Memoirs 2020

These are the memoirs I read this year and recommend for the beauty of their writing, their timeliness or their timelessness, and overall quality.

Cider With Rosie, by Laurie Lee

A well-known classic, and justifiably so, this first book by the famed British author, is a paradise of words. The vivid, sometimes surreal scenes of a child growing up in a rural area, touched along its sides by war, in a poor family with an eccentric mother and absent father, follow one after another. Rosie appears only momentarily, not a major character, just a turning point. The writing style is closer to Lewis Carroll than Hemingway, but this book shows why we need both. The nuances of childhood, the emotional shocks and revelations, and widening of the perspective from the self to others, are flawlessly communicated by this intricate torrent of words. The author went on to write other books , but Cider With Rosie remains his best-known work.

Men We Reaped, by Jesmyn Ward

This book speaks to my heart. I experienced the drug wars of the 1980s and 90s in my midtown NYC community, seeing it take children from neighbors’ families, and parents too, and friends who had given into despair due to AIDS. We are just beginning to understand what happened, analyze, and tell this story, these stories. That black communities were hardest hit is undeniable. In this beautifully written book, Ward tells us the personal cost as she brings us the story of the small town Louisiana communities of DeLisle and Pass Christian in more recent times. Young black men are dying of drug overdoses, suicide or violence one after another. She asks herself why. What is happening to her friends and former schoolmates, people the same age as she is? The towns are poor, people are leaving, jobs scarce and often away on oil rigs or in other towns and cities, and they have been hard hit by hurricanes. The young black men struggle with identity and poverty. Their lives, they are made to feel and believe, are worth nothing. In telling their stories, Ward’s rage and heartbreak fill the pages. A must read for our times.

Journeys Without A Map, by Marion Molteno

This daring book reveals why Marion Molteno is as successful as she is in her endeavors. She overcomes a natural modesty and treks out into the world carrying her hope in a kit bag. I recommend reading her excellent books Uncertain Light and If You Can Walk, You Can Dance, before this memoir. In Journeys, she describes visiting places and people to prepare for writing her books, and what she does to promote them after they are published. Many of these promotional efforts are humorous, though also productive.

She analyzes the motivations for her writing specific books, choosing characters, what she was trying to communicate, how effective it was, and the information that comes from feedback.

Molteno is a master of tone. She neither over or under-describes, while managing to keep resonances all about her words and entire passages. The reader’s imagination fills the rest of the space. Hopefully, she will continue to produce thoughtful, thought-provoking books.

Twigs In My Hair, by Cynthia Reyes

This is the third in a series, beginning with A Good Home and An Honest House. In this small volume, Cynthia Reyes wades into the thicket of memory to expose the hardy growth hidden in a fast-paced life. A life halted by a serious car accident, bringing years of debilitating pain and the psychological effects of trauma. Besides the loss of her career, she found she could not do many ordinary things. Gardening and entertaining her family and friends were no longer possible. Home and garden, important threads in her life, were gone. And she was used to being active.

“By my early thirties, I was that rare thing in network television: a young, Black, immigrant woman who was also an executive producer and rising star.”

Years of success led to starting a consultant company with her husband. They bought a new home, an old farmhouse with garden areas, which she looked forward to rejuvenating. Then, the accident, and everything changed.  

“If gardening helped keep me sane, it stands to reason that not being able to garden helped drive me crazy.”

As she struggles with her disabilities, her kindness of spirit comes through. Empathetic and perceptive, she finds other ways to make connections and be useful. One of them is writing. She tells stories of people who shared her love of gardens and from whom she learned life lessons. From these lessons, she learned “a slow wisdom.” I recommend reading the first two books before this one. However, it stands on its own as well. Read my full review on Amazon.

Native American Poets, A Poet’s Journey

At the next Monday night reading, I greeted people and collected donations at the door to the downstairs theater. Afterwards, Richard, and poets Rochelle Ratner, Jim Bertolino, Maurice Kenny, and I went for coffee.

A compact, intense but friendly older man with a short pony tail, Maurice was co-editor with Josh Gosciak of Contact/II, a Bimonthly Poetry Review.

