Dance Review: Beautiful Struggle By Baker & Tapaga Dance Project

Reviewed by Adrienne Totino

Director of the Kelly Strayhorn Theater (KST), Janera Solomon, enjoys taking risks when choosing artists to perform at the thriving East Liberty space. Attracting patrons to the more unusual shows at the theater has become her specialty.

The Pittsburgh contemporary dance scene used to be small; we could count on seeing the same audience members at each show. Not true anymore, especially not at the KST. Friday evening, the lobby filled up with dance enthusiasts, community members, and what looked to be several newcomers.

Baker & Tarpaga Dance Project performed their latest version of an old work, “Beautiful Struggle.” Esther Baker, co-choreographer for the company (along with her husband, Olivier Tarpaga), was inspired lately by her role as an activist to dismantle white supremacy. Though the show could be described by some as “challenging,” people of all walks of life were engaged from the beginning.

The show started with an installation in the lobby. Baker stood on a 4×4 table, dressed in only underwear, a blonde wig, and red high heels. Volunteers instructed us to take a marker and write something directly on Baker’s body. Specifically, we were to write about a struggle of our own. Many went for it, without shyness. Others hung back and watched as Baker changed positions to offer different body parts.

From there, we progressed into the theater where the 45-minute choreographed piece took place. Tarpaga stood among the audience, playing bass and chanting rhythms with unique sound. Dancer, Lindsay Fisher, stood above him and watched while Tarpaga made his way to the stage and continued playing live music.

Fisher began a small phrase of movement that represented one of the major themes of the piece, our basic human struggle. In smooth and precise undulations through her torso, she scrambled around the front of the stage and then fell backwards as if knocked down by an outside force. That simple action escalated until Danté Brown joined her and the two skittishly crawled to the back of the stage, curled into fetal positions.

Eventually, Baker entered. She shook and twitched, hands tied by ropes to the table that had been used in the lobby. Her own distress was clear, but not specific. Perhaps she was putting movement to her own difficulties in life – navigating an interracial marriage and parenting a mixed race daughter in a world where prejudice still exists.

The voice of white anti-racism activist, Tim Wise, boomed over the sound of Tarpaga’s drumming, and Sabela Grimes’ live mixed beats. We heard one line repeatedly, “There is no such thing as the white race.”

Tarpaga and Grimes alternated between dancing and playing music. In one moment, Tarpaga performed an athletic phrase of African and contemporary movement. Later, Grimes had a short hip-hop solo that sent wavy motion through his chest and arms.

Brown, whose own work explores gender, provided the flash of comic relief. His solo reflected masculinity and femininity in their stereotypical forms. He shadowboxed with tight fists, and then sashayed like a model in the next second. All the while, he spoke to the audience. “You like this step? How about you, girl?”

The dancers came together at different times, sometimes in quick duets or smaller groups. Under a strobe light, all five of them showed off their individual styles in various movement sequences around the table.

To end, Fisher reminded us of the racial “struggle” still prevalent in today’s society. She staggered, fought, and fell down, again and again. We could hear her labored breath as the lights went down.

As Baker explained after the show, “beauty and violence can coexist.” The audience certainly witnessed both in the thought-provoking piece. Although the work was based on the personal journeys of the performers, the commentary was inclusive, compelling, and important for all of us.
______

Migrant Workers

By Karen Zhang

Immigration has always been a national issue in the United States. Recently, this issue returns to the spotlight among the American lawmakers. Immigration reform will definitely affect millions of illegal immigrants in America. However, many of them have contributed a great deal of this country’s labor force, especially in areas that are dangerous, dirty, or low paid.

Every morning before daybreak, I come across a number of Spanish-speaking road construction workers on the streets of Washington DC. While they have finished their work, I’m just beginning mine. Carrying ice coolers on their shoulders, they shuffle their leaden feet after a night’s hard work in the open air. Rain or shine, cold or hot, they wear the same glowing yellow uniform vest, white helmet with worn marks and heavy leather boots. Their work clothes are often muddy and somewhat stinky as they pass by me quickly, but they seem cheerful.

