Sunday, February 01, 2015

Keepers Meet Questing Eyes Poems by John Michael Flynn

Keepers Meet Questing Eyes
Poems by John Michael Flynn
Leaf Garden Press, 2014
ISBN 978-1-49964-1530
120 p., $6.00

Reviewed by David P. Miller

John Michael Flynn’s publications include two previous poetry collections, published in 1997 (Moments Between Cities) and 2013 (Washing Apples in Streams), and at least one chapbook, States and Items, published recently by the same publisher as the present collection. Of the 98 (by my count ) poems included in Keepers Meet Questing Eyes, many were previously published in 40 different journals and anthologies. It really not possible, in the length of a review, to survey the different voices and subject matters included in this ample selection, so I will focus on a sample of those poems that speak most directly to me. These feature nuanced, detailed representations of specific people, or a kind of cognitive-dissonant relationship between the present situations of the poems’ speakers and their memories or backgrounds.

“Thanksgiving as L’Ultima Cena the Year I Am Seventeen” presents a suspended moment of family dynamics at what can be the fraught scene of Thanksgiving dinner.  The family is compared with Da Vinci’s Last Supper, “Two symmetrical groups of three on each side of my father, / depth of perspective and vertical lines of walls and ceilings accentuating the scene at our table.” In contrast with Dad’s grounding presence – “the serenity he feels centered in his family, his mission / not even looking up, yet so powerful in his fatigue and wisdom” – Mom emerges with the food that moves time forward, animating the painting – “those noises of our meal sustaining a timelessness, each passing second mythical yet true.” It is surprising, then, to learn how the speaker sees himself in the picture: “a high contrast between lighted upper-left walls / and the soft shadowed light and me, / puzzled betrayer and teen seated in his Judas spot, /an angry confused face craving a vision for his shadows.”

This sense of neither here nor there, out of alignment, haunts many of these poems. In “Sanguine in Worcester,” we see a “him” finding himself in the real flow and sense of life in that city, like a Whitmanesque saunterer:

    He walks Millbury Street
studies the hard faces of a new tide of immigrants
in the smokestack windows from the Wyman Gordon plant
that like so much of the landscape used to be there.

    He watches Kelly Square gridlock trap a blaring ambulance,
laborers bundled for brutal cold with hoods up,
Cor-Tex gloves, Patriots logos and pocket change,
lugging lunch pails and plenty of wishes.

His silent meditations teach him that “he’s still a somebody in the making,” and though he might wish to escape, he can still find nourishment while immersed in this hard-bitten place: “a fortress of blood in iambs, meters and images / resilient as any three-decker on the city’s seven hills.”

However, the ability to align himself in an affectively equivocal setting in one case is challenged in others. In “Class Envy on Constitution Road,” the writer perhaps wants to settle his art into what seems the periphery of an upper-middle-class “mountainside estate”:

I could spend days here hidden behind my sunglasses,
court ways to describe the cleverness of light,
the roseate essence in cedar bark
where they’ve been planted equidistantly
on both sides of an entry road.

With some irony, although that passage itself comes close to actually doing what he says he would like to do, in the end the situation is simply too alien, as he contemplates:

this parcel of heavenly domestication
its white manse seen through a cleft
in a high furry green-gray ridge
each window saying no, no, no,
not mine to covet.

Using condensed images, “Yesterday, Today, City” represents the speaker’s constant movement toward becoming in a more benign light, but still with a full acknowledgement  of what he carries forward. Whereas previously he was “a drop of sweat in the scuppers of an oil barge. / Jets thundered out of my temples”, he now finds himself “a white horse / Sunshine fills my modest room.” The room, though, also contains his “losses” arranged “in a straight line …brought out from my private crate of horrors / so many closets, so many other cities.” Still, these are treasured, “each one like it’s a found object.” If he has found some redemption, or positive transformation, it is not at the price of discarding his deeper ground.

As mentioned, many of the poems here give us the texture of specific  people, the fruit of close and sympathetic observation. Although “Albert Conant” begins with “Friends warned me he was off his rocker,” this easy judgment is challenged the more we find out about him. Yes, it is true that
One day he just started walking out of the valley,
mumbling to himself. He was on his way back to Maine,
his home-state, the only place he’d ever felt wanted
– leaving his wife “hysterical, missing him.” This is the same man, though, that reverently buries roadkill, calls phlox “a lavender blessing” and knows the natural world in depth:
    We watched a hawk one time and he said, Need more hummingbirds.
    The whole darn valley is thirsting for flowers.

