Friday, February 24, 2023

In Those Years, No One Slept by Claudia Serea

In Those Years, No One Slept by Claudia Serea BROADSTONE BOOKS Paperback, 116 pages ISBN: 978-1-956782-31-8, $21.50 

Reviewed by Marek Kulig

Claudia Serea’s newest poetry collection, In Those Years, No One Slept (Broadstone Books, February 2023) begins with the strike of a match. Many poems begin like this: a glimmer, a spark, an idea the motion detector of verse recognizes as a creation on which light ought to be cast, setting it forth with a little hope. While existence began, according to theoretical physics, with the Big Bang, poetry begins, according to Serea, with humans sitting in the dark, tinkering, making up to make do. What does this look like? Here is “The man playing with matches”:

He sits in the dark

and lights matches

to keep warm.

One by one,

he holds up

trembling lights

with human heads:




and a distant cousin—

carbon profiles,

flame hair.

They flicker,

throwing shadows

on the walls.

They rise, move, and glow—

then, one by one,

he blows them out.

An ars poetica in bookending stanzas. Also notice the central friction between generation and cessation. The ignited matches give life to the family, but in that next line, after a lamentable breath of em-dash and pause of space break, these people are, in the end, “carbon profiles,” flammable, susceptible to extinguishment.

After all, the “those years” in the title reference the years Serea spent under Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu. His name, however, appears only once: near the end of the collection, in the middle of the poem “A village in Romania,” buried on a skinny horse-drawn cart among “technical drawings / of useless contraptions.” To the wayside with the wicked.

The road through those harrowing years is, undeniably, strewn with sleeplessness, a dearth of common goods, fear, desperation. But here, too, is resilience, heart, wonder, and life. In the kitchens, mums cook for those returned from the blighted, serrated edges of the world. In the gardens, children's hands are what they harvest, beets, red and hard from the cold. In the minds of those who survived is admiration, honor, and the remembrance of lives persistent and true despite death’s tyrannical insistence.

At nightfall, beet juices smeared

the November sky.

No one saw us stealing from the cold ground,

only the starlings and crows.

No one saw the small hands

digging into the dirt,

feeling for round roots

sweet like candy.

Boiled, the beets were soft

and bloodied our mouths

as if we ate the sun.

Serea’s signature youthfulness finds its way into these poems as well. Take “We played wedding”, in which a young Serea and two friends stage a marriage, the bride and groom about to kiss, if not for a interruption (Should anyone present know of any reason that this couple should not be joined in holy matrimony, speak now or forever hold your peace!) from the 4th floor window:


They got sunflower oil at the Alimentară,

hurry up and get in line!

And we ran,

leaving our wedding to the ants.

In a poem titled “1954”, Serea’s father, who features predominantly in many poems, smokes a cigarette alongside Frank O’Hara, the former in Romania plowing fields, the latter in New York City. Serea appears decades later, as a rabbit that

...runs from the field in Romania

into a bar in New York City,

foolish enough to believe

it can escape.

To those unfamiliar with Serea’s writing (or Romania’s history), let these poems be the little lights (recall those glowing matches?) that simultaneously unshadow the scourge of communism in Romania and uncover her rich back catalog. In Those Years, No One Slept is Claudia Serea at her most endearingly puckish and narratively vigorous, her most at home, Romanian-American and writing world-class poetry.

Marek Kulig immigrated to the USA from Poland in 1992. A former high school English teacher, he currently works in medical sales. Recent poems in VIBE, Little Old Lady, Plants and Poetry, Rat’s Ass Review, and NiftyLit. He also writes food articles for Edible Southeastern Massachusetts. More at

Thursday, February 23, 2023

Red Letter Poem #30 Lloyd Schwartz

 My Dear Readers,


During the first three years of the Red Letters, I think I’ve only skipped 2 weeks due to travel or illness – and this week is another time away.  But rather than leave you Letter-less, I decided to share an older piece that many newer readers will have missed (and old readers will likely savor a second time.)  Instead of ‘Throwback Thursday,’ consider this our first Flashback Friday – and enjoy Lloyd Schwartz’ wonderful translation of Carlos Drummond de Andrade’s signature piece “Canção Amiga”  a valuable counterpoint to the fiery rhetoric in the weekly news cycle.


See you with a new poem next Friday!






Red Letter Poem #30




Lloyd Schwartz navigates his roles as poet, scholar, and critic with such ease, an observer can easily believe a single impulse, a unified language informs them all.  His recently-published Who’s on First? New and Selected Poems (University of Chicago Press) is his sixth collection.  Lloyd is the Frederick S.Troy Professor of English Emeritus at UMass Boston; and his voice is familiar to many as the longtime classical music critic for NPR’s Fresh Air.  I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that he is also the Poet Laureate for neighboring Somerville, MA. 

