Saturday, May 13, 2023

Red Letter Poem #160

 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 #160








Waiting for my older brother to burst from

the first grade, my mother and I sit


on a playground bench overlooked by

the cliffs of West End tenements.


The confetti of a shattered beer bottle

sparkles in sharp September sunlight.


My mother reaches into her canvas bag

for an apple. I love to watch her


grip an apple in both her hands

as if she’s praying, each hand twisting


the sweet globe in opposite directions,

what her mother in Poland taught her,


until the apple snaps in half. So much more

than magic or mystery, this is her miracle.


She hands me half the apple,

saves the other half for my brother,


tells me we must eat all the joy

and wisdom the world has to offer.



                  ––John Pijewski



Eve’s given a bad rap.  The Mother of all Mothers was, in certain mythological portrayals, branded as the source of all sin.  It’s a psychological burden passed down from mother to daughter for millennia – but it’s a narrative that feminist poets and artists (both woman and men) have been working earnestly to shift, gaining steam in the 20th century and continuing today.  And not only has Eve’s iconography evolved, so has our view of that fruit from the Tree of Knowledge.  In one sense, humanity’s hunger for discovery is seen as an essential part of our nobler instincts.  But having witnessed where an ill-considered quest for knowledge has sometimes taken us (I’m thinking about you, Robert Oppenheimer – and I’m fretting about you, Silicon Valley wizards, unleashing AI into the cerebral marketplace), it behooves us to take a breath, to think long and hard about the conceptions we are feeding into the culture.


And so, just in time for Mother’s Day, here is a new poem from John Pijewski, author of Dinner With Uncle Jozef (Wesleyan University Press).  It’s both a reclamation of personal memory and a quiet attempt at myth-making with a (literal) twist.  John shared with me his manuscript-in-progress entitled Collected Father; a mammoth undertaking, he’s excavating a trove of painful memory that is both familial and historical.  His father and mother spent years in a Nazi labor camp and, having been thoroughly brutalized there, they unfortunately carried that pain with them when they settled in the New World.  I think John is attempting to write his way into a clarity about the Adam and Eve of the tortured garden into which he and his brother were born.  But having brought his unflinching eye to witness again that old suffering, I find it inspiring that some gentler recollections have now begun to emerge.  And, when John showed this poem to me, the little vignette in “Apple” simply got under my skin.  In part, it’s because I, too, still possess fragments of time spent alone with my mother; I remember how everything she did seemed to have a monumentality about it, an aura of deep knowledge tinged with undefined sorrow.  After all, our forebears are the ones who first introduced us to, well, everything.  Are we ever really aware of how much of our parents’ lives have been inscribed upon our hearts?  I will leave the poem to offer up its quiet pleasures, except to add that John assures me the special skill discussed in this piece was actual and performed without any tools beyond his mother’s two capable hands.  He said it so fascinated him as a little boy, he’d ask her to do it over and over – thus necessitating the consumption of bushels of the fruit – and yet he somehow never mastered the trick.  “It seems to be one of the great talents that Polish women possess.”  And yet something that woman was offering her little boy – sweet, tart, nourishing – persists in his imagination today.




The Red Letters 3.0


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Monday, May 08, 2023

Review of Joy and Pandemic, a play by Taylor Mac


Joy and Pandemic

Review of Joy and Pandemic, a play by Taylor Mac

At The Calderwood Pavilion/Huntington Theater through May 21, 2023

By Andy Hoffman

In Joy and Pandemic, a world premiere at the Calderwood Pavilion of the Huntington Theater, playwright Taylor Mac locates the conflict between belief and reality in a children’s art school in 1918 Philadelphia. Joy, the founder of the school, believes devoutly in Christian Science, which will run head first into the bursting Spanish Flu pandemic, which will kill over 50 million people as troops returned home from the last battles of World War I. This apocalyptic moment tried whole nations’ faith in social hierarchies, in political solutions, and in moral values, but it fails to shake Joy’s belief in the religion founded by Boston’s own Mary Baker Eddy.

Played out in the storefront location of Joy’s school on the day of the school’s open house, Joy and Pandemic takes a ride on the narrow rail between realism and philosophy. In the first act, we meet Joy and her teenaged daughter Pilly. After the disappearance of Pilly’s father, Joy has married Bradford, a wastrel and artist who came from a wealthy family. We also meet Bradford’s mother, who has funded the school in a last-ditch effort to save Bradford from a completely wasted life. Joy believes, as Christian Science prescribes, that illness, pain, and our human manifestation is simply an illusion, a test of our faith. If we believe fully, we will transcend that plane of reality and achieve our oneness with the perfect divine. Neither Bradford nor his mother embrace this notion, but they can see that the energy Joy’s faith gives her imbues the school and gets passed along to the students as represented in five-year-old Marjory. While we don’t meet the child, we see her painting, an wildly passionate abstract, and we meet her mother, Melanie, who comes to the open house early.

Melanie comes out of concern for Marjory’s safety, as she has good reason to distrust Bradford. Also, Melanie’s skin color – Marjory is the only Black student in the school – gives her extra caution in dealing with the white world. Through the storefront windows, we see the start of a parade, tinsel confetti fluttering to the ground. This piece of history – Philadelphia allowed a parade as the 1918 pandemic killed millions – files the conflict between fact and belief to a fine and cutting point. Both Melanie and Joy fall ill. We find out what becomes of them in the play’s last act, after the intermission. We jump ahead to 1952. Joy and Pilly remain in the storefront, living their lives in plain sight, as Marjory points out to Pilly.

Joy and Pandemic offers insights into our contemporary pandemic and the social changes we have experienced, but always in a sidelong glance. Taylor Mac – a MacArthur award and Ibsen Prize winner – has constructed a fascinating feast of ideas and emotions, refusing us answers, as the best drama always does. At the same time, as a world premiere, the plays comes across as a bit unfinished and muddled. This always happens: plays must be performed to find their strengths and weaknesses. The strengths of this production are clear: excellent performances, a lovely and flexible set, and a well-built structure that poses questions that keep us guessing until the end. We receive revelations about what we owe our parents when mothers and daughters Melanie/Marjory and Joy/Pilly are played by the same actresses, now 34 years later. The weaknesses are more subtle. Bradford’s mother provides too much exposition in the first act and Pilly does the same in the third act. The vaudevillian touches lighten the tone but add little to the show as a whole. And we don’t realize until after the intermission that Melanie’s and Marjory’s race actually matters; it seemed throughout the first and second acts that the play had been cast race-blind, when there were plenty of opportunities to make it clear that we were watching America at its Jim Crow peak. All of these flaws can be fixed during this run or before the play gets its future productions. It is well worth seeing this excellent play by a significant figure in American theater in its earliest stages. Applause to the Huntington for working with Taylor Mac on this premiere.