Friday, July 07, 2023

Red Letter Poem #167

 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 #167






Tell me, what’s more American than. . .becoming American?  Than setting out from whatever corner of existence you were born into for the possibility of finding new roots within the dream-terrain that is this tumultuous nation?  And attendant upon this dream is a particularly American enterprise: marshalling one’s native talents in order to author a re-invented self, and all the new psychic apparel to suit this augmented soul.  If you don’t think of this as an essential element of our mythos, just ask Walt Whitman or Langston Hughes, Mary Oliver or Bob Dylan – each of whom gave voice to an original self within a new creative conception, casting a wizard-like spell on our collective imagination.  And each, I should add, inspired at least something of a cautionary disclaimer concerning their personal history: pay no attention to that man/woman behind the curtain.


Today’s Red Letter features a poet for whom such a project will not seem at all far-fetched.  Indran Amirthanayagam was born in Colombo, Sri Lanka; but his father – a poet, diplomat, and scholar – moved his family to London and later Honolulu.  As a young man in 1983 – and inspired by its rich poetic history (Federico Lorca’s Poet in New York was a strong influence) – Indran moved into a railroad apartment in lower Manhattan.  He eventually attended Columbia University’s School of Journalism, and a memory of those formative experiences inspired today’s new poem.  I loved hearing his tale of a young poet finding his way in storied Gotham.  (I’ll be shocked if a memoir of his peripatetic life is not someday in the offing.)  He became friends with Alan Ginsberg and recalled visiting his East Village apartment where Alan would “send the key down in a sock attached to a pulley.”  Following his mentor’s recommendation, he still remembers his first walk across the Brooklyn Bridge – then rushing out to purchase a copy of Hart Crane’s The Bridge and immersing himself in the poetry.  Later still, he became an officer in the U.S. Foreign Service which reinforced his belief in how language and culture can become a means of uniting disparate peoples rather than being seen as a source of division.  I’m sure he looks back today and marvels at the invention of his unique life and all the places it’s carried him.  Writing in Spanish, French, Portuguese, Haitian Creole, as well as English, Indran is an award-winning poet, essayist, and translator – the author of more than two dozen books.  In 2022, he was named by the International Forum for the Literature and Culture of Peace (IFLAC) its first ever World Poet/Poeta Mundial.  The very model of a poète engagé, Indran continues to commit his energies toward making sure our culture thrives and diverse voices are heard.  Along with his partner in poetry, Sara Cahill Marron, he edits Beltway Poetry Quarterly and its publishing project Beltway Editions.


We’ve just celebrated Independence Day.  The flags waved and the fireworks erupted in gushes of startling color.  But it’s not only nations that struggle to forge a sense of self-determination.  Young poets and artists, desirous of true personal and imaginative liberation, must consider the risks such a life-choice will entail – the strain it will place on their relationships, dreams, and even physical wellbeing.  It is a decision made (as the poet Rilke advised) when any other option is simply unimaginable.  But the primary reward for choosing this path is a life of one’s own creation, a more intimate possession of the joys and pains it will necessarily contain.  Indran’s poem reminds us that, despite the bruising such a heart must take: “It beats. It roars.”




Stepping Out from Columbia



Let’s go for a walk and see

moonlight shining over sky-

scrapers, fairy castles of New


Amsterdam, dreams of 

youth to realize in this ode 

to literature, music and theater 


unaware of impending deaths,

departures, home found then

abandoned, or transformed


into an idea, a moving 

village, a portable USB 

imprinted in the brain, free 


of ten thousand literary 

pounds in books, kitchen 

goods, toaster, fridge, gas range,


walking downtown from

Columbia following

steps I took once 


to honor Federico, 

zombies flying saucers 

out of the eye of Wall,


to honor ten thousand 

movies, to honor 

early, sweet love


without fear that this 

urge too will pass.

False. It beats. It roars.



