Monday, May 2, 2022

Opera from the P.O.


 

 

UrbanArias at Washington, DC’s Keegan Theatre has produced a vibrant world premiere with Stephen Eddins’ chamber opera Why I Live at the P.O. The libretto by Michael O’Brien is based on Eudora Welty’s short story by the same name. The vibrancy manifests in the outstanding cast whose singing and acting both excites and agitates the ear and eye. Notable as well is Brian Ruggaber’s two-level scenery that adds an additional polish to this production.

 

The Dresser, who saw the May 1, 2022, performance, particularly appreciated coloratura soprano Melissa Wimbish’s creation of the character Stella-Rondo, the sister who returns home and spoils the narrator’s peace causing the narrator to move to the post office where she is postmistress. In the librettist’s interpretation of Welty’s story, the narrator—sister to Stella-Rondo—has two roles, her younger self Sister 2 (sung by coloratura soprano Kyaunnee Richardson) and older narrating self Sister 1 (sung by the award-winning Emily Pulley).

 


 

After Stella Rondo returns home, leaving her husband Mr. Whitaker and bringing with her a young child known as Shirley-T, things heat up between the sisters in a rivalry that is fed by their parents (baritone Eric McKeever plays Papa-Daddy and contralto Alissa Anderson plays Mama) and their Uncle Rondo (tenor Ian McEuen). Stella Rondo introduces her child Shirley-T (represented by a doll) as her legally adopted daughter, but Sister 2 remarks that if Papa-Daddy cut off his beard, Shirley-T would look exactly like him. The suggestion of cutting off his beard angers Papa-Daddy. Not having read Welty’s story in advance of the opera performance, the Dresser initially wondered if the story would reveal incest, because we never learn why Stella-Rondo leaves her husband and comes home. We do, however, hear repeatedly that Sister was the first to date Mr. Whitaker. Then there is the matter of Uncle Rondo showing up and asking to borrow one of Stella-Rondo’s kimonos. Why Stella’s name has an appended Rondo is also a mystery of the original story.

 


Something is off in the story. This is not a Southern story like what Tennessee Williams or William Faulkner serves up. This is absurd. This is a comic opera and to heighten how Why I Live at the P.O. has an unreliable narrator, librettist O’Brien splits the unnamed sister’s role in two parts and, furthermore,  Dennis Whitehead Darling as Director casts Sister 1 as a white woman and Sister 2 as a woman of color. Given Sister 2’s costume with her apron and purple gingham dress, the Dresser thought initially that Sister 2 was the household maid. However, Welty’s narrator gave herself a decidedly domestic role in her family.

 

Eddins’ tonal music moves back and forth between jazz and contemporary classical. Featured in the chamber orchestra conducted by Robert Wood are winds and horns. The instruments include flute, 2 clarinets, saxophone, trumpet, trombone, string bass, percussion, and piano. Most of the singing is ensemble with, to the Dresser’s ear, no memorable arias except perhaps the number Papa-Daddy sings regarding his outrage over the idea that he cut off his beard. While Welty’s story suggests a rising level of stress, the Dresser thinks that the forte-fortissimo production of unrelenting sound was hard on the listener and that a lullaby, perhaps around the introduction of Shirley-T, would have been a welcomed respite to have in memory.

 

Why I Live at the P.O. runs through May 7, 2022.

Saturday, April 30, 2022

Searching for Poetry in the Whitney Museum Biennial

 

The Dresser and her companion, also a poet, attended the Whitney Museum Biennial Quiet as It’s Kept on April 25, 2022. The title Quiet as It’s Kept, which indicates something that is kept secret, evokes for its curators David Breslin and Adrienne Edwards ideas from novelist Toni Morrison, jazz drummer Max Roach, and artist David Hammons. The individual works by 63 artists (most of whom are from the United States) are set up mainly on floors five and six with a few spilling over to floors three and one. If you seek intimacy that provides enclosed spaces, this exhibition probably won’t meet your needs. Your ability to concentrate will be tested except for certain video installations like What about China? by Trinh T. Minh-ha where you can sit in the dark for 135 minutes watching all the  rural people who lost their homes and the old world architecture of communal living to make way for China's great development of modernization. The Dresser and her friend found the video fascinating, becuase they have both traveled in China and have a wider embrace of that landscape.

