Saturday, February 24, 2024

Red Letter Poem #196

 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 #196






I Cannot Say



When she asked us outright

Am I dying? no one said You are.


A moment among moments

rips a mind. And ever after, is it


ill I'm thinking, when I'm thinking

about death? or for that matter ways


of living on? What wildness

in a maker's mind prepares


the porcupine, or sloth, for earth?  We are

no models of the kind, to speak of speakability,


or dying while alive.  We dumped

her dust across a gunnel,


into places all themselves revolving, underneath

a moon unmanned—we let her go


from every hand and off

the five whirlpools around


the local islands. All the while

the long, hewn sides of workboat


turned to every tune

the whirlpool played.


Some speak but cannot know.

Some know but cannot say.



      ––Heather McHugh





The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.The Name that can be named is not the eternal Name.


This is the opening verse of Taoism’s foundational text, the Tao Te Ching.  And if you’re sensing some contradiction here––a book setting out to explain what it’s just decreed unexplainable––perhaps that’s the reason Lao Tzu, the Chinese sage from the 5th century BCE, composed his spiritual treatise in poetry.  Even today, the deepest, most affecting part of any poem will be what’s not contained within its language.  Perhaps the poet’s voice somehow manages to inscribe a circle of sound and imagery, and we find ourselves suddenly situated at its invisible center, looking out from a new vantage.  Or perhaps the writer creates an archway with those carefully-hewn nouns and pulsating verbs, inviting us to pass through––so readers might shape what we find there, imbue it with meaning.  Or perhaps. . .


Heather McHugh is an acclaimed writer, author of eight books of poetry, four more of translations, and a collection of essays.  A former Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, her work has earned her numerous awards including two grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, a Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Award, a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship, and the MacArthur Foundation’s ‘Genius Grant’.  And though it might not come under the heading of artistic achievement, I think it important to add that, in 2012, she founded the nonprofit CAREGIFTED to provide respite and tribute to long-term caregivers of the severely disabled and chronically ill––an enterprise I view as a natural outgrowth from her lifelong exploration of what makes us human.  Endlessly fascinated with the variety of ways words attempt to embody the inexpressible states of experience, she was determined early on (as she’s written) “to follow every surge of language, every scrap and flotsam.”  But time and its inevitable losses have reshaped the project of her poetry.  “Where once the brightness of life and language sufficiently attracted me, now the darkness (full of ordinals but no cardinals) seems the greater calling.”  It’s been some time since her last published collection, and so it’s always a noteworthy event when new work appears.  Today’s poem is the first of two that will debut in the Red Letters.


“I Cannot Say” is a kind of jagged psalm of loss and acceptance.  Creating a composite here of two dear friends who’ve died, the poet finds herself wading deep in the morass of grief, wondering what can be said that honestly reflects such an awe-full moment.   I love how the voices in the opening lines are not entirely distinct, stripped of the customary quotation marks; perhaps this implies that the boundary between the asking and answering, the living and the dying is always more porous than we know.  And then the poet’s lens seems to pull back into a wider panorama of her thoughts––considering what can and cannot be said about the demands existence places upon every living creature, our overwhelming need to survive.  The impression I got was of a consciousness trying to think its way out of the heart’s paralysis, forestalling what it knows must come, until. . .  Brought back to the present moment by a series of simple nouns (dust. . .gunnel. . .whirlpool. . .workboat), we are once again face-to-face with this emptiness beyond comprehension: “we let her go // from every hand”.  When, in the end, the poet offers us an echo of Lao Tzu, it is perhaps a simple acknowledgement that the Way guiding all things, the unfathomable nature of Being, must always remain just that, elusive and deep––so deep that our earnest words, like stones, leave only the smallest ripples when they sink out of view.




