Saturday, August 27, 2022

Red Letter Poem #125

 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 #125




“In war, there are no unwounded soldiers.”  The aphorism comes from the Argentinian writer José Narosky.  It hints at what might seem a simple lesson but one that, since the dawn of nations, we seem incapable of learning.  Veterans’ hospitals overflow with men and women for whom the bloody conflict will never end.  Their bodies and minds have been reshaped into a kind of battlefield, and their families and communities share in the lasting effects.  And then there are the cemeteries. . .  The dream of peace remains a distant province.


Two days ago, August 24th, was Ukrainian Independence Day commemorating the time in 1991 when their parliament voted to separate from the Soviet Union. The date this year will also mark six months since the start of the current Russian invasion.  President Zelensky issued a statement requesting no large celebrations this week, fearing “Russia could try to do something particularly ugly, something particularly vicious” in a war that has already been rife with atrocity.  But I would like to honor this Red Letter day (red, in all its implications, terrible and joyous) with two bits of narrative, both coming from the acclaimed Ukrainian poet Yuliya Musakovska.  The first is her powerful piece “The Spartan Boy” which has been making quite a stir in Europe, translated this spring into several other languages including Portuguese, Swedish, Estonian and Czech.  The poem comes from her recent collection The God of Freedom (Old Lion Publishing House, 2021) – rendered here into English by Olena Jennings and the author herself.  I am anxiously awaiting the translation of the entire book so her work will be more fully available to American audiences.  In this poem, Yuliya plays off of an ancient Greek tale featured in Plutarch’s accounts of Sparta and the harsh training their youths underwent, hardening them for battle.  Stealing, for example, was considered an acceptable activity, a necessary survival skill preparing for times of war; being caught was the only crime.  In this story, a young boy found a beautiful fox cub and, not wanting to have it taken from him, hid it beneath his shirt.  But the creature eventually gnawed through his chest, ending his life. 


In Yuliya’s poem, it’s war itself that is the feral animal, eating away at all who must embrace it.  I’d like to believe that, one day, there will be a reckoning within the Russian people because of the brutal crimes committed in their name – but my friends shake their heads, think me naïve.  Sadly, it is undoubtedly true that the Ukrainian men and women currently fighting cannot yet imagine how they will forever be changed by the conflict.  They know quite well what’s made them take up arms – the survival of their families, their homes, their homeland and its freedom – and are assured of their country’s gratitude.  But the price Ukraine is paying is inestimable.


The second little narrative comes from a recent post on Yuliya’s Facebook page: it shows a photo of her young son about to blow out the candles from his birthday cake.  She told me how, unable to gather his school friends for a large party, the family drove out of the city to their grandparents’ house, hoping for a calmer afternoon.  She captioned the post: “Blowing out candles on a birthday cake to the sounds of air raid alarms.  Such is life in Ukraine now.  But you only have your 11th birthday once.”  No respite for this beleaguered nation.  So my wish is that the same blessing will prove true for his 12th birthday, his 13th, his 14th. . .  Did the poet have to keep herself from imagining that fox somehow sneaking its way beneath her son’s black tee shirt?  Or that of her loved ones?  Do we, in America – at this seemingly safe distance – remember the sound of the fox’s claws sprinting up our own streets?




The Spartan Boy



The war that you've been carrying

in your shirt pocket

gnawed a hole in you as if it were a fox.

Your heart keeps falling out.

I am sewing the hole shut,

firmly holding the edges together

with my numb, unbending fingers.

I hope it stays closed a little longer.

When the city falls asleep,

the black caterpillars of scars wake up.

And only death’s head moths will emerge.

The city pours steam out of its nostrils

and sets its hills like horns.

You have a vision of your mates’ faces

at the bottom of the lake —

a dark fairy tale from his childhood that came to life.

Although you were polite, respected elders,

and were easily content.

Actually, there is no such thing as justice.

