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 naïve 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.

 

 

 

 

 


Saturday, November 13, 2021

What Disappears: A Study in Lost Time

 


What Disappears
, an historical novel by Barbara Quick, is an ambitious work populated with such larger-than-life personalities as the prima Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova, the superhuman Polish ballet star Vaslav Nijinsky, the groundbreaking choreographer Sergei Diaghelev, the innovative French fashion designer Paul Poiret who released women from corsets but then put them in his hobble skirts. The Dresser will pause this list for now and say that writer Quick with these characters alone and the events  around them has seeded her novel for a spectacular cinematic rendering.

 

The heart of What Disappears is the quest of a Jewish Russian born and bred young seamstress named Sonya to find her identical twin. This non-linear novel opens in 1909 in Paris backstage in the heady rush to get Pavlova on stage with Nijinsky for a performance of the Ballets Russes, but this “young savage,” as Pavlova refers to Nijinsky, has accidentally during a morning practice ripped the bodice of her costume with a ring gifted to him by Diaghelev. She screams at her maid to find her seamstress. The maid grabs and brings to her boss a woman who she thinks is the seamstress just as Sonya rushes in behind them her youngest daughter Baila in tow. When Sonya looks into the face of her long-lost twin, she faints in shock upsetting little Baila. Hereby, Quick roots the saga of Sonya who suffered successive losses—her father who was imprisoned and tortured for ten years by the Tsar’s strongarms only to die within months after his release, her twin sister when their desperate mother parks the twins in an orphanage so they would be fed only to have an unknown French couple snatch her twin, the young man who loves her but moves away with his family to Argentina, her mother who reveals on her death bed that Sonya’s twin did not die in childbirth, her husband Asher (an arranged marriage, father of their two daughters Naomi and Olga) who is killed in a pogrom that destroyed their thriving tailor shop.

 

For a novel delivered in just under 300 pages, the scope of Quick’s story is huge. How does the author handle so many characters and three major geographic locations (Russia, France, Argentina)? Certainly, skipping around in time allows for some things to go unsaid. More remarkably, Quick has many scenes that focus on in-depth character portraits that evolve from the complicated relationships and situations that Quick creates.

 

Take for example Sonya’s 1903 arrival in Paris by train. As a result of meeting Pavlova at a party her brother Daniel holds in his Saint Petersburg home, Sonya unexpectedly travels to Paris to scout out new fashion designs. Pavlova is a client of Daniel’s law practice, and she is intensely jealous of another Russian ballet star whose seamstress is copying dresses of Parisian designs. Awash in guilt that her husband Asher stayed in their village of Kishinev to fill their client orders, Sonya reflects on Daniel’s “tiresome lecture, that Latin men were all unconscionably flirtatious—and that she had to take care not to encourage them in the slightest way.” Daniel has also sent a Monsieur Blum to collect her from the train. However, the first person to greet her and help her from the train is Paul Poiret, one of the fashion designers Pavlova has told her about who is scandalizing the industry with designs that are in demand. The twist in this scene is that Poiret thinks Sonya is Jeanette Dupres, his mistress and Sonya’s missing twin. When Sonya does not recognize him and he never introduces himself, Poiret thinks she is pranking him, after all Jeanette is a stage performer. Quickly the fraught encounter ends as Monsieur Blum presents himself to Sonya and a porter pulls Poiret’s attention to the just unloaded trunk of special fabrics the couturier has come to retrieve.

 

Monsieur Blum, René Blum, who speaks in Yiddish to Sonya when he first meets her at the train station is an interesting minor character. In real life, he was a friend of Marcel Proust, helping Proust get the first novel of his master work À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time) published. Quick gives us a cameo appearance of the “lavishly mustachioed, frail-looking” Proust in a vignette where Blum, who has been teaching Sonya’s daughters Naomi and Olga about Judaism and other subjects, admonishes them that lost learning is a theft of time. However, Olga, already an intellectual, is lost in her own thoughts about 1910, the year that she and her mother nearly died because of the devasting Paris flood, the year that brought her family the combative Aunt Jeanette into their lives, and the switch from the Paris Meridian to Greenwich Mean Time resulting in nine minutes and twenty-one seconds of lost time. The look on her face makes Proust ask Olga what she is thinking about. Of course, she answers, lost time, an answer that is both mortally serious for this character and inside-joke hilarious for a reader like the Dresser who studied modern French literature as an undergraduate. Seriously?—little Olga, who is maybe ten or eleven years old, gets to say to Marcel Proust that she is thinking about lost time? Maybe Quick identifies with Olga and What Disappears is the author’s study of lost time.


