Gallery Review: 10″ x 10″ x 10″

Reviewed by Shannon Azzato Stephens

When encountering a blown glass piece, even the novice viewer can’t help but think about process. This is partly because the act of blowing glass seems daunting and intriguing. Looking at a good sketch, one might think, wow, I would never be able to do that— but it’s still easy to imagine a row of charcoal stubs, the artist’s blackened fingertips running over shadows on the page. But when I walked into the Pittsburgh Glass Center’s exhibition 10” x 10” x 10” to find a bouquet of immaculate glass daisies suspended in an orb of solid clear glass, my first thought was “how did they do that?”

I have to admit, my focus on the glassblowing process is clouded by experience: in college, I took classes at the Pittsburgh Glass Center and managed to make a series of wobbly cups. I know just enough about the process to cobble together an idea of how most glass pieces are done, and to feel completely overwhelmed by the skill inherent in the work at 10” x 10” x 10”, the latest show in PGC’s Hodge Gallery.

Running from May 6 – September 17, the show celebrates the 10th anniversary of PGC, a nonprofit center for glass art classes and exhibitions at 5472 Penn Avenue in Friendship. The gallery is open Monday, Friday, and Saturday from 10 am – 4 pm, and Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday from 10 am – 7 pm. The pieces, which all fit into a 10” by 10” by 10” measurement, represent the work of over 200 glass artists, from Pittsburgh to Tokyo and back. I advise walking very slowly around the long, narrow room. I missed a number of amazing details on my first sweep of the gallery: a globe the size of my thumbnail, a two-headed bird caught in a clear oval cup, a photograph mounted on the wall of a vase being blown.

When I was taking glassblowing classes, I thought the most beautiful artwork created in PGC’s ample studio space was the fleeting moments of molten glass in process. To be malleable enough for blowing, the glass is kept in a 2000-degree Fahrenheit furnace; glassblowers approach it for mere seconds at a time, gathering orbs of blindingly bright white glass onto the end of a “punti”, a long steel bar. This is done as quickly as possible, because even standing near the furnace for too long can burn the skin on your arms. The glass immediately begins to cool as soon as it is removed from the furnace, and glows a rich honey color —a match for its viscous, drippy consistency— during the process of blowing.

Molten glass moves quickly, gracefully, almost viciously under a glassblower’s tools: its color is bold, its form otherworldly. Though many pieces that demonstrate the artist’s intricate skill emerge from the studio looking very still and very finished, I prefer those that reflect the motion of glass while it’s still in process. My favorite piece at 10” x 10” x 10”, Tim Drier’s “Flow”, maintains this sense of motion while still looking “finished” (ie, it is nothing like the slumped, bubbly cups I crafted in my beginner classes).

Featuring a woman suspended in a clear ring, her back bent backwards in some kind of danceful rapture, the piece bears an impressive attention to detail while maintaining a sense of fluid motion. It seems as if the figure is about to uncurl her 6” body and step lightly onto the ledge where Drier’s piece has been set. She will move, not with the prescribed stiffness of a person, all bones and trepidation, but with the flow inherent in molten glass. She will glide, her shadows curving over the edges of wine glasses, sculptural flowers, and etchings of dark faces. She will get lost in the studio where she was born.

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American Classroom

By Songyi Zhang

Recently while chatting with friends and families from China, I’m often asked about my student life in America. I respond that it’s beyond belief how casual American students and professors are. You can sit Indian style with your legs tucked close to your body or with one foot propped on the chair. Some professors don’t even mind if students call them by their first names. In China, we always call our teachers by their family names followed by their academic titles. At first, I felt awkward calling my professors Sheryl or Marc as if we were long-time buddies. But lately, I’ve become more comfortable talking to them casually.

I remember on the first day of my writing class our professor asked us to move the chairs in a circle on my first day in class in America. Our class had about twelve to fourteen students. It wasn’t a big class at all compared to the Chinese classes in universities which usually have two or three times as many students. Since there weren’t any desks for students in the classroom—each chair had an extended writing pad — we could sit the way the professor wanted, which I thought facilitated the classroom interactions. For the first time in my life, I could make eye contact with other students in class. We became the center of the class instead of our professor, who in China would normally lecture from the podium.

What amazes me most is that students are permitted to eat in class. I was at first shocked when I saw my classmates munching chocolate bars or potato chips during class. How can they feel so at home while in school? And the instructors didn’t feel bothered by their students’ eating. In fact, usually in the last class of the semester we are encouraged to celebrate the end of the semester with our snacks. We bring food to the classroom and share with one another. In the meantime, we read aloud our signature writings. What fun!

Having spent almost three semesters in America, I’m surprised to find that I enjoy classroom discussion. Most American professors welcome students to speak up and participate in class. Another difference is that I take few notes. If I do, it’s rarely from the whiteboard. American professors don’t write everything on the whiteboard for students to copy. Instead, in their lecture, they combine theory with their personal experiences or understanding. I have to jot down the useful information while they speak in class. Of course, reading my notes later helps me understand my professors’ ideas.

The entire classroom experience in America is like a casual conversation with people who share the same interest—relaxing yet rewarding. And the three hour class passes quickly!
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Rule # 37. If you want to be a better teacher, be a better person.

by Publius

I was just asked to teach a methods course at a local college, one that is historically this city’s normal school. I said no for three reasons. First, I don’t teach 16th grade. Second, I consider methods courses inane. Third, I don’t need the money – in fact, even if I was that desperate for cash, I’d rather blow elephants a nickel a herd.

But about # 37. It isn’t just methods courses that are inane. There’s a process throughout the whole profession, one I refer to as ‘self-ninny-fication’. I can’t count the number of times I have participated in professional development workshops for 7th grade teachers, that are actually taught on a 7th grade level.

I was once heading to a workshop and, just before I left, my wife said, “Well, at least they won’t ask what animal you would be if you could be an animal.” First thing, I was asked to write what animal I would be if I could be an animal. It wasn’t an elephant.

I’m not actually opposed to professional development sessions. I’m just opposed to the dumb ones. I’ve been hired to do p. d. myself. When I teach a room full of teachers, I teach it like a graduate school seminar. After all, everyone in the room has at least a bachelor’s degree. Once, when asked to reflect upon my feelings about being an inner city teacher, I did a poetry reading.

So a friend was on his way to a p. d. session, when he passed Dorothy’s classroom. He says, “Hurry up. You’re going to be late.”

She responds, “It’s OK. I’ve already been.”

Steve stops and asks her, “How can that be? It hasn’t started.”

Dorothy says, “Oh, I’ve been going to the same professional development session for thirty-seven years.”

True story.

So I told the normal school hiring person, who was really nice and said she kept my resume “on the top of the pile”, that I would be glad to teach a course someday – but in the philosophy of education, or the history of education.

We are in an oppressed profession. Inner city teachers are, for instance, routinely blamed for everything that’s wrong with public education, and routinely blamed – I just have to say this – by folks who won’t so much as substitute in an inner city school. Which makes it all the worse when we self-ninny-fy ourselves. Thus, # 37.