Whenever I see these workers, I think of the ones in China. Lots of city dwellers complain about the grim state of being unemployed. Yet, the jobs that require long working hours in harsh conditions are often taken by migrant workers—those who come from poor rural areas. I remember when I mentioned the term “migrant worker” in my writing during my studies in America, my mentor pointed out that in this country the term connoted the immigrants from Mexico and elsewhere who picked up dirty jobs. Well, in my country “migrant workers” means the poor people who travel hundreds of miles from home just to eke out a living.

I read that strawberry farms in California face shutdowns. Not because the farms don’t do well—their strawberries are juicy red and large, waiting to be harvested — but because the farms face shortages of temporary workers who mainly come from across the border. When hearing this news, I was a bit shocked. One of the farm owners said in a TV interview that the public thinks local Americans would fill the vacancies but in fact few Americans are willing to do the hot difficult labor. The same situation happens in public restroom cleaning, mining, landscaping piece work and many other low-paid, no-benefit occupations.

To live in this country, I need to learn basic Spanish in case I have to communicate with a plumber who doesn’t speak English well, or a fishmonger who knows little conversational English. I sincerely hope whether legal or illegal immigrants, they will find their place at home in this country of freedom and tolerance.

_____

Book Review: The River Underneath the City by Scott Silsbe

 photo ea455b67-1aaf-40d8-8ed1-3ad8dd94b7d6_zps2ae2b5e3.jpg
The River Underneath the City
Poems by Scott Silsbe
Low Ghost Press, 2013
$10.00



Reviewed by Dakota Garilli

In August of 2012, my mother drove me across the state of Pennsylvania from Bergen County, New Jersey. We were headed for my new apartment in Pittsburgh. Mom had no clue what to expect. What would this timeworn city have to offer her son, who’d grown up within 40 minutes of Manhattan? Dad still called Pittsburgh “The Steel City,” and I’m pretty sure a few of my aunts were worried about air pollution. “What’s even out there?” one cousin asked.

Nearly two years later, here’s one thing I’ve learned about Pittsburgh: there’s a lot. The city boasts a thriving cultural and literary scene—small presses like Autumn House and Low Ghost, local bookstores like Caliban and East End Book Exchange, workshops like Jan Beatty’s “Madwomen in the Attic,” and reading series like Marissa Landrigan’s “Acquired Taste” are all proof of that. Art galleries line Penn Avenue, operas play downtown, and for a month this past summer we covered one of our 446 bridges with knitted and crocheted blankets. In other words, it seems my family was worried I’d be walking into the sooty, overpopulated Pittsburgh of the 30s and 40s.

Enter Scott Silsbe’s The River Underneath the City. This is, among other things, a book about Pittsburgh, and Silsbe wants to remind us that the real Pittsburgh exists somewhere between the two versions above. Pittsburgh as city of industrial heritage, Pittsburgh as reinvented Mecca. I think one of Silsbe’s great successes in this book is his perfect rendition of a place in flux.

But before the flux, the place. From the book’s first poem, it becomes clear that Silsbe aims to be something of a documentarian of Pittsburgh culture. “Breakfast at Rocky’s,” set at a popular local eatery, introduces readers to a waitress who speaks in Pittsburghese.

Someone asks for a newspaper and my waitress says,
“Why would you want to read ‘at? It’s all bad news.”
She is right and the conversation turns to the Pirates
who are dropping a series against the Orioles.
“Who hit the homeruns?” a customer says
and she says, “Wah-ker and Tah-bah-tah.”

Cultural tags like these appear constantly throughout the book. In “Motörhead and Milkshakes,” the speaker drives through the neighborhood of Oakland watching “the Catholic school girls on Craig” and “detouring from Forbes into Schenley.” Other poems take us to Shadyside, where “old men are jogging by/ on the sidewalk wearing earphones,” then “over and under/ and around the Westinghouse Bridge.” In one of my favorite poems from the book, the speaker and his friend Moody leave 80s Night at Belvedere’s, a popular dive in the Lawrenceville neighborhood, and drive across town to “the corner of Mifflin and Biddle” in search of a cassette tape of Larry Levis on the poet Tony Hoagland’s porch.