“Millwood Ennis and Chester Garland” presents two portraits in one, in the course of it unexpectedly flipping one of the pictures. First, a barber and “the mayor of our village, one Don Millwood Ennis / who I always thought of as the original swamp Yankee / told me over his oily and busy and loquacious shears / a story about Chester Garland.” The latter “had blown his brains out with a Winchester 30-30.” As critical as that is, as the poem unfolds we learn something more central: Chester, classmate of the speaker’s mother, meant more to him than a rural suicide story. For example:
He showed me my first bird’s next.
Having taken it gingerly from one of our trees
he’d said to me before looking at it,
A robin will always lay four eggs.
Sure enough, there were four of them.
It’s the simplicity and clarity of these details that tell of the complexities of a real life and allow us to extend ourselves with empathy.

These poems represent only the lightest suggestion of what is available in this volume, but I hope indicate the interest I sustained while reading it. At the same time, I could not help but feel that there is so much work presented here, it was difficult for me to have a sense of the book as a whole – of its particular shape or focus. Too, the book’s title puzzles me. The word “keepers” suggests two things to me – either a person in some position of authority (e.g. zoo-keeper) or a particularly valuable find (a “real keeper”). After finishing the book, I still cannot connect either of these with an image of “questing eyes.” Nor did I find the title included as a phrase in any of the poems, although I may have missed it despite deliberately reading for it. Nevertheless, I am glad to be introduced to John Michael Flynn’s poetry and look forward to more.

Friday, January 30, 2015

from The Hastings Room ( Poetry Series) Gloria Mindock ( Ibbetson Lifetime Achievement Award winner -- 2014), and others....

from The Hastings Room:


The Battle of Hastings in 1066 was to bring about a dramatic transformation to the English Language. At The Hastings Room Reading Series we do what we can by hosting a quarterly poetry reading at First Church Congregationalist, 11 Garden Street (across from the Sheraton Commander) off of Harvard Square…

This coming Wednesday, February 4th, at 7:00 pm, we will be featuring Gloria Mindock,
the winner of the 2014 Ibbetson Street Press Lifetime Achievement Award. (See flyer for this event at the end of this announcement.)

Irene Koronas, poet, painter and multi-media artist, was a reader at our debut reading in May
of 2014. She is a member of our planning committee, and has been a devoted attendee at the readings. Irene has written a very thoughtful memoir of Franz Wright’s evening with us on Wednesday the 19th of November 2014, which we are grateful to share here:

F r a n z  W r i g h t
by Irene Koronas

“The sun shining no warmer than the moon.”  Michael Steffen, hosts, Hastings Room Poetry Reading, Cambridge, Ma., he reads Galway Kinnell's poem, 'For Robert Frost," before he introduces the poet Franz Wright who asks Mike for the date the poem was written. The audience remains quiet when Mike asks if anyone knows. I don't know. I've never read Kinnell's poetry. Sometimes I feel like a an alien, a foreigner at a poetry reading, not knowing certain references written or spoken of in poems. Franz is at home, poetry is his home. He is comfortable enough to ask. He seems grateful to be approached by admirers. He's different. Changed. Illness transforms people, for better or not.

For many years I've attended poetry readings. Franz continues to draw me to his readings. I listen with a keen sense to how his poetry takes life, squeezes what lives, drains out experiences, how he can not live any other way. He is (for me) a poetic super star. He lends to his own legend, what we might consider, creative anger, loss, abstract thoughts peppered with loneliness. He often uses accusation to reference contemporary life. Whatever he writes, Franz Wright comes across. He spits three times like a Greek priest during baptisms, wards off evil. I always appreciated the Greek in him. Profound, feisty,  unlike people who please, he meets his own weaknesses. He stares down other people's weaknesses. His poetry is his way of life. This is evident in all his writing. We encounter the way he has lived and how he has lived. His poems slip off pages and remains in our blood. More human than evidenced in some poetry, he is in those phrases which allow us to enter and to be there.

My age teaches me there's not enough time to day dream any more. With my hearing loss,
I keep trying to pay close attention, knowing I might not be privy to his voice again. His voice has softened, it is difficult for me to hear. I watch his breath, the roll of sound, like low tide. Words lap the sand. Foam traces recede. Another wave. This time wet words soak my mind, I listen anyway. 

He asks, if there are any poems we would like him to read. I'm immersed in his presence and I fumble through my bag for his F book. “Elderly Couple” written at Mt Feake Cemetery 1990. This is the second poem in his book. It brings me to my knees. My first thought on reading the poem was, if only I could write like him. By the time I fish his book out of my bag, Franz is on his way back to his wife on the red Victorian couch. She moves aside his black cane. My head leans on his movements, still musing on his poem. How all or most of my American family from the 1930's are buried at Mt Feake. My mother being the most recent. She died this summer and I still cry at my loss. “rapidly graying, dissolving into one substance with the dusk, they are so still they tremble.” His poem, Elderly Couple, leads me into the rest of  F book. Too late to ask him to read the poem. I tremble at my own weakness.