A noted scholar and editor of the work of Elizabeth Bishop, Lloyd was invited to Brazil to offer some lectures celebrating the first Portuguese edition of her poetry.  When the doorman of the hotel at which he was staying learned the reason for his trip, he told Lloyd: “We love poetry in Brazil – we even have poetry on our money!”  Pulling out a 50 Cruzados note — as common as a dollar bill – he showed the visitor the lovely engraving of Brazil’s national poet, Carlos Drummond de Andrade working thoughtfully at his desk.  And beside it, in brown ink, was the text of “Canção Amiga”, one of his most beloved poems.  How can American poets feel anything but awe and admiration for a country where its poets are so highly regarded?  Lloyd, just learning Portuguese, began working on a translation of the piece that very evening.

Born in Itabira, a mining village in Minas Gerais in southeastern Brazil, de Andrade’s parents were farmers of Portuguese ancestry.  Trained to be a pharmacist, he ended up working in government service, eventually becoming the Director of History for the National Historical and Artistic Heritage Service.  Despite (or perhaps because of) the large family into which he was born, de Andrade developed an inwardness and a profound quiet which permeated his poems, balanced with wit, elegance, and a Whitman-like sense of the vibrant spirit of his people.  “Friendly Song” seems a perfect antidote to the troubled times we find ourselves in – and, as in Lloyd’s graceful translation, what could we wish for right now more necessary than a song that rouses men and women from their discordant lives while lulling the children to their rest?


Friendly Song Canção Amiga


    I’m working on a song

  in which my own mother sees her image,

       everyone’s mother sees her image,

  and it speaks, it speaks just like two eyes.


         I’m traveling along a roadway

     that winds through many countries.

    My old friends—if they don’t see me,

      I see them, I see and salute them.


            I am giving away a secret

     like someone who loves, or smiles.

              In the most natural way

        two caresses reach each other.


          My whole life, all of our lives

            make up a single diamond.

       I’ve learned a few new phrases—

           and to make others better.


              I’m working on a song

                that wakes men up

             and lets children sleep.



                                    ­­­–– Carlos Drummond de Andrade

                                         (Translated by Lloyd Schwartz)


The Red Letters 3.0


* 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:



To learn more about the origins of the Red Letter Project, check out an essay I wrote for Arrowsmith Magazine:


and the Boston Area Small Press and Poetry Scene


For updates and announcements about Red Letter projects and poetry readings, please follow me on Twitter          


Wednesday, February 22, 2023

Home-stay in Pakistan at Boston Playwrights’ Theater


Home-stay in Pakistan at Boston Playwrights’ Theater

Review by Andy Hoffman

The last time I saw a play like JADO JEHAD, currently on the boards at Boston Playwrights’ Theatre, was never. Set in the living room of a house in Pakistan, the new play concerns three generations of women who have come to roost with Manzoor, the grandmother and owner of the house. Manzoor’s daughter, Kareema, has come home after her husband divorced her. Knowing how distraught her mother would be, Mashal returns to Pakistan from her studies in the United States to offer her support. Mashal had enjoyed the freedom of American society, relished being herself for the first time, and learns quickly that traditional gender roles in her homeland have not kept up with her growth overseas.

I have no knowledge of what queer life is like for young people in Pakistan; I can’t claim to know much about life in Pakistan, period. I also suspect it presumes very little to say that few readers of this review know much more. But that is a great part of the charm of JADO JEHAD, which translates from the Urdu as ‘endeavor’. The play succeeds on several levels. First, it’s a fascinating revelation of a corner of life few American audiences will know. Second, the mix of humor and drama as the three women grow and change to accommodate their altered circumstances is moving, especially in the performances of Vidisha Agarwalla as Mashal and Jyoti Daniere as her ‘Nani’ Manzoor. Throughout the evening, the audience moaned in recognition of the women’s struggles. And lastly, through a combination of a smart script and some deft directing, the alien domestic challenges become extremely relevant even for non-Desi, straight, and male members of the audience.

The universality of the generational divides hits home regardless of which generation you occupy. Manzoor’s hard-earned faith in Allah grows from her loss of her beloved husband, who died a few years prior to the action of the play. Kareema’s clownish attempts to find herself after a soul-killing marriage and confidence-busting divorce are both laugh-out-loud and honestly human. And Mashal’s life driving like a man on Pakistani streets, visiting lesbian bars, and building a new relationship under difficult circumstances carry the night. The women struggle within and between themselves to uncover both peace and identity in their lives together. Unusual though the setting can feel, that very fact emphasizes that families all have the same challenges – finding love, accommodating to traditions, being oneself while tolerating others being themselves – wherever they live and whatever those traditions might be.

In the after-performance discussion, the playwright, Fatima A. Maan, described her current life in Lahore. Like Mashal, her main character, Maan has endeavored to find her own life after her experiences in the United States. Whether or not the rest of JADO JEHAD reveals her personal life makes no difference, but the authenticity of her voice comes through clearly. Bridget Kathleen O’Leary spoke about the very short window the production team and the performers had to understand rework the play. Together they have created a play worth seeing now, as well as one that will grow and change in the next few productions, as anyone should expect from a new play. I suggest that the next production might be stronger if it found a way to break the monologues into dialogues, created more three-way interactions among the generations, and integrated the coda – which appears to take place a few years after the play’s main action – into the body of JADO JEHAD itself.

