Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Women of the Big Sky

With the racially charged implications of George Floyd’s death, Americans—the Dresser intentionally chooses Americans for its large embrace of North, Central and South America—have become more painfully aware of the white majority’s many actions-campaigns-wars-pogroms-holocausts (call it what you will) to eradicate or enslave minorities, including indigenous peoples who called the Americas their sacred home.


Liliana Ancalao in her new collection of poetry Women of the Big Sky as translated in English from the Spanish by Seth Michelson attempts to reclaim and preserve Mapuzungun (ma-poo-zoon-goon), the nearly extinct language of her Mapuche ancestors. She wrote half of her poems in Mapuzungun and half in Spanish.

According to “Death, Biography, and the Mapuche Person,” an article published in Ethnos: Journal of Anthropology (April 2007), the Mapuche people numbered one million in Chile with an additional 40,000 on the Argentinean side of the Cordillera mountains, which is where Ancalao’s family resides. As Michelson mentions in his introduction, Mapuche life was seriously changed by the arrival of Europeans in 1520. However, it wasn’t until 1880 that the Chilean Mapuche people were defeated and assigned to “three thousand lineage-based reservations.” (“Left, Right: A Walk with the Sons of the Gods; Mapuche Concept of Ultimate Reality and Meaning,” by Louis C. Faron, University of Toronto Press, January 1982, Vol. 5, No. 2 PP 88-103) Apparently the Mapuche were fierce warriors. One can only assume something similar happened to the Mapuche living in Argentina.

Ancalao grew up speaking Spanish, the language of her people’s oppressors. She writes in “Memory of the Sacred Land,” her long prose introduction that she, her five siblings and other children similar in age and heritage “were born in the time amnesia…without memory.”


The Dresser thinks Women of the Big Sky published by The Word Works requires a strategy for how to read it. Reclaiming a lost language requires some effort, effort that will be rewarded if the reader is given some help.

While reading poetry is often a solitary pursuit, the Dresser recommends that a reader find a reading partner and read the following out loud as a way of entering Women of the Big Sky:

—Start with the first poem “this voice.”

Yes, skip over the Preface written by International Editions Series Editor Barbara Goldberg, “Liliana Ancalao and Poetry of Puel Mapu” written by English translator Seth Michelson, and “Memory of the Sacred Land” the aforementioned author introduction.

Starting with “this voice,” will give you a sense of the author’s anguish about what has happened to her people—“my sobs surging from my blood/ shouting/ into an abyss of silence.” You will also notice the attention paid to other living creatures: the “watery lapwing” (a type of bird in the plover family), condor, foals to describe the author’s state of being. And finally features of the land rise and fall through this poem: “i think of heights/ i’m a condor throwing herself against the cold” [mountains], “volcanos become flames in my fingers,” “this voice/ that’s ash on the lips/ wants to be a waterfall in the desert.” “this voice” is a powerful opening to a remarkable look at the Mapuche—“people of the land”—who European settlers and dictators tried to erase.

—Next, read the author’s introduction “Memory of the Sacred Land” which will provide some explanation of unfamiliar words and cultural background.

—Skim through poems 2 through 5 to get a sense why this book is emphasizing women: “daughters,” “women and the rain,” “women and the wind,” and “women and the cold.”

—Then, read “the silenced language,” Ancalao’s closing text which illuminates the author’s introduction, especially why the emphasis is on women. In this text, Ancalao refers to Mapuche women singing “their tayüles” which are sacred songs of family lineage. Additionally, there is a short, helpful glossary that follows “the silenced language.”

This approach should open up the poems and the introductory texts.


