Thursday, December 07, 2023

Red Letter Poem #185


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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 #185





My son believes messages are conveyed.

Sitting up in bed, middle of the night,

he wants me to tell him what it says,

to read the words on the framed poster

that hangs on the bedroom wall, the airplane

with the lips logo painted on the side:

Rolling Stones American Tour 1972.

In his delirium he has seen too much:

“A cow hooked up to a device. A bad guy

did it. And there was an orange, one that

just kept getting bigger and bigger.”

He gets some relief at last, remembering

a dream of a soccer game. “You don’t

have to bring the ball,” he says happily.

Talking through his hat, the expression

my mother used for conversations held

under fever’s tightening grip. She said it, too,

about bragging, or anyone making promises,

when they couldn’t follow through.

Again and again, I am called to save him.

I put my head down on his chest,

lift up when I hear his little heart

beating strong and true, see how it makes

the white sheet gently rise and fall.

His hair is soaked from sweating it out

in visions of a world all mixed up. To anyone

with ears and the strength to save him

from what had seemed so real, he yelled,

“Help! See it! It looks like The Joker.”

I put on the light and the shadow dispersed.

It was only the lampshade askew on the porcelain

night light, the beautiful pea green boat carrying

the odd couple adrift at sea. Their light’s the light

of the moon, so Dance by the light of the moon.



––Mary Bonina



Worse than any suffering that may befall us: the suffering of those we love.  Or so it’s been in my experience.  And this is acutely felt when we are, for the most part, helpless to alleviate that pain––when the only medicine we can offer is our presence, a healing touch, the love we try to radiate from our bodies like sunlight.  So it is in Mary Bonina’s memory poem depicting her young son trying to cope with a spiked fever and the flood of attendant fears that come from being small and unmoored in the all-too-large world.  I love how Mary enables us to be of two minds within the narrative: quickly, I find myself in parental mode, worrying about the boy whose body aches and whose mind is awash with terrifying images.  But somehow the more potent and surprising experience is how easily I found myself able to re-inhabit my six-year-old self, a time when most of us viewed our parents as omnipotent beings in charge of making the universe safe and comprehensible.  But, of course, the child is incapable of seeing the reality of that equally-fearful adult––which suddenly catapults me back into my parental role, shaken by the knowledge of my own frailty.


Did you like how Mary uses her colloquial tone to make the narrative feel intimate, close?  And how those hints of old and new pop culture make the setting wholly believable? (It’s quite a leap, though, from “If I don’t get some shelter/ ooh yeah, I’m gonna fade away” back to “Buffalo gals, won’t you come out tonight.”)  In the poem, we start to feel as if we were a member of the family––and perhaps that is precisely what poetry, in all its manifestations, attempts to achieve: we are indeed familial, even those strangers who too often pass by unnoticed.  Language helps grant us membership in this mortal household.  And so, for a few minutes, this is our little boy as well––just as we are that very child in the sweat-soaked bed, desperate for someone’s comforting lips on our forehead.  Exiting the poem, might our world-view be colored (ever so slightly) by that tenderness?


Mary has authored two poetry collections and a memoir (all from Cervena Barva press), and has a forthcoming chapbook entitled Lunch in Chinatown.  Her poem “Drift”, a winner of UrbanArts "Boston Contemporary Authors" prize, was engraved on a granite monolith outside Boston’s Green Street Station of the MBTA Orange Line.  She’s been honored with a number of fellowships including seven from the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts where she has been a fellow since 2002.  Her poems, appearing in numerous journals and anthologies, are savored for their emotional clarity.  Today’s piece begins: “My son believes messages are conveyed”––and, after passing through these fevered stanzas, I believe it as well: from childhood dreams, from the rooms we share, from the family we love, and from resonant poems such as this.





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Wednesday, December 06, 2023

Poet Thomas DeFreitas: Baptized in Somerville and a born poet


Interview with Doug Holder/Co-president of the New England Poetry Club.

I caught up with poet Thomas DeFreitas recently--a well-regarded poet in the area and a former resident of Somerville. We discussed his life and work, and the release of his new book Swift River Ballad.

Thomas DeFreitas was born in 1969 in Boston and was educated at the Boston Latin School. His poems have appeared in Dappled Things, Ibbetson Street, Plainsongs, and elsewhere. His most recent collection is Swift River Ballad (Kelsay Books, 2023). He is a member of the New England Poetry Club.

Do you think that the fact you were baptized in Somerville, gave you a good start as a poet?

It certainly didn't hurt! Somerville is (if I may borrow a phrase) a "city of poets"! From current laureate Lloyd Schwartz to my dear friend Hilary Sallick to the tireless and remarkable Gloria Mindock, to present company, there is much to recommend! Also, in the early 1970s, as now, it was a close-knit working-class city, with all of the poetical assets particular to such an environment. You learn stories. You learn colorful turns of phrase!

You told me that you are a huge fan of Dylan Thomas. You like his use of meter and his sound tricks. In some ways do you identify with Thomas because he was a heavy drinker-and that led to his death in the Chelsea Hotel in NYC in the 1950s? You were once a drinker—is there some sense of tragedy reflected in his poems—that you cling to?

I read in Paul Ferris's biography of Thomas that Dylan never wrote while drunk. He'd work like mad on a poem, dozens of drafts, and then he'd treat himself to a pint (or usually more!) at the pub. I identify with Thomas's work ethic and his hostility to the easy, shopworn phrase. But the drink made an impression, and in adolescence I felt that it was somehow "connected" to his creativity. As tragic a figure as Thomas was, I feel the poems are life-giving. They do exert a pull. I'd recommend Seamus Heaney's fine essay on Thomas. "Dylan the Durable?" (I answer Heaney's question in the affirmative.)

