Saturday, November 20, 2021

Code by Charlotte Pence


Charlotte Pence, Code. Black Lawrence Press. 2020. 100pp. $17.95

Review by Ruth Hoberman

There’s nothing like a pandemic to make you think about how much in life is determined by entities we can’t see, much less control. In her 2020 poetry collection Code, Charlotte Pence explores the tension between the givenness of DNA and the inchoate longings that make us human—a painfully relevant topic at a moment when a virus’s replications can alter the course of our lives. If DNA could write poetry, what would it look like? these poems ask. And how do we write back?

Pence’s first collection, Many Small Fires (2015), explored family through the lens of Darwinism, asking what and whom we sacrifice in the name of survival; in Code, too, science sharpens Pence’s vision as she describes human beings dealing with what she calls in one poem “the limits of the possible.” Science offers Pence a way of asking big questions inventively and expansively: far from being reduced by understanding ourselves biochemically, we are connected more deeply to each other and to the world. “I like being/reminded that we all began in dark and stars,” Pence writes in “The Weight of the Sun”: “that the carbon, nitrogen and oxygen/in our bodies was created 4.5 billion/years ago.” As for DNA, it may contain our death, but it also gives new life to the dead. “My child./Our eyes,” a dying mother says of her young daughter.

This dying mother is at the heart of the book’s Part III, entitled “Code: A Sequence in Twenty-Three Parts.” Its twenty-three poems dramatize a young mother’s death of a degenerative disease encoded in her DNA. This section is the book’s most inventive from a formal standpoint: along with a few sonnets, it includes poems constructed from a multiple choice quiz, from a series of palindromes, and from actual genetic codes. The woman is named A, her husband T, letters which, the endnotes inform us, stand for adenine and thymine, two constituents of DNA. Since a cell contains twenty-three pairs of chromosomes, the twenty-three poems dramatize the extent to which we are our DNA. What does it mean that DNA, that “track laid for/a corporeal train,” determines so much of who we are? That we can inherit a propensity for cancer or Huntington’s disease along with our parents’ love? “Don’t be fooled into thinking you/understand this world,” DNA cautions in one poem. DNA’s perspective is nothing like our own. “Up here/in this bank of blue, this blink of clouds,/everyone is reduced to the hard roof/of their car.”

CRISPR, Pence reminds us in an endnote, stands for Clustered Interspaced Palindromic Repeats. And indeed the book is structured somewhat like a palindrome: parts I and V contain poems drawing on Pence’s life as wife, mother, poet; each of parts II and IV contains an essay by Pence and two poems by Shira Shaiman, a poet-friend of Pence’s; and at the center, Part III: the story of A, T, and their daughter. Clever? Yes. Too clever? Not at all.

The language and structures borrowed from genetics only intensify the impact when humans talk back to what has been encoded—and they get plenty of space to talk back. “Grief, like art, continues to teach/the limits of the possible,” T says, but he stretches those limits as he envisions holding his daughter up in the Paleolithic cave he has read about, so she can poke “the ceiling’s moon milk,/that wet, soft carbonate sparkling like stars/under the forked flame,” stone age and contemporary child melding, joined by the clay, “this moonmilk, mountain, mother.”

Pence enacts T’s thoughts a few pages later, in Part IV’s “Stubby Horses and Why We Paint Them: An Essay,” where she describes visiting the Monte Castillo caves in Spain with her family. She, too, is looking for continuity in the face of death. Indeed the four parts that frame A’s story echo its themes, addressing losses in Pence’s own life—of her poet-friend Shaiman, of her father-in-law, and of a friend’s daughter—losses she chronicles in Part II’s “Codicil: An Essay.” There she describes rereading Shaiman’s masters thesis as she was completing Code. Her inclusion in the book of four poems by Shaiman works an act of love and preservation, and also as an echo-chamber of loss and replication. “Don’t become like me,” Shaiman’s speaker imagines her mother—dying of cancer—telling her.

Loss and the fear of loss pervade Code, but so too does delight in the everyday and in connection. In her essay about visiting the caves, Pence sees, in a child’s handprint on the wall, “that desire to reach out . . . red hands without arms reaching out in the dark.” Reaching hands appear also in “Among the Yellows,” in which a beehive’s “hundred split hexagons,/shining, licked gold” morph into an apartment building where, as the speaker passes by, “A slumped stranger suddenly/leapt from his chair, mouth/open, arms outstretched/to catch something/he loved.” These generous poems extend their own arms toward us—celebrating the many ways we save what we love from oblivion.

