Monday, August 18, 2014
Review by Doug Holder
The past informs the present. And in the mystery novel based in Somerville Looking for Art by Bert Robbens, the ghost of Somerville’s past haunts the present day landscape. Robbens mines the milieu of the 60s and 70s Somerville, the very one that spawned the likes of Howie Winter and the Winter Hill Gang, and other assorted thugs. His story involves the men and women from that crowd and its ilk who remain around today, and the younger folks who heard the stories, the myths, the hype, and the brass tacks.
Looking for Art is also a lament for the old city; a city that is being transformed by the rapid-fire pace of gentrification. The author captures the generational conflict, the old grudges, through excellent characterization and snappy dialogue that rings true. His characters are shades of gray—not black or white. They can be walking contradictions—like we all are.
The plot concerns the protagonist Joe, an ex-cop, who has lived in Davis Square all of his forty years. Joe is contacted by a former Somerville resident, Eileen, who now has a cushy job and a home in the tony suburb of Lexington, Mass. She hires Joe to find her missing father Art. Art, back in the day, was involved in the gang wars in Somerville, and now is in hiding as his unsavory past comes back for its pound of flesh. Joe, a street smart, self-styled gumshoe, could be in a Raymond Chandler novel. He talks tough, but inside he has an acute sense of his own failings as well as a sense of decency and honor.
Obviously, Robbens knows Somerville well, and can describe an old tavern, a slightly gone-to-seed Somerville home, and the trendy newcomers to our city, with right on accuracy. On the first page of the novel Robbens gives a description of The Old Town Tavern—that gave me the look, the feel, the taste of any number of gin joints I frequented in our burg:
“ The Old Town Tavern had been a fixture in Somerville for more than fifty years. The building had been there for a hundred. Most of the interior hadn’t changed. The dark wood floor was original, as was the stamped tin ceiling. The bar was heavy wood, inlaid with some kind of textured black plastic. It had probably been installed when the tavern had taken over the space. It was all good material and workmanship, but it had seen a lot of service. The Yuppies would have taken over the place and called it ‘shabby chic’ if they been stiff-armed by the townies who considered it their turf.”
Since I am a long-time denizen of Union Square, and I have heard the hype of the wonderful new gleaming city that the new subway will bring, I was particularly affected by this passage where Joe ponders the plight of Brazilians immigrant and his own shaky future:
“ They were doing what generations of Somervillians had done before, what his own grandparents had done. The came here to work and make a better life for themselves and their families. As he saw it, that was what the city was for, part of its fundamental nature, and something to be proud of. The Brazilians didn’t organize massive criminal businesses to bleed the city dry…and they weren’t Yuppie colonists taking over in the name of Starbucks and sushi. But he feared for them, just as he feared for himself and the rest of his old time working class neighbors. Slowly, but inevitably, they were losing their grip on the city. Economic forces and changing tastes were forcing them out. The Brazilians would find a someplace to go, someplace with cheap housing and jobs, someplace where enough of them can gather to feel comfortable, a new home. For Joe, it wouldn’t be that easy. Somerville was his home. For him, there would be no other, not in his lifetime. If he went somewhere else—anywhere—he would be a stranger. The only thing he could do was hold on to his home as long as he could, until it changed so much it was no longer home.”
Robbens keep the plot moving in this book with quirky characters and Somerville archetypes. This is more than a mystery—it makes a political and sociological statement about so called ‘progress’ and what is left in its wake.
Sunday, August 17, 2014
by Amy Wright
© 2014 by Amy Wright
Dancing Girl Press
Chapbook, softbound, $7
Review by Tom Daley
In Amy Wright’s chapbook, Cracker crumbs in the bed, rhinestones, the stereotype of the redneck as connoisseur of the tawdry is simultaneously elaborated and exploded. Wright, who seems to be rooting through direct observation as much as legend, manages to mold grand metaphors out of knock-offs, close-outs, seconds, and Dollar Store stock clearances as she relishes this particularly peculiar American phenomenon.
