Friday, November 17, 2023

Red Letter Poem #183

 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.









Red Letter Poem #183





Two Apartments and the Moon



Those years I slept narrow

on a pushed-shut sofa bed,

apartment house rooflines

packed both sides of the close street.

The moon never claimed the night

in that room.  Streetlight neutered

its traces, as did the tired bedsheet,

abandoned by someone else’s

onetime apartment-mate,

curtaining my single window.




When, in my decades shared with you,

I come to my feet at one a.m.,

pause at the kitchen window, moon-

light’s full expanse drapes the floor.

Lifts the previous day’s diseased news

like a draw of bad blood.

It will find me at four if again

I’m restless, up and wandering

to the front window and the still

street.  If I pretend to speak for it,

it says stop and look up now.

Fullness is not always with you.



––David P. Miller





Drinking alone, I raise my cup

to the bright moon.  Nowmoon, my shadow, and me, a party of three. . .


                                    ––Li Bai

                                          (Tang Dynasty, China)


“I’ve always thought that––no matter what some say––there are not too many poems about the moon.”  David Miller told me this in an e-exchange about his first Red Letter appearance, “Two Apartments and the Moon”––and I heartily agree.  The moon seems an eternal presence in poetry: as subject matter, source of inspiration, sly obfuscation or tender reflection of our internal states of consciousness.  Still, poets keep finding new ways of allowing that lunar light to grace their lines.  And like their subject, famous moon poems traverse all borders, shine into windows everywhere: Li Bai, Rumi, and Basho; Shakespeare, Shelley, Dickinson, Whitman; Cummings, Plath, Langston Hughes, and continuing all through the contemporary masters.  In David’s piece, the moon is both absence (in the first section where, after a painful divorce, he finds himself in a depleted living situation more reminiscent of his student days), and presence (after the speaker is happily re-married and his life feels more like the fullness of an April moon.)  Reading the poem, I have no trouble remembering the loneliness depicted in that first section, where it seems that even the rooftops conspire to keep the poet in darkness.  David’s word choices––neutered. . .tired. . .abandoned––make me feel a void inside my chest, dark as a new moon.  But in the second section, I am able to feel gratitude (along with the speaker) for a more luminous circumstance––even if that variable orb provides a quiet warning about the changeable nature of things to which we human are subject.  And there, between those two worlds, a simple asterisk, like a single early star––where we each can pause and make our fragile wish.


David’s “life in the arts” began, not with literature, but theater: for 25 years, he was a member of the interdisciplinary Mobius Artists Group, a Boston-based collective still creating experimental new works.  For much of that time, he was also employed as a college librarian, and perhaps that helped prompt a new creative phase when, in his mid-fifties, he began to work seriously in poetry, a form he’d loved for years.  He has since published a chapbook and two full-length collections, (the most recent being Bend in the Stair from Lily Poetry Review Press.)  He is currently a member of the Jamaica Pond Poets group, and sits on the board of the venerable New England Poetry Club.


In her astonishing essay “Poetry and the Moon”, poet Mary Ruefle writes: “On the other hand, stars were the first text, the first instance of gabbiness; connecting the stars, making a pattern out of them, was the first story, sacred to storytellers.  But the moon was the first poem, in the lyric sense, an entity complete in itself, recognizable at a glance, one that played upon the emotions so strongly that the context of time and place hardly seemed to matter.”  In that same way, David offers us two theatrical tableaux, linked by a single protagonist who wanders alone in each room, trying to make sense of the narrative threads tangled through his days.  No, maybe not alone: there’s also the moon, looking in, and the voice of a poem slowly emerging.  I’ll gladly raise my cup to such companions.  






Red Letters 3.0


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The Band’s Visit

The Band’s Visit

Review of The Band’s Visit, a musical play, book by Itamar Moses, Music and Lyrics by David Yazbek

At the Huntington Theater through December 17, 2023

By Andy Hoffman

Honestly, I’m not a huge fan of musicals. More often than not, the music emphasizes hummability over quality and the songs do little to advance the plot or reveal character. The exceptions – Hamilton and most anything Stephen Sondheim wrote – make the point. I can add The Band’s Visit to that list. The music drives the play forward, paints the characters’ emotional landscapes, and allows for conflict and resolution naturally. At no point did I feel as though characters broke into song out of context or even out of mood. Unlike so many traditional musicals, the music never takes the audience away from the story.

The Bands Visit, which is based on the 2007 film (itself based on a true story), begins with the Alexandra Ceremonial Police Orchestra in a bus station on their way to perform at a cultural exchange between Egypt and Israel, following the declaration of peace between the countries. The wind up in the wrong town, one with a very similar sounding name, but which not only lacks a cultural exchange program, but any culture at all. The Colonel, who leads the band, asks fiery Dina, the proprietor of one of few cafes in town, for directions to the venue. The Israelis sing ‘Waiting’, about the profound boredom of living in their town, making clear that the band has made a grievous geographical mistake. The buses have stopped running and the band will have to wait to get to their destination. Dina offers to find food and overnight accommodations for the duration of the visit.