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The World of Ten Thousand Poems

by Susan Kelly-DeWitt

If you walked into my kitchen right now you’d see the cartoon I snipped from a December 2006 New Yorker posted on a cupboard door beside one of Snoopy typing away on the roof of his doghouse, and a photograph of our now not-so-new new president signing something into law.

In the New Yorker cartoon a “suit” with a briefcase stands with his shoulders somewhat slumped and a puzzled, slightly grouchy look on his face. He’s staring at the gabby snail addressing him from the sidewalk below. The caption reads: “I’m your spirit animal.”

This cartoon (along with some knowing laughter) seems like a good place to begin a short saga of writing life which Snail has guided, occasionally stepping aside for Raven or Butterfly.

-==-

Indeed I have, in the world of ten thousand poems, put together many manuscripts—both chapbooks and full-length collections—beginning with my Master’s thesis Fireweed, an early effort with a few good poems in it and many earnest but flawed attempts at poems. (I confess: Some years ago I did sneak into the college library and remove Fireweed from the shelf permanently—the kind of heist I’ve heard other poets admit to as well, especially after a glass of wine.) My next manuscript was called Confronting the Angel, a title I soon jettisoned when I was advised that angels were “out” (this was the early eighties) then reclaimed—but jettisoned again when angels were suddenly “in” once more, materializing (or so it seemed) on poetry book covers everywhere.

The new decade brought a reworked sequence of sixty plus pages called Words in Earthquake Country. I felt especially sympathetic to this title and its inherent metaphor—it felt kindred too because in real-time I live within sixty miles of several major California faults. Words was also abandoned then reclaimed again (briefly) after my experience of the Loma Prieta earthquake and my inability for a few hours to check on the welfare of my children a hundred miles away. (For weeks afterward I felt like I was seasick, walking on liquid earth. Twenty-one years later I still remember vividly the sound the quake made—the roar of a train bearing down on us.)

Loma Prieta, 1989

upwind upriver glass
shook my son into the arms

of his sister and news
telephoned their feet

they stood fast there
bold as headlines

cracked bloodlines in plaster
incisions in concrete

some true things collapsed
a bridge in our minds

snapped and fear
furrowed like headlights

in the belly of the bay
hands and knees crawled

but the way was
flashlit the way was after

shock pilgrims
everything tumbledown

and shrines of dead
batteries

Fast forward a few more years: to Water Signs, another collection and title that hung on, making a few publisher rounds even as it outlived itself, until the poems in it morphed drastically and thus cried out for more change. The transformation occurred; the new version was called Eden Street; like all Edenic stories, this one too was short-lived.

So many false starts in this world of ten thousand poems!—Many tries at chapbooks too, titles like Glassworks, Attar, Face in the Glass, Archipelagos of Old Age, among the few I can remember. Most went the way of all those others I filed in the bright blue twenty-gallon recycling cans beneath the pink crepe myrtle in my yard.

Each time I unloosed and tossed yet another stack of poetic history in, I bowed to the loquacious snail at my feet.

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On Hearing that Flora the Elephant has Retired from the Circus

by John Samuel Tieman

I’ve been asked to write a poem for Circus Flora. Flora is the eponymous African elephant, now in retirement. Here’s my first try:

Tanka For Flora

Now in retirement
Flora contemplates her life —
the circus — the kids —
she recalls Africa and
knows somewhere — somewhere out there —

An assignment like this brings out the playful side of writers. When I told my friend Arnie Schnegel about it, he immediately sent me these two delightful poems:

Circus Flora

Flora, the elephant,
Is quite the dancer.
In her tutu she looks
Quite fancier.

Circus Flora has gone
Into retirement.
Now she can wear
Simpler attirement.

Naming the Elephant

Flora, Flora,
Quite contrary,
Why didn’t they
Name you Mary?

And when Phoebe Cirio, my love, saw Arnie’s poems, she came up with this one, the best of the lot:

There once was an elephant named Flora
Who liked to dance the hora
Away she did go
No longer with the show
But we do still adore her

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Limerick

by Arnie Schnegel

There once was a man named Osama
Who got shot in his pajamas.
The lesson to tell:
Unless you’re Michelle
You don’t fuck with Obama.

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Theatre Review: Shining City by Conor McPherson

Reviewed by Arlene Weiner

Shining City. By Conor McPherson. Directed by John Shepherd. With Dennis Schebetta, F.J. Hartland, Karen Baum, and James Maschiovecchio. Off the Wall Productions. 147 N. Main Street, Washington, PA.

How come Shakespeare wasn’t Irish? So many of the classical English-language playwrights were: Congreve (though born English), Sheridan, Wilde, Shaw—not to mention those who took Ireland and her people for their subject, Synge, Yeats, O’Casey. And in our day Irish playwrights flourish: Brian Friel, Martin McDonagh, Conor McPherson. Perhaps it’s the relation of plays to, well, relations. Not just relationships but relating, storytelling. Not all modern Irish drama, but some, rejects the divide between presentation and representation—it shows by telling. In Friel’s play The Faith Healer, for example, the three characters never interact, they only narrate alternately, until their narratives become a braid, a noose that exacts a gasp.

So it is, in part, with Shining City. The two main characters are a therapist and his patient. How convenient, we think: for a therapist can be the confidant, that theatrical device into whose ear exposition is poured. But that’s not McPherson’s game, or not entirely. For the patient isn’t the main character and the therapist a sock puppet. There’s a kind of rhyme between the two. Each has female trouble. Each has his anguish.

Nevertheless a good swatch of this play is the tale told, in pieces, by the unhappy patient.

The patient’s wife has died, violently, and he has seen her since her death. He’s terrorized and at wit’s end. And the marvel is that in the telling, this story, its fractions, both these stories, move us to pity and terror. In intervening scenes we learn about the therapist’s past and present and doubtful future, and are moved by them as well.

The marvel is due in large part to the wonderful acting of F.J. Hartland and Dennis Schebetta, which must mean marvelous direction by John Shepherd. Karen Baum and James Maschiovecchio are also very effective. (All but Maschiovecchio are Equity actors.)

The night my companion and I went to Shining City we drove I-79 through thunder, lightning, and torrents of rain. We ascended to the theater (it unfortunately is not, unless I’m mistaken, handicap-accessible). I think it was worth the trip.

Shining City runs May 6-7, 13-14, 19-21 at 8pm, 5/15 at 3pm.

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Fleeting Pages

by Shannon Azzato Stephens

I confess: I grew up in big-box bookstores.  In New Jersey in the 1990’s, monolithic Barnes & Nobles and Borders Books had already bought out most local bookworm haunts.  When I had extra pocket money I would take a ride to the mall and lose myself in a veritable labyrinth of discount bestsellers.  I loved how cavernous the stores were: ceilings to the sky, endless square-footage in which to hide from my mom.

