Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Poems That Make Grown Men Cry: 100 Men On The Words That Move Them. Edited by Anthony and Ben Holden.

Poems That Make Grown Men Cry: 100 Men On The Words That Move Them. Edited by Anthony and Ben Holden. ( Simon and Schuster) $25.

Review by Doug Holder

Ben Holden, who along with his father Anthony Holden ( Both accomplished writers in their own right) are editors of the  new poetry anthology Poems that Make Grown Men Cry… Ben Holder points out in the introduction to the book that Charles Darwin was at a loss to explain “crying,” describing it as that “special expression” attributed to humans. And this raw, mostly involuntary mode of expression is something we often try to hide—at least in public. But there is something blatantly honest about it in a world of artifice that makes us uncomfortable. We have all been at the oh-so polite poetry readings where people posture in poses of forced ecstasy and drone the perfunctory ah and um. Here, in this anthology, the readers of these poems unabashedly cry. And these aren’t just any readers. This collection is a survey of one hundred men of letters and the arts—poets, critics, authors, directors, artists, etc… who don’t cry at the first blush of cheap sentiment thrown at them. Their emotions cannot be bought for the price of salted peanuts and a cocktail. Such noted men as John Le Carre, Harold Bloom, Chris Cooper, Clive James, Jonathan Franzen, Billy Collins and many others shed a well-considered tear here.
As for me I didn’t cry. But I did have a wistful sigh; I experienced a haunting shudder; I noticed my hands trembling clandestinely under the table—perhaps a transient burst of indigestion coming from the depths of my throat.

After browsing through this volume I found much to recommend to the reader. Terry George, a Belfast-born screenwriter cites the lamenting poem by Seamus Heaney “Requiem for the Croppies.” The poem deals with the Irish Rebellion of 1798. Here the population revolted against British rule. As George writes:  “…tramp priest and peasant…they fought with farm tools against cannons.” The men were heroic; the results were tragic:

    Terraced thousands died, shaking scythes at cannon.
    The hillside blushed, soaked in our broken wave.
    They buried us without shroud or coffin
     And in August... the barley grew up out of our grave.

The novelist Nicholson Baker writes about Stanley Kunitz’s poem “End of Summer.” It deals with that poignant moment when you realize things have changed—you can’t go back—the die is cast. Here Kunitz gets a signal from nature:

Blue poured into summer blue,
A hawk broke from his cloudless tower,
The roof of the silo blazed, and I knew
That part of my life was over.

And as we all know there is always comedy peppered in tragedy. The poet Jack Mapanje cites “The Book Burnings” a beautiful piece by Bertolt Brecht with a delicious dollop of gallows humor. Here the poet in the poem rages at the despotic powers that did not burn his book with the others:

 To his horror, that his books
Had been forgotten. He hurried to his desk
On wings of rage and wrote a letter to the powers that be.
Burn me! He wrote, his pen flying, burn me!
Don’t do this to me. Don’t pass over me! Have I not always told you
The truth in my books? And now
I am treated as a liar!

    I order you:
Burn me!

I wonder why this anthology only had weeping men. Maybe it is because men are perceived as less emotionally accessible. However I am sure many women will do a discrete dab with their hankies, when they read these evocative selections.

Highly Recommended.

“I Will Never Forget” A Daughter’s Story of Her Mother’s Arduous and Humorous Journey Through Dementia By Elane C. Pereira

“I Will Never Forget”
A Daughter’s Story of Her Mother’s Arduous and Humorous Journey Through Dementia
By Elane C. Pereira
iUniverse, Bloomington IN

Reviewed 3/7/14 by Paul Steven Stone

A poignant journey through a life ending cruelly yet surrounded by love, “I Will Never Forget” is the author’s reminiscences, meticulously recorded, of her mother’s gradual diminution through the unstoppable ravages of Alzheimer’s. Well written and copiously recorded, the memoir is particularly powerful in the way the author jumps back and forth in time telling hers and her family’s story, so that by the time we are deep into her mom’s diminishment by Alzheimer’s we have witnessed many of the shared memories that her mom, Bette, will gradually relinquish to the disease.

    In recounting her childhood memories, from small victories, like rescuing a baby bunny, to lessons learned when her mom cleverly broke her of the habit of pre-inspecting her Christmas presents, Mrs. Pereira shares with us the threads that make up the tapestry of a normal middle class life, interspersed as it was with the tragedy of death and loss.

