When a skilled poet reads, the words convey a visceral physicality that can electrify a performance space. Such was the case on September 26 at the Inquiring Mind Bookstore & Café.
While the masses were gorging themselves on garlic a few blocks away, an intimate gathering was treated to selected works by Saugerties residents Judith Lechner and Victoria Sullivan as well as the dramatic piece “Approximate Poet Falls in Love & Can’t Get Up Redux,” by Phillip Levine.
A literary democracy
The Inquiring Mind Local Author Series falls on the final Sunday of each month. Past installments have included internationally renowned writers such as Maggie Estep, Luc Sante and Gail Godwin. The setting is wonderfully informal: the audience sipping tea or coffee sprawled out on couches and chairs and surrounded by the eclectic library of the bookstore shelves.
“There aren’t enough places for people to experience real writing,” said writer Jana Martin, who was filling in for series host Teresa Giordano. “It has to be a fun and nurturing atmosphere. There is something Luddite about these readings they have to [experience] live and not with a podcast.”
The readings are truly an interactive experience. Levine even used props to dramatize his piece. The audience is encouraged to ask questions following the readings, often eliciting poignant personal reflections from the writers concerning their inspirations and motivations. It is, as Martin put it, “a literary democracy.”
A family affair
First to read was Judith Lechner, who’s been published in Chronogram, Home Planet News and various anthologies. Many of the poems she shared at the Inquiring Mind dealt with the passage of time and her Russian family.
In “Afterlives” Lechner read about coming to terms with her mother’s death while bringing her clothes to The Well thrift store in the village.
“I dragged my dead mother’s dresses/a thousand miles north/clinging to them as if I were an orphaned puppy/When my head cleared/I knew no on in my world would want them,” read Lechner.
The poem goes on to describe the wrenching process of giving away the possessions, while realizing that her mother’s essence will always be with her. At the same time there is a melancholy of finality.
“Bound by rebellion/as once in obedience/I envy her afterlife/having no daughter/to pattern after me.”
“Ashkenazy in a Stetson” relates her immigrant grandfather’s infatuation with the promise and myth of America’s frontier while working in a New York laundromat. His imagination was captured by movies, which were translated into Yiddish at Broadway theaters. The poem also conveys her admiration for his courage in escaping the anti-Semitism of the time to set off for an unknown frontier.
“I picture his Ashkenazy profile under/a Stetson/galloping into his future/with a horseman’s confidence/leaving the Pale of Settlement/in his dust.”
Creating a character
Victoria Sullivan’s readings were hilariously edgy, with themes wading into the sometimes-treacherous waters of sexual politics. In two poems she used accents to inhabit fictional characters. In “Let Me Tell You,” Sullivan’s voice was inflected from the Deep South as she imagined Dick Cheney’s mistress.
“I never meant to be the mistress of Dick Cheney/I mean how could you choose such a role?
“For starters there’s the whole heart attack thing/The man is a walking death machine. I’d have to wear only slightly sexy underwear/Just so he wouldn’t get overheated.”
The character is a public relations consultant hired to repair Cheney’s reviled public image. She acknowledges Cheney’s shortcoming but revels in the affair anyway.
“I know he’s a warmonger, and a cheater/and cold at heart. I know he’s responsible for ecological disasters/and he lies/like a son-of-a-bitch./Yes, he’s all of those things. And worse probably…/but the man does know how to satisfy a woman, and that’s a skill less practiced than you might think.”
The affair lasts a couple of years, which include wild flings on government jets and a Saudi Arabian bathroom. She now dates a gym owner but can’t help but long for the former vice president.
“He’s sweet and has big muscles. But on certain moon-lit nights,/I remember Dick,/his hairy chest, his sweaty face,/and the way he’d nibble my ear so gently, and I long/for the man-I do--, and I bet he’s thinking about me too.”
In “The Coming Cold,” Sullivan observes the tendency of some men to kill the subtlety of intimacy with too much talk.
“If we ask we can receive the burning kiss of death/But it’s too soon; you say; you with your dark eyes and balding head; you with your desire to know/women in their naked hunger…Eager/you are eager/But you talk too much./Don’t you understand? Women don’t want to hear that numbing barrage of words and facts and still more words,/a torrent of words spilling out of your hungry mouth. Yes of course you know many things. But do you know our secrets?”
Pulling out all the stops
Phillip Levine is the Chronogram poetry editor and head of the Woodstock Poetry Society & Festival. Levine’d reading was a series of 10 poems tied together with humorous quips and one-liners. He used placards to announce the different piece. Props such as a tricycle, shawl and playing cards were utilized to dramatic effect.
“Approximate Poet Falls in Love & Can’t Get Up Redux” is a concept album that Levine wrote when he turned 40. He said the poems were “part memoir, part embellishment, an approximate version of real events.”
At one point, Levine unspooled a ball of yarn and had the audience hold it to dramatize “Thread.”
“Here, take this thread/consider it, caress it/Run it through your fingers/Taste its color, feel how smooth/If you finally wish/Thread it through your single eye,/Hand me back the end and I will do the same/This back and forth will weave a world/We can do this/This mystic stitch, this slender line that runs/from me to you and back again/we live along it’s length.”
Levine updated the piece to incorporate his divorce from his wife who used to perform it with him. Levine’s expressive face conveyed joy, laughter, sorrow and pain. In “I Wanted,” Levine expressed regret and yearning in an especially poignant way.
“And I wanted to/believe you when you said/I was a genius/but knew you meant idiot/so instead I believed both/though I’m neither.
“And I wanted to/be more than just this guy with pen and page,/these words and no place else to put them./and this messy melt of chocolate and fruit.”
Levine bared more than his soul at the poem’s conclusion in the epilogue. As he proceeded to take off his shirt and pants, he said “She got everything and I got everything else.”