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.


 

 


Monday, April 26, 2021

Ubasute: A Son's Tender Treatment of His Parents


 

 

 

 

 

Aaron Caycedo-Kimura wastes no time revealing what Ubasute, the title of his exquisitely produced and conceived chapbook from Slapering Hol Press means. His first poem “The Moon of Ubasute,” a reference to the 1891 Tsukioka Yoshitoshi woodblock print, opens in the voice of “his mother” telling the son that he must “carry/me up the slope/of Tanigawa” and abandon her there to die. She is old, blind and crippled. While Tanigawa is known as the mountain of death, the poet paints a landscape more in keeping with the Elysian Fields of Greek mythology. The mother says to leave her in a cradle of hakone grass, a cascading mound of slender leaves that certainly would cushion as well as please. She continues:

 

           …Without pity,

my son, the moon

will watch as I reach

for my mother—

Okaasan, Okaasan.

The ginkos will bow,

weep their leaves,

bury me in gold.

 

If the mother (and she is Okaasan too) does not ask her son to treat her with reverence, she certainly expects nature to honor, not pity, her state of being. She envisions her end buried in the golden leaves falling from the ginko trees.

 

With this mythological introduction, Caycedo-Kimura moves into the deaths of his parents and then back in time when they were alive. Both had hard lives. His father had been incarcerated during WWII in a Japanese internment camp by an order of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his mother had suffered through the firebombing of Tokyo.

 

Among the Dresser’s favorite poems of Ubasute is “Memorial.” The subject matter is so surprising that she had to reread the poem to understand that the poet’s father had been an accomplished gymnast, something the son never knew.

 

Straight as steel, hands on hips,

Dad balances like a hood ornament

on Irving Wasserman’s head.

 

The email from Wasserman to the poet requests a reunion with the father who had already been dead seven years.

 

                              … He calls my father

remarkable—a word I never heard

used to describe him. But yes, look.

 

There he is. Poised in the air,

the husband who never cheated,

the father who never struck me.

 

Just as the die-cut cover reveals a fragment of Yoshitoshi woodblock print underneath, Caycedo-Kimura reveals just enough for the reader to understand the weight of a son’s love for his parents. The pacing of each line is a testimony to his tender regard which is never sentimental. This is a book you will want to hold in your hands and carefully turn each page.

Thursday, April 1, 2021

For the Love of Opera and RBG

 

Through all the activities the Dresser has been immersed in she hasn’t let go of “For the Love of Opera: Celebrating RBG’s 88th Birthday” presented March 15, 2021. The moving tribute paid to Ruth Bader Ginsburg was presented by Opera Philadelphia, the National Museum of American Jewish History (a Smithsonian Institution Affiliate), and the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music Lowell Milken Center for Music of American Jewish Experience. The hour and 16 minute program includes favorite arias of RBG, performed by outstanding young talent, and people who knew her or who had observed her attending opera in such places as Glimmerglass in New York state or Washington National Opera at the Kennedy Center. The video of the program can be seen at https://www.nmajh.org/events/for-the-love-of-opera/.

 

The program begins with tenor Joshua Blue singing “Una furtive lagrima” from L’eslisir d’amore by Donizetti. As the surtitles flash this “furtive tear welled up in her eye” and the Dresser could picture and viscerally feel the emotion that RBG felt in hearing this song being sung but such an artful singer like Joshua Blue. The Dresser had seen the Chief Justice at the Kennedy Center on many occasions.

 

Soprano Ashley Marie Roilard sings the second aria: “O mio babbino caro” from Gianni Schicchi by Puccini. The sweetness of Roilard’s singing is remarkable for ability to relax the listener even as one strains with yearning that the performance does not stop too soon.

 


All of the musical presentations are like this. Between the arias we hear from RBG’s adult children, singers like baritone Norman Garret, opera director Francesco Zambello. The stories reveal so many intimate moments between RBG and these important people who made her long life worth living. Threaded through the talk is how justice and opera were interwoven in the Chief Justice’s life.

 

Don’t miss the opportunity to experience this thoughtful and moving program.

 

 

 


 

Monday, February 1, 2021

Griffiths & Hirshfield: The Introverts with Big Audience

 

On January 31, 2021, the Dresser heard poets Rachel Eliza Griffiths and Jane Hirschfield who gave Zoom readings sponsored by the Hudson Valley Writers Center. Jennifer Franklin, the moderator, reported an audience of 300.

 


Griffiths read from Seeing the Body (W. W. Norton, 2020), a collection that, among other topics, charts and celebrates the poet’s late mother with passionate and deeply felt imagery. One can hear this immediately in the opening poem, the title poem, “See the Body”—“I remember/her voice like a horn I never want/to pull out of my heart,” “I gather every mouth/that ever sang my mother’s blues,” “she talked back hard at god.” While this language is of this world, Griffiths moves this poem to a higher plane, the eternal: “How does the elegy believe me?/Together, we crossed the sky./There was a gate & we walked through/the world like that.”