    As someone whose own mother is currently at the end game of Alzheimer’s I couldn’t help but compare Mrs. Pereira’s efforts to be a thoughtful, consoling caretaker of a struggling parent with those of my own. Frankly, I too often found the comparison uncomfortable. For Mrs. Pereira was a caring daughter, gifted with patience and understanding that ran far deeper than my modest portion.

    Patience and understanding are ingredients greatly called upon when dealing with a parent suffering from Alzheimer’s. Especially in the early days when one can’t really be sure what’s going on; whether your mother is just being forgetful or is starting to need extra care and vigilance. Nor are the dangers so easily seen or navigated, as was proven when Bette stumbled out from a ‘secure’ facility into 25 degree weather for hours wearing only her pajamas.

    I strongly recommend “I Will Never Forget” for anyone who finds him or herself on the threshold of a situation similar to the author’s. For revealing the stages of decline, the mood swings and roller coaster behavior of someone with Alzheimer’s, and the many challenges and pitfalls for those who are forced to take on a parental role for their parent, “I Will Never Forget” is like a guidebook to a foreign country.     It is a story that you, like the author, will never forget.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Poet Alan Feldman: A psychologist of the mystery of love.

Poet Alan Feldman


Poet Alan Feldman: A psychologist of the mystery of love.

Ah! Ain't love grand!  Yes grand, tragic, maddening, evolving... in all its infinite variety. Feldman in his collection Immortality explores love and its many manifestations, as well as other themes. I had the privilege to interview Feldman on my Somerville Community Access TV show Poet to Poet: Writer to Writer recently.

Alan Feldman's A Sail to Great Island (2004) won the Pollak Prize for Poetry from the University of Wisconsin. The Happy Genius (1978) won the annual George Elliston Book Award for the best collection published by a small, U.S. non-profit press. His work has appeared in the Atlantic Monthly, the New Yorker, and Kenyon Review, among many other magazines, and included in The Best American Poetry 2001 (edited by Robert Hass) and BAP 2011 (edited by Kevin Young). Feldman's recent work appears in Hanging Loose, Cimarron Review, upstreet, Southern Review, Yale Review, Salamander, Southwest Review, Cincinnati Review, Catamaran, Worcester Review, and online in Boston Poetry Magazine and Cortland Review. His poem "A Man and A Woman" was featured in Tony Hoagland's 2013 article for Harper's, "Twenty Little Poems That Could Save America."

Feldman was a professor and chair of English at Framingham State University, and for 22 years taught the advanced creative writing class at Harvard University's Radcliffe Seminars. He offers free, drop-in poetry workshops at the Framingham (MA) public library near his home.



Doug Holder: We were both born in New York City, and moved out to the suburbs of Long Island. I always found the suburbs stifling--how did you find it?

Alan Feldman: I was desperate to get out of the suburbs. But I will tell you something about Woodmere, L.I where I grew up. My mother and Louise Gluck's mother were best friends. Louise grew up in Hewlett and I grew up in Woodmere and so apparently it was a fertile ground for poets. And Louise  had an exhibit of her paintings at the Hewlett library when I was in high school. Her paintings were striking. Later -I met her on a bus when I was attending Columbia University. She told me she was taking a very good poetry course with Leoine Adams.And Louise was very beautiful, and so I thought I would sign up for the workshop, and maybe get to know her. But the workshop was not for me so I stopped going. But I forgot to drop the course. So my transcript will show the only course that I took in poetry writing, I failed.

My parents were both teachers and they took me and my sister to Europe for three months in 1952. I remember vividly when we were in Rome, I saw the Protestant Cemetery where Keats and Shelley are buried. It was an experience I will never forget. Here we were visiting the graves of folks long dead and we didn't know personally. I was all of seven years old. Shelley's grave was very well-tended--he came from a well- to- do background. It was covered with ivory. and Keats' grave was essentially bare. And then I remember my mother crying at Keats' grave. I thought:"How could something like this affect a living person?" This planted the idea in my soul that there is a transmission from the dead to the living via poetry. This ... I believe... was a big influence for me becoming an artist and poet. So Woodmere was my home--but it was my particular home and family. 

DH:  You taught in the South Bronx in the late 60s. That must of been--to say the least--challenging..

