Tuesday, October 12, 2021

At the Folger—Diane Seuss & frank:sonnets



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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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



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


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


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


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


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

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


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


                                                                                              …my kind of cowboy would read

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


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


                                    …Did you know the dead

can fall in love better than the living cuz nothing

left to lose. The root of all blues.   

—Diane Seuss, from sonnet 4, frank:sonnets


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

Saturday, October 9, 2021

Jan Karski, the Camera Who Witnessed the Holocaust in Poland


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


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


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


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




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


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


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



         (with excerpts from Brihadaranyaka Upanishad)


A woman on the eleventh

floor plunged to her

death Saturday, I heard

the sirens. She never screamed.


When he comes to weakness—


The explosion, when I sleep, repeats

and repeats, the body at rest

I see once, color splashed,

an artist out of control.


—whether he come to weakness

through old age or through disease—

this person frees himself from these limbs

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

releases itself from its bond;


Earlier in the week, dressed in slippers

and robe, hair uncombed, the performer walked

her miniature dog in the street. Some say

she fell.


…and he hastens again, according

to the entrance and place of origin,

back to life.


Monday I go to the office, teeth on edge,

the noise, the blood, the spilled brains

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


…As noblemen, policemen, chariot-drivers,

village-heads wait with food, drink,

and lodgings for a king who is coming,

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


The obituary tells about the choreographer

who last year, her eightieth year, danced

what she called a farewell concert,

having survived what seventy-four

relatives did not: the Nazis.


…so indeed do all things wait

for him who has this knowledge

and cry: ‘Here is the Imperishable

coming! Here is the Imperishable coming!’


My head bursts with unfinished

work I must complete. How

in the name of the Limitless,

will I celebrate this life?


—Karren L. Alenier

from Looking for Divine Transportation



Photo of David Strathairn by Teresa Castracane Photography