Red Letters 3.0


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Friday, February 23, 2024

John Proctor is the Villain: A play by Kimberly Belflower


John Proctor is the Villain

Review of John Proctor is the Villain, a play by Kimberly Belflower

Huntington Theatre, at the Calderwood Pavilion through March 10, 2024

 Review By Andy Hoffman

Setting a show in a school brings up so many production problems. How do you maintain the illusion of the adults playing kids and that the teacher/student power dynamic has actual consequences? The Huntington Theatre shows how with John Proctor is the Villain, tightly written by Kimberly Belflower and expertly directed by Margot Bordelon. This production takes the audience right back into high school. The actors dress and speak like teenagers and gallop awkwardly around the stage as they would in a high-school classroom. From the scrunchies on their wrists to the oddly knowing innocence, this cast has embraced their younger selves. The young people connect to their identities through Billie Eilish, Lorde, and Taylor Swift and they erupt into fits of laughter and screaming as teens do. The young playwright went home to rural Georgia after she completed her education and used the familiar location to channel her own youth into this play. They completely brought the audience into their world, as evidenced by the spontaneous standing ovation at the final curtain.

John Proctor is the Villain is set in a small-town high school in rural Georgia. The two faculty members we meet – English teacher Carter Smith and guidance counselor Bailey Gallagher – both graduated from this school, which creates an insular, even protected, environment for the rest of the characters, all students. The play’s subject, gender relations, makes the realism of the production even more powerful. We open in Mr. Smith’s English class, doubling as the sex-education course due to a faculty shortage. Japhet Balaban comes across as the incredibly cool and devoted teacher and he leads his students into the unit on Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. He gives his students the standard interpretation of the play, Miller’s indictment of anticommunist fervor played as the Salem Witch Trials, in which John Proctor’s refusal to save himself by impugning others seems heroic. The teenage girls in his class have a different point of view about John Proctor’s character; the play tells us why.

Set in the recent past, the students run squarely into political reality when they want to start a school club to explore feminism, of particular interest in the wake of the #metoo movement. The guidance counselor tries to break the news that the community would likely object to their club, but Mr. Smith comes to the rescue as both the faculty sponsor and with a different name that will deflect rancor. The community context comes into the classroom in the free-wheeling conversation among the club members, as when Beth, a high-schooler who always apologizes for her opinions and the main instigator for forming the club, confesses that she really thought of the club as a Christian feminist organization. Her classmates are as baffled by this perspective as the audience is. The church remains an offstage character throughout the play, as membership and activity there stands in for upstanding moral behavior. The play we see on the Calderwood stage unfolds like a parallel commentary on the action of The Crucible, as the students fumble their way to insight. Newcomer Nell, a Black student transferred from Atlanta, brings her classmates a slightly more worldly perspective.

In truth, they have plenty of worldliness among themselves. We learn early in the play that Raelynn and Lee, a couple since the fourth grade, ran into an explosive problem when Lee slept with Raelynn’s best friend Shelby, who subsequently disappeared from school for half a year. Did Shelby become pregnant? Did she have a breakdown? No one knows, especially not Raelynn, who simultaneously hates and misses her bestie. The action of the play accelerates to break-neck speed when Shelby returns unexpectedly. Her revelations turn the school upside down and bring the action of The Crucible and the action of John Proctor is the Villain into a duet. The exhilarating ending brings out both the best in the cast and the audience. Join the standing ovation at this exuberant performance.

Poet Robbie Gamble: Much More than a 'Can of Pinto Beans'


***Interview by New England Poetry Club Co-President Doug Holder

Recently, I was at a New England Poetry Club reading to hear poet Robbie Gamble and others read from their work. Gamble has a new chapbook out titled, " A Can of Pinto Beans." Gamble generously gave me a copy--and I decided to interview this accomplished bard.

From his website:

Robbie Gamble’s poems have appeared in the Atlanta Review, Poet Lore, RHINO, Spillway, and The Sun, among other journals. His essays have appeared in MassPoetry, Pangyrus, Scoundrel Time, Solstice, and Tahoma Literary Review. Recipient of the Carve Poetry prize, and a Peter Taylor Fellowship at the Kenyon Summer Writers Workshop, he holds an MFA from Lesley University, and he serves as poetry editor for Solstice: A Magazine of Diverse Voices.

Robbie worked for twenty years as a nurse practitioner with Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program, and he now divides his time between Boston and Vermont.

Doug Holder: These poems arise from your work with the organization NO MORE DEATHS that helps migrants passing through the remote sections of the Sonora Desert along the Arizonia/Mexican borders. Can you tell us a bit about your experience?