Mocking the feudal-derived hierarchies of our European heritage, the backwoods yeoman and yeowoman are elevated to “Barons of Cascade dish detergent and empires / of shoe shine.” With affectionate and winking attention to detail, Wright imagines these nobles as contriving their thrifty etiquette, their hopeful couture, and their shambling fashion statements out of the material possibilities afforded by the minimum wage. They
hoard their stings & sediment,
wind neon carnival necklaces over gear shifts,
propose by twining Christmas tree tinsel
around a lover’s finger.
Flirting with cultural clichés about a particular class of people makes for a risky project, especially in poetry, but Wright probes the pigeonhole, plucks its feathers, and scoops its guano with a brave and unabashed delight. The chutzpah sometimes takes one’s breath away, as in this litany of fun-poking at the beleaguered cracker’s predilections:
Crackers render the fat of the beloved
into Crisco, pour their hearts into
the great collaborative dumbwaiter,
console themselves with peppermint toddies
& Hershey’s syrup.
Yet there is honor in Grand Ole Opryland, as testified to by an elevation of “ordinary” into something almost sacral. These priests and priestesses of Cheez Whiz “dream in third person, / fast after services in backwoods churches / until nothing is ordinary or all things are.” “Ordinary” gives many meanings in its ecclesiastical context: An ordinary is a member of the clergy capable of judging matters of spiritual significance; it is the correct form that a religious service takes; and it is, in the Roman Catholic Church, “the parts of the daily Mass that do not change from day to day” (Encarta World English Dictionary). The word “ordinary” derives from “order,” and the famous handiness of the average cracker receives its due when you follow the etymological trail. “Order” derives from Latin ordinem, “originally ‘a row of threads in a loom,’ from Italic root *ord- ‘to arrange, arrangement’ (source of ordiri ‘to begin to weave;’ compare primordial), of unknown origin” (Online Etymological Dictionary).
Lampooned as ignorant and buffoonesque in the general culture, the cracker ultimately wins a recognition of his or her intelligence from Wright when we hear that they “plunge giddy into the elemental clamor knowing / the remains will be transparent & the guards ill-timed.”
Friday, August 15, 2014
By Doug Holder
Writer Anthony Sammarco is a walking archive of the lost Boston. He has written a plethora of history/ photography books about the various neighborhoods in Boston, as well about that beloved, defunct, fried clam-- totting franchise Howard Johnson’s, that was founded in the Bay State. His latest pictorial history book is titled Lost Boston… a book that traces the long vanished landmarks and institutions in the city of Boston. Sammarco brings all of these back to the collective consciousness.
I had the privilege to interview Sammarco on my Somerville Public TV show: Poet to Poet: Writer to Writer. I asked Sammarco if this book was a lament for things past, he responded: “I lament the lost institutions, and buildings in Boston. I understand though that Boston is in a constant state of change, and some of the buildings must be destroyed by the advancement of the city, fires, natural causes, etc…But I hope people reading and viewing the book will realize the importance of preservation. The city always reinvents itself, every generation. Boston and the surrounding suburbs are now very different than the they were 25 to 50 years ago.”
Sammarco pointed out that Boston has a rich overlay of the 17th and 18th century and a strong connection to its historical past. In the past 25 years the city has been built up a great deal, with a strong emphasis on the downtown and the waterfront. Sammarco reflected: “I was on the waterfront recently looking for shops and bars that I remembered and patronized. For the most part they are gone. The hotels and restaurants that are there now attract people who would never go there in the past. And so this new development becomes an integral part of the city.” Sammarco continued: “There are neighborhoods that remain frozen in time, Beacon Hill, and the Back Bay. This has happened because of preservation interests, historical commissions, etc… But I always remember that the city is going to change, and that is probably for the best.”
As Sammarco talked my mind drifted back to Ken’s Deli in Copley Square in the 70s. I used to hang out there after a night of the theatre at the Colonial, a movie at the old Exeter Theater, or after hanging out in bars, or clubs. It was a wonderful place, with a great cast of characters: drag queens, eccentric old ladies who lived with a brood of cats, surly waitresses who would call you “honey ” through gritted teeth, people who got off their night shift jobs, theater people, entertainers, all nursing a sandwich and a cup of coffee or tea, and perhaps a pastry, after a night of working or partying. The Deli closed a long time ago but I asked Sammarco about it: He recalled, “I remember frequenting it in the 70s and 80s, to get my favorite turkey club. I used to ogle the people who were in the place. During Halloween for instance you would see a variety of Dorothy-- costumed people , as if they were from the cast of the Wizard of Oz, waiting online to get in. They served great food with copious servings. There was no drinking; you had that at the clubs before you came. During the day there were businessmen, or ladies who lunched, but at night it really came alive.” Although Ken’s is part of the lost Boston, Sammarco is philosophical about it, he said: “As the city evolves you begin to realize that younger people have different interpretations of our city. A place like Ken’s—coffee and sandwiches—a place to chat, may seem like some quaint, archaic things to folks now.”