I recommend seeing the play first and foremost as an excellent evening of theater and as exposure to the power of new plays. The play also serves as a refreshing reminder of our shared humanity while simultaneously introducing us into the particular reality of modern-day Pakistan. The Boston Playwrights’ Theatre requires audience members to wear masks for the remainder of this season, so come prepared. JADO JEHAD runs 90 minutes and has no intermission.

Sunday, February 19, 2023

Red Letter Poem #149

 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





I am pleased to announce that Christopher Jane Corkery just received a nomination for this year’s Pushcart Prize for her poem "Painter on Scaffolding in Summer" which appeared as Red Letter #113.  The final selections for the yearly anthology of ‘Best of the Small Presses’ will be announced in May – and I know our Community of Voices will be wishing her luck.






Red Letter Poem #149





Today’s reddest of Red Letters is a little Valentine’s Day primer. 


Have you ever wondered where it came from – this ungainly symbol for love: two plump lobes tapering down to a point?  What substantial love-pledge, let alone marriage of true minds, could hope to balance upon such a precarious structure?  I think back to my grade school Valentine’s Days – red construction paper cut-outs pasted onto white doilies; and, of course, the lively trade of those candy Sweethearts, those sugar-fueled oracles.  But a quick glimpse inside an encyclopedia confirmed, even for a fourth grader, this design was nothing like that muscle beating ceaselessly in our chests.  It turns out that heart-shaped leaves – like the fig, ivy, waterlily – were often featured in medieval art and heraldry.  The ivy was intended to symbolize fidelity; did that start this icon on its path to being a universal emoji?


Further back, a host of ancient philosophers believed the heart was the emotional center of our being, the seat of the soul.  And physicians such as Galen, the second-century ‘father of medicine’, described the heart as a three-chambered organ shaped like a pine cone.  Thus, the first known depiction in art of that iconic love-gesture was in the 13th century French manuscript the Roman de la Poire (Romance of the Pear), in which a young man holds out his vaguely pine cone-shaped heart as an offering for his lady love.  Saint Valentine (we mustn’t forget that 3rd century Roman martyr – patron saint of courtly love, but also of epilepsy and beekeeping) would certainly smile upon this expression. . .


. . .As well he might on Cathie Desjardin’s much more biological take on the valentine.  Before I comment further, let’s enjoy her poem:






We’re together in the kitchen when you say

you talked to your new doctor,

the one who ordered up an EKG

because he said he’d heard a skip, a stutter.


Most likely it’s within a normal range.

What’s normal in our undercover pumps?

Part mystery fist, blossom, cage?

Once I saw a tattooed heart clumped


on a woman’s bare back: not a valentine

but a thick muscle in full spurt,

aortic wad inked in red and blue lines.

She said she loved our corporeal hearts,


the beauty in anatomy. Anyway,

you tell me, my doctor scanned the blips

and says I’m fine. Let’s look, I say.

So you hoist your shirt up from your hips,


I place a palm curved to fit

among your soft gray curling furze,

spider fingers scrying for a tidal beat.

Why had I never sensed a miss


when I so love to lie with you,

nest my palm to feel the thump there?

I touch it now, rueful with what I know:               

ways I thought I could protect, repair—


mistaken. But a new grasp of lubadub:

all unnoticed, our deep rhythms change,

and in what we claim as Hub of Love

imperfect is our normal range.



      ––Cathie Desjardins



The heart in Cathie’s lyric is neither a symbol nor an abstraction, but the actual muscle beating inside her husband’s ribcage.  Isn’t it lovely that her sprung rhythms and off-rhymes conjure both the regularity of form as well as its imperfections – much like her beloved’s EKG?  In fact, don’t we love such things all the more – knowing they are fragile and impermanent?  Cathie – my predecessor as Arlington’s Laureate – is the author of two poetry collections; the most recent, Buddha in the Garden (from Tasora Press) is, like her surname, filled with the life of the garden and the way the mind finds sanctuary there.  Her work has appeared in a number of publications including The Christian Science Monitor, The Boston Globe, Cognoscenti – WBUR’s online magazine, and Pulse – Voices from the Heart of Medicine (where “EKG” first appeared.)  She is a lifelong literacy educator who has taught in elementary and high schools; at Lesley, Suffolk and Boston Universities; and UMass/Boston and UMass/Dartmouth, and more – helping students to find the pulse of their own poetic resources.




The Red Letters 3.0


* 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:



To learn more about the origins of the Red Letter Project, check out an essay I wrote for Arrowsmith Magazine:


and the Boston Area Small Press and Poetry Scene


For updates and announcements about Red Letter projects and poetry readings, please follow me on Twitter