Saturday, October 24, 2015

On Earth and in Hell By Thomas Bernhard


On Earth and in Hell
By Thomas Bernhard
Three Rooms Press

Review by Thomas Gagnon

If Thomas Bernhard’s poems were paintings, they would be German Expressionist, emphasizing distortions of objective realities to convey subjective feelings (think of The Scream by Edvard Munch, not German but a definite influence on Expressionism). While, in 1957, the free verse of Bernhard’s poems is hardly renegade, his distortion of realities is much more so. It provokes.
A majority of Bernhard’s poems feature repetition, of words or phrases. This is impossible to miss. It is likewise impossible to miss what he is repeating: “decay,” “die,” “shadows,” “black blooms,” or “black is the grass.” It appears that Earth is Hell, with no salvation in sight. The joylessness of such a world begins to have a deadening effect, when, about halfway through the collection, there comes a different sort of repeated phrase: “I embroider.” And so he does. Bernhard is a maestro of language, which allows him to describe and claim his world. In one memorable image, he speaks of “a father who drove the northern storm like a beast/through the intestines/of Scandinavian cold.” (69) How vividly repellent! Mind you, Bernhard’s world is not always repellent, not “In My Mother’s Garden,” where 
The night is warm and my limbs
emanate my green ancestry,
flowers and leaves,
the call of the blackbird and the clack of the loom. (193)

Here, Bernhard “embroiders” a pastoral and domestic image. Language saves.

Bernhard does, however, accentuate the negative. If a poem begins with any joy or exuberance, it goes sour soon. In the second poem, a great-grandfather, apparently beloved by many, “wouldn’t give me a scrap of bacon/for all my despair,” and that’s the end of that. Others of his poems are (what I’d call) anti-Psalms. Most obviously, his poem “Nine Psalms” doesn’t particularly resemble the Psalms at all, apart from addressing the Lord. These are verses not of praise, faith, or exultation, but of anger, despair, and poverty. Many of Bernhard’s poems are anti-Romantic, in the sense that Romantic poetry often celebrated Nature. In his poetry, Nature is destructive. It is all “black”: “black chests of country earth,” “black woods,” “black grasses,” “black hills,” “black sun,” and so on. Nor does Nature nurture. This is most dramatic in the opening lines of “Summer Rain”: “Cease, you birds/no evening/comforts me…” (123) Put that in your pipe and smoke it, Wordsworth!

One of Bernhard’s poems, “At Twenty-Six,” brought to mind the Romantic poet, Lord Byron, who wrote the four-line poem, “On my Thirty-Third Birthday.” Unlike Byron, Bernhard has a lot to say about aging, that is, a lot of specifics:

Twenty-six years
among beer drinkers, saints, murderers and madmen,
in the city and in the swollen villages…
staggering from Christmas to Christmas…

Even Byron’s longer poem “Growing Old” is not so specific—witty but not specific. Anyhow, the vividness of “At Twenty-Six” redeems what might otherwise be a deadening dirge. Once again, language is the savior.

Bernhard makes big leaps. Often, he will lament the transience of existence. At another time, he will suddenly endow a character in a poem with thousands of years, or, once, with “hundreds of millions of years.” Often, he talks of decay and dying, and then he talks of glory and immortality—once in the same poem (“Into a Carpet Made of Water”). There is rarely a place between these extremes. “Chioggia” could well be the only poem evoking an everyday content (in one of my frankly favorite lines, “They scoop the sand from the skiff/and lie in the boat at night…”).

Safe to say, one would not confuse Bernhard’s Austria with the Austria of The Sound of Music. There is no edelweiss to greet you every morning, no vigorous nuns climbing ev’ry mountain. Nonetheless, there is a charm and a sweetness that emerges toward the end of this collection. There is a wise father and a nurturing mother; there are ever-present devoted ancestors. Even in a harsh world—and Bernhard presents a very harsh world—a home, it seems, can still be found.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

The Lost Theatres of Somerville

Amidst grading seemingly hundreds of college writing papers; I found the time to interview Somerville artist Angela Cunningham.  Cunningham is a resident of Winter Hill, a full-time studio artist working out of the Mudflat Studio in East Somerville, as well as President of the Board of Mudflat Studio.  She co-curated the Lost Theatres of Somerville exhibit at the Studio along with Tracy Redmond. The Lost Theatres exhibit is courtesy of David Guss and The Somerville Museum, who own the intellectual  and theatrical rights.