Yet Silsbe’s poems are not simply a catalogue of details about Pittsburgh. It’s clear that these depictions of locations and events are being drawn with a purpose—to say something about the moment and about memory. In “Let’s Get Lost,” the speaker says “Light is

such an amazing thing in Pittsburgh.
On the bright red bricks of the house
across the street and hitting the water tower
on the far-away hillside, barely visible between
the rooftops of the houses, but there—a presence.

We can feel the speaker’s voice straining in these lines, trying to reach out and articulate the small, unspeakable moment. Silsbe makes similar moves in poems like “Castle Shannon,” where he spends three stanzas describing the experience of seeing a librarian carry books, and “I’m Still a Jagov But I Love It,” which depicts a couple playing pool at the Take a Break Bar. The speaker in these poems is keen on keeping Pittsburgh alive, ensuring that these Everymen and –women remain a permanent part of our cultural consciousness. Silsbe becomes Pittsburgh’s Whitman, in a way, when he writes in “The End is Never Near:” “What I said, I said for everyone.”

In addition to these rather concrete poems, Silsbe includes a number of lyric explorations of emotion and existence in this collection. We get some of Silsbe’s most beautiful images here—“a world/ of photographs and cyanotypes,” “the dying column, with its broken oxygen,” “a halo… sewn out of… weeds”—but his voice doesn’t come across as strongly without a story or a setting to ground it. At times it seems that these poems might be a bit too insular, that perhaps they speak to memories that Silsbe alone can access. Still, they certainly lend to the urgently wistful tone of the collection. “Of Remembering and Forgetting,” which I like to imagine came in second place as a title option for the book, gives us the lines that are central to these poems: “I can dismiss everything for the sake of memory./ But don’t ever forget that there was a beginning,/ and middle, and an end.”

Despite the declarative nature of this statement, Silsbe takes an interesting approach to time throughout the collection. And this is the flux. By never directly addressing time, Silsbe allows his reader to live somewhere in between all the Pittsburghs that have ever existed. Music comes up often in this collection; the speaker mentions Dizzy Gillespie, Motörhead, Chet Baker, the Dead Kennedys, and a Billy Bragg song. These references alone span a spectrum of time from the 1920s to the 1980s. Are these speakers listening to the music in its own time or today? If the poem about Tony Hoagland’s porch is set when Hoagland was still living in Pittsburgh, then it happens sometime around 2002. If not, it could be any time since. One speaker remembers Duke’s Bar, then tells us at the end of the poem that it’s long gone, “replaced by two chain burrito shops and a sub place.” In Silsbe’s deft hand, time keeps collapsing in on itself, nowhere more than in the poem “The Floating Theater”:

Sonny Clark still plays piano up in the Hill District.
Johnny Unitas is still quarterbacking in Bloomfield
on fields made out of dirt and factory soot, I’m sure.
True, third base of Forbes Field has been relegated
to a bathroom stall in a men’s room in Posvar Hall.
But Gertrude Stein frequents a bench by the Aviary
on occasion. Just down from Gus the Ice Ball Man.

The 1940s. The 1950s. The 1870s. The 1970s. Today. Silbse reminds us here that time is not linear—that memory is a constant layer informing the present moment. That heritage always lives on, no matter how much a place may change. As he says, “Through all of the rain-streaked windows of buses/ you can see the Pittsburgh that used to be and also/ the Pittsburgh that is—somehow they’re coexisting.”

This Pittsburgh is constantly changing. Recently the web has been buzzing with articles about a new migration of young professionals to the city, and countless organizations are working to revitalize neighborhoods like Garfield and Braddock. Streets and bridges are getting face-lifts, and new restaurants are cropping up every day. It’s no wonder that Silsbe has written us a definitive text of Pittsburgh as he’s known it. Without books like these, entire histories—those of people who knew and loved their places dearly—would be lost to us forever.

