Saturday, June 11, 2022

Red Letter Poem #114

 The Red Letters



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 #114



I’m no theologian, but if I were searching the Bible for an iconic moment to symbolize the ‘fall of humankind’, it couldn’t possibly be that of a woman (or man) so desirous of knowledge that they indulge in the fruit of God’s creation.  It seems apparent that the mind inherently needs to know, that it’s a part of its very design (divine or otherwise.)  No, the symbol for me would be that of one brother so angered by the other’s good fortune, he would murder his sibling out of jealousy.  From envy and violence, all darkness arises, and what was once a garden is made barren.  So in reading Yuliya Musakovska’s new poem, I couldn’t help but see the brutal aggression of one brother-nation toward its neighbor in almost Biblical terms – especially today, as Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine has just surpassed its hundredth day.  But in corresponding with Yuliya, she cautioned me in my metaphor.  “There has not been any brotherhood or even friendship between Russia and Ukraine. Through the centuries, Russia was trying to colonize [my homeland], to destroy its identity.” She went on to describe how Russia has long been painting the picture of a weaker, rural, culturally-backward ‘younger brother’ nation, which cannot exist without the older one's patronage.  This version attempts to negate Ukraine’s ancient cultural legacy and its aspirations to become part of a modern European Union.  “And this deceitful narrative sounds especially cruel through the lens of today's events. . . so my address to the "older brother" [in the poem] is, of course, bitter and sarcastic.”


Yuliya Musakovska is an award-winning Ukrainian poet and translator.  The author of five poetry collections, the most recent of which – The God of Freedom (Old Lion Publishing House, 2021) – is where “Garden of Bones” first appeared.  This English translation, done by Olena Jennings and the author herself, is making its debut in the Red Letters.  Yuliya’s own poems are quite well-traveled, having been translated into numerous languages, from English and German, to Bulgarian, Hebrew, Chinese and more.  Among her many honors in Ukraine, she is the recipient of the Krok Publishing House’s DICTUM Prize, the Smoloskyp Poetry Award for young authors, and the Ostroh Academy Vytoky Award.  Yuliya makes her home in Lviv and, in addition to her literary endeavors, works in Ukraine’s tech industry.  She has been drawing on her expertise in both poetry and technology in her efforts to help her nation survive this terrible conflict.


In this poem, a new mythology is taking shape, repurposing the Biblical seeds and attempting to grow something that will prove enduring, where even the buried bones give rise to some future sweetness.  I was introduced to Yuliya by an organizer of one of the numerous readings in support of Ukraine.  I loved her work and asked if I might publish one of the new poems here.  In conversation, we remarked (rather ruefully) on a term someone mentioned at that event – ‘Ukraine fatigue.’  It's undeniable that, here in America – where life is bountiful even in the worst of times (at least compared to much of humanity) – our generosity is substantial and our hearts do go out during a time of crisis.  But I needed to acknowledge that, as crises continue to mount, our interest tends to wane, and we are drawn to the next drama unfolding elsewhere.  Yet another simple appeal from that poetry event has also stayed with me: “Please don’t forget us.” 


In Genesis, the Lord asks "Where is Abel, your brother?” and Cain replies: "I do not know – am I my brother's keeper?"  That question has haunted humanity since its inception.  From the skies, God proclaims: “Listen! Your brother's blood cries out to me from the soil.”  Indeed, haven’t we all arisen from the same garden?  Don’t we share the same joys – and comprehend, as well, the weight of suffering and loss?  All the wanton death and destruction taking place.  All my sisters and brothers.  How can we allow ourselves to forget?



Garden of Bones



What's rattling in the bag?


My bones, but not all of them.

My brother stole three bones,

he sold two of them at the market

and buried one in his garden.


An apple tree will grow from that bone.

Each apple with my face

will speak to my brother.

 Why did you do this, older brother?

What did you kill me for,

taking the bones from my body,

sewing it shut with a coarse thread,

put me into a bag,

not letting them bury me for three days.


– It is because your wife is prettier,

your song is louder,

your soil is richer,

the apple tree in your garden is taller.

Give me your wife,

your land,

tie your song

in a knot in your throat.


You're not a brother to me,

not an honest enemy,

not a man,

not a beast.

A bag full of bones.


Your wife will come outside

and take a bite of an apple.

She will fall dead.

Your children will come out.

They will take a bite

and fall, lifeless.

The sun will rise

and burn your house to the ground,

sowing the land with ashes.


What's rattling in the bag?


So very sweet.