What is the Mudflat Studio?

Mudflat Studio is a non-profit ceramic arts school and artist studio in East Somerville. We serve the metropolitan Boston area with classes, workshops, and outreach programs for students of all ages. We also provide private studio spaces to 40 clay artists.

Tell us about your event.

Lost Theatres of Somerville, courtesy of David Guss and the Somerville Museum, is a part of a larger series of events celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Broadway Theatre in East Somerville. The exhibit uses photographs, movie posters, artifacts, and memorabilia to explore the glory days when as many as 14 movie houses operated in neighborhoods throughout Somerville.  

Give us a brief history of Broadway Theatre.

 The Broadway Theatre first opened in November 1915. It was built by a man named Hurst, who financed the construction by selling shares for $10, which entitled shareholders to free weekly admission for a year as well as to a share in the profits. Unfortunately, Hurst's Broadway Theatre went into bankruptcy just months after opening. Under new ownership, Hoffman's Broadway Theatre operated until 1929, when it was again sold to Arthur F. Viano, who was joined in business by his sons, Arthur Jr and Robert. The Viano family also came to own the Somerville Theatre and Teele Square Theatre, as well as the Regent and Capitol in neighboring Arlington. They were truly the "first family" of Somerville's movie theatre scene.

Broadway Theatre remained open until 1982. For decades after the theatre closed, the building was used as a warehouse, and later sat vacant except for a small, storefront dentist office until purchased by Mudflat Studio. Mudflat began renovations in 2010, creating artists studios, classrooms, offices, and a community meeting room. In 2011, Mudflat moved into the building, once again bringing life, community, and the arts back to the Broadway Theatre.

Mudflat's renovation of the building carefully and thoughtfully preserved as many details as possible from the former theatre, including grand wood and plaster molding that panels the walls, areas of tin ceiling, and a grand proscenium arch framing the back wall where the movie screen once hung. Mudflat also renovated the exterior of the building to highlight the original theatre's detailed decorative elements, and added a balcony and arched window that recall the original stained glass window that once emblazoned the front facade.

How did the germ of the idea for the Lost Theatres of Somerville come about?

The exhibit reflects the passion of Tufts University anthropology professor Dr. David Guss, who became intrigued by a 1945 photograph of the old Broadway Theatre and who set off to learn about the storied past of Somerville's movie houses. In the course of his research, Dr. Guss was invited by the Somerville Museum to curate an exhibition; the "Lost Theatres" project was the culmination. The exhibit has only been on view one other time in 2003-4 at the Somerville Museum. Here is a link to David Guss' award winning essay on the Lost Theatres of Somerville in the Journal of the Theatre Historical Society of America:

This past summer, Mudflat approached David Guss and the Somerville Museum about the potential of hosting the Lost Theatres exhibit as part of our Centennial Celebration. Mudflat's exhibition of "Lost Theatres" focuses especially on the history of our own Broadway Theatre building.

What else?
Our sister event celebrating "A Century of Arts at the Broadway Theatre" is happening this Sat, Oct 24. Mudflat will revisit Broadway Theatres history as a movie palace with a special double feature that is free and open to the public. 3 pm face painting, 4pm Wizard of Oz, 7 pm Nosferatu with live score by organist Jeff Rapsis!  This event is sponsored by Somerville Theatre. For more info: 

Although we call them movie theaters, the 14 theaters of Somerville's glory days really offered multi-media experiences, from movies to vaudeville to singing competitions, etc. Come to the exhibit and check it out!

