Saturday, July 16, 2016

Vigil the Poetry of Presence by Pamela Heinrich MacPherson

Vigil the Poetry of Presence
by Pamela Heinrich MacPherson
Red Barn Books
Shelburne, VT 05482
Copyright 2015
ISBN: 9781935922964

The collection’s title, as Pamela Heinrich MacPherson says in her introduction, comes from the “Latin, viglio, ‘to be awake,’ be vigilant; a period of watchful attention; wakefulness that holds calm; bearing quiet witness." The poems were produced from her diary entries accumulated over 30 decades of sitting in vigil with the dying. She was drawn to end-of-life issues while in nursing school in the 60s and eventually would serve as Hospice Volunteer Coordinator for the Visiting Nurse Association of Chittenden and Grand Isle Counties in Vermont between 1988 and 2004. She has continued to sit in vigil following her retirement.

These poems have an artistic innocence; they are what she wrote in the moment and their meaning and much of their power comes from that immediacy; they do not seem to have been worked on, shaped or changed in search of meaning. Here are a two examples the first is a good description of what, in my experience, the approach of death may look like.

Endings and Beginnings

Cold hands
Mottled on their undersides.

As you rhythmically breathe
Your seven breaths
Ascend and descend
And then give way to
Thirty seconds of apnea,
A transition
Not unlike labor and birth.
The intervals of labor
Grow shorter with each contraction;
The intervals between breaths
Grow longer in dying.

This second example should disabuse you of the notion that the process is always peaceful:

Nothing Dignified

There is nothing dignified
About teeth being out,
The urgency of a bowel movement,
Flatulence released,
Ecchymotic hands that are
The extension of tissue paper arms.

The poems are not arranged chronologically but in nine thematic chapters. One is devoted to "Quality of Care," which has a poem, "Mediocre," that begins with these lines:

A level of nursing care
Not without polite exchanges
Or meeting basic needs.
Absent was a lingering touch that knows.

Mediocre care can be compounded by indifferent or unaware families as "Care: Acceptance on My Part" illustrates. Pam arrives to sit with a woman who is,

Tiny and frail and barely a shadow of who she was,
This nonagenarian's petite features
Are immersed deeply in somnolence.

The woman has discolored hands, which "tell of medical misfortune." She then discovers the woman has a swollen arm because of a leaking IV. With some difficulty she is able to get a nurse to inspect the patient.

He arrives in the room,
Examines her arm and intravenous site.
"Another must be placed," he announces.
"Her family wants it," he defends…
The sentence is hard for me to hear;
My heart questions.
Her family? What about her wishes?

That question, "What about her wishes?" Is an example of the utilitarian importance of these poems; take heed to be sure that your wishes are known.

            These poems are strongest when they are detailed and specific. My reservations (I always have my reservations – in spite of all the Robert Frost I have memorized I still think some of his poetry is flat) are for the times when they stray from the particulars and a good poem ends with lines of greeting card verse such as these, "May your soul have a gentle landing/In a peaceful place of contentment." But, if you will ignore those lines, Vigil the Poetry of Presence will serve you well; the wisdom these poems share should be of use to all of us when we support family and friends as they are dying and we can only hope that our family and friends will have access to their wisdom by the time we need their support as we begin our near death experience.

By Wendell Smith MD, ret.

The Sunday Poet: Barb Ariel Cohen

Barb Ariel Cohen

Barb Ariel Cohen lives in Watertown, Massachusetts. She is a scientist and entrepreneur who also practices the complementary discipline of writing poetry. She has been published in "The Penmen Review.
 *      *      *

A scientific love poem

Let it play
What is known and barely believed
The faintest trace of a scientific sign
Beckoning vibrating soft rhythms
Barely a butterfly breathing

I will follow
So long as I go with soul mates
Chasing the faint heat waves just as dawn rises
Mixes the air to the turbulence that awakens the world
Rub sleep from the scientific mind and see!
Miracles permeant and surrounding
With each breath you breathe them in and out

Who would miss this wild nonexistent support
Beneath my feet--skies!
Over my head--stars!
Take my hand, my friend
Nothing but graceful revelation awaits
How the universe will kiss our sun-washed faces
In benediction for the craft that brings truth forward
In worship and the bold dance of moving just that much closer
To understanding
To seeing
The beloved world
Just that much more clearly
Tears of happiness aside
In this moment
Where all pain and joy
Meet to form our heartbeats.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Jesus Was A Homeboy by Kevin Carey

Kevin Carey

Jesus Was A Homeboy by Kevin Carey

CavanKerry Press 2016

When you reach a certain age--say sixty or so, things start to haunt you. You are well into the second half of the roller coaster ride, and you are looking back at what you left behind. Poet, documentary filmmaker, and Salem State University professor Kevin Carey is familiar with all this and brings it home in his evocative and expertly crafted collection of poetry “Jesus Was A Homeboy.” Carey, who is a native son of Revere, Massachusetts-- a working class, beach town with its share of rough-trade, hash houses, and dead-ends, often uses this city-on-the-sea as a setting to explore the themes in his collection.

