Friday, January 01, 2016

Bleak Splendor Poems by George Held

Bleak Splendor
Poems by George Held
Muddy River Books
Brookline, MA
ISBN: 978-1-329-65042-8
31 Pages

Review by Dennis Daly

In this haunting, yet modest, book of meditations, memories, and mementoes, George Held constructs a makeshift time capsule of neuro-detritus, both profane and numinous. His subjects range from wealth to mortality to nature’s relentlessness to aging to outdated vocations to (even more) outdated heroes to the probable odor of Jesus Christ.

The second poem in this collection, At the Marina, sets the reader up with a self-conscious commentary on social justice and then cuts its neat metaphor with an infusion of wicked irony. Held describes the owner of a yacht docked at ritzy Sag Harbor,

Its proprietor, barefoot in deck chair,

Relishes a cigar.
Gold letters on the stern emblazon
The boat’s name: “Homeless,

Cayman Islands.”

This poet knows what he’s about. His poem Airing It Out, set in a nursing home, weaves absolute magic in fashioning a penultimate “All Souls” moment before death’s looming portal. Held’s opening description marvelously conjures a spell of decrepitude and pre-transfiguration,

The inmates at the old-age home
Are disrobing. In the assembly room
Dressing gowns fall from sunken shoulders,
Foundational garments pool
Around flat arches and twisted toes.

Stats don’t lie: seven of every ten
Seniors are women, but the handful of men
Here drop trou from gaunt flanks, allow
Bellies and scrotums to sag and sway
As women free flat fallen breasts

From all restraint, stand shy or proud
As becomes them, gray or white locks
Freed from caps or bands and spilled
About their faces and down their backs,
Airing out decrepit bodies whose cells

Still continue to replace themselves.

The Dancer in the Box, a favorite poem of mine in this collection, puts death in its place, that place being a containable sonnet that empowers the poet. Held sucks the strength from mortality in this well-engineered dirge and forces death to bow to artistic rules rather than nature’s cruelty. Consider this conclusion,

when someone dear
Dies, I turn to the sonnet for solace, to hold
My grief, lest it run with mercurial death
To some dire end beyond a sonnet’s bounds.

So many sonnets I’ve had to carpenter
These past few months that this year is The Year
Of Death, and still more friends fight for the breath
Of life…

Scary, but I do remember the iceman coming to our family’s door, and his tongs gripping that food-preserving block. Held memorializes his own observations of this once household god in his poem entitled The Ice Man. Children of that age felt awe in the presence of such physically powerful men, men whose hard work demonstrably meant something to civilization. Even as refrigerators superseded their profession, these almighty deities remained iconic to eyewitnesses of that era. Here’s the heart of the poem,

You’d stick your tongs into the block,
Turn your back to the tail-gate and hoist the ice

Onto the burlap towel on your shoulder.
Bent like Atlas, you’d hump your five-foot frame
Upstairs to our kitchen sink, then deftly
Wield your ice pick to chip off enough

To slide the block into the top compartment
Of our icebox. That done, you’d collect your fee
And depart without a word. Your menial work
And your size belied the Colossus in our eyes,

Mr. Galasso, and we held our breath in awe
Each time you made your trek from truck
To kitchen…

Typically, suicides committed by the overly wrought and despondent often mess up families with strong emotions of guilt and recrimination. Details of such self-destructions as a rule are best left unspoken. In Held’s piece In Time and Out the poet relates the untypical (at least in the dramatic sense) suicide of his father. The man was eighty-eight and in pain. Held relates his father’s decision as matter-of-fact and exceedingly rational. The piece is not without irony and ends with a surprising metaphoric twist that works quite well. Here the poet addresses his father in the rather upbeat conclusion,

Alive, you were too feisty to let anyone
put a lid on you, even at eighty-eight.

By the way, the coroner told me that the pain in your gut
wasn’t the cancer you feared but a strangulated
hernia, and since you always refused to see a doctor

it would have grimly killed you through sepsis.
So you were right to do yourself in, and just in time.
I’m writing you now that you’re dead, Dad,

because I want to leave this record behind,
the way you left your bloody corpse
for your son to find.