 

Another point of attraction for the two poets was “A Gathering of Tribes” which is labeled as a “selection of archival material” that came from the New York apartment of poet Steve Cannon. This included bookshelves stocked with well used literary books, and flyers and broadsides hanging on the walls over the bookshelves. One prominent contemporary poet—Kimiko Hahn, known personally to the Dresser and her companion, appears on a poster announcing a book party featuring her 1999 collection Mosquito and Ant from W.W. Norton. The point of this exhibit is to show how marginalized LGBTQ artists, artists of color, immigrant artists, Native American and indigenous artists, as well as artists from poor and working-class backgrounds came together. Did that message come through the assembly of books and wall hangings? The Dresser isn’t sure about that.

 

 


 

The most haunting work and poetic work is Rebecca Belmore’s sculpture “ishkode (fire)” which is made from clay and bullet casings. In a glinting circle of bullet casings, which at first doesn’t register in the brain, a fabric covered human (presumably a woman) stands. The only access to this person is a dark vertical space where the face should be. Belmore is from the Lac Seul First Nation of Canada and is known for her politically and socially aware performance and installation works. This work requires no explanation either in placard form or from the Whitney’s Mobile Guide.

 

 


 

The most dramatically beautiful works are the teepee covers under the collective title “Wintercount” made by Duane Linklater, another indigenous Canadian artist originally from Moose Creek First Nations. While these linen covers are not functional, they effectively represent the size and colors of actual teepee covers. Linklater uses sumac, charcoal, and cochineal to create the pigments for his designs.

 


Eric Wesley’s kinetic sculpture “North American Buff Tit” wins as the most whimsical work. Wesley tells visitors (through the Whitney’s Mobile Tour that one can access through a QR code) that his sculpture was first seen as a much smaller-sized toy known as the “dippy bird.” Through heat transfer, this sculpture mimics a bird drinking water. So yes, it moves when the temperature and humidity reach certain levels. However, the Dresser never saw the bird dip.

 

Hands down, the most curious work is a set of Buck Ellison’s photographs on Erik Prince (brother of former Education Secretary Betsy DeVos) co-founder of the security and mercenary firm Blackwater responsible for killing seventeen Iraqi civilians in Baghdad’s Nisour Square. Ellison’s idea was to capture Prince, known to the public as an ultra-wealthy monster, as an ordinary person. Most memorable is the shirtless photo of Prince—or is this an actor—standing in front of a wall with pictures of handsome horses. Prince smiles broadly. He seems vulnerable and carefree. Both the Dresser and her companion walked away shaking their heads and feeling irritated.

 

One more work that aroused the Dresser’s interest, if not pique, was Sable Elyse Smith’s “A Clockwork,” a large moving sculpture that looks like a Ferris wheel and reminded the Dresser of William Kentridge’s breathing machine that was at the center of Kentridge’s installation The Refusal of Time. Smith states in her presentation in the Whitney’s Mobile Guide that “A Clockwork” shows “[a] really extreme and intense relationship between entertainment and violence.” She suggests that her sculpture points to the ways carnivals put ordinary people in contact with people who are not like them, people are not “normal.” The Dresser thinks that Smith’s discussion is compelling but that her sculpture itself lacks this information. The Dresser grants that the curators of the 2022 Whitney Biennial with its title Quiet as It’s Kept allows for this kind of reach/secret meaning not only with Smith’s sculpture but also other works in the show. If the visitor to Quiet as It’s Kept does not access the Mobile Guide, he or she will miss what is often the possible poetry of the artwork. The written text presented with each work is not the same explanation presented by the Mobile Guide and often comes across as unedited verbiage.

 

Is the Whitney 2022 Biennial worth seeing? Yes, but one needs to know that while this is art from American artists, not all are United States citizens. The expectation in the past was the Whitney Biennial was a snapshot of contemporary art in the United States. Additionally,  Quiet as It’s Kept requires access to its Mobile Guide, otherwise the visitor will not get the secrets behind the work. Finally, visit with a Zen attitude—there is a crowded feeling to this display, so it is up to the visitor to stop and focus on one work at a time.

Saturday, April 23, 2022

The Held and Firmly Bound IOU


 

 

 

 

 

 

Nathalie Anderson’s long poem Held and Firmly Bound puts a unique spin on race relationships in America. The work is based on an IOU that was written before the United States Civil War in which a member of Anderson’s white family pledges to pay a sum of $2400 to a free person of color.

