Today I share another excerpt from my work-in-progress novel portrait of the Victorian poet Christina Rossetti, The Dove Upon Her Branch to mark the birthday – July 25, 1829 – of Elizabeth (Lizzie) Siddall, muse and wife of Christina’s brother and Pre-Raphaelite artist and poet, Dante Gabriel Rossetti.
We found her hidden just behind those screens, that mirror gave back all her loveliness.*
Miss Siddall was sitting slightly hunched, her arms reaching, resting between her knees, just below which her hands were clasped. Thick, mahogany hair was loosely ballooned on the nape of her neck, her chin stretched forward. Her waist, like most of the wicker chair she perched on, was lost in the bunching of her skirt, but even with her torso swallowed in billowing fabric and her shoulders slumped, there was no doubt she…
As the Meet the Author’s series comes to an end, time to catch up with recent releases by authors on the shelves of the Cafe and Bookstore.
Today a showcase for Mary Clark’s poetry collection Into the Fire: A Poet’s Journey Through Hell’s Kitchen
About the collection
A young, aspiring writer comes to St. Clement’s Church on West 46th Street in New York City looking for a job in the theater. Soon she is helping run the church’s poetry program. The New York Poetry Festival at St. Clement’s features many well-known poets of the 1970s and 80s as well as up-and-coming and marginalized poets. The poetry scene, occurring alongside Punk rock and the waning days of experimental dance and theater, is part of the last widespread grassroots artistic era in the United States.
Into The Fire: A Poet’s Journey takes place in the rough-and-tumble Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood on Manhattan’s West…
Body Language is an exceptional collection of short stories. Each story, I thought, was better than the one before. Then the next one was better. I wanted to know more about each of the characters, that is, to read full-length novels built around them. They are filled with uncertainty, relief, hope, and people taking risks. In one story, the risk is in re-engaging after a separation. In another, Sister Salina stands out as a complex character because of her hidden life. I connected with the feeling of not fitting in and being disapproved of for a behavior you cannot explain but others are quick to define in a negative way. The ironic but loving tone of the narrative works. The story of two children, adopted years apart, in the same family, shows the real-world impacts of isolation and the need for connection. Pursuing human contact hit a nerve in this time of a pandemic. Body Language lives up to its name in this powerful and poignant book by a master of the short story.
Reluctantly Dead, by Glenn Parkhurst, is an enjoyable book that mixes humor with horror to make it a romp through a serious subject. What happens when we die? What about those who’ve said they had a near-death experience?
Phillip, the main character, describes the experience of his hovering above his body while dying. Then, he is curious as he watches himself on the “largest I-Max ever, my own personal one.” He finds himself in a fog, and slowly light comes. His journey begins: he is drawn toward the light, feeling an urge to move toward it “like a sneeze lying in wait, it was irresistible.”
Phillip moves along the path toward the light above the horizon. Looking back, he sees a black tunnel that hides everything behind it. From time to time “black lightning” strikes a victim, taking them into the tunnel of despair, and sending Phillip into a deep state of depression. As Phillip treks through one version of heaven after another, each one reflecting human’s earthly desires for stability or for pleasure, he maintains a healthy skepticism. “They’d left out a few things, such as joy, peace, and love.” He admits he is not leaving much behind in his life, he had little ambition since a childhood bully made him retreat and play it safe, so he has no real attachments. His observations bring out the contrast between what his life could have been and what it was. Along the way, he meets Nathan, a boy of about twelve, who needs his help. In a series of adventures, they come to form a strong bond. Phillip’s personal growth creates the foundation for the final decision in his journey.
Reluctantly Dead has a memorable cast of characters and its ethical mind-play, as well as the word-pictures of temptation, anger, fear, depression, and steadfastness, bravery, empathy, and love, make this an interesting read.
