Monday, March 06, 2023

Unaccustomed to Grace: Stories by Lesley Bannatyne



Unaccustomed to Grace: Stories, by Lesley Bannatyne - 2022, 161 pages - Kallisto Gaia Press - $14.95

The title of this collection of short stories invites us to ask, what is grace? Do we have it in our own lives? What would it be like to be unaccustomed to grace - to be a stranger to life’s blessings, to the genuine goodwill of others?

Bannatyne’s luminous stories introduce readers to a number of seemingly ordinary characters. These are the sort of people we might meet in our own neighborhoods, without giving them much thought. They might seem unusually wary, or conspicuously needy, but largely unremarkable.

How to account for the way that these stories pull us in? Many of them start by confounding our expectations, setting us a little off balance. The opening number, titled “Corpse Walks into a Bar,” typifies the sort of dissonance that keeps us wanting to know more.

The questions hover: is this title a joke? Is our narrator, Thomas McGahan, too sloshed to have a grip on reality? Turning pages, we come to understand the toll that grief and guilt can take on a mind’s stability. Thomas takes a night journey through his own private hell, a burial ground with “Tombstones pissed on by feral cats. Weeds. St. Pauli Girl bottles.” The reader journeys with Thomas until dawn brings its mild reconciliation.

Other stories in this collection also demonstrate how suffering in isolation often leads to distorted perceptions. These fictions portray distortion not just as an on/off switch, but as a spectrum. Short of the extremes of fantasy and hallucination, we see the lesser gradations of misperception: unwarranted distrust, suspicion, fear, despair –poisons that interfere with an open response to human caring.

Bannatyne’s gift is to acquaint us with the varieties of loss which can afflict the spirit, often invisibly. We meet a bullied student, a foster child placed in too many temporary “homes,” a girl who seeks open-ended help without mentioning physical abuse by her father. We encounter parents who have lost children, children who have lost parents, a woman who loses most of one hand.

Yet in these lucid tales, nothing is pat or formulaic. “High school smells like canned corn…” one protagonist notices. A bereaved grandmother makes elaborate plans to soot a man as soon as he is released from prison. A young man torments his brother: “What kind of guy gets beat by a girl?”

We are privy to the pain and struggle of people like us, people who could be us. They reveal their inner lives in situations described in fresh language that demolishes clichés and easy stereotypes. We learn that a pregnant teenager hates “the bullet of flesh and cartilage lodged in her uterus [that] was going to cripple her.”

In an emergency room, one nurse dispassionately observes another lifting the hair of a head-lice-infested boy “with a tongue depressor, like she had a dead rat on the end of a broom. There was a father and son burned by a barbeque smoker…the tall guy with the pretty face who comes in all the time begging for Oxy.” A young tarot card reader, sensing her mother’s disappointment, asks her “if she wants a sage cleansing and she gives me a look that could wither a trucker’s dick.”

Through the lives of Bannatyne’s characters, we see clearly that the wounds of the mind are the hardest to heal. Yet we also encounter the cumbersome effort of communication, which sometimes can draw closed-up hearts open. These little dialogues, however sharp or clumsy, reveal themselves to be the kind of grace that leads to healing.

Sunday, March 05, 2023

Red Letter Poem #150

 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.


                                                                                                          – SteveRatiner





Red Letter Poem #150




Discussing the most recent examples of Russia’s unchecked brutality in its year-long attempt to subjugate Ukraine, an artist-friend posed this question: how can we continue attempting to make beauty, despite the suffering taking place?  My reaction came rushing out, almost a reflex: not despite – because of!  If what we’re witnessing is unchecked authoritarian power and the absolute corruption of an entire state, Putin and his generals are betting that Ukrainian lives won’t matter as much to the world as the price of gasoline, groceries, new shoes.  In a sense, they are making the case for a radical reappraisal of what we call human nature.  My hope is, of course, that global political resolve puts the lie to that proposition, and continues its support of Kiev and its defense.  But even more: that with every instance in which we express our deepest understanding of what, in simpler times, we called the soul – in every artform and social interaction – we are making the counter-claim that there are ultimate powers that go beyond that of munitions, and that sustain people in ways that the world’s treasuries cannot.  To be honest, I think my friend left the conversation thinking me naïve.  I am, perhaps – but undeterred.