And so Silsbe’s voice is all of ours, really. Beyond its intimate connection to Pittsburgh, it’s really a voice crying out for memory, reminding us that it lived. We all live in Silsbe’s world, one where people “disappear a little, as if remembering.” Where time is less a demarcation so much as a distance that can always be traversed. Where nostalgia is the lay of the land. It’s a world where all of this looking back is sad, but optimistic—all of these memories and all of this change imply new lives to live in the future. “Tonight it’s beautiful out,” Silsbe writes in the final collection of the poem, “tomorrow it’ll be even better./ I am in Pittsburgh. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.” I’d like to thank him for reminding me, a year and a half after I arrived, that I feel the exact same way.
______

A World As It Still Is

by Susan Kelly-DeWitt

I like to keep in touch with the poems of friends who have died. Because death is the unknown galaxy separating (linking) us, I want to infuse myself with the still-living light of their words.

And so I returned again to Walter Pavlich’s Spirit of Blue Ink (published by Swan Scythe Press in 2001.) I was looking for a poem to read at another friend’s surprise 50th birthday party (which included a read-around by many of the poets gathered there for cake, talk and merriment.) I chose the title poem of Walter’s book, and felt so good about reading those words for my living poet-friend, part of a happy celebration of his lively presence on the planet.

Later that night I slept with the book on a table beside me, so that I could read it through once more the next morning. Before picking it up again I scanned the news: Syria, Iraq. Then I started rereading Walter’s book. I marveled at the poems’ ingenious depth of perception, passion for the unsung, and courageous emotion. When I came to “Black Flower” I was back in an old war but not much had changed.

Black Flower

A place of suffering, a Golgotha.
Each hill is such.

The soldiers don’t know what they want.

Each home has at least one dead room.
There is shrapnel in the white sausage
Grease of a skillet.

Windows burst like glass lungs.

Paprika, blood and gun powder.

At the church Christ dangles from nails
As usual. But mortar fire has interrupted
His sorrow and his dying.

A hole burst above his hip,
His belly, into his chest.
His entire left arm
A vacant marble wound.

So he hangs on one less nail.

With the black flower
Of an explosion
Between his lips.

Yes, the Bosnian War that inspired Walter’s poem is, at least on the surface, in the past now, but what he captured so powerfully is still a world that exists this very moment for so many.

I read his poem as he must have written it: with tremendous sadness, with anger and despair, and—against all reason—with hope.

______

Book Review: The Bookman’s Tale by Charlie Lovett

 photo 2ad798c1-1736-46ab-b7c6-88bae5db6ecd_zps65752315.jpg
The Bookman’s Tale
by Charlie Lovett
Viking, 2013
Hardcover: $27.95



Reviewed by Nicole Bartley

What would you do if you found the Holy Grail of books? In Charlie Lovett’s, The Bookman’s Tale, such a book is called Pandosto. On its title page is the name of W. Shakespeare from Stratford, and in its margins are notes linking this man and this book to one of Shakespeare’s plays, “A Winter’s Tale.” It is the only document proving that the Stratford-upon-Avon Shakespeare actually wrote history’s renowned plays. But, like a bad mystery novel, nothing is as it seems.

Lovett’s story follows Peter Byerly, a collector, restorer, and seller of antique books. He lives a reclusive life in England, personally imprisoned after the death of his wife, Amanda. During an attempt to reclaim his life, he discovers a hundred-year-old watercolor portrait that looks strikingly like Amanda in a book about Shakespearean forgeries. This launches him down an obsessive journey toward the Pandosto, and uncovering the identity of the artist B.B. Mingling with the main plot involving Pandosto‘s authorship and authenticity, and resulting murder mystery, readers learn about Peter and Amanda’s collegiate courtship.

The novel’s beginning caters to sentimentalists with a penchant for nostalgia, people who would find book restoration to be fascinating and who would want to know how the Pandosto could survive for centuries hidden from history. The latter part of the novel is for adventure enthusiasts who like a good murder mystery—if it were a good murder mystery. The two plots don’t mesh well, and the immaturity of the end clashes with the mature portrayal of Peter’s work. Because Lovett is a former antiquarian bookseller, the sections involving Peter’s craft are polished and authoritative. The murder mystery, however, seems slapdash. It’s as if Lovett assumed that book restoration alone wouldn’t be enough to engage his readers, so he added a couple dangerous love affairs.