Held’s final and title poem in this collection, Savior, breaks apart the hypostatic union of god and man. I like this piece a lot. The poet reconstructs the probable stench of the historical Jesus and repositions this contextual Christ in the bleak splendor of Galilee. Each gritty stanza adds perspective and suggests the miraculous in the material. The poem opens with questions,

What did the Savior smell like,
A gaffe with garlic breath,
A hint of death,
Or like a kike?

Did his teeth stink from caries,
His feet from fungus,
His armpits, richly hairy,
Like a leper’s house?

These wide-ranging poetic perceptions stretch from the precise and often provoking particulars narrated by Held to a universal realm of wisdom and timelessness. Discover this remarkable capsular book in the future. The near future.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Poet Richard Fox: A Cancer Survivor Brings His Suffering to Verse

Poet Richard Fox: A Cancer Survivor Brings His Suffering to Verse

By Doug Holder

Richard Fox didn't start out wanting to write about his bout with cancer. It came to him as unexpectedly as the nefarious disease did. Fox has penned a new collection of poetry that deals with his trials and travails titled,” wandering in puzzle boxes” ( Big Table Books)

 Richard H. Fox was born and bred in Worcester MA. He attended Webster University, as much artist colony as college, in the early 1970’s. These diverse cultures shaped his world view and love of words. He is a former President of Poetry Oasis, Inc., a non-profit poetry association dedicated to education and promoting local poets, and was Managing Editor of its journal Diner. Richard’s poems have appeared in numerous journals including Above Place, Boston Literary Magazine, OVS, Poetry Quarterly, Midstream Magazine, and Worcester Review. He is the author of two poetry collections: Time Bomb (2013) and wandering in puzzle boxes (2015). A cancer survivor, many of Richard’s poems focus on cancer from the patient’s point of view drawing on hope, humor, and unforeseen gifts. He seconds Stanley Kunitz’ motion that people in Worcester are “provoked to poetry.”

I talked with him on my Somerville Community Access TV show  " Poet to Poet Writer to Writer"

Doug Holder: You are from Worcester. Stanley Kunitz , the late, acclaimed poet was also from Worcester. He said that people from Worcester are provoked to poetry. What do you think he meant?

Richard Fox: While he was Poet Laureate of the United States he came back to Worcester. His home is out in Worcester. There are a lot of events out at that house. The people who own it now treat it like a museum. Getting back to your question, he was asked by someone from the press why were there so many poets in Worcester. That's when he replied that people in Worcester are provoked to poetry. Worcester has more poets that you think for a city of its size. It has interesting atmosphere of blue collar workers, many ethnic cultures---it turns out a lot of writers. Your dentist could be a poet. Poetry seems to be everywhere.

DH: Did you grow up in a poetry-loving family?

RF: I didn't grow up in a poetic background. I had an uncle who was a Beat and he introduced me to a lot of the Beat art and literature. He was a bombardier on a B24 in WW ll, and went to the Rhode Island School of Design on the G.I. Bill. Later he went to Greenwich Village and supported himself as a painter.

DH: You help found the organization “ Poetry Oasis” in Worcester.

RF: Yes. The Poetry Oasis was a weekly venue. We brought in a large selection of poets from New England and nationally. We sponsored open mikes, workshops, and did outreach in schools and senior centers. There were a lot of poets who developed their voice with us. We had an eclectic mix of Slam poets, religious poets, etc.... There was an acceptance of the diversity and style. There was a lot of support. You know it is a hard thing to get up there and read your poem—here we encouraged it—there was a lot of positive energy. We also had a magazine “ Diner'”that came out four times a year. This was before the Internet was in vogue. We had a wide distribution of poems. Eve Rivkah was one of our poetry editors.

