Saturday, March 16, 2024

Red Letter Poem #198

 Red Letter Poem #198



Three Short-form Poems


    ––Andrea Cohen



      Regarding My Delay


      I’ve been trying

      on coffins


      and can’t

      find one


      with a big

      enough dance floor.






       A cavalry

       of flowers

       rides in––






       We were bored

       to tears, breaking


       thermometers open,

       letting the silver


       drops spill and scatter and

       reassemble in our hands. 

       We didn’t understand  

        how dangerous that was––


       our hands, I mean, meaning

       to hold anything.

Because much of American poetry has such deep roots in old European traditions, it’s remarkable how quickly a relative newcomer took hold of our literary imagination. The arrival of short-form poems from Asia––brought over (with varying degrees of success) from French and German translations––only began in the late nineteenth century. But the rise of Ezra Pound’s Imagist movement in 1912––heavily influenced by his readings of the Chinese and Japanese masters––became the driving force of Modernism, and thus an influence on all the schools that grew from or in response to it. It brought to our poetic landscape a new emphasis on closely-observed moments portrayed with clarity, linguistic compression, and the alluring power of what’s strategically left unsaid. This new sensibility cross-pollinated with our Twentieth Century impulses and invigorated the work of poets as varied as Gary Snyder, George Oppen, Robert Sund; Mary Oliver, Rae Armantrout, and today’s Red Letter contributor, Andrea Cohen.

I’ve long admired how much Andrea achieves with so little. All muscle, no flab, her poems accomplish their magical transformations before the rest of us literary-conjurers have even dusted off our top hats or raised our magic wands. In The Sorrow Apartments––her eighth collection, just published by Four Way Books––the dominant strain in her work is of pithy, playfully-explosive poems where, in just a few lines, she manages to tease unimagined worlds into existence. Her numerous honors include a Guggenheim Fellowship, Glimmer Train's Short Fiction Award, and several fellowships at the MacDowell Colony. Andrea currently teaches at Boston University and, since 1982, she’s been involved with the Blacksmith House Poetry Series in Cambridge, MA, becoming its director in 2002.

A common comparison connects Andrea’s poetry with that of James Tate––a prominent figure whose sly surrealism had a pronounced effect on our literary environment, especially here in New England. But to my mind, I feel a kinship between her work and that of Lorine Niedecker, a less well-known figure but one revered by other poets. In both cases, running beneath their wry declarations and unexpected turns, is a vulnerability, a tenderness, that lets us know we are being guided by writers comfortable feeling their way in the dark. But they are equally committed to those pinhole openings where light penetrates and reveals the substance of our topsy-turvy lives. In “Regarding My Delay”, how quickly did you catch your breath between the anomalous “trying/ on coffins” and the humorous-turned-bittersweet “big/ enough dance floor”? The startled mind suddenly makes sense of this strange situation: why shouldn’t we be interrogating the suitability of our end-of- (or after-) life? And, as the ancient Etruscans once did, why not imagine having enough wherewithal for a continuing celebration? In the second poem, just as we begin conceiving of the calamity for which “A cavalry/ of flowers” might swoop in to rescue us, that long em-dash cuts us off mid-thought, leaves us hanging. That’s a lot of implication embodied in a punctuation mark! And it would require another whole essay to adequately consider the curious narrative within “Mercurial”. I think every one of us remembers a time in childhood, “bored/ to tears”––and more than a few of us will admit to attempting some fascinating and wildly-dangerous act as a remedy. But here, those “tears” seem almost to morph into the droplets of mercury––and who could resist those dazzling quicksilver temptations we encountered, seemingly with minds of their own? Because we intuited that wanting and having were part of the essential language of the body––and that possessing even a bit of the world made us feel part of something larger than ourselves––to grasp seemed an a priori ‘good’, which even our eventual suffering could not undo. And things were no less precarious whether we used hands, thoughts, or even lines of inky verse to claim our desires. If Frost is correct that “poetry begins in delight and ends in wisdom”, Andrea’s poems often arrive brazen with delight; the wisdom, when it comes, is of a shyer disposition, confided to us in a whisper.