Becoming a writer morphed my feeling for these stores.  The likelihood of one of my books, or the incredible work of any of my friends or colleagues ending up next to a Nora Roberts novel in the lobby of a Borders?  Next to nil.  So imagine my bliss when I walked into Fleeting Pages, a local bookstore / co-op / writers’ collective lodged in the empty space left by Borders Books.  Located at 5986 Penn Circle South, Fleeting Pages is an oasis in the arena of glaring concrete that is Penn Circle South. 

Seriously, it really feels like an oasis: cool and open, the space feels refreshingly sparse without Borders’ characteristic “30% OFF” and “NEW TITLES” signs.  In Fleeting Pages, everything is a new title: poetry chapbooks by Pittsburgh writers; a collection of books by Wayward Press, which illustrate travel destinations through writing by local authors; a section of graphic novels that you wouldn’t find next to the latest Marvel issue in a comics store.  For a young writer like myself, the section of Fleeting Pages devoted to literary journals was particularly useful: usually, I would have to order a copy of WEAVE or Falling Star Magazine online.  Instead, I grabbed a stack of comics and journals and chapbooks and sat at a long dining-room table in the corner, poring over the writing of people who live in my zip code but whose names I’ve never heard.  If nothing else, Fleeting Pages is a somewhat rude awakening: before spending an afternoon there, I had no idea how much of a writers’ community there really is in Pittsburgh.

And isn’t that what book stores should do, in the end?  Connect customers to other readers, other writers.  Fleeting Pages does just that, hosting readings and workshops and serving as a space for local artists.  Apart from its collection of tables and chairs that lines the windows and a Tazza D’Oro coffee shop extension, the store has a screening room for films.  Upcoming events include a writing workshop hosted by WEAVE literary magazine (Weds. May 18, 7 pm); a reading by writers from Literazzi (Mon. May 23, 7 pm); and a brainstorming meetup for artists of all mediums (Tues. May 24, 6.30 pm).  Fleeting Pages is a brief interlude in the Penn Circle South norm; events (and the store) end June 1st.

One of the most interesting things about Fleeting Pages is also the most jarring: it is very clear that you are in what was, mere weeks ago, a fully-operating big-box book store.  One of Borders’ slogans is still painted on the wall, half torn-off to make room for a shelf of donated books.  It says, “Borders is exactly what you want it to be: a place to find what you’re looking for or to discover something exciting and unexpected.”  These words are remarkably apropos to Fleeting Pages: walking in, I was looking to feel refreshed.  I walked out with a long list of books to read, wondering how many of their authors I’ve seen on the street.

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The Price

by John Samuel Tieman

When I think of Vietnam, I think of Joe Cocker. Of course, I remember M-16s, bunkers and Claymore mines. But I think of Joe Cocker singing “Delta Lady”. Why? Because I was 19. Because he sang –

Please don’t ask how many times I found you
Standing wet and naked in the garden
And I think of the days
And different ways that I held you
We were closely touching, yes our heart was beating

I think of “Delta Lady”, because I had never known that kind of sensuality, that kind of intimacy.

In 1970, I was stationed with the 4th Infantry Division Band in the Central Highlands of Vietnam. We had a great job, but it was a dangerous place at a dangerous time. This was during, and just after, the Cambodian Invasion.

But this isn’t an essay about danger. This is an essay about longing.

Musicians in Vietnam were like musicians anywhere. We were artists, artists in uniform, but artists nonetheless. As a group, we were vastly more educated than our fellow enlisted men, and, frankly, more sophisticated than many in the officer corps. A master’s degree in music was not unusual, a bachelor’s degree fairly common, proficiency on your “horn” a must. I knew a guy who was drafted right out of Woody Herman’s band. My point being that we had all the intelligence, sensibilities and sensitivities of artists. And we were young. Chuck Willis, a Spec. 4 from Tyler, Texas, a trumpeter, Chuck we called “Pop”, because he was the oldest of my group of buddies. He was 24. I was 20.

Our company was divided between “juicers” and “heads”. The juicers were drinkers. They often were the “lifers”, professional soldiers, as well as those who, for whatever reason, preferred liquor to drugs. Then there were the “heads”, the dope smokers. I was a “head”. We “heads” were “hippie soldiers”, who wore peace signs and beads beneath our fatigues. We did our duty, several “heads” were decorated, but we loathed the war.

In the Central Highlands, the nights could be cool. And we were cool. The “heads” had a bunker to ourselves, a bunker to which, when we were off-duty, we could retreat in the evening and get high. There someone would break-out a cassette player and tapes. Today, this seems as ancient as saying we read from an illuminated manuscript. But, in 1970, this was hi tech. And our music was deeply cool. Janis. Jimi. Chicago. Credence. Blood, Sweat and Tears. Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. And Joe Cocker.

“Standing wet and naked in the garden.” I had never known that kind of intimacy, that kind of sensuality. I was on a first name basis with a dozen prostitutes. But what Joe Cocker sang about – I longed to know what that was about, what my wife calls “domestic eroticism”, the simple eroticism that leads to the fullness of our humanity.

This is the price we ask of our soldiers. This is what we deprive them of. At a time in their lives when they should be working on the skills of intimacy, they don’t simply find themselves isolated – they find themselves sharpening a bayonet, clearing a minefield, cleaning an M-16 instead of dry cleaning their best suit, or that long black dress, for a date. It’s easy to say that war deprives folks of their lives and their limbs. What is difficult is to say that we deprive that young soldier of his or her psychic wholeness. “Welcome Home!” is easily said. It’s painful to think of Audie Murphy, America’s most decorated soldier, having flashbacks during which he held his wife at gunpoint.

But about “Delta Lady” There’s also these lines –

And I whisper sighs to satisfy her longing
For the warm and tender shelter of my body

“My body.” Me, “the warm and tender shelter”. Like many veterans of war, I bore a terrible and certain knowledge, that, given the right circumstances, I’m capable of killing. And I don’t speculate. I am certain of it. This I learned at age 20. At a time when I should have been learning how my body can be a “warm and tender shelter”. At a time when I should have been learning not only how to love, but how to be loved. When others were having their first love affairs, me and the guys in that bunker were having Red Alerts.

Which is why, today, when I look around my modest home, when I look at my beloved, my wife, I say a prayer of such gratitude. And I think of that time when Ollie, our assistant armorer, a burly black Chicagoan, comes into the bunker, pops a tape into the cassette, and says “You gotta hear this, man.” He plays “Our House” by Crosby, Still, Nash and Young. And Ollie smiled a smile, and Ollie dreamed a dream. And today I pray for Ollie, wherever he is, that he got that house, that he married that woman he’d heard about in a song.
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My Mother Died at 101

by John Samuel Tieman

When I was a kid, I used to think that faith was about knowing stuff. Today, I think that faith is about wishing that life taught us something.

My mother died at 101, almost 102, years of age. Her memorial service was last weekend.

These days, it’s called the Mass Of The Resurrection. In the old days, a Requiem Mass. This mass was held in the chapel of a cloistered order of nuns. My mother loved those nuns, and they loved her.

But today, the day after the service, I am exhausted. I arranged the service, did the readings, delivered the eulogy. Like so many American families, we were born here, St. Louis, and almost everyone left here. I, by chance, returned. And stayed. Thus the arrangements were left to me. And that was OK. I like this liturgy.