 

Quick also uses the presence of Monsieur Blum to say something shocking about Jeanette Dupres. In real life, René Blum came from an assimilated Jewish family and was the brother of Léon Blum who played an advocacy role in the Dreyfus Affair and was the first Jewish head of state in France. While the fictional René Blum is rumored to be in love with Sonya, he nearly marries Jeanette. Jeanette in many ways stands in opposition to Sonya. Raised by a French Catholic couple, Jeanette has been taught to be an anti-Semite.

 

While the revelation that Jeanette is Jewish unsettles her and simultaneously explains certain puzzling behaviors and comments from her French family, Jeanette, as a character, seems less understandable than her twin. Except for Paul Poiret saying Jeanette did not support Dreyfus, the young Jewish army captain wrongly accused of being a traitor, it is unclear how Jeanette’s anti-Semitism manifests. Does Blum Learn she is anti-Semitic? Not clear. We do know, however, that she has a mean streak, and we see her slapping Olga in the face. Why is this woman who has had three abortions and desperately wants a child fathered by Poiret so unrepentantly cruel to her niece? Is Olga a stand-in for Sonya, who Poiret seduced? Guess who the father of Baila is, much to Sonya’s shame.

 

 Barbara Quick is exceptionally agile at blending real life events with her fiction. Favorite among these blendings is the Thousand and Second Night fashion party Poiret threw at his home. The fictional Poiret hires all three of Sonya’s daughters to help with the party’s pageantry. Olga reluctantly participates until she discovers she (dressed as a barefoot merchant’s boy) is paired with a charming man who is selling tiny monkeys.

 

“They stroll past pink ibis, flamingoes, and a screaming white peacock wandering over the lawn. Parrots and macaws fly in tiny bursts of color past their heads, making the marmosets whimper in fear. …Carved wooden tables throughout the garden are loaded with every kind of delicacy, which Olga would have felt much better about sampling if the monkeys weren’t constantly clambering down onto her head, into her arms, and then jumping back onto Gaston again.

 

“Several different orchestras are playing softly, also hidden behind the shrubberies, the music growing louder and then fading away again as Olga and Gaston follow the maze of pathways. Here and there they come upon throngs of braziers with blue smoking incense, tended by bare-breasted black-skinned girls. ‘Really, it’s too much,’ Gaston says, reaching down to turn Olga’s wide-eyed gaze away as he and she pass by.”

 

Barbara Quick’s What Disappears from Regal House Publishing will undoubtedly please Francophiles, balletomanes, history buffs, and women of every persuasion from traditionalists to Feminists. Even in its uncorrected proof, this is a novel rich in subject matter and well-turned phrases. Look for the launch of What Disappears in May 2022.

Tuesday, October 12, 2021

At the Folger—Diane Seuss & frank:sonnets

 

 

 Diane Seuss and t’ai freedom ford opened the 53rd O.B. Hardison Poetry Series at the Folger Shakespeare


Library on October 5, 2021, via Zoom. The Dresser who recently became familiar with Seuss through her publication of a poem entitled “Gertrude Stein” (The New Yorker, August 9, 2021) attended to get a deeper understanding of Seuss who blends high and low culture in surprising ways. Teri Cross Davis as coordinator of the Folger poetry programs made a complementary match in putting these two poets together to read from work addressing voices full of the blues, loaded with down and out problems of life.

 

What caught the Dresser’s ear from Ford’s strong reading was: “all my poems have bullets in them.” What stuck with the Dresser from Seuss’ reading was, “The sonnet teaches you, like poverty, what you can do without.” This prompted the Dresser to order Seuss’ new book frank:sonnets, even before the program ended.

 

So, what does the title mean? Given that frank is lowercase, these sonnets by Diane Seuss are meant to be open, forthright, honest. The cover shows a man naked from the waist up making an odd gesture with his upraised arm—his fist enclosing his thumb. Who is this man, surely not Frank O’Hara whose poetry was open to everything and who Seuss seems to be emulating in this book of 128 sonnets? No poverty being taught in this proliferation, it’s more like obsession. Seuss said after the reading that she is still struggling to move on from the sonnet even as she is going through the divorce. However, this is the story of her life and sometimes in more detail than is necessary.