DH: In your poetry collection “ wandering puzzling boxes” you deal with your experience with cancer. Why did you want to revisit such a painful part of your life?
RF: I had a friend who was a medic in Vietnam. I would talk to him on the phone about his experiences. He told me, “ You are fighting a war.” For him—his defining time was his ten months in Vietnam before he got injured. Cancer becomes a defining moment in your life. Some people have asked me,' “Did cancer change you?” It is hard for me to look back at myself before cancer because life is incremental. Sometimes I wake up in the morning and I don't feel good. But then I say to myself “Yeah, but your are alive.” I am really all about not wasting days after seeing people with cancer not make it. It took me about 15 months after my own experience to read and write poetry. I talked to poet John Hodgen,. I asked him to send me prompts. And John is a master at this. I viewed the prompts as a puzzle. I did not intend to write about cancer—but it was in my subconscious. The prompts helped bring it out.

DH: Have you read to other people who have or had cancer?

RF; I have. I have had poetry readings that specifically dealt with cancer. The q and a after is about 50% cancer, and the other half is about poetry. You know if you haven't been through cancer then you can't really understand it. What you have to understand as a cancer victim is that the depression and despair you feel is normal. That is a hard thing to know. Most people who have it feel they have to fight harder. Your body experiences a lot of damage from chemo and radiation. Your strength is greatly diminished. You have to pick your battles.

DH; I have interviewed the playwright and screenwriter Israel Horovitz. I noticed you wrote a poem about his visit to your high school in the late 60s.

RF: In high school I had a great drama teacher. He had worked Off-Broadway as an actor, but he wanted his marriage to work so he came up to Worcester to teach. He treated high school students like professionals. He had play-writing competitions. He had top notch playwrights judge them. He also got playwrights to speak to the students. Israel Horovitz came in 1968, during the Vietnam conflict. He made his talk into a exercise in improvisation, and asked the students “ Will you strike the school?” he even threw a chair across the stage. He created quite a stir. The student body was pro-war . I was anti-war. The interesting thing is when I went to my high school reunion all the pro-war kids came up to tell me how wrong they were.

Chemo Brain

Lost in the grocery store you've shopped in
since you pushed a cart for your Mama? Have
a cup of Peppermint Tea, the red box on the
shelf opposite your belt buckle. Leave your
pants alone, grab a couple of bags, stumble
four aisles left to the household articles,
choose a ceramic mug, #1 DAD or I’M GETTING
SUPERPOWER? Next to the pharmacy is a water
dispenser with twin taps: boiling and cold.
Put the tea bags in your mug, tags over the
rim. Fill with your preference but hot must
be best because you are shivering suddenly.
Suppose shopping is a spoiled idea when you
wanderlust for two hours to fill a thirteen
item list. Perhaps you should sit down here
on the floor til your wife can pick you up

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Somerville author Stefan Cooke's new book sheds light on a long lost child prodigy Barbara Newhall Follett

Somerville author Stefan Cooke's new book sheds light on a long lost child prodigy Barbara Newhall Follett

Article by Doug Holder

Part of life is losing touch. People disappear from our lives, sometimes never to appear again. Somerville writer Stefan Cooke author of “Barbara Newhall Follett: A Life in Letters” is not satisfied to let the disappearance of his half aunt Barbara disappear into the ether. With his new book he traces Follet's life through her letters. Follett was gifted child prodigy writer, who vanished in 1939 from her home in Brookline, Mass. at age 25. She was never to be heard of again.

Cooke has long been fascinated by Follet's story and writing. He told me over coffee at the Bloc 11 Cafe in Union Square that, “ I love her work, her skill with words, language, vocabulary and imagery.” For the book he researched Follett's papers at the Columbia University's rare book collection in New York City. Cooke said," The book is basically a collection of letters to various correspondents.” Cooke told me that Follet did not have a formal education ( she was home-schooled), and never went to college except for a few dance classes at Mills College. In spite of this Follett had the talents and skills of a master wordsmith.

At he age of eight Follett wrote her first novel “ The House Without Windows.” Follett explained that it was about, “ ...a child who ran away from loneliness, to find companions in the woods—animal friends.” Her father Wilson Follett (the noted critic) sent it to the prestigious New York City publisher Knopf, and in 1927 when Follett was 12 years old it was published. The New York Times lauded the book—calling it, “...truly remarkable.” The Saturday Review of Literature opined that the book was,  "Almost unbearably beautiful.” Later, when Follett was at the advanced age of 13 ( with her parent's consent ) she took to sea as a crewman on a lumber schooner. And of course a book ensued: “ The Voyage of the Norman D.” The Times Literary Supplement raved about the book saying it was,  “... embellished by a literary craftsmanship which would do credit to an experienced writer.”

