Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Newton Free Library Poetry Series--1982

 I have been directing the Newton Free Library Poetry Series for 16 years now.  I discovered in my collection a 1982 anthology the series put out that consisted of featured readers of past events.  Such names as Maxine Kumin, Gail Mazur, Fanny Howe, Lloyd Schwartz, Dianna Der-Hovanessian and Ruth Whitman graced the stage--  proud to be part of this tradition all these years...

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Monday, March 12, 2018

Grief Between and Beyond in Joan Houlihan’s new book Shadow-feast

Joan Houlihan

Grief Between and Beyond in Joan Houlihan’s new book Shadow-feast
article by Michael Steffen

Time came in and stranded us here, writes Joan Houlihan in the third poem of her new book, Shadow-feast, after the Japanese Kage-zen, “a repast…offered to the spirit of the absent one loved.” The poems chronicle the mourner’s (Hers, section one) reflections of the dying and death of her husband; the empathetic raising of the husband’s replies (His, section two); and (Theirs, section three) a sequence driven by third-person narrative being resolved intermittently back into the voice of the mourning wife.

Death, a dying of one, isolates the couple (as love had in their beginning). At some point between, we are all social, generally involved in the community, with our families, helping us shield the exhaustion of I and thou. Yet lines from the book remind us of the peculiar solidarity and isolation of a couple’s union. It reminds us of Adam and Eve dressing themselves as God calls to them in the garden:

We creaked open, listening. The past stacked high on us,
Day looked into us. Clarity without remedy… [page 5]

The meditations bring us vivid awareness of the body as fragile medium of our affectionate bonds, our “MORTAR”, the composition of the word metamorphosing through Houlihan to its definition in time as “mortification,” our sensual undoing, the dissolution of the mortar itself. The double-jeopardy of possession through memory and utter loss of physical rapport enjoins upon the mourner in her wake the dire need to say, to write, to illustrate, to parallel, somehow to capture and hold this slipping away, through metaphor—“a sprung chest”—as the cry, perhaps in echoes of Paul McCartney, to let it be is uttered in turn with poignant lyricism:

Like a sprung chest, a body opens,
empties itself at the last.
Let it be lost. Let it pass.
Where you are, you went alone
as cloud huddled cloud, muscled and blown. [page 7]

A more traditional line on death has leaned toward the generalized consolation that we are bound by our mortality. Though it comes to us in thousands of forms, death is all one. It eradicates the prison of self and mundane suffering of corporal existence. The worst that we face may be the best we have coming. Like the first encounter with love, death is dreadful in anticipation.
Yet Houlihan seeks out the particular in these meditations. Behind the curtains, half of the labor of grief is dissolution. We are bound to it, by remembrance and imagination, as we are denied the physical comforts of and hand’s reach for the other. We are scrutinized of their hold on us, intricate and elaborate as we conceive the world of the dead to be.

Your scrunched eye seizes, sizes
me up: pulley-roped palliatives, craft and lies.
Washing my hands in the back, I wonder:
What’s a good death?
Of course you held on and I held onto you.
We had married ourselves to a trance.

The poet’s question—What’s a good death?—perhaps reminds the reader of a memorable exchange in the ancient world between the Lydian King Croesus and the Greek philosopher Solon. Croesus at the height of his vast wealth and glory rhetorically and somewhat arrogantly asked the philosopher if he (Croesus) were not a blessed man. Solon replied it was necessary to wait until somebody’s death to determine whether they were blessed or not. What’s a good death?

Suffering helps the dying let go. A friend once told me this. Suffering the dying should help the attendant let go. Processing and deflection happen through writing, in the dual work of preserving an image in its reproduction while gaining perspective on the thing through its image as it is transformed into a work.

The book, Shadow-feast, we have noted, is presented in three dramatic parts, two monologues, Hers, His, and a sort of post script, Theirs. It’s a work of expressions from imagination—biographically referential howsoever. This organization and representation lend remove to the poems, allow us to read them as we might view or read a play. It also sets the book in perspective as literary genre, with Rilke’s wonderful poem on assisting the dying “Washing the Corpse,” or Faulkner’s streaming dramatic novel As I Lay Dying.

At the moment of the passing in Shadow-feast, the point of view quietly shifts into third-person narrative:

STILL HEARD in her head. They burn what’s left.
And then he is there again…
…She served him as mother, as wife,
forced to bear up his frame… [page 20]

Death brings us to humanity in its most generic epiphany, where we all go, and upholds the general inclusive voice of fiction (and also of religion) to speak from one, masked in others, characters, historical or fancied, to the many, forming a unity of identity and cause. It may help to alleviate the mourner of an individual sense of responsibility or guilt for the deceased who has suffered no more than the extremity of his or her human condition. We all must. Though, as the Song of Songs reminds us, Many waters cannot drown love.

