Review

Portland Press Herald 10/7/19

Portland poet, 92, writes about climate change, degradation of Earth

 

by Bob Keyes

 

Jacqueline Moore compares writing poetry to throwing a clay pot. You put a blob of clay on the potter’s wheel and give it a spin. Sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesn’t.

“It’s messy work,” she says. “You have to get your hands dirty.”

 

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The Cafe Review, 4/15/19

Balancing Act 2: An Anthology of Poems by Fifty Maine Women

Review by Dana Wilde

 

Balancing Act 2: An Anthology of Poems by Fifty Maine Womenedited by Agnes Bushell,
Littoral Books, 2018,
160 pages, paperback, $20,
ISBN: 9780578412337

How Portland, Maine, four decades ago, got to be known by some of its arts and literature street people as “the Paris of the ’70s” is not exactly clear. I first saw the phrase in 1975, in an enthusiastic letter to some editor. Recently I saw a claim that it first emerged at the Portland School of Art. Anyway, those of us who were there invoked it with appreciative irony during poetry readings and arguments over aesthetics at Jim’s Bar and Grille on Middle Street. Joe and Nino’s Circus Room was still operating a few doors up, amidst the efforts by artists, galleries, street performers, musicians, and, in their own furtive ways, poets, to create mini Greenwich Village in the down, dirty, and dangerous Old Port.One of the memorable events of the time was the publication of Balancing Act:  A Book of Poems by Ten Maine Women. The women’s movement was hitting one of its crests then, I think, and I remember sparring in a friendly way in some Portland living room one evening with Marcia Ridge, one of the editors, about whether anthologies that implicitly excluded men were any nobler than anthologies that quietly excluded women. This was before the 1980s and ’90s institutionalized social activism in art as first hip, then de rigueur, and finally a criterion. The book was collectively admired. Little did anyone know that fortythree years later, one of the contributors would be elected Maine’s first female governor.Or that it would take that long for Balancing Act 2 to appear. In keeping with the steady expansion over the decades of diligent, competent writing in Maine, this book quintuples the number of poets represented in the first issue, and includes artwork by Celeste Roberge and Joy Drury Cox. The contributors run a full chronologic range from No. 1’s Jane Hendrick and editors Lynn Siefert, Agnes Bushell, and Marcia (Ridge) Brown, to women who emerged a bit later as influential Maine voices, such as Lee Sharkey, Dawn Potter, and Betsy Sholl (Maine poet laureate, 2006 –2011), through Annie Seikonia whose verse has been quietly gracing Portland since the 1980s, all the way to high school student Rachel Ouellette. To name just a few, obviously.Since Kate Kennedy’s introduction invites us to dive in “any which way,” I went directly to Patricia Smith Ranzoni’s selections, where I was pretty sure I would find a touchstone. And did. While the poems in this book are characterized overall by technical competence (in some cases brilliance), care, and thoughtfulness, Ranzoni’s “7 loons in an evening trim” is transcendent. It’s not just a 25line tourdeforce of music and syntax comprising a conceit; the depths that loons dive become a figure of this exclamation: “daughters how well / you’ve learned how / to pass your mothers / how not to drown.” It’s one of Ranzoni’s many poems that sound deep in the underused nonrational faculties. This poem took the top of my head off. The whole book is worth this one poem.But of course, there’s more. I looked to see if Linda Buckmaster had contributed and was happy to see she did. And I’m telling you, she is one of Maine’s largely unsung master poets. Her “Entering the Abandoned Grain Mill at Dusk” is a personal recollection, apparently, of an epiphanic moment during a visit to an old mill building in Portugal. It’s a haunting poem, partly because of its “lengthening shadows” imagery, and more because of its echoing phrasing:   . . . The trail is clear and we have only to follow.   We have only to follow, and the walk, not far, is far enough to move
   through field, past barking dogs, along the road and into brushy woods
   as the sun’s last red lingers on tree trunks and fence posts. We find
   the final approach through dried grasses has been swept clean.   The final approach has been swept clean. Spent seed heads
        mark the edges.Efforts to adapt contemporary American diction to forms like sestinas, or variations thereon with repeating phrases, turn up fairly frequently in recent years; the results almost always seem miserably wooden. But Buckmaster’s repetitions sound not only natural, they actually evoke, indeed create the sense of deep, lingering psychic echo. This is a remarkable, brilliant poem.More: from, maybe, Robin Morgan’s wing of the women’s movement, come Wendy Cannella’s three memorably enraged poems “L’il Red,” “Ode to a Terrible Joy,” and most emphatically “The Word Slut,” which, we are reminded, was invented not in response to Madonna’s1980s look, but in the year 1402: “1402, people . . . / But what kind of an asshole writes in his Odes: / She’s ugly, she’s old . . . / And a slut and a scold. / That’s Shenstone circa 1765 and thank god / he’s no longer alive; thank god for sluts like us.” I want to say, “I hear you, sister,” but given my white heterosexual maleness, I’m not sure what further sandblasting that would elicit.And just to take you in one of the other completely different directions in which the tones and topics of this anthology go, there is Leslie Moore’s “Daddy Long Legs,” one of her startling, heartwarming reflections on the natural world. “We view each other with mutual suspicion,/the bathroom spider through all eight arachnid/ eyes, and I, a twoeyed towering monster,” begins the poem, and she goes on to detail her effort to identify the beast and depict the humantoarachnid relationship that develops, ending:   My husband once explained my theory of
   housekeeping to a niece. Instead of sweeping
   cobwebs away, she writes a poem about the spider.A very wide range of women’s experience is reflected here, and beyond. More nature poems (“A Good Hard Frost,” Elizabeth W. Garber) and family poems (“The Time He Brought Home Venison,” Laura Bonazzolli); poems of grief (“Orpheus,” Laura Trapletti) and of love (“Anniversary,” Susan Colburn Motta); poems of activism (“Dear Chairman Mao, Who Will Speak for the Yangtze?,” Deborah Krainin) and of personal recollection (“first marriage,” Jeri Theriault); women’s poems (“Womanhood,” Shana Genre) and men’s (“When an Old Man Cries for Joy,” Leonore Hildebrandt); and poems that send up reverberations of many kinds (“Red Canoe,” Siefert; “Midwinter Spring with Fly,” Brown).Reverberations from years ago. 1970s Portland seems, in some ways, almost as far away as 1870s Paris. But Balancing Act 2 is a sign that the present is directly linked to the past. To quote the new governor, we are all in this together. Dana Wilde

