Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Linger to Look

The last time I was able to attend the Appalachian Writers’ Workshop at Hindman in the summer of 2015, I came home with a righteous stack of participant and instructor books.  Around my drumming, performing and writing schedule, I’ve been gradually reading my way through the stack. Today, with morning coffee, I enjoyed the intriguing full-length poetry collection by Sabne Raznik entitled Linger to Look. I’m sorry it took me so long to get to this unusual, yet cohesive collection.

The over-arching themes of Linger to Look seem to be desire, belonging, transformation, and loss. Many of the poems are spoken in the voice of a woman who longs to dance and break free from the bonds that tether her to dusty reality. Horse, bird, water, and stone images abound. Musical use of language led me to finally read many of the poems aloud to myself to further experience the poet’s skill with sound.

Interspersed throughout the collection are the poet’s sketches of belly dancers and expressionistic photographs by Jan McCullough.  These interludes of visual art weave the thematic threads of poignant lyric and narrative poems to the more experimental collage pieces like “possible: raha,” a 9-page romp into the abstract.

I was set to work looking up many of the poet’s allusions to belly dancing, quotes in Hebrew and Aramaic, and references to middle eastern culture.  While these brief forays into research did not affect my overall understanding of the poems, I would have appreciated a few footnotes on the more obscure references to musicians who play belly dancing music. But then, I might have missed listening to some of that fine music on youtube.

Linger to Look, published in 2015, by Sabne Raznik is a dance of musical language and metaphysical imagery, swirling in experimentation and shimmering in the jingling of human heart.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Women of the Mountain South--November Blog Binge

Most of the books I review for AROUND CINCINNATI come from academic presses, most frequently from University Press of Kentucky and Ohio University Press. And since these presses are the “go to” for many poets, I often get to review poetry collections. However, academic presses publish research in many fields, often featuring voluminous works that could easily serve as textbooks for college survey courses or primary sources for those wishing to do even more research.  Such a book is Women of the Mountain South: Identity, Work, and Activism published in 2015 by Ohio University Press’s Series in Race, Ethnicity and Gender in Appalachia.  Edited by Connie Park Rice, a professor of History at West Virginia University and Marie Tedesco, director of the Master of Arts Program in Liberal Studies at East Tennessee State University, this 506 page collection explores the diversity of Appalachian women.

In the introduction, Connie Park Rice sums up the task of providing good sources about Appalachian women for those who would teach the history of women in the Mountain South with this passage:

“In the past four decades, scholars have produced and continue to produce, many fine studies on women in Appalachia, but few provide a broad overview of women across time and place. This book begins to fill that void. Intended as an introduction to the history of women in the Mountain South, Women of the Mountain South: Identity, Work and Activism focuses on three dominant themes over two hundred years of history in various geographic locales.”

Part One of the book explores identity while recognizing the plurality and complexity that topic encompasses for Appalachian women. The essays from part one tackle Cherokee identity, the emergence of Mother’s Day, female stereotypes, Hollywood’s portrayal of benevolent workers, and how body image affects cultural belonging.

Each section of the book also includes primary documents to support the essays.  In part one, there are some diary entries from Moravians and Muslims, a petition for divorce from one Peggy Cox, and a study of undocumented Hispanic mothers with high school-aged children. A number of photographs at the end of the section continue to illustrate the diverse identity of Appalachian women.

Part Two examines Women and Work In Appalachia.  The first essay argues the concept that gender lines often blurred in the Mountain South requiring women to perform many jobs deemed unsuitable elsewhere in order to ensure the family’s survival. The second essay discusses the role of prostitution during the Civil War, which many women entered as a consequence of economic distress, alcoholism, abuse or homelessness. The third essay outlines the role of middle class white women from outside the region in organizing women workers. Female leadership in the Conference of Southern Mountain Workers contributed to the development of social work as a profession. Another essay examines the gendered and racialized myth surrounding black women’s employment in the coal fields. The myth was that by hiring one black woman for the mines, a company could get affirmative action credit for hiring two minorities, thus depriving white men jobs.  That myth preserved white privilege and divided women workers.