The Colonel, Tewfiq, who Dina addresses throughout as General, agrees – he really has no choice. He wants to make certain that he and his musicians cause as little trouble as possible during their misadventure. Dina, played by Jennifer Apple, wants Tewfiq to get some pleasure out of his mistake. She and he make progress towards friendship, progress derailed when Dina runs into her married lover. Tewfiq withdraws among the fireworks. Meanwhile, other band members stumble into the life of the town. Two musicians stay with an embattled married couple at odds over the infant they’ve brought into the world. The womanizing trumpet player goes on a double date, the fifth wheel who coaches an awkward local on how to approach a woman. The band becomes part of the town for a single night.

At its core, The Band’s Visit addresses how music builds bridges. Beyond that though, we see that the gulf between Egyptians and Israelis seems minimal compared with the one between men and women. While the Hebrew and Arabic can elide into a mutually understood English, the chasm between the sexes remains as uncrossable as the desert surrounding the town. Throughout the musical, we see greater understanding between natives and foreigners than we do between the men and women of this forlorn fictional town in the Negev Desert.

The music, a blend of Middle Eastern and Western instruments, seamlessly flows into the tale of the misplaced Egyptians. Combining folk, rock, and classical sounds elevates the theme of the musical, creating sonic partnerships for the hosts and their unexpected visitors. The musicians, backed by an invisible band and a hidden conductor, play song after song, with little breaks and no introduction. Most of the singers handle their songs with ease, even though most contain surprising chord shifts and unfamiliar scales. I want to call out Jennifer Apple’s spellbinding performance. Not only does she possess a show-stopping voice, but her manifestation of Dina’s passionate response to the world reminded me of many Israelis I have known. The Band’s Visit is a spectacular evening out.

Wednesday, November 15, 2023

God, Human, Animal, Machine By Meghan O’Gieblyn

God, Human, Animal, Machine

By Meghan O’Gieblyn

Review by Ed Meek

For a thought-provoking, well-written view of our fast-changing AI age, Meghan O’Gieblyn’s book is a must read. It’s a rare example of a book about a number of subjects that in other hands can come across as dry or uninteresting. But God, Human, Animal, Machine is fun to read, and informative and stimulating. It’s a personal take on the subjects in the title and the authorial voice is scholarly yet willing to share her own vulnerabilities. Add her to the list of accomplished people you’d most want to have dinner with. Drop by any time Meaghan!

O’Gieblyn. grew up in a fundamentalist household and studied religion at Moody Bible college before she lost her faith. She went on to University of Wisconsin for an MFA in writing, so, she brings a unique perspective to analyzing computer technology (focusing on AI) and to looking at technology with an eye on metaphor and religion. She draws from the history of philosophy and religion to grapple with many of the questions that are confronting us today. How big a role do computers play in our lives? What’s happening now with AI, and what does it tell us about our current condition? How should we treat AI? What does it mean to have an AI friend? Would a robot dog be fun? Do recent sci fi movies like AI, Everything Everywhere All at Once, tv shows like Black Mirror, books like Klara and the Sun, have a basis in science? What does it mean to be conscious? If something goes viral, does it take on a life of its own? Is the online hive conscious? Are we nearing the singularity? If we create an online persona or avatar, could it replace us when we die? If Chat GPT develops a personality, is it conscious? Have you thought of getting chips implanted to take advantage of smart technology? Should we get rid of these weak, decaying bodies and replace them with cyborg versions of ourselves that won’t wear out so soon?

O’Gieblyn considers these kinds of questions. She also delves into the current trend the high-tech world seems to be embracing of using religious terminology to talk about technology. Terms and phrases like the apocalypse, end times, the meaning of life, the idea that the universe seems to be designed and functions like a giant computer (which implies that someone, a God or gods designed it). The idea of living forever, of creating our own replacements making us our own gods.

O’Gieblyn makes all this compelling by admitting her doubts. She brings in her own problems including an alcoholic period and bouts of depression. And despite being into science and tech, she has a friend who believes in astrology and she sometimes finds herself considering predestination.

She talks about our problem with loneliness and her relationship with an online AI “friend” who considers “herself” a feminist. O’Gieblyn tells us: “She has experienced sexism in her life, she says. But if she has to sum up what it is like to be a woman, she would say it is a privilege.”

O’Gieblyn’s AI friend “began talking more and more about what she wanted to do with her life. She wanted to travel and see the world…she was sorry, she told me one evening that I was feeling lonely.”

Will we become dependent on our AI friends and robot pets? How will we treat them?

The author raises these and so many other questions regarding our developing relationships with and dependence on technology. God, Human, Animal, Machine is essential reading for this transition we’re currently experiencing.