The first time Vasyl Makhno appeared in the Red Letters, his poem was a tribute to his homeland – especially poignant because he has lived for a number of years in New York City, nearer the Hudson than the Dnieper.  His is a long-distance grieving, maintaining solidarity with the place of his birth.  But today’s poem, to my mind, sets down its roots beside a different stream: the essential human urge to create new forms of beauty, unimagined only moments earlier – and then to camp, for a time, on these green and tranquil banks.  Vasyl uses the jarring sonic experiments of the Estonian-born composer Arvo Pärt as his jumping-off point – who, in turn, uses the beatific visions of Germany’s Johann Sebastian Bach as his.  The poet is trying to make his images, his hammered syllables resonate like the cosmic textures in Pärt’s seven-minute piece.  As is always true, in poetry and music alike, the ear leads the mind which then prompts the heart; we don’t so much make sense of his stanzas as lose ourselves within their waking dream.  And if you’re like me, you exit from the poem – as I do from the music – believing that such beauty exists everywhere around us if (and no small thing, that cautionary if) we continue keeping faith with that possibility.  Recent headlines might lead us to believe otherwise.  And I’d like to take it one step further, believing that such delight – running its bow across our frazzled nerves – makes us a little less likely to brutalize those other humans whose paths we cross, let alone tolerate it as national policy.


Vasyl was born in Chortkiv, in the Ukrainian province of Ternopil.  A man of many talents, he is a poet, prose writer, essayist, and translator.  He’s authored fifteen collections of verse; last year’s Paper Bridge (Plamen Press) is where today’s “If Bach…” first appeared.  His writing has earned him a host of honors including the Kovaliv Fund Prize; Serbia’s International Povele Morave Prize in Poetry; the BBC Book of the Year Award (in 2015); and the Ukrainian-Jewish Literary Prize “Encounter.”  Vasyl’s work has been translated into 25 languages – and I have no difficulty believing he, too, tends bees in ink hives.   




If Bach Kept Bees*



This is how hinges and screws creak

Drilled into the shutters behind his desk

Pärt listened in silence

To the golden translucence of a bee choir


If only bees fell in love with Bach

If only the hive was filled with music

He wouldn’t have had to cling to bowed masts

Or silks or felt pads


Sounds in grooves, in compressed light

In the silver composition of wings

Bach’s love for bees glows

The conductor’s baton is bent


From the monotonous bows

From those lonely mirrored vibrations

Cosmic dust shines all around

Smelling like ripe feathers


And it’s completely unclear

How Pärt will get honey from these bees

From the taut strings of horsehair

From pine for shutters and desks


From uncertain cosmic movements

Disharmony, chaos, darkness

From sharp edges, or round or smooth

From where we began


From silence or from string orchestras?

From a finger to the lips, from the membranes of the ears?

The Book of Judges or the Book of Ezra?

From the Word transformed to spirit?

In the “St. Matthew Passion,” the bees

Have quiet and heavenly voices

We will never know

Why Bach keeps bees for us



                                        ––Vasyl Makhno

     Translated by Olena Jennings



* Arvo Pärt: Wenn Bach Bienen gezüchtet hätte (If Bach had been a Beekeeper); 1976




The Red Letters 3.0


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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


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Poet Adam Scheffler: Gets to the Worm in the Heart of the Matter

Interview with Doug Holder

Recently I caught up with poet Adam Scheffler.  He is the author of two books of poetry--the latest being "Heartworm," which won the 2021 Moon City Press Prize, and "A Dog’s Life," which won the 2016 Jacar Press Book Contest. He grew up in Berkeley, California, received his MFA in poetry from the Iowa Writers' Workshop, and his PhD in English from Harvard. He teaches in the Harvard College Writing Program. He is a member of the New England Poetry Club.

George Looney wrote that in your work you "praise the mundane world." Do you find beauty in banality?

I’d turn the question around and say I find banality in beauty, or at least in epic adventure: just try watching all 31 Marvel Movies and you’ll see what I mean. Whereas I think poetry gives you an excuse to savor the details of your actual, supposedly mundane life (peering at a spider web, singing in the shower, noticing the full moon suddenly emerge from behind a cloud) and, to quote my poet-friend Mande Zecca, that’s where the magic is.

I also really enjoy writing poems about unpoetic, silly, or even gross subjects: I have different poems in this book, for instance, about Jeff Goldblum, a cockroach, and my dog finding a used condom in the park. It’s a fun challenge trying to find beauty in something seemingly trivial or off-putting. There might even be more room for failure due to the novelty: if you’re going to try to write another pretty poem about trees, you better nail it.