Interesting support documents in Part Two include an indentured servant’s papers and the testimony of Mrs. Maggie Waters about the lack of jobs for women, causing them to take in laundry and boarders.  There is also poetry from Coal Mining Women’s Support Team News.

The dominant role of women activists in Appalachia is the topic of Part Three. H. Adam Ackley looks at the work of Florence Reece, Molly Jackson, and Sarah Ogun Gunning in the first essay.
Other essays explore motherhood and sexuality, middle class black women who challenged segregated transportation, and West Virginia women who stood up against mountaintop removal. Documents in this section illustrate the fight for suffrage, statistics about abortion in the mountain south, and access to health care.

In the epilogue, the contributors to Women of the Mountain South:  Identity, Work and Activism discuss the importance of place to the region and to their work. “Diverse and pluralistic, “ says editor Connie Park Rice, “the real Appalachia consists of many places, where people of different social classes, religions, races, ethnicity, and sexual orientation live while maintaining a variety of traditions and interests.”

Next Door to the Dead--October Blog Binge

I have lived next door to a cemetery for the past 18 years.  When we first moved here, some of my friends and family shuddered at the thought. But my mom weighed in with the wisdom of Grandma Margaret who once said in her typical cynicism, “you have nothing to fear from those people. It’s the live ones you have to worry about.”

Poet, Kathleen Driskell, also lives next to a cemetery which she uses for inspiration in her new collection, Next Door to the Dead: Poems from University Press of Kentucky’s Kentucky Voices series, 2015. Driskell is associate editor of the Louisville Review and professor of creative writing at Spaulding University where she also helps direct the low-residency MFA in Writing program.  She is the author of numerous books and collections, including Laughing Sickness and Seed Across Snow.

The collection begins with an “Ars Poetica” section, which loosely defined, is a reason for writing. In it, she describes the cemetery before her and the effect it has on her creativity in these lines:

“…With this dark 
imagination, my only god, lifts, takes wing.”

Part 1 contains poems about buzzards carrying away roadkill, funerals that invade the poet’s privacy even though the preacher assured her the cemetery was inactive, mowers who attend the graves, and some imagined back stories for specific grave markers. This section seems to be mostly about the day-to-day of the cemetery’s present.  One poem that resonated with my own experiences living next to a cemetery is entitled “What Haunts.”  Instead of ghosts, as the reader might suspect from the title, Driskell and her husband are beset by teenagers who feel some rite-of-passage obligation to hang around in dark, scary places in the middle of the night. Much of the imagery of this poem paints the invaders as ghostly with words like “float,” “haunts,”
“flitting through air,” “seeming to hang airborne.”  But from the beginning of the poem, Driskell also paints their swagger and life force as something very animal and dangerous. In lines like “the hands of a mob steady in pursuit of scent,” and “bared teeth,” she creates the kind of living being my grandma feared.

Part 2 begins again with the cemetery markers, but Driskell journeys farther afield into her contemplations about the dead. One poem takes us to the Irish Sea, another to the Aran Islands, and yet another to the Kentucky Science Center.  My favorite poem in this section is told in the persona of a mummy at the museum. She talks about her death, her status, how she ends up without a head because of the 1937 flood. Then comically, she relates how two boys reel in her head while fishing. Another poem in this section reveals how Dante Gabriel Rosetti buries love poems with his wife, later realizing that he never made copies.

Part 3 explores the graves of slaves, the marker of a snake handler who dies from snakebite, the contrast between markers for Colonel Sanders and his wife, and a melancholy persona poem about a stillborn child.  The poet also considers why some stones are so small and how that surely cannot indicate the soul’s true worth. A mathematician, still figuring from his grave, laments:

“…I’ve come to 
understand the slash of a grieving man walking
against the winter wind and the equal signs
that wagon wheels leave in the mud
when carrying an infant’s coffin.”

Part 4 takes on a contemplative tone, considering the nature of aging, death and dying. The poet considers the skull of a deer as she takes her daily walk through the woods. She also observes a man who chainsaws “orphan trees encroaching at the wild edges” of the cemetery. The poem, entitled “Clear Cut” describes the raw work of mourning one’s child. A set of persona poems tells the sad tale of domestic abuse. Old dogs and old people defy death. An empty grave mocks and beckons. Driskell closes her satisfying collection with a poem about birds flying in murmuration over the cemetery. As the flock alights on branches, this image emerges:

“…each branch
like a road leading to the heart

      of a town I had not known

I wished to visit.”