The Dresser’s favorite poem of the collection is “when i die i should cross the river.” It might be analogous to the Greek story of Charon who ferried people from the world of the living to the world of the dead. In Ancalao’s version, the male Charon is replaced by an “old lady” who takes the passenger’s payment. In “women and the wind,” Ancalao introduces “the Greek [who] warned me/ translating the coffee grounds.” So, we know Ancalao has experience with Greek traditions, especially those that involves shamans and the dead. Possibly, Ancalao uses references to the Greeks as a way to introduce Mapuche legends to an audience schooled in Western traditions. What the Dresser likes about “when i die i should cross the river” is that it shows the importance of musical instruments like the kultrun, a large wooden kettledrum made from a hollowed out “tree of power” that was used by the Mapuche machi (shaman) and the trutruka, a Mapuche horn that has a harsh sound.

we’ll eat beating hearts
and my sister will paint a kultrun in the air
with the blood

afterward i won’t know
if i’m a horse
or a gasp
if the wind is a trutruka
and we’ll go galloping
to cut loose the stars from the river
and in the circular movement
i’ll know at once
what it is to be a warrior running freely toward death …

Understanding the importance of the kultrun in these lines makes the opening lines of “this voice” more accessible: “she breathes the membrane/ of a drum soaked in a throat/ stretching from a skin of stitched leather/ to the distant/ watery lapwing.” The point is that reading Ancalao’s poems provides a circular experience such that while the reader might not immediately understand everything, eventually new information will surface. Additionally, the modern world also pops up occasionally to remind the reader that the poet is not living in the past. For example at the end of “when i die i should cross the river,” Ancalao mentions plastic bags.

i’ll know at once
what it is to be a warrior running freely towards death
…folks will be gathered around a fire
so i’ll remember
them from afar
and die once more

of the flat neighborhoods of home
rising in vertigo
from the city’s horizon
plastic bags and the stars there

The question is will the reader be willing to sit with this unfamiliar experience and rise to the challenge of participating in the poem? Yet another reason to have a partner with whom to read this collection.

Women of the Big Sky is a large format book to accommodate a simultaneous trilingual experience.

Thanks to Hal Greenwald for reading and discussing Women of the Big Sky with the Dresser.

Saturday, June 20, 2020

Transformer—A Different Kind of Woman’s Book

Transformer by Kathleen Winter is the 2019 selection by Maggie Smith for The Word Works Hilary Tham Capital Collection. “The world of Transformer is one where survival requires transformation,” wrote Smith.


“South Huntington Apartments,” the first poem of the book finds an unnamed “you” hiding behind a closet door while some male stalker comes down the cellar steps to the laundry room.

                                                Is it possible he was frightened
he might kill you? You could see his shoes through the strip
between hinges, high-tops that looked innocent even
when he kicked you.

The Dresser suspects the person hiding has been accosted by this maniac before and that another time was when the kicking was done.

                                                You stare
at green laces wrapped over his ankles.
Horses drown in the molasses time
that floods a shadow-tinted room.
Until his fear spins him around
and up the cement stairs

What is clear is that time has slowed down to stop what? [his wild] horse impulses such that he becomes afraid and retreats. This gives his victim time to transform this Hitchcockian story and flee.

                                                     Three flights up
he sprints but you just need to gain one floor to leave.
You just need one story
and it isn’t his.


Children are also not safe in the Winter’s world:

Edgar licked my desk. Did you do something
to make him lick your desk?

I’m attached to my disconnection,
fall in love with a fraction.

I want all these lambs
to escape being mutton.

Clumps of pale petals
on gray angled branches.

Thousands of lambs, each pear bough
a glutton.

Who is Edgar? Is he also learning fractions? Does he go outside to hear his victim sing a jump rope song that worries about lambs becoming tough meat?

His tongue licked my desk
I can see the spit glisten.

Asparagus comes up again
at this season, phallic,

aphrodisiac, perennially pleasing.
Under a tree, enjoy beyond

reason with the person (or persons)
whose desk you have chosen.

The Dresser sees that the victim who has now matured (transformed) in a later spring where asparagus grows once again now understands that Edgar’s craziness was an act of sexual aggression.


Men don’t fare well in this hot potato collection. Take “Henry VIII.”

Always a bridegroom,
never the bride to suffice.

When you’re picking them on the basis of paintings,
mistakes will be made.

I’d hope for someone with a sense of humor
but humors were all they had.

I’d hoped for a princess who spoke my language
but the high-class bachelorettes

were Spanish, Flemish, French.
For God’s sake, why can’t men birth the children?