 

Rachel Eliza Griffiths is an artist of many outlets. Seeing the Body displays both her lyrical poems and her black-and-white photographs. She is author of five poetry collections.

 

Hirschfield read from Ledger (Knopf, 2020), a socially, ecologically, and politically tuned in collection of poem reflecting on justice, peace, and, literally, the fate of the world. The poet has a disarming way of starting with the physical world and moving to another level of human existence. Her opening poem of Ledger entitled “The Bowl,” begins “If meat is put into the bowl, meat is eaten.” On the immediate level, the statement seems purely obvious and logical, particularly if the one being fed is at the mercy of a host. But wait, what if this is a begging bowl and the beggar is vegetarian? Then suddenly the audience has moved into some other realm. Is it the politics of healthy eating, animal rights, social justice where one person is subjugated by another? This is a bowl like a day that contains “Wars, loves, trucks, betrayals, kindness” and this bowl cannot be thrown way or broken. Moreover “It is calm, uneclipsable, rindless,/and, big though it seems, fits exactly in two hands.” If Hirschfield only presented this poem, the audience would be fed for a life time, except everything she read was like this.


Jane Hirschfield, a Princeton University graduate of the first class including women,  received lay ordination in Soto Zen (San Francisco Zen Center). She is author of nine collections of poetry.

 

The Dresser recommends hearing the reading and the Q&A that answers questions on their writing processes. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oSQgX794X1E

Sunday, November 1, 2020

Pop Operas Out of the Little Boxes

 

Folkish and rap-ish best describe Episode 4The Bolts of Fortune from the four-part Tales from a Safe Distance, a mini opera showcase produced by the Decameron Opera Coalition.

 

For those readers who have not partaken yet of this vibrant, virtual—but not live—opera showcase, the Decameron Opera Coalition, a partnership of nine small opera companies spread across the United States premiered in the month of October tiny operas running from 9 to 15 minutes long. The libretti are inspired from Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron in a contemporary update. The connecting opera is an extended piece operating across the four episodes called The Happy Hour by composer Peter Hilliard and librettist Matt Boresi. The last installment of The Happy Hour comes across warmly and memorably. Internationally known bass-baritone Lucas Pisaroni leaves the Dresser wanting much more.

 

On October 30, 2020, the Dresser saw premieres of Sourdough: Rise Up by composer Gilda Lyons with illustrator Chris Lyons and Corsair with music and words by K. F. Jacques.

 


Sourdough: Rise Up produced by Resonance Works of Pittsburgh, PA features a story about creative people caught in isolation in the time we are living through (pandemic). One of them turns to making bread. While we hear three singers, we never see them. Instead what we see are drawings. Overall the story is uplifting and the music is easy listening in much the same way one might experience music theater.

 


 Corsair produced by Chicago Fringe Opera of Chicago, IL is a lusciously sprawling story of a corsair—pirate—trying to make his fortune but is stymied by bad luck. The music is a mix of hip hop, rap, and opera. The scenic shots of water and city landscape are beautiful and engaging. Some animation colors the scenic background. Composer-librettist K. F. Jacques is also the main character with a resonant baritone voice. Soprano Takesha Meshé Kizart-Thomas makes a brief and impressive appearance as a kind of Erda (mother nature) figure.

 

Tickets are priced ridiculous low at $15 for all four segments of this opera. Episodes 1 through 4 and their talkbacks remain available to be viewed at any time through December 31, 2020.


 

As is The Dresser’s practice, she give the last words to a contemporary poet. In “There is nothing terrible here to step out from under,” Nils Michals begins his full-length collection of “gem boxes.” The world of Covid-19 has put most of us into the little boxes of the Zoom platform which is what “The Happy Hour” mini opera both celebrates and laments. At least Zoom participants can see and tell each other Tales from a Safe Distance. Michals’ prose poem has the same message as “Sourdough: Rise Up” and “Corsair” and that is, we must recognize and be grateful for what we have and then rise above what has changed and keeps us from our paths to fortunes.

 

 

There is nothing terrible here to step out from under. No one says it is not a box, snug in the palm, and of a color and material of your choosing. You must open it. It requires an impossibly tiny key which (surprise) is hanging deep inside your left ear, as keys are wont to do, on a ring of stirrup bone. Remember: there is no terrible thing. The lock’s click will be satisfying in both feel and sound. No terrible thing, just a silvery darkness. Whatever near persons are telling you is probably true. Whatever’s in your pocket—chapstick, receipt for said chapstick, keys that no longer matter—you can remove and gift wholeheartedly to those persons near or far, familiar or strange. Say yes, here is my car. Here is my house. This is for the lips. Remember: the dark is silver-leafed, like a well catching the surface light in stages down. Don’t you see? No? Because once inside it is not (surprise, again) like a well. Once inside you must drift down. You must let yourself sail down into the glinty black, which is deep and wide. Of things that are deep and wide, this is deeper, wider, immeasurably so, and in time you will feel it as such, the change in tone, the drifting away of any undermost floor. It is a terrible, terrible thing, this dropping into nothingness. And it is not like a well at all.