I enjoyed my visit Next Door to the Dead. You can find a link to Kathleen Driskell’s latest collection of poetry at WVXU.org

Binge Blogging Continues for October

I hold a grudge for a long time. For example, I have never forgiven Major League Baseball for the players’ strike of the 1990s. So, when Robbie Robertson left the Band—that quirky and marvelous rock ensemble who once backed Bob Dylan and reminded me of old men jamming on a porch during the Civil War—I was prepared to give him my best cold shoulder, too.

Then, he released an album called Contact from the Underworld of Red Boy in 1998. It was not the kind of album that garnered critical acclaim since it utilized traditional native singers, imprisoned activist, Leonard Peltier, electronica soundscapes, and noir-ish narratives. However, it featured a song called “Stomp Dance (Unity)” that Robertson went on to perform at the 2002 Winter Olympics with Walela(Rita Coolidge’s family of Cherokee singers) and a cast of hundreds of native dancers representing most of the 500 Nations of North America.  If you want me in your corner again, just welcome the world to the Olympics by chanting, “this is Indian country, this is Indian country.”

So, what is the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer up to these days? He has written a stunning children’s book, Hiawatha and the Peacemaker, from Abrams Books, illustrated with oil paintings by Caldecott Honor Winner, David Shannon.  As a child of Mohawk and Cayuga descent, Robertson learned the story of Hiawatha and the Peacemaker with his family on the Six Nations of the Grand River Reservation. In the “Author’s Note” section at the end of the book, Robertson describes the thrill of hearing the story from a tribal elder on one of their many visits to the reservation. He also shares his confusion when later in school he encounters Longfellow’s poem about Hiawatha. “I think I was the only one in the class who knew that Longfellow got Hiawatha mixed up with some other Indian. I knew his poem was not about the real Hiawatha, whom I had learned about years ago, that day in the longhouse,” says Robertson

The book begins with the horror of a burned village, screams, and the realization that Hiawatha’s whole family has been killed by Chief Tadodaho’s raids. Bitter and alone, Hiawatha plots his revenge. Then a stranger comes in a white stone canoe.  Since the stranger seems to have a speech impediment, Hiawatha agrees to help this Peacemaker carry his message of the Great Law to the land of the Mohawk. As the story unfolds, Hiawatha mouths the Peacemaker’s message to the Mohawk, transmitted through him by some kind of spiritual power, that “All nations will become one family.” The clan mothers agree.

As they move on toward the Cayuga people the Peacemaker tries to convince Hiawatha that he will be healed by the power of forgiveness. But when Hiawatha sees the devastation caused by Tadodaho’s latest attack, Hiawatha remains bitter. The plot continues with Hiawatha and the Peacemaker visiting every tribe, delivering their message, and each time gaining more support for the idea of peace.  if you know the history of the Cayugas, the Senecas, the Oneidas, the Mohawks, and the Onondagas, you know that they formed one of the oldest democracies on earth, influencing the likes of Ben Franklin, John Hancock, and Thomas Jefferson. Later, the Tuscarora joined them, forming the Six Nations Iroquois Confederacy. 

The events of Hiawatha and the Peacemaker amplify this factual story with the conflicts between individuals like Hiawatha and Tadodaho who are also on inner quests for redemption. I thoroughly enjoyed the rhythmic nature of Robertson’s story telling rendered in Shannon’s beautiful paintings.

Robertson includes a one-song CD with Hiawatha and the Peacemaker that could be used to sum up the story for young readers or to invite further discussion of the book’s themes of cooperation, forgiveness, and peace. I just enjoyed listening to Robertson’s song craft again, which now includes distinctive elements of both the Band and Redboy. 

You can find a link to Hiawatha and the Peacemaker by Robbie Robertson and David Shannon at WVXU.org

Flavors from Home--the Blog Binge Continues

This book really helped me to understand the plight of the refugee.