There is a sameness to the Mass, whether it is said by the pope or the simplest Franciscan, whether it is in Latin or English, whether it is in Chartres Cathedral or, in this case, a small monastery. Some bits, like the gospel and the epistle and the psalm, these change from day to day. For all that, even these readings are framed within a liturgy remarkable for its sameness. This is true of a lot of Catholic prayers. The rosary is essentially a chant. The Hours are essentially The Psalms sung over and over and over.

My point being that I wish all this taught me something. About life. About prayer. About death. About life after death. I know what I believe. But I’ve reached an age where I don’t care what I believe. I care about what I feel. And right now, today, a day after her Mass, I feel empty and exhausted.

I thought I would cry when I saw my mother’s ashes. I thought I would cry when I read her eulogy at the memorial mass. Instead, I cry at odd times. Watching a show. Feeding the birds. Doing the dishes.

In a sense, I’ve come to the conclusion that there are no conclusions. I find comfort in the mass. In the rosary. I find comfort in family and friends and cloistered sisters. But I wish all this taught me something. About prayer. About emptiness. About exhaustion. About why I cry when I’m feeding the birds.
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Interview with Poet Jacqueline Berger

by Zara Raab

First published in San Francisco Review of Books

Berger is the author of three prize-winning books: The Mythologies of Danger (the 1997 Bluestem Award and the Bay Area Book Reviewers Association Award); Things That Burn, (Agha Shahid Ali Prize in Poetry); and The Gift That Arrives Broken, (Autumn House Poetry Prize). Garrison Keillor recently read two of Berger’s poems on National Public Radio’s Writers’ Almanac. With a Master of Fine Arts from Mills College, Berger teaches creative writing and directs the graduate program in English at Notre Dame de Namur University in Belmont. She lives in San Francisco.

Zara Raab: You’ve written three books, all poetry, all award winners: How did you manage this? Is it as easy as it looks for you to publish?

Jacqueline Berger: I’m incredibly tenacious. I keep sending out my work until it finds a publisher. It took me over a year to find a publisher for my first book, but the first book didn’t ease the way for the second one, which was short-listed for a lot of prizes. I began to feel I was always a brides’ maid, never a bride, but after four years, I did find a publisher for that book, and the next one. Manuscripts never come to a resting place for me: they are always evolving. I begin sending a manuscript out in the fall, but by the spring, it’s a very different manuscript, because I’m constantly revising.

ZR: What are you working on now?

JB: My parents died last year within four months of each other, and my new book’s about death and loss, about living without my parents. My mother got sick in June and died in October. I wrote many poems at the end of her illness, and many are addressed to her. It’s the first time I’ve written to a specific “you.” I could keep her alive through the poems. I could tell her the things that happened to me since she died. We were very close. We didn’t talk about death at the end, because for my mother it wasn’t gong to happen. My mother was sure she would live to be ninety. She died when she was eighty-three. Her belief was her faith and her denial of her own death. What is the relationship between the two? I was left with a lot of conversation that I needed to keep having with her.

I’ve also been invited to China to judge a televised high school and college writing contest, and I’m getting ready for that trip. It’s my second assignment there, and I’m looking forward to being wined and dined.

ZR: Where do you find the impetus for your writing? Why did you decide to become a writer?

JB: At Goddard College, I studied with Olga Burmas and Jane Miller. I’d always been interested in writing but the experience of free writing was transformative, and I tapped into something in myself I had no idea was there. I ended up studying with Olga in Freehand Women’s Writing Community in Provincetown, Massachusetts on the Cape. I’m one of those writers who writes in order to know her life. Crafting is part of knowing.

ZR: Why have you taken up poetry and not other forms of writing, the novel, say?

JB: Many of my poems start with ideas that I want to tease out. That’s what writers like Philip Lopate and Bernard Cooper do in their essays, which are fabulous. If I didn’t write poems, or if I had all the time in the world, I’d write personal essays. When we narrative poets choose another form to work in, it’s not usually the novel.

ZR: In The Gift That Arrives Broken, you remind us of the limitations of language, yet your work as a whole is what editors call “accessible.” You’re not just writing for others poets or artists, but for a wider audience, is that correct?

JB: You don’t choose what you’re going to write. If someone gives you an assignment, you can sit down and write in a certain style, but it’s not what you’re going to write when you’re on your own. I can do an experimental, language poem, but it doesn’t have any meaning for me.

ZR: Which authors—poets and otherwise––inspire you?

JB: I love Jack Gilbert, Robert Hass, Mark Doty, Marie Howe. Hass and Doty, in particular, are narrative poets, but they are expansively narrative. I love that.

ZR: What books are you reading at the moment?

JB: During the time of my mother’s death and then my dad’s four months later, I found Donald Hall’s Without,a book of poems written to his wife, the poet Jane Kenyon. I also discovered Kevin Young’s wonderful anthology The Art of Losing. Poetry became more important to me than when I lost my parents. I had started Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, and I was 50 pages in, but I had to put it aside for six months, as I had no emotional space for anyone’s else’s story. When times are hard, people turn to poetry. But I did, in fact, later finish Franzen’s book and loved it.

ZR: How do you decide whether to pick up a book? Referral from a friend? Or something you read in a book review or on-line?

JB: It’s intuitive. I run my hand along a shelf until something begins to hum. In the case of The Art of Losing, I’d gone to AWP [Associated Writing Programs] in Colorado in 2010, when the book came out, and I just knew that I wanted this book. With the Donald Hall’sWithout,I’d owned it for years, but not really read it until now. I keep certain books on my radar, so I try to stay alert to new books coming out.

ZR: What advice would you give to aspiring young writers?

JB: Join a writers group because it’s just too hard to write in isolation. And a good group becomes the immediate reader, thereby quieting the “so what?” feeling that stops young writers before they give themselves a chance. A good group also inspires and provides a deadline. I’ve been meeting with my group for fifteen years, every other week, and I never come empty handed. Other advice: read a lot, sure, but also become deeply curious about yourself and your relationships. You want to develop two skills — knowing how to write and having something to say.

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Zara Raab’s Book of Gretel draws on her experiences in remote parts of rural California. Her poems appear in West Branch, Arts & Letters, Nimrod, and Spoon River Poetry Review, her reviews in Poetry Flash, Valparaiso Poetry Review, and Colorado Review. Her first full-length collection, Swimming the Eel, is due out this fall.

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My First Sonnet

by Arlene Weiner

I must have been eight or ten when my mother’s friend Sally died, and Sally must have been in her thirties or at most early forties. After Sally died, my mother cut a poem out of “The Ladies’ Home Journal” and tacked it to the cabinet over our kitchen sink where she could see it when she was washing dishes.

I remember the beginning of the poem. It was called “Godspeed,” a word I didn’t understand, and began, “Wherever you have gone, we wish you well./Only our loss can give us cause for weeping./If death is but a rest and a last sleeping,/There is no blade of grass that cannot tell/The quiet you deserve.”