In your poem " Dreaming of Somerville" you bring the high holy to our burg. William Carlos William had his Paterson, N.J., does DeFreitas have his Somerville? Could you write this way about Arlington—where you currently reside?

I hope there is something in any poet that can find auspicious occasions for poetry, whatever their environment. I love Arlington! Arlington is my joy. My years in Somerville, East Boston, Amherst, and Chelsea have all made an impression, and I hope I use all my places and experiences in a way that conduces to the making of poems.

Your book has a great deal of well-honed Catholic imagery. For some the church was a nightmare ( including my late wife) others love the ritual, the beauty of the church. Your take?

I keenly sympathise with anyone who's been wounded or diminished or disgusted by Catholicism or by any other religious body or practice. I had a better time of it than most folks as an active Catholic, loving the ritual and the fixity, to a degree. But I think that in here in the USA, there's a malady in Catholicism whereby many Catholics have whittled their creed to one or two hot-button issues. These people call themselves "orthodox Catholics," though they scorn Pope Francis (whom I love) in favor of following a political figure whose estrangement from gospel values seems glaringly obvious. I'm currently active in a beautiful Episcopal community, St. James's in Cambridge.

Why should we read your book?

My book and its author will love you for it! I feel that this newest collection is a representative sampling of my work. There are poems of joy and of serious purpose. But I feel the salient note is celebration: celebration of people, of language, of this extraordinary ordinary life.


A Mad Patch of Song

You are the pink mint of floral days.
Pert froth of comic blossoms, sip
of cool blue heaven. You are the trust
of once-braided hair flaunting in a breeze.
Who can compass your jests and gestures
against the green tedium of summer?

Iris among ferns in the dank hollow.
Accidental majesty no curse can hurt.
I will greet you with a mad patch
of song. And you will brighten and blush,
crash into a racket of laughter, nudge me
out of the dust into rainburst and radiance.

poet, author of:
Swift River Ballad (Kelsay Books, 2023)
Longfellow, Tell Me (Kelsay Books, 2022)
Winter in Halifax (Kelsay Books, 2021)

Sunday, December 03, 2023

Review of The Heart Sellers, a play by Lloyd Suh


The Heart Sellers

Review of The Heart Sellers, a play by Lloyd Suh

At the Calderwood Pavilion of the Huntington Theater through December 23, 2023

By Andy Hoffman

Lloyd Suh has written in The Heart Sellers a play that will run in repertory theaters around the country for the next generation. You can see it now at the Calderwood Pavilion of the Huntington Theatre. The Heart Sellers concerns two women in an unnamed city in the United States on the evening of November 22, 1973, Thanksgiving, the night that Richard Nixon delivered his “I am not a crook” speech to a national audience. The women have come to the US accompanying their husbands, both physicians doing their training rotations at a nearby university hospital. The play opens with Luna bringing Jane into her modest apartment, carrying a turkey for the holiday meal. Luna is voluble, words – Jane is Korean and Luna is Filipino – spilling from her in a torrent, as though she’s locked them away for too long. She tells Jane that they both sit in the same boat, foreigners without a clear reason for living where and as they do, except for the men they have married. While the play has more of an arc than a plot, it keeps moving forward through deep laughter and thoughtful silences.

Jane volunteers that she knows how to cook a turkey because she has watched Julia Child cook one on TV. In fact, watching television forms the bulk of Jane’s life. Fortunately, she has learned some English from the experience, and she can communicate, albeit haltingly, with Luna in this language. The frozen turkey won’t cook in time for a Thanksgiving meal, but the women make do with yams and lots of wine.

What begins as an awkward meeting in the supermarket becomes a foundational evening of confessions. Luna has stalked Jane, in hopes of creating a friendship. Jane’s husband has warned her against befriending Luna; he would prefer she make friends with American women. They joke about going to see a porn film, so they can compare the size of their husband’s penises with other men, since neither has seen any others, but they quickly realize how recognizable they have become as the wives of doctors admitted to the United States under the terms of the Hart-Celler Act. Luna plays with the language and imagines several heart-sellers, realizing over the course of the night that they have sold their futures in their native lands – where they have left their hearts – to have an unknown and perhaps undesirable future in America. The Philippines under the Marcos regime might not welcome Luna and her husband back. Jane has almost no family left in Korea, her sister and parents having died mysteriously, perhaps due to their communist sympathies.

The two women, Jane and Luna, have seen their lives play out in political contexts around the globe. They have come together, as Luna explains, in large part because of the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, that removed national-origins quota from US immigration policy and paved the way for these women to meet. Also known as the Hart-Celler Act for the congressmen who sponsored it, this change in policy establishes the political context for the play. Whatever the politics, the audience becomes witness to the birth of a meaningful friendship between people from different corners of the world, in yet another corner.

The Heart Sellers reveals Jane and Luna’s surface and deep similarities, especially their passive roles in the political drama around them. This play, with only two characters and simple set, will prove attractive to theaters everywhere, especially since audiences hunger for depictions of true minority experiences. The Huntington’s production, directed by May Adrales, imbues an authenticity to the lives of Luna and Jane. Interestingly, the set, by Junghyun Georgia Lee, looks like a television, raised off the stage floor and bordered in black, offering a counterpoint between the real-life sense we have of the blossoming friendship and the artifice of lives lived in a political and public context beyond the hands of the principals. In the sumptuous program – a significant improvement Loretta Greco has brought to the Huntington since becoming Artistic director, Lloyd Suh notes, “I never thought of this as, ‘I’m writing a play about immigrant women.’ I thought of it as ‘I’m writing a play about my mother.’ Suddenly you become the only person who can tell that story.” As a result, his play will make you laugh, and it will make you think. In a nation of immigrants, this story belongs to everyone.