Flavors from Home—September

Flavors from Home by Aimee Zaring ( University Press of Kentucky, 2015) is much more than a collection of recipes from refugees who have resettled in Kentucky. Each chapter tells personal stories of how those who have been driven from their homelands by violence or persecution have struggled to adapt to a new culture. Each chapter also offers a glimpse into how the kitchen  comforts  and connects families and individuals removed from their lands of origin.  Featuring more than 40 recipes from around the globe, Zaring sets the table for a dialogue about the role food plays in helping refugees maintain a sense of identity, reconnect with their pasts, and retain their customs.

Zaring met many of her interview subjects through her work with organizations like Catholic Charities and Kentucky Refugee Ministries where she taught English for Speakers of Other Languages. Often her classes would culminate in a multicultural potluck, a dinner where all students prepare a comfort food from their native lands.  The sharing and sense of community engendered by these gatherings suggested a project of larger scope to Zaring, whose writing has appeared in The Louisville Courier-Journal, Arts Across Kentucky, and Edible Louisville, as well as many literary journals.

Fascinating stories of courage, perseverance and self-reinvention begin each chapter as refugees from Rwanda, Burma, Bhutan, Viet Nam, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Pakistan, Hungary, Azerbaijan, Somalia, Cuba, Bosnia, Irag and Iran share their stories of how they came to the United States.  In a few instances, the newly resettled declined to share the specific reasons for their coming, since to do so would dredge up painful memories or clash with their religious beliefs.  But, every chapter concludes with at least two complete recipes for preparing typical comfort food from the refugee's country of origin.

Besides presenting mouth-watering recipes and hair-raising stories of years spent in camps without even the most basic necessities for everyday life, Zaring explains the stark realities of being a refugee in Kentucky. For one thing, each refugee must pay back the price of their airline ticket to the government within a year or so of being resettled.  This is no easy feat for those who must find jobs that do not require an immediate command of English.  I have learned that in my area, Northern Kentucky, as of 2014, there was no main office offering support to refugees, like the Refugee Agricultural Partnership Program(RAPP) of Louisville. This organization helps refugees like Amina Osman from Somalia to earn her passage money by selling produce from her garden to local farmers' markets and commercial kitchens.  They also assist refugees with classes in how to maximize their crop yields in urban community gardens.  I did learn that certain Northern Kentucky companies like Levi Strauss and  Club Chef of Covington are diligent in hiring refugees. Also, Kentucky Refugees Ministry located in Lexington, holds regular office hours weekly  in a Presbyterian Church in Crescent Springs.

While researching to see of there had been any change in Northern Kentucky's status for aiding refugees, who are brought here by the U.S. Government, I was excited to read an article in The Northern Kentucky Tribune that an organization called RefugeeConnect helps arrivals with English instruction and in connecting to other agencies in Kentucky.  Also, the Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, under the leadership of Naashom Marx, vice president of business growth and international trade, sees the potential talent the refugees bring to our business community. "…they're good working people. They were good at the jobs in their country," says Marx in the article.

I especially admire Aimee Zaring's respectful flair for portraying each refugee as they invite her to both cook with them and enjoy the meal afterwards.  The book also includes black and white and color photos that reinforce the author's descriptions of her subjects and their best-loved dishes. The photos lend a family album feel to the work that I came to expect and enjoy with each chapter.

Besides offering a delightful smorgasbord of international recipes, Flavors from Home reminds the reader that many people who come to the United States are escaping war, genocide, and persecution.  They may leave behind any status, material goods, and family that helped define them.  By sharing their experiences and recipes in her book, Zaring affords the refugees a larger table for extending their hospitality to the reader.  I love that she includes a Bible verse emblazoned on the tee shirt of Pastor Thomas Kap, who has resettled in Northern Kentucky to escape religious persecution in Burma.

It's from Isaiah 54:2:

"Enlarge the place of your tent
stretch your tent curtains wide,
do not hold back;
lengthen your cords,
strengthen your stakes."