 

Hearing Seuss’ sonnets made the Dresser want to see how the poet put words on the page. These are not the traditional sonnets with a prescribed rhyme scheme. In untitled poems, Seuss writes fourteen lines in one stanza. Occasionally rhyme occurs. In two instances the fourteen lines span two pages such that we get a folded page in the book.

 

Seuss opened the Folger reading with the second sonnet of frank:

 

The problem with sweetness is death. The problem
with everything is death. There really is no other problem
if you factor everything down, which I was no good at
when studying fractions. They were always using pie
as their example. Rather than thinking about factoring
things down I wondered what kind of pie. And here
I am, broke, barely able to count to fourteen. When
people talk about math they say you’ll need it to balance
your checkbook. What is a checkbook and what,
indeed, is balance? Speaking of sweetness, for a time
I worked in a fudge shop on an island. After a week
the smell of sweetness made me heave, not to mention
the smell of horses; it was an island without cars,
shit everywhere. When I quit, the owner slapped me.

 

Death, suicide, illness, drug addiction looms large in this collection and eventually explains that the man on the cover was Mikel Lindzy, a gay man who provided the poet with much needed emotional support and who died of A.I.D.S.

 

 

The last poem in the book links Frank O’Hara and Mikel Lindzy to Seuss’ poetic strategy which is that the counter chit to death is love, however fraught. But also, Seuss cements her approach to dumping everything about life—her life and the lives of those around her—by the appearance of O’Hara at the moment of his accidental death.  Except that she only refers to him as Frank. If you are a casual reader, you might not know this Frank who got killed accidently on a Fire Island beach.

 

I hope when it happens I have time to say oh so this is how it is happening
unlike Frank hit by a jeep on Fire Island but not like dad who knew too
long six goddamn years in a young man’s life so long it made a sweet guy sarcastic
I want enough time to say oh so this is how I’ll go and smirk at that last rhyme
I rhymed at times because I wanted to make something pretty especially for Mikel
who liked pretty things soft and small things who cried into a white towel when I hurt
myself when it happens I don’t want to be afraid I want to be curious was Mikel curious
I’m afraid by then he was only sad he had no money left was living on green oranges
had kissed all his friends goodbye I kissed lips that kissed Frank’s lips though not
for me a willing kiss I willingly kissed lips that kissed Howard’s deathbed lips
I happily kissed lips that kissed lips that kissed Basquiat’s lips I know a man who said
he kissed lips that kissed lips that kissed lips that kissed lips that kissed Whitman’s
lips who will say of me I kissed her who will say of me I kissed someone who kissed
her or I kissed someone who kissed someone who kissed someone who kissed her.

 

Now, this melding of blues culture and academic/literary life—low versus high culture is what piqued the Dresser’s curiosity about Diane Suess. What the frank sonnets reveal is Diane Seuss, a poet who came up in poverty with a dying father and a neglectful mother who was studying James Joyce.

 

In sonnet 24,  “My first crush was Wild Bill Hickok,” Seuss reveals her mother:

 

…My mother didn’t care if I rescued or killed or swung from a noose until I was dead. That

was my domain. Her domain was TV dinners and James Joyce. …

 

The poem proceeds to its finish by saying Mikel’s first crush was a well-hung TV cowboy who died by hanging but Seuss decides:

 

                                                                                              …my kind of cowboy would read

tall tales from a tall book called Tall Tales about tornadoes and card games and white whales.

 

Seuss drops in names, often first names only, as if the reader should know who they are or at least accept that Seuss’ people are present and if you stick around, you will get more information about them, or not. Is it worth reading frank:sonnets, yes, but you, Dear Reader, are on your own to endure the smear of Little Debbie cake filling on the furniture, the inbred farm animals that were born randomly as Seuss’ mother tried to provide for her children after their father died, and every other gross experience that an unprotected child, youth, and young adult could suffer.

 

                                    …Did you know the dead

can fall in love better than the living cuz nothing

left to lose. The root of all blues.   

—Diane Seuss, from sonnet 4, frank:sonnets

 

The next literature program from the Folger Shakespeare Library is Ann Patchett (author of Bel Canto) delivering the Eudora Welty Lecture on October 14, 2021.

