Saturday, August 13, 2022

Red Letter Poem #123

 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 #123




Re-reading the poems in The Low Passions – the debut collection by Anders Carlson-Wee (published by W. W. Norton)  – I kept noticing how, circling inside my head, brutal and beautiful were chiming responses; how some of the most physically and psychically challenging situations he describes seem also to quietly simmer with an unmistakable love.  If Walt Whitman had somehow been born in the bleak stretches of the upper Midwest, with the dawn of the 21st Century just beginning to gleam on the horizon; had he engaged in daredevil skateboarding escapades with his brother to fill dark winter days; twice pedaled across the country, relying on his own wilderness skills and the kindness of strangers to survive; and later hopped freight trains in order to explore the hardscrabble lives common today across these dis-United States – he too might have sung of the America captured in these pages.


Having grown up in a household filled with sisters but devoid of even one male sibling, I was instantly intrigued and astonished by the no-holds-barred combat Anders and his brother Kai engaged in (depicted graphically in poems like “Polaroid”.)  And yet, despite the litany of wounds, the boys seemed to share an unbreakable bond.  And so I was not shocked to learn that both grew up to become poets; co-authored two chapbooks together; and jointly directed an award-winning film, Riding the Highline – a freight-hopping odyssey-slash-poetry vision-quest.  It made me consider how we often engage in the bloodiest battles with those closest to our hearts.  As America’s own caustic sibling rivalry escalates toward what’s begun to feel like an undeclared civil war, I have to say I took a small measure of hope from Anders’ poems.  He depicts the poorest and most alienated circumstances in our country that, somehow, still end up producing acts of kindness and moments of spectacular beauty.

Granted, this is in no small part due to Anders considerable lyrical gifts and a careful eye that zooms-in cinematically on the telling detail – things Whitman also would have admired.  The Low Passions was chosen as a New York Public Library Book Group Selection; in addition, Anders was awarded the 2017 Poetry International Prize, and has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, Poets & Writers, Bread Loaf, Sewanee, and the Napa Valley Writers’ Conference.  And even now, with a certain celebrity achieved from his artistic endeavors, Anders describes himself as living closer to the bone than most would find comfortable: “I dumpster dive for most of my food and live a humble life. I piece together an income from touring, publishing, teaching, awards, grants” and, yes, the kindness of people he meets along his travels.  His poems make us, too, want to look “just beyond the lens” to discover what’s out there, waiting for our attention.







A loose flap of skin passes just below

his eye. Bruises ride the bridge of my nose.

The dark ropes of handprints grip

both our necks. Our fresh buzzcuts

lumpy with goose eggs. It's easy to forget

we were trying to kill each other.

Or at least I was. But what I wonder now

is why our father shot the photo before

he bandaged the hole where the nail

went in, stuffed my raw mouth with gauze.

We stand side by side against the garage,

eyes focused just beyond the lens,

each pointing at what we did to the other.



       ––Anders Carlson-Wee





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Friday, August 12, 2022

Interview with Patricia Harris: New England's Notable Women: The Stories and Sites of Trailblazers and Achievers

Patricia Harris met me at my usual spot at the Bloc11 Cafe in Union Square, Somerville to talk about her latest book "New England's Notable Women: The Stories and Sites of Trailblazers and Achievers." Harris is a travel-writer (who often shares her byline with her husband the writer-- David Lyons)  and is a seasoned food and arts reporter. Her articles have often appeared in The Boston Globe and elsewhere.

Harris told me as a child, " I was always interested in Louisa May Alcott's  novel " Little Women" and particularly the character of Jo March. March was always curious and spunky and did not fit into the restrictive conventions of her time for girls. So it was very interesting to write about these women  of the same cloth from all walks of life, and connect a vivid place or home , etc.... that resonates with their lives."

Harris visited sites of  45 notable women.  She narrowed down her list to places where her readers could visit. Sometimes she wanted to include a woman, but there was just no relevant site that people could focus on.  She said, " I want people to view this as an armchair book, but also as an active one--that people can refer to when they go to the sites such as The Mount or the Alcott Estate, for instance."

I asked Harris about some of the notable women she covered. We started very locally in Cambridge, with Julia Child. Just over the Somerville line - is the Cambridge-based meat and gourmet market Savenor's .  Since Harris couldn't visit the house Child lived in, (it is not open to the public) she brings the reader to Savenor's -- where the iconic " 'French Chef" Julia Child-- was a loyal patron--getting the clarified butter, the rarefied cuts of meats and ingredients, for culinary fodder for her creations that wowed TV goers and readers alike. Child was also a denizen of the  "Harvest"  a restaurant in Harvard Square-- that is still very much in operation today. According to Harris, Child was a very approachable woman, and would often engage in long conversations with pedestrians, as she walked the winding streets of Cambridge.

We also touched on Alice Longfellow, of the "Longfellow House-Washington's Headquarters-National Historic Site on Brattle Street in Cambridge. Alice Longfellow of course was the daughter of Henry Wordsworth Longfellow, who once referred her to as her "Grave Alice," in his poem the "Children's Hour."

According to Harris, Alice was instrumental in the renovation, and expansion of the house. She also  was a George Washington aficionado and spread the legacy of the man, whose Revolutionary War Headquarters was at the Longfellow House. She is also played a major role in the founding of Radcliffe College.