The scratched steel mug you never part with,

your superficial sleep, and fierce hate of fireworks.

What a lucky one, he could have lost so much more,

he's almost whole, they say.

You have chosen me because of my skillful,

sensitive fingers.

I’m comfortable holding a needle with them.

A fox's muzzle is peering out of your pocket,

licking its lips, recalling what my bird of peace tasted like.



––Yuliya Musakovska




The Red Letters 3.0


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Friday, August 26, 2022

Somerville Writer Regina Hansen: Braves 'The Coming Storm'


For years I've seen and chatted with Somerville writer Regina Hansen at my favorite haunt in Union Square-- the Bloc 11 Café. However, I had never had the chance to interview her. But with her new young adult fiction novel "The Coming Storm" coming in with the literary tide, I was on it like a hornet--and got to speak to her in my familiar environs at the back of the said café.

I asked Hansen about her life as a writer in the " Paris of New England." She replied,  " There are so many places in Somerville for a writer. The city has great libraries, the Somerville Arts Council is very supportive. My own mother was born in Somerville, so I feel very comfortable here."

Hansen is a professor at Boston University and teaches children and young adult fiction-- among other things. I asked her why she gravitated to this genre of writing, She told me, " I read it as a child and young adult. At a certain age, let's say 11 to 14, kids get hope and solace from these stories. They are at an awkward age. They are not quite adults, but on the other hand they can't get the kid's meal at the local restaurant. They are in a kind of funny place. I remember feeling that way at that age, and books were a sort of elixir to that."

Hansen continued, " I raised my own extended family and I have taught kids of all ages. I don't teach kids to get good ideas from them. I teach them because I like them. Kids aren't stupid. If you try to act like them then you lose them.  But if you-- be you, they will come to you." 

Her supernatural/ horror//mystery novel, " The Coming Storm" is set in Prince Edward Island. The setting was based partly on the time she spent on her grandfather's farm on the island. Hansen said the basic storyline is about a boy and a girl who struggle against evil forces to save a baby.

One of the characters in the novel is an evil woman named Marlena. She is cold and manipulative--and controls a monster to do her dirty work. Hansen talked about the conceptualization of the character,   "You know, when I introduced this character, I didn't realize that she might be seen as this stereotypical 'nasty' woman. But all the other women are equally as strong and not negative beings.  But Marlena moves the story along. I did my very best to characterize women as brave, strong and loving throughout the book."

Since a monster plays a role in her novel, I asked Hansen what attracts kids and adults to monsters, when there are so many real life monsters today. She reflected, "Kids like monsters because it helps them cope with their fears.... their monsters... in their own life. It helps them deal with adversity in their own world."

Hansen told me she has taught composition for years. And the same elements that are in this course of study, are taught in her young adult fiction classes. Hansen pointed out that strong writing involves detail, critical thinking, among other things. She said, "I always tell my students to approach the blank page with no fixed ideas where the story will go. It should come organically."

I asked Hansen why kids, etc... should read her book. She opined, " I think the story is filled with compassion and mystery. I think readers  will love the people in it. It encompasses the world I would want to live in and hopefully it's the same for people who read the book."

For more info about Hansen go to:

The Seamus Heaney Memorial Reading Sept 7th 7PM


Click on pic to enlarge

Wednesday, August 24, 2022

Even on Parnassus By Lawrence Cottrell

 Even on Parnassus

By Lawrence Cottrell

Dos Madres Press

Loveland, Ohio

ISBN: 978-1-953252-58-6

53 Pages

Review by Dennis Daly

“Make it new,” “make it new” the modernist critics and poets admonished their contemporaries and successors. Pound with his Chinese ideograms and imagist poems, Yeats with his Rosicrucian metaphors, Ginsberg with his countercultural and beat sensibilities, Elizabeth Bishop with her polished, somewhat distant take, Robert Duncan with his field philosophy of language, and arguably Gerard Manley Hopkins (who predated the rest) with his sprung rhythm did. Others, interpreting “new” as prose-like or accessibility, opted for the confessional angle (think Robert Lowell, Anne Sexton, and Sylvia Plath) or the immediacy of the famous (some would say infamous) Iowa Writers Workshop, which in the persons of Donald Justice, John Berryman, or Rita Dove championed stylish plain-spokenness in both formal and free verse.

