Friday, August 04, 2023

Red Letter Poem #171

 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 #171






“Horses carry me as far as my longing can reach,

Transport me to the many-voiced road of the Goddess

That carries the one who listens through vast silence. . .”





Horses, yes.  And words.  For Gary Whited, language proved capable of carrying him across tremendous distances: from his childhood on the prairies of Montana; off to Penn State University for the study of philosophy and a life of the mind; eventually into the composition of his own poetry which somehow seems to have a foot in the ancient world as well as one in the modern.  Broadly speaking, his work is an investigation of that deep sense of connectedness he remembers first experiencing in his boyhood explorations of the natural world.  In school, he focused on the works of the pre-Socratic philosophers, especially Parmenides whose writing became something of his first muse.  And just last year, they were the fuel that brought him to the west coast of Italy and the ruins of Eléa – the very place where this philosopher lived in the 5th century BCE; he was literally following in the footsteps of his ancient mentor.  Gary first began translating Parmenides back in graduate school, and that work became part of his dissertation.  Those translations, newly revised, will comprise a section in his forthcoming poetry collection Being,There to be published this fall by Wayfarer Books.  Led by the forcefulness of these unbridled ideas, Gary ended up teaching philosophy in places like the University of Montana, University of Texas and, here in Boston, at Emerson College.  His first volume of poetry, Having Listened (from Homebound Publications) was honored with the Benjamin Franklin Silver Book Award, and his work has appeared in an array of literary journals. 


It came as no surprise to me to learn that Gary has also practiced as a psychotherapist for the last four decades, because deep listening is essential to all three disciplines: healing, teaching, the making of poems.  In today’s selection, it feels as if our focused attention is capable of animating even the sun-chiseled stones – as if we might take our bearings in time’s vast expanse by what’s been recorded in their silent vigil.  And, in the course of the poem’s unfolding, we can feel the poet excavating the very origins of language, the ways it connects us to the surrounding world and to the archeology of human thought.  What philosophical (or poetic) truth can be more important than the boundless desire to know – the desire enlivening all we do, even if the knowing too often remains beyond our grasp.  “O youth, linked with immortal charioteers/ And with horses carrying you to our home,/” – so wrote Parmenides in his incantatory poem – “Welcome!”  I find Gary’s work to be constructed around such a welcome.  In this inky temple, we can practice listening to our own longing, trusting that the horses will find their own way home.




Touched by Stones



I walk where Parmenides walked,

Among the ruins of walls fallen

Since his time, stones that remain

Because they can, because they are

Stones, and in their way speak something

We cannot know, but be touched by

If we listen in stone.


Better maybe to say they stone,

Give them the power and standing

Of a verb, one among the many

Chiseled down to a noun, spoken

Over and over, that way we turn

Verbs nouns repeating them until

They fall down, as those walls have fallen,

And now we mostly only remember,

The way a noun might remember

The verb it was when first spoken,

Spoken into being.


I feel the stones awaken,

Begin, how odd, to listen,

Or I imagine it so.  Could it

Be they recall through my seeing,

My listening and my imagining

How it was they came to be the walls

That once stood here upright and sturdy,

Each one lifted by gifted hands,

Placed on top of the stone beneath,

Becoming a house, a bath, a temple,

These walls?


I see him clear as day, Parmenides

Walking among the tilted stones,

Offering his right hand in welcome,

And I don’t quite know if I imagine it,

Remember it, or if he walks here too

Right now beside this water that flows,

Flows from the spring above that gave

This place its name, Hyéle.



                       ––Gary Whited




The Red Letters 3.0


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Thursday, August 03, 2023

The Anniversary by Stephanie Bishop

The Anniversary by Stephanie Bishop, Black Cat/Grove Atlantic, New York, 2023. 423 pages, $18.