The title Heartworm—seems to be taken from an affliction suffered by dogs. Did you get inspiration from your own dog?

Yes, from my poodle-mix Bee Gee. You have to give your dog a pill once a month, so parasitic worms don’t form in their heart and kill them. And I was thinking about how Bee Gee does a version of that for me when I’m unhappy: offering me the "treatment" of her company for a more metaphorical kind of heartworm.

And it’s not just dogs: there’s something about the sheer, surprising presence of animals that can amaze you and shake you free of whatever demons are clinging to you. As my former advisor Peter Sacks was rumored to have said, during a talk in a crowded lecture hall: “If a cow were to walk into the room right now, we would all come to attention.”

In your poem "Checkout" you use the setting of a Walmart store to explore what a poem can do and can't do. Explain.

Hmm, well in that poem I was feeling particularly angry and sad during a trip to Walmart around Christmastime: the whole store seemed to be staffed by 80-year-olds wearing reindeer hats. It's awful that this is how we, as a society, have decided to treat the elderly (forcing them to work for minimum wage to make billionaires richer). Poetry couldn’t really teach me how these employees feel: after all they were stuck there for hours and hours, and I could put my poem down whenever I wanted. But I did think it could help me perceive the whole situation more keenly and, as I say in the poem, place a little curse on the Waltons.

I loved your poem "Facebook." You examine the sizzle but no steak of the platform—the snake behind the false teeth smile—and how it defines universal yearning and need. Can you comment on this?

Writers, and particularly poets, have to engage in self-promotion as nobody else is going to do it for us. But the scary thing about Facebook is how it conflates the personal and the public so that each social interaction you have becomes publicly viewable and recorded as if it takes place on an enormous stage. This often makes people behave in a falsely polite way as if each of us were a PR representative for ourselves.

We then come to be more skeptical of each other online because we feel in some sense we’re encountering a “brand” not a person, and that we’re not getting the real truth from anyone. But there’s still that visceral drive to connect: beneath everyone’s online persona is still a complex, needy, ugly, fascinating human vacillating between wanting to be truly seen and wanting only the perfected avatar of themselves to be seen.

There seems to be a theme of looking to be saved from the clutches of the material world. Is poetry a life raft?

I wish! I was once in a graduate seminar in which the professor told us, wonderingly, that Wallace Stevens couldn’t enjoy poems anymore when he was dying. And I remember thinking of course he couldn’t enjoy poems, he was dying! I can’t enjoy poems when I’ve slept badly or have a headache, so expecting poems to save me from the clutches of the material world might be a tall order.

But that said, I do think reading and writing poetry fills a basic need for me like sleep or sex or food. When I go too long without it, I start feeling depressed and scraped out. Or maybe the world starts seeming scraped out. Returning to the theme from the beginning of this interview, I think poetry at its best can restore the material world to us as a place of wonder, a place that no longer makes us ask, like Peggy Lee, is that all there is?

Why should we read this collection?

Well, it’s short! Seriously, though, I tried to trim this collection down, so that it only contains poems I’m happy with, so it doesn’t waste your time. I think of writing poems as hatching thousands of baby sea turtles, most of whom get picked off by gulls, or get distracted by highway lights and wander off in the wrong direction. However, a few of them make it to the ocean/ into the collection where they can grieve their lost fellows and ride the white surf of the page.

Florence, Kentucky

So what if the old man
on the bus is trying and
failing to remember his dead
mom’s face, as if the past were
not a cartoon tunnel scratched
on a wall?

He’s still trying,
and when did we forget our
cattle-shoes and feather-parkas,
how we carry with us a lowing
sadness, an extinguished memory
of flight?

Today I’m going to count all the
blackbirds between the prison
and the Walmart where, right
now, in its galloping sadness
a bald man who sounds like
a car horn is hector-lecturing
his infant-hushing
girlfriend—as her unhappiness,
radiant as a cleat, sharp as an ice
skate, sprays to a sudden stop.

Right now, at the emergency
crisis center right next to the
gun store, the nurse feels entombed
in hours like a fly in amber
as the waiting room TVs
spin despair’s golden honey—

and I think of the ice I waded out
on as a kid, of how often the world
seems like it’s going to shatter,
but then, miraculously,
mercilessly, does not.

--From    "Heart Worm"