The poem was a revelation to me. I’d read poems, and my mother had read poems to me. I may even have written poems. But I expected poems to rhyme at the ends of sentences, and I expected the rhymes to come neatly in pairs, the lines closing firmly: like taking a step out and bringing the back foot up, then standing still a moment before stepping out again—in other words, in couplets, AABBCC. In “Godspeed” the second line had a little rocking motion (the two-syllable rhyme) and the next line had too, closing the rhyme—and then the poem unexpectedly (to me) rhymed with that first line and swept right on around a curve before the sentence finished in midline.

I don’t remember the rest of the poem. It was, I’m pretty sure, a Petrarchan sonnet. I read in the New York Times, December 25, 2005, that Elizabeth McFarland became the poetry editor of “The Ladies’ Home Journal” in 1948, that she published “some 900” poems, and that the magazine stopped publishing poetry in 1962. She was a poet herself; after she died, Daniel Hoffman, her widower, published a book of her own poetry, “Over the Summer Water.”

I learned something from that poem. Not only about enjambment, or ABBA rhyme, or Petrarchan sonnets. I learned something about my mother’s soul. And I learned that in a time of grief poetry can console.
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Restaurant Review: Yo Rita

Reviewed by Noah Gup

The first thing one sees at Yo Rita is a large cartoon picture of a scantily clad female that adorns the window. At first glance it looks more like a tattoo parlor than a gourmet taco shop. And one look at the menu, and it’s clear this isn’t your mama’s Mexican restaurant: “Vietnamese styled” tacos, grits, and a “fried chicken waffle thing,” are all served, (with some more traditional options). Yo Rita takes the format of a taco and runs with it, with results that are often strange, occasionally delicious, and always interesting.

Besides the sexy mascot, Yo Rita looks unassuming from the street. Tables are squished close together, and when the restaurant is busy, space is tight and noisiness ensues. Waiters constantly run back and forth from the kitchen to accommodate the always-full dining room. Even the bartender occasionally makes rounds to refill water glasses.

The menu is startlingly assorted, focusing on the south: both South America and the Southern United States. Despite the varied menu, Yo Rita abides by a classic Mexican restaurant tradition; each table is served complimentary chips and salsa. Despite the interesting Southern twang, a starter of grits was so overwhelmingly salty that the avant-garde toppings (including “corn fungus”) were squelched. An order of ceviche, however, was nearly perfect. It was first a feast for the eyes, with the white Tilefish, red pickled onions and streaks of yellow lemon zest. While the fish was marinated in lemon juice, the sweet onions balanced the sour.

For entrees, Yo Rita only offers tacos, and two tacos per person is the recommended order. The tacos are often so full, however, that finishing two is difficult (even for a ravenous adolescent such as myself). The soft, hearty tortillas are from Reyna’s in the Strip, and they are up to the challenge of supporting the many toppings piled into a Yo Rita taco. Unfortunately, the tacos themselves are an inconsistent affair. A recurring theme is excess: a spicy-sweet BBQ chicken taco is overwhelmed by cubes of cheese and tortilla chips. A slightly sour pulled lamb taco could be delicious just by itself, but the barbeque potato chips thrown on top are overkill. The Rainbow Trout taco, despite its long list of toppings, tastes only of its thick, bland mustard aioli. The “crispy pork belly” that tops the Trout taco is merely fried, taking away the melt-in-mouth magic of the fatty meat. Pork belly fares much better on the Bahn Mi Vietnamese-styled taco. Surprisingly subtle, pork belly is the star, and the peanut and cilantro topping only compliments its natural richness. The steak taco is also a success, finding a sometimes-scorching balance between pineapple and jalapenos.

Vegetarian tacos are similarly spotty. A Black eyed pea taco had an astounding curry cucumber raita, only enhanced by a topping of almonds. A potato taco, on the other hand, tasted similar to hash browns. While there is only one dessert option which changes daily, berry shortcake was surprisingly complex. Topped with Grand Marnier whipped cream, the biscuit-like cake relies on the raspberry and blueberry toppings for sweetness.

Service is casual, occasionally do-it-yourself. However, in a restaurant where the staff is constantly moving, service was solid. The best food at Yo Rita is almost always the simplest. If Yo Rita tightens up and calms down, it could be a truly unique taco shop. If not, then there will still be the ceviche.

(Yo Rita is located at 1120 Carson Street in Pittsburgh’s Southside neighborhood. Tacos range from $4 to $8)

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The Snows of Bygone Years

by John Samuel Tieman

I often wonder what ever happened to Francois Villon?

I am an historian, as well as a writer of mostly poems and essays. I have a great love for history’s rascals, especially if they are poets. Especially if they’re late medieval poets, since I’m a bit of a medievalist.

Francois Villon is best known for his Testament and his Legacy, long poems, each of which is written in the form of a last will and testament. He also wrote many shorter lyrics. Historians are much taken by those short lyrics which are written in gang jargon. (Think of a medieval Nelly rapping “Pimp Juice”.) At his finest, Villon evokes a wistful melancholy, the best example of this being the “Ballad Of The Ladies Of Bygone Times”, which contains his most quoted line, “But where are the snows of bygone years?”

Aside from what was discerned from the poems, for centuries almost nothing else was known of his life. Around the 1870’s, the poems are supplemented by the discovery of other primary sources. Police records. Court records. He was born in Paris about 1431. He earned his bachelor’s degree from the University Of Paris. He certainly was a cleric in minor orders, although there is no indication that he was a Catholic sub-deacon, deacon or priest. As a student, he seems to have engaged in rowdy, if relatively harmless, mischief. (Anyone, who has been an undergraduate, needs no further explanation of such behavior.) He got his M. A., also from the University Of Paris, in 1452. Of the next few years after his graduate studies, of these we know little, although every indication is that Villon lived a life we today would describe as bohemian.

Beginning on the 5th of June, 1455, the police and the courts record brawls, homicide, robbery, imprisonments, banishments, tortures, two death sentences and fortuitous pardons. He was once water-boarded. In the “Ballad to Fat Margot”, he described how he made his living as a pimp. On the 5th of January, 1463, he was banished from Paris. This was a commutation. Villon originally was to be “strangled and hanged on the gallows of Paris.”

All the primary sources, the poetry, the police records, the court records, these all date from 1455 to 1463. Nothing more is known.

But that doesn’t stop me from speculating. I think Francois Villon had that every popular combination of sociopathy and narcissism. While he was deeply religious, he never showed any real sign of a conscience. Crimes and criminal associations, which he freely admitted, were delivered with a poetic wink and a smart aleck rhyme. He had empathy, in that he was aware of the pain of others, but he seldom showed compassion. He mourned the fact that his mother was poor and alone, but he didn’t do anything about it. He beat Fat Margot with a club. Pity he reserved for himself.