 

by Nils Michals

from Gem Box


Sunday, October 25, 2020

Operas of Broken Eros

Dark and brooding best describes Episode 3: So Noble a Heart from the four-part Tales from a Safe Distance, a mini opera showcase produced by the Decameron Opera Coalition.

 

For those readers who have not partaken yet of this vibrant, virtual—but not live—opera showcase, the Decameron Opera Coalition, a partnership of nine small opera companies spread across the United States are premiering in the month of October tiny operas running from 9 to 15 minutes long. The libretti are inspired from Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron in a contemporary update. The connecting opera is an extended piece called The Happy Hour by composer Peter Hilliard and librettist Matt Boresi.

 

On October 23, 2020, the Dresser partook of the premieres of Orsa Ibernata by composer Elizabeth Blood and librettist Danny Brylow, Seven Spells with music and words by Donia Jarrar, and The Sky Where You Are by composer Maria Thompson Corley and librettist Jenny O’Connell.

 


From the moment composer-soprano Elizabeth Blood begins intoning “brambles and weeds” with a trilled R, the listeners know they have entered sacred space set back in time to the medieval period. Orsa Ibernata produced by Milwaukee Opera Theater of Milwaukee, WI, features Danny Brylow’s libretto culled from two Decameron stories that settle on an unfaithful partner who is served up the lover’s heart and because of this, she or he commits suicide. The title of this work translates as “Hibernating Bear.” The Dresser is clueless how the title relates to the story. Additionally, there are two characters in this work and both parts are sung by Elizabeth Blood, though the Dresser is unsure about the identities of these characters. Nonetheless, Orsa Ibernata is The Dresser’s favorite opera of these three.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 Seven Spells produced by Opera in the Heights of  Houston, TX involves a woman (mezzo-soprano Kaarin Cecilia Phelps)  who seems to be preparing for her wedding but is notified by cell phone that she has been jilted. Maria Thompson Corley’s music is accented by rolling arpeggios that tend to soothe rather than agitate. This makes for lamentation rather than deep despair, which the Dresser thinks muddles the story.


 

The Sky Where You Are seems to be the one opera so far not particularly inspired by a story from Boccaccio’s The Decameron. Produced by An Opera Theater of Minneapolis, MN, this work comes with a socio-political message about domestic abuse and how to deal with this heart-rending problem. The music scores at a high pitch given the anxiety of the abused woman Reyna (soprano Katherine Henly). The situation of the story is that Reyna calls her friend Jo (mezzo-soprano Anna Hashizume) for solace and advice while a man’s voice (baritone Justin Anthony Spenner) addressed to Reyna is heard but never seen.

 


Tickets are priced ridiculous low at $15 for all four segments of this opera. At this date, Episodes 1 through 3 and their talkbacks are available to be viewed at any time. The debut of the last segment airs as follows:

 

October 30, 2020 Episode 4: The Bolts of Fortune

  • “Sourdough: Rise Up” (Resonance Works | Pittsburgh, PA)
  • “Corsair” (Chicago Fringe Opera | Chicago, IL)
  • “The Happy Hour” (Conclusion)

As is The Dresser’s practice, she give the last words to a contemporary poet. In “Breaking Up with Eros,” Annie Kim details the difficulty of breaking off a love relationship, something that the three mini operas of Tales from a Safe Distance, Episode 3: So Noble a Heart have extreme trouble with.

 

 

BREAKING UP WITH EROS

—ending with a line by Frank Bidart


This morning, for example, I miss
your heat: how you flare my skin

into a sun, whipping my cold
dead planets into orbit. To slip

beyond the body’s gate, glide
through its chain-link fence. 

I need to find something beyond
just the physical—I’ve had enough from

Column A—proof you’re more Apollo,
less Saturn Devouring His Son.

Mostly I want to be done with you.
Take a match to my fingers, grip

the shiny toilet with both hands, heave—.
Then it’s night again. I’m out,

walking back after dinner, the air soft 
as chalk on heavy paper, my pores

are open, ears open, I feel the bricks
of the courthouse crumbling, smell the ivy

crawling across them, bittersweet—
it’s you I want again, your monstrous

light knocking my stained-glass window, 
black ink of you raining swift down

parched map of me, blurring all my capitals.
That, at least, was irreparable.

 

by Annie Kim

from Eros, Unbroken