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

A Seat at the Bar: WORKBAR UNION Brings Much Needed Work Space to Union Square

A Seat at the Bar: WORKBAR UNION Brings Much Needed Work Space to Union Square

By Doug Holder

While walking across Somerville Ave. in Union Square I noticed that the old Elegant Furniture storefront was inhabited by a new concept. So I took a detour from my usual haunts, the Bloc 11 Cafe, Market Basket, etc... and walked right in. At the front desk was Anne Sholley—the freckled-face and friendly “ Space Community Manager” of the WORKBAR. Like a grizzled reporter from the play “The Front Page,” I said: “ Doug Holder—The Somerville Times.” Sholley proved to be a gracious host and explained to me that the WORKBAR is a “co-working space” founded by Bill Jacobson, a pioneer of this work space movement. Sholley explained that folks can rent space in this expansive  venue on a daily, weekly or monthly basis.

Looking around the space I noticed a much welcomed veil of silence—unlike what you might find in the many bustling coffee shops in these environs. Sholley told me, “Many of the people who come here to work are independent workers—writers, people who work a distance from the home corporation, as well as small grassroots businesses. We offer office space on an ongoing basis.” And indeed, there were a series of long tables with computer outlets, with plenty of space for patrons to spread out and plug in.

Sholley said the WORKBAR at Union Square holds many events, panels as well demos from small companies to make it more of a community than an extended office.

Sholley believes the WORKBAR is in a great location, she opined: “Union Square is on the brink of being a great place for entrepreneurs with the much promised Green Line extension. There is a lot of energy here—it just feels awesome.”

WORKBAR is in partnership with US2-- a master developer that is intimately involved with the gentrification of the neighborhood.

Sholley gave me a tour of the facility. She guided me to a number of small conference rooms—one of which is named after Somerville's Hal Connolly –a 1956 Olympic-winner for the Hammer Throw. There is also a mural by Somerville artist Crystal Burney, that incorporates such Somerville hot spots as Brooklyn Boulder, etc... They also have a kitchen that offer free coffee and a variety of snacks.

I told Sholley that I might pay them a visit with stacks of papers to be graded, poems to write, and articles that have a deadline. Space is at a premium in Somerville, and now Somerville has a premium space.

For more info go to

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

A Remembered Event: Bonded by Blood by Noelia Lopez

**** This is a memoir piece written by one of my gifted students at Bunker Hill Community College in Boston.

One February 3, 2013, my mother called us to let us know our older brother was dying, and that we needed to get to Boston Medical Center right so that we could say goodbye. It was a long time coming; my older brother had been slowly dying from lupus for the past ten years. His body had been destroying itself cell by cell every day for an entire decade. Even so, the news came as a sucker punch. Perhaps I simply thought he’d suffer for ever, selfishly expecting things to stay the same. My mother and younger sister went to visit my older brother on a regular basis, but my younger brother and I never went. We had our reasons. And on our way to Maverick station, walking through a light powdery coating of snow, Jose and I talked about those reasons. Through sporadic bouts of tears and regret, we tried to justify those reasons to ourselves and each other.

For Jose, my younger brother, it was a matter of independence. Our older brother would scold him severely when he returned home late, or pick fights with him for dropping out of school, calling him a loser. Jose didn’t respond well to this; he was our brother, not our father. Lectures turned into screaming matches. They both went for the throat, aiming to cause the most damage to each other’s egos. What were they arguing about? Rules? Jose’s future? More and more it seemed like a bloodthirsty battle for dominance. Once, in the heat of battle, my younger brother said, as he had so many times before, “I can’t wait for you to die.” He said it through clenched teeth, fighting back angry tears. As he stomped away, slamming his bedroom door behind him, our older brother picked up a chair and smashed it into the door. It was only a matter of time before they killed each other.
In retrospect, it was petty; it was all petty and childish, and if someone on either side ever had the sense to be mature about any of it, things wouldn’t have turned out this way. But you can’t expect
a thirty-four year old man who has been slowly rotting away from the inside out to behave rationally. And you can’t expect a teenage boy to be the bigger man.

