Saturday, May 2, 2020

What is Beyond Our Reach …or Not

Meditation, Daoism, and the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh guide the spirit of Nadia Colburn’s The High Shelf. This collection of poetry is a balance of yin and yang—life and death, light and shadow, sound and silence, form and formlessness, imagined and unknown, the ten thousand things and the unnamed…

“Pregnancy” in Section 4 (there are 6 unnumbered sections) is the glue of this work. In very complicated ways, it illuminates the opening poem “Into Time” on the question “what do we not become?” The last lines (which are also one line stanzas) of “Pregnancy” suggest the process of birth:

Something’s about to disappear.

Something’s about to take form.

Relative to what happens to a woman who becomes pregnant might be that she loses her virginity (she disappears as an innocent, as a virgin) and within her forms a child.

“Into Time” opens the collection in fall when leaves are turning yellow and the narrator anticipates the leaves dropping from the trees. However, something else is going on as the reader is introduced first to a red door and perhaps the anticipation of it opening. Coming at the beginning of this work, the red door is significantly symbolic.

Into Time

Any moment, the red door.

            Then, the leaves,
the many leaves, all yellow now,
they are so thin, I can feel them
ready to fall.
                       One breeze, and you:
there, walking
or standing alone—

What, what do we not become?

In an old practice of Catholicism, churches had red doors which represented the blood of Christ. To pass through that red door was to enter holy ground.  “Plentitude/Pregnancy,” the second poem of the book, identifies that the narrator is “in an older country, no longer home” and then the landscape comes into view with terraced hills and what appears to be olive trees. Possibly the country is Italy where the religion is Catholicism. However, despite the possibility that the red door and the falling leaves might suggest Eve and her fall from Eden, the negatively stated question what do we not become suggests something less prescribed, less dogmatic. Here, the narrator may be easing the way for a Westerner who has grown up in the Judeo-Christian belief system to make room for Eastern philosophies. This also might account for why the you in the poem is walking or standing alone.

On the other hand, the red door could describe what happens when a child is born—that a baby comes into the world with his mother’s vaginal bleeding.

“Pregnancy” is divided into four parts and spans two pages of the book. Every sentence is a separate stanza with one exception. In the first section, the poet asks the reader to imagine laundry on a line and then declares that the laundry “mirrors the white of the sky.” But, this is only “one scenario” because “The sheet dominates, undoing the meaning of sky.”

A second scenario forms in section two as well as a possible second meaning for the word sheet—“… the sheet on the line slaps furiously as a white sail on a sinking boat at sea.” While the sheet on the line is the bed linen seen in section 1, it also suggests the nautical terminology indicating a rope that controls the sails of a tall ship. Then comes a dizzying discussion of domination where nothingness and wind seem to get control over the sheet with the sky refusing to participate and taking on “the look of the dead sailor,” whereupon “the sheet becomes a shroud.” Again, shroud suggests a double meaning—the wrapping cloth for a dead body or the support rigging that holds up a ship’s mast. But no, the last stanza makes clear what hangs on the clothesline is bed linen or does it—“Out in the backyard, the sheet becomes a shroud. Perhaps.”                                                                                                                   

Why in a poem title pregnancy are there mentions of sheets, a sinking boat, and a dead sailor? Typically, in Western culture, a woman births a child from a bed, be it the matrimonial or hospital bed. One never knows if the fetus in its saline sea will actually become a living child. As the Biblical interpretation goes, once Eve accepted the apple of the Tree of Knowledge from the snake, she was then thrown out of the Garden of Eden and made to suffer in bringing forth progeny. It’s the connection to the Tree of Knowledge with the mast of a ship that makes  it possible to associate shroud the support rigging that holds up a ship’s mast.

The book ends with “What Can’t Be Held” which contains these words, “and I/ toward the future, like a sailboat to wind…” This time it’s  an optimistic view of the sailboat, but like a child, it  cannot be held up from moving on with life.

The High Shelf offers countless opportunities to meditate on its meaning and on the meaning of life (and death) in our chaotic universe, to experience the beauty of an artistic still life, to call up a 1960s pop song like Malvina Reynolds “Little Boxes,” but the Dresser will conclude with a few more words about the title of this complicated but well connected book. The book’s title appears first in “Explanation of the World” which follows “Pregnancy” and its companion poem “(Pregnancy).” Beside shelf and high shelf, the poem contains such words as boxes, one, other, wall, firmaments, supports, shells, trees, circle, sea. These are the components of our world, which the poet doesn’t attempt to explain. It’s an offering such as an aboriginal might hold out (beads or, better yet, shells) as a trade. Yes, strangeness exists but sit (or sail) with this poet and experience. It’s a book that we have time for during our worldwide pandemic.

The Dresser acknowledges that The High Shelf by Nadia Colburn is a book published by The Word Works.

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Stars, Stardust, Black Holes

The Dresser read Liz Marlow’s beautifully rendered chapbook from Slapering Hol Press They Become Stars in one sitting and shortly thereafter heard Marlow read some of these difficult Holocaust portraits mostly focused on a complicatedly vile Jewish man named Chaim Rumkowski. Then the Dresser had to let the work sit to achieve some distance as she believes poet Liz Marlow was able to do in writing this work, such that there is little passion expressed, and certainly no compassion. How could it be otherwise?