But as fate would have it Wilson Follett left her mother for a younger woman. The father did not provide much money or support. Eventually Barbara Follet's life unraveled. She got married as a teenager, but the marriage eventually soured. She eventually left her marital home in Brookline, Mass. in December of 1939—never to be heard of again.

Cooke told me he has lived in Somerville for years with his wife artist Resa Blatman. Blatman designed the cover of his book. Cooke works as a web designer as his day job. One of his projects is the “ Afghan Women's Writing Project” that publishes the work of Afghan women, hosts an online workshop, and occasionally publishes books by these women, sometimes in their native language of Dari.

Cooke tells me there is opera planned about Follet's life, and in 2017 Penguin books plans to release a critical study of her work and life. Cooke is quite glad to be part of this conversation about this lost genius.

Cooke shared this with the Times:

Here's an excerpt from a letter Barbara wrote in 1930, when she was 16 and living in New York City; it's what I picked for the back of my book. (The book she was going to write was Lost Island, which I transcribed and posted on Farksolia a few years ago: )

Do you realize that a year ago yesterday I set sail from Honolulu harbor in my beloved Vigilant? I was rather glum all yesterday thinking of it. It hurt. I suppose it will be years before I go to sea again, and I may never even see that schooner. I suppose that I spent about the happiest month of my life during that sea-trip in her. And it lasted even during that week in port, when I took over the cabin-boy's job, and when Helen, Anderson, and I had cherry- and ice-cream-parties in the cabin after everyone had gone ashore, and when we used to walk up into that virgin forest two miles up the road, and eat salmon-berries. Life was beautiful then. This doesn't seem like the same era. Here the beauty consists of great stone towers against the sunset—sublime, symbolic, but away above the plane of us poor ants that hustle along the swarming streets at their feet, so engrossed in ourselves that we never even see a fellow-mortal, but bump into him with a bang, and then hurray and hurry on.
Oh, my God, my God!

It makes one's heart and soul suffer—it stabs them to the quick. Oh, for wings, for wings!
That is, in general, the theme not only of my own heart, but of the book I'm going to write. I ought to be able to write it—I live it constantly. My heart is the field of a thousand battles every day.

Ibbetson Street Press celebrates the release of the 38th issue of the literary magazine Ibbetson Street-- Jan 13, 2016

Article by Doug Holder

 Somerville, Mass.

In 1998, in a Brueger's Bagel shop in Cambridge, Mass. the Ibbetson Street Press was founded by Doug Holder, Dianne Robitaille, and Richard Wilhelm. Since then the Press has put out 38 issues of the magazine Ibbetson Street, and has published close to 100 collections of poetry and some memoir. Ibbetson Street has been included in the Pushcart Anthology, featured in such noted websites as Poetry Daily and Verse Daily, and has published the work of hundreds of poets since its inception. The press  was located on 33 Ibbetson Street in Somerville until 2001, but now is located on School Street in Union Square in Somerville, Mass. In the current issue you will see poetry by the likes of Marge Piercy, Andrea Cohen, Ted Kooser and many others. We are also grateful to have great photographs on our front and back covers by Glenn Bowie and Jennifer Matthews. Lawrence Kessenich has an insightful review of Endicott Professor Charlotte Gordon’s new book, Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Her Daughter Mary Shelley.  Our core staff of Harris Gardner ( Poetry Editor), Lawrence Kessenich ( Managing Editor), Rene Schwiesow  (Managing Editor), and Steve Glines ( Designer) have produced another fine issue as usual.

Ibbetson will be having a reading at the Somerville Central Library on Highland Ave. in Somerville. A potluck dinner will be served at 6PM, and the reading will start at 7PM. Open to the public.

**** Ibbetson Street is now affiliated with Endicott College in Beverly, Mass.