Portland Press Herald 4/21/19

INSERTING FICTIONAL CHARACTERS INTO REAL HISTORY CAN BE TRICKY

 

By Carolyn Megan

 

At the opening of Agnes Bushell’s novel “The House on Perry Street,” Lydia, the oldest living matriarch of the Tallis family warns her progeny, “Beware the priest who comes to the door! They bring nothing but trouble.” The warning compels Marina, Lydia’s granddaughter, to dive into family history to ascertain whether one of the women in the matriarchal line, as Lydia has suggested, has indeed promised the beloved family home to the Catholic Church.

 

A historian by training, Marina’s quest takes her – along with her brother and cousin – deep into the family archives, thus establishing the novel’s framework as each of the strong, independent Tallis women steps forward to tell the social and historical events of their time through the papers, autobiographical novels and letters they’ve left behind. The Tallis women bear witness to women’s suffragist and labor movements, America’s expansion into the western frontier and the work of the Emergency Rescue Committee (ERC) in 1940. They champion the cause of the marginalized while also enjoying the wealth and freedom to pursue art, literature and to raise their children without the traditional expectations of marriage. It is their stories and the history itself that serves as the novel’s primary focus.

 

The foray into history is not new for Bushell, whose previous 11 novels traversed diverse political and social landscapes. The challenge of inhabiting characters who live through and convey key historical moments is that imagination can become lost and tethered to facts.  Most of the time, “The House on Perry Street” excels in balancing this delicate tension, and the characters and the history move alongside and with one another. For example, Marina’s great-great-grandmother Ada’s ill-fated relationship with Thomas Barr recounts America’s encroachment west and the annihilation of Native Americans. Marina’s grandmother Julia’s autobiographical novel of a friendship between Elsie and Isabella underscores the senseless tragedy of the Triangle Factory fire. In these vivid narratives, the story compels and conveys crucial American history without losing the voice and heartbeat of the characters themselves.

 

In a few instances, though, the character’s development feels a bit rushed and overtaken by the history, such as the story of Lydia’s time working for the ERC in France during the early 1940s. Though the history is interesting, in these moments, the character’s narrative falls short.