The second section, His, attests to the powers of empathy which we are privy to any time we read good fiction. There is, of course, both a reason and a myth to why Poetry is not stacked in the Fiction section of libraries. In Poetry there are claims to a rudimentary or primary hold on some perception of “facts” about the imagination in the way of mimetic or onomatopoetic speech, prosodic attention, as well as social anticipation, which oddly sorts poetry off as being more genuine, maybe in the way of personal essays, than short stories, novels or drama. Some major critics like Paul de Man writing on Proust or T.S. Eliot have found it useful to dispel the distinctions between prose and verse.

It is interesting to note that the Personae of Shadow-feast are possessive pronouns: Hers, His, Theirs. This links Shadow-feast with Houlihan’s two previous book-length poems, Ay (“I”) and The Us, with their titles collecting human consciousness in nominal pronouns or suggestions thereof. Houlihan isn’t the only American poet in our time to defy the sacred self, the inscrutable “I” of Walt Whitman and his song. A look at the Contents page of Jane Hirshfield’s recent book, The Beauty, finds emphatic anaphora of the first-person possessive, as though for some question raised by the repetition: “My Skeleton,” “My Proteins,” “My Eyes,” “My Corkboard,” “My Memory,” “My Weather,” “In My Wallet I Carry a Card,” “My Task,” “My Sandwich”… Something here is poking fun, trying to draw attention to an observation. Are we being too possessive? Too selfish? In the poem “My Proteins” Hirshfield declares most of her is not herself, not hers alone:

A body it seems is a highway,
a cloverleaf crossing
well-built, well traversed.
Some of me going north, some going south.

Ninety percent of my cells, they have discovered,
are not my own person,
they are other beings inside of me. [The Beauty, page 9]

Despite this powerful spell of ultimate subjectivity we have been put under, there are paths through empathy and belief in collective experience and power, a common wealth, which can lead us out of over-selfishness and myopic solipsism. Beginning simply by saying “She,” “He,” or “They” instead of “I” and “me” “me” “me”. It changes one’s thinking to write or read and think in another point-of-view.

Do you know who you are?
Fist-gripped onto wheels I am
Made of what makes my voice.
You are hurting me.

How do we find out about others? By asking them, appropriately haunting as from James Merrill’s oui-jà séances in upper-case letters:

IS ANYONE hurting you?
Leave me. I am work. I am legs.
I am horse shackled to cart.
You are hurting me.

The near ecstasy survivors are pushed to in order to establish the death of the dead, this returned cruelty, has been celebrated in the danse macabre tradition of medieval times, the figure of a celebrant dancing on the mound of a grave, right up to our present Halloween, where the limit of horror and denial cedes to the ludicrous, ludic fun of costumes and low-down tricks and sweet treats. It lends us a hint of what defines the Sublime, characterized by a solemnity that borders dangerously close to the absurd. How often and how naturally laughter comes to us to resolve or respond to great emotional intensity and distress. Yeah right, whatever!

In the fourth poem of the His section, images—getting up to “climb the stairs” and failing to, “choke” and “drown”—echo moments and terms used in the elusive passing sections, pages
18-22, of the Hers section. This mirroring of fragments of speech in separate accounts of the same happenings (a method of Faulkner’s in The Sound and the Fury) opens the narrative spectrum of Houlihan’s book considerably, driving home a powerful point, like evidence, to confirm our unease with it: the speech of the living spirit of the dead processing their life here
in the hereafter.

from Hers
TOO SMALL for his own robe now, bowed
and listening to pump and pulse,
he lets the spoon fall to his lap,
Help me stand! Awake,

I am bound to his call but wait, wait it out,
until he won’t quiet and I rise again to struggle
him forward, inch by inch to the edge, then
hook and hoist him from under the armpits

until he is almost up, then: no, no I can’t. Let me down. [page 18]

from His

YOU WERE RIGHT. I couldn’t climb
the stairs. Breath was all I wore… [page32]

from Hers

On ribs bolted small.
I choke on. Drown in.
Rise away,
Bone. [page 21]

from His

But I’ll prove I live. I am mute, but thought-loud:
look at me, this freight I am.
No air I don’t choke on. No bed I don’t drown in.
I need to rise but my legs are away.
Then my bone split, spoke: What night is this? [page 32].

