Saturday, December 11, 2021

The Album By Peg Boyers


The Album

By Peg Boyers

Dos Madres Press

Loveland, Ohio

ISBN: 978-1-953252-28-9

68 Pages

Review by Dennis Daly

Never have I read ekphrastic poems so undetachable from the sources of their inspiration. It is as if Peg Boyers in her new collection, The Album, wrote within the individual art objects, delivering fresh, insightful versicle pieces, birthed out of the same aesthetic DNA. Boyers and the editors of Dos Madres also deserve not a little praise for publishing this year’s most beautiful book of poems.

La Tempesta (after La Tempesta by Giorgione, 1504) opens Boyers’ collection with its symbolic inferences. This painting was George Gordon Byron’s favorite because of its magical ambiguity. Some art historians believe that the painting was a warning to Venice to avoid war with Pope’s threatening army. Boyers, however, has a more versatile approach. Her protagonists are art aficionados, who have just purchased a tie, adorned with the lightning bolt from the painting, from the museum shop. The lightning bolt is the demarcation between the lush foreground with a young woman nursing her infant and a young man eying her and an urban background. Previously these art connoisseurs have focused on this foreground ignoring the darker rest, including ruins and an impending storm. Here Boyers details the background or the rest of the story—notice how contemporary it sounds,

the deaths accumulating among the old and the unlucky young,

illnesses and overdoses claiming them relentlessly

with each passing season.

But the ruins in the distance—the dilapidated bridge to the

approaching night—beckon with a steady, [patient


toward the lightning, the inexorably tormented sky.

So we gather our cloaks—

not against the storm (which will arrive)

but against our dread of the storm.

In Frau Durer on Melencolia I (after Melencolia I (1513) by Albrecht Durer) Boyers’ narrator—Durer’s wife—speaks with insistence and resentment. She demands consideration from her husband and her moment in the sun. She has had it with his self-pity, profundity, and black humor. Like many spouses of artists, she has converted fear and exasperation into umbrage and malignity. She declaims,

Don’t you know that happiness is not arrived at

with measure and weight? Or art with contrived ideas?

Throw away your theorems and faddish alchemy.

Resist tedious Allegory.

This print is a treatise.

It has no truth. No grace.

Take St. Luke as your model, ardent

worker in his studio, painting the Virgin,

God guiding his hand.

This can be your fate, too.

Have faith, my husband.

Incessant study has not served you.

Knowledge is a trap, reason the spring.

Go back to craft. Retrieve the lessons of the goldsmith.

Find freedom in convention, relief in labor.

Make art your prayer.

Henri Rousseau attained fame by espousing nobility in primitivism, a movement within post-impressionism. At first mocked for his artistic simplicity and shunned by many for his lack of sophistication, Rousseau ultimately had considerable influence on later avant-garde artists. Boyers uses Rousseau’s first jungle painting for her poem I Dreamt I Was a Tiger (after Surprised! or Tiger in a Tropical Storm (1891) by Henri Rousseau). Interestingly, Boyers metamorphosizes herself into a Tiger. Not only a tiger, but a hungry tiger preparing to spring upon its prey. The prey, it should be noted, is beyond the frame of the painting. The poet sets herself up as a middle-aged predator following her instinctual needs. She explains,

Not in my Maidenform bra. But braless, wild—with the cold

eviscerating stare of a cat on the prowl, alert

for the kill. All appetite. No manners.

It is 1965. Sumatra. Island of gold, named by invaders

drunk on panning the banks of the Siak.

I am thirteen—ivory bones and teeth,

jaw and claws of steel, black blood running through me, pumped

by a still fearsome heart. I feel young, but in tiger years

I’m middle-aged and worried about my thinning fur:

my stripes start thick and gleaming but disintegrate

into spots near the end, like a rash. Between

each pair, a cluster of freckles.

Where will it end, this fading? Will I go gray and, surviving

into palsied age, turn white? And then? What then? Will

I expire into a colorless vapor? Or burst?

I’d rather eat. It’s what we do. Feed till we’re sated. No restraints.