The danger isn’t the only thing that seems to be immature. Multiple facets of the ending—including character growth, the villain’s “big reveal,” and resolution of events—are predictable and stereotypical. Lovett also uses many instances of meta-writing—molding events and details to fit the author’s needs instead of the story’s. It’s as if Lovett didn’t trust his readers to comprehend the story’s overall purpose. He even writes, “Let it be a monument to foolishness… an empty tribute to what happens to a man who places money over love, rivalry over integrity, forgery over reality” (321)—just in case the readers didn’t already understand.

In fact, Lovett’s meta-writing hinders characterization. When Peter first meets Liz, she is brazen and immediately trustworthy without any evidence supporting her reactions to Peter. She says, “You’re a man of mystery and you don’t look much like a serial killer, so I ask again—how about some dinner” (43)? This may result from Lovett’s history of writing children’s plays, wherein details need to be obvious. For example, when Peter is hunting for the identity of a woman in the watercolor painting, Liz asks him the point of knowing, Lovett writes:

“Peter pondered the question for a moment. It was one he had been careful not to ask himself so far—it was easier simply to be swept along by the mystery—but he knew Liz had gotten right to the heart of the matter. ‘I think it’s because I’ve been trying to say good-bye for so long,’ he said, picking his words carefully, ‘that I need this not to be her. I need to find out who it is so it won’t be her anymore. And then maybe she really will be gone’” (45).

Over time, readers will have realized this fact, but Lovett just presents it openly. He doesn’t know how to write realistic interactions. Most of the dialogue between characters seems to fit in romantic comedies or campy mysteries—things children would expect and understand.

Because meta-writing provides everything necessary, there is no depth to Lovett’s characters, including his protagonist. Peter has social anxiety disorder, which Lovett reiterates constantly, but he has no follow-through. Readers do not see little scenarios in Peter’s head before he goes out or meets someone new, he doesn’t devise ways to avoid close interactions. His anxiety is simply acknowledged as an excuse to be quiet and withdrawn. Lovett may describe Peter’s thoughts, but he doesn’t meander along Peter’s emotional concerns.

Additionally, Amanda’s mother is caring and understanding. Her father shows affection by clapping Peter on the back and talking about sports, but nothing else. No matter how emotional or tense a situation becomes, it is solved by a smile, hand holding, a kiss on the cheek, and a clap on the back. They serve as tropes and nothing more. Because readers cannot feel what Peter feels or connect with the secondary characters, it creates distance and makes it hard to care about what happens to them. In fact, readers may care more about the Pandosto’s journey through history.

However, once they get past the incomplete characterization and dialogue, they will recognize the novel’s key conflict: a longstanding controversy surrounding the true authorship of Shakespeare’s works. Although Lovett doesn’t necessarily offer a personal stance in the Stratfordian/Oxfordian controversy—which states that Edward de Vere, Christopher Marlow, or Francis Bacon wrote Shakespeare’s works—he does provide a “what if?” scenario. What if a document surfaced that conclusively proved the Stratford-upon-Avon Shakespeare’s authenticity? How might such a discovery occur, and what is the procedure to validate originality? Lovett does attempt to be objective by volleying between originality and forgery, hope and defeat, but ultimately he picks a side.

Readers may have a tougher time picking a side regarding this book. Each positive aspect is counteracted by faulty craft. The result is ignoring the dialogue and mystery in favor of the mastery—the book restoration and controversy. Without that, it’s just another romantic suspense story with a dash of nerdiness.
______

Charlie Lovett is a writer, a teacher, and a playwright. His plays for children have been seen in over three thousand productions worldwide. He served for more than a decade as Writer-in-Residence at Summit School in Winston-Salem, NC. He is a former antiquarian bookseller, and has collected rare books and other materials related to Lewis Carroll for more than twenty-five years. He and his wife split their time between Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and Kingham, Oxfordshire.
______

A Brief Guide to Pope Francis

by John Samuel Tieman

A lot of my non-Catholic friends are asking me about Pope Francis. Whether Pope Francis is more popular than Jesus, this only time will tell. But he is popular. The Washington Post thinks he is more popular than John Paul II. He is Time magazine’s “Person Of The Year”. You’d think Catholics would be, dare I say, counting our blessings.

