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.