 – Yuliya Musakovska





The Red Letters 3.0


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Friday, June 10, 2022

La Guagua : Poetry Reading Series

Click on pic to enlarge


Dennis Daly’s Alcaics for Major Robert Rogers, reviewed by Gregory J. Wolos


Dennis Daly’s Alcaics for Major Robert Rogers, reviewed by Gregory J. Wolos ( Wilderness House Literary Review)

Dennis Daly’s slim volume, Alcaics for Major Robert Rogers, is an effort to capture the ambiguous nature of its eponymous subject. It is Rogers’ contradictions that interest and flummox Daly: should the major be regarded as an “epic hero,” known for “legendary exploits,” and, if so, can this image be reconciled with that of a “sometimes bloodthirsty blackguard and accused self-promoter?” Daly asserts in his introductory comments that he has chosen to “engage the narrative” of the Major through an “angular method.” By “method,” he means his choice to use an archaic Greek verse form to recount Major Rogers’ history.

Taking Daly’s chapbook as a whole, Daly does his “angling” through more than just his alcaic verses. Included in this volume are: maps; reprints of paintings of Rogers and the locales through which the major “ranged”; another Daly poem that is not in alcaic form; numerous prose paragraphs offering a “portrait” of Rogers; several quotations from Rogers’ contemporaries; snippets from the major’s literary endeavors; a “Prologue” providing historical background; three pages of explanatory notes; a twenty-eight item list of Rogers’ “Rules of Ranging.” The alcaic verses of Daly’s title, taken alone, read like a skeletal summary of Rogers’ activities during the battles and exploits of America’s colonial period. It is the supplemental material, which all told make up more than half the chapbook, that puts the flesh on Major Rogers’ bones.

The alcaic verses themselves follow several of Rogers’ adventures. They catalogue battles, massacres, troop movements, harrowing escapes, and exploratory ventures. But what do we learn about what made Rogers tick? Daly informs us that his protagonist’s motivation might well have been vengeance. Rogers’ village and family homestead were destroyed by Native Americans: “Rogers ranged the woods with others, sought revenge,” Daly writes. The question is, does the poem itself, Daly’s declared “angular method,” further illuminate the ambiguities of the major’s character? In other words, does the poem provide insight that the other components of Daly’s volume do not?

By choosing an ancient verse form (attributed to Alcaeus ca. 600 B.C.), what does Daly, or for that matter, what do his readers, gain? Are we stirred by finding in the poem many of the same facts available in the supplemental material shoe-horned into stresses, verses, and stanzas originally created for a different language in a different era? Does lodging Rogers in an archaic construct somehow make the ambiguities of his nature more available to a contemporary audience? Does a description of “skulking” Indians who “answered hurt with horror” warm us to this version of history? Does the use of a biblical “begat” bring Rogers’ time and place closer to us? Daly’s alcaic verses, locked into their stress patterns, often read awkwardly, the action they portray fractured, it seems, less for artistic purposes than for the need to convey information succinctly: “Game driven out of forest haven/ Strangely. Rangers split forces./ Starvation./ War whoops. Companies fall, hacked to pieces.”

Having read Daly’s chapbook (including the poem and all supplementary material), I find it easy to understand his fascination with Major Robert Rogers. Daly has gathered the facts that make his subject (and the Colonial period in general) absorbing. His passion is visible in virtually every line, and the verbal dexterity with which he renders his verses is admirable. But rather than animate his antihero and his ambiguities, the form Daly has chosen produces a memorial that is less revelatory than dazzling: an unironic monument of white marble under which Rogers is buried, deader than dead. My imagination yearns for Shelley’s shattered statue of Ozymandias and the haunting admonition to “Look upon my works, ye mighty, and despair.”

Sunday, June 05, 2022

Somerville Artist Jen Fries: Bringing Order to Chaos

Winter Branches

 I caught up with Somerville artist Jen Fries to discuss her evocative art.

How has Somerville been for you as an artist?

It’s been pretty fabulous. I’ve found Somerville quite welcoming and supportive to me as an artist - especially emotionally supportive.

I started my career in my hometown, New York City, and I also worked in Vermont for a while before coming to Somerville about twenty years ago. Both those places are amazing for the arts, of course - full of history and inspiration - but Somerville feels the most open and receptive to new, diverse voices. It’s not about who you know or whether you fit in with certain styles.

At the most basic level, Somerville is the first place I’ve lived where, when I say I’m an artist, people don’t respond with, “But what’s your real job?”