And being, well…a, sort of man of letters… I have been a longtime denizen of the Boston Public Library. I worked on my thesis there at the Bates Reading Room, with the dour bust of Henry James peering over me. He probably spotted typos. I wanted Sammarco to fill me in on the history of this great public institution. Sammarco was more than willing, he said: “Well…you know at the time of the Civil War the Boston Public Library was a very important institution. There was a sign over the door there that stated: ' Free to all.' " According to Sammarco Boston had private libraries like the Boston Athenaeum, but nothing really for the public at large. A bunch of people came together and donated their private libraries to benefit all the people of Boston. The Copley Square building was completed in 1895. The old Boston library was down the block on Boylston St. across from the Boston Common. The Colonial Theater now resides there. The Bates Reading Room, which I spent many a long hour in, was according to Sammarco, named after a benefactor of the library Joshua Bates, an international financier born in Weymouth, Mass. In 1852 he founded the old library near the Common by giving 50,000 dollars for that purpose. He also gave 30,000 volumes to the library.
I also remember the elevated tracks in the South End. I used to love the train that lifted me above the city in a sort of transcendent state, to see a panoramic view of the crowds, the buildings, the ebb and flow. Sammarco again filled in the details: “The elevated tracks were started in the late 19th Century. They were in reaction to the city streets that were jammed with pedestrians, carriages and wagons. The elevated tracks provided a quick way to get around Boston for the working class citizens and others from 5:30AM to 12AM.”
I told Sammarco my favorite bus line was the Dudley line. I took that bus from the Back Bay ( Where I lived at the time) to my teaching job at Dr. Solomon Carter Mental Health Center. The route traverses quite a cross section of the city: from Harvard University to the heart of Roxbury. Sammarco said: “The Dudley Bus is quite dramatic. I also enjoy the downtown bus that goes to City Point in Southie.”
At the end of our discussion, Lost Boston was found, at least for me. I was glad Sammarco so skillfully facilitated this… here, in the Paris of New England.
Sunday, August 10, 2014
A Hard Summation. Afaa Michael Weaver. ( Central Square Press PO BOX 2621 Lynn, MA. 01903) $11.
Review by Doug Holder
It is always a pleasure to get a new book published by a new local press. A colleague of mine at Bunker Hill Community College in Boston, Enzo Silo Surin, the founder of the Central Square Press, has published a new book of poetry (A Hard Summation) by poet and Somerville resident Afaa Michael Weaver. Weaver is a professor at Simmons College in Boston, and recently won the prestigious Kingsley Tufts Award. He has penned a collection of 13 poems that cover the history of African- Americans from the Middle Passage to the present day. Weaver’s intention, according to Surin, is to give the reader, “an opportunity to listen, celebrate, commemorate, and appreciate the success and failures of the past in order to develop a current and contextual understanding of what it means to be an African-American."
In the poem “In Charleston, the Slave Market” Weaver gives us the visceral feel of a human being, being treated like a shank of beef by prospective slave brokers. Like the slaves, the poem is stripped down and naked, with powerful short bursts of metaphorical language:
“…the markets where they stand naked,
white women poking at them, looking over places
only mothers should touch, shopping for black pets
for white children, for girls who can grow and make
more black children, as it they are gardens…”
The two part poem “Migration, the Big Cities” concerns the thoughts of a husband and wife about their exodus from the sweaty, unforgiving fields of the South, to the Northern industrial cities, with their relative freedom and broader horizons. Weaver, attuned to the telling detail gives us the before and after with crystal clear brushstrokes. Here the husband thinks of his new life with his wife and the past he left behind:
“ Steelworker now, ain’t no farmer no more.
met my wife in the mills, not a juke joint floor.