How can we have humor in the midst of the COVID pandemic? C. C. Alma finds a way. The story is told through a dog’s eyes, giving it a perspective that reveals the strengths and weaknesses of human beings. The Little Dog is an orphan, and he goes about choosing a new family. In the empty landscape as people succumb to the invisible disease, his sense of smell tells him who is sick and who is well. This book is done with sensitivity and the humor makes it a top-notch read.
A wonder-filled garden is the setting for a series of adventures by a cast of fairies, dwarves, swans, geese, a one-eyed pig, and stone lions who come to life at night. “Eagles, rabbits and monkeys have found their way here over hundreds of years as well as animals who have sought sanctuary within its surrounding hedges.” Each of these, including a fawn, appear to be garden ornaments. But the hidden life is revealed in this book. They all have stories. The stone eagles “were made by a slave of the Roman merchant who built his villa on this mountain.” Waves of human history passed over, and for a time, no one lived there, but then the sound of “modern machinery woke us from our sleep.” One of those seeking refuge is a young boy. He is helped by the guardians of the garden. The stories of the humans are interwoven with those of the fairies and loyal family dogs. This is an imaginative and inspiring book by a gifted storyteller.
Recently, I read two books about the native people who originally inhabited what became the United States of America. The first was The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich. She is an enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians, a federally recognized tribe of the Anishinaabe (also known as Ojibwe and Chippewa). She was born in Little Falls, Minnesota.
Her latest book tells the story of her grandfather’s recognition of a proposed law in the U. S. Senate which would eventually “terminate” all treaties with Indian nations, and immediately terminate five tribes, including the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa. He gathered others from the tribe and alerted them to the real meaning of the text. The tribe had already been dispossessed of the better land in their area, and had poor education, health, and employment opportunities. Some left for Minneapolis and other cities in desperation, and others moved to another reservation near the Great Lakes. This termination would remove them from their land and disperse them as refugees. Erdrich combines her grandfather’s work with a fictional story of an Indian family, and especially about one of the daughters. For me, the two stories had different tones and intentions, and made the story fragmented to the point of losing direction completely sometimes. She tied them together with a vision of the old man’s, linking them spiritually. The Night Watchman gives the reader an authentic look at Indian life in more modern times than normally found in literature. It is a searing indictment of American disregard for the value of Native peoples’ lives, and for the ability of her grandfather and his tribe to understand what was happening in that proposed legislation. He could see in the night, and he was a fine watchman. The Night Watchman was just awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
The second book, Red and White, by Kenneth Weene, weaves together the nuanced story of Lonely Cricket, a young member of the Ho-Chunk nation, with a sweeping epic of American history after the Civil War. He gives us the details of the boy’s life, his Native parents’ lives, and those of the White settlers who live nearby. He tells the story through the events and behaviors of particular people, while connecting them to the bigger picture. The locations are well-described, and the characters seem to be authentic and historically accurate. The crux of the novel is the identification of people with one group or another, which is exemplified in Lonely Cricket. He lives in a time of change as European Americans move west. Native people are killed, families separated, and tribes are broken up and removed from their traditional lands. Lonely Cricket is swept up in this turmoil. He holds to his identity, drawing strength from the stories of his father, Lame Bear, and the love he has for his sister, Happy Turtle.
The novel is interspersed with teaching stories, ostensibly those of the Ho-Chunk. Whether these are accurate I am not able to say. They appear to be respectfully given. The stories are building blocks of a moral and ethical life or tell the particular story of a people.
Weene I think avoids the pitfalls of a White author writing about Native Americans. Instead, he explores the intersection of different cultures and histories. The clashes and convergences create a range of perspectives which he handles well. At the same time, the main character’s experience remains the center of the novel. The boy discovers his true birth parents, and that changes everything. Or does it?
To tell the complex story of American history we need more of these kinds of books. They provide great insight into the bad faith and ideals, tragic failures and resilience, of our country.