Plus, there’s an energy here - a natural energy. I don’t know how to describe it. I find the place itself inspiring. Something in the sky, the light, the weather speaks to me.

I do worry about the future. The housing crisis and the overall economy are poised to price artists out of this area, like many others. I hope that doesn’t happen. I love living here. My work thrives here.

Did you formally study art?

I’m mostly self-taught.

I originally studied commercial arts - advertising, illustration, and graphic design - which is definitely not the path I ended up following. I’m lucky that my early training gave me good enough insight into the business side of that field to realize I was just not cut out for it. I did learn a lot about life and professionalism, which has been invaluable.

You can still see the design training in my art, in my compositions and the messaging embedded in my imagery. At least, I see it.

In terms of the media and craft I’ve developed over the years since, it’s been all self-study and experimentation.

You write that you like to bring chaos to order in your work. Have you ever tried it the other way around?

This question is a bit of a challenge for me. At first, I thought, no, no, surely I bring order to chaos. Then I realized, actually, I think I do both.

My process is chaotic. The finished works are orderly. But when you get into them, start to analyze and figure them out, the order turns chaotic again.

It goes back to my early interest in advertising, which delivers messaging via imagery, either overtly or subliminally. In commercial work, you want to narrow and focus the messaging. I do the opposite. My work is crammed with layers of messaging, basically anything that comes up in the process. The works can be about many things at once, and explaining them can be like taking a walk through a maze garden.

I’d say order and chaos co-exist in my art, and it can get kind of kaleidoscopic if you think about it too much.

You have written that water is your favorite medium to draw inspiration from. Why? Do you need to be near a body of water to be inspired, or does this derive from your imagination?

Water is one of my favorites, and there’s a practical as well as inspirational aspect.

Practically, I use media that are portable, environmentally friendly, and as non-toxic and fume-free as possible, so I can work anywhere, especially in my home. So that means water-based pigments, inks, paper, found objects. I even make my own pastes, glues, and additives from non-toxic ingredients.

Inspirationally, randomness feeds my creativity. I get most of my ideas from accidental juxtapositions of things, events, words, memories, that come together on my walks around town, or from reading, watching the news, dreaming, etc.

I extend randomness into my media and methods, such as letting the water move the pigment for me. It makes me more a partner to the medium than the master of it.

There’s an element of abstraction to it, but I don’t have the brain of an abstract artist, so I always end up finding a picture and a story in whatever I end up with.

Can you give us some idea of your process?

My process involves a lot of thinking, staring out windows, and taking long walks - letting ideas percolate through my brain.

Then it involves a lot of commitment anxiety when faced with the blank canvas or paper.

Beyond those features, the process varies depending on what I’m making.

Collage and assemblage are more precise and technical. It’s slower, meditative work.

Painting, printing, and drawing are faster, more improvisational and experimental.

Some of my works are planned with a predetermined subject. An example would be an assemblage called “Judgment,” which is a comment on climate change. It was inspired by a news article about melting glaciers in the Alps revealing the remains of the lost dead of World War I. Randomness in the selection of materials was edited and composed to illustrate the message I wanted to deliver with that one.

Other works are practice, in the sense of regular creative exercise, having no predetermined subject or message. An example would be my recent abstract landscapes in watercolor and ink, in which I let the subject emerge from random effects.

I do everything by hand. I have no digital skills to speak of.

I have a process as a writer, too. It's weirdly complicated and somewhat ritualistic, with designated methods for all the stages of planning, drafting, editing, etc.

All my processes are designed to push me past my chronic perfectionism so I can actually finish things.

You are also a poet. Do you find poetry and painting closely aligned?

I don’t dare to call myself a poet. I try. I make no claims of success or quality.

Words and pictures have always been my twin loves, and for me, they are closely aligned. I like to tell stories with pictures and paint pictures with words. It’s all about those long walks through the maze garden.

Like the abstract landscapes, the poetry and fifty-word stories are part of my creative practice, though they are a lot more controlled in execution.

With poetry, I’m trying to learn from the haiku-inspired works of Ezra Pound and Allen Ginsberg, following the traditional principle of capturing a moment, while adjusting the form to better suit written English. I’m trying to express a lot in very few words, just as I try to capture whole landscapes in a few brush strokes.

My fifty-word stories are based on an old surrealist game, in which a full story is told in exactly fifty words. I like to add challenge by randomly pre-selecting five words which must be used in the story somehow.

I actually write more long-form prose, but only my closest friends have gotten to read it. I hope that will change soon.

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