellions in his early years.

In his New York City days, page by page, Lynch aptly pegs his students, colleagues, school administrators, the few parents who cross his path, and members of his various social circles. Through Lynch’s unsparing eye - and usually through the grace of McIntosh’s devastating humor - we see what’s wrong with the System in which teacher Lynch is undertaking to administer the sacrament of education.

Grading an exam after school hours, reads that of “Carmelita Fuentes…. The voice of this girl was so vivid, he could see her….[She] dismissed the Emancipation Proclamation with a finger snap and head roll. Everybody say Lincoln free all the slaves. But NO! he only free slaves in the South. And that’s the onnest truth if you want to know. Even tho he’s Lincoln he’s still a politishun. Just like them all….

“Patrick checked the rubric. Level 5: Does the writer display a thorough of the role of tone and audience in persuasive writing? No. Level 4: Does the writer demonstrate command of paragraph and sentence structure, the use of evidence in supporting a single clear thesis? No, no. Level 3: Does the writer have fundamental control of grammar, spelling, and punctuation? No, no, and no….

“He slapped Abe Lincoln down on the stack of unevaluated tests. Why did they always ask the wrong questions? Why did the rubric capture none of this girl’s aptitude or enthusiasm? Why not:

Does the writer display passion for the subject? Yes.

Does the writer appreciate the connection between history and her life? Yes.

Does the writer show evidence of having paid attention in a history class of thirty-five students, taught by an apathetic man with a degree in Phys Ed, seated next to a big girl with a sharp nail file who promised to mess her up after school? Yes.”

Standardized testing in a nutshell, stamped with the indelible voice of a girl almost no one will ever care much about – rather brilliant. Similarly, a teacher later stuck in administrative limbo with Lynch sees him carrying a volume of Proust, and asks him, “Is that the Moncrieff translation or the Enright revision?” Th question, and Lynch’s reply, speak volumes. So does Lynch’s assessment, also while under suspension from his classroom, of the mission of those “agents of the Department of Education whose full-time job it was to find enough dirt on [him] to deny him the opportunity to explain to Julio what an infinitive was….”

McIntosh’s Lynch is also a cultural anthropologist of the various flavors of religion typically lumped together as “Christianity.” Lynch attends a funeral in an Evangelical Lutheran church, where the “organist ponded the opening chords to “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.” Decidedly not a hymn on St. Immaculata’s playlist, but plenty familiar to Patrick….

“And then the Lutherans began to sing. Nothing like this had been heard in the history of St. Immaculata’s, perhaps not of the entire Holy Roman Apostolic Church. The somber, aged assembly broke into the lushest four-part harmony. On-pitch, God-fearing four-part harmony.”

Lynch also wrangles with the social and theological puzzles underlying these religious differentiations: ”[f]eeling guilty and pleading guilty were very different. One Catholic, the other criminal.” He asks himself such questions as “[C]ould there be confession without actual sin?”

As its title suggests, the whole of this story of repeated failure, growth, and redemption is laced through with a finely tuned appreciation of the many – and typically dismissed - stratifications of class in America. These observations are displayed in the streetwise wisdom of Lynch’s students. These include the professors’ son, who wears his white boy’s hair in deadlocks, and plays rap, to the hierarchy of teachers and administrators, in the school, and the city’s education bureaucracy.

Lynch’s social spectrum takes in ethnic enclaves, as well as the remote world of the upper middle classes in their distant suburbs. These are mainly represented, in his world, by Patrick’s girlfriend and her family in Connecticut. He sees them – with their immersion in privilege - as “a people who viewed problems in practical terms, as soluble.”

I’ve carefully avoided revealing spoilers about the actual plot of this well-crafted story. That’s for you to find out. Read this book.

Tuesday, October 12, 2021

Somerville's Jen Hintz: A jeweler who likes to 'futz with fire'

I caught up with Jen Hintz, a jeweler who works with Sterling Silver, gemstones, and produces beautiful  rings, earrings, and other pieces-- all at affordable prices.  She is self-trained, and started her own independent business. 

First off, can you tell us about your experience in Somerville as an artisan? Is it a good place for you to be?

Because I work in my home and conduct most of my business online I can technically work from anywhere, but I definitely like being in Somerville. I live very close to the Armory so I have that community access for events and meeting with clients, and I’ve enjoyed using some of the makerspaces here- although I’m sad to see Artisan’s Asylum moving to Allston. While they’re worth the commute, I’m hoping a new group might step in and fill that void here.

I love your brand name-- I futz with fire--a little Yiddish mixed in, do you actually futz with fire?

I really do literally futz with fire! I use handheld torches to solder metals and to fire enamels, so there is plenty of flame in my days.

You work with gemstones and Sterling Silver. Why do you choose these materials to work with? Perhaps you can tell us a bit about your process--how do you forge these materials into a piece of jewelry ?

I love working with silver because of not only its beauty, but it’s durability and versatility. It can be turned into the most delicate, lacy, shiny filigree, or a chunky, rough, distressed finish with grungy black patina. I also like that it balances quality with (relative) affordability- you might be able to achieve a very similar initial look with silver plated or other materials, but they just don’t hold up. A piece of sterling silver jewelry can last multiple lifetimes, yet costs a fraction of what something made from gold would. This is important to me because I believe everyone should be able to have nice things regardless of how wealthy they may or may not be, and silver lets me offer a high quality product while keeping the price point accessible to the broadest possible audience.

Silver is also just nice to work with. It solders and fuses nicely with a torch, it’s more pleasant to cut with a saw than other metals, and it responds well to a wide range of forming and finishing methods. I can use it for everything from stamping and hammering to engraving and etching, and it turns out great.

Some of the gemstones you work with are stunning. Can you tell us a bit about theses mystical stones?

Not gonna lie, having an excuse to buy all manner of pretty rocks is DEFINITELY a perk of this job! It’s amazing how many different kinds of stones there are. I love finding interesting new varieties, but I have to say labradorite is my favorite. Even just that one stone can be incredibly diverse, coming in a whole rainbow of colors and different patterns. I also like the fact that I can get good quality stones at reasonable prices- back to that point about making sure my work is accessible to as many people as I can.

Are you formally trained or are you self-trained?

I am purely self-trained at this point, unless you count YouTube videos and blogs. A few years ago I had bought a cheap jeweler’s saw just to try it out. I managed to cut out a few simple pieces, and one day while texting with my father I mentioned that I needed to look up a tutorial on riveting so I could start putting things together. He responded “Soldering is much better! Hang on.” A few minutes later he sent me a tracking number- he had ordered me a kit with jeweler’s torch and accessories. That feat of enabling snowballed quickly as he and I both began acquiring and upgrading tools left and right, and three years later here I am! Also I must confess I still have not learned to rivet.

How can people purchase your work? Have you displayed your work in any the events the Somerville Arts Council presents?

Right now my sales all run through my Etsy shop at I’m available for custom work as well- people can check out my work on Instagram and other social media as ifutzwithfire, and message me to discuss details.

I haven’t yet been able to participate in any of the Arts Council events- just as I got my business going enough that I was in a position to do so, the pandemic hit. I’ve been watching as events have started up again, but I have a variety of medical issues that require a much higher level of caution than the average person. I just haven’t felt safe yet. I’m hoping to find a way to participate in at least one or two in-person market events by the end of 2021 but have yet to finalize anything. I’m also hoping to begin partnering with other local businesses like galleries/boutiques and perhaps doing some one-on-one custom work with local clients.