I can imagine that cold January morning in 1463. I can watch him walk to the gates of Paris. He’s got only what he can carry, a manuscript, his degrees, a rosary, a loaf of bread. I can imagine him dressed as a cleric. He is thirty-two. He’s been imprisoned, tortured, beaten, stabbed. He no doubt looks a lot older than thirty-two. He has legitimate skills. He can be a scribe, do parish work, teach. He is a man of letters. He is not without hope. But he’s also a thief. And a little scary.

And I am an historian, so, in a sense, I have to stop speculating. I have to let him go. And that’s the problem with history. I want to understand the psyche of Francois Villon. But I’ll never really will know his mind. I want Francois Villon redeemed. But I’ll never really know his soul either. I can go no further with him than the gates of Paris. Did he end his days as a village priest? Or hanging from the gallows at the edge of the village?

The problem is that life’s real mysteries aren’t as enigmatic as they are enervating. Where did all the money go? Why do we hurt the ones we love? Why can’t the Israelis and the Palestinians figure out how to get along, and leave the rest of us alone?

Which is why we love a good murder mystery. It’s so much more satisfying than any real history. There’s the dead body. The weeping loved ones. The world is disordered, oh no! But wait. There’s a clue. Enter the handsome detective who, not without considerable personal risk, solves the mystery and sets the universe aright once again. But history just isn’t that tidy. The truth is often found in the unanswerable question.

Which leads me to wonder, once again, what ever happened to Francois Villon?

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Opera Review: Dialogues of the Carmelites by Francis Poulenc

Reviewed by Rita Malikonyte Mockus

“I do not despise the world. I simply don’t know how to live in it,” sings religiously apprehensive Blanche (performed by Amanda Majeski) to her affectionate father, Marquis de la Force (James Maddalena) in the last Pittsburgh opera of the season. In this opera by the 20th century French composer Francis Poulenc, every encounter with the profane produces in Blanche a state of unbearable unease: she must devote her life to the contemplation of the agony of Christ. Amanda’s expressive soprano weaves the harmony of disquiet, as her character Blanche is trying to evacuate every drop of precious strength from her fragile inner nature as she prepares to leave her father’s house for the convent. The emphatic moment finally comes after Blanche is mortally frightened by the noise of the riotous crowd. Blanche retires from the world, takes the veil and joins the Carmelite order. 

It didn’t take a highly sensitive young aristocrat to experience the turmoil and uncertainty in the late years of the 18th century in Paris. All of France was about to be transformed by the terror of the French Revolution. Poulenc, who also wrote the libretto for the opera based on the play by Georges Bernanos, follows the innovative tradition of his operatic predecessors Gluck and Wagner and admits his debt to the Russian composers Mussorgsky and Stravinsky. The appropriately somber tone, at times reminiscent of liturgical music, of the ariosos and recitatives, creates a continuous unity of discourse between the feeling melodies of the musical score and the human drama of religious passion expressed in the lines of existential libretto. All the elements of this opera are seamlessly interwoven, leaving nothing superfluous in its dramatic fabric: no grandiose arias, no virtuoso ensembles, not even an overture that usually opens the operas of the classical period; just genuine dialogues among the pious equals. 

The most puzzling character in the opera is the dying Prioress, Madame de Croissy, who, after a long and somewhat accusatory interrogation, finally gives the blessing to the neophyte Blanche. “I am the prisoner of the holy agony! […]. “Who am I to concern myself with God – let him first concern himself with me,” screams the Prioress in her funereal contralto (performed by Sheila Nadler). Believing that strength, force, suits the realities of nunnery life better than agony, she refuses to accept the young novice’s desire to take the name of Blanche of the Agony of Christ. Blanche de la Force, so it is. 

Shared pilgrimage to the holy site of inner strength forms the focal point of Act II and III. The ungodly revolution declares the practice of religious orders illegal. The desecrated convent becomes a testing ground for fear. Different voices express their meaning of it: “One must risk fear,” “Is fear a sickness?” “Fear doesn’t offend God. Fear is not a sin.” Blanche dreads martyrdom, the vow her holy sisters humbly take. Act II contains an abundance of superb lyrical singing based on Christian worship music (most notably, “Ave Maria” and “Ave verum corpus”). Torn by the exigent choice between life and death, both equally menacing, Blanche runs away. 

The final scenes of great operas are epitomes of bel canto singing. Scene IV of Dialogues of the Carmelites follows this tradition in a way peculiar to its subject matter: the opera ends in a prayer of a true bel canto quality, the Salve Regina, Mater Misericordiae, as the nuns fearlessly march one by one to the scaffold to be guillotined, suddenly joined by Blanche, who finally mounts the scaffold singing a prayer of her renewed faith in God: Deo Patri sit Gloria (All praise be thine, o risen Lord). 

The director, Eric Einhorn, stages a musical drama true to its theme. The endless gripping spectacle reflects the tragic poetry of the plot. The gloomy colors of the scenery are germane to the sacred dialogues’ minimalist stage setting. 

The opera offers excellent performers, splendid directing, and expressive conducting by Jean-Luc Tingaud – it is a tour de force. 

Final performance Sunday May 8 at 2:00 pm.

Tickets and further information available at www.pittsburghopera.org.

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Theatre Review: Superior Donuts

Superior Donuts. By Tracy Letts. Directed by Ted Pappas. Pittsburgh Public Theater, O’Reilly Theater. April 14 through May 15, 2011. With David Agranov, Sharon Brady, Donald Corren, Brandon Gill, Daryll Heysham, Joe Jackson, Wali Jamal, Antoinette LaVecchia, Anderson Mathews. Scenic Design by Michael Swhweikardt. Costume design by Amy Clark. Lighting design by Phil Monat. Sound Design by Zach Moore.

Reviewed by Arlene Weiner

Tracy Letts is a smart playwright. He knows what we in the audience want. He’s a prodigy, too. I’ve seen three of his plays now: Bug, August: Osage County, and most recently Superior Donuts, in Pittsburgh Public Theater’s production. They are all different from each other. Bug (which I saw in Pittsburgh’s barebones theater’s production) is a claustrophobic Sam Shepherd-like play: two no-hope characters in a seedy motel room: intense. And I thought it said or implied something about America. August: Osage County (which I saw in New York) is relatively sprawling: numerous characters, one of whom, whose long monlogue opens the play, disappears. Companies don’t like to waste an actor—played in that production by Tracy Letts’ father–like that! And August: Osage County is a rarity these days, a three-act play. Well-made, too, one surprise revelation after another. If we don’t like any of the characters, with few exceptions, it’s a ride.

Superior Donuts, like Bug, takes place on one set, a rundown doughnut shop in Chicago’s Uptown. The shopowner, Arthur, is stuck. Depressed, refusing to make any change in his life, he’s a regular pot smoker but he never has any highs. His toking just leads to ruminations about his past, which we hear. He had Polish immigrant parents. He ran to Canada to avoid the draft. His father died—right in the shop–and he couldn’t attend the funeral. Nobody in his life hears his stories—he’s a clam. His sentences trail like his gray ponytail, but they illuminate his current (in)actions, as when he says, “There’s a difference between a resister and an evader…I—evaded,” and we see him evade choice in the present.