Historically, Rumkowski was a Jew who headed the Jewish Council of Elders (Judenrat) in the Łódź Ghetto of Poland. Like other Jews, he was forced into this position which obligated him to make life and death decisions about the people under his control. Fully embracing the Nazi motto of Auschwitz—Arbeit Macht Frei (Work Sets You Free), he seized Jewish businesses and put people to work, which kept some of them alive for a longer period of time. However, he was seen as a collaborator who went beyond human decency, including convincing families to give up their children ten years and younger and their elderly 65 and older so that the rest could live. Before the Nazis came to power, Rumkowski ran an orphanage.

The chapbook opens in Rumkowski’s voice as he describes a boy sitting alone avoiding other children in an orphanage. In the following excerpt from “Chaim Rumkowski on Hunger, 1938,” before understanding that Rumkowski was a pedophile, the Dresser felt confused about the title addressing hunger. The boy draws a circle on the ground with a stick and Rumkowski wonders if the child is making a map to find his way home. Nothing in the poem suggests the boy is hungry.

If I  were to reach
out to him,
would his skin
be soft like freshly
laundered shirts
or dry and cracked
like the earth?
In another life, he could
be mine.

It is only after reading the next several poems where we see that Rumkowski is molesting little girls that the Dresser, on second reflection, understood that the first poem refers to Rumkowski’s appetite for vulnerable children. It’s his hunger, not the child’s. The horror magnifies at the last two lines which is not a sentiment of tenderness from Rumkowski, but rather the realization that this boy is in a public space and the predator has no good way of getting his hands on the child.

The title of the chapbook is particularly apt though it will ambush the reader who knows nothing about Rumkowski. Of course, the author is not suggesting that anyone in her work will become famous, though Rumkowski did go down in infamy. The reader is immersed in the importance of they, the Jews, becoming stars in “Chaim Rumkowski Leads a Jewish Council Meeting on the Body.” What follows are the opening stanzas.

Three men and one woman
sit at a table discussing
how to save the body.
Rumkowski says, To save the body,
we must cut off the limbs.

                         The woman, a mother, says,
                         The limbs you speak of
                         are the body.
                         Though we wear stars,
                        we are not starfish.
                        When we cut off limbs,
                        they will not grow back.

Here is the closing stanza:

                       The woman counters,
                       The body is who will live days
                       so countless that they birth
                       more days. Days more than the stars
                       we wear on our jackets.
                      Without the body, there is no life,
                      not even a constellation to fill darkness;
                      there is no universe. There is nothing.

While the Dresser is bothered about the reference to a constellation (which indicates a group of stars) as opposed to a single star, the poem hugely testifies to Rumkowski’s abject cruelty. The 10-word title of this poem bears the explanatory  epigraph “Days before the transport of 15,700 children to Chelmno Extermination Camp, September 1942.”

Marlow invests a great deal in the imagery and metaphor of the star as a representation of the targeted Jews. In “Heinrich Himmler and Arthur Nebe Discuss Humane Killing,” one of the few poems in which Rumkowski plays no role, the author reveals Himmler vomiting after he was sprayed with blood and body bits the first time he witnessed a mass shooting of Jews.

When Himmler felt
as he had never felt
           anything else
                      while leaning
toward the grave pit’s edge,
                        while watching
limbs shape themselves
             into Stars,
                         he knew
debris bursting
             from him
was too much for his

Limbs shaping themselves into Stars is clearly meant to tie Himmler to Rumkowski in this poem that documents how the Nazi extermination plan moved from firing squads to gassing. Yes, the hunted Jews of Poland and Europe became stars and then stardust or more accurately black holes.

As mentioned, the chapbook is distinctively produced, using high quality black paper as the cover, silver end papers, and silky interior stock. The front cover has a glued photograph in a cutout window—“Children of the Holocaust” by Lynn H. Butler which overlays an archival image of a place where atrocities occurred within the composition from The Children of Izieu: A Human Tragedy by Serge Klarsfeld. The image makes the children ghostly figures encircling a series of majestic columns. Inside the chapbook, the cover page imprints a negative of the exterior photograph. Slapering Hol Press is known for its exceptional print quality productions and They Become Stars is no exception.

Friday, April 17, 2020

Spinster for Hire by Julia Story

The Dresser acknowledges that the following review is based on a book published by The Word Works.

As the cover art—Gertrude Abercrombie’s “Reverie,” a nighttime painting of a lone woman seated in an arid landscape—suggests, spinster for hire by Julia Story is a book about loneliness and terrifying isolation. Story presents an unimpeded flow—there are no communal groupings of these poems into sections—of frightening beings, things, and events: “a skull with light in it,” “a derelict hotel,” The Hulk, belief in demonic possession, “a long psychedelic rape scene,” “violent sleeping mammals.”  Cues abound that Story is working in a Twilight Zone, a surreal environment where, for example, the toads of her toad circus are all found dead in a window well the day after the event. Did she kill them? Or did she feel responsible for their deaths?