He was my older brother, but we were twelve years apart in age and thousands of miles away in mindset. He was my older brother, but we were more like roommates. By the time I was in elementary school, he had already left home. He was my brother in name only. He only returned home because his illness had made it impossible for him to live alone. For me, it was all avoidance. When he tried to speak to me, I turned away. I tried not to look the face of suffering in the eye. Every time he tried to reach out to me, I withdrew. Every time I walked past his room, I could smell the festering stench of sickness. I simply couldn’t bear with it.

When Jose and I arrived at the hospital, he was unconscious and barely breathing. There was no question; he was absolutely dying. If it weren’t for the medical equipment, we wouldn’t have been able to see him in time. Our mother told us to say our goodbyes. She was insistent about it. “It would be awful to spurn him at his deathbed,” she said. “I know you didn’t get along,” she pleaded in Spanish, “but just forgive him.” Our little sister was right next to her, silently dealing with the loss of the closest person she had to a father figure. They left us alone with the eldest son to cry in another room.

Sometimes his body would become engorged with fluid, his skin turn purple and bruised. I would ask myself, is this swollen sack of flesh really related to me? I couldn’t bring myself to look at him. But our older brother didn’t look like that this time. Instead, he was the classic image of a sick, dying man. He was thin and bony, hooked up to machines several different ways. There were tubes in his mouth, in his chest, in his abdomen, and who knows where else. The displays and beeps of his lifelines were slightly out of sync, but diligently working in a steady rhythm. They sounded quietly in the back of my mind as I tried to form my parting words.

Nurses would occasionally come in to check tubing and readings, interrupting as I started to speak. I quietly waited for them to leave. I didn’t want any of them to hear what I was going to say because I knew it would sound awful. I didn’t intend on apologizing or saying anything sentimental. I just wanted to explicitly say something that was always implied. I took a deep breath to steady my voice, but the words came out weak and shaky: “I just want you to know that, despite everything I said and did, I never really hated you.” Then I left, feeling much better about leaving him behind.

There was nothing I could do about it. That’s what I constantly told myself because that’s what I wanted to believe. I just wanted to let it happen, to have it have nothing to do with me. In truth, had I been able to muster up any sense of courage, I might have been able to provide him with a sense of support or comfort. But there’s nothing I can do about it now.

All I could see was a human being rotting from the inside out-- a literal manifestation of self-hatred. My older brother always had some sort of complaint about how privileged we were, how easy we had it. I suppose it would seem that way to someone who had a life as rough as his. But that had nothing to do with us. All he did was create a barrier between himself and his younger siblings. I couldn’t bring myself to love him, but I never truly hated him. We were simply too different. It was so frustrating.

It was decided to take him off life support. He was already on borrowed time and he wouldn’t want to live like that anyway. We had ten years to steel ourselves for this moment. When the nurses called our family back into his room, he was already cleaned up. They had removed the unsightly tubes and wires; only a single machine remained. Now we just had to watch him die.

All four of us stood there, watching and tearing up. He made motions as if he was taking in breaths, struggling to breathe. The nurses had already explained to us that whatever he did, it was all reflexes and did not indicate revival. Our mother poured some water into her palm and started brushing some water on his lips and tongue with her fingers, quietly cooing and shushing him. Then he finally stopped moving. “He was thirsty,” she spoke softly, “he just wanted some water before he left.” His skin started to fade in color, becoming an ashen, washed out yellow. You see the warmth of life leave his body and turn cold. The steady, soothing beeping rang out as we silently organized our feelings.

I don’t remember what Jose said, or if he even said anything at all. It’s the same with my little sister and mother. But none of that really matters anyway. What matters most in these circumstances is whether you can settle your spirit and walk away with your head held high. And that’s exactly what we did. Despite everything that was said, we managed to do this right.