Into Arthur’s shop come a variety of regulars: two cops, one a woman who’d like to date him; a bag lady; the Russian immigrant who owns the DVD shop next door. Most centrally, a new person comes in: an exuberant young African-American man who applies for the job advertised in the window. Franco (named, we learn, after Franco Harris) is the opposite of Arthur: a mile-a-minute talker, full of plans, and especially full of hope—hope that makes Arthur round on him with uncharacteristic energy: things don’t happen that way. Good things don’t happen, hopes don’t come true.

The play is full of comedy, and, finally, poignant. I can’t imagine it’s having a better production. The actors are fine. The set is perfect. Ted Pappas’ direction is broad in comic moments and effective in moments when deeper meaning must be gleaned. Brandon Gill’s and Donald Corren’s physicality as Franco and Max Tarasov may be a little exaggerated at times, but that serves the play, contrasting with Anderson Mathews’ stasis as Arthur—very difficult to pull off being the center of attention without moving. I noted particularly that Corren was persuasive both as a hard guy and a clown, not easy, and that Sharon Brady as the bag lady perfectly conveyed a pivotal speech, flat yet oracular, when she tells Arthur, “You know what to do.” Wali Jamal as one of the cops shows up in a Star Trek outfit and yet is able to deliver the tragic load of what amounts to a Messenger’s speech in a Greek tragedy.

Because something shocking and terrible happens. Arthur’s view of life would seem to be confirmed. Instead, there’s a transformation, one that we as the audience wish for. Heartwarming. And yet. There’s a flavor of sit-com about the play: the cast of eccentrics with funny lines dropping in. The menace that brings about the climax doesn’t seem organic, doesn’t speak to the condition of life in Uptown—and seems to be quashed more magically than realistically. Maybe unfairly, I recalled August Wilson’s Two Trains Running, in which sharply defined characters drop into a diner. That play—which arguably is not so well constructed as Superior Donuts—seems, like Bug, to speak to our social condition, not just to the individuals’ fates. This is a cavil, a hope that Letts will require more from us the next time. Superior Donuts in Pittsburgh Public Theater’s production is an entertaining night in the theater.
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Sex in America

 By Songyi Zhang

Never have I read such a large quantity of English books than during these two years when I am pursuing my master’s degree in creative writing. While I’m exposed to all sorts of media—TV, print publications, the Internet and others—in America, I’m shocked to learn that sex is openly discussed in this country. Compared to the English classics such as Romeo and Juliet, Pride and Prejudice, Wuthering Heights and others that I read in China, contemporary American literature is at least one hundred times more liberal regarding the subject of sex. I’m not sure if this is a fad or a deeply held belief in freedom of speech, but here people can write whatever they want.

I find it less convincing when a fictional or fact-based story includes substantial descriptions of love making or sexual abuse or sensual fantasies. Perhaps this is mainly because I come from a relatively conservative society. But let me put aside my cultural background, and compare today’s literature with the one produced a century or more ago in this country. Wouldn’t what we read today be classified as pornography in the 19th century?

Sex is prevalent in American movies, TV shows, glossy magazines and even young adult books. I understand why some English books written by Chinese writers are not circulated in China. Many authors and overseas readers believe a political reason is the only obstacle for the translation and publication of a book. But they overlook the fact that quite a lot of books contain sexual description. For instance, the National Book Award winner Waiting by Ha Jin has a graphic description of a rape. The New York bestseller Red Azalea by Anchee Min discusses homosexuality. Given long-standing cultural norms and taboos, how can the Chinese government allow publication of translated works containing explicit material?

Homosexuality is an especially sensitive topic in China. America, by comparison, is a place of openness for gays and lesbians. In my experience, many Americans are unashamed of, or even proud of, their homosexuality, which not many years ago was taboo and in many states actually illegal. 

I’m still getting used to the openness and tolerance of American society.  China is going to seem like a very different place when I return.

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Theatre Review: Gift to America – A Celebration of the Murals of Maxo Vanka

Reviewed by Richard St. John

First things first: The Maxo Vanka murals at St. Nicholas Croatian Catholic Church in Millvale, Pennsylvania are impressive and emotionally compelling. A crucifixion with WWI bayonet in lieu of the piercing Roman spear. An avenging angel wearing gas mask and holding imbalanced scales. Ordinary working folks – in mourning, adoration and celebration of traditional religious mysteries, but also the mysteries and pathos of their own hard lives. Vanka’s murals, in Depression-era vernacular style, cover every wall. They envelop the church’s architectural space. And, for performances May 4 and 7, they’re also the setting for Gift to America written by David Demarest and directed by Geoffrey Hitch.

If you’re looking for classic theatre – with dramatic tension, crisp dialogue and complex character development – this may not be the event for you. But if you want to explore one of Pittsburgh’s little-known artistic treasures – and to support its restoration — hurry up and get a seat in the pews via ProArtsTickets.org.

The play and performance interweave the personal story of acclaimed artist Maxo Vanka and Father Zagar (the visionary St. Nicholas priest who brought Vanka to Millvale to paint these “modern” socially-attuned murals) together with bits of Croatian and Pittsburgh history, liturgical devices, and explications of the murals themselves. Performers read from text rather than speak from memory. Illumination shifts from individual candles to spotlights that feature sections of Vanka’s impressive work.

The strongest voice in the performance is David Crawford as Maxo Vanka. The church’s own cantor, Mike Sambol as Father Zagar, with Dixie Tymitz and Katherine Carlson as two “Female Voices” round out the cast.

Demarest’s play sets a historical context, introduces the struggle to re-build St. Nicholas after a devastating fire, and follows Father Zagar and Maxo Vanka through the creation of the murals. An accomplished artist with a European pedigree but working-class heart, Vanka painted half of the church space in an astonishing eight-week period during 1937. A strong Croatian “Mary” dominates the front of the sanctuary. The ceiling includes images of the Evangelists which Vanka, himself, considered too formal and traditional. Other wall sections include the moving “America Raises Her Sons for War” and “America Raises Her Sons for Industry, ” based respectively on the true stories of a Croatian soldier in WWI (Vanka had served with the Red Cross in the Belgian war zone) and a mining accident in West Virginia. And that’s only a sampling.

Though compassionate as ever, when Vanka returned to finish the murals in 1941, Hitler had taken over Croatia, and Maxo was an even angrier man. In another break-neck stint of 12-hour days, often painting in physical pain, he created not only images of war, but also striking imaginative pairings. On one side of the church entrance, an African-American waiter serves dinner to a top-hatted financier who raises a skeletal hand that holds an eerie flame. Directly facing that scene, a working-class family shares a communion-like meal.

Though the Depression-era style is “simple” rather than “subtle,” many of the faces and details in these murals are compelling. A later addition by a different artist — showing Maxo holding his daughter on his knee – reveals, by contrast, the caliber of Vanka’s artistic accomplishment. When the next phase of restoration is funded and complete — removing damaging, moisture-retaining soot from additional sections of the work — that accomplishment will be even more vividly on display.