Indiana Problem (Toad Circus)

The day after my toad circus the toads were all dead, crunchy and silent in their window well. I wanted to draw a doorway to walk through to get to the world of lilacs: purple, contagious green leaves and no movement but the steady invisible breathing of flowers. I knew I had to tell someone what I had done so I first walked to the park and stayed there until dusk, sitting on the glider or in the middle of the rusty and dangerous merry-go-round; I can’t remember which. When it was nearly dark I walked home, certain that they were worried and maybe even out looking for me. When I got there I saw them busy in the kitchen through the window, so I hid in the back yard until it was good and dark, a living thing on a swing set in the gloom, the attic in my head cracking open for the first time and I went in.

Throughout the book’s lyrical flow, numerous poems are marked by the state of Indiana:
Indiana Problem (Alone)
Indiana Problem (Toad Circus)
Indiana Problem (Three Dusks)
Indiana Problem (Three Steaks)
Indiana Bardo
Indiana Problem (Fear, 1983)
Indiana Problem (Mousetrap)
Indiana Problem (Time)
Indiana Problem (A Lost Shuttlecock)
Indiana Problem (Mini Gym)
Indiana Problem (Dollhouse)
Indiana Problem (Covenant)
Indiana Problem (A John Yau)

Recently “Toad Circus” was published in The New Yorker (April 20, 2020) without mention of the Indiana Problem. When asked about the Indiana Problem, Story said these poems, scattered throughout the book, refer to her childhood.

The title poem “Spinster for Hire” tackles the evolution of life on our planet but this is elusive: “Invertebrates //of feeling swim slowly /away from me,” “I had nothing but a framed //photograph of a gibbon…” The speaker of the poem packs her things and moves to a new location. The line that grabs the Dresser’s full attention is “Now I live above the beauty /”. What beauty? Well, the word that comes next in the poem is “parlor.” So here is the spinster now living above a beauty parlor and she continues, “if you look up you can see // me in my window, one spot /of life in our hibernation, //our long orchard of silence.”

This is the book to ponder during the Covid19 isolation.

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

The Bully Bride

A good comedic film is much harder to create than a dramatic one. Jonathan Smith, a 2004 graduate of Yale University’s Film Studies, approached The Dresser to review his third feature film Batsh*t Bride for which he wrote the script and directed the film. He states in his press kit, “I wanted simply to make a bright, fun comedy—a little piece of confection—that makes you laugh.” Yes, he bakes a cake that made the Dresser laugh.

The story opens in the spring around April Fools’ Day as Heather, a driven event planner (Meghan Falcone), is making crystal clear that her wedding will be perfect in every detail. After she tries to reorganize what her bridesmaids have planned for her, they tell her she has no sense of humor and is too controlling. So she decides to prove them wrong by pranking her groom Bryce (Josh Covitt) with the announcement that their relationship has lost its spark and she is calling off the wedding. To her surprise, Bryce brightens up and says with great relief that he was thinking the same thing.

The exchange takes place in a restaurant and reminded the Dresser of the iconic scene in When Harry Met Sally as Sally fakes an orgasm and a woman (played by Estelle Reiner) at a neighboring table says, “I’ll have what she’s having.” In Batsh*t Bride, the argument that then ensues between bride and groom incites other diners to complain because they don’t want what’s going down between the young couple, except that Heather, who is full of chutzpah, puts up her hand and won’t allow interruption.

At this point, the Dresser understood what the vulgar film title meant—mad or crazy and that the filmmaker wasn’t trying to invoke some foreign language. However, the Dresser had already associated this bride film with the Israeli movie The Wedding Plan where the bride asks her groom why he seems so unhappy and he answers because he realized he didn’t love her. So he backs out and she, an ageing (in her 30’s) orthodox Jew, decides she will go ahead with the wedding putting her faith in G-d that He will provide a groom.

While Batsh*t Bride doesn’t have the depth or the cultural exoticness of The Wedding Plan, when Heather goes to city hall to get the marriage license, her life of privilege begins to unravel. She bribes two homeless men to help her, which the clerk, of course, sees through. It’s a wacky scene worthy of Lucille Ball. Shockingly, Heather tries to attack the clerk, gets arrested, even tased, and thrown into the drunk tank, which is where, to the Dresser’s taste, the most important and pivotal scene occurs. The drag queen Pandora, whom her friends invited into their limo on the night of Heather’s bachelorette party,  affirms that Heather is a bitch, but asks her if she could also be a good person.

Every time Heather decides to tell her father (Patrick Collins) that the wedding is off, he, Mr. Papadopoulos, surprises her with yet another family member who has made the arduous trip to be with her on her wedding day. While this big fat—possibly Greek— parade of relatives was understandable, it felt overused. However, Meghan Falcone does a great job in the style of Reese Witherspoon of backing away from each relative that prevents her from telling her father what the hard truth is.

The clarity of Jason Merrin’s cinemaphotography, the original bubbly music by Mike Pettry, and the accomplished acting of the entire cast are first rate. It’s a pleasure to see a young filmmaker undaunted by the obstacles raised by a worldwide pandemic. As is the Dresser’s custom, she gives the last word to poetry. John Pauker’s “Screaming Poem” suggests that practice and timing in art is everything and no where could this be truer than in making a comic film like Batsh*t Bride.


In order to make art you have to scream
From time to time.
                                 In order to make art
You have to scream from time to time.

                                                                    To make
Order in art you have to scream from time
To time.