 

Anderson’s introduction begins with the language of the debt declaration:

 

KNOW ALL MEN BY THESE PRESENTS, THAT I Alfred H. Dunkin, Trustee of M.D. Huger,  am held and firmly bound unto Betsey Garrett, a free person of color, in the full and just sum of Two Thousand Four Hundred Dollars…. 

                                                            Charleston, 1853

 

In an interview with Anderson conducted by the Dresser on April 22, 2022, the author said that Dunkin and Huger are family names she recognized but she knew nothing about the three people mentioned in the IOU and that the debt was extraordinarily high for its time. Anderson’s brother conjectured that Alfred Dunkin and M.D. Huger might have been brother and sister, given Huger’s initials including a “D” (possibly standing for her maiden name Dunkin) and given that women were often barred from owning property (a reason for him being named Trustee).

 

Anderson said this work was hard for her to start because she wanted to avoid putting words in Betsey Garrett’s mouth and that she wanted to stay focused on her family. When she got beyond her writer’s block, she wrote poems that the Dresser will say are suppositions. Most of them begin say, let’s say, or suppose. Section I is titled Say. Anderson said her goal was to create characters/”personalities who could carry that level of indebtedness.” Characters include a Mama’s boy of varying behaviors, a daughter who compulsively washes and then is faced with the stench of her father’s dying, a mean man of egotistical parents, a country bumpkin of whom Charleston sophisticates make fun. There are nine such characters and some of them are pictured interacting with Betsey Garrett.

 

4. 

Say you’re what folks call up-country, down

from the red-clay hills, in Charleston

for the Season, settled at your Aunt Em’s,

and about the serious business—or so

your mama tells—of finding you

a proper man. …

 

Thus far, truth be told, your best ain’t

up to snuff. First off, you’ve grown out

raw-boned, rangy, stark as a mule

in a paddock of ponies, nothing like

your flirty cousins. … Even the gal who

sets your clothes out knows what’s what.

She smirks…

 

… “Gal,” you say,

“you got a discerning eye, so you

can see I ain’t. But I got hold of a thing

you might appreciate. What say we trade?”

 

,,,

 

As for that gal, after all these works,

you know her name and you call her by it.

“Betsey Garrett,” you say, while she’s

packing up your clothes, “I am my mama’s

only living child, and when I come

into my own, I’m going to buy you out,

set you on your road.” …

I hate them cousins and I owe you, gal,

and when I go to my reward

I’ll leave you everything I’ve come to own.” …

 

Section II is titled “Held.” The thirteen poems in this section all end with the refrain “held and firmly bound.” Anderson said she sees these poems in the tradition of a ghazal and like the ghazal, she hears her audience calling out the repeating refrain. The poems start out short. The first poem has six lines:

 

1.

Her heart kept startling, a nervy bird, clutch

of blue at the breast, her fingers’ twining and

intertwining fretting up the shakiest of nests.

 

His arm snaking round and his hand hovering—

she knew he’d swallow her down. Knew he’d keep her

own hands flustering til held and firmly bound.

 

The last several poems are two pages each and deal with such complex subjects as: a celebrated English actress who unwisely marries a wealthy southerner who owns and mistreats slaves, an American Revolutionary War story featuring Anderson’s relative Francis Kinloch Huger and Marquis de Lafayette, and the contemporary American film Glory—about the Black Civil War regimen led by a young white officer with such stars as Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman, and Matthew Broderick. With these three stories, Anderson brings Section II Held to a cinematic fever pitch that exceeds Southern storytelling in the tradition of William Faulkner (and Faulkner’s Quentin Compson is called up in the last stanza of Held).

 

13.

Oh Quentin Compson, look away

all you please. There’s one woman stopped cold as

the credits roll in Philly. That grit’s in her teeth. That salt’s

in her bones. No distance at all. By her own soil and substance

held and firmly bound.

 

The final section (III) contains one elegant, compressed poem that addresses Betsey Garrett signing the IOU not with an X as most illiterate people signed but with a plus sign. The last line of the final poem reads: “Saddled with. Hitched. Held. Bound.” What Nathalie Anderson hopes her readership takes away is the idea that there was an interconnectedness between the whites and the Blacks that is both viscerally animal and human in the sense of marriage. Voices inhabit this 15-line poem—“Pay up, fool. You’ll always owe me more.” “Skin-deep? You don’t know the half.” “More than you bargained for, or you deserve.”

 

Careful that it doesn’t appropriate a Black woman’s unusual story, Held and Firmly Bound by Nathalie Anderson is remarkable for its sassiness and risk-taking. Find this book from Muddy Ford Press.