Maurice Kenny

I had noticed that he was selling postcards of Native American poetry and artwork at the reading. Maurice said he was a Mohawk from upstate New York. The postcards were from his Strawberry Press, publishing the work of diverse Native Americans. Among them were Joseph Bruchac, Wendy Rose, and Joy Harjo. (In 2019, Harjo was named the United States Poet Laureate.)

The conversation flowed as lively as a deep woods stream tangling with the strong tides of an urban harbor, a stirring concordance of languages. I had a wonderful time and did not get home ’til 2 a.m.

Maurice Kenny remembered on Dawnland Voices (I recommend his Wild Strawberry poem)

Maurice Kenny about Joy Harjo and Louis Oliver

This is part of the memoir, Into The Fire: A Poet’s Journey through Hell’s Kitchen, by Mary Clark. All rights reserved.

A Poet’s Journey 2 St. Clement’s Church

St. Clement’s Episcopal Church, 423 West 46th Street, New York circa 1978

When the frost cleared, I returned to Hell’s Kitchen. It was a risk, a life in the arts, but I had to script my own life.

Jeff Jones, the administrator of the church and Theater at St. Clement’s, welcomed me to his office. He was tall, the office small. He enormously filled the room. *

“I came to a poetry reading here,” I said, and told him I knew Richard Spiegel from another reading series he ran in Midtown several years ago. “I would like to work in the theater. Behind the scenes. Is there anything part-time?” Seeing his reaction, I amended, “or volunteer?”

Jeff asked if I would like to help Richard with the poetry program, but I said, “I want to do something different, to work with a group of people and get away from writing.” I meant to say, though it took me from my usual writual, little that was new and unexpected seemed impossible.

“There’s lots to do,” Jeff said. “There’s nothing paid at this time.” He added, “It’s a place to start.”

I was living in a Single Room Hotel and on the dole. This would be on-the-job training.

“Would you be interested in helping build the set?

I perked up. “I think I could do that.”

Jeff said to talk to Steve Cramer, the TD, which he explained meant Technical Director. As I was leaving, he said again, “Are you sure you don’t want to do something with the poetry program?”

No, I nodded, “I want to try this.”

Down, down, down the stairs I tumbled, into the shadowbox of the theater, a hall lit by hanging lamps, and tall windows in one red-brick wall opening on a garden. By the windows leaned tall plywood boards painted black, to be set in place to block off any light during performances. The other walls were a light-absorbing matte black.

Into this dark space, with its two visions of a secret garden, filled with roses in summer, a tall, lean man, Steve Cramer, appeared magically from another portal.

Richard Spiegel and Steve Cramer in the downstairs theater at St. Clement’s circa 1978

Steve and I positioned wooden platforms to form a stage and seating area.

“How do you lift these all by yourself?”

Moving one end of a platform, he placed it on the edge of another. “Don’t lift when you can leverage.”

Some had rows of red plush folding seats bolted on.

“Old Roxy seats,” he said. “We salvaged them when they tore down the theater.”

Roxy Theater, Broadway, NYC

We secured scrims in place to create a black backdrop and obscure the machine shop backstage.

“If you have to move furniture or other props, mark where they belong with small x’s in white chalk.” The poetry program and the church both used the space, but they had to replace anything they moved to its original location to keep the actors from being disoriented.

I watched the lighting crew work, clipping lights on the exposed grid of cables and pipes.

And I bloomed in the small space, as the roses did, and carried the secret garden within myself.

In the office I talked to Jeff. He said “At St. Clement’s, liturgy and the arts collide and divide, and sometimes coalesce. When it comes together, it’s transcendent.” He paused. “But when not, it’s a disaster.

He worried that Richard was trying to do too much. Benefits for causes, poets theater, weekly readings. “Richard could use some help with the Poetry Festival.”

I wavered. After all, I wanted to escape the fate of Emily Dickinson. I wanted to be out in the world. Did Richard need help? “I don’t know if he’ll want my help.

“I think he will.”

Wondering if I would fit in and what the future would bring, I sat with Richard as the poets arrived for the Monday night reading.

After a while, I asked him, “Would you like me to help with the poetry program?”