I got a time clock to punch and work shoes too,
no mule to prance behind and feed hay to chew.
My dreams touch the sky and tickle heaven
as we forget the night riders and the evils of men,
while we save money for our little house
where we can feed our children a plate of souse.”
Weaver, a respected academic, was a factory worker in Baltimore for many years. He knows his lineage and was part of the next generation of African-Americans to leave their blue-collar jobs to join the professional class. It is amazing what Weaver can do with thirteen poems. But a top shelf poet, with an economy of words, can create a whole world, a whole history for his reader. Weaver has achieved this.
Friday, August 08, 2014
Rivals of Morning, poems by Matthew D'Abate
Matthew D'Abate lives in metaphor ("we wait like gypsies/screaming for dreams", "dabs of black ink in the/picture show of the centuries", "Neruda...in his puddles of blue/watching the sunlight drip/from his fingertips." ) His scattered images spray like a peeling black fireplug on the hottest day of summer. Rivals of Morning is street poetry, the dirty, littered, hopeful, heart-filled city street, off which he tends bars, tells tales, and writes poems, some of which are gathered in this, his vital and decisive, first collection.
Matt is an American writer, an American poet, self-invented, self-proclaimed, democratic in his inclinations, alert to the possibilities around him and willing to spill his blood in service of his art. This is no academy bred, MFA toting, painfully self-aware technician of the lyric line, but a guy who illuminates his poems, with sweat imagination, vulnerability and candor. His ambitions are smaller than Whitman's; he's not looking to invent an American poetry, or to reinvent it today, but in his self-construction, he follows the inventive, original line carrying from Whitman, through Kerouac to Bukowski. His subject matter, "rivals of morning"--those of us who live in the night world--and his sensitive embrace of their experience and dilemmas, place him deep in the tradition of artists who've memorably mined the diamond in coal vein of the American night, Hopper, Hammett, Kazan, Selby, Bukowski, and Waits, extending it across the millennial divide with verve, quirk and pathos.
I've seen you
a thousand nights
doing your thing
and I've always wanted
to know what
you'd be like
when the door closes
and you're only paid
Rivals of Morning, is the poetry of a young artist as jazz innovator, one who spent years blowing behind the woodshed before going public with this brave and savage volume. Reading "Rivals" is like listening to Charlie Parker play Cherokee, or looking at an early Pollack, D'Abate has cracked something open, blowing licks never heard before, fresh, confident, divergent, potent with possibility. Rivals of Morning is one of those rare books of poems whose energy, spice, passion and bloody truth surge past its flaws, a flash flood in an arroyo. Our eyes see the unneeded word, the awkward construction, the metaphoric disconnects, but these burrs don't catch; Matthew's images and his drive to communicate are too strong. Rivals of Morning brings us through the aching point, far past the hiss of dawn, where light cannot be held back a moment longer, into the flash when the shade goes up and light comes flooding through.
the thing is that no one
owns the light or the direction of it
but grows toward the glow
despite the silence
and the gravity below
Read Rivals of Morning; better still, get your friends to read it too; go out with them to your version of the Cedar, the San Remo, or the Whitehorse, and discuss it with them loudly. Twenty-years from now, you'll wake up and say, "I remember that night. I remember I read it when."
Thursday, August 07, 2014
Taking a Look Around Us: A Review of When The Light Turns Green by Kenneth Pobo, illustrations by Stacy Esch.
Taking a Look Around Us: A Review of When The Light Turns Green
Review by Emily Pineau
“Sooner or later/ everything is departure. The hand lets go./ Wind finds it,” Kenneth Pobo writes in his poem, “Suitcase”. This feeling of change, nature, and moving on is carried throughout Pobo’s poetry collection, When the Light Turns Green, illustrated by Stacy Esch. Nature appears to be the binding force and metaphor that Pobo uses when talking about life, death, and the feeling of being stuck between the two. Esch’s illustrations capture the feeling of childlike playfulness, imagination, and discovery that is found in Pobo’s examination of nature, the struggles of growing old, and letting go. Esch gives a face to the sun and to the characters that are around trees and woven within a collage of bright colors. This characteristic in her artwork instantly personifies nature, which matches the importance of nature found in Pobo’s poems.