But conservative Catholics are choking on their communion wafers, and liberal Catholics, while hopeful, are cautious. Why?

Francis is no radical. You don’t get anywhere in the hierarchy unless you tow the dogmatic line. Conservative Catholics, like EWTN radio, are quick to point out that Francis has changed no doctrine. That’s true. Nor is he likely to change disciplines like priestly celibacy. If you’re holding you breath for female ordination, you’ll turn blue soon.

It’s not so much what he is changing as what he is emphasizing — and what he is deemphasizing.

Francis is no radical. That can’t be said often enough. He is, however, a product of his priestly culture, he’s a Jesuit, and he is the son of South America.

Francis is not changing doctrine, true. However, this Argentine bishop is emphasizing something that, while not explicitly said, has long been a part of Latin American ministry, which is the “preferential option for the poor.” Given the choice between helping the rich or the poor, preference is given to the well-being of the poor and powerless. This is central to Francis’ ministry, and, indeed, central to his mindset.

The rest simply follows.

Francis has deemphasized the culture wars. “We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage, and the use of contraceptive methods,” the pope said in a recent interview. In what many regard as a profoundly symbolic move, the pope recently relieved Cardinal Raymond Burke from a key post on the committee that fills episcopal vacancies. Cardinal Burke, the former Archbishop of St. Louis, is seen by many as perhaps the most conservative American bishop. He is a leader among conservative cardinals. During the 2004 presidential election, Burke publicly stated that Catholic politicians, who support legalized abortion, should not be given or receive Communion. That meant John Kerry. More recently, the cardinal said, “Since President Obama clearly announced, during the election campaign, his anti-life and anti-family agenda, a Catholic who knew his agenda regarding, for example, procured abortion, embryonic-stem-cell research, and same-sex marriage, could not have voted for him with a clear conscience.”

Burke’s removal, from that committee, will have little immediate consequence. The papacy of John Paul II was so long that his many conservative appointments will be in place for decades. To a large extent, the removal of Cardinal Burke is symbolic. Burke remains the Vatican’s Prefect of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura, a position analogous to the chief justice. But we are talking about the Catholic Church here, a Church in which symbolism is no small thing.

Pope Francis has washed and kissed the feet of prisoners, AIDS patients, Muslims, and drug addicts. Reliable rumor has it that he goes out at night, beyond the Vatican walls, among the poor. He lives in a small apartment, carries his own bags, drives a used car.

Pope Francis is no radical. This does not prevent Rush Limbaugh from denouncing him as a “pure Marxist”. Among the many things that Mr. Limbaugh does not understand, there is this. While the Church does not endorse any one economic system, it does regularly denounce exploitation. Hence, John Paul II condemned various forms of socialism that tended toward Stalinism. Now, Pope Francis is criticizing extreme forms capitalism. There’s nothing new here. We just haven’t heard capitalism criticized for a while. At least not with such emphasis. In November, Francis denounced “the idolatry of money.” Trickle-down economics he characterized as “a crude and naive trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power, and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system.”

About that women’s ordination thing. Francis is a Jesuit. He has lived his whole life in a celibate, all male environment. I like Jesuits, and I like people who like Jesuits. I got my doctorate from a Jesuit university. My wife and I attend a Jesuit parish. But, as Phoebe says when she’s around Jesuits, it’s like she’s in the Castro district of San Francisco. Their nice to her. They’re liberal minded. But I’m the guy who gets invited to the party. In his latest document, “Evangelii Gaudium”, Francis talks about women’s “sensitivity, intuition and other distinctive skill sets which they, more than men, tend to possess.” He mentions “the special concern which women show to others, which finds a particular, even if not exclusive, expression in motherhood.” He carries on with these statements of “feminine genius” in a manner that can only be regarded as stereotypical and even retrogressive.