Occasionally, a book of poetry materializes out of today’s ether that appears to be genuinely “new” with attributes not often glimpsed in this elitist, ever-dwindling, literary society. Even On Parnassus by Lawrence Cottrell is such a book. Cottrell’s eccentric individualism seems to drive this collection with a unique diction, which surprises, and with unusual wordage stirred into the fast-flowing cadences.

In his poem Gods Cottrell imagines himself as a demi-god or advisor in divinity’s court. He juxtaposes humanity’s flesh and blood nature with its empyrean aspirations. The insight both unsettles and intoxicates him. From the heart of the poem listen to the internal rhymes and the lovely elegiac cadence,

Comrades leave me, one by one, bonny bairns and plain,

Yet swallow gyre above the Elk and daisies crowd June’s

Roads again…

life a chaplet for each rue.

Being’s as it must, jigs and minuets of dust, but, as a man

in this exotic wild, I’d have it otherwise,

Be birthing with each age, death shed by molting soul;

Christ would ask me for advice on King or char, if a tide

Should top the bar, if I approved of Armageddon;

I’d too have keys to locks of kingdom come…

Gifts, a poem of longing and unrequited desire, imagined by an empathetic observer, is without question my favorite poem in Cottrell’s collection. A fanciful lady, ensconced in the safety of her known world, comes to grips with the marvelous and adventurous beyond her reach and now, perhaps, beyond her time. She conjures up a caravan with allusions to the Magi and sees herself as a valuable gift to be given to her chosen, if illusory, beloved. The poem’s opening mixes mystery and desire in proper proportions,

‘Twixt Palmyra and Tashkent, no sounds but camels’ hooves on

Sand, hypnotic sway of tinkling bridle bells,

Caravans of gifts along the wadis and the dunes, by her life’s oasis,

Bound to far off places…a literary rogue in Isfahan, a prodigy near


the wanton moods of some Khayyam…

While yearns that lady in the starlight…

Charitable actions done in the name of organized religion are often caricatured and downplayed in importance or, even worse, tinged with suspect motivations. These good people, for the most part, who provide necessities of life for the indigent, do it in a very personal way that public services, however well-meant, cannot. The Dorothy Days of this world should never be underestimated. Cottrell’s persona, in his poem Hissom’s Tabernacle, details one of these very incidents that he is reminded of each time he passes by a certain Christian church. The piece concludes this way,

Where the congregation found us, waif and strays on

Mercy’s stoop,

Fed us for its sake and ours, faith’s freshet pouring


That my brothers, four and two then, don’t remember…

When we, liege-men of want, saw blessings crowd like

Quaker ladies April yards…

When Fisher Kings filled hunger’s void one December,


like Lazarus,

‘rose our futures from their biers –

As rain turns to snow in the bitter winds of April, Cottrell mulls on humanity’s condition and gives some good advice to future generations in his poem entitled Patience. Consider these lines of homespun wisdom,

Patience, lad

Soon, rain will be just rain, not harbinger of ice on ponds,

The fixing in mid stride of itinerant life, a netting of ado

by hoarfrost…

Be tropical elixir for the ever young, this kingdom on the

inward side of eyes,

Which, howsoever fisted by the imperator, time, grown

jaded in December,

is ardent nestling come a spring…

from somewhere in the gloom

shadows sing—

Life, by chance or fate, sometimes sends unlikely heroes our way to guide us through difficulties. Cottrell’s Jim Bob is a poem that relates one of those tales. The product of a hardscrabble life, the poet’s older cousin saved him from a “ten year old savage,” an old story to be sure, but one that would leave a lasting impression on the targeted victim. Here the poet depends on the efficaciousness of his art to return the favor,