We also discussed Maria Mitchell, the first recognized female astronomer in the United States, who discovered the comet  known as "Miss Mitchell's" comet in1847.  She discovered the comet on the top of her house in Nantucket with her little telescope. She later became the first professor at Vassar College and the director of the Vassar College Observatory.

Another of Harris' favorite women was the enslaved poet Phillis Wheatley. Born in West Africa, she was sold into slavery to Bostonian John Wheatley and his family. This wealthy family educated her and she became a self-taught poet. She later became a household name in the world of poetry.  Later on-she left the family's church and went on be a member of the congregation of the Old South Meeting House in Boston. Wheatley was an extremely pious woman and was strongly connected to her religion. Some contingents believed that the reserved Wheatley should have spoken up more about white oppression. But Harris feels that as time went on and her faith changed, the poet did speak more strongly about the injustice in society. In the 1770s Wheatley had a collection of 28 poems compiled. However, there was no support to publish it in America, so in 1773 her first collection, " Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral" was published in London.

Harris also told told me about Kathleen Moore, who was the keeper of the Black Rock Fayerweather Island Lighthouse off the coast of Bridgeport, Connecticut,  She held this position for over a half a century-- ( she took over duties at age 12) and was responsible for saving many lives. She reportedly said that at times there were 3 or 4 shipwrecks a night. She was responsible not only to maintain the lighthouse, but to nurse shipwrecked sailors back to life. Unfortunately she died in obscurity in an unmarked grave

I asked Harris if she considered herself a feminist and she replied with a wry smile, " I am all about women's empowerment." And indeed-- these stories and places, with a generous amount of illustrations and photography are a testament to empowered women.

Wednesday, August 10, 2022

Mercy, Bill Littlefield


Mercy, Bill Littlefield, Black Rose Writing, Texas, 242 pages, $20.95.

Review by Ed Meek

John Gardner (The Art of Fiction) would call Mercy an architectonic novel. It is written using a number of different points of view. For it to be successful, the author has to be able to create convincing characters and, when he changes point of view, we have to be invested enough in the characters to go along for the ride. And somehow, the author must manage to tie or bring these characters together. Littlefield delivers in his compelling new novel Mercy. And these days, with the stress of a pandemic and a Russian invasion of Ukraine, the notion that we could both show and use a little mercy really strikes a chord.

You may know Bill Littlefield from his work as host of It’s Only a Game, the popular NPR show that he created. As someone who spent years telling and listening to stories, Littlefield is adept at storytelling. He has also worked with the incarcerated for a number of years through Emerson College’s prison program. In Mercy, Littlefield is able to bring some of the many tales he must have heard to life. His wide range of experiences lends his voice authority, particularly when he writes from the point of view of characters in the novel on the wrong side of the law.

Mercy is set in a suburban neighborhood inhabited by a cross-section of characters. An older couple with a young son, a woman whose husband loses all their money by day-trading, and a famous gangster who has been returned home from jail to die in the house lived in by his wife. Two guys who worked for the gangster are also integral to the plot. In this type of novel, you’ll find yourself, depending on your background, identifying with some characters more than others or maybe not identifying but appreciating… My favorites were the small-time bad guys, Francis and Gibby, who did odd jobs for the gangster, Arthur Baladino. Their dialogue crackles like the exchanges in a Dennis Lehane novel. Francis tells Gibby about a guy he met in jail for murder who said to him: “I don’t consider myself a murderer.”

“Nobody guilty in here,” Gibby said.

“No, no, that’s not it,” Francis said. “He’s defending himself, the way he sees it…”

“Okay,” Gibby said.

“But the main thing, his point, this guy, he’s just doing what it is he does. He’s out there with his guys, that’s all. He’s got a gun… ‘Murderer?’ he tells me, Murderer’s a guy does it for money.’”

As you read Mercy, you’ll find yourself nodding along with the stories the characters tell. Like Jack you may remember “the cruelty of children.” Jack tells us of a kid coming up behind him as he was walking along with a friend; the kid banged their heads together. “Every kid has something like that to get through. Or bullying. Teasing. Having to go the bathroom and the teacher won’t let you.”

We didn’t have a murderer like Arthur Baladino in our neighborhood in Milton, but we did have a counterfeiter next door, and around the corner was a child molester who seduced (if that’s the word) the paper-boy.

The theme of Mercy comes into play in the ways the characters help and support each other. The couple that sticks together despite having to deal with the unimaginable. The gangster’s wife who takes him in when he’s released from jail. Two women who find love with each other late in life. No matter who we are, we’ve all had difficult situations to deal with. Even Arthur Baladino and his wife have terrible things happen to them that makes them sympathetic characters.

Echoing John Edgar Wideman who writes about the younger brother who has spent his life in jail for his involvement in a murder, Littlefield doesn’t let his wise guys off the hook, but he would like us to see them as human beings.

“What it is, I guess is, people are people, inside or out. Some of ‘em do stuff, you know when they’re young guys, whatever.” Says Francis referring to the way, men he knew in prison grow and change. Most of the violent crime, as we know, is committed by young men. And we’ve learned that young men are not very good at considering the consequences of their actions.

The plot of the novel revolves around the many secrets simmering beneath the surface of the lives of the characters and Littlefield slowly teases them out to connect the disparate voices in Mercy. You’ll find yourself having a hard time putting Mercy down as you turn the pages to find out what happens next.