Saturday, October 9, 2021

Jan Karski, the Camera Who Witnessed the Holocaust in Poland

 


Remember This: The Lesson of Jan Karski
by Clark Young and Derek Goldman is an unsettling piece of theater in performance through November 17, 2021, by the Shakespeare Theatre Company  at the Michael R. Klein Theatre. In a tour-de-force performance by David Strathairn, this one-man 90-minute play asks questions that shake the foundations of our own existence.

 

Our world is in peril, fractured, toxic…we are torn apart with fear, hatred, denial, impoverished, sickened, silenced, forgotten….Don’t we see this? What can we do? Don’t we have a duty to do something?

 

Making her first foray back to live theater since Covid-19 shutdown the performing arts, the Dresser on October 8 heard something like the lines above as the first words of this remarkable play. The Dresser became aware of the courageous Jan Karski, the Polish resistance agent and Georgetown professor during a horrific event in his life. He was quietly her neighbor at the Elizabeth Condominium in Chevy Chase on a Saturday in 1992 when his beloved wife Pola Nireńska, a dancer who had fled Poland ahead of the Nazi extermination of Jews—she lost 74 relatives in the Holocaust, jumped from their balcony to her death.

 

Following the opening questions, a clip of a couple of minutes from Claude Lanzmann’s well known documentary Shoah presented the real-life Jan Karski who for 35 years did not talk about what he had experienced and how his efforts to engage world leaders, including President Theodore Roosevelt, to save the few Polish Jews left failed. Throughout the play, the character Karski says he was a little man but this little man who endured jumping out of a moving Nazi train, suffering beatings that broke his jaw and ribs, surviving a prison breakout where his liberators told him either he would be successful in following their plan or they would shoot him …this little man with a photographic memory who witnessed in clandestine visits the Warsaw Ghetto at its worst moments and toured a death camp disguised as a Ukrainian officer. To get past the trauma he experienced, he thought of himself as a camera.

 

 


 

In an interview with Deborah Tannen (author of You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation), Clark Young affirms that almost all the words spoken in the script were Jan Karski’s. David Strathairn (most recently seen in the film Nomadland) is on stage for the entire 90 minutes performing a physically demanding role of jumping, falling, undressing, dressing. Despite the ultra-seriousness of this story, Strathairn as Karski occasionally makes his audience laugh like when he imitates Roosevelt’s ponderous way of speaking or when he quips after he had jumped out of the Nazi train that he was no James Bond.

 

The play closes in the way it opens. Karski says “Great crimes start with little things.” He repeats what has been said that governments have no souls, but individuals do. He asks again about what we can do and don’t we feel responsibility to do something. All these lessons he learned starting with his mother who had him guard one night a Jewish neighbor’s sukkah when the neighborhood boys were throwing dead rats into the enclosure as a way of bully them.

 

Karski was Catholic and his wife Pola was Jewish. He first saw her dance, when he was sent to London to report on how the Nazis were killing the Jews. In “Farewell Concert,” Karren Alenier (a.k.a. the Dresser) relates the experience of Pola’s final act.

 

FAREWELL CONCERT

         (with excerpts from Brihadaranyaka Upanishad)

 

A woman on the eleventh

floor plunged to her

death Saturday, I heard

the sirens. She never screamed.

 

When he comes to weakness—

 

The explosion, when I sleep, repeats

and repeats, the body at rest

I see once, color splashed,

an artist out of control.

 

—whether he come to weakness

through old age or through disease—

this person frees himself from these limbs

just as a mango, or a fig, or a berry

releases itself from its bond;

 

Earlier in the week, dressed in slippers

and robe, hair uncombed, the performer walked

her miniature dog in the street. Some say

she fell.

 

…and he hastens again, according

to the entrance and place of origin,

back to life.

 

Monday I go to the office, teeth on edge,

the noise, the blood, the spilled brains

still with me. and what is it can be said?

 

…As noblemen, policemen, chariot-drivers,

village-heads wait with food, drink,

and lodgings for a king who is coming,

and cry: ‘Here he comes! Here he comes!’

 

The obituary tells about the choreographer

who last year, her eightieth year, danced

what she called a farewell concert,

having survived what seventy-four

relatives did not: the Nazis.

 

…so indeed do all things wait

for him who has this knowledge

and cry: ‘Here is the Imperishable

coming! Here is the Imperishable coming!’

 

My head bursts with unfinished

work I must complete. How

in the name of the Limitless,

will I celebrate this life?