It is at this point the book as a work and not just as a personal account comes to life. Houlihan achieves the reversal of the other voice to challenge the narrower lone self’s laments, endearments and complaints. She achieves a correlative that justifies the bird’s-eye-view of the couple in the third section, Theirs.

What did Marianne Moore say about POETRY?

I, too, dislike it.
Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one discovers in
it, after all, a place for the genuine.

What’s more genuine than defeat? I’ve wondered. Reading it goes a little easier than writing. Among other things, poetry opens a space of re-encounter, re-enactment for the poet, a space of response to that which has blindsided us and left us for dead. It is at times a court of law so personal nothing can be won from it though we must plea and argue as though our lives depended on it. It is laden with contradictions no public figure could maintain in the public eye where “media” solicits immediate outcry and opprobrium, where one day So-and-so stands with this association, another day closer to elections with its victims. Personally we cannot prevent the hours turned over one by one that reach to make sense while entertaining one’s pain and resentment at the burdens of departure and one’s abiding love across that valley of not-knowing. This love wears at our armor of denial as it hardens into rhetoric—wears through to forgiveness which we at once, like Marianne Moore, hold in contempt and find genuine. It endows us with the gift to balance or equalize paradox versus weighing off contradictions, lending John Donne the image and illustration of the compass. It hovers in the margins all throughout Shadow-feast, defying conceptualization, my every air-landed stab here to tell you about it. It is a book that renders beyond tender to patience and going back and forth.

They had each other and the one they drag, his breath
on their tongues, blown blue, head a box-wire
strung with voice. Wrists poked out,
ankles raw, pants and shirt too big.
He lurched and swayed. The look on his face baffled
and lost. Botched man. They stuffed frost
in their mouths so not to laugh, kept him alive in their huddle,
his ice-block chest with their palms, murmuring hotly
into his neck: don’t go. [page 45]

Shadow-feast / Joan Houlihan
Publication Date: March 6, 2018 / 978-1-945588-08-2 / Poetry / $15.95 / Paper, 64pp / 6 x 9
Orders: UPNE 1-800-421-1561 / www.upne.com / Four Way Books, PO Box 535,
Village Station, New York, NY 10014, publicity@fourwaybooks.com

Dedication of Sam Cornish Statue March 27, 2018

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Sunday, March 11, 2018

An African-American Arthur Miller at the Huntington?

An African-American Arthur Miller at the Huntington?
By Rosie Rosenzweig
Resident Scholar, Resident Scholar
Women’s Studies Research Center, Brandeis University.

If African American playwright Dominique Morisseau has been compared to Arthur Miller, then Faye the union rep in the Huntington Theatre production of Skeleton Crew can be compared to Willie Loman in the classic Death of a Salesman. The winter setting for Morisseau’s play is around 2008 in the break room of a stamping plant when its imminent closing and shrinking workforce threatens the future of four workers: Faye the union representative; Reggie the supervisor and Faye’s surrogate son; pregnant Shanita with a Rosie-the-Riveter work ethic whose dreams carry the metaphor of the play; and Daz the playful street smart hustler with a crush on Shanita. Reggie and Faye’s loyalty to one another makes sitting at opposing ends of a bargaining table a problem.

Both Miller and Morisseau depict how the grinding wheels of the bottom line mentality grind to dust any individuality in the individual worker.  While Loman’s lonely life as a traveling salesman with frequent hotel stops away from home leads to his moral failure as a father, Faye mothers her skeleton crew like family, and in the face of the failure of cruel societal pressures, rises to her moral challenge like a warrior. She says: “Can’t define what a man is until he got to take action.” By her own measure, attention was finally paid, this time with dignity in the face of a capitalism that she knows “ain’t no democracy.”  

As the only Detroiter in the cast, Patricia R. Floyd’s face, as Faye is a symphony of emotions, sometimes cross or serious, sometimes playful and proud. Watching her dress and boogie her way into her work overalls is worth the price of admission. When Jonathan Louis Dent as Daz explodes with expletives his whole body punches like a prize fighter; when he becomes playful with slam-dunk motions he is dope with flirtatiousness. When reprimanded he stands like a soldier waiting for punishment. Toccarra Cash as Shanita, shushing the noise of factory and music to hear her baby’s future, can be as still as meditation itself, nervous like a ninny, and brisk in her rebuff of Daz’s advances. She may have never been pregnant, but she ambles and walk-rocks like a heavy-bellied lady who shushes the sound of the factory and music with her wish to hear her baby’s future. Maurice Emmanuel Parent plays the most serious Reggie with stiff-upper-lip heartbreak at the necessary requirements of his job; his last act smile and easy manner juxtapose to the helpless tension he carries in his body with conflicting loyalties to his family, Faye, and his management.