People ask him to sign his books. I watch his long gentle fingers write my name. His hand writing reminds me of the quick notes mother used to leave me. Her notes shake my grief. I stash them in my bureau draw. Wright's book is back in my cloth bag. Still I can't leave.

Paper cups strewn under seats. I'm reminded, service helps relieve sorrow. I pick up the cups, stack them in an empty plastic cookie container. I repeat this task until I find the courage to leave the room, walk to the subway train and return home wanting more poetry from Franz Wright. “this one whom habit of memory propels to the ground of his making...” Kinnell

   Poetry Reading to Celebrate
   Gloria Mindock
 2014 Ibbetson Street Lifetime Achievement Award 


11 Garden Street, off of Harvard Square
Wednesday February the 4th at 7:00 pm

Gloria Mindock is the founding editor of Cervena Barva Press, and one of the USA editors for Levure Litteraire (France).  She is the author of La Porรพile Raiului (Ars Longa Press, 2010, Romania) translated into the Romanian by Flavia Cosma, Nothing Divine Here (U Soku Stampa, 2010, Montenegro), and Blood Soaked Dresses (Ibbetson, 2007).  Widely published in the USA and abroad, her poetry has been translated and published into Romanian, Serbian, Spanish, Estonian, and French. Her fourth chapbook, “Pleasure Trout” was published by Muddy River Books in 2013. This past December 2014, Gloria was awarded the Ibbetson Street Press Lifetime Achievement Award. 

Gloria will be joined by co-readers—

Jaime Bonney received a Master's of Divinity from Harvard Divinity School in 2012, concentrating her work in languages and in a pastoral theology of the arts, especially investigating the consolations of Fyodor Dostoevsky's Brothers Karamazov. She is a member of the Bethany House of Prayer poetry group in Arlington, MA, led by poet Kimberly Green. In addition to writing poetry, Jaime is a singer and painter. She lives in Jamaica Plain.

Brother Nicholas Bartoli n/SSJE is a monk in the Episcopal order of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist, having joined the order in August of 2013. He is originally from Brooklyn, New York, and most recently lived in Boulder, Colorado where he practiced psychotherapy and attended seminary. Nicholas is a beginning writer of poetry whose inspiration comes primarily from poems arising from mystical traditions.

---Michale Todd Steffen ( Co-Director and Founder of  Hastings Room)

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Interview with Mike Basinski: Curator of the University at Buffalo Libraries Special Collection.

Mike Basinski ( Curator of  Special Collections at the University at Buffalo, N.Y.)

I caught up recently with my friend Mike Basinski, curator of the University at Buffalo Libraries/ Special Collection. The University at Buffalo website states that the poetry collection is ".... the library of record for 20th- and 21st-century poetry in English. Founded in 1937 by Charles Abbott, the Poetry Collection now holds one of the world’s largest collections of poetry first editions and other titles, little literary magazines, broadsides and anthologies; a substantial collection of artworks; and more than 150 archives and manuscript collections from a wide range of poets, presses, magazines and organizations."

The collection has just about every Ibbetson Street Press title we published, and provides a huge service to the literary small press. I interviewed Mike about ten years ago--so I wanted to revisit him.

Doug Holder:  So, if you are game, tell me what is up for you for the past decade—professional and personal

Mike Basinski:  Well, I take care of the realm of the poem. As the world should know, libraries are changing. I don’t mean just the digitizing of certain materials. What is digitized is always somebody’s selection and things are selected for… money, power, prestige, and politics, for example. There is a selection process so democracy always at the end of the line. Not to gloom. I don’t. Libraries are changing and there is less publicly supplied funding for libraries. But what I am saying is that poetry and the poem is still small, relatively, and still lives in a book. Care is about funds to buy poetry books, subscribe to poetry magazines, secure poetry broadsides.  The State of New York only funds 11% of the University at Buffalo, so poem funds have to come from someplace else and it comes from friends of poetry and the poem.  I beg. Tin cup in hand. The priority for the Poetry Collection is expanding. Always I wish to maintain first our first edition collection but to do that we need friends. I have lots of ties, around my neck and in the community, community of art, the realm of the poem, anywhere. I say, this is a public institution so this Poetry Collection is the public’s collection and by facts we are all curators of this collection. So, what do I do at work: Keep the doors open so in may waltz and walk the poem. These are strange times. Fear not, I have my finger in the dike!