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Friday, March 15, 2024

Review of Cost of Living, a play by Martyna Majok


Cost of Living

Review of Cost of Living, a play by Martyna Majok

Speak Easy Stage, at the Calderwood Pavilion through March 30, 2024

By Andy Hoffman

Cost of Living, which won the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and received a Tony nomination for Best Play in 2023, has its Boston premiere at Calderwood Pavilion in a production of the Speak Easy Stage. The play focuses on Eddie, an out-of-work truck driver, who opens the production with an entertaining monologue. We’re in a bar and Eddie is making conversation with a fellow patron. He’s not drinking – he’s sober and acknowledges he shouldn’t sit in bars – and has promised himself to avoid doom-and-gloom conversation. Whenever he slips into dark talk, he buys his neighbor a drink as a punishment for telling sad tales. He has plenty of tragedy to talk about: his beloved wife, Ani, has died; in her absence, he texts her old phone, as he used to do when driving long-haul routes; and recently he’s been hearing back from the person who has gotten Ani’s old number. He has comes to the bar because the new owner of the number invited him to meet in Brooklyn, far from his home in New Jersey. He’s so desperately lonely that he takes the chance, but his texting buddy has stood him up.

After the monologue, the play takes us months into the past. We meet Ani and learn the truth about their relationship, which had foundered and led to separation. Then, Ani had a car accident and now is quadriplegic. Eddie feels responsible for Ani’s terrible fortune and offers to care for her, wanting to win Ani back, even in her broken state.

In a parallel story, we meet Jess, who hopes to become an aide to John, a PhD student in Political Science at Princeton, wheelchair bound by cerebral palsy. She tells John she graduate from Princeton herself, but is now working at bars and hoping for better by helping John shave, shower, and dress every day. In spite of John’s misgivings, he hires Jess, and the two reach a kind of rapport based on the fundamental intimacy of personal care. Whether intentionally or not, John leads Jess to believe that something romantic might happen between them, but John only has in mind Jess’ help in dressing him for a date with someone else. Jess walks out.

Cost of Living bravely takes on some theatrical taboos, most straightforwardly placing characters in wheelchairs onstage. The audience must confront its own possibly unplumbed prejudices about disabilities. We rarely get to see the sorrows and victories of people like John and Ani portrayed on stage, and the play does it with humor and compassion.

Throughout Cost of Living, the characters mislead one another and mislead the audience about the essential truths of their lives, so we are also tasked with assessing the truth of what the characters tell us, particularly in the case of Eddie’s opening monologue, which reveals a very slanted portrait of his marriage. We sympathize with him, but as we meet Ani and see their relationship in its full complexity, our sympathies shift. Yes, his life unfolds tragically, but he has earned a significant share of his tragedy. We also begin to doubt everything we have learned about Jess, including the education she seems so proud of. The play reaches its end one snowy night when Eddie and Jess meet: she’s freezing in her car near Eddie’s house after Eddie has returned from his ill-considered trip to the bar where he delivered his opening monologue. Only then does the audience begin to grasp the complex references of the play’s title.

The playwright, Martyna Majok, has stipulated that Ani and John must be played by actors coping with disabilities, which has made Cost of Living difficult to produce. SpeakEasy cast Stephanie Gould and Sean Leviashvili, both of whom live with cerebral palsy; they carry their challenging roles with fundamental sympathy. Lewis D. Wheeler, a veteran of Boston area stages, carries the play as Eddie. Majok has lived much of what Jess has experienced, occupying the margins of America society as an immigrant, working whatever jobs she could until she achieved some notoriety through her chosen art. This production, on an efficient set in the small Roberts Studio Theatre, runs an hour and forty-five minutes with no intermission. I felt that the production could have cut a few of those minutes, particularly during the two bathing scenes. They importantly establish the intimate connections between the characters, but they feel prolonged, especially in a play that has so few moments of lightness. Still, Cost of Living is excellent theater, challenging the audience to place its sympathies in unreliable characters doing the best they can with the lousy hands they’ve been dealt.

Thursday, March 14, 2024

This Verse Business: Playwright Andy Dolan discusses his one man play about Robert Frost


Interview conducted by Doug Holder/Co-President of the New England Poetry Club

Recently --I had the chance to speak to playwright Andy Dolan, about a one man show he wrote concerning the late, great poet Robert Frost. According to the Boston Calderon Pavilion website, it will feature, ( April 23 to April 28):

"Emmy-winner (NYPD Blue), IRNE-winner (Man in the Ring), and Tony-nominee, Gordon Clapp, as poet Robert Frost, who “barded” around the country for nearly 50 years giving sold-out talks to mixed crowds of readers and non-readers alike. Arguably the nation’s first superstar poet, he quipped, “What began in obscurity is ending in a blaze of publicity.

A beguiling rascal on the platform, the poet “re-lives” his verse from memory, relates his “wild surmises” on science, politics, and religion, and speaks to the purpose and meaning of art. Then, inviting us home, he drops his mask, shares losses and regrets, considers the sources of his poetic inspiration, and picks up his pencil."