He answered quietly, but emphatically, yes. And began immediately to talk of scheduling readers.

* Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll

This and the previous post are from a memoir in progress called Into The Fire: A Poet’s Journey through Hell’s Kitchen. All rights reserved. Photos by Mary Clark.

A Poet’s Journey Through Hell’s Kitchen

West 46th Street, New York City

Poetic License


I had my poetic license in the back pocket of my blue jeans. And miles to go, miles of snow, a transfigured night and all in sight covered in a winding sheet of white.

Stopping at a snowy Ninth Avenue, face and hands wrapped against the wind, I contemplated the divide before me. Ice-crystals glittered in streetlights and snow fenced sidewalks. The city streets were deserted, and I was alone in the canyoned silence. On the avenue’s arctic slope, deep within the haunting sound of a muted city I could hear gypsy cabs snorting dragon-breath in the dark, and I would have stayed to watch fringes of icicles on fire escapes glow in the dying light. *

Crossing Ninth Avenue, I heard the wolf howl in the wind. Into a gap hacked in frozen snow I pioneered westward to a narrow trail leading past four- and five-story buildings. Snow camel-backed on parked cars. Bare choirs of trees fell silent, only ticking now and then in frozen despair,* until a faint glow, just the slightest cinematic glimmer, fell on the crooked path. I leaned back, one hand on a rack of ice, to see above me a living painting: a red brick building with tall arched windows of earth and sky-colored glass, indigo peaked gables and copper crosses with a green patina springing from a luminous, roiling gray sky.

Double wooden plank doors painted in vertical stripes of chipped and tattered red, white, and blue were shuttered against the cold and any vagrants or visitors who might venture in. Hiking up the steps, kicking footholds in rime-encrusted snow, I peered through wire netting at an empty stairway to heaven. Tracking again through Technicolor traces from the lighted windows, I discovered a second set of steps and a brightly lit hallway. A bare bulb in a metal cage hung above the steps. I looked up and down the street of tenements and brownstones, and on windowsills and steps festooned with snow, there was no other light.

A royal blue and white plaque with a strident red cross sparked through a crust of frost: Welcome to St. Clement’s.

On the far side of a railing, steps led to a single recessed arch, and winding down and up again, I began knock-knocking-knocking on heaven’s door.

A small round bell bolted to the brick caught my eye. I heard the buzz resound and die. *

Richard Spiegel, the director of the Poetry Festival at St. Clement’s, opened the door. “Mary?”

In his early thirties, Richard’s long, wavy chestnut hair and trimmed beard shone with a soft gleam of mahogany and substrata strands of red.

I stepped inside. “I promised I’d come one day.” My eyes pulsated with red and white light as I thawed from the glacial trek.

I was one of only three. We read wine-poetry and drank red wine in chipped cups from St. Clement’s kitchen.

Inspirations: * Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” Robert Frost; “Sonnet 73,” William Shakespeare; “I heard a Fly buzz,” Emily Dickinson.

This is the first part of a memoir, Into The Fire: A Poet’s Journey through Hell’s Kitchen, by Mary Clark. All rights reserved.

Common Ground

This poem by John Daniel is one of my favorites.

Common Ground by John Daniel

Everywhere on earth, wet beginnings:

Fur, feather, scale, shell,skin,bone, blood,

Like an infant discovering sound after sound
A voice is finding its tongue

And we, in whom earth chose to light
A clear flame of consciousness,
Are only beginning to learn the language—

We who are made of the ash of stars,
Who carry the sea we were born in,
Who spent millions of years learning to breathe,
Who shivered in fear at the reptiles’ feet,
Who trained eyes and hands in the trees
And came down, slowly straightening
To look over the grasses, to see
That the world not only is
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . But is beautiful—
We are Earth learning to see itself,
To hear, touch, and taste. What it wants to be
No one knows: finding a way
In starlight and dark, it begins in beauty,
. . . . .  . .  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . It asks only time.

The Hundred Wells of Salaga Book Review

The Hundred Wells of Salaga, by Ayesha Harruna Attah, Other Press

This remarkable book with its themes of forgiveness and resilience is set in Ghana at the end of the European slave trade. The British, French and Germans no longer participate, but the social and economic fabric of life in the area is being torn apart. One of the complex issues is the involvement of Africans in slavery and the slave trade.