                  To order art you have to scream
From art to order and from time to time.

To make art scream you have to order time.
To make art order time you have to scream.
To make time scream you have to order art.

by John Pauker
from In Solitary and Other Imaginations  

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Briscula the Magician—A Look at Facism and Bliss

On March 8, 2020, the Dresser attended a premier performance of Briscula the Magician by composer Frances Pollock and first-time librettist Robert Misbin. Bel Cantanti Opera under the artistic direction of Katerina Souvorova at the Randolph Rd Theater in Silver Spring, Maryland, developed and produced this ambitious production. This production's stage manager is Jennifer Blades.

Some operagoers of the greater Washington, DC area may be familiar with Frances Pollock since she presented What Gets Kept, a 20-minute opera in the 2017 Washington National Opera American Opera Initiative. Work under development includes Stinney (which has won awards in workshop presentations) and Salt, a cross-disciplinary piece. Opera of Chicago and Seattle Opera co-premiered her children’s opera Earth to Kenzie. She is currently working on a doctorate in composition at Yale University.

Portions of the score may be characterized as accessibly atonal, while also including themes reminiscent of carnival music and waltz. Considerable stretches of recitative allow the stories of the various characters to unfold with elegance and clarity. In the beginning of the opera, the Dresser wondered about clusters of words that seemed squeezed into too few musical notes, but that did not persist. Overall, the music worked reasonably well for this complex libretto.

The libretto of this two-act opera is based loosely on Thomas Mann’s novella Mario und der Zauberrer (Mario and the Magician). Set in 1929 in a rundown seaside town east of Venice called Bibione Spiaggia, the libretto, as does the novella, deals with the rise of Facism. Shades of contemporary political discourse rear its head when characters in the public square of the town talk about making the town or country great again.

Central to this libretto is a young woman named Sylvestra (sung impressively by soprano Leah Brzyski). Sylvestra is the flower girl and all the young men seem to be in love with her, especially the café worker Claudio (tenor Michael Butler). Claudio who lines up with Mann’s Mario is hypnotized by Briscula (tenor Peter Joshua Burroughs) who is the stand in for Mann’s Magician Cipolia. In both stories, Claudio/Mario is humiliated by the so-called magic man. In Mann’s story, Mario kills the magician, but in Misbin’s story, Claudio attempts to attack Briscula, for mocking him about his unrequited love for Sylvestra and then for kissing Claudio on the lips. However, the town’s militants (called thugs in the cast list), dressed in black shirts, beat and kick Claudio, allowing Briscula to get away with shaming and humiliating Claudio and everyone this evil hypnotist has called on stage.

Puzzling was the unidentified female character who opens and closes the opera. Like Charles Dickens’ Madame Defarge from A Tale of Two Cities, she is an observer who sits and knits while events in the community unravel in an alarming way. The libretto summary tells us that this character is an “allegorical figure” who “is both observing and controlling the action.” Later, we see that she transforms to become Briscula and then, after he is attacked by Claudio, retreats back into the character of the mysterious knitter. Dr. Misbin’s artistic instincts are good in creating a play within a play, which has the potential to add a sophisticated richness. For someone who had an accomplished career at the Food and Drug Administration as a medical officer, one would not expect a flawless work. Perhaps his mysterious woman would work better if there were evidence that she was interacting and thereby visibly controlling the players on stage.

What is exciting about this production is that a small opera company that is community oriented, with some financial support for its entire season from the Arts and Humanities Council of Montgomery County and the Maryland State Arts Council, would give a young composer such a grand opportunity. Running  about one and ¾ hours long, the opera includes 13 singers, 6 actors, and 8 musicians (including Dr. Souvorova at the keyboard) as well as impressive props/set, costumes, and surtitles. Surtitles are an optional detail which speak to the care that went into this production. While there is a small amount of text in Italian, overall the work is in English. In theory, if the diction is good (and it was), most small opera companies might not offer surtitles.

Her cast of singers, a mix of newcomers and practiced performers, also speaks well of Dr. Souvorova and her stated goals, which include sending those studying music into the professional opera arena. In Brisula the Magician, everyone performs well and contributes to a theatric wholeness that delivers a thoughtful experience.

 In Camille-Yvette Welsch’s poem “The Ugliest Boy in Christendom Considers Bliss,” the reader enters the thoughts of an adolescent boy that might draw attention to the plight of Claudio who is pulled out of himself by the evil Briscula. Under Briscula’s spell, Claudio reveals his unreturned love for the flirtatious flower girl Sylvestra, who is Claudio’s “absent Eve.” Except Briscula makes Claudio kiss him and then snaps Claudio back into reality, such that Claudio moves from momentary bliss to feeling that he has just had a homosexual encounter. The Dresser cannot help but wonder if Thomas Mann, if not Robert Misbin, was addressing the consequences of political brainwashing.


If I were the first person in the new world,
symmetry would not equal beauty.

A face, split in half, should not
recast itself. That is a sign

of evil, doppelganger. In this new world,
I would be Adam, etymologist and poet.

One plus one would not equal two.

Nothing would be whole, no parts
would fit. All uneven pieces, we would tumble

lopsided, never knowing enough to miss
the perfect circle, the absent Eve.

   by Camille-Yvette Welsch
   from The Four Ugliest Children in Christendom

Briscula the Magician has two more performances March 14 and 15, 2020.