Winter is having a good time making fun of this murderous king. She alters a feminine cliché—always a bride’s maid, never the bride—to heap faux pity on Henry. She allows him to wave away his mistakes based on the preposterous notion that like today’s online dating where photographs are shown, that he sees paintings of his future brides. Then the poet puns on the word humor which in Henry VIII’s day meant the substances black bile, yellow bile, blood and phlegm making up the human body. Anachronistically, Winter refers to the king’s possible brides as bachelorettes and settles with the king questioning in God’s name why can’t men birth the children? A slap in the face of men too funny to be even considered rhetoric.

Needless to say, the poem, with all its delicious sounding words, ends with a head rolling except the language mimics modern expression:  “Swipe left to cut off a head.”


One of the most difficult poems of the collection is the unpunctuated poem that gives the book its name. “Transformer” starts easily enough but maybe this is a deception since the dog might not just be a pet.

dog hair turns up
everywhere in this magnetic
collection but the dog is himself
underhand & not reading anything
except my expression which he studies better
than my lover ever
important to mark the pupils
the lips when your dinner
depends on it

There are three stanzas and the last two (shown below in their entirety) move in large leaps that are too elusive to easily understand. However, science figures largely and grounds what turns out to be an orchestrated transformation (solid to fluid).

depend on it music
is blood circulating
half the time unremarked through
our environs till it stops the music stopped
is stucco silence un-dripping un-undulating not
even sinking so movelessly still but still
in the blood a taste a flower a colorless color
diamonds aspire to the ice cube
my dog is obsessed with his canines facet it fracture it make
a brash satisfaction a liquid obliteration
of its solid rectangular

object to its geometry to edges sharp & regular must render it fluid to
lunar to ocean to something too elusive ever again to (quite) be hard

The question is what does the ice cube represent? Is it a metaphor for the owner of the dog or that person’s heart since there is so much blood. Stucco, something used in finishing and decorating houses, is made of dehydrated lime, powdered marble and glue. Because it is still (un-dripping un-undulating not /even sinking) and is like the diamond, stucco and the diamond serve as a contrasts to the ice cube. The Dresser wonders if she should think that the stucco/house and diamond are not “a girl’s best friend.” Even the dog seems a bit menacing in his obsession with “his canines,” those pointed teeth.

There is a lot to think about in Kathleen Winter’s Transformer. She is taking back the night from bad dreams and bogey men. She is taking back the day from all other horrors that afflict women and girls.

Thanks to Hal Greenwald for reading and discussing Transformer with the Dresser.

Tuesday, June 9, 2020

Stuff That Doesn’t Fit in a Box—Binary Planet

Binary Planet by Henry Crawford is a book of poetry that is out of this world, extraordinary for its reach forward (Future) and backwards (Past) but prophetically speaking to our odd situation now with a pandemic virus and global protest over racial injustice. The Dresser offers this example of Future:

Driving a 22nd Century Ambulance (excerpt)

into the tunnel comes a fleet
of self-driving flat-white
Escalades [patched] into [light
guided] screens updating the
incoming information [HUMAN
PRIMATES] reads the status
console [homing in] with
wide-area [nuclear resonance
imaging] showing a warren of
[modern humans] in the skeletal
stages of starvation

The Dresser notes that a higher intelligence speaks in this excerpt and that creatures like you and me—human primates—are not faring well.

The Dresser offers this example of Past:

Driving Across a Bridge (excerpts)

                                   …I cross
the Whitestone bridge into Queens
wondering [who I’d be] on the
Edmond Pettus Bridge

mine is a tribe of immigrant
factory hands [raised] across
the Rikers Island narrows
[measuring ourselves] by
the hats and coats of others
[fearing what we do not have]
Protected in the [normal] ways
                        …of hate

It’s always 1965 on the Edmund
Pettus Bridge [some locking arms]
some wielding [billy clubs] some are
[praying] others firing [tear gas]
others [walking] some on horses
some will [roll up the windows]
lock the doors [look straight ahead]
[stay in their lane] as the bridge
arcs over a river of lost history
bleeding out of Selma

The excerpt positions us in 1965 but the situation on the Pettus Bridge sounds like what happened in front of the White House on June 1, 2020, when police violently cleared a peaceful protest sparked by the brutal death of a black man at police hands (or rather a knee) in Minneapolis.