Two women from different backgrounds experience this social, political, and economic upheaval. Their stories illuminate a history largely untold in Europe and America. One of the complex issues is the involvement of Africans in slavery and the slave trade.

Wurche, who belongs to a royal family in Salaga-Kpembe, is wild and restless. She wants to help her father with strategy, but as a woman she is often rebuffed. She has an affair with Moro, a slave raider, but her father wants her to marry another man. When Wurche finds Aminah in a holding cell in Salaga, she sees the reality of slavery. She flees to another town with her son and Aminah to escape impending war. Aminah lives far from the coast in Botu, where camel caravans bring supplies and crafts, and the villagers sell food to the travelers. She is the daughter of a shoemaker who goes with the caravan to sell his shoes in Timbuktu and Salaga. Horsemen raid villages across the land, taking people to sell as slaves. Aminah is kidnapped along with others from her village and marched toward the coast to be sold as a slave. After several ordeals, she is sent to Salaga, where she becomes a servant to Wurche. She meets Moro and they fall in love. In the end, the two women have matured and must make decisions about their freedom and survival.

The writing is clear and straightforward but shows promise of a strong voice as she learns her craft. The subject matter is difficult and has to be pieced together from scarce sources, so it is this combination that makes the book exceptional.

My Favorite Short Story Collections 2020

I don’t usually read short story collections but this year, especially after the Stay-At-Home orders in my state, I found the short story form fit into the patchwork of my days. Here are two I enjoyed.

Black Crow Speaks, The Short Stories of Frederick Anderson

The best of these stories, in which a black crow literally speaks, are filled with humorous insights on the human condition amid an ever-increasing debris field. Dark humor abounds, as in “Some Reading for the Departure Lounge,” where an erstwhile pilot holds a conversation with an air traffic controller; the ending can be guessed but is still a surprise.

Some stories poke fun at or explore morbid events, with goblins, killers, and phantom trains. Others like “Brighton Rock” tell the sad but truthful experience of young love, first love. In “The Making,” hope and hopelessness mix as a people near extinction and all depends on one Last Experiment.

One of my favorites is “The Small Town Trocadero,” less a story than a reflection, filled with nostalgia for a time that is past and gone, which suits the time we’re living through. Beautifully written in declarative sentences it evokes the universal experience of being young and spending time with friends.

The stories always return to the black crow, who never disappoints.

The Night Bus, Mick Canning

Several of these long short stories are of travelling through unfamiliar territory, where earth and its elements shift in form, not sure what the landmarks and other signs mean, even when taking them as guidance. There are holy places, shamans, sacrifice, doors in the desert to step through, and a dance with Krishna.

The story I liked most was “The Photograph,” set in India in the style of memoir; the poem at the end of the book, “The Night Bus,” continues the trip through India.

“The Betrayal” begins with a night bus ride to a border town in the mountains. Past and present interweave in a narrative of escape from an oppressive society, at a cost that ultimately comes due. Years later, he questions the actions he had taken, the panic he felt, and the decision he made. I was confused by the confusion of identities in this one, which detracts from its impact. However, the sense of place and displacement, of refugees fleeing and those left behind, is palpable.

Overall, this collection gives the reader the feeling of “being there” in far-flung places. At the end, a series of poems talk of the old ways and the modern world, leaving today behind as we heed the call of adventure. He recognizes that “we are walking in the footsteps of giants.” Canning is “The Collector” of images and memories, because as he writes, “the world is full of wonders, all waiting for wanderers.”

Conversation at Sardi’s

June 18, 1975

Anthony Hopkins was in “Equus” at the Plymouth Theater on West 45th Street, New York City

Wednesday afternoon.

In Shubert Alley, Tony Hopkins asked, “Would you like to have a drink with me?”

“Yes,” I answered politely and quietly. I thought he heard me, but a few steps on, he asked again, looking over at me, his hands held in front of his waist. “Would you?”

“Yes,” I said more loudly. I punched my right fist into my left palm and kicked out my right leg.

He grinned.

“I’m not going to drink,” he said.