 

—Karren L. Alenier

from Looking for Divine Transportation


 

 

Photo of David Strathairn by Teresa Castracane Photography

 

 

Sunday, August 1, 2021

Lee Woodman’s Lifescapes: A Study in Ambiguity and Escape

 

Sometimes, the Dresser feels ambivalent about writing book reviews. What does her opinion matter? What has been learned by spending the time on a particular book? What good can come of such writing.

 


 

 

 

In Lee Woodman’s Lifescapes from Kelsay Books, this kind of questioning is applied to the life of the woman narrating these poems, starting with “Can You Live with Ambiguity?” In this pantoum, a woman meets an uptight pediatrician through a want-ad. They both enjoy the arts so they see a dark German film which brings up schadenfreude and the question of “life-time mate.” Among the many obstacles is that this man has three sons and family baggage of parents who didn’t express love well or possibly at all.

 

You had three sons but revealed them slowly.

I sensed you were a tiger, fiercely protecting your cubs—

caution ruled your world, but you met me in Berlin.

You described your irate mother, absent tight-lipped father.

 

I learned you were a tiger, fiercely protecting your cubs,

yet your gentle delight in opera, jazz, and fine arts turned my heart.

Did you resemble your irate mother, absent tight-lipped father.

Avid reader, successful pediatrician…surely, you must be caring.

 

What’s particular wonderful about the pantoum is how fluidly it helps shape and apply the stated facts. So after the pediatrician describes his parents, the repetition of the line questions whether this man is like his parents. As the narrator moves through the progression of this relationship various flags surface around money, decisions about such things as where to vacation, and even what time to go to bed. By the end of the poem and as a good pantoum will do we come back to the first line “You did ask once if I could live with ambiguity.”

 

What the Dresser particularly loves is the way Woodman plays with ambiguity. For example, in the poem “Secrets Between an Actress and a Prostitute,” the narrator, who is on a plane, decides that she will present herself to the unknown seatmate as an actress who has played parts in plays with controlling men. She has already typecast her seatmate as a prostitute based on her appearance. Except what she learns from the woman wearing “spiky sandals, toenails flashing dark purple polish” and sporting “high-teased hair” is that appearance deceives—this woman has a doctorate in economics and was educated in an elite prep school. Then the woman questions her choice to be an actress, if she likes playing people unlike herself and what about her husband when she is away. So the narrator thinks about how she comes across to other people. Then reality intrudes as the plane gets into turbulence. In real life, the narrator seems to be thinking about separating from her husband and what that means to her identity. The poem closes with the narrator wondering if her husband will be home when she returns and if he can read her mind.

 


Woodman seems to enjoy inhabiting other identities and excels in writing about such scenarios. In her villanelle “Spirits,” the poet invites the reader to see her as the goddess witch Hecate. Still, the narrator links this perception of herself to the men around her.

 

Harken the wild man, the lover and knight

who pushes me higher, delights in my pen.

Call me Hecate, I travel by night as

darkness descends, I bloom and take flight.

 

Lifescapes ends with “Divorce Prayer: In Perpetuity Throughout the Universe.” Written in five couplets that do not rhyme or attempt anything other than a peace meditation, the prayer aptly observes that the odds are good one can achieve fulfillment for happiness with good intentions. The trick is to let go of “money, possessions, accolades.” Perhaps this poem is the antidote to ambiguity and the escape into being other than what you are.

 

Photo of the author by Sonya Melescu.

Monday, May 10, 2021

A Tour to the Heart of Skirted


 

 

 

Consider this review of Skirted by Julie Marie Wade not so much critique but map. The Dresser suggests this route in: understand that the journey deals with self-discovery, especially sexuality and independence. How does a grown child detach from the mother and escape from a script written without regard for the maturing offspring?

 

Map suggests itself because each of the five sections of this book begins with a poem entitled "Pangaea." Pangaea refers to the supercontinent comprised of all our earthy continents fitted together like a jigsaw puzzle. “These continents—/land    or    sleep    or    snow/(things that drift, that deepen)//And the nets of the heart cast wide across the ever-widening sea//(Ts’ai Ken T’an)   Water which is too pure has no fish.//…//For my mother, one indisputable truth—/how men & women are meant to cleave:/the sheaves of their bodies bundled//weltered re-enactment of Adam & Eve…”


 

While, the reference in transliterated Mandarin Ts’ai Ken T’an can mean in English “water which is too pure has no fish,” the essence points to a reality check that the purity of childhood has been superseded in the adult by the grime of living. Wade wastes no time or paper with end notes. She packs in philosophical ideas of consequence throughout this poetic treatise that relates a story of sexual awakening.