Monday, February 10, 2020

Folger Consort—Palestrina & Renaissance Women Composers

In a period of abject political rectitude given the negative outcome of the Senate’s vote on including witnesses and documents in the trial to remove an impeached United States president from office, the February 7, 2020 opportunity to hear “Palestrina’s Perfect Art and Music by Renaissance Women” as presented by the Folger Consort with Stile Antico, Tesserae Baroque, and Webb Wiggins at Washington National Cathedral was welcomed respite. While the Dresser did not find the concert as perfect as the program title hinted, there were many moments of exquisite beauty.

As is the custom with the Folger Consort represented by Robert Eisenstein (viola da gamba, violin and recorder) and Christopher Kendall (lute and theorbo), guest artists provided a large part of the texture and virtuosity of the program. Stile Antico, a 12-member vocal ensemble specializing in Early Music and based in London, provided the angelic sound craved when one enters the gothic-styled Washington National Cathedral. Their name meaning old style was coined during the seventeenth century to describe the style of Renaissance church composition represented by Palestrina’s music. Tesserae Baroque, a fluid group of performers specializing in music of the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries and based in Los Angeles, provided four musicians playing such instruments as sackbut, cornetto, and recorder to enhance the range and complexity of the Folger Consort strings. Webb Wiggins, a well credentialed organist, added depth on the continuo in this overly large space.

Compositions by Palestrina opened and closed the first set of the program with short pieces by women (Raffaella Aleotti, Maddalena Casulana, Sulpitia Cesis, Leonora d’Este) and men (Giovanni Gabrieli, Claudio Merulo,  Giovanni Bassano, Lodovico Grossi da Viadana) composers of the Renaissance period. Two compositions by Palestrina—the lyrically beautiful but delicate and almost hard to hear “Regina coeli” opened the program while the robust “Stabat Mater” with all performers on stage closed the first set before intermission. Additionally, the first half of the program included Francesco Rognoni’s “Diminutions on Palestrina’s Pulchra es amica mea,” which was performed with organ and cornetto.

The second half of the program introduced three composers not heard earlier in the program. “Diminutions on Palestrina’s Vestiva I colli” by Bartolomé de Selma y Salaverde, Canzon  à 4 instruments by Francesco Cavalli, and “Ave maris stella” by Claudio Monteverdi. “Diminutions on Vestiva I colli” performed with organ, viola da gamba, theorbo, and recorder was haunting in its beauty. This piece was prefaced by a performance of Palestrina’s original composition which was played by viola da gamba, theorbo, sackbuts, and cornettoes.

For the Dresser, the centerpiece of this concert was performance of three compositions by Leonora d’Este—“Veni sponsa Christi,” “O salutaris hostia,” and “Sicut lilium inter spinas.” Each was sung a cappella with five female singers who stood at varying distances behind the stage and inside the enclosed area known as the Great Choir, which produced a sound that was quieter and perhaps a bit muffled. The Dresser believes this staging was to simulate how the work of d’Este sounded as it was performed in her cloistered nunnery—nuns sang (and played instruments) for the public but the performers were behind a screen.

Other favorite compositions were the three compositions by Raffaella Aleotti—“Exaudi Deus orationem meam,” “Angelus ad pastores alit,” and “Sancta et immaculata virginitas.” The Dresser found herself breathing with relief as she listened to the Stile Antico voices singing. A bit troubling was the muddy sounding Gabrieli Cazone à 5 instruments which included Eisenstein on violin, an instrument that proved problematic for him earlier in the program when he lost his way in “Canzon Francese in risposta.”

Most of the texts that accompanied some of the music in this concert were either sacred (in the Catholic practice) or nature oriented. The Dresser nods to Nancy Allinson in her meditative poem “Souls within the Leaves,” which addresses the Hindu belief of reincarnation, a belief that seamlessly blends the sacred and the natural world.


Parvita, my Indian neighbor and a Hindu, believes in reincarnation:
“Our souls will return after death. I am not afraid of dying. It is natural.”

Her own son, age 40, died of a heart attack. There was no warning.
He and his wife were watching a movie on a Friday night.

Parvita tells me: “He slumped in the chair as if he were sleeping.
But, he never woke up.”

Today, you and I walked through Montrose Park in Georgetown.
A warm October afternoon. Then we both smelled gas. It broke the spell.

That spell of living so much in the moment. I would call the gas company.
File a report. Try to help a neighborhood. I heeded the warning sign.

We watch on t.v. another hurricane hitting the Florida panhandle.
I grieve over the loss of trees in Tallahassee as if they are people.

Today is a good day for you and me.
Persimmons and acorns fall from the trees in the garden.

Whose souls live within the leaves that have fallen from those trees?

by Nancy Allinson
from What a Windstorm Teaches

Photo credit: Marco Borggreve

Thursday, January 30, 2020

No Blue Memories—The Gist of Manual Cinema

No Blue Memories: The life of Gwendolyn Brooks by Chicago’s Manual Cinema is theater that combines poetry, shadow puppetry, acting, and original jazz. Commissioned by the Poetry Foundation of Chicago, the work premiered in November 2017. The Dresser had the privilege of seeing this extraordinary experience January 24, 2020 at the Music Center at Strathmore in Bethesda, Maryland.