“That’s good.”

“But I am going to smoke.”

“Oh!” I reacted partly in disgust, partly in pleasure he remembered my concern.

I stopped a big black car on 44th Street and he followed me across. I opened the door to Sardi’s, he held it and we went in. Sardi and he talked about someone who had bothered him and he made dinner reservations for 5:30, and I looked at a caricature of him on the wall.

Upstairs we went into the alcove next to the bar and after some musical chairs sat down at a corner table. He ordered two Tabs and one for me. He was still very excited from the show. When he poured his drink into the glass, he poured until it overflowed and then sat and stared at it. He put a paper napkin on the spill, and began to fold each corner into the middle, then took another and did the same thing. Later I offered him another napkin and he laughed and stopped playing with them.

When we sat down, I asked him about Saturday’s show – did he think it went well?

“Afternoon or evening?”


“Who’s your friend?”

“My psychologist and some of his friends.”

“Oh, what did he think of it?”

“He didn’t like it.”

“What didn’t he like?”

“He said the stuff about taking away people’s passion was stupid – foolish. And about everything being a trick and a catch.”

“Yes. Well, I’m reserving judgment about the play until after I’ve finished it.”

A little later he said, “I’m reading The Politics of Experience. I’ve read it three times.” [book by R. D. Laing]

“Don’t you think that’s a little obsessive?”

“I think he’s crazy.” He went on to say he doesn’t help people deal with society.

“He is kind of strange.”

“Doesn’t he live in this country now – in California?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “I think I would have heard about it. He visited here. I think he still lives in England. They had a press conference when he came to New York – last fall, I think.”



He seemed amused and/or amazed. I said The Divided Self [also by R. D. Laing] was a better book.

“I’m just coming down now,” he said at one point, exhaling and staring ahead of him at his drink.

I asked him about the After Dark interview, and he said he hadn’t read it, and he vaguely remembered Norma McLain Stoop, the interviewer. I told him she said he was a Welsh “volcano.”

“What do you think about being called a ‘volcano’?”

“Am I a volcano? People have called me a lot of things – vulgar, emotional, aggressive, violent.”

We talked about the effect success was having on him. He hated the star syndrome – some people go for that – the limousines and all that. Being a star doesn’t mean money, he said, then withdrew a little, “well . . .” [He talked about a star who came to work in a limousine, late and didn’t know her lines.] “One day, I had to have an argument with her. I told her she was going to have to settle down and work.”

“What’s it like to be a big star?”

“Am I a star?” he asked. After a moment, he said, “I’m going to be a big star…”

“You’re a big star.”

“Do you think so?”

“I know so.”

He was silent.

I asked him if he didn’t worry about losing his voice from smoking.

“Don’t say that!” He jumped up. “I have to knock on wood.” He hit his knuckles on nearly every piece of furniture in the vicinity, saying, “I’m so superstitious,” then sat down. “It hasn’t happened with this play.” And later: “It usually happens with those long Shakespearean parts.”

He said about leaving “Equus” that these last weeks were very hard.

“I thought these last two weeks would be easier,” I said in surprise.

“I thought so, too.” He said, “The play’s gotten too big. I don’t think I can finish it when I start. Every night before I go on, I take a deep breath and plunge on. It’s like taking a parachute jump.” A pause. “I do everything through fear. I know – I’m a masochist.

“You look so confident on stage.”

“I’m not. I feel naked every time I go in the stage door.”

“I had this dream last night,” he went on. “I went to the theater as usual and it wasn’t there. I went right to where the door is supposed to be and it was gone. There was just a wall there. There I was on 45th Street and I knew it was the right street and I was walking up and down it, but the theater wasn’t there. I asked a man and he said, ‘Oh, they’ve moved it.’ It was five minutes before I had to be on stage and I couldn’t find the theater.”

He asked if I had ever been to California and I answered no. He was thinking of living there, and of getting permanent visas to stay in this country. I said, you don’t want to be part of this country. We discussed England’s versus America’s corruption. I told him when I was in college, I marched and demonstrated against the [Vietnam] war.

He insisted English society – “high society” – was more corrupt. He said he felt useless being an actor. He should be saving the starving people of the world.