Saturday, February 19, 2022

The Many Levels of Damage Done

 


The Damage Done
by Susana H. Case is an accomplished novella in verse that is partly murder mystery, partly political intrigue involving local and federal agencies of the American criminal justice system, and snapshots of American pop culture in the 1960s and part of the 1970s. The Dresser read it straight through in a sitting and then started over again to see what made it such a page turner.

 

Initially, the murder mystery seems to be what drove the Dresser to read feverishly without pause. A fictitious fashion model named Janey is found dead in a sports car. Did she die because she has an eating disorder, was she a suicide, or was there foul play—the car keys are missing. In the second poem of the book, we encounter her dead body from the observations of a tow truck operator who plays the Bob Dylan album Blond on Blond while waiting for the police:

 

 

 

2. Woman Recumbent in Car (excerpt)

 

A car sits in violation

of parking rules, the only car

on the street. In it,

 

blond hair peeks out

from a blanket on the seat

 

In the seventh poem of the book (all the poems are consecutively numbered), detectives identify Janey as they disparage her body and lifestyle.                        

 

7. Woman identified (excerpt)

 

A Tootsie Roll with arms,

the detectives calls Janey

now that they’ve ID’d her.

She’s skinny with a single name,

like Twiggy, a Vogue spread

 

and being dead warrant

consideration by the tabloids,

 

In the eighth poem, the medical examiner tells the detectives that the dead woman’s body was abused from years of starvation and vomiting, that she was probably high from drugs, but had bruises on her mouth and arm not consistent with suicide. The cops then discover, the dead woman appears on an FBI list. The surprising element continues to be that the keys to the car are missing.

 

8. Secret Life (excerpt)

 

…A cop notes

the stiff’s on the Security Index,

 

Priority 3, the Feds’ list—potential

pinko, free-love hippie.

The boyfriend in the Panthers

 

was what helped her make the list,

and the cops have fun with that,

talk slave names

 

versus names they can’t spell,

how they hate that interracial shit,

but worse she funneled  money,

maybe guns

 

Forty-three poems comprise the entirety of The Damage Done. The who, what, and how of Janey’s death are revealed in a flashback told from the murderer’s point of view. It is Janey’s killer who forgets to “unpocket” the keys to her car.

 

38. Flashback: Snap Decisions (excerpts)

 

Because a man on the street looks

familiar, that Jimi Hendrix style

everyone loves, when he raps on the glass,

 

while she’s stopped at a light,

Janey roles down her window,

and he’s quick to unlock the door,

 

Janey’s story is complicated by multiple men who speak in their own voices—her husband who knows she is sick and makes her go to rehab which she runs from, her Black Panther boyfriend who causes her to be listed with the FBI, the man who kills her and who, turns out, is an FBI informant, the federal agent whose informant kills Janey, and the local detective who is stymied about how the Feds are involved with Janey’s death.

 

Now add to that cacophony of voices, the seven poem letters of Susana Case published in this collection. Two of these epistolary poems deal with pop culture—“3. Dear Ghia” (call this one ode to a defunct sports car) and “22. Dear Jimi Hendrix (Cento)” (a poem constructed from lyrics borrowed from Hendrix). Three of the letter poems concern political positions—“5. Dear Carol” (a poem that reveals a lost friendship because the friend marries a cop), “14. Dear So-Called Bad Apples” (poem dealing with police misconduct), and “39. Dear Disorder” (poem dealing with FBI misconduct). The last two of the Susana-signed poems reference pop culture and political issues—“26. Dear Detective” (in his neglected garden, the Detective broods about a crime coverup while his son announces joyfully that the song “Aquarius” has won a Grammy) and “32. Flashback: Dear Janey” (Janey is photographed in popular name-brand clothing while growing more paranoid about her safety).

 

A quote from the Feminist poet Adrienne Rich opens The Damage Done: “I came to see the damage that was done and the treasures that prevail.” The Dresser sees this quote in tandem with the epistolary poems signed “Susana” as a framework for bearing witness. This bearing witness is in keeping with what we are experiencing today, where propaganda and adverse actions attack justice, truth, and American democracy  such that what “treasures prevail” come into question. Indeed, this seems to be part of the damage done to America and the people like Janey who live there.