Since 2010, Emmy Award-winning Manual Cinema, a performance collective, design studio, and film/video production company has been combining handmade shadow puppets, actors, cinematic techniques, innovative sound and music to create engaging stories. They use vintage overhead projectors (yes, those old machines used in the Twentieth century classroom to show students something such as a poem or a picture or a set of rules), multiple screens, puppets, actors, live feed cameras, multichannel sound design, and a live music ensemble. For those sitting closer to the stage, one sees not only what is projected on the screen but the whole beehive of workers who are setting up the imagery or acting for the cameras. It’s an evening’s lesson in theater and a philosophic breakdown of reality.

[Photo by Maren Celest: Co-Artistic Directors (left & clockwise): Julia Miller, Kyle Vegter, Drew Dir, Sarah Fornace and Ben Kauffman]


The Dresser also partook of the pre-show event which included a short lecture by scholar of Washington, DC literary history Kim Roberts and a series of poetry readings hosted by Dwayne B. More with area poets—Morgan Butler, Brandon Douglas, and Marjan Naderi. Roberts spoke about three Black women poets and writers with ties to Washington, DC—Georgia Douglas Johnson (1880-1966), May Miller Sullivan (1899-1995), and Gwendolyn Brooks (1917-2000). What these three artists had in common was that each was actively engaged in advancing the writing life of others. From 1921 to 1928 at her house on S Street NW in Washington, DC, Johnson hosted a weekly writers’ workshop known as the Saturday Nighters, which nurtured such writers as Langston Hughes, Jean Toomer, May Miller, Alice Dunbar-Nelson, Zora Neale Hurston, and many others, especially women of color. Influenced by attendance at the Saturday Nighters, May Miller went on to help establish the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities as well as from 1960 to 1980 running her own writing salon for writers, such as Toni Morrison. In 1985, Gwendolyn Brooks was the first African-American woman appointed as Poetry Consultant to the Library of Congress, during which time she encouraged teenage, prison, and senior writers.


As multi-media/multi-arts performances become more prevalent, No Blue Memories: The life of Gwendolyn Brooks written by Crescendo Literary (Eve L. Ewing and Nate Marshall) stands out as a memorial to an industrious and giving writer of consequence and as an accessible, engaging educational experience of high quality in keeping with the philosophy of the writer being celebrated. While puppet shows are often thought of in the Western World as children’s entertainment, puppetry goes back thousands of years as a method of reaching a general audience, sometimes for political purposes, educational approaches, and always entertainment.

Poetry is a hard sell to American audiences because most Americans haven’t been brought up reading, reciting, writing and therefore appreciating poetry. No Blue Memories ably addresses how Brooks, a seemingly ordinary person—just like the audience who comes to see this experience of theater—gets involved and deeply committed to writing poetry, making this puppet show a seamless educational event. Stories about poets tend to draw a literary crowd made primarily of women. It’s a type of bias that was not at all evident from the nearly sell-out crowd at Strathmore Music Center. If the subject elicited a particular political or racial leaning it was this—it was a general audience that seemed predominately Black in the orchestra where the Dresser was sitting. It goes without saying that puppet shows pitched for adults pique audience curiosity, raising this question: what’s the hidden message but never what do I need to know before I see this?  Audience expectation is oh, this will be fun. Yes, No Blue Memories was fun and thought-provoking.

The Dresser assumes that part of the audience draw was the music initially with cool jazz elements by sisters Jamila Woods and Ayanna Woods and as sung mesmerizingly by their sister Kamaria Woods. Cool jazz developed after World War II and is characterized by relaxed tempos and lighter tone as opposed to the complex bebop of that era. In an email interview completed January 29, Ayanna Woods wrote, “Jamila and I wanted to model the sound of No Blue Memories after the type of music Brooks would have heard growing up. In the beginning of the play, we drew from jazz standards. As the play goes on, we introduced elements of funk and hip-hop.” When asked about the source of the words, Ayanna answered, “The text is a combination of Brooks' words, Jamila's words inspired by the poetry, and Haki Madhubuti's words (from his poem Gwendolyn Brooks).” Hats off to the musicians handpicked by Ayanna and Jamila—Red/Kai Brown on drums, Ryan Nyther on a beautifully plaintive, sometimes muted trumpet, and Brooklynn (Brooke) Skye on base guitar. The Dresser was particularly interested in Skye who was exceptional and without a biography in the printed program. Ayanna offered, “Brooke Skye is an amazing 18-year-old bassist and guitarist who attended Chicago High School for the Arts. She plays with a wide range of Chicago bands in the jazz & hip-hop scenes, including Malcolm London… Chicago is full of incredible Black musicians, and we wanted our band to celebrate that.

The Dresser applauds the collective behind this theater creation for not shying away from racism and racial issues. When No Blue Memories introduces the fact that Brooks has won the Pulitzer Prize, two shadow puppets who are white women discuss that a “Negress” has won this prestigious prize and they go to her door to see who she is. Their mocking tone seems much like the uneducated, socially backward cartoon family of the Simpsons. What is remarkable about Gwendolyn Brooks is that she wrote poetry that appealed to the highly educated and she created work that spoke to teenagers who preferred the pool hall over school. This is a show for everyone and in keeping with who Gwendolyn Brooks was.