Picture-perfect antebellum society serves the thematic needs of Boyers’ poem, The Fate of Pleasure (after Outing on the Hudson (c. 1850), Anonymous). The poet’s words capture the solemn Sunday idyll reassuringly detailed in this sedate and scentless painting. Then she fills in the bloody and inconvenient particulars. Imagining the respectable strollers from the very best families living in their faultless towns as beneficiaries of the slave trade. The cotton mill shown in the distance probably depends on slavery. One of the ships on the river is a slaver. Specifically, she identifies the makeup of the waiting ship’s cargo—runaways. Boyers, describing the action of that ship’s captain, puts it this way,

He lures them with lies, promises of protection, a dignified

life. He’ll keep a few, chain the rest. The catch of the day he’ll stash below—

necessarily confined to reside below

in the dank, unlit hull, darkness like their skin, darker than smoke,

dark as their master’s satin top hat, upright and dignified

on his proud Southern head, dark even in as his patent boots. His white

masterly jaw under a full, black mustache stays clenched against all idle-

ness, though today he’s agreed to give his Yankee wife the best

hours of the day, strolling without purpose…

The best art suggests multiple meanings of universal interest. The best poets know how to choose and direct those meanings with wordcraft. Peg Boyers composes her ekphrastic wonders in this remarkable tradition.

Friday, December 10, 2021

Red Letter Poem #88

 Red Letter Poem #88



Like many Americans, my experience of the world is, regrettably, a narrow one.  Situated on this huge and resource-rich continent – and bracketed by two oceans – our nation’s isolation has been both a blessing (offering a measure of protection) as well as a curse (allowing us the false impression that all we needed to survive might be found within our borders.)   Granted, I’ve learned a fair amount about the few other countries I’ve actually visited; and friends from foreign lands have opened my eyes to ways the world works that are nothing like my own.  Still, when another poet suggested I send some of my work to QLRS (Quarterly Literary Review Singapore), I realized that I only possessed two impressions about that island-republic: it was an extremely wealthy society; and one governed by a strict (some might say harshly-enforced) network of rules.  So I set out to learn more.


Of all the things I’ve since come to understand, these two are the facts that impressed me the most: first, almost-entirely lacking in rich natural resources, Singapore somehow became one of the original Asian Tigers by mastering the art of trade and international affairs, earning it one of the highest per capita GDPs in the world.  And, since it also possessed the second greatest population density on the planet, it enshrined multiracialism and multiculturalism in its constitution, recognizing how interdependent their society needed to be.  Singapore boasts four official languages; how many others can claim that?  Since my own country these days seems to be experiencing a never-ending cascade of sectarian battles, I enjoyed the reminder that getting along (as a survival skill) brings with it a host of rewards.  But then I’d think about the inflexibility of those rules. . .


Maybe that’s where poetry comes in – its irrepressible need to break free of restraints, to reinvent the ways an individual’s imagination can shape his or her own experience.  And, as it turns out, I had a very good guide in the person of Toh Hsien Min, a marvelously accomplished poet and the founding editor of QLRS.  He received his literature education at Oxford and ended up as president of the University Poetry Society there.  In 2010, he won the Young Artist Award from the National Arts Council of Singapore.  Poems from his four collections have been translated into five European and Scandinavian languages, bolstering his credentials as one of poetry’s global citizens.  But in our correspondence, I encountered an agile and inquisitive mind eager to keep stretching his boundaries.  Quite an adept formalist, you’ll see in Hsien Min’s new poem how his modernist sensibility has refashioned an element of the national character into something more, shall we say, unbridled.  Singapore is a small island archipelago – but as we’ve learned from images of Earth taken from outer space, our whole planet is a small blue-green island afloat in darkness.  It seems to me that we’d all better come to a clearer understanding about which rules actually safeguard our survival and which seem to be only used to batter each other into submission.  “Go where your courage fails you” – one of Hsien Min’s rules; that’s one I will endeavor to follow. 




The Rules




Zest lemons.  Set your alarm early for the pleasure of hitting the snooze button.

Walk off the map.  Find your own secluded beach.  Slip out of your shoes.

Smile for no reason.  Cross at the lights, just not always when they are green.

Bake fresh cookies.  Turn on a dime when you have a dime to turn around.

Pretend to be serious.  Assume other people have different points of view.