 

For the Dresser, what makes this an accomplished novella in verse is the craft of poetry experienced in Case’s writing. The opening poem sets the standard and should be read aloud to get the full enjoyment of the assonance, rhyme, and cadence created by many monosyllabic words of strong beats:

 

1.     Woman Speaking Distinctly

 

If you’re flame-licked,

chain-nicked,

does it mean you like

 

playing with fire?

All kind of things

spin out of control;

 

pyres end in burned 

torsos. If you think

it’s enough

 

to be the country’s

sweetheart,

you might be

 

surprised

when you’re suddenly

not.

 

In that turnaround,

you could make book

on being watched.

 

And make your plan—

the only way

to avoid the stake

 

on which you die—

the way to rise

above the blaze.

 

While Janey doesn’t die burnt at the stake, she was playing with fire. Here’s what she says about her husband as she flees a rehab clinic: “She knows he would tie her to a cliff/ face just to try to appease his gods (36. Flashback: Clinic).” In this metaphor, Janey seems to be equating herself to the Greek god Prometheus who gave fire to mankind. The funny thing is in this same poem, she calls the doctors she is subjected to “deranged plumbers,” which conjures for the Dresser a reference to Richard Nixon’s covert special investigation unit known as The Plumbers who were tasked to stop news leaks.

 

There is much to admire and discover in The Damage Done by Susana H. Case published by Broadstone Books.

 

 

 

Saturday, January 22, 2022

Of Crawdads & Stilt Houses

 

The Dresser asks, what makes one book a better seller than another?

 

In the last several years, two books launched that were first time novels by Southern women authors. Both books are set in Southern landscapes and, more specifically, in backwaters where poverty dominates. Both concern white girls left on their own with no family support but significant help from benevolent Black neighbors. Both involve murder and the role the main characters may have played in that murder. Both exhibit outstanding writing.

 


According to GoodReads.com, Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens (published in 2018 from G.P. Putnam’s Sons) is described as one part mystery, one part legal drama, one part coming of age story, and one part love story. The unusual  aspect of this novel is that a young girl survives on her own in a swamp setting, avoids her community to stay independent but manages later as a teen to learn how to read. She then succeeds in becoming a naturalist who publishes books. Where the Crawdads Sing has been on The New York Times Bestseller List for 124 non-consecutive weeks. Here’s how the book begins:

 

 


The Girls in the Stilt House
by Kelly Mustian (published in 2021 from Sourcebooks) might be described as Southern gothic, thriller, coming of age, historical fiction with a strong framework of racial and gender tensions. This novel has two main adolescent characters, one white, one Black. The twist is how this novel (set in the 1920’s) includes a Black teenager who is better educated and more worldly than her white counterpart. Unlike Where the Crawdads Sing, The Girls in the Stilt House involves no love story. Here’s the opening paragraph:

 

 


 

Currently Amazon ranks The Girls in the Stilt House at 2,147 and Where the Crawdads Sing at 452 in their sales listings.

 

Where the Crawdads Sing counts 384 pages while The Girls in the Stilt House is 400 pages. Both books to the Dresser’s eye and sense of time found these page-turners making her want to read without interruption. They are both outstanding works with believable storylines and characters. Brava to the authors.

 

Selling many books doesn’t ensure that a title will be ranked on The New York Times Bestseller List. It is a curated list favoring the large New York publishing houses. However, books ranked by The New York Times are more likely to sell more books than those that go unlisted. On the website of G.P. Putnam’s Sons (New York publisher of Where the Crawdads Sing), they lead with this statement: “For more than two decades, G.P. Putnam’s Sons has led the publishing industry with more hardcover New York Times bestsellers than any other imprint.” Sourcebooks (Naperville, Illinois publisher of The Girls in the Stilt House) state on their website that they are pleased that 96 of their books have made The New York Times Bestseller List. Sourcebooks is an independent publisher, which means it is not part of a large conglomerate or multinational corporation. According to Wikipedia, Sourcebooks is one of the 20 largest publishers in the United States.

 

The world of publishing is a complex gauntlet to run and who publishes an author makes a difference. In the Dresser’s opinion, these are two equally good books. The next question is what are these authors working on now.