We real cool. We
Left school. We

Lurk late. We
Strike straight. We

Sing sin. We
Thin gin. We

Jazz June. We
Die soon.

by Gwendolyn Brooks

Photo credit:Julia Miller except where noted otherwise. 
Photographer of Gwendolyn Brooks at typewriter unidentified.

The next performance of No Blue Memories will be February 22, 2020, at Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania. Check the calendar on the Manual Cinema website at

Saturday, January 18, 2020

The Dulce et Decorum of Glory Denied

Glory Denied with words and music by Tom Cipullo based on the book by Tom Philpott is a thoroughly engaging 90-minute chamber opera that has been aired starting in workshop format since 2004 in New York City Opera’s VOX series. The Dresser saw, or should she say experienced, this work January 17 at Washington, DC’s Keegan Theatre in a new production with only four performances by UrbanArias under the able baton of Robert Wood and direction by Kristine McIntyre.

The Dresser says experienced because the emotional load is heavy. It’s a story about a soldier who spends nine years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam while his wife, lacking any other information, believes he is dead and moves on. However,  the opera is also stressful because it goes back and forth quickly between past and present, is presented predominately in ensemble singing with only a few arias which ratchets up the intensity, and because the UrbanArias has employed exceptionally good singers whose voices are sometimes bigger than what the Keegan Theatre can handle, adding a vibration to the auditory overload.

The way Cipullo manages the rapid transitions from past to present is by using a cast of four where the soldier and his wife are represented by younger and older characters. The younger Thompson sung by tenor John Riesen is seen throughout the opera in bare feet and disheveled battle fatigues. The younger Alyce (Thompson) sung by soprano Cree Carrico is costumed in a pink dress with a hairbow and is very pregnant with their fourth child. She continuously  scurries around the stage in her heels without ever giving birth and seems to represent the ultimate teen-aged girly girl. The older Thompson sung by baritone Timothy Mix is at first is seen in formal military uniform and later his formalism is toned down by the removal of his jacket and substitution of a sweater. Because Mix is much taller and broader than Riesen, it was a little hard to see Mix as the older soldier until it dawned on the Dresser that the anchoring character was the older Thompson and the younger versions of himself and his wife were only how the current day Thompson pictured himself and his wife. Likewise the older Alyce sung by mezzo-soprano Caroline Worra who is dressed in pants and sweater is a much bigger woman than Carrico.

Exceptional moments in the opera were Riesen singing the lyrically heartbreaking Psalm 23 from his inhumanly cramped cell, Mix performing a tour-de-force survey of what had changed in America since he was last home, and Worra pouring forth with “He went through Hell, but so did I.” Several times Carrico sings the opening lines of a letter to her husband that begins “My darling.” The first notes of the music for these letters are languid and yearning and Carrico delivers these openings in a moving way that reminds the Dresser of Gershwin’s “Summertime” from Porgy and Bess.

Scenically, the words of Alyce’s letters are often projected in lights on the stage floor. The lighting and projection design of Kathy Maxwell is exceptionally creative. She uses two opposing walls on either side of the stage to project scenes from Vietnam as well as home-based family snapshots and film footage.

In Joe Zealburg’s poem “Apocalyptic Drone,” the Dresser is reminded of what the older Thompson has come face to face with when he returns to civilian life and it clearly seems apocalyptic to him. Here is Thompson’s tirade:

I missed so much I can’t catch up, I can’t catch on.
Ev’ry single fact I knew or thought I knew, is diff’rent now.
Ev’ry thing has changed somehow.
John Glenn, Neil Armstrong, astronauts, moon shots.
Heiress robber Patty Hearst, soldiers coming home get cursed.
Fad diets, Chicago riots, Watts, Newark, Brownsville, Bed-Stuy, My Lai,
Kids get high, Men can cry, Wives can lie.
Terrorists at the Munich Games,
Athletes now with Muslim names.
Credit cards, fast food, Music’s vulgar, movies lewd.
a nation become crude and callous,
Bob and Carol and Ted and Alyce!
Turn on. Tune in. Freak out! Welcome home!
Charles Manson, Sharon Tate, Pentagon Papers, Kent State. Welcome home.
Leonard Berstein’s radical chic, Betty Friedan and her damn mystique. Welcome home.
Failure to communicate, college students demonstrate. Home!
Japanese cars, topless bars, Traitors pass for movie stars. Home!
Home to a regained life. Home to a stained wife. Home. There’ll be Hell to pay.
Home. Who remembers Veterans Day?
Turn on, Tune in, Drop out, Cop out, Right on, Sit-in, Love-in, Come on, Give in, Give out,
Put out, Put on, Right on, Hang-up, Uptight, Far out, Sell-out, Burn out, Freak out.
Welcome ---------home!

While Thompson’s complaints about how things have changed emphasize loose morals, it is pitched in technological advances like getting to the moon and use of credit cards. The you in “Apocalyptic Drone” is a soldier much like Thompson and is especially experienced in the fragment Dulce et decorum est which alludes to the quote from the Roman poet Horace Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori, meaning it is sweet and right to die for one’s country. Both the poem and text of Thompson’s tirade about how things have changed makes us ask the question what have I given up for my country and was it worth what has happened or will happen to me?