Later in the diary I wrote:

I was attracted to him at first because he is professional, because he works hard and I know that often “the muse doesn’t just descend” and you become inspired. I’m trying to learn how to write; when I am inspired, I am clawed up in the trying. I do apply myself to writing. People’s responses are so confusing – different. When I write it’s both serious, for an audience and publication, and as an exercise, because I’ve never done that particular thing before. Sometimes I just give up because I think I can’t do it and who needs quality? I am interested in how he remains sane and open under pressure to create, as an artist.

(This is for David Selzer.)

Tales of Times Square 3

In 1975, in the summer with the windows open at the Times Square Hotel, people had very few secrets. About 4 o’clock one morning a girl began to scream, No, please! Don’t do that! Get a prostitute if you want to do that! Here, take back your money! Just let me go! After pleading a half-minute more, a door slammed and she ran down the hallway. Shouting and sobbing, she knocked on the door next to mine. “Somebody,” she begged, “open the door please! I don’t want to get killed out here!”

I looked through the peephole. She continued to cry and knocked on more doors. No one opened a door for her. So I opened my door and she ran into my room. I called downstairs for the security guard. She cowered on the end of my bed and started to smoke with all the affected gestures of a high-school nicotine addict. I was surprised to see that she looked a lot like me, except she was a few years younger. She was white, blond, blue-eyed and dressed casually in light blue jeans and a white blouse. Someone else had called because the security guards arrived while I was on the phone. The security men arrived and she lunged at my door.

When she went into the hall, I closed my door on all of them. A few minutes later, one of the people in the hotel who “helps out” knocked on my door. While I fumbled with my bathrobe, he was becoming very angry.

“Put a master key on this door!”

“Just a minute,” I said angrily, opening the door. The security guard was behind him.

“What’s that girl’s name?” he asked. “Do you know who she is?”

“No,” I answered. “I only let her into my room. I never saw her before.”

He looked at me suspiciously. “Well, she came out of your room.”

“Yes, but I don’t know her. I’m sorry.”

He stood there a moment distrustfully. I heard the security guard say, “She’s not a madam.” Then they went away.

Several weeks later, the elderly woman who lives across the hall met me by the elevators in the lobby. We said hello and she leaned over to me and asked, “Are you in some kind of trouble, dear?”

“No,” I answered, wondering why she thought I was.

“Are you sure?”

“Yes. Why?”

“I heard all that noise in the hall the other night. That young woman was in some kind of trouble. I thought it was you.”

“Oh no.” I laughed. “That wasn’t me.”

Upstairs, she invited me to her room, where she confided, “I heard her knocking on my door and I wasn’t going to let her in.” She looked frightened then, as if she had to appeal to my understanding. “I have to value my life too. But I thought it was you. I would be afraid to let you in if you were in trouble.”

I looked around at her room, at the pictures of Jesus and the cross on the table next to her bed and I realized that this episode had been upsetting to her because she knew she could not help someone in trouble, and that for last several weeks she thought it had been me she left out in the hall.

She told me I could visit her anytime. “Don’t be strangers.”

Her name was Mary H. “My husband was an Irishman, a cop,” she said, “and a gambler. He died in a poker fight.” He died at forty and left no will.

“Do you have any family?”

“I had a daughter. She was sweet, just like you. She died of leukemia when she was 21. My other daughter, she’s no good, she never comes to see me.”

“Why are you living here?”

“I had a nice home once, in Chelsea,” she said. Chelsea was the neighborhood below 34th Street on the west side. “I lost the house, all my furniture stored away and then I couldn’t pay and it was all gone.”

Every day she made one trip, to the Blarney Stone. She got food there and on the way bought the Daily News. Several times she asked me when she was not feeling well or the weather was bad to make the trip for her. I did, and brought back sandwiches which she tried to share with me. One time I noticed a small container of milk leaking on her dresser and cleaned it up.

I thought she would not want me to stay and started to leave. She said, “Don’t go, I’ll miss you. Who else can I talk to?”

I sat and talked with her a short while but I was always restless, ready to get out into the city, ready I thought for anything.

When I left, I said goodbye. Never say goodbye, she said.