While the pope may not be a radical, he is refreshing. He has not changed doctrine, and he never will. He has, however, changed the emphasis, and this amounts to a change in the direction of ministry. So far, this is largely symbolic.

And therein lies the hope.

If you think that symbolism is not important to the Catholic Church, you need to cross yourself and say three Hail Marys.
______

Book Review: Pennsylvania Welcomes You by Kristofer Collins

Pennsylvania Welcomes You
Poems by Kristofer Collins
CreateSpace Independent Publishing, 2013
$12.00

Reviewed by Alison Taverna

As a Boston native living in Pittsburgh for the past five years, I’m sympathetic to the belief that a city produces hypnotic powers on the psyche, charms us, provides a geographical ‘tribe’ that continues, no matter where we’ve been, to call us to our home streets. Kristofer Collins’ most recent collection, Pennsylvania Welcomes You, is a tribute to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and to those city dwellers who stand like bookmarks against its populated streets. The poems address particular local hotspots, poems titled “BBT” for Bloomfield Bridge Tavern, like publicized love letters. Yet, Collins is steadfast in welcoming his readers into the intimate as he writes, “We can read it together/Exhausted under the sheets, the city spread wide & waiting for our feet.”

Before we reach the poems, the table of contents stands: a column, single-spaced, without page numbers. The titles stack down the page like a skyscraper, tight and together. At times the lack of page numbers causes confusion when searching for a particular poem, but Collins’ artistic choice here seems intentional. Within the collection, each poem is a new street corner, a side-alley window into a different district, a neighboring bar, and so while a lack of direction appears disorienting, it’s not, for we are never truly lost. For the duration of the collection, at least, this is our city too.

Collins’ speaker appears equally content and discontent, which makes it difficult to peg down a tone for the collection, but feels truer to real human emotions. For example, in “Poem Addressed to Jaquelyn Seigle” Collins writes,
“…I’ve spent many
Good days writing poems outside bars
Watching the old neighborhood & the girls
Who live there now.”

There is a wistfulness to these lines, yet not quite a full-faced-nostalgia, for the speaker never claims to regret the way the neighborhood has changed. It’s more a head nod, an acknowledgment that times are changing, and the speaker, regardless, will continue to sit in the same spot and write poems.

There is direct nostalgia in a later poem, titled “The Book of Names”:

“And admittedly I don’t think of you as often as I should
But when I do there is such an ache so much good talk I miss
In our booth at Nico’s splitting pitchers precisely as atoms…”

Here, the speaker is nostalgic for the times of the past, but only when he consciously reflects. This balance teeters throughout the collection, each poem nostalgic, while simultaneously content with the present.

Similar to the balance between contentment and discontentment, there is a balance between localized and common knowledge that rears its head more frequently when intimately discussing a home location. Personally, I assume everyone knows the Boss, Whitey Bulger, and the battle between the Italian North End and the Irish South. After one graduate workshop class, I’ve concluded, this is Bostonian knowledge, with the exception of a few history buffs. Overall, Collins walks this line carefully, successfully, because the emotion of his work is never sacrificed based on location. Still, there are moments where cue words would benefit the outside reader to eliminate possible alienation, especially when it occurs in the first poem of the collection as Collins ends,

“Behind K & L Gates, stroking the Roberto Clemente, fingers
Facile as Anton Karas’ upon this golden zither, I brush the hair
From your eyes at PPG Place and check my teeth for cervelat”

In one breath we are overloaded with Pittsburgh, which five years earlier, would have felt exclusive.

Collins loses me in places, true, like in “Congress Avenue Bridge, Austin, TX,” when after the second stanza there is a sudden spark of violence, “How nervy taking a razor to a stranger’s wrist, drawing/ My heart into that mix. A thief of names is that what I am?” The poems, in places, seem more for those they are dedicated to, for ‘Anna’ and ‘Jonathan Moody’ and ‘Don Wentworth’ and ‘Robert Frank’ to name a few, instead of a wider audience. With these poems there is the distinct sense that I’ve walked into the middle of a conversation on Forbes between old college roommates. On some level, though, there remains a charm to this degree of intimacy, and it’s Collins unflinching dedication to these streets and individuals that keeps me invested.