In my book, Community, the word “AIDS’ appears 54 times. Our midtown New York City neighborhood was hard hit by the AIDS epidemic. In November 1985 the local hospital, St. Clare’s, opened the first state-designated AIDS unit. Many of the patients were uninsured. People were unprepared for this disease, which was found in other countries as well. A true pandemic, HIV/AIDS continues to infect millions around the world.
In the 1980s it killed people I knew, neighbors and co-workers, in the city and the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood. For several years, we didn’t know how it was transmitted. We didn’t know what the stages were. People were afraid to be near a person with AIDS, to shake their hands, or breathe the same air. Then it seemed only certain people got AIDS: gay men, drug addicts, and sex workers. As with COVID-19, many people felt they were not at risk. They were wrong. It killed people in all walks of life, all ages, rich and poor, black and brown and white. One was a postal worker in my building, another an innovative developer, and another the head of a major homeless services organization.
Initially, the gay community was hit hard. My personal experience with AIDS began with a young man who lived in the apartment next door, whose mother came up from South Carolina to be with him in his last weeks. I saw the sores on his legs, his wasted body. A friend had a neighbor going through the same thing, another young guy with his life before him; his parents came to be with him, too. Another young man, Frank Clemmons, had started out in community activism at the same time I did. When Frank told me he had AIDS, it was just before going into a community meeting. We were in the Art Deco main hall of the McGraw-Hill Building on West 42nd Street, green and gold motif, decorated elevators around the corner at the far end.
Several years later, I dreamed I was in the elevator at the McGraw-Hill building. Muted light. Green, gold. Quiet. The elevator operator was a cab driver-philosopher. Going up was against the gravity of my mind, coming down we slipped 1-2-3 floors. Then 6 and 7, then 17. Fast. I stood watching the lights, the floor numbers flashing by. Wondered if I should care, say anything. Time slipped away.
I said, isn’t there anything you can do?
I saw a notice in a newsletter that Frank Clemmons had died in February, 1996.
Frank had been the Chelsea Reform Club’s “district leader from 1989-1991. Frank served on Community Board 4, Area Policy Board 4, and as a board member of NYS Gay & Lesbian Lobby—the predecessor of the Empire State Agenda. He was also a strong supporter and fundraiser for the Gay Men’s Chorus and a member of the Gay and Lesbian Independent Democrats.” He was also active in the 30th Street Block Association, Chelsea Waterside Park Association, and the Midtown South Precinct Community Council.
“Frank’s gentle manner and devotion to helping others will long be remembered by those he touched,” the notice said. “He was forty years old and died after a long illness of complications, due to AIDS.”
This is not my first pandemic. It amazes me that so many people have a casual attitude towards it. Every life lost is precious. And that should not be tolerated.
St. Clement’s. Beauty under the grime. Muted mosaics flaring in sunlight. Chanting poets.
Rich wanted to ask Allen Ginsberg to read a section of The Odyssey at an anti-nuclear event he was planning for a Sunday at St. Clement’s on August 6th, “Hiroshima day.”
He asked me to go with him to Allen Ginsberg’s reading at a nuclear disarmament rally. He read most probably from “Plutonian Ode.”
Poets we knew and became connected to moved forward, a gentle tide, rocked by the new thing, our ability to create oblivion, and to answer with our voices evoking the voices of consciousness to carol our spirits inside the death-rendering, until there we were, the Poets of Our Time right up in front of the crowd, serious, dolorous, Kerouac cool, smiling antennas up and on the tips of our toes. Ginsberg threw himself into the poetry, sparked our responses: nodding heads, nodding bodies. Handclaps, psalming our way beyond. We were in love.
I was in love. With Allen Ginsberg!
In the excitement Richard and I were swept away. Rich had no chance to ask Ginsberg to read at the St. Clement’s anti-nuclear event. We rode over the East River to a party at Maurice Kenny’s Brooklyn apartment, and after that, unwilling to give up the day, although it was midnight, we walked to the Esplanade to feel and hear the breath-song of New York harbor.