Take the other road, it really is shorter.  Do favours for those you don't like.

Dress like you mean it.  Amble in the rain without opening your umbrella.

Taste every wild berry you find.  Lift your hands off the handlebars.

Run through the pigeons.  Wear French cuffs with a button-down collar.

Turn off your mobile phone.  Make no promises your heart can't keep.

Refuse the second cigar.  Gaze out the porthole during the safety film.

Shave only when you want to.  Shop in a foreign supermarket.

Laugh out loud in the library.  Know that you know that you don't know.

Eat the fat off a suckling pig.  Live next to birdsong, not to crickets.

Talk with the man next to you.  Have a spin on the merry-go-round.

Go where your courage fails you.  Yawn in public but sneeze in private.

Pretend to pretend to be serious.  Summon snow angels in your best suit.

Let the sun wake you.  Give up falling in love the instant you catch her eye.



­­                                                       –– Toh Hsien Min



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 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:

Thursday, December 09, 2021

Island Heart, poems by Ida Faubert, translated by Danielle Legros Georges


Island Heart, poems by Ida Faubert, translated by Danielle Legros Georges

Subpress Books, 2021 108 pages $16.00

Review by Denise Provost

Translating poetry, perhaps even more than writing poetry, is a labor of love. It is also a prickly intellectual and linguistic task, posing unanswerable questions at every turn. Not just each line of poetry, but every word presents a judgement call; each poem a series of seemingly impossible choices.

The English-speaking world is fortunate that esteemed poet Danielle Legros Georges took on the work of selecting and translating this collection of poems by Ida Faubert. Familiarity with Faubert’s poetry might otherwise have remained confined to readers in France and in Haiti, the countries where Faubert lived and wrote. We would be the poorer for it, unaware of this remarkable poet, writing in a literary milieu dominated by men.

Legros Georges, in her Translator’s Notes and Biography sections, provides background on this “complex literary figure. Bicultural, biracial, and privileged, she neither easily fit socially prescribed categories for women of color in France or Haiti nor conformed to them.” Faubert’s first collection of poems, Coeur des iles (Island Heart) was published in 1939, when Faubert was 57, and received a prestigious award.

Though the Modernist and Symbolist movements in French poetry were already underway in the 19th century, and Surrealist poetry launched in the early 20th, Faubert charted her own chosen poetic course. She did not partake of the fashions of the best-known French male poets of her day. As Legros Georges points out, “Faubert wrote in a literary style that was not contemporaneous to her time, borrowing heavily from a 19th century Romantic aesthetic.”

Faubert’s subject matter comes from the playbook of the Romantic movement. She portrays the lush natural world as filled with activity: palm trees and flowers dream, plants and bees shiver, sunlight gives kisses, the sun itself goes up in flames. In this charged milieu, Faubert describes emotion at its extremes: delight, desire, love, pleasure, fear, grief, suffering, despair.

Rendering rhymed forms from other languages into English is a full challenge by itself. Legros Georges herself confesses that she is at times “frustrated” by Faubert’s artistic sensibilities. Yet she is deeply respectful of the content of Faubert’s work, and clearly hesitant to offer us translations which would go over the top for modern tastes; her ultimate choice is to render Faubert’s “poems in as natural a free-verse and 21st century U.S. English as possible.”

What Legros Georges achieves with her translations is a dignified restraint. Through it, the pure essence of Faubert’s language and sentiment is allowed to shine. Consider this middle quatrain from “Soir Tropical/Tropical Night”:

Les jasmins ont mélé leurs branches étoilées

Aux lianes en fleur. L’haleine de l’été

Caresse les fruits lourds. La grave volupté

Laisse trainer son voile au detour des allées.

All four lines of this stanza end with the same rhyming sound. The first and last lines have an internal rhyme of the same sound folded in, the two middle lines have a different internal rhyme. This kind of verbal virtuosity would give any translator pause.

Legros Georges, up to the task, gives us this sensitive rendering:

The jasmine have mixed their star-studded branches

With lianas in bloom. Summer’s breath

Caresses the heavy fruit. The dense sensuality

Lets its long veil linger along the sinuous paths.