 

 

 

Tuesday, December 7, 2021

The Seven Voices of Seven Guitars

 

The blues, music and grit of the life inspiring such melancholic tones, infuses August Wilson’s play Seven Guitars, especially under the direction of Tazewell Thompson at Washington, DC’s Arena Fichandler Stage. Opera aficionados may know Thompson worked as librettist with composer Jeanine Tesori on Blue which enjoyed its world premiere at Glimmerglass in November 2019. For Seven Guitars, Tazewell has enlisted sound designer Fabian Obispo who has pleasurably woven additional blues songs as introductions or interludes to the tunes written into the script by August Wilson. The Dresser saw an engaging performance of this production on December 4, 2021.

 


“Suffering the pain of living,” aptly sums up the Black experience of Wilson’s seven characters in a story focused on a guitarist named Floyd “Schoolboy” Barton (Roderick Lawrence) whose song “That’s All Right” unexpectedly is being played and popularized on the radio in Pittsburgh where he lives. Floyd is on his way to recognition with an invitation to record his music in Chicago. However, he has just been released from the Workhouse (jail) for vagrancy and he needs to recover his electric guitar from the pawnbroker. He tells Vera (Joy Jones), the girlfriend he jilted, that he wants her to go with him to Chicago. Meanwhile, Canewell (Michael Anthony Williams), the harmonica player in his band, has been courting Vera. The pain of living comes up in an exchange between Floyd, Canewell, and Hedley (David Emerson Toney), a patois-speaking man who says Buddy Bolden (the first jazz musician and cornetist) is going to bring him money so he (Hedley) can buy a plantation where no white man can tell him what to do.

 

The play, part of Wilson’s ten-play series on Black life in the Twentieth Century and which premiered in 1995, continues to speak to issues of our day—Black-on-Black violence, police harassment of Black men, rural-folks-versus-city-dweller prejudice, poverty, and abusive fathers. The play opens and closes on the death of Floyd. In the first scene, we experience his funeral and, in the last, we witness how he is killed and who kills him. In between, we feel the pain and joy of these characters. A favorite scene occurs when the three members of Floyd’s band make music with an old guitar, harmonica, and drumsticks played on a table. Of particular poignancy is the comic scene that turns dark dealing with a noisy rooster, a metaphor for the Black men in this story. Canewell tells his friends that the reason the rooster crows so loud is that before the Emancipation Proclamation, roosters didn’t crow, but after [Black] “people got to whooping and hollering so” and the rooster “say, ‘Naw, you all ain’t gonna leave me out.’”

 


 

 

The players all meet the exigencies of their roles—Roderick Lawrence as Floyd “Schoolboy” Barton is impetuous and reckless. David Emerson Toney as Hedley is unpredictable and hard to understand. Joy Jones as Vera is na├»ve and doleful. Michael Anthony Williams as Canewell is sweet (like his name that refers to sugar cane) and boyish. Roz White as Louise (Vera’s roommate) is motherly and the voice of reason. Dane Figueroa Eddi as Ruby (Louise’s Alabama cousin running from a murderous and jealous boyfriend) is a hotpot of sex. Eden Marryshow as Red Carter (drummer in Floyd’s band) is a smart ass and skeptic. Sometimes, what these seven voices say plays out too fast to grasp. This is a long play clocking in at just under three hours with one intermission that requires sharp attention to fully enjoy the emotional load. This is a play you might want to see more than once.

 

Seven Guitars runs through December 26, 2021.

 

Photo of Floyd & Vera by Tony Powell.

Photo of Floyd's band by Ryan Maxwell.

Friday, November 19, 2021

Breaking and Entering: A Powerhouse of Poetry


 


The idea of position is key to reading Barbara Goldberg’s masterful Breaking & Entering: New and Selected Poems from The Word Works. Among the selections of new and previously published work, Goldberg uses position to show us place, placement, and power.

 

In “Furlough,” the opening poem, we see a father, possibly a soldier given his “tall, lean, muscular” stature, tossing his children in the air. The narrator says, “I love/ to see them drop, not weightless, but light// as grenades.” It’s chilling that “fear can be fun” and how the dad handles his kids is a kind of “hand to hand combat.” The Dresser is more than alarmed—where is the location of this poem? We know by the word dunam as in “That a dunam// of earth is worth dying for?” Only in Israel is land measured in this way—a dunam is equal to one thousand square meters. And thereby we understand that this man is on temporary hiatus (furlough) from his military duties and is now attending to his family responsibilities.

 

In Goldberg’s first book Berta Broadfoot and Pepin the Short: A Merovingian Romance, a working-class girl Aliste replaces Berta, a king’s royal bride. Aliste’s mother Margiste, a “trusted handmaiden to Queen Blancheflor,” Berta’s mother, has been entrusted to deliver Berta to her bridegroom. Except Margiste wants more for her daughter who is also Berta’s half-sister. In “Aliste Considers Her Position,” placement is seriously contemplated, but Aliste feels powerless.