Review by Ed Meek

If you are making a list for summer reading, you can’t do much better than The Anniversary by Stephanie Bishop. It’s a novel that combines a deep dive into writing with a mystery. As a work about writing, Anniversaryfits into what is becoming a genre. We appear to like pulling back the curtain to see how the wizard does it. Recent examples include Vladimir by Julia May Jonas in which a writer confronts political correctness at the college while seducing a younger man, Mona by Pola Oloixarac in which a writer attends a writing conference while trying to figure out what caused the bruises on her body. Then there’s the HBO series This May Destroy You about a writer trying to get to the bottom of a rape she can’t quite remember while completing a manuscript. And before that, Girls where Lena Dunham’s character, a writer, and her friends deal with toxic males while trying to survive in NYC.

The Anniversary is about a woman writer who has just found out that she is receiving a prestigious prize for her new novel. Maybe it’s the Booker Prize or even a Pulitzer (she doesn’t say). This comes after years of working in the shadow of her famous husband who makes award winning films. He is twenty years older. She met him as a student of his and he became her husband and her mentor. As long as she is unsuccessful, he is very supportive but when she begins to rival him and maybe even surpass him in stature, he has a difficult time with it. Sound familiar? This is a well-worn plot. In the appropriately titled movie Shallow, Bradley Cooper nurtures the unknown Lady Gaga until she belts out a few showstopping numbers and upstages him causing him to fall into a downward spiral. In The Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon (a great novel and film about writing) the main character, (Michael Douglas in the film) is outshined by one of his students at the annual college writing festival.

For their anniversary, our narrator decides to take her husband on a romantic cruise to get their relationship back on track. I’m not giving anything away to say that after a round of great sex and too much alcohol, a storm at sea arises and her husband Patrick ends up going over the railing from the upper deck into the cold waters of the ocean in the middle of the night! Even the narrator is somewhat unsure of what really happened. The next few hundred pages are spent delving into her past, her family history, and her relationship with her husband, in order to figure out what happened and how she arrived at this juncture in time.

Her relationship with her husband happens to involve collaborative writing. She helps him with his films; he helps her with her novels. Bishop is good at explaining how collaboration can work and what the narrator’s writing process entails. She brings up questions about the reliability and unreliability of our memory and the connection between fiction and reality. Much of the narrator’s writing is closely based on real life and that can cause problems. Hemingway is reputed to have lost half a dozen famous friends when The Sun Also Risescame out. There’s an old axiom: be careful what you say to a writer. It may end up in a story. The narrator’s perspective is different from her husband’s and it is the basis for conflict.

In addition, the story we tell ourselves affects our perspective on life. A new movement in psychology involves retelling your own story in order to help you to accept yourself and your fate. If you are always berating yourself for not living up to your standards or your mother’s or father’s or society’s, maybe you just need to change the narrative. In The Anniversary, the narrator, Ms. Blackwood, finds her perspective on herself, and her husband shifting and that changes both the past and the present.

Bishop does a great job withholding information to keep us turning the pages though you might find yourself skimming some of her paragraphs that may have benefitted from trimming. She is also good at tying together the many loose ends she creates. Mark Twain said: “The only difference between reality and fiction is that fiction needs to be credible.” Mysteries often strain our sense of credibility, and Bishop runs into problems when she leaves the world of writing and ventures into the world of law. But these days, when the real world has become pretty iffy—did ChatGPT write this? Is Tik Tok used for spying? Was Michelle Carter responsible for her boyfriend’s suicide because she sent him a text? You may not care to quibble about reality when it comes to this smart, entertaining novel.

Monday, July 31, 2023

It’s Not Love Till Someone Loses an Eye By Clay Ventre


It’s Not Love Till Someone Loses an Eye

By Clay Ventre

Nixes Mate

ISBN: 978-1-949279-47-4

50 Pages


Review by Dennis Daly

First books of poetry rarely surprise. Clay Ventre’s initial collection, It’s Not Love Until Someone Loses An Eye, does. His first-rate love poems are off-beat and oddly self-demolishing. He chisels each quirky narrative to innovative perfection and then keeps on chiseling. The new, miniature worlds created by Ventre’s persona and his persona’s lover highlight reality’s instability and logical absurdness. But that’s alright. Creators (read poets), after all, are (for good or ill) gods and goddesses by virtue of their productions, and they make sense by rearranging the raw material of chaos.