And, well, I am happy to say, I am on guard. And we have friends and more friends each day. A friend a day keeps the apple away. I am not just being old time. Tis a modern world. I don’t blame the State or the University. I also pay taxes, too many. But I also call to arms. Being a poet is being responsible for the world of the poem. Be poetry’s friend – write me and will work it out:

I keep making the poem with real letters and visual letters as has been my form forever. Each day the poem summons and I respond. I am thinking of a poem of just end lines. A poem that is a text for pure improvisation.  I keep thinking of one phrase in Ulysses, which is “a form of forms,” which is in one sense jazz but should be the poem. There is where I am happy. I am looking for the right combination of sounds which will be the spell that introduces magic back in this sometimes very stale and sour world. I know it is there.

What else? My wife and I have a home near some woods, some of which is ours, and there are deer and fox and such, and provides else viewing. I sit in the heaven of the woods. What more! 

DH:  Any poets you have your eye on?

MB: Eye Catching poets? I am at the stage of rereading. H.D., Pound, Basil Bunting. Like listening to old records – great. Kerouac. I like reading myself.  I like reading new books by Lisa Jarnot, Dodie Bellamy, and Susan Howe. I always stop and read them. And I found the poems of Ruth Fainlight – all wonderful moons. And the poet – Patrick Riedy. He is a real poet – he is the Keats of Lackawanna, New York.

DH: Any magazines that strike your fancy?

MB: I am a local guy, so I like local literary magazines. Our freshest in Buffalo: Yellow Field . Edric Mesmer molds each issue. It is NEW! Yellow Field, attn.: Edric Mesmer, 1217 Delaware Ave. – Apt. 802, Buffalo, New York 14209. yellowedenwaldfield[at]yahoo[dot]com

DH: Your philosophy of poetry and good writing?

MB: I like all poetry. We have to join together and forget our camps and agendas and I am this poet and your write like that. We are all Ring Tailed Lemurs and the society is cutting down our Madagascar. All of this your kinda poem and my underground and ivory tower – poets, watch the hell out! We are one big union and have to think that way. Or it’s over the edge.

Good writing? I have no woRms of wisdom.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Misery Islands By January Gill O’Neil

Misery Islands

By January Gill O’Neil

CavanKerry Press

Fort Lee, NJ

ISBN: 978-1-933880-46-4

78 Pages


Review by Dennis Daly

Some islands bask under an equatorial sun, massaged by gentle trade winds and tickled by turquoise water. Others offer stony, unforgiving shores, dangerous channels, and wreckage of grander days, with only the icy winds of desperate hope and final survival to mitigate the landscape.

It’s these “other” islands and their human iterations that January O’Neil dwells on in her dolorous but passionate new book of poetry, Misery Islands.

Opening the collection O’Neil audaciously fleshes her persona out in Whitmanesque fashion as everyman and, even more emphatically, everywoman. She identifies with those left behind and challenged by difficult circumstances, those storm tossed isles navigating daily life. Her persona drops words onto the page from a whirlwind of transitory motion. The poet says,

I am every mill town and boarded-up factory,

the assembly line disassembled, the layoffs,

layaways, and laid to rest.

I put the depressed into depression

I am America reconstructed; I am a force at work.

I dig a ditch, I fill a ditch.

My collar is white, my collar is blue.

I am missing 23 cents out of every dollar

a woman is supposed to earn

but doesn’t.

I am every God damn it and Lord have mercy.

O’Neil’s poem Rent To Own follows the routine of an older guy with bad knees as he cleans used furniture, removing the unsightly detritus from the bottom strata of human life. Her bigger theme that we are all just passing through in this life bolts up, volcano-like, through the messy details. Here’s a pretty telling section,

You’d be surprised how many people

pick their noses and leave the evidence

under the arm of an armchair, he tells me.

Roaches, bed bugs, pet hair, dander—

you name it, it’s there, in the fibers,

the polyester pillows and dense cushions.

Steam vapor removes almost anything,

even tar from a chaise owned by a guy

who works at an asphalt company,

working his ass off in 10-hour shifts

to afford his slice of America.

Tension between the roles of mother and child settles into an intimate and singular series of motions. The business-like care giver unfurls not only a washcloth but a sense of profound gratitude and love. O’Neil conveys the scene with affecting sentiment and dignity. Individuals, islanders, in other words, do make a difference. I really like the piece. The poet concludes this way,

She reaches around for the cloth

with slow and deliberate movements

as if not to admit pain, not to convey need—

the caregiver needing care, the care taker

not taking as she usually does. Not today.

I want to tell her I love her

but I don’t. I cover her with a towel

and some small talk, try not

to notice what’s missing.

No words, yet I listen

like a stethoscope

for her to say something. 