 

It is Marina’s Aunt Rose, who mysteriously stopped speaking five years earlier, who carries the weight and discomfort of the promise made by the earliest Tallis matriarch. Rose’s ongoing correspondences with childhood friends Phillip – who has become a priest – and Stephen, reveal her deep spirituality and commitment to honor her ancestors.  She tells Marina, “It is an article of our faith that the living, through prayer and sacrifice, can assuage souls that find themselves in difficulties after death.” As the root for Rose’s silence emerges and resolves, the novel’s most important narrative emerges, namely, the burden that family and history exacts and the legacy of knowing and honoring that history.

 

By the novel’s close, Marina, now steeped in the voices and history of her maternal ancestors, contemplates how “our closest relatives are so often hidden from us, and how much it matters whether we know about them or not, especially the dead ones, but even the living ones.” In traversing the range of extraordinary lives of these women, it is Aunt Rose who ultimately suggests the reason for knowing history and carrying these stories forth, “We are all connected, the living and the dead.”

 

“The House on Perry Street” marks the welcome return of Littoral Books – the independent press that Bushell co-founded with Marcia Brown in 1975. In re-launching the press, Brown, Bushell, and Bushell’s husband Jim commit anew to publishing the work of Maine writers and artists.

 

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Maine Today 12/10/18

LITTORAL BOOKS CELEBRATES A SECOND BOOK OF POETRY, 43 YEARS AFTER THE FIRST

By Bob Keyes

 

This sequel was 43 years in the making.

 

Littoral Books, which began as a radical feminist press in 1975 and returned to the scene this fall with the publication of the novel “The House on Perry Street” by press co-founder Agnes Bushell, celebrates the publication of “Balancing Act 2,” an anthology of women’s poetry, with a reception from 2 to 5 p.m. Saturday at Space Gallery in Portland. It is a successor to “Balancing Act,” one of two books the press published in 1975 before taking a 43-year pause.

 

“Balancing Act 2: An Anthology of Poems by 50 Maine Writers” includes 118 poems from widely published and emerging poets and offers what Maine Poet Laureate Stuart Kestenbaum said was “a vibrant view of the complexities of living.” Inaugural poet Richard Blanco called it “an important contribution to Maine letters.”

The poets live across Maine and represent many generations, from a high school senior to a woman who grew up during the Depression, said press editor James Bushell. Saturday’s Portland celebration will be the first of many, he said.

 

“We already have scheduled a number of readings by the poets in January and February,” he said, with a marathon reading from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Feb. 9 at the Portland Public Library and at 3 p.m. March 3 at the University of New England Library’s Maine Women Writers Room. “Additional events will be held at a number of bookstores throughout the state, including Belfast, Brunswick, Yarmouth and Westbrook and other locales,” Bushell said. “Their voices, each one so unique, create a rich and many-layered symphony, or as the poet Devi Laskar puts it, ‘a beautiful chorus of voices.’ ”

 

“Balancing Act 2” poets are Sherry Barker Abaldo, Linda Aldrich, Muriel Allen, Jeanne L. Bamforth, Laura Bonazzoli, Marcia F. Brown, Linda Buckmaster, Wendy Cannella, Deborah Cummins, Kara Douglas, Patricia Ferrara Fuchs, Elizabeth W. Garber, Shana Genre, Shirley Glubka, Katherine Hagopian-Berry, Jane Hendrick, Leonore Hildebrandt, Georgie Hunt, Rebecca Irene, Judy Kaber, Deborah Krainin, Susan T. Landry, Valerie Lawson, Laura Levenson, Jacqueline Moore, Leslie Moore, Susan Colburn Motta, Molana Oei, Anne Britting Oleson, Rachel Ouellette, Lolly Phoenix, Dawn Potter, Patricia Smith Ranzoni, Marie Louise St. Onge, Hanna Sanders, Annie Seikonia, Lee Sharkey, Betsy Sholl, Lynn Siefert, Meghan Sterling, Emily Blair Stribling, Kathleen Sullivan, Jeri Theriault, Mary Ainslie Tracy, Laura Trapletti, Emily Jackson Tupper, Mariana S. Tupper, Anna Turner, Meghan Vigeant, Nancy Romines Walters.

 

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Portland Press Herald 9/16/2018

THE RADICAL SPIRIT OF ’75 IS ALIVE AND WELL WITH THE RELAUNCH OF LITTORAL BOOKS

 

By Bob Keyes

 

Once a feminist press of gritty old Portland, the small publishing house returns with a more inclusive mission...

 

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