The insistence of Faubert’s frequent repetition of sounds is abandoned. What we get instead the whispering slant rhyme of branches and paths at the ends of the first and last lines, the soft rhyming of bloom and fruit internally in the two middle lines. Audible to a bilingual reader will be the detail that, although Legros Georges doesn’t make the same words rhyme internally in these middle lines, she recreates these rhymes in almost the same place where they occur in the original – homage indeed.

There are those who consider that tightly constructed verse forms are the best containers for strong emotions. Faubert clearly thought so, and employed sonnets, rondels, chansons, and other highly controlled models of expression in her writing. Legros Georges takes the risk entailed in deconstructing Faubert’s forms; what she achieves is a tenderness, a delicate rendering of emotional states that could otherwise come across as overwrought, even bombastic.

For instance, “Mon Amour, Attendez/Wait, My Love” is a poem of five quatrains, with three stanzas of ABBA rhyme schemes packed between first and last stanzas in which each line ends with the same sound. Legros Georges digs into this tour de force of form, and uncovers the emotional heart of the poem. The first two stanzas express well the tone and direction that she takes:

When you forget that you held me

Captive in your arms, like a thing that was yours

When you grow tired of my sweet love

Wait until night falls to tell me.

Then you won’t see my undone face

My sorry eyes, my trembling mouth.

The dark will veil my crushing sorrow.

Wait until night falls completely….

Legros Georges recreates this poem with great fidelity to Faubert’s original, employing just occasional mild end rhymes, yet this poem’s disarming simplicity retains its deep feeling. Each of these poems rings true, whether playful, joyful, filled with sadness and loss, or coming from an unanticipated angle, as in Faubert’s “A Ma Muse/to My Muse.”

This direct address to Faubert’s muse is poised between teasing her (“If you want me to follow you still/Lose your distress call to the distance….”) and an effort to cheer her up with such blandishments as

lilacs for her hair, and pink almond blossoms. Ultimately, it is an impassioned exhortation to her muse – and so to herself:

With amazed eyes look closely at Life!

Speak all desire, and all precious hopes.

Speak all wishes of unsatisfied souls

Sing of abandon in the splendor of nights.

We are fortunate to have Legros Georges as Faubert’s muse of translation for Island Heart. that Faubert’s soul is undoubtedly satisfied with the way this translation speaks and sings her powerfully yearning songs to us. Though we live in another land, in another age, these poems strike the notes of our hearts with perfect pitch.

In 2021, the New England Poetry Club (NEPC) gave its Golden Rose Award to bilingual poet Rhina Espaillat, born in the Dominican Republic, on the other side of the island of Hispaniola from Haiti. Because the award ceremony was held on Zoom, Espaillat and poet Lloyd Schwartz were able to conduct a dialogue about translation, which they consider not just an art, but a moral imperative – and an undertaking which is “impossible.” The multi-lingual and multi-talented Legros Georges would probably agree with both propositions – but by melding her own island heart with Faubert’s, she has achieved in this book an inspired equivalence.

Sunday, December 05, 2021

City of Stories By Denise Provost


City of Stories

By Denise Provost

Cervena Barva Press

W. Somerville, MA 02144

ISBN: 978-1-950063-51-2

72 Pages


Review by Dennis Daly

While reading Denise Provost’s new book, City of Stories, I marveled not only at her well-wrought pieces, but the witty, contagious joy pooling in each one, which charmingly overflows and inevitably drenches the reader in its artistic charm. Sure, there are moments of sorrow and maddening dysfunction in her observations. Hope, however, and the poet’s offbeat stoicism always seem to save the day.

What oft was thought, but ne’re so well expressed” said Alexander Pope, in describing wit. Provost’s formal poems fit that description entirely. She often takes pedestrian observations, gives them context, and decks them out with agreeable and sometimes laugh-out-loud meaning.

In her poem Full Disclosures Provost sees what we all see in the public walkways: someone, seemingly mad, talking to himself or herself. We soon discover that these apparent lunatic wanderers are plugged in to their mobile phones and indulging in deep and presumptively private conversations. The poet’s persona overhears a scandalous story and comments on the droll irony. Here is the end of the story,

he'd logged on to his father’s computer

and accidently found a secret life—

some sordid messages and photographs,

until then hidden from the guileless wife.