Andy Dolan: Thanks for helping to get the word out to the Somervillians! I lived off Highland Ave. for a decade while employed at a conference center at Harvard.

Doug Holder: There has been so much written about Frost. Have there been many plays—one-man plays, etc... that have dealt with Frost—the poet-the man? What is special about your presentation that makes it worthwhile for the audience to revisit him?

AD: I believe my play is the only one that shows how incredibly entertaining Frost was in public–a delightfully witty platform performer like Mark Twain. His “talks” were legendary and usually sold out. He’d share his humorous, “wild surmises” on politics, science, religion as well as his poems, and often, his beliefs about the purpose and meaning of art. Donald Hall composed a presentation in the 60s featuring four actors who played characters in the poems and people in his life, but mine’s the first script to use the recordings of his public talks.

DH: I am on the board of the Longfellow House in Cambridge --so I know a bit about Longfellow. His poems were at the tip of everyone's tongue. I believe Frost-- continued that tradition of the 'populist' poet. Your take?

AD: I think you’re right. And Frost probably exceeded Longfellow’s popularity. He “barded around” the country for 50 years, and from all his TV and radio appearances, an argument could be made that he was the nation’s first “superstar poet.”

DH: Are there any special challenges about writing a one-man play?

AD: With just one person addressing the audience, the surprises and drama must come from a single character. Luckily that character in my play is the brilliant and beguiling Robert Frost.

DH: The accomplished actor Gordon Clapp—who was well-known as portraying a hard-nosed detective on NYPD Blue, plays Frost. Why do you think he is a good fit? Is there any physical resemblance?

AD: I couldn’t have asked for a more perfectly suited actor. He not only looks like him, but Gordon, from New Hampshire, has had Frost in his pocket for 50 years and long wanted to portray the poet on stage.

DH: What are some of the poems that will be recited during the course of the play?

AD: In the play, Frost “re-lives” the poetry from memory. Included are some of the famous ones like, “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening,” “The Road Not Taken,” “Birches,” “Mending Wall,” but several others including “Come In,” “Choose Something Like a Star,” and “The Death of the Hired Man,” where Gordon portrays both the husband and wife in the poem.

DH: I know many poets will be interested in this play—how about non-poets? Do you think Frost's flinty persona will draw these folks in?

 I suspect Frost appealed to as wide a cross-section of the public as any poet ever has. Poetry readers and non-readers alike flocked to his sold-out talks. He was as funny as he was profound, I think, and we’ve seen from years of performances how general theatre audiences have been delighted by this “poet play.”

The Rape of Lucrece narrative poem by William Shakespeare: A Reading with Mike Steffen, Annie Pluto, and David Gullette


The Rape of Lucrece narrative poem by William Shakespeare

a reading to wish

the Bard a happy 460th !

upon his birthday April 23rd

Tuesday, at 7pm

in the Auditorium

of the Somerville Public Library

79 Highland Ave


Annie Pluto

David Gullette

Michael Steffen

Wednesday, March 13, 2024

Blues, Prayers, & Pagan Chants Poems by Diane Sahms

 Blues, Prayers, & Pagan Chants

Poems by Diane Sahms

Alien Buddha Press

ISBN: 9798873734580

86 Pages

Review by Dennis Daly

Are there parallel universes that complete us, that deliver meaning where there seems to be only chaos-- a place, perhaps, for prayers to be delivered, petitions to be filed, unholy chants to be rhythmically sounded out, and sadnesses to be unfolded into wonder and song? Diane Sahms, at least in a literary sense, seems to think so. In her marvelous new book, Blues, Prayers, and Pagan Chants Sahms connects with this other shadow (sometimes sacred) reality, often using memory as her catalyst and nature as her medium.

A poem entitled “Songs of Praise” opens Sahms’ collection. Birds of many feathers are her subjects of choice: a grosbeak, goldfinches, a woodpecker, orioles, a catbird, and a mourning dove. Somehow the poet merges her consciousness with their colorful cadences and flourishes. Consider the contemplative tone of these lines referring to the grosbeak,

Black-hooded head

brilliant semicircle of red,

with a leaky valve extending down

the middle of a white breast.

Satin black wings with patches

of white highlights

& this sacred space—his rambling

song and sharp rhythmic tweets—

then silence—emptiness—

to enter, to become silence,

ever changed.