One of the main elements in Pennsylvania Welcomes You that I found fitting was Collins decision to leave each poem open, lacking end punctuation. It’s a D.A. Powell move, and the way it works in Chronic it works here: the individual flows into a collective. Each moment blends into the next as if the speaker has one foot on each page, balances between times that never truly feel distinct enough to name.

My one hesitation is the amount of exclamation points found throughout the collection. It’s a form of punctuation that, within poetry, always tastes forced.

Even among the exclamation points, it’s hard to overlook Collins’ moments of brilliance, his control of language, with lines such as “Nostalgia creeps up on us like a housecat/Let loose in the yard” “I am tattooing the tatters of your memory into this soggy napkin we call ‘poem’” and “the black sky has got its hat On.” These are the lines that stand like road signs, welcome us into Collins’ world, and make us trust we are among a skilled tour guide.
______

Lenny Gates or One Morning In The Life

by Publius

There were three thousand six hundred and fifty-three days like this in his sentence.
…The three extra days were for leap years.
from One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

As I park my car this morning, I notice some guys working in the football field, and others carrying bricks to the football field.

Lenny Gates bought the newspaper today. That’s so we can take roll. We pass the newspaper around. By the time it gets to me, the sports section, the funnies, the editorials and most of the news is gone, leaving me only the law and order section. But that’s all I need. That’s how we take roll. Or at least part of it. We check the newspaper, the law and order section, what my wife calls “the murder and mayhem page”, to see which of our students have been arrested. I’ll have two absent from my second period.

Lenny has instructed his first period to bark today. The educational consultant is supposed to be helpful. She has the people skills of a wolverine in heat. Last week, she told Lenny’s department chair that his classes are “going to the dogs”. The department chair immediately told Lenny. She’s supposed to inspect his first period today. So Lenny’s instructed the kids to bark at her. I can already hear a few woofs down the hall.

While we wait around before school starts, Lenny tells me how took his social studies class to the state penitentiary yesterday. It was supposed to be one of these “Scared Straight” sorts of things. Instead, it turned into a reunion. As he and his class walked down the central corridor of a cell block, instead of feeling intimidated, he kept hearing stuff like, “Hey, Mr. Gates, remember me? It’s Dontel Freeman. I’m the one who got the B+ on the mid-term in 1993!” The students weren’t scared. A lot of them spent their lunch hour with friends and family.

Lenny spent his lunch counseling a kid, a kid in his first period, about how to get his homework done. The kid lives in a one room flat with his mother. Between about four in the afternoon and one in the morning, the mother needs the flat. It’s where she turns tricks. The family business. The kid’s out on the street. There’s no public library near-by. Hell, there’s nothing near-by except crackheads and Crips. So no homework. But Lenny knows an old, retired teacher just off a bus route near the kid’s flat. He called her last night. Lenny tells me she’s cool with the idea of helping the kid with his homework. She stays up late anyway, now that she’s retired. So he’s got good news for one kid today.

Just before the bell rings, I mention the bricks. Lenny knows about the bricks. These workers don’t have anything to do. So one of them wrote-up a work order for a wall. Just that. Nothing more. “Wall. One. Brick. Metropolitan High School.” The principal had no idea what to do with the workers or the wall, so he tells them, “I don’t give a damn. Build it on the fifty yard line of the football field for all I care. Just get this damn thing out of my life, and don’t tell me about it.” So they do what they’re told. Wall. One. Brick. Metropolitan High School. Fifty yard line.

Apparently they go and like lay a row of bricks across the fifty yard line, take a three hour breakfast, lay another row, a three hour lunch, and so on. But the story has a trick ending. It’s freezing cold right now, so, when it thaws in the spring, when the ground gets soggy, the wall will fall, and have to be rebuilt who knows where but anywhere but there. (I suggest the principal’s office.) But at least those workers are getting a paycheck this winter.
______