Sunday, April 30, 2023

The Excellence of the 21st Century Consort


21st Century Consort on April 29, 2023, presented “Echoes of Earth Day,” the last program of this season to a full house at Washington, DC’s St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in its glorious sanctuary with many colorfully grand stain glass windows. The Dresser goes on the record to assert this was an outstanding concert with excellent performances by accomplished musicians and a superb program selected by Artistic Director Christopher Kendall. Central to all the works is an expanded timbral palette.


A last-minute change of composition order featured first  Wang Jie’s “Sonata for the Other Shore” as played passionately by pianist Lisa Emenheiser. This was the American premiere. No doubt that composer Wang Jie who was present found Emenheiser’s performance of this difficult and theatrical composition meeting her expectations.


No less challenging was Juri Seo’s (also present for this concert) “Suite” played masterfully on the cello by Rachel Young. “Suite” in five movements was inspired by and subtly reminiscent of the unaccompanied cello suites of J. S. Bach. The work featured a scordatura tuning of the lowest string and extensive use of harmonics on all the strings.


Absolutely the Dresser’s favorite selection justly positioned to close the first half of the concert was “Whispers” by Sebastian Currier. In this work, percussion executed with dazzling precision by Lee Hinkle accented the equally precise performances of Lisa Emenheiser on piano (using the keys and internal strings of her instrument), Rachel Young on cello, and Sarah Frisof on flute. Not a minute went by without Hinkle’s subtle touch on snare drums, vibraphone, tambourine, and woodblocks.


“Danza de la Mariposa” by Valerie Coleman opened the second half of the program. This delicate and energic tone poem featured flautist Sarah Frisof.


George Crumb’s classic ecologically-themed work “Voix Balaenae” (Voice of the Whale) opens with a recording of whale calls and then moves into response first from flautist Sarah Frisof and then more formally in the segment known as “Sea-theme” by cellist Rachel Young and pianist Lisa Emenheiser. One unusual feature of this work is that the flautist and cellist alternately play antique cymbals. It was certainly this edgy piece by Crumb that motivated the Dresser to go out for this concert and it did not disappoint.


21st Century Consort is an exceptionally notable group of musicians giving voice to contemporary classical music and deserves every bit of publicity it can garner. Washington DC is blessed to have such talent.



Tuesday, April 11, 2023

Playing in The Court of No Record


The Dresser has noticed a swell of poetry collections written in the sway of lawyerly or criminal justice language dealing with misogynistic violence. Some of the books the Dresser has seen are Annie Kim’s Eros, Unbroken (winner of the 2019 Word Works Washington Prize), Susana Case’s The Damage Done (2022: Broadstone Books), various books by Monica Youn (e.g., From From 2023: Graywolf Press) and the focus of this review Jenny Molberg’s The Court of No Record (2023: LSU Press).









Playing in Jenny Molberg’s Court of No Record is a game that is loaded against the crime victim. Operative words for Molberg’s book The Court of No Record are evidence, testimony, and investigation. No worries there is plenty of poetry and it begins right away in the prologue poem entitled poetically and optimistically “ May the Stars Guide You Safely Home.” This is a poem written in couplets and while it begins  with a frightening prosaic declaration, it moves into poetic imagery about the people of America watching a show about an allusive man whose eyes can’t be seen because his eyes are so cold they create a fog on the lenses of his glasses:


After I call the cops to ask for a protective order

I read about the girlfriend of a serial killer. What she knew,


what she didn’t. How it seems we’re always punished

for asking questions. America is watching a show


about a man who is fascinating. His eyes ice

behind the fog of his glasses.


One of the actions that follows is that the narrator describes the call to the police and uses unexpected similes to depict her state of mind:


When I call the cops

I hold my arm like a seatbelt. When I call the cops


a woman answers. Hand over chest like an elementary

school lie: the pledge, the flag, the wrong math.


The arm held like a car’s seatbelt is a protective gesture, but the hand over the chest suggests a lie. However, it is a lie that she says is taught to little children—who must pledge their allegiance to the American flag where we citizens get “liberty and justice for all.”


Other details of this poem reveal that the girlfriend of the serial killer rode in his car which, unbeknownst to her, carried the body of a woman he had killed. However, the said girlfriend had also killed someone. Furthermore, the policewoman tells the narrator that by reporting this man, she could be making the situation worse for herself and that she should get a gun and be prepared to use it. So, the narrator calls a domestic abuse hotline, and they say her abuser has beat her to that hotline first and they can’t talk to her.


This is the stuff of nightmares, and the reader might question if the narrator is locked into disturbing dreams and therefore not telling things as they are:


The night of the hearing I awake thinking

I am the girlfriend, the silence of the trunk


an ocean. It takes hours to rise, to gather myself,

part by part, pulling the truth from the dark.


This is my face. This is my name.

Someone loves me.


My voice is animal in the courtroom microphone.

Behind the judge, the sideways prison of the flag.


Well, yes, she is living a disturbing dream and mixing up information because she is so upset and not getting any help from the justice system. Notice the metaphor that her voice is animal as she tries to give her testimony.


Molberg’s book is divided into three sections. Section I “Expecting” sets up the crime scenes and includes poems drawn from the dioramas of Frances Glessner Lee. The emphasis is on evidence.


Section II “The Court of No Record” is a long poem that deals with testimony in the courtroom. The poetic landscape often alternates between prose poems and a five-line haiku. Metapoesis plays a strong role as the poetry of the narrator becomes an issue in the courtroom. For example, the haiku “Evidence: She Said” is paired with the prose poem “My Testimony.”


Evidence: She Said


The cops?

When he chased me

down an alley, they stood

blue, unmoved. He can spin a badge.

Turn them.


In “My Testimony,” the narrator takes the stand and is badgered by the Alpha who is suing the narrator. However, everyone else—the Alpha’s lawyer and the judge—harass the narrator also. The judge says, “I don’t need to know whether these things happened to her, only if she wrote about them.”


Section III “What Love Does” focuses on a recurring character called “Bitch.” This is Molberg’s investigation of women. The bottom line is that women must become strong like the Bitch in “Bitch Monitoring Your Phone”: “I am a citizen detective. I am a sleuth.”


What Jenny Molberg and other women like Annie Kim, Susana Case and Monica Yuan are doing with their books of poetry is providing witness and testimony to injustices against women and those who are weaker than prevailing authorities. This is not beautiful poetry. This is poetry seeking  awareness and change.


 Photo by Johnny Ulasien