Across a crowded room” love’s magic defeats distance and verbal communication in Ventre’s piece entitled Soiree. A broken semaphore of compelling motion causes contact between two lovers and opens an ever-expanding, uncanny zone of passion and ardor. Ventre concludes the poem by describing this newfound lover’s haven,

the party was over

the guests having shrugged

themselves to indifference

and disappeared in a

haze of ennui and

disappointed sex

leaving them a vast

and empty space

they could finally wander

across as lonely nomads

and find each other—

read her book together

and agree that the weather

inside them was the same

The battle of the sexes starts small with afterthoughts and little motions that signal cataclysmic changes. Ventre’s poem Infinity War is well titled, with surprises at every turn. Here the protagonist god, albeit newly created himself, sets a pose of dominance by announcing the superiority of his divine passions. His consort pushes back as she fashions their future together. The poet puts it thusly,

She said

It’s not a competition

and he saw now that

she had been carving

out of some

as yet undiscovered stuff

a miniature world

for them to inhabit someday

It kind of is

He shook from his

Closing throat

When dreams and reality clash, addition results, a detritus, not deliberate, but needing to be dealt with in a concerted way. In Ventre’s poem The Impossibility of Some Situations the lover’s expectations of his beloved’s largesse grows exponentially to the tune of twelve small elephants. His lover arrives in some distress, and she denies culpability. Loneliness and longing take over and the protagonist puzzles over his next move. Here he explains his conundrum and cedes his own future over to his fantasized beasts,

when I woke up from the dream

they were all here and

now they won’t leave me

They can’t stay here

She said

I know

He said

But they won’t leave


She said

It’s them or me

He looked down at the smallest elephant he had taken

to be their leader and waited for a sign

It came in the form of a wink


to the sound of a closing door

Love’s danger often slips into softened tokens and pleasure’s intensity, both underestimated and overlooked. Ventre’s title poem It’s Not Love Till Someone Loses An Eye reminds all mere mortals of their frailty in the face of God-given fervor. Right from the get-go mankind serves love’s desire under full threat. The poet opens his poem by powering up his persona’s beloved,

I should warn you

She said

Two of my former lovers

were dragged to their

deaths by wild horses

Sometimes a breakfast joint fills the whole world with satiety and delight. But when one tries to reduce it into component parts it somehow loses its luster. In his poem Breakfast All Day Ventre’s protagonist converses with God (the Almighty One) on the virtues of his favorite diner. God pushes back in the way that God always does. An omelet, the music, and the rain become foils in this delicate argument. The protagonist’s beloved becomes the salve. Here God tones down (somewhat unfairly) the man’s satisfaction and hyperbole,

That diner

God said

Is just a cemetery with a pond

in the middle to drown in

they fish the bodies out and bury them

in the surrounding hills

I know

He said


Continued God

To get here

You climbed into a car

Full of men with scarred faces

I know

He said

But the omelet was perfect

Courting demands putting one’s best foot forward or at least a recognizable and familiar foot, soothing to the judgmental beloved. Of a Feather, Ventre’s poem of fervid accommodation or, perhaps, rapt identification, succeeds wildly in devolving all oppressive expectations and conjuring up a down-to-earth lover’s tryst. The poet opens his contemplation of same-feathered birds this way,

Don’t come near me

She said from the

other side of the door

I smell like a dumpster

I have no joy in me

And I’m tired

so he walked for 1000 miles

and presented his sad

dusty shoes to her …

Love’s logic demolishes all competitive philosophies. That’s not to say that it promotes health or happiness. Obsessions usually don’t. In Ventre’s epilogue poem, The Godless Night Kitchen (Remodeled), the poet laments love’s process, but savors the result. Or is it the opposite,

He finds he and she add up

to each other

and in the morning he’ll wake

before her when

someone comes to him and

tells the truth of what

an unfinished symphony

they are

And that all hearts are designed

To harden and crack.

There are birds in there

That’s how they get out

The good news is that somehow most lovers, knee deep in cranberries and jackhammer dust, do survive. Mutually assured destruction still works, and artists of all stripes, as Ventre’s stunning poetry collection attests, navigate between the twin dangers of self-immolation and fame. And more to the point—creation and love triumph.