Black or white, true or false, one or zero—Crawford defines his binary planet. Yet he opens wide for what is outside these parameters. His poem “Machine Language” is an overlay to the binary ASCII code of zeroes and ones that is the last stanza of Sylvia Plath’s poem “Daddy.” Here is what the poem looks like on the page.

Here is the last stanza of Plath’s “Daddy” in English:

There’s a stake in your fat black heart   
And the villagers never liked you.
They are dancing and stamping on you.   
They always knew it was you.
Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through.

Here is Crawford’s poem separated from its binary code:

[we’re in here now]
[ where everything ]
[passes] [bottom of the machine]
[ our words ] [ finally ]
[ made just ]
[no Jews]
[no Germans] [ no vampires ]
[up there]
[ you unmasked ] [ the bastard ]
[here] [the skins of words]
[ in sequences ] [chalked
in whitespace ]
[ bastards all ]
[ and never ]
[ enough ]

The Dresser will pause here to reflect on Crawford’s English words which seem to both acknowledge and negate a huge prejudicial load with words like passes (often used in the context of a biracial person presenting as a Caucasian), Jews, Germans (in juxtaposition with Jews, Germans are seen as oppressors of Jews in WWII when Hitler targeted Jews for extermination), bastard (a child born outside of marriage and therefore outside of protective inheritance laws and societal acceptance of a certain period of time), skins, whitespace (these words point to racial differences). Does machine language (the code of zeroes and ones) cleanse the difference? Probably not, since there is “never enough sun” to do it. This ambiguity flies in the face of binary—black/white and true/false.


Remarkably, Crawford offers another overlay poem where he does not use machine language and he doesn’t use brackets. “The Love Poem of an Average Man,” which ends the book and forms its own section, overlays his long poem on fragments from Gertrude Stein’s book-length love poem Tender Buttons. Crawford then repeats Stein’s fragments, such as “a large box is handily made,” “no window is useless,” “broken in more places and mended,” “red rose and pink cut pink.” As he did in “Machine Language,” Crawford’s poem appears in bold font and Stein’s poem appears in gray characters. The Dresser’s collaborating analyst Hal Greenwald said, this [poem] is an exercise in boldness. If you take a look carefully at the end of the poem, Crawford’s bold words start to fade. It’s an interesting design touch that Henry Crawford said was his editor Nancy White’s idea. White did the design layout and it is a handsome book. White gave Binary Planet more attention to page layout than usual, because Crawford’s work has an artistic element that requires seeing the poems on the page.

For a love poem, “The Love Poem of an Average Man” has a low threshold of violence, starting with “pretend your beauty /as a gun pretends /its aim /this is the tumble /this is the end of fortune /throwing off our gold /bailing out /a drowning boat.” A little later in the poem, the violence becomes more intense: “we /wield /the sharpest /knives /bleed out /the wounds /expose the cuts /a river of blood.” What this poem puts forth is dirty realism and a concluding possibility that “there is something in nothing /it is possible /to be someone /it is possible /for us.”


Binary Planet addresses the high arts: music—Bach in “Fugue Before Lunch,” art—“Walt Whitman Ekphrastic”, writing—“Sketch of a Poem in 10 Broken Lines” as well as the low: video games—“Game [ON],” television—“Twilight Zone Reboot,” boxing—“Taking the Fall.” Whatever your mood or situation, Crawford has something for you—“Sex and Its Discontents,” “Cowboy Dreaming,” “A Night at the Drive-In,” “Getaway Car,” “Elegy for a Spin Instructor.”

The Dresser wants to leave you laughing though there is plenty in “Happiness” to remind you that in our time of the invisible killing virus, communicating this emotion might be dangerous for your health.

Happiness [excerpt]

Happiness must be possible [else why would we pursue it]
but wait a minute [it might be something like] “world peace”
which we think will happen someday [but it’s hard to imagine]
so what would happiness look like [does it come in colors]
white? black? blue? green? …sizes?...
…[will they let you take your happiness back if
it doesn’t] fit [how long does it last?]…
               …and what if your happiness lasts longer
than four hours [do you need to contact a medical doctor]

The Dresser acknowledges that Binary Planet by Henry Crawford is a book published by The Word Works. Thanks to Hal Greenwald for long and enjoyable readings and discussions of Binary Planet.

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.