AF:  It was incredibly difficult. I had a choice to teach or ship out to Vietnam. I think I chose the wrong thing ( Laugh) I was placed in a special services school. This was where the average sixth grader was reading at a third grade level. A third of the staff were brand new-and had never been a teacher in the classroom. I was terrible at it. After the first half year they took me out of the classroom and made me a specialist in Language Arts and Science. I got to teach the same lessons all day long--so I got to learn how to teach. The second year they gave me class 5-1.This class had kids who scored the highest in the math test. They were like little geniuses. Some of them were were reading way above grade-level. And we put on plays and I had them painting. I think I succeeded here. But the idea that you can drop a bright and educated person in the classroom and they can automatically teach is wrong. There is so much technique in classroom management. I wasn't ready to teach kids whose main issue was to stay in their seat.

DH: You sent me some poems from your collection Immortality. Many of the poems deal with the psychology of love. One of the poems is titled " The Rowboat, The Girl, The Light" This poem took place when you were very young. You were out on a rural lake and a young girl swam to your boat.  Everything smelled of pine, desire, things were elemental. Now you have gotten older things have changed in this realm. Things are more urgent--there is a deeper appreciation of the world.

AF: As you get older-and I will be 70 soon--your desire becomes generalized. You desire the world and everything in it--as a child you take that for granted.

DH: Your wife Nan Hass is an accomplished artist. Do you guys collaborate?

AF: We understand each others' obsessiveness. We are both infected with this need to make art. Nan works all the time and has an incredible drive. She understands me. If something you are working on gets a hold of you--you are going to be immersed in it. We both give each other space. We are hilariously bad at collaboration. We worked on a book of poems, my poems and her illustrations. We got into such a fight about the binding that it almost destroyed our marriage. (Laugh) So our collaboration are limited and with parameters.

DH: You were a professor at Framingham State University for many years. In your opinion what makes for a good teacher?

AF A really good knowledge of the subject. A love for the subject. A strong desire to be helpful. A sense of organization. I have observed so many shapeless classes. The essential purpose is too vague.

The Rowboat, The Girl, The Light

Today the pool is pierced
by sunlight, and there’s a girl
in my lane, her flesh lit
by reflected light from below
to a subaqueous brightness
the way the water in our boathouse
(demolished long ago)
shone in our faces. 
We would lean over to see the striped
shadowy fish, their sides
glinting like belt buckles
or dimes, and the wood
smelled ancient and dry,
and probably the dock
creaked, as my row boat
thumped against it,
the boat’s floor resounding
like a drum when we stamped.

Unsinkable because of
compartments under the seat
like little ovens, so I could
go out alone, provided
I stayed in the cove, our point
in the star-shaped lake,
and hewed close to the shore
I wouldn't have wanted to leave
anyway, because she lived there––
an unfathomably pretty girl,
like the Queen of Heaven.

On the best days she would hail me
from her landing, but once
she jumped in, and swam to me, 
her white body dripping
as she clambered aboard.
Then everything smelled of pine.
I think that's how desire felt then––
like an odor, the pines
that covered the hillside
above her house.

Desire these days feels like desire
for everything.  The air
I strain to breathe, the white
clouds rumbling across
the blue outside the pool’s 
picture windows, and the little
pinpricks of light
on people’s fenders
while the traffic passes.

Alive!  Alive!  each stroke
like the clenching of the heart

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Partner, Orchard, Day Moon By Michael Todd Steffen

Partner, Orchard, Day Moon
By Michael Todd Steffen
Cervena Barva Press
Somerville, MA
ISBN: 978-0-9883713-2-3
Cover Art: Irene Koronas
61 Pages

Review by Dennis Daly

Poetry needs concentration. Reading Michael Todd Steffen’s first collection of poems, Partner, Orchard, Day Moon, demands both presence of mind and a steady emotional containment. I kept putting the book down and looking behind me. Footfalls I thought. Perhaps murmurings. Or a pulse in the back of my neck.

Many of Steffens pieces conjure up small town and rural Americana: holidays, hunting, board games, table talk, hand-me-downs, views through kitchen windows, summer adventures, and, of course, baseball. Strangely, the atmospherics that saturate this collection suggest Igmar Bergman rather than Norman Rockwell. In the midst of measured well-wrought lines and enticing music, something wicked this way comes.

Right from the book’s first poem Steffens has a way of disorientating. In Christmas in August the poet sets up a juxtaposition of seasonal discomfort. The piece’s second person protagonist ascends a department store’s escalator in summer garb into a thinner, much colder mannequin world. To drive his image home the poet places a mirror beyond the escalator’s railing. The contrast tests reality. The poem opens this way,

Wandering lost through the department stores
You catch a glimpse of yourself in an odd
Mirror gliding over the escalator’s
Handrest—when the metal step slips forward
And you stumble, up walking around the mannequins
Clad for autumn in pullovers and cords.
Summer hasn’t ended.