The main character, the insistently demanding factory itself, is played out in the stage set showing the macro world of the insistent assembly line ominously moving and rotating high above the micro break room set; its parts move between scenes to the hip hop beat of music, sometimes with appropriate lyrics and sometimes just with ongoing percussion, whose increasingly quick beat underlines the exposition, climax, and denouement of the story. Whereas other productions opted to employ a hip hop dancer doing techno moves to characterize the factory, this production wisely suggested the overpowering influence of societal’s economic dominance in worker’s lives by having the closed circuit rotation of parts overhead hovering like a dark cloud over us all. (Full disclosure: those are the very car doors that my husband polished on a Chrysler line. As a one-time Detroiter myself from working class roots and card-carrying union member, this all touched my memories quite deeply.)

Go see Skeleton Crew at the Calderwood Pavilion for insight into how we arrived at our present economic and political situation, where the interests of the 1% supersede the majority number of the rest of us. As someone from working-class parents, whose saw her parents’ friends  at the Ford factory rise to middle-class status, I found it heartening to see such strength in the midst of the creeping greed of today’s Robber Barons.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

The Sunday Poet: Krikor Der Hohannesian

Krikor Der Hohannesian  photo by Zvi Sesling

Krikor Der Hohannesian lives in Medford, MA. His poems have appeared in over 150 literary journals including The Evansville Review, The South Carolina Review, Atlanta Review, Louisiana Literature, Connecticut Review and Natural Bridge. He is a three-time Pushcart Prize nominee and the author of two chapbooks,“Ghosts and Whispers” (Finishing Line Press, 2010) and “Refuge in the Shadows” (Cervena Barva Press, 2013). “Ghosts and Whispers” was a finalist for the Mass Book awards poetry category in 2011.

...The following poem is on the death of Diana Der-Hovanessian--former President of the New England Poetry Club. 


Instinct does not lie,
I should have listened.
We hadn’t spoken for a while
and, just days before, I thought
I must call. Instead, it was I
Who was called

There would be no more
long conversations
about family, poetry, the club
and all those crazy Armenians.
Now only memories
as delicious as our mother’s
home cooking

I should have been there
to hold your hand
one last time, to lend comfort
as we would all wish to be comforted.
Alas, intent – such an empty vessel
Rest easy, dear lady

--  Krikor Der Hohannesian 

Friday, March 09, 2018

Sean Doyle: Memoir Essay of an Iraq and Afghanistan War Veteran

Sean Doyle
*** Sean Doyle is a student in my College Writing Seminar at Bunker Hill Community College in Boston.  Doug Holder