Putting into words the carnage of a marriage breakup confounds many of the best writers, most especially over sensitized poets. I can think of a recent Pulitzer Prize winner for instance. O’Neil handles this subject with just the right touch as her warmed up words chill and disappear into a midwinter’s frigid air. Her sentiments court despair with humor and astonish with tight artistic control. The poet aches out her feelings in an touching conclusion,

I can’t compete with the failing light

from your voracious heart

burning us both into nothing.

Something has left us.

Every droplet of joy evaporates

to sky. When will melt come?

How could anyone blame you

for wanting to escape

the coldest month of the year?

Like Homer’s Penelope, O’Neil weaves heartbreak and metaphor into one composition. Her title poem, Misery Islands, opens with a narrative description of two wondrous and tenuously connected islands off the coast of Salem Massachusetts—Great Misery, and Little Misery. Both are now uninhabited. Each island has its own personality and its own geologic traits. The poet also splices in other historical, tidal, and climate particulars of the islands which strangely magnify the emotional discomfort of the interwoven and parallel marital distress narrative. Consider the following juxtaposition. First the historical, set on Great Misery in the “roaring twenties,”

Imagine a pier, a club house,

a swimming  pool filled with salt water,

guest cottages to the horizon line,

a tennis court and tournaments,

a nine-hole golf course with caddies

dressed in pressed white linens.

So elegant, so glamorous a setting,

You can almost see a couple

Looking out over a balcony,

Hands entwined, the moon

Hanging over them

By the thin thread of midnight.

Now the equally compelling glory days before the marriage collapse,

I loved. You loved. We loved

with our whole selves—

lips first, then the tumble of skin

pulling each other down,

caught in the tangle and swirl,

closer to terror, closer to ourselves

the way we became something else

as soon as we were in it

the way our bodies displaced truth

through the depths of anger,

the way it changed us

and we were changed by it.

We were poor swimmers

Too far in the rip to be saved.

Late in the collection, another favorite of mine, the poem A Mother’s Tale appears. The poem whispers easily a harsh truth—life’s ephemeral nature. The poet’s persona speaks to her son and offers an interesting antidote to the human condition and its concomitant isolation. She says,

I tell my son

that the best poems

are written in the sand

and washed away with the tide.

I say the moon controls the waves,

uses the wind to rake the shore.

It is an open invitation to fill

The world with words…

O’Neil clearly follows her persona’s sage advice. She fills the world with her extraordinary poetic words, and we get to read them.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

With the people from the bridge (poena damni) Dimitris Lyacos

Dimitris Lyacos

With the people from the bridge
(poena damni)
Dimitris Lyacos
Shoestring Press 2014
Translation: Shorsha Sullivan
ISBN 978-1-910323-15-1

“And always, night
and day in the tombs
and in the mountains he was crying
and cutting himself with stones...”

Lyacos's writings speak universally.  The Greeks are familiar with “mysterious.” Particularly, when a situation, conundrum, experience cannot be explained, a Greek-- minded person might exclaim, it is a mystery! Mystery has become synonymous with Orthodoxy and saints. Are there saintly writers of poetry? Yes. Dimitris Lyacos is not one of them; he is not a saint (at least I don't think he is.) He is mysterious or enigmatic. His poetry is real, really a long conversation with who we have become as a community. “With the people from the bridge,” his third book in his trilogy, even the word trilogy enlightens the space between words and reader. His third book brings us under a bridge where 'others' inhabit the unseen spaces most of us never look into or hear the rumble from characters:

“...That. Afterwards, though, comes the day
they come outside
you wait for them in the house.
Same day every time.
Sometimes in the morning when
you wake up it is as if you are stuck
and you prise yourself off them...”

The play/poem/cross genre, post modern Homeric tale begins arched under a bridge, just as classical theater surrounds the actors, Lyacos creates a beginning dialog with a chorus; “Sometimes more so. Like voices somehow, more or less. It is inside you.” All the characters, voices, try to be heard. Presently, I review very few books. Because most poetry books are the same dull energy. Unexpectedly, Shorsha Sullivan, the translator of this book of poems, asked me if I would write a review. I knew I would. I wrote this review because Lyacos is one of my favorite writers. Yes, being Greek adds to my gratitude for such a poet who does not come across the ocean that often any more. I exaggerate, as I am prone to do, yet, this trilogy is masterful and comes to us only once in a lifetime:

“Time passed.
I went out again and fetched some water.
A sip. Helps my stomach, it soothes me
and I can lay down for a little.
In sleep again, your voice coming strong.
I couldn't. I stood up
and was banging on the lid until it broke.
I took it out. I puffed her and turned her on her side.
I lifted her up. She fell again. Again.
Time passed.
In the end I got her out. I let her down and
went to see the blanket in case the wind
had blown it away. I went again and laid down
beside her. I was tired.
Enough light. A white worm, long.
A finger digging all by itself.
Leave something for me.
Something will be left in the end.
A tooth from her mouth.
Something for me
a tooth