  Ruth Hoberman is a professor emerita of English at Eastern Illinois University, where she taught modern British literature for thirty years. She has published on Virginia Woolf, biography, and women’s historical fiction. Her most recent book, Museum Trouble: Edwardian Fiction and the Emergence of Modernism, was published in 2011 (University of Virginia Press).

Since her 2014 retirement, she has published poetry and creative nonfiction in (among other places) The Examined Life, Adirondack Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, Natural Bridge, Ploughshares, Calyx, and Rattle: Poets Respond.

Friday, November 19, 2021

The Red Letter Poem Project The Red Letters 3.0: A New Beginning (Perhaps)

 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 #85



Years back, I had the great good fortune of engaging in conversation with Nobel Prize-winning poet Seamus Heaney for an interview collection I was putting together.  I’d long admired the rich musicality of his writing, and the uncanny way he could make us feel the confluence of history, memory, and the magic of the natural world as undercurrents beneath each compelling line.  “But this isn't peculiar to me,” he said, deflecting my praise.  “This belongs to the language [itself.]  I think everybody, whether or not they're conscious of it, responds to these things. . .  we do have certain associations with certain sounds.  And what a poet is doing is unconsciously working with that.”  Reminding me of T. S. Eliot’s idea of the 'auditory imagination', he added: “Eliot talks about the feeling for syllable and rhythm reaching below the conscious levels, uniting the most ancient and most civilized mentality.  I feel that about the word 'culvert.'  It's got a kind of dark-hole-under-the-ground within it.  And stored in the system, in the big archive of every ear, there is a memory of hearing a very thin trickle of water in a big, echoey under-place. . .The collusion between the verbal thing and the human store in the ear, I mean, that's the mysterious nub of the matter.”


And so it is with Sarah Bennett’s new poem “My New Word”.  Written early on in the pandemic when the news was generally bleak and we were concerned whether ‘essential workers’ would continue putting their health and wellbeing on the line, just so we’d be able to purchase chicken breasts, cheddar cheese, and a supply of toilet paper.  Sarah’s choice of ‘anti-anxiety medication’ was a large supply of mystery novels which she devoured nightly.  It pleased her that a character like Nero Wolfe, the portly detective, was as fond of good food and fanciful language as he was of solving mysteries.  Sarah found herself keeping a running list of his words she wished to investigate: thaumaturge, minatory, casuistry, rodomontade.  Of course, even when we require Webster’s assistance, that does not mean we haven’t grasped, via poetic intuition, something about what freight might be carried within these words, what exploits they’ve had and what nuances of meaning acquired as they’ve passed through thousands of mouths. 

Having read Sarah’s first poetry collection, The Fisher Cat (Dytiscid Press), I understood how language was a sea her mind navigated continually; but in this poem, she allows us to wade in beside her, feeling the riptides tugging at our thought.  She sent me a little essay she wrote about reading these Rex Stout who-dunnits while the dark headlines of the Covid crisis swirled as a backdrop.  I guess detective stories do remind us that we are capable of working through problems, and order may yet be restored (even while fear and the death toll continue to rise.)  It’s a situation that calls for a word like minatory, don’t you think?  Sarah's piece concludes: “We need Nero Wolfe to come down from his orchid rooms and solve this mess. We need a thaumaturge.”  Even before you look it up, tell me you don’t already half-believe in the magic that might be contained there.



My New Word



In desperationfor distraction I have been readingNero Wolfe detective storiesone after anotherfast as I canand came upon a word I did not know: helotwhich sounded something between a hellionand a zealot.


A glance at the newssays Tyson must remain opendespite the plague:the humans shoulder to shoulderat the refrigerated slabdisassembling chickensone after anotherfast as they can.Something between a citizen and a slave.



­­                              –– Sarah Bennett

Wednesday, November 17, 2021

A Home For Laika and other Tails by Phillip E. Temples

A Home For Laika and other Tails

by Phillip E. Temples

Big Table Publishing

Boston, MA & San Francisco, CA

Copyright © 22021 by Phillip E. Temples

ISBN: 978-1-945917-66-0

Softbound, 33 pages, $15

Review by Zvi A. Sesling

Phillip E. Temples is a triple treat. He is a novelist, a short story author and a writer of flash fiction. In his latest publication, A Home For Laika and other Tails, the title reveals his humor as this book is about dogs, all kinds of dogs-- in different scenarios. There are dogs that speak to their humans, dogs that speak to each other and of course, the famous Laika, a Russian mutt that was the first mammal in space, and therein lies the tail … oops … tale.