So I owe my cousin this mention in dispatches to


To say that he, just one more ripple of the ruck, your usual


Made his mark on me (at least), was something more than


And I would have you (and God, perhaps, in case He has


Know of him, howsoever sweep like brooms the second

hands of clocks these reveries of dust—

Cottrell’s persona in Entr’acte, the last poem in the collection, humbly muses that his own work consists of “the mostly honest metres of {a} jongler.” Perhaps. But, in addition, his poetics most certainly suggest a major talent, who has composed extraordinary verses transcending what was once the modern, or the merely “new.”

Monday, August 22, 2022

Vladimir by Julia May Jonas


Vladimir by Julia May Jonas. Avid Reader Press, New York, 2022. 238 pages. $27.00.

Book Review by Ed Meek

Julia May Jonas begins her novel toying with us as an updated version of a grown up Lolita when she claims that as a child, she “loved old men.” Now an adult, she has a colleague captive and tied to a chair. His name is Vladimir. To find out how this occurs and what she plans to do to Vladimir, we need to read two hundred pages. This is not a mystery though. It is more a comedy of manners, a sophisticated satire from the point of view of a feminist professor unafraid of transgressions in our politically correct age. Like Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon, Straight Man by Richard Russo, and Professor Romeo by Anne Bernays, Vladimir is set at a college with commentary on writing, sexuality and male and female roles.

Although the main character is a feminist, she remains caught up in our cultural biases about female beauty and is obsessed with how she looks. She is in an open marriage. Her husband had affairs with a number of his students years ago when such actions were neither against college policy nor illegal. Now, a handful of those women have come out publicly against him in the spirit of the me-too movement. As a result, his job is in jeopardy and his wife is put in a difficult position. Here she is confronted by a group of her young women students.

“Well, we just wanted to say, like, you don’t have to, like, do the whole supportive silent wife thing.”

I breathed in, white-hot anger rushing up my forearms into my elbows.

Then Tabitha, in her mechanic’s jumpsuit, worn unbuttoned to the waist so that her bra was visible, stepped forward…

“It is totally unfair what he has done to us.”

“You?” I asked.

“Us women,” she said.

Jonas is really good at capturing the complexity of these generational differences. She goes on to talk about how careful she has to be in answering their concerns. Professors today, unlike the good old days when there was a concept of academic freedom in operation on college campuses, have to be very careful not to offend their clients, the students. They wouldn’t want to trigger them or violate their safe spaces or use the wrong pronoun. If they want to keep their cushy positions, they need to keep the students in their seats. The narrator thanks the young women profusely for their support and admits that she too may be a victim of her own internalized sexism.

Her husband is suspended while his position is under review. There will be a hearing. The narrator is under pressure to step away from her teaching because of the optics. Meanwhile, the college has hired a handsome young, newly successful writer, Vladmir, whom the older narrator, (she is 57) finds herself drawn to. Vladimir nailed his interview with the college by confessing that his wife had recently attempted suicide. His genuine tears won the committee over. He does this even though his wife will be teaching part time at the college.

This kind of insider view is what makes Vladimir fun to read. The author, who teaches at Skidmore college, appears to be a number of years younger than her narrator and sometimes she misfires. When the narrator’s daughter shows up after a night of heavy drinking that ended with anonymous sex in a bus station, the narrator’s reaction is to drink with her. She doesn’t suggest her daughter get tested or go to the police. Isn’t that considered rape today?

And what starts out as a tease about a little bondage leading to sex, develops into kidnapping and drugging leading to a ridiculous over-the-top conclusion with no credibility. But this is a debut novel and most of it is very entertaining. It is often said that novels, which give us a feel for continuity, are difficult to end. We can safely assume that the talented Julia May Jonas will get better at endings in her forthcoming efforts.