 

She tried to comply with her mother’s wish that she make a traditional marriage. “…I wanted to be just like all the others. I knew I could love a man. I was well-practiced in the art of obligation & I had a curtsy or two left in me from the formative ballet class.” However, she had a dream that she “turned suddenly male” and decided, “I wouldn’t let the world crack open: Twilight Zone or worse Twilight of the Golds.” The Dresser, of course, thought Twilight of the Gods, the Wagner opera where the superhero that our pop culture calls the Fat Lady was being referenced and our poet in Skirted was dealing with a trial by fire just as Brunhilde had been subjected to by her father. No. The Dresser pulled up short and regrouped because Julie Marie Wade is a careful writer. Sure enough, an Internet search quickly revealed Twilight of the Golds is an American film (screened at Sundance in 1997) where parents consider aborting their baby because its genes test positive for gayness. By the end of the prose poem “You can’t marry someone when you’re in love with someone else.”, the poet’s movie of Truth has evolved to The Sound of Music but some of the gender roles have reversed. “…I was no Captain Von Trapp, & my husband-to-be no Baroness Schraeder.” What’s funny is the woman the poet loves not only doesn’t resemble Von Trapp’s Maria but also has never seen this exuberant musical. So, one person’s truth is not another’s—if that person even gets what that truth is.

 

For the Dresser, the pièce de résistance is “Love Poem for Sisyphus.” Written in couplets with an epigraph by Albert Camus—“To the celestial thunderbolt he preferred the benediction of water.”—building a love relationship is hard work with a lot of backsliding. The poem has that T.S. Eliot weariness and contradiction.

 

As do I, so often: soothing flux of these currents,

soft baptism of this rain; never the sense to come in

 

out of, now the certainty that life remains

uncertain: the pleasure this brings us, the pain.

 

O Sisyphus, how you surprise me, man after my own heart:

absurdist hero, friends sought for strength in futile struggle.

 

Sometimes we cherish in others what we cannot embrace

in ourselves; all this standing water in the well

 

of consciousness, raising my pail only to pour out

its contents again: how to distinguish—

 

repetition from redundancy?

anaphora from tautology?

 

 

In Western literature, fire metaphors (like thunderbolts) typically point to males and water imagery to females. In lesbian literature (such as Tender Buttons by Gertrude Stein), water often takes on male resonance. Here that  “well of consciousness” makes the Dresser think of Hemingway complaining that if you go to your well (source of your creativity) too often, the unconscious mind will be depleted. Wade’s well seems to be feminine awareness that has overtaken (flooded, ergo standing water) her consciousness. Then Wade’s question is how to navigate between repetition (anaphora) which can be good in its comforting musicality versus redundancy (tautology) which repeats stupidly (like the vulgar word irregardless).

 

An outstanding example of anaphora is “’I’m drowning here, & you’re describing the water.’” First, note that Wade is quoting the character Melvin Udall (played by Jack Nicholson) in the film As Good as It Gets when he reaches out to a friend for advice on the occasion of his lover rejecting him. In Wade’s anaphora, every sentence of this prose poem begins “The water.” It seems the water is Wade’s mother, the one that “remembers when you were a child…keeps your pink jelly-shoes for posterity.”

 

Skirted is a masterful literary work with vital psychological portraits. Wade is deft at mixing high and low elements of Western life in the tradition of postmodernism. She exercises word agility that signals meta poetics but is clearly essential in communicating the distress experienced in breaking with her past and forging a new life.

 

“You once understood unanimity. Now you know best anonymity. Amity & enmity have been reversed in places. The ones you loved best know the least about you. …” from “Reading Robinson Crusoe Again, for the Last Time.”

 

One final thought about the title of the book—in “Skirt the issue.”, a prose poem where the word skirt is used many times but the poem does not take shape as anaphora but rather as a cautionary tale, well, maybe also as the dread tautology:

 

"…& most important of all bed skirts which disguise not only the sin of the skin but the place where flesh is most likely to mingle no shortage of skirts & nothing that can’t be covered by a simple drape & a few stitches of pliable silk you think you won’t be skirted just you wait"

 

In other words, the poet is saying to be skirted is to be put in your place. Here the tour ends, but the Dresser recommends this is only the beginning of sights and insights.