 Bonded by Blood by Noelia Lopez

Once a would-be editor, now an aspiring preschool teacher, Noelia Lopez is a first generation American living in East Boston and experiencing the realities of the American dream. Nevertheless, she hopes to somehow enrich the lives of the people around her by nurturing young minds to embrace education and learning through picture books and nursery rhymes.

Monday, October 19, 2015

The Hastings Room Reading Series presents David Ferry

The Hastings Room Reading Series



David Ferry


D a v i d   F e r r y
Recipient of the National Book Award
Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize
Ruth Lily Poetry Prize

Wednesday 4 November 2015 at 7:00pm
First Church Congregationalist
11 Garden Street, near Harvard Square

As if the leaves that were falling, but not the day,
Had read, and understood, the calendar.  “October”

Sunday, October 18, 2015

To Part Is to Die a Little By Claudia Serea

Claudia Serea

To Part Is to Die a Little
By Claudia Serea
(Cervena Barva Press, 2015)
  Review by Lawrence Kessenich

To be an exile is to both be estranged from one’s homeland, more deeply attached to it, and also able to see both one’s homeland and one’s adopted country with an objectivity unavailable to lifelong inhabitants. All of this comes into play in Claudia Serea’s poetry collection, To Part Is to Die a Little.

Serea emigrated from Romania to the U.S. in 1995, evidently to New York City or nearby, because that city appears often in this collection, acutely observed and with attention to the concrete details of places and people:

From “Soap opera”:

December again on 38th Street,
where statues push their heads through the walls
over a DVD store, a barber shop, a deli,
to better see what’s happening…

From “Paper cup city”:

The dark coffee
     Of the mornings
in a paper cup

People stand in line;
their loneliness
    is the loneliness
of plastic straws
    on the shelf…

Daybreak is
    a plastic
teaspoon in the sky,
paper plates
    and brown napkins…

From “Mr. Hoffman”:

Mr. Hoffman has a bright green hat
and red jacket, has glasses,
sits on a small chair
play waltzes on the accordion
in the 57th Street station.

A little town with steep streets
and old buildings with geraniums,
scenes from old European movies,
pour from his waltz…

Through the eyes of this immigrant, one sees one’s own country through fresh eyes, always an enlightening experience—and sometimes painful, as when she points out the ignorance of Americans about her homeland in “Breakfast at Cucina”:

Are you a gymnast?
the woman asks
when she finds out
my accent is Romanian.

Sure, I’d like to say.

In my country,
the little girls balance on beams
as soon as they come out
of their mothers’ wombs.

More poignant, however—and my favorite section of the book, Letters to Romania—are the poems where Serea looks back longingly at the land where she was born, grew up, and where her family and friends of many years still reside. What often sticks in her mind, of course, are concrete images that make the places and people come alive for the reader.

In “Es-tu-là” she imagines her mother singing in the kitchen:

My mother sings to the chopped onions.
She sings to the parsley and pots.
She sings to the stirred stew.
That’s why America is rich,
because it’s where you live,
you, my only true treasure.

The kitchen is filled with sun.
The windows are filled with wind.
No letters came today…

In “On Easter morning” she remembers:

After church, we won’t enter the house
until my father digs a shovelful of grass
and places it on the threshold, roots and all.

Step on it, for a new beginning, he says…

In “Ovidiu” she recalls a Romanian town she visited:

A bright yellow Muslim minaret and a white church
hang upside down from the clouds…

From these low hills, the poet looked on,
with exiled eyes,
into the eyes of the Black Sea…

A school, a bread store, a closed pub,
A skinny Pegasus pulls a carriage with corn…

And in “The last way” she shows us a country funeral:

Dressed in black with headscarves,
    like ravens, they come
to walk the dead man
    on his last way.

Up on the tractor,
    his coffin is decorated
with crying daughters
    and orange lilies.

There is so much life in these people and places that the reader can hardly help feeling the loss of it all along with Serea. There is so much longing in this book that it tugs at the heartstrings, but that longing also forces the reader to look at the riches in his own life, to contemplate their loss, and thereby to appreciate them more.