Carey wonders about the child he once was and the adult sensibility he grew into. In the poem, “Summer Storms,” he crosses his wonderment as a child, with his fears as an adult, while he contemplates his own mortality. Here a bolt of lightning gives the reader a charged insight:

...When did the lightning start to scare me?
As a kid I loved the summer storms
hunkered in my room by my closet,
the walls of my mother's house
much stronger than my own.
There are days now when everything
frightens me, my own impending death,
the quick dark skies
and their wild bursts of life,
the violence in everyone waiting to erupt,
the randomness,
the wrong step on the wrong highway,
the wrong movie theater on the wrong night,
the empty street in a lightning storm,
where a young kid stands
under the open sky expecting
his mother's arms to hold him,
going dark, never knowing what hit him...

In the poem “Looking at an Old Man in the Pleasant Street Tea Room,” he captures his late mother's dementia in a stunning stanza:

My mother remembers things
she can't tell me
she said: Did you hear the good news?
And then grows quiet trying to think what it was.
The other day she wrapped half a sandwich
in a napkin and asked me
to give it to the man in the television.
She doesn't know it's hard to see her this way.

From reading the works of Carey I am well aware that he always has a knack for setting. William Carlos Williams had Paterson, N.J., Carl Sandburg had Chicago, Ferlinghetti has San Francisco , but Carey has Revere. And as the reader discovers that Carey is intimately acquainted with the metaphorical night, he is equally enamored with a Revere Beach summer night. In this case it is outside a fast food joint on the beach. If you have been there and done that, you will see the portrait he paints is spot on in the poem “Revere Beach After Hours”

“The crowds swell after the bar breaks
and the people are more drunk
with each order and a girl and a guy
make out in the front of the line
and someone yells, Get a room,
and a white Cadillac pulls up
to the curb and turns a radio loud.
They all start dancing, long hair,
tight pants, hips moving to the disco beat,
boogie oogie oggie, and a plane
flies overhead on its way
to east Boston....

In this collection Carey explores his vulnerabilities, the dreams that headed south—yet there is always a deep appreciation of life-- a sweet/sadness, a taste of honey-- a touch of bitterness—that we all can relate to if we are being honest.

Highly Recommended.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Columbia Poetry Review Spring 2016

Columbia Poetry Review
Department of Creative Writing
Columbia College
Chicago, Illinois
Copyright © 2016 by Columbia College Chicago
ISSN 1930-4900
92 pages, softbound, No Price Given

Review by Zvi A. Sesling

Too many poems that are “accessible” are far too simple. Other poems are labeled “experimental” and are mostly incomprehensible.  Yet a third group, a hybrid of the accessible and experimental seems to thrive in journals that are willing to publish such hybrids.

Based on their latest edition (No. 29), the Columbia Poetry Review published by Columbia College of Chicago is at the forefront of this cutting edge poetic endeavor.

For example C. Violet Eaton’s “Poor Onion”

Some suckers live lyrically
By looking in the body. Poor suckers
Poor math, pure omen. Other folk
Look to the outside, clutch at huff rags &
Try just to get to be nothing: maybe
Score a job down at the chicken plant,
Pulling feathers, cutting throats, best case.
Take a half a year living six to a room
Just to make on an offer on a thirdhand truck.
Poor number.  Hail the great conflicts:
Man vs. the Stankin Ass Pit Void, or
Las luchadoras contra la momia. We could
Find suckers, stake them, pit them against.
We could take bets. A crowd could form,
Thrash its paltry capital, then as quickly
Disperse. They fight hard but non panther.
Their own truth hold out just one flower.

Me, I’m more sensitive than most.
I have a bouquet. Not truth.
I have not a bouquet. I have a bucket.

What the poet is conveys is the pathos of survival, living in squalor, saving money “Just to make an offer on a third hand truck.”  work in  a “chicken plant” where the dirty work is assigned to immigrants and the possibility of having these “suckers” fight each other.  Is she talking about street gangs? Is it Latinos vs blacks?  What it is is left for the reader decide.

On the other hand Craig Santos Perez’s finale, from understory is a clear expression of his worries for the future of a daughter not yet born:

when [our]

daughter is
born, will

her eyes
open to

irradiated light?
when she

takes her
first breath,

will she
choke down

poisoned wind?

How many soon to be parents and parents with young children have not at least thought, if not expressed such fears for the future given the potential for nuclear war, concern about ongoing climate change and even added media fears of a space object’s collision with Earth that might radically alter or change life on the planet. Perez presents a summation of many fears.

Of the poets in this volume, Felicia Zamora, Justin Phillip Reed William Brewer, Sarah Dravec  to name four, present challenging poetry that some readers will find exciting and forward looking.

Zvi A. Sesling

Reviewer for Boston Small Press and Poetry Scene
Author, Fire Tongue (Cervena Barva, 2016)
Across Stones of Bad Dreams (Cervena Barva, 2011)
King of the Jungle (Ibbetson Press, 2010)
Editor, Muddy River Poetry Review
Publisher, Muddy River Books
Editor, Bagel Bards Anthologies 7& 8