Mom’s now filed for divorce. I’d almost laugh,

but Dad’s indiscreet habits seem passed on

to his obliviously blurting son.

The Bus Queue, Provost’s paean to the long-suffering commuters utilizing public transportation, follows the before, during, and after sequence of tribulations endured by these local bus travelers. She sets her gorgeous couplets in wintertime maximizing the misery. The poem opens this way,

Old and young stand in freezing rain,

await connection to our train:

two women, with umbrellas furled,

stalled in their journey to their world—

a skinny student lingers next,

gloves fingerless, so he can text;

his friend is next to him, perhaps

hunting through the “Where’s My Bus?” app.

Hats and hoods swathe our heads twice;

some boots sport crampons, for the ice-

the treacherous ice, that claimed the foot

of she who wears a “walking boot.”

Nostalgic scribblers sometimes ramble on about the good times that weren’t very good. Or about how hardy people were, and how they persisted through the dark periods of their lives and eventually triumphed, despite near impossible obstacles, through self-determination and independent effort. Well, maybe. But more likely there were other, now-outdated, institutions that kept things afloat, like one’s neighborhood. Provost considers how that worked in her two-stanza poem Commiseration. Look at the simple but stunning enjambment, delivering both irony and theme, between the fifth and sixth line: …Life was good/ enough for most…. Here is the heart of the poem,

We stuck together, fighting off the gloom

of bereavement and loss; the way we stood

with Millie, when her only son died young.

Helen had fallen and broken some bones,

so we had to bring her walker along

when we drove to the wake for our friend Joan,

who had never had a bit of luck

Reception of mail entails both delight and anxiety. In her poem No Delivery Provost’s persona (Who else could it be?) finds herself in hell, lacking the necessary grace to “make the cut.” Like most human beings faced with an eternity of inscrutable torment, she obsesses on something annoying but easily comprehendible. In conclusion she laments-- somewhat wryly—her fate,

It was with ample measure of chagrin

I found myself being escorted in

to classic Dante-esque topography.

I’m more or less resigned to being here.

I couldn’t squelch the impulse to transgress,

but if I’d left a forwarding address

I could at least hope postcards would appear

sometimes. Too late—I lived life as a rogue—

and now, I’d sell my soul to receive Vogue.

As she writes her poems Provost exhibits unabashed amusement. She clearly likes the process of what she is doing. Copping a quote from Marxist critic Terry Eagleton’s How to Read a Poem, “Poetry is a superior form of babbling,” she turns the table on him by making a cogent argument on poetry’s necessary place in the human condition, which, in a sense, proves Eagleton’s point. In her piece Eagleton’s Credo she posits,

Just by existing, Poetry fulfills

our deeply held Utopian desires

-a form of life that’s not so much in thrall

to duty, but turns obligation’s call

back towards indulgence of our wayward will

to flirt among unattached signifiers.

My favorite poem in this collection, secreted by Provost near the end, is Easter 1916, Reimagined for Maud. Provost, displaying unmitigated presumption and wit, rewrites the famous Easter, 1916 by William Butler Yeats. As a prelude to the poem, she reprints Maud Gonne’s letter to Yeats in which Gonne (Yeat’s love interest) complains about the quality and sincerity of his poem. Provost’s reimagined poem answers Gonne’s criticism by doubling down on reality at the expense of romanticism. Yeats, as imagined by Provost, openly considers his troubled relationship with individual rebels, now martyrs,

I would see them at close of day,

With stiff or angry faces,

Self-proclaimed leaders of our grey

City’s unhappy masses.

Perhaps a curt nod of the head

Towards men who aimed spiteful words

At me – for, with all they had said

What choice but fight with words?

With a thought to hold my own

Or, better, to press forth my side

In this unmannerly town,

Certain it was worthwhile to fight

Against detractors of my work

Back when motley was still worn:

But all changed suddenly—

My discourse must rise beyond scorn.

The poem ends as it must with the rebels transfigured by an overly sincere, unduly frank (and imagined) Yeats.

This is Denise Provost’s second otherworldly book in a row. Her reputation as a poetical alchemist continues to grow.