The candidates were Ruth Messinger, Democrat, and Rudolph Giuliani, Republican.
It was my job to keep tabs on what was happening in the community, and to take initiatives when needed or possible. When Giuliani became mayor, he began making changes that would affect the Hell’s Kitchen/Clinton community, often not in the best way. If McManus supported him openly, by endorsing him in 1997, the doors would open to better negotiations, better outcomes. He had to decide whether he thought Messinger or Giuliani would win.
Meanwhile, two of the old guard in the McManus Club decided to get what they could. How far would they go?
I’ve just published this book about my experiences running the poetry program at a midtown Manhattan church. This takes place before the time period in Community: Journal of Power Politics and Democracy in Hell’s Kitchen. This book is about the transition from the arts to community work.
A young, aspiring writer comes to St. Clement’s Church on West 46th Street in New York City looking for a job in the theater. Soon she is helping run the church’s poetry program. The New York Poetry Festival at St. Clement’s features many well-known poets of the 1970s and 80s as well as up-and-coming and marginalized poets. The poetry scene, occurring alongside Punk Rock and the waning days of experimental dance and theater, is part of the last grassroots artistic era in the United States.
Into The Fire: A Poet’s Journey takes place in the rough-and-tumble Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood on Manhattan’s West Side. This story is set in a neighborhood that reflects the passion of the times. By 1980, both the arts scene and New York neighborhoods are on the verge of change. The author’s life in the arts weaves in and out of the neighborhood’s narratives. She must make a choice between two possible lives.
St. Clement’s Church has a storied history in the arts, beginning with the American Place Theater in the 1960s to the present day. Cameo appearances in this memoir are made by Robert Altman, Amiri Baraka, Daniel Berrigan, Karen Black, Raymond Carver, Cher, Abbie Hoffman, Spalding Gray, Al Pacino, and Paul Simon. Erick Hawkins, June Anderson, and Daniel Nagrin dance through.
Poets and writers include Carol Bergé, Ted Berrigan, Enid Dame, Cornelius Eady, Allen Ginsberg, Daniella Gioseffi, Barbara Holland, Bob Holman, Richard Howard, Maurice Kenny, Tuli Kupferberg, Eve Merriam, Robin Morgan, Sharon Olds, Alicia Ostriker, Alice Notley, William Packard, Robert Peters, Rochelle Ratner, Grace Shulman, and Kurt Vonnegut. Mentioned or discussed: Joseph Bruchac, Gregory Corso, Emily Dickinson, David Ignatow, Joy Harjo, Rashid Hussein, Kim Chi Ha, Denise Levertov, Audre Lorde, Anais Nin, Ron Padgett, Pedro Pietro, Muriel Rukeyser, and Anne Sexton, among others. Along the way, I recommend poems that can be found online.
Delighted to welcome Mary Clark to the Cafe with her latest release, a memoir – Community: Power Politics and Democracy in Hell’s Kitchen
About the book
An arts coordinator at a midtown church in Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood, Mary Clark began a fifteen-year journey through New York City politics. From the volatile streets to the halls of power, she experienced the triumphs and defeats of the Hell’s Kitchen community as it fought “development fever.” Her actions fed into the successes and failures of her community work, as this memoir describes in a nod to Rousseau’s The Confessions.
The AIDS epidemic was at its height. Homeless families were placed in midtown hotels, which resembled refugee camps. Crime associated with the illegal drug trade threatened one of the oldest communities in the city. Meanwhile, ambitious politicians vied for dominance behind the scenes. She had a grassroots view of the fall of Ed…
Thanks to Chris Graham at the Story Reading Ape for publicizing the #newrelease of my latest book, Community: Journal of Power Politics and Democracy in Hell’s Kitchen. The Story Reading Ape is well-known to writers for writing tips and profiles of authors. Chris has also designed book covers. A very versatile ape!