As Pobo walks us through an intense scene in his poem, “Face the Autumn," he compares facing the seasons with the concept of facing bullies. Pobo writes:
How to face
Autumn? Winter? Spring? Bullies,
birds surrounding the house
at the end of Hitchcock’s film,
When this feeling of being cornered is being compared to things that we have to face in life, such as the seasons, it makes this concept feel more manageable somehow. Even when the harshness of winter seems to be unbearable, humans have the ability to make it through. So, when someone is faced with the harshness of bullying, helplessness, or loneliness, it would come to reason that people could make it through these situations and feelings as well. Despite the fact that people may not know how to face these things, we somehow manage to keep going and cycle through, just like the seasons do. Also, with this poem comes Esch’s picture called, “Where is the Horizon?” A sun that has a face is being depicted as peeking over the land with what looks to be a pained expression. Just like with Pobo’s poem, there seems to be a feeling of waiting for something to end, or waiting for a certain light or other side to come. It is a very powerful metaphor thinking about the sun itself waiting and looking for something to happen. Usually the sun is seen as something so constant and stationary that one would not think that it would desire change or long to be somewhere else.
Pobo continues to change how one would think about certain aspects of nature with his poem, “Tree.” I found this poem to be the one that best showcases Pobo’s unique and impactful images. In this poem he shows how people can appear to be different in relation to nature and how nature can look different when compared with itself. Pobo writes, “Put sky in a tree/ and it’s less than/ a caught kite.” The sky is typically seen as something in the world that is overwhelming because it completely surrounds us and we do not see an end to it. On the other hand, Pobo is suggesting that if you look at a tree and the spaces in between the branches you will find that the sky is tangled up in it. Nature is all about perspective, just like how life is all about perspective. Pobo also writes:
I sit under a leaf house
with no doors to lock,
no windows to close,
quiet slipping off
Houses are usually seen as something that would enclose someone and give them privacy. In this image, however, a “leaf house” gives the narrator a feeling of openness and what sounds like a feeling of relief. Peacefulness washes over the narrator at the end of the poem, and it feels like his life has been changed somehow. The way that he looks at the world has been altered. Also, accompanying this poem is Esch’s picture, “Last Call”. In this green, yellow, and orange dominated picture, the sun has a curious look on its face as it is looking out at a fairy or some sort of character with its face hidden by a black mark. There is a tilted tree off to the side and the setting appears to be a forest-type area. This picture has a mystical feel to it and it feels like it came out of a fairy tale. This aura of magic and mystery compliments Pobo’s poem very nicely because there are many elements of the unknown when it comes to looking at people and at nature.
In general, people are constantly trying to figure out the uncertainties of each other and the world, while at the same time they are avoiding what they know for a fact—everyone’s time has a limit to it. Naturally people want to continue to rush on to the next thing in life so that they do not waste any time being stuck in the same place. Pobo’s poetry reminds us, however, that life shouldn’t be about rushing to the next stop. We all need to slow down, water some plants, and look up at the sky. After all, the light will turn green eventually.
************ Emily Pineau is an English major at Endicott College and the author of No Need to Speak (Ibbetson Street Press/Endicott College Young Poet Series)
Tuesday, August 05, 2014
Bound Each to Each
By Ann Taylor
Finishing Line Press
Review by Dennis Daly
You don’t often see majesty in miscellany. Ann Taylor’s new collection of poems, Bound Each to Each, proves the exception. Her pieces may come from multiple directions but they bring with them a breadth, intelligence, and an underpinning of mythology that speak to their readers with accomplished and appropriately lofty tones.
Much of this majesty the poet delivers through meditations on place. In her opening poem entitled Horn Pond Taylor compares the gravitas of the pond she views every day from her kitchen window to immortalized bodies of water found in literature. She notices the reduced wonderment in each of her literary lakes as opposed to the strengthening magic in her nearby watery vision. Here begins the history and family lore of what she sees,
It’s the tale of Narragansett Winitihooloo
and Nansema, his Pawtucket Juliet,
or the old ice-cutting (my uncles’ misery),
slicing for the hot world
“crystal blocks of Yankee coolness.”
It’s a newspaper vision of my grandfather
wheeling his famous figure 8’s.