Of course you don’t want to die,
but the drone is coming today.
The drone that delivered your meals, Amen.
The one that pressure-washed your house,
walked your three poodles,
and trimmed your azaleas and sago palms.
The drone is coming today.
It delivered three call girls
and Viagra to your home last week.
By now you’ve received
those benzodiazepines to ease your fear of laserization.
It’s already towed away your driverless car.
Your lupus? Too costly to treat.
As you require dental implants to chew a good steak,
your work is done, your strength is weak.
Remember, you voted for this in 2019.
The drone is coming today.
Repeat the phrase, thy rod and they staff
These words shall bring solace your way.
The drone is soon to arrive. Amen.
Smile. Laugh. Profess your last prayer.
Relax. Rest. Dulce et decorum est.
The drone is coming today.

by Joe Zealberg
from Covalence

Photo credit: Nicholas Karlindr

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

WNO’s Skinny Operas

In the eight year of Washington National Opera’s American Opera Initiative, the three engaging twenty-minute operas premiered on January 10, 2020 at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater all had an educational theme. All three also feature music that provides tonal access. Conductor Anne Manson did a seamless job in coordinating the musicians and Domingo-Cafritz Young Artists who make up the singing casts. These are collaborating teams of composers and librettists worthy of being watched.

Woman of Letters by composer Liliya Ugay and librettist Sokunthary Svay depicts a father-daughter relationship that is on the verge of changing. As an immigrant, Sam, (sung by bass baritone Samuel J. Weiser) who works at a Manhattan university, constantly brings home books to his daughter Sonya (soprano Marlen Nahhas) to give her the advantage he didn’t have himself and to keep her busy and safe at home. She is an excellent student and loves these books. Consequently, she is accepted on full scholarship to a university in England. This upsets Sam who still hasn’t made peace with the death of his wife and mother of Sonya. Complicating this event is a visit by Sonya’s friend Dara (soprano Alexandra Nowakowski) who extols the benefits of going away to study.

The opening music of Woman of Letters appropriately strikes a soundscape of Sonya’s yearning. Dara who is studying opera provides the giddy excitement of a teenage girl with her bel canto singing. While the Dresser liked this piece, she questions the wisdom of making Sam a bass baritone. His heavy voice tended to drag down the energy of the overall work in an exaggerated way.

Admissions by composer Michael Lanci and librettist Kim Davies addresses a real day scandal in the arena of college admissions. Mother (mezzo-soprano Amanda Lynn Bottoms) has paid off various people to get her daughter (soprano Marlen Nahhas) and son (tenor Matthew Pearce) into schools of their choice. As the opera opens, Father (bass baritone William Meinert) and Mother are driving home from court while their kids are discussing where their absent parents are.

The repartee in the libretto is cleverly written and ably delivered by this outstanding cast. Moreover the ensemble work  provides a wonderfully layered counterpoint of voices and concerns.

In the category of “school of hard knocks,” Night Trip, by composer Carlos Simon and librettist Sandra Seaton, features two black WWII veterans—Uncle Wesley (baritone Joshua Conyers) and Uncle Mack (tenor Joshua Blue)—who arrive at the home of their sister in Chicago to pick up their niece teenage Conchetta (mezzo-soprano Rehanna Thelwell) who is unschooled in the ways of the world. The uncles drive Conchitta to see her grandmother and aunts who live in a small town in Tennessee. Set in the summer of 1958, things turn very racist when they ask to use a gas station restroom in the south. They angrily leave the gas station without paying and are quickly overtaken by a police officer and the accusing gas station attendant. Conchetta is manhandled and in danger of more egregious assault so Uncle Wesley offers to pay off the two men with money being sent from Conchetta’s hard-working mother to her Tennessee family.

The music beginning with the overture is jazz inflected. Rehanna Thelwell infuses her role as an innocent, unworldly teen with joyful enthusiasm, making for a memorable evening of new operatic work.

To the Dresser, Truth Thomas’ poem “Papa’s Got a Brand New Pen” evokes the adage that the pen, an implement of learning and wisdom, is mightier than the sword. Thomas directs his message to “children of wooden bellies” (Thomas says wooden bellies refer to the holds of wooden ships that brought Africans as slaves to America and that his poem “attempts to encourage people of color to boldly esteem themselves…in a country that has taught…black folks to hate themselves”) and to “children of Cinque’s sword” (possibly old methods as summoned by a cinqueda which is a short sword of the Italian Renaissance that is five fingers wide). Written as a Skinny (eleven lines where lines one and eleven have the same words and in between the other lines feature one word with a prescribed repetition), this is a form invented by Truth Thomas. The Dresser finds this poem a perfect final word on WNO’s AOI festival of three new operas, all of which deal with issues of speaking truth and overcoming the obstacles of learning. Additionally, Thomas’ title “Papa’s Got a Brand New Pen” suggests the James Brown song “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag.” Thomas demonstrates (as if he is standing on one foot), as do the collaborators of these new short operas, that a lot can be communicated in a short space of creative work in which many limitations are set.


Speak truth on the good foot—say it loud
speak truth on the good foot—say it loud.

by Truth Thomas

Photo credit: Scott Suchman