It was an unusually warm day in central Texas for December, the sun was shining and there wasn't a cloud in the sky. After a short brief by the post commander on what we should expect from Fort Hood we were told to meet outside for unit assignments. I was assigned to the 2nd Brigade Combat Team of the First Cavalry Division. I was told to report outside for an incoming soldier brief. Little did I know my life was about to take a drastic turn. Up walked this towering man who demanded attention and respect without saying a word. He was about six feet tall and pure muscle, looked like he hadn't skipped a gym day in years. He was the highest ranking enlisted man in the 2nd Brigade Combat Team and a tried and true warrior. He would later single handily chase down and capture the man responsible for blowing up his truck in Iraq. We were asked where we planned on being in six months. Before we could answer he simply said it doesn't matter because you will all be in Iraq.
May 30th 2011, I'll never forget the feeling of walking off the plane into the night with my best friends. The mixture of the heat and intense wind made it feel like someone was holding a blow-dryer in my face. As I stepped off onto the Airfield of Ali-Al-Salem airbase it felt like I was entering a whole different world. I followed my friends and fellow soldiers in a single file line across the tarmac to a dusty wooden shack where we were welcomed to Iraq. We stayed isolated on the base located in the middle of the Iraqi desert as we acclimated to the climate and prepared for our mission. After several days of checking gear, packing bags, unpacking bags, checking weapons and training we were ready to depart. We boarded several C130 planes on the same airfield we landed on, just a week before and set off for the southern Sal-Ad-Din province to the north of Baghdad. It was surreal at first being in a place I had been watching on the news since I was a child. I remember watching the missiles cruise over Baghdad on T.V. back in 2003 and now here I was in 2011 getting ready to do my part. It was a simple task on paper, patrol the area, help the people, search for weapons and stay safe. That was the same mission the unit before us had and they were attacked one time in a whole year. Some of us were excited, some of us were bummed out that we wouldn’t see combat. We had no idea what we were in for just a month later.
The twenty-four window from midday on the fourth of July to Midday July 5 shift started off like any other quick reaction force shift. We sat around with the gun trucks on standby and the whole platoon sitting around playing cards, taking naps or crowded around laptops watching bootleg Iraqi DVD's. I was sitting outside with 3 of my best friends enjoying some backwoods cigars on a green standard issue army cot. It was Tom, Phil and Hager or D-Hags as everyone called him. Tom was the very definition of the corn- fed country boy born and raised in small town Minnesota. He was also the gunner for my truck and my roommate. Tom had a habit of watching all three Lord of the Rings movies back to back when he had a day off patrol. Phil grew up moving around the Pacific Northwest before finally saying fuck it and joining to army. Phil was a few years older than us but was like your weird favorite uncle. D-Hags which is short for Dillion Hager was a tall lanky clown from the middle of nowhere Wisconsin. D-Hags had a giant flag of Johnny Cash flipping off the camera at Folsom prison on his wall for the 5 years we served together, It's probably still on his wall in his house today. Back in Iraq we were sitting around talking about how much fun everyone else back home was having as we drank our non-alcoholic beer when we heard the familiar sound we had all grown accustomed to "INCOMING, INCOMING, INCOMING" over a speaker followed by several explosions. So, we threw the cigars in the sand ran to the gun trucks as the rest of the platoon followed suit and prepared to go find the guys that just tried to kill us. As we flew down tiny canal back roads in our big trucks of war barely staying upright. Bump after bump we approached a tiny man-made dirt crossing most likely made for a truck carrying livestock as opposed to a truck full of heavily armed soldiers. The first vehicle creeped over carefully as we followed closely behind. Then all of the sudden the back end of the truck gave out and we were trapped, hanging halfway off the road above a canal. After trying to dig ourselves out for hours we accepted defeat and called for assistance. The guys that had fired the rockets were captured by another unit and we sat in the middle of an Iraqi backroad throughout the night. Eventually we had a maintenance truck pushes us and we headed back to base. Not even 500 meters down the road and it happens. A loud boom! Like thunderclap 10 feet away. I had just been hit by my first IED or improvised explosive device.
I can still smell the homemade explosive in the air if I think about it.  It was the dirty smell of something made in a dirty hideaway with whatever they can find to harm people. They had attached two South African 155mm artillery shells, as well as two buckets of homemade explosives. By a little bit of luck and some stupidity on the enemies they blew up the wrong side of the canal so we all came out without a scratch. I still remember that moment, a time in my life when I realized I wasn’t a fragile teenager anymore. . It was a weird sense of calm everything, but at the same time was the greatest high I had ever experienced-- one that made me feel truly alive. It put things into perspective in a sense. After the smoke had settled and my gunner and I smoked a whole pack of knockoff Iraqi cigarettes we headed back to base. The platoon sergeant had us call our families and let them know we were OK and what had happened. I don’t even remember what I said to my dad on the phone that day, I just remember how good it felt to hear his voice. After that we went back to the routine as if nothing had changed. But something had changed in us. We were no longer scared boys playing GI Joe, we were soldiers overseas fighting in a foreign country we would watch on the news as kids.
I returned home 6 months later to a somewhat familiar home. After a few weeks things went back to normal and it seemed like nothing had ever changed, but there was an absence. That rush I had felt back in Iraq, that high I got every time something would explode, or we would take enemy contact—wasn’t there. I spent most of my time home drinking and staying distracted because I was empty. Being home was like being on a different planet for a while. Nothing gave me that sense of power and strength I had felt back in Iraq. Nothing gave me that sense of purpose until I went to Afghanistan 2 years later. Even now-- nothing provides that same feeling and probably never will. Eventually I got used to that empty feeling, but I would still hop on a plane and do it all over again in a heartbeat if I had the chance.

******  Sean Doyle was born and raised in the Bay Area of California. A big fan of history and video games, even at a young age he knew he wanted to serve in the US Military. At the age of 19 he left California to become a member of the US Army where he was based in Texas. Over the next six years he served two tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, and also spent time in South Korea. Following this, he left the army to pursue a lifelong dream of hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, where he walked over 1,000 miles. He now is tackling his latest challenge, college in Boston, Massachusetts where he resides with his girlfriend and their two rabbits. In his spare time Sean can still be found playing video games, but is also an avid reader, and enjoys attending local concerts and soccer games.