There is a sound sense when read aloud. The poem enters our mind as a good poem ought to, it becomes our mind for the duration of the reading. We live there. The ear does it. We have a  need for myth and more than myth.  In his poetry we hear  about places we might not be privy to otherwise. The reader will be delving into this book as they would a good novel. Daily reading:

“  he turned on his back. Opens his mouth.
He wanted to say something.
He fell again. Lifted his head a little.
He sees I am with him
and then falls, for a while holds me
by the throat
and then
the flame
cleansed. We return together.
We will be there in a while.
Stay and rest a little.
On the way it was
a bit from his chest...”

Irene Koronas
Poetry Editor: Wilderness House Literary Review
Reviewer: Cervena Barva Press

Monday, January 19, 2015

Interview with X.J and Dorothy Kennedy with Doug Holder


Interview with X.J and Dorothy Kennedy
With Doug Holder

***** Introduction from his website.

 X. J. Kennedy  was born in Dover, N. J., on August 21, 1929, shortly before the crash of the stock market. Irked by the hardship of having the name of Joseph Kennedy, he stuck the X on and has been stuck with it ever since.

Kennedy grew up in Dover, went to Seton Hall (B.Sc. ’50) and Columbia (M.A., ’51), then spent four years in the Navy as an enlisted journalist, serving aboard destroyers. He studied at the Sorbonne in 1955-56, then devoted the next six years to failing to complete a Ph.D. at the University of Michigan. But he did meet Dorothy, his wife, and a noted children's literature author there.

He has taught English at Michigan, at the Woman’s College of the U. of North Carolina (now UNC Greensboro), and from 1963 through 1978 at Tufts, with visiting sojourns at Wellesley, U. of California Irvine, and the U. of Leeds. In 1978, he became a free-lance writer.

Recognitions include the Lamont Award of the Academy of American Poets (for his first book, Nude Descending a Staircase in 1961), the Los Angeles Book Award for poetry (for Cross Ties: Selected Poems, 1985), the Aiken-Taylor Award for Modern American Poetry (given by the University of the South and The Sewanee Review), Guggenheim and National Arts Council fellowships.  In spring 2009 the Poetry Society of America gave him the Robert Frost Medal for lifetime service to poetry.

I had the pleasure to speak to X.J. and Dorothy Kennedy on my Somerville Community Access TV show  Poet to Poet: Writer to Writer.

Doug Holder: X.J.-- you asked if you could introduce your wife—please do. 

X.J. Kennedy:  Both Dorothy and I dropped out of PhD programs at Michigan, but she got further along than I did. She has been a writer in her own right and a collaborator with me for many years. She has written a number of children’s’ books including: “Thought I’d Take My Rat to School.” This was the first anthology of poems about school for children. She created a whole genre of imitators. (Laugh). We have both worked on a book of children’s poems titled: “Knock on a Star.” This has been in print for 32 years. We revised it around the turn of the new century. Dorothy has written text books—she is partly responsible for the “Bedford Reader,” that has been read by more than 2 million students.

DH: Dorothy, tell me about your work together on “Knock on a Star?”

DK: Both Joe and I had the idea that children might want to know how poems are put together. So we illustrated the book, and we mentioned ways that forms can be recognized and used in the conception of a poem.

DH: X.J.—you were born right after the Crash of 1929. Do you think this influenced your work in any way?

XJ: I would be pressed to figure out how.

DH: Why did you drop out of the PhD program at the University of Michigan?

XJ: I had a tough job getting a topic approved for a dissertation. I wanted to write about Emily Dickinson. By this time I had a book of poems out. I looked at all the poets who were making it through without a PhD—teaching college as a writer. I decided I would try this.

DH: How do you view the academic life?

XJ: I have nothing against it. It has fed me and the family. People talk about academic poetry. Well—I never have been sure there is such a thing. These days, with all these MFA programs, there is a danger of a certain sameness. There is still enough variety that I don’t see a problem. Nobody agrees what poetry is. Free Verse predominates of course.  I have always been an old grouch, with my rhyming, etc… I have tried to write free verse but I got scared, and I wanted my security blanket of rhyme scheme back.

DH: Would you advise a young poet to get his or her MFA?

XJ: It won’t get you a job. It might help you eventually teach Creative Writing—if you have written something that anyone notices. The workshops that these programs provide, gives a young writer an audience. The writers are put in with people who are reading his or her work with more patience and sympathy than is usually the case.

DH:  You are known for your light verse. But as you know comedy and tragedy are closely aligned. But your poems aren’t just for yucks. When you write a poem do you have in mind darker themes?