 

Who was there to turn to when I found

his morning gift, a handsome brooch

encrusted with pearls, on my pillow?

 

Not Mother, hopping about with glee, fingers

greasy from palace meat. She pokes my ribs

and cackles, “We fooled him, eh? We two

make quite a team.”

                                                           while I,

dumb sheep, play the part of Queen.

                     I’ve thought of claiming

defect of consent, diriment impediment, but

Mother would be lost for good, poor sheep.

 

In subsequent books by Goldberg—Cautionary Tales, Marvelous Pursuits, The Royal Baker’s Daughter, and Kingdom of Speculation—the pursuit of power looms large with an ample

 dash of deception.

 

Consider in “The Future Has Already Happened” (from Cautionary Tales) how a little girl known as Red Riding Hood has not only triumphed over the wolf but sees this as the future with the woodcutter for her own progeny.

 

…Imagine the wild Caesarean,

the ax and its fresh cut, the blade

running deep. And me springing out

to dance on the planked floor with Granny

 

Give serious attention to “Ballad of the Id” (from Marvelous Pursuits) an internal powerhouse that seems inescapable.

 

I am your rose hips and bunting and bootleg

and I am your black bangs those devil’s

spikes

… without me you’re puny and

pallid and prudish …

I bit your sister and squealed on the porter

and who pulled you out of the muck of intention

    …who stole your tom-tom

just ask and I’ll tell you I did I did

 

Evaluate Goldberg’s duplicity carefully when you read “Fairytale” (from The Royal Baker’s Daughter).

 

Once upon a time

a baby boy was born

to a suicidal woman

and a suicidal man.

 

He was not born to make her sane

nor to help the marriage last

but because his birth would save

his daddy from the draft.

 

 

The little boy is now a man

and takes himself a wife.

One hand gently strokes her hair,

the other strokes his knife.

 

The knife represents power, but might the knife be a stand-in for his penis? Certainly, sex can be another tool of power.

 

 The final set of selections from Kingdom of Speculation take romances, fairytales, cautionary tales, and psychological treatises to a heightened level of power. Could these poems be stories of Balkis—Queen of Sheba or the woman Hatshepsut who became the Pharaoh Hatshepsu (a woman pharoah who presented herself as a man)? In “The Master of Chance,”  we meet “The Princess looking no more/ like a Princess than you or I” who dwells in “the Province of Chance.” It’s an odd exchange between a shabby royal and a card-playing man calling himself the Master of Chance. He wants her to marry him so she can polish his casket of gold which she recognizes as one that had belonged to her father. The poem ends with the man asserting his power:

 

A woman in my employ, as is everyone

 in this State, for I’m the Master

 

 of Chance, I cut the deck, declare

what’s wild, as you are my dear, my Balkis,

my Hatshepsut, my true Queen of Hearts.

 

“A Great Darkness Falls,“ the last poem of Breaking & Entering we recognize the shabby princess who now has possession of the King’s coffer which she uses as “a fertile bed/ for her cuttings and seeds” while incubating in her purse the “Egg of perfection.”

 

… All is poised for

an ever after. Sing praise to the Great

Lord Chaos, his enabling dark. Praise

 

to the touch of a choice companion.

And praise to the Egg of Perfection

glowing in the folds of a lady’s purse. 

 

These lines close the book on all Goldberg’s books in that wish for a fairytale ending that provides love, union, and progeny, while placing the power in the female grip.                     
                                                                                                                                                  
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   

 

The book’s title Breaking & Entering comes from the poem “Alarums and Excursions” (from Marvelous Pursuits). The poem deals with a modern-day woman who interacts with a security professional, “a man who knows the tricks of breaking/ and entering and how to secure all she holds/ dear from those who would trespass against her.” The cover image, a digital artwork entitled “Tower” by Catrin Welz-Stein shows a youthful nude maiden (a figure like those in Renaissance paintings by Titian) embracing the bottom of a tall building built possibly on a volcano and which is breaking apart and on fire. The nude’s long hair is swept up in the wind of the explosion. The image speaks ably to the explosive emotional content of Goldberg’s book which presciently summons our current day turmoil that deals with place, placement, and power as well as truth and lies.