Or cautious skids across this ice
leashed to my headlong Yellow Lab.
Then there are ma’s peanut butter picnics,
My trout reeled in by dad, let go by me,
A first kiss, and the battered pine
Dressed in red berries by my kids…
Taylor mixes exotica of place with laugh out loud humor in her poem Nairobi Track. The humans—she among them—drag race an ostrich on a track in Kenya. The ostrich has clearly been through this before. His delight seems to border on hubris. The poem makes an interesting point about humankind’s opponent and his feathery thrust, or non-thrust. It concludes thusly,
Long legs stretching, claws dinning in,
he seems almost a gangly lope until he
outpaces our mandated 30 MPH, glances
over and back at us as he departs.
All runway, no lift, the only way this fastest
earthly bird feels wind’s course through
billowing white wingfeathers is to run to win,
everything depending on it.
A mother’s primal instinct to protect her young drives Taylor’s title poem Bound Each to Each. For days the poet’s daughter dotes on a nest of robin eggs. When natural forces and predators threaten the new eggs, the mothering daughter resorts to high technology—namely a Nissan Altima to save the day. This brings to the poet’s mind her daughter’s first car and the night it died. Taylor explains,
on a rainy 3 AM highway—
“Mom! My car just stopped!”
On the way there, I hear
in the cellphone background,
the eighteen-wheeler roar,
dread the stranger’s “Can I help you?”
William Wordsworth’s poem Daffodils gets some neat and well-deserved commentary in Taylor’s piece entitled The Daffodils to Wordsworth. The poet describes our communal plight with concern and care as only a spiritual solitary could. Taylor, floating lonely as a cloud over these lines, meditates on tribal comforts. The poem dances to its conclusion here,
Our ancestral species reach
to hundreds of thousands,
so down to our ancient roots
we know only accumulated beauty,
the comfort of numbers,
the bliss that comes with
leaning as others lean.
Taylor turns the table on pretentious artists, their cockeyed fans, and their self-important, presumptuous reviewers (I ought to know) in her poem entitled Portrait of Lisa Gherardini. Mona Lisa’s enigmatic smile curls up with generational disdain the more she sees. The poem opens up like a shotgun blast,
“So foolish,” you seem to be thinking,
Madonna… Mona… Lady Lisa…
looking out at this carnevale of jesters
with raptor noses, pom-pom slippers,
Mickey Mouse ears, Osama beard,
or petting Paris Hilton’s pup.
Dali layers on his own pointy mustache,
Bug eyes, fingers dripping coins.
Among the millions in Eiffel t-shirts
angling for a cell- phone camera shot,
was the carpenter who claimed you for Italy,
the acid attacker, the hurler with the rock
that got your elbow…
At the heart of this chapbook the poem Homecoming offers Taylor’s classic take on Agamemnon’s somewhat unpleasant return to Mycenae after the sack of Troy. The poem, done in counterpoint, reads like a mini play. Cassandra, Agamemnon’s new slave girl, spits out her venomous prophecies in wonderfully crazed fashion. Clueless and arrogant Agamemnon rides his chariot into his wife’s death trap. The understatement builds to a powerful conclusion. I like this poem an awful lot. Here’s a center section of the counterpoint,
“Poor Cassandra’s crazy,”
my family thought, and turned away,
as you do now. You were
too easily deceived by my joy
in your company, blind to me
and my revenge.
Why, my dear, do you point, shout?
Do you laugh or weep?
It’s laughter, dear king,
as I see you trust her smile,
her comforting words
fraught with falsity.
but look, my wife
spreads the carpet wide.
Historic place poems always interest me. Toward the end of this impressive collection Taylor offers us her poem Gallows Hill, Salem. It’s a nifty little piece, perfectly toned. Nature knows the character of the poisoned land that the poet presents to us. Bloody red on white, sumac, redtail, and a robin’s breast on snow drifts, tells the tale. Innocents were damned here on what is forevermore evil ground. The poet says,
A redtail rises against darkening sun,
a hoarse crow tries to call, and an early robin
clings to a bare branch, does not…
Snow squalls smooth granite folded over
like the scroll that named them witches,
named this as the place
to damn them.
Penned grandeur in such a little book— very nicely done!