You can find a link to Flavors from Home, with its multilingual ways to wish you "Bon appetite" at wvxu.org/aroundcincinnati

Blog Binge Continues with Poetry from Jeanne Bryner

Early Farming Woman—August/September

I first discovered Jeanne Bryner’s poetry in a compilation called Every River on Earth, a rich anthology of Appalachian writers from Ohio University Press. Her poems in that collection focused in close on the good people who work the land. In her recent chapbook from Finishing Line Press entitled Early Farming Woman, she again trains her poet’s eye and ear on those people, but the reader is teleported back to the earliest farmers in a time when young virgins are sacrificed for the harvest, a nomad woman must decide to abandon one child to save the rest of her brood, and violent raids are common to acquire or defend the best land. The images are brutal, yet beautiful, as the women of the poems braid communal bonds of sisterhood required to nurture life against the beginnings of war.

Many anthropologists believe that war—as we know it—did not exist as long as humans were hunter-gatherers. These scholars theorize that wars developed as humans began to claim territory for farming. The competition for fertile land gave rise to open conflict. In the expert sequencing of her poems, Bryner’s first poem “carves the moment:

quiet hummingbird, wren golden eagle,
the milk rising, the water running down.”

The reader moves from bucolic bliss of women bathing at water’s edge, one sister carving the image of the moment, to the first major conflict in the series of poems.  We journey through a land and time fraught with dangers and loyalties, heartbreak and joy.

I first read the 18 poems out of sequence, favoring titles I found intriguing.  While the poems stand alone quite well—and many of them were submitted as stand alone for previous publication in various journals—I really didn’t get the full effect of the chapbook’s artfulness until I read it in sequence. Bryner has mastered placing her poems in a way that surprises and shocks the reader with story. I think I audibly gasped a few times during my second reading at the horror or the anguish or the compassion of the speaker. 

All viewpoints within the chapbook are distinctly feminine. Whether it be the new mother bathing at the stream with her new baby, flanked by her mother, who is lovingly washing her daughter’s hair while a new generation suckles, and a sister who is documenting the beauty of the moment, her female relatives, and nature in a carving. Or whether it be a female lamb who is adopted as both a pet and a breeder by an early farming family. The lamb describes the heavy bonds of love in these haunting lines:

“…The children grew,
swinging clubs, pelting rocks, a sudden thud

I was blinded. Now if the great door stands open,
I don’t try to leave. Protection is milk,

and love a brand,
not nearly as gentle as it sounds.”

The title poem, placed nearly one-third of the way through the chapbook, “Early Farming Woman,” portrays a widow trying to fend for her family when she happens upon a dark-skinned man with a lamb slung over his shoulders. The widow considers her plight and the promise this chance meeting opens for her family in these lines:

“The man speaks and it is the sound

of morning birds. My children wave
to him, point to his lamb.

I am tired of dry seeds and praying
for the clouds to tell their story.

I’ve had my fill of beatings,
carrying the elders’ water in clay vessels.

Whatever this man wants, I will give him,
and my children will eat.”

In another poem entitled “Field Flower,” a woman nurtures her dead sister’s son, who is growing up with a gentle nature, not valued by the men of the tribe. The speaker expresses her love for the sweet boy and the fears she harbors for his fate:

“He pets and pets the babies, waters
elders and the sick, hides from storms.

His father? The other men?
They whip any dog that cannot run.

any boy that will not kill.”

In one of the most powerful poems from this chapbook, a character called “Gray Braid” describes how a warring tribe attacks her village, killing her grand daughter and her sister, leaving her near death, but surviving to tell the story:

“I am the shade 
of a tree with many circles

and when I am stronger
there will be much to tell.

I am my sister’s tongue.
I am my sister’s tongue.”

Jeanne Bryner is indeed her sister’s tongue, telling a tale of survival, love and perseverance for those whose tongues have been cut out for fighting back against a world of violence and fear. She is a nurse by profession and a poet by avocation whose poetry has been adapted for stage.
Her writing accolades include fellowships from Bucknell University, the Ohio Arts Council, and Vermont Studio Center. Her poetry collection Smoke:Poems received an American Journal of Nursing 2012 Book of the Year Award. She lives with her husband near a dairy farm in Newton Falls, Ohio. You can find a link to Early Farming Woman at WVXU.org/aroundcincinnati

John Mellencamp American Troubadour--Summer blog binge

John Mellencamp, American Troubadour—July/August 2015

Susan Compo, author of Warren Oates: a Wild Life, credits David Masciotra with creating “almost a new genre” in Mellencamp: American Troubadour, new in April from University Press of Kentucky. Compo describes the book as “Part biography, part cultural and sociological commentary—with a touch of hagiography/fan nonfiction thrown in.”  The author’s bent toward “hagiography” is where I had the most problems while reading this provocative work.