X.J.:  When I am writing a poem I don’t have a theme in mind. I am just trying to get some words down. Some poems shape up to nothing but a yuck. But others go deeper –I like that kind.

DH: You exhibit a ribald sense of humor in your work.   Has anyone influenced you—your family—other poets?

XJ: Well, I guess it was my father. He was sort of the family poet. Families had poet laureates back then. They were expected to produce poems for anniversaries, weddings, etc… He did not have much schooling, but he did memorize poem he read in school. He could recite pages of Whittier’s “Snow Bound”—and many others. I guess all of this made a dent on me.

DH:  We all have had a love affair with the Grolier Poetry Book Shop in Harvard Square. They are now publishing your book: “Fits of Concision: Collected Poems of Six or Fewer Lines.”

XJ: Ifeanyi Menkiti, the owner of the Grolier started the poetry press. I am one of the authors in their “Established Poets Series.” I have been writing for over 60 years—so I guess I am established. Tino Villanueva is another poet in the series; he authored “So Spoke Penelope.” I am happy to see the Grolier branching out to publishing. I am happy to find a publisher for such an odd book as this.

DH: Certainly a poet with your reputation wouldn’t have a hard time finding a publisher?

XJ: Many publishers would look at epigrams as vile bugs. But I have always liked the form. The book has Haiku, short lyrics, epitaphs. It is a challenge to write a poem tersely. I love the challenge.

DH: You have a novel coming out, right?

XJ: The book is titled: “A Hoarse -Half  human Cheer.” It was based on a Catholic college I went to that became under control of the Mafia. The college was being used as a front for a war surplus operation. I have only written novels for children—so this is a first.

DH: I noticed a poem you wrote dedicated to Allen Ginsberg.  Were you two friends? Did you know him well?

XJ: I can’t say I knew him well. We exchanged postcards, and I saw him at some social gatherings. I always felt a kinship to him though. We both grew up in industrial New Jersey, and we both had fathers who were poets. Ginsberg’s father, Louis, was a mediocre poet most of the time. He sent out a lot of poems—and he was very persistent. Out of every 100 poems or so he would have a good one. When I was an editor at the Paris Review we published a poem of his.
 But Allen Ginsberg and I both had Lionell Trilling as teacher, and we both loved William Blake’s “Songs of Innocence and Experience.”  We had some things in common.

DH: Well since you are a strong proponent of meter and rhyme—do you agree with Robert Frost’s statement that writing free verse is like playing tennis without a net?

XJ:  Well—that is a nasty remark—but there is some truth to it. But I do admire people who can write in free verse. There is a small reactionary movement that is now radical who still adheres to rhyme, and I am part of it.

Impassive, to a tuba chord,
Faces like blurry Photostats,
Enter the class of ’34
In wheelchairs, coned with paper hats.
Discreet, between the first Scotch punch
And the last tot of buttered rum,
President Till works over each,
Fomenting his new stadium.
Fire in his eyes, the class tycoon,
Four hog-hairs bristling from his chin,
Into his neighbor’s Sonotone
Confides his plan to corner tin.
His waitress with a piercing squeal
Wrestles a buttock from his grip.
Dropping the napkins a good deal,
She titters, puddling ox-tail soup.
Now all, cranked high, shrill voices raise
To quaver strains of purple hills
In Alma Mater’s book of days.
Some dim sub-dean picks up the bills,
One last car door slam breaks a whine
Solicitous of someone’s health,
And softly through the mezzanine
The night revives with punctual stealth.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Sonnets from The Voyage of the Beagle By Rick Mullin

Sonnets from The Voyage of the Beagle
By Rick Mullin
Dos Madres Press
Loveland, Ohio
ISBN: 978-1-939929-22-8
155 Pages

Review by Dennis Daly

Charles Darwin embarked on the HMS Beagle into the natural world of fauna and flora from a context of faith and wonder. Like other rationalists and scientists who came before him, he armed himself with revelation and the romance of adventure. Whereas Johannes Kepler had his Pythagorean mysticism and astrology, and Isaac Newton his biblical prophecies and secrets of alchemy, Darwin entered the fray of reasoned observation with a Christian missionary’s certainty and an Englishman’s righteous superiority. Yet something extraordinary, miraculous if you will, seemed to take shape, something which changed the very way we look at the world around us and each other. Darwin’s five years of exploration and growth he chronicled in his journal and subsequently in his book The Voyage of the Beagle. Here begins poet Rick Mullin’s masterpiece of poetic reinterpretation.