Robbie Gamble: Prior to COVID, I spent a chunk of time each summer for several years volunteering for No More Deaths/ No Más Muertes in a rugged stretch of desert near Arivaca, Arizona where several thousand known migrant fatalities have occurred over the past decade. The aim of the organization is to prevent further deaths by providing medical and material support to migrants passing through. No More Deaths operated a base camp in the desert with a M.A.S.H. tent-style clinic where we could provide some basic care for injured or exhausted migrants. We also went out daily deeper into the desert, starting in four-wheel-drive vehicles and then continuing on foot, to leave gallon jugs of water and food along known migrant trails, with the hopes of preventing people from becoming dehydrated and malnourished on their journey. Passing through this desert often required them to walk 30 to 60 miles from the border, often being pursued by Border Patrol agents. I’m a nurse practitioner, and I’m fairly fluent in Spanish, so I had a good skill set for the work. The conditions were difficult, with daytime temperatures sometimes exceeding 110 degrees. We were also sometimes harassed by Border Patrol agents, who did not approve of our activities. At the time I was volunteering, there was a shaky agreement between No More Deaths and the Tucson Sector Command of Border Patrol allowing us to operate the Arivaca base camp, but it was still stressful to work in such a highly militarized zone where we were often under surveillance.

DH: "A Can of Pinto Beans" seems like a rather pedestrian title for a book of verse. But it is so much more than a can of beans, isn't it?

RG: The Sonoran Desert is a vast, open space where we rarely encountered the people we were trying to support. Mostly we were aware of migrants’ activities by the things they left behind: footprints, trash, discarded possessions, and on occasion, human remains. I came to envision the chapbook as a collection of bits of evidence that people had passed through this desert space, and how they had experienced their journey. The title poem “A Can of Pinto Beans” is a kind of cinematic zoom shot, beginning with a panorama of the horizon and then focusing down onto this one piece of trailside detritus, which had been violently destroyed by a Border Patrol agent in order to deny migrants a small portion of possibly life-saving nutrition. So to me, the can embodies the migrants’ journey, and our small efforts to alleviate their suffering, and the institutional violence simultaneously being deployed to prevent their passage.

DH: Did you plan to write poems about your work, or did it just naturally arise?

RG: I wrote a sequence of five poems upon returning from one of my earlier trips to Arizona, and I shared them in a workshop. Eileen Cleary read them, and she said, “This needs to be a chapbook, and I want to publish it.” I didn’t think I had enough material for a manuscript, but she kept after me, and eventually I wrote some more poems about the work, and included some found snippets from my journal and from operational logbooks to flesh out the project, and she did publish it, in Lily Poetry Review Press.

DH: In your poem " Water Bearer" you seem to question your journey into these harsh environs—you seem to be asking yourself about your motives and why you abandoned your comfort zone.

RG: Very much so. It sometimes seemed that what we were doing was a small drop in a very dry bucket, and I wondered if our efforts were having much of an impact at all. And the conditions were difficult, both physically and psychologically. But I’ve also worked with political refugees and undocumented folks for much of my adult life, and I’ve heard many stories about how a chance moment made it possible for someone to survive. And that spurs me on to do what I can.

DH: Why should we read this book?

RG: “The Border Crisis” is very much in the news these days, couched in broad, menacing, dehumanizing terms. What I hoped to do in this book is to present a more granular, up-close picture of what is taking place at this particular stretch of the border, what is at stake for the human beings who feel compelled to risk this journey, because they can no longer remain in their communities of origin. I also tried to explore the complicated relationship among three distinct cultures in these borderlands, the indigenous peoples who have lived in the region for centuries, for whom the idea of a border is a colonial construct; the groups of Latinos from the South who are passing through in search a safer, more tolerable life; and the Anglo-American forces who hold the technology and the firepower and the legislative wherewithal to dictate who gets to enter and who is excluded. I’m writing as a witness, someone who is not from this harsh geography, but I hope that I have been able to put in enough time and observation to bring some insight into the injustices that I have seen.

A Can of Pinto Beans

Just below the ridgeline saddle

tossed to the side of the trail

lying dented among rocks,

bleached label peeled back,

and the downhill-facing end

of the can stabbed through

by some Border Patrol agent’s

Ka-Bar knife, a precise wound

mouldering around the edges,

with filaments wafting down

the corners, no, they’re streams

of tiny ants, crawling in and out,

bearing flecks of nourishment away.