     ––Indran Amirthanayagam




The Red Letters 3.0


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Thursday, July 06, 2023

Review of The Lehman Trilogy, a play by Stefano Massini

The Lehman Trilogy

Review of The Lehman Trilogy, a play by Stefano Massini

At Huntington Theater through July 16, 2023

Review By Andy Hoffman

Tony winner for Best Play in 2022 The Lehman Trilogy, playing at the Huntington Theatre through July 16, 2023. It tells the history of Lehman Brothers investment bank from its roots as a dry-goods store in Montgomery AL in the 1840s to the last involvement of anyone named Lehman in 1969, with the death of Robert Lehman, grandson of the founders. Over the course of three acts running three and a half hours, the play reveals the evolution of three Jewish European brothers on the make in America, and what their ambitions wrought.

The Lehman Trilogy occupies the stage much more like a medieval mystery play than a modern drama. The three actors – ably accompanied by multi-instrumentalist Joe LaRocca – do more telling than showing. But this telling has pathos, humor and drama as the three actors act out dozens of roles, from generation to generation, wives, children, grandchildren, and the rabbis that teach them. They also represent the various partners the brothers take on, the leaders that succeed them at their investment bank, and a wire-walker. Each actor – Steven Skybell, Joshua David Robinson, and Firdous Bamji – takes on accents, gestures, and speech patterns as a dizzying series of characters march through the Lehman family’s lives. The Huntington, and I assume other theaters that have braved this production, deserve high praise for their ambition. I saw The Lehman Trilogy on a recent Wednesday evening, and I found myself hugely impressed not only by the performance I saw, but also the realization that these performers had done a matinee earlier that day and still gave this extraordinary show.

While the play risks presenting a history lesson rather than a traditional play, the showmanship of the production as well as the quality of the script and the artistry of the actors transcends telling. The music also draws us in and along. Using a combination of plain crates and projection, the stage comes alive, especially as Emmanuel Lehman finds himself drawn to New York. As told in the play, which seems historically accurate, Alabama experienced a season of fire in the 1840s so severe it nearly destroyed the economic life around Montgomery. Already expanding to seed and farm implements, the Lehmans became brokers for the slave-grown cotton at the nearby plantations, using their capacity to put raw cotton into the hands of northern

manufacturers to fund the rebirth of Alabama’s economy. Inventing the role of cotton brokers allowed the Lehman brothers to become brokers more generally. They survived the Civil War in part because their family connection embodied the trust that allowed trade across the warring sides. After the war, Emmanuel drags his remaining brother, Meyer, to New York, where their trading house becomes the Lehman Brothers investment bank we all recognize.

The Lehman Trilogy breaks the story into parts: from the founding until after the Civil War; from the war to the beginning of the 20th century; and then until the end of the Lehman family control of the company. With all that happened over those 130 years, we must accept some serious elisions in the story. We hear nothing of the Lehman’s complicity in the slave trade or how they managed through the various economic contractions and collapses. We do get a bit of a sense of how they survived the Great Depression, but in truth even though the play presents the history of an iconic American business, the Lehman family history makes the play tick. The first generation in the US, freed from the restrictions placed on Jews in Europe, scrambles to make a living, first as peddlers and then as brokers. They retain their faith, seemingly as one of the few Jewish families in Montgomery. As the Lehman become wealthy, they lose their connection to their Judaism, to the extent that the play mentions nothing of the Holocaust. When Henry, the family pioneer, dies, they shut the shop for a full seven days to sit shiva. When Emmanuel dies forty years later, they close the bank for three days. They observe the death of the second generation for a paltry three minutes. The Kaddish – the Jewish prayer for the dead – maintains its impact projected in Hebrew upon the set, but the Lehmans seem to have lost their way

The Huntington Theatre’s production of THE LEHMAN TRILOGY will run through July 23, 2023! This gives you an extra week to see this amazing show. Do yourself a favor and go! Read the review again HERE!