The understated rhyme and metrics seem to effectively push a chilling definition of the ambiguous, later-mentioned ”bag people” front and center.

Moody silence pervades the intelligible, but demonic, chess game of life in one of the title poems (there are three) called The Partner. Curiously, Steffen drops the names of two iconic chess grandmasters into this context: Tigran Petrosian, noted for his remarkable, if interminable draws, and Gedeon Barcza, who played offense using a defensive strategy. The poem ends in Bergman- like fashion,

Thickening in the waking winter dark
And the checker’d go watery beneath the pieces—
Your knight in stirrups at the toe of his pawn.
You’d catch yourself up from a nod and swear
He had left the room. But he kept murmuring at you.
All the while he sat right there
Across the table, not saying a word.

Steffen’s sonnet Thanksgiving becomes a secular or possibly a quasi- religious rite of guilt and sacrifice in a hushed ceremony of food and family. Words such as “accused,” “wince,” “pain,” and “hushed” shadow the meal and, perhaps, foreshadow other troubles. The poem ends ambiguously. The poet says,

One creature went silent. He went on to live
And join the toast at the table with its ornaments
For the holiday, the straw weft cornucopia
Basket with squash and gourds and native corn,
Auburn of oat sheaf in the candle’s aura
Hushed for the dishes my aunt told us to pass
With sneaky dribs of red wine for my glass.

Another title poem, The Orchard, Steffen molds into a beautifully compressed piece that mulls over the phenomena of appearance and promise. His braille metaphor really hits the mark. Here are the first eight lines,

Trees stood all winter like cattle in the field
Naked of their leaves in wind and snow,
Their extremities advanced like blind men reading
Braille from the lines of wind that made them tremble.

To look at them for long you would remember
How superficial winter’s hardest freeze
Compared to their roots deep as the cemetery’s
Shelter where uncles seasoned herring stew.

My favorite Steffen poem, The Miracle Worker in Work Clothes, pushes through the fertile clods of page prophesizing the brutish theology of a barnyard universe. The piece is mythic and absolutely unforgettable. The nitty-gritty of creation accusingly grabs civilized man by his white-collared throat, and demands that he collect his illusions and step aside. The poet says,

With the creases of leather boots clumped in clay
The miracle worker
Has raised the dead at Saint Galen’s
While the family wept and praised the lord their god.
Like earth stunning
Winter back into spring, the miracle worker
Tensed, a body of sweat and breath, breast borne open
To the holy spirit
With great concentration pushing, pushing
The dead back into this life while men
Looking on stood dumb…

Hand Me Downs, a sonnet, begins as a meditation of family closeness and work ethic, evolves into the nature of memory, and ends lightly, yet troublingly, considering mankind’s shared condition. Steffen explains,

I was straw for style. Others were remembered.
Beyond their season things withstood a year
Stretched to casual, wear tear, raggedy,
Nearly familiar, for me or anybody.

The longest poem in this collection Steffen entitles Ghost Man. Reminiscent of Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage, Steffen’s persona gathers about him a ghost companion, a dead man pursuing him in his imagination. One of a bunch of summertime kids, the poet’s protagonist had come face to face with the dead man, formerly a hanged man. Sickened by what he saw he ran away with his friends in search of adults. Later, the unresolved death of this ghost (suicide or homicide?) gives him power over the poet’s imagination. This indefatigable and hostile spirit blocks pathways and bridges and pursues the poet, threatening violence. He becomes the sum of all fears. The paranoia builds in these lines,

Some days later, he’s be there again
Barring my passage to the pathway bridge.
For hours after I’d given up and turned
Away from that crossing with its graceful camber
Over the river, he followed me
In silence, appearing behind a large stone
Or from a hedge or through a row of trees—
The knotted hunch over to one shoulder
For his abandoned judgment, the missing teeth
Sure sign that he had no fear and would eat anything

Steffen’s collection of poetry does not have the feel of a first book with its expected missteps and questionable choices. On the contrary its unmistakable artistry and mysterious combination of maturity and controlled paranoia belies that trite canard. There is real power, both mythic and otherwise, in Steffen’s word images delivered here. The bright future of this ghost-haunted, highly talented poet seems beyond question.