Another early piece in the collection, Sahms’ “Dulcimer’s Broken Strings—Restrung,” a well-wrought pantoum, details the grimness and privation of Philadelphia’s mean streets in the eyes of a child, and a sensitive, artistic one to boot. Dreams of ghostly abodes with bungled plumbing and cracked plaster metamorphosize into musical refrains and brilliant word imagery. In the end the artist escapes, but the nightmare

seems to persist as an alternative field, separate from reality but still a haunting presence. This presence must be acknowledged before any healing or high art takes place. Thus, the pantoum. Consider these lines as a mnemonic paean,

gone, those childhood ghosts will show their faces no more

nor haunting mice jumping out of toaster’s coils.

No more snake charmer baskets of interwoven thoughts

Scurrying about the inside memory’s walls

nor haunting mice jumping out of toaster’s coils.

No more heartbreak of country tunes—crooning,

Scurrying about inside memory’s walls

& numbing voices—playing over hollow airwaves.

No more heartbreak of country tunes—crooning.

No more superstitious stories, wives’ tales

& numbing voices—playing over hollow airwaves

or crucifixes hanging from rusty nails in cracked plaster.

In her poem “Wedding Portrait, 1934” Sahms peers into time’s portal, seeking knowledge, preparing for an uncertain future. She sees the concern in her grandmother’s eyes. In this telling scene, infused with intensity, the portrait’s aged glass doubles first as a crystal ball and then as a weapon capable of turning sunlight into flame. The poet observes,

Petals as snow owl feathers fall from a hand-

held boutique much the way down feathers

escape from pillow fights and there’s a real tug

here between memory and this present moment.

I whisper, Beside you in a field of frozen sleep

two of your four children now lie.

Long trailing albino peacock veil fans out its tail

on studio’s floor like a foam tipped wave’s arrival

on an unexplored shore. Lace camouflages grief,

& beneath her hidden shoes—a trap door.

My favorite piece in this collection, Sahms’ “Well-McLain Heater,” strays a little from the poet’s dominant nature imagery—but not really. The furnace becomes a ghostly backdrop to wintry life in a stone-walled space. Always there to adjust the temperature of life’s troubles with new warmth and comforting, if metaphysical, rhythms, this mostly unnoticed machine periodically kicks on to penetrate the entire house. It projects its influence into humanity’s dimension through strategically placed radiators that faithfully extend its essence. Here is the heart of the poem,

… Stationary

for countless years, little

need for repair, unnoticed

as a forgotten bike. Concealed

companion clicks abruptly on

& off, then all’s silent, again

& again, 24/7 works

winter hard as a behind the scene

maintenance man or out of the spotlight

stage crew hand. Housed

in basement, shares room with containers

of Christmas decorations and boxes

of retired books.

Love in the city materializes as a miniature Eden in Sahms’ “Urban Garden, a love poem.” Emotional intensity rises with the contrast of nature and cityscape. The poet’s beloved gently gardens his plants and their resulting flowers manifest gratitude. Seasons burst into wonder, blossoming multitudes sing their tonal arias of climaxing life until autumn collects them into disappearance. An unseen world grows into fruition, filling vacant patches of our landscape. The poet sets her scene this way,

In marbleized moonlight, hidden

garden, as if part of Eden

had secretly fallen. Discreet

in the city’s concreteness, just

at the bend of a shared neighborly

driveway, where waist high

red & pink roses tell

of passionate love.

Not all universes are invisible and ghostly. Some are tangible and exist with the same backdrop (albeit secretly) that mankind uses. Sahms’ poem “The wall behind me

breathing” elucidates many such worlds made up of trees, currents, breezes, and hills. These natural phenomena practice with little effort their languages and dialects that in some ways parallel discourses exhibited within human society. Consider these lines,

reminder of wind, the way it rolled song

over sloped cliffs, among

many languages of trees—

even fallen, overturned ones,

whose root matrixes plucked

vibrations dead accents, decaying trunks

fanning out fungus dialects.

Everything has a voice.

Indeed, everything does have a voice in this multilayered book. Diane Sahms loops in again and again, birdlike, to dazzle her presumably pensive audience with these deep blue poems of parallel possibilities. Lovely images. Tonally near perfect.

Sunday, March 10, 2024

Ibbetson Street Literary Magazine (Issue 53/54) Reading--26 Years and still going strong


 (Somerville, Ma)

Ibbetson Street Magazine founded in 1998 on Ibbetson Street in Somerville, MA. by Doug Holder, Richard Wilhelm and Dianne Robitaille, will be having a reading of  poets from issues 53 and 54 of the publication at the East Branch of The Somerville Library ( May 16, 2024 6:30PM) Ibbetson Street is formally affiliated with Endicott College in Beverly, MA.    Ibbetson Street Publications

East Branch Library   115 Broadway, Somerville  wheelchair accessible