Saturday, April 13, 2024

Red Letter Poem #202

 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 #202





Family Photographs:

My Brother, Solar Eclipse, 1965



In a year, Haldol, ECT, the closed gates of a sanitarium.

But for now—how happy you were.  To be eleven and unconcerned

For once with school, the Cubs, who punched who.

For a few minutes to be unlearned, to be taught

A new world.  O, distant boy, how marvelous

It all must have been, to be turned into a ghoul with your friends,

To spurn the murmur of grown-ups with their highballs and hair

On the deck for a lowering sky burned sepia, orange.

At three o’clock to feel yourself disappear inside yourself —

To cast no shadow.  And – so long ago now

how did you put it? —the delicious, insistent thought

What if it stays like this?  To yearn and yet not to know yet

What that yearning meant.


                         ––Danny Lawless




Danny Lawless is twice-blessed.  This might seem like a strange thing to say because––reading through the poems of his new book, I Tell You This Now (Cervena Barva Press)––we find no small amount of anguish in his work, though it’s certainly balanced with an equal measure of love (with the two often inextricably braided inside a single poem.)  In a note to me, Danny helped identify the source of both this grief and his early impulse to poetry: “I imagine the stirrings of poetry begin in one's sensitivity to the world. . .in my case, among three schizophrenic siblings: brilliant, kind, reserved, graceful boys and girl...until taken up by the whirlwind, each at puberty.  I was 8 when my older brother was diagnosed; and then on down the line.”  How carefully observed, agonizing, and yet utterly restrained his phrasing––“and then on down the line”––all qualities that appear throughout Danny’s poetry.   Such sensitivity can easily become a burden, powerful enough to drag an individual under the waves, if one does not find a way to discharge some of those dire energies––and certainly Danny has done so marvelously in this, his second collection: clear-eyed, dream-stunned, painfully beautiful.  His first blessing.


But then there is the life of a public poet, something Danny achieved slowly, only after a number of decades.  As a young man, he began ‘publishing’ his poems on mimeo sheets stapled to telephone poles in Louisville where he went to college (influenced by his fascination with homemade concert posters similarly displayed during the early days of punk rock.)  It would require a long gestation, but he eventually founded Plume: A Journal of Contemporary Poetry which has published monthly issues ever since 2012, as well as annual anthologies under the imprint Plume Editions.  A dozen years on, and his journal has become one of the most vibrant forums for poetry and aesthetics, with a broad and loyal readership.  The roster of poets who have appeared there is a who’s-who of contemporary writing.  Blessing number two.


But let me focus for a moment on what takes place inside Danny’s poems.  In “My Brother, Solar Eclipse, 1965”, for example, the diction has the lightness of childhood patter: school days, sports teams, “who punched who.”  And so the contrast with that opening line (“Haldol, ECT, the closed gates of a sanitarium.”) strikes us like a gut-punch.  The poet’s spot-on depiction instantly takes us back to our own childhoods when we experienced things like illness and loss as if they were vast and almost supernatural forces.  How are we to comprehend, let alone resist, being swept away by them?    But as an adult, we can’t help but feel a certain indignation: how dare illness trespass inside the precincts of innocence (followed quickly by the sobering realization: how dare I be surprised?)  The love of his older brother is infused in the poem’s every detail; and then––beneath the encompassing darkness of a solar eclipse, the very natural order of the universe seemingly overturned––the brother risks a teasing/terrorizing proposition: “What if it stays like this?”  But from where we readers are standing, the deeper meaning of the statement erupts, and our hearts can’t help but plummet.  It is one thing to write poems that––in a sense which extends far beyond the metaphorical––help save one’s own life.  In fact, I think that’s every poet’s and artist’s first responsibility: to build their own creative life raft to buoy themselves across the world’s treacherous flood.  But when I am reading Danny’s writing, I don’t just feel a deep kinship with that elusive speaker; I find that the poems become vessels which I may board, bringing my own history and emotional turbulence as cargo.  To say that something within a work of art has rescued me from my own disasters––that’s one of the highest compliments I can pay a fellow-poet.  Danny strikes me as being quite a self-effacing individual, and I seriously doubt he would claim any of this for himself––but we can do it for him, and gladly.  So perhaps I was incorrect when I called Danny Lawless twice-blessed.  Thrice.




Red Letters 3.0


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Thursday, April 11, 2024

Discipline by Debra Spark.


Discipline by Debra Spark. Four Way Books, Tribeca, 306 pages. $19.95.


Review by Ed Meek


Debra Spark is the author of a number of novels and short story collections as well as a couple of anthologies. She teaches in the MFA Program at Warren Wilson College and at Colby College.

Her novel Discipline is a mosaic of mysteries.


It begins with an art appraiser, Gracie, who is hired in 2018 to examine a collection of paintings owned by a collector, but when she arrives at the house in Maine where the art is stored, she finds that the work the artist is most famous for is missing, presumably stolen. Then the novel jumps back to 1978 and the point of view of an adolescent rebellious boy, Reggie, living with foster parents in a poor urban area. This occurs because Reggie has a history of “mouthing off” to authorities. When he insults the owners of a restaurant who refuse to serve him, they call the police and that leads to Reggie being called to the principal’s office. From there, he is turned over to a man who takes him to a “therapeutic boarding school” in remote Maine where Reggie is to be rehabilitated.


The novel moves back and forth in time exploring various points of view including, in addition to Gracie and Reggie, the famous artist known for the missing painting, the daughter of the artist, the son of the daughter of the artist, a man who rides in a horse to rescue the daughter of the artist and the grown-up degenerate son of the daughter of the artist.


The novel is almost mathematical in the way all these stories are woven and brought together and the theme of discipline Spark focuses on is compelling. And who doesn’t love an art heist? If you are from Boston, you know the story of the Isabella Stewart Gardner theft in 1990 in which thirteen works were stolen including a Vermeer, a number of paintings by Rembrandt, and a few by Degas. The case was never solved. There’s still a ten-million-dollar reward!


Spark is adept at writing from the point of view of the women in the novel; artists and art lovers will enjoy the art talk. The other discipline in the novel concerns the boarding school. It is based on an actual boarding school called Elan that used a disreputable version of “attack” therapy to demean and break down troublesome boys and girls by doing things like making them sing “Mary had a little Lamb” in front of everyone, or dress up in a chicken costume as punishment, or engage in boxing matches with multiple opponents.


Although the portrait of the school is based on interviews the author did with adults who attended Elan, the novel runs into the problem Tim O’Brien brings up in The Things They Carried where he talks about the difference between a war story and what makes a good story. The retelling just doesn’t feel right. Reggie, a sensitive young man who doesn’t fight, drink or take drugs is somehow committed to this horrific school where he is degraded and severely beaten. It’s a little over the top.


Here and a number of other places in the novel when a character asks, “Can you believe this really happened?” You might find yourself saying, “No, I can’t.” In addition, Spark makes use of Deus ex machina’s to move the plot along. Reggie meets the daughter of the artist by jumping into a cab with her. A character actually shows up out of nowhere on a horse to rescue the daughter of the artist.


As Foucault says in his book Discipline, “truth isn’t outside power.” And “power produces knowledge.” Whoever has power determines what the truth is. Debra Spark’s, Discipline touches on this and some intriguing issues that resonate in our current era when scandalous Indian Boarding Schools, lynching stories and questions about the atrocious behavior of people in the past are uncovered daily. Meanwhile, we are faced with questions about the role of art and the nature of truth, truthiness and alternate truths in our news and politics.