With his Millvale project finished, Maxo Vanka wrote: “These murals are my gift to America. May this St. Nicholas Croation Catholic Church keep alive for future generations the memory of their immigrant ancestors, their faith and their courage.” That is the goal of the restoration campaign and of these benefit performances.

Medieval church art was intended as “living scripture,” interpreting Biblical stories for illiterate audiences. Gift to America helps a modern audience – new to this work and perhaps unfamiliar with its historic context – to “read” these impressive murals. Vanka’s art, rather than the theatrical performance, rightly takes center stage.

For more information and to see some details from the murals, visit http://www.vankamurals.org/.
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Book Review: Burning of the Three Fires by Jeanne Marie Beaumont

Burning of the Three Fires
Jeanne Marie Beaumont
BOA Editions
2010. 96 pp.
$16.00

Reviewed by Arlene Weiner

Jeanne Marie Beaumont’s previous collection (BOA 2004) was called Curious Conduct, and curious this poet and her poetry are, in several senses. First, Beaumont is alert to various and sometimes obscure aspects of the world: arcane information from Wikipedia, art, etymologies, fairy tales told slant, slasher movies, magician’s tricks.

Then, the poems are curious in the older sense: subtly, carefully, and skillfully worked. Several of the poems celebrate art that is so worked. “Fancy That Does Not Do But Is” considers an exhibit of objects that are not only not useful but not entirely viewable. It asserts the value of, and the pleasure of, beautifully wrought but inaccessible objects:

           …an extravagance
                    that has no earthly use
        for us. 

The title of the poem recalls the famous lines from MacLeish’s “Ars Poetica”:

     A poem should not mean
     But be. 

But “Fancy” isn’t Beaumont’s own ars poetica. In her poems the working—the wit, the verbal play, the formal invention, the pleasures of sound, sight, and insight—subserve feeling (longing, anxiety) that may cumulate quietly (“Totem”) or arrive like a slap. From a description of a backyard birdbath:

               …White flower frozen in full-out
     Bloom, liquid-centered like Belgian chocolate
          or a properly baked soufflé.
               Part baptismal font, part

      Giant’s goblet. 

Marvelous. Then the move, so characteristic, and with such a light touch, into pain:

                   Shallow as summer,
                           as neighbors.

That slap—the kind of twist someone can give when she has you in her grasp—as kids we used to call it an “Indian burn” —and Beaumont’s use of short lines and internal rhyme in a poem like “Recollections: Aviary” suggest an affinity with Kay Ryan and May Swenson.

Anaphora, metaphor, prose poetry, collage, puns—

						…a boy-
          man handles his scotch, the burn of its amber
          entrapping what bugs him..,

—allusion, mashup. My current favorite of these mashups—it may change as I reread this book again and again—is “Is Rain My Bearskin?” which conflates Goldilocks with Psycho.

 
	Pssst.
		I’m the blonde in the shower
	water too hot		water too cold
			ahhh

This is one of several retellings of Grimm tales, and at the end of it you may laugh out loud. (Beaumont co-edited an anthology of poetry from the Grimms’ tales.)

Beaumont makes the strange familiar and the familiar strange, especially when she picks up the dull language of everyday and sets it alight, as in “Getting to Know You” and if “If You Wish to Be Removed from this List.” “If You Wish to Be Removed” uses a number of ordinary and even stale phrases to generate panic and sadness. I predict it will go up on bulletin boards and refrigerators. I recommend this book.
_____

Dive Deep Shallow Out

by Elizabeth Kirschner

It is dark and I am driving down the highway under a sky full of crows caterwauling, cawing, a crazed crowd of crows in their black priestly robes with their flawed claws and I think, yes, there is a flawed, black claw in my flawed, black heart. In the distance, my husband has closed the door behind me, slowly turning away the way he has for months, years, centuries. It is his genius to turn away and at the dinner table when I whispered, “I have to go,” he silently laid down his knife, lifted the paper, opened it as though it were a newspaper angel stained by his fingertips, the ones that have not touched me for longer than I can remember.

But this I do remember: a night on an island we ferried to on a boat with gypsies who had gold teeth, children like thin ghosts whose lips moved in prayer. I did not know this ferry would ferry us to the end of our marriage, to where I floundered on the hotel bed under mosquito netting that sizzled in the heat while I cried, pitifully so, an almost inhuman cry, like a bird whose throat has been slit. A hollow whistle went through that cry, my cries while my husband began to seethe. Then I heard it, the whoosh a guillotine makes as it drops. Did moonlight glint on its blade? Did the air start to bleed? I tell you—it went through the bed. Then the sea swept over the balcony and into the room. Suddenly, we were stranded on separate islands in that sea and I, not he, would be the one carried away for good.

Haunted by a past I have barely exited, I build a house out of books, fling seed off the bridge of sighs till red poppies bloom on wavelets, sign poems while sleeping, my hands working like the wings of origami birds. Fold by fold I make them—one thousand paper birds will save someone who is dying and since it is the human condition that we all are, foremost and always, dying, why not devote a life to the making of origami birds?

That a marriage will die, must die a long and ghastly death is not, however, a part of the human condition, except that it involves suffering and we are destined to suffer. To suffer is to die a spiritual death, but my marriage died during the battery march of staccatos, each note a bronze bullet or a pellet of brass hail and its death was not spiritual, but reptilian. In its aftermath came the music of mute doves, red poppies blooming on wavelets.

Da Chen tells me to “Dive deep shallow out,” when writing, so I go into dark libraries of water beneath the bridge of sighs, volumes of water green as psalms. Epithalamiums whisper in my ears, but mine is not among them, the one I wrote and recited after my husband and I exchanged vows. I am searching for a wrecked ship, the one we were married upon in these waters while the lighthouse swung its eye beam. Where is the ship’s ribcage, buried treasure, the deitrus of petals strewn from my bouquet? I dredge the silty depths with my fingernails, bring up warped boards, a decayed mast and boom, a wounded sail and how could I have known that sails could be wounded?

Now it is time to shallow out, to dive out of the wreckage while clutching my broken ship. Now is the time to mend the ship, tap in ivory nails, bathe the sail in my marble sink till bubbles of champagne surface, pop, the champagne I drank from in a glass, the champagne my brand new husband sipped from my satin slipper. All the while, the lighthouse swung its eye beam into us until we became two visionaries sharing one heart, one heart sweet as a peach and just as soft.

It would be a long time—months, years, centuries—before I learned that each day could bruise or that the only sacred heart is a broken one, a communion wafer snapped in half. I didn’t know then how to dive deep shallow out. If I had, I would not have walked out so abruptly, shattering mirrors and doors. If I had, I would have departed gently, lovingly, left with a kiss instead of a sting.

Haunted by a past I have barely exited, I build a house out of books, sign poems in my sleep and tend to mending the ship. When that ship is mended, nail by ivory nail, I will wade through eel grass, kneel down at the water’s edge and release it with a sigh along with one thousand origami birds. The music of mute doves will be my ovation, my long lost epithalamium, my green psalm singing in an uproar of wings because I do not seek the music, the music seeks me.

_____