Taking with him his painter’s skillset for critical observation and his magnificent formalist writing style, Mullin in his Sonnets from The Voyage of the Beagle conjures up a persona that both captures Darwin’s notebook cadence and blends in his own contemporary sensibilities.  Mullen’s Petrarchan sonnet variations carry the expedition’s narrative amazingly well, while at the same time lending themselves to detailed detections and measurements. The results bring to mind grand interpretive creations of poetic art, Alexander Pope’s translation of the Iliad being one.  Mullin’s perceptive powers are so attuned to specificities that he examines his own metaphor in his opening piece (after the invocation) entitled Launch of a 10-Gun Brig. The poet explains,

Our journey fronts on an incessant volley.
Heavy southwest headwinds sent us back
a second time to Devonport, unto that black
embankment of commercial blight. The trolley
at the warehouse hadn’t moved an inch. My heart
lay heavy as a gun, an iron gun
in line to fire—an apt comparison,
for on the third day we would make a start,
exploding on the sea through open light…

Non-readers of the “Voyage” often think of Darwin island-hopping from research site to research site. Nothing could be further from the truth. Most of Darwin’s time was spent on land—three years and three months to be exact. His coastal and inland studies included the native populations. On this subject his perceptions clearly matured over time.  Mullin’s persona relates the circumstances of an Indian attack in a matter-of-fact and somewhat self-satisfying way. He says,

My informant recollected with some horror
the sound of quivering chuzos in the hour
the estancia faced the naked entourage.
He saved the souls of many Christians there,
he claimed, by simply locking the corral
and courtyard. As the horrifying sound
intensified, a Frenchman on the wall
commenced with grapeshot, sputtering a prayer,
and putting 40 spearman on the ground.

Later on in the poem Indian Wars Darwin sees things a bit differently. Noting the genocidal deeds of Argentinian dictator and warlord Juan Manual de Rosas, Mullin’s Darwin tersely clarifies,

General Rosas and his cohorts justify
the government’s campaign in simple terms:
The Christian versus the Barbarian—
one more distinction lost on morning worms
and meaningless to certain birds that fly
in circles.  Carrion is carrion.

One of my favorite pieces, The Plain of Port Desire, prompts sadness and a passion for knowledge beyond the sensory and obvious. Darwin stands alone on the edge of a lifeless field of chalk and gravel. Forced to wait out the tides of life, he seeks words to flesh out descending loneliness and a wavering disquiet. Not much happens. Or does it? The poet puts it this way,

…I walk about
in a virgin forest, noting as I go
the tree line falling to a plain of gravel
mixed with soil resembling chalk, a level
lifeless  field except for one guanaco.
The one suggests a coterie. A herd.
But none is visible. The loner trots
and leaves me on the near edge with a journal
open to the hollow, doubtful thoughts
that fly into a landscape wanting words,
a permanence that speaks to the eternal.

The oddness of that camel-like guanaco and its complex evolutionary history stops one in mid-read and provokes awe, an awe which I’m sure Darwin felt as he captured the moment in his notes.

Although most of Mullin’s sonnets replicate the same rhyme scheme, he does, at least in a couple of instances, vary the initial octave from abba cddc to abab cdcd. One of those poems he entitles Jackass Penguin and it’s quite funny.  The poet details a showdown between man and beast, between Englishman and penguin, a veritable High Noon scenario in the Falkland Islands. In the actual journal entry Darwin noted his amusement triggered by the penguin’s demeanor and its strange jackass-like braying. I must say again that I am amazed how closely Mullin comes to capturing the voice and verbal mannerisms of Darwin. Here is the heart of the sonnet,

…Shall he best me?
We pose at loggerheads, two flightless birds.
But certainly my crude experiment
will show the world (or is it visa versa?)
common traits in nature evident
between Englishman and A. demersal.
Brave as Heracles, he holds every inch
he gains with vehemence, his head thrown back
and rolling side to side, a braying golem

Mullin’s persona considers the human species in the same conclusive matrix as he does finches or lizards. He is at his anthropological best in his journal entry set in Sydney entitled Silent Thoughts at Dinner. He imagines the penal colony mindset of his waiter at a dinner party and delves into this society’s hidden and rancorous undercurrents. The sonnet opens with Darwin speculating on the waiter’s crimes,

The servant’s shirt is snowy white and stiff
with starch. One wonders what he’s done.
One eyes his hand, imagining a gun,
the butcher’s knife. Yet here we dine as if
the man were serving of his own volition
in a London home, but on a wider street.
Remarkable, considering the heat
and given our antipodal position.

Yes, Rick Mullin astonishes with his formalist artistry and his narrative versatility. But more than that Mullin has fashioned a poetic voice that easily ascends, in this book and his previous collections, to the very top tier of all contemporary poetry—whatever the stylistic preferences. If you haven’t read him by now, you’re missing a lot.