I first encountered the word part “hagia” in Dan Brown’s intrigue novel, Inferno, where code breaker protagonist Robert Langdon must track down a bioterrorist using lines from Dante’s Inferno as clues.  The word root “hagia” is from Greek, meaning “saint.” As revelation goes, I next ran into this word part in a poem by Thomas Merton called “Hagia Sophia,” or Saint Sophia. When researching the word “hagiography,” I found that it refers to any writings about the saints which might document and highlight their miracles.  I also found that to use the word about someone’s writing might be pejorative, as it implies a kind of fan worship or uncritical stance.

While Masciotra organizes his book in semi-chronological order, beginning with John Mellencamp’s early years as a major label invention, John Cougar, and progressing toward offering glimpses of a mature artist who paints and writes songs of social import, the author often circles back to discuss song lyrics and musical elements as they apply to American culture.  Masciotra makes fair comparisons between Bob Seger’s earlier songs and Mellencamp’s, quoting lyrics from “Jack and Diane” and “Night Moves” to exemplify the sexual posturing of inexperienced youth. But when he attempts to disclaim Bruce Springsteen’s lyrics as “inauthentic” by comparison, he loses me. To me, the differences between these two songwriters is largely point of view and style, with Mellencamp espousing a first person viewpoint and stripped down rock presentation for many of his songs, and Springsteen creating street characters who seem mythic against a wall of sound reminiscent of every Phil Spector production value known to man.

I was surprised at Masciotra’s criticisms of Springsteen given his previous writing, Working on a Dream:  the Progressive Political Vision of Bruce Springsteen. But it seems that Masciotra takes the sociological and cultural aspects of his writing very seriously.  He often does pieces for The Washington Post, the Atlantic, Salon, and alter.net that regularly receive harsh reader blowback.  For example, he recently wrote a piece for Salon accusing Americans of blind hero worship for our police and military. This drew some colorful reactions from police blogs and members of the armed forces that I cannot share with polite company over the radio. Suffice it to say, they were not pleased or even in agreement.

The strongest passages in this study of Mellencamp as a Midwestern artist with some heft, grit, and insight are the chapters where Masicotra examines the themes in Mellencamp’s lyrics and praises his contributions to what we now call Americana. He attributes Mellencamp’s invention of using many folk instruments in his gypsy rock albums as a precursor to Americana.  He also compares Mellencamp’s midwestern vision to artists like Grant Wood, Theodore Dreiser, Jim Harrison, John Prine, and even Kurt Vonnegut. That vision seems to embrace “insistence on viewing the ebb and flow of experience as a holistic force carrying with it many contradictions.”

There are also a few wonderful quotes from Mellencamp about songwriting that I have taken to my songwriter’s heart and recently brought into my songwriter’s circle for discussion.  “The whole point is writing simple melodies people can sing along to,” says Mellencamp. He goes on to say, “people respond strongest to vague songs with ‘open ended’ stories or scenes.”  He adds, “in order for a complicated song with specific detail and imagery to work, the melody must be beautiful.”  Masciotra discusses how many Mellencamp tunes fulfill these standards while illuminating many issues in American culture like poverty, race, and lack of community. I especially enjoyed his take on “Little Pink Houses.”

I expected Mellencamp:  American Troubadour to follow the pattern of many music bios I have read in the past few years. I was looking for biographical highlights, middle of the book pictures and a discography. Instead, I found an—at first—troublesome chronicle of an artist’s growth over his career set against the cultural background of his time. David Masciotra provides thoughtful analysis of musical and lyrical elements that have made John Mellencamp way more than a footnote in the history of the rock song.

To listen to this review on WVXU.org, click here.