There are thirteen stories in Temples’ book and each is uniquely special, incorporating science fiction and some hard truths, such as a usually happy dog that is anything but joyous when its human owner pets the family cat first.

There is the man who confesses to his dog about relationships with women and gets the perfect response from his pooch.

There is the human who ignores his dog in favor of reality TV , and tells his downtrodden dog: “What did you expect dummy?”

In all of his stories Phil Temples displays his talent as a master story teller who can flip from the fantastic to science fiction to straight fiction. He always writes with a clever edge and a great sense of humor.

Here is one story from A Home For Laika and other Tails:

Record Breaker

Tyler Lawson and Billy Hajo came across the giant Burmese Python in an Ochopee, Florida subdivision lot and realized it was close to record breaking size..

“It’s long enough, Billy, but it looks to be a few pounds shy of the one they caught over in Sylvan Sores last month.”

All the while, a standard poodle barked incessantly at the duo and the snake from behind a neighbor’s fence. Tyler and Billy came up with the solution to attaining a record-breaker almost simultaneously. As an added bonus, there was no more racket.

The story has an ending which displays Temples’ humor

I thoroughly enjoyed this short, easy read with an appreciation for Phil Temples’ craftmanship and story-telling. It is a book for dog lovers and fiction readers.

Zvi A. Sesling, Brookline, MA Poet Laureate (2017-2020)

Author, War Zones and The Lynching of Leo Frank

Author of forthcoming flash/micro fiction The Secret Behind The Gate from Cervena Barva Press

Editor, Muddy River Poetry Review

Monday, November 15, 2021

Somerville artist Yildiz Grodowski: An abstract, narrative painter tells her story

 Somerville artist Yildiz Grodowski: An abstract, narrative painter tells her story

By Doug Holder

"As a visual artist and a dancer, I find many connections between abstract painting and improvisational dance. Just as I let the music move me from within, I allow my artistic intuition to bring my brush to life.


I make art because I don’t know how to live without creating. The foundation of my art is connections. I aim to communicate the essence of a relationship or place with my visual language. In my art, ideas and expressions are more important than the materials. My goal is to transport the viewer to a place, person or moment in their life."--- Yildiz Grodowski

I met Yildiz Grodowski on a cool morning at my usual hangout-- the Neighborhood Restaurant in Union Square, Somerville.  Grodowski is originally from Turkey, but now resides in Somerville, and has a shared space at the Vernon Street Studios, a well-known artists venue in our burg.

Grodowski  used to live in Cambridge. She views Somerville as, "Cambridge without an attitude." She told me she used to be a sculptor but switched to painting. She said she had to downsize. The space required for sculpture was daunting.. She reflected, " I don't miss it, once I made the decision I didn't look back". The artist told me she took a workshop, and gradually began to see the freedom she could experience with painting.

Grodowski, who has an MFA from the Istanbul State Academy of the Arts, as well as Boston University, told me that she is also a dancer.  She was into competitive dance.  Her special interests are in ballroom dancing, and other styles.. She told me she especially liked to dance the Tango. She reflected, "There is movement in dance, and intuitively I think that sense of music is in my paintbrush."

I asked Grodwski about her artistic process. I told her I often give up on a poem if it is not working. But not her. She told me, "I work with watercolor and acrylics. I play with ideas, there may be a struggle--but eventually I meet the roadblock head on, and eventually come up with something--good."

Grodowski describes her paintings as narratives of her life-- from her childhood in Turkey, to her many years in the United Staes.

I asked the artist if she feels art is more appreciated in Turkey than the United States. She opined, " I feel art is appreciated more in Europe in general-- perhaps art is viewed more as a commodity in the states."

The artist has a shared space at the Vernon Street Studios ( once a foam rubber plant).  She told me. " I am very pleased to be there. I love the community there."

Grodowski talked about the disparity between men and women in the arts. I,seems to her, that even today, the gap between genders is still prevalent. Male artists' work commands higher prices--and in general--they are more respected in the art world than women. I asked her if she was a feminist. She smiled, "Yes, I hope you are... aren't you?"

Grodowski will have an exhibit of her work through November and December 2021 at the: