Bryan R. Monte – AQ26 Autumn 2019 Art Review

Bryan R. Monte
AQ26 Autumn 2019 Art Review

Wim Crouwel: Mr. Gridnik, 28 September 2019–28 March 2020,
Amsterdam Stedelijk Museum.

Mr Gridnik

It seems as if the Amsterdam Stedelijk Museum had read my mind, or maybe the AQ 2018 Yearbook and/or the AQ 2019 websites, because its Wim Crouwel: Mr. Gridnik exhibition, which opened this autumn just after AQ26 went online, is a perfect match for this issue’s Borderlands theme. Wim Crouwel, who unfortunately just passed away on 19 September, had the nickname of Mr Gridnik because he invented a simple, New Alphabet typeface based on grids and points, presaging the digital revolution’s display and print capabilities.

Without knowing it, I had become acquainted with Crouwel’s work in America as an amateur philatelist when I added his 5- and 25-cent postage stamps to my collection, years before I ever imagined emigrating to the Netherlands. These stamps’ monochrome backgrounds which fade in and out in intensity from top to bottom and their straight up and down san serif letters and numbers, certainly made them stand out from the other more exotic, flowery, or patriotic stamps featuring nations’ flags, colours, wildlife, fruit or flowers in my collection.

The exhibition includes Crouwel’s sketches for the New Alphabet. Its letters are formed using a square’s four sides and are composed of only lower case letters with a few short ascenders and descenders. There are no italics and no capital letters in this font and m’s and w’s are created by underlining n’s and u’s. In addition, Crouwel’s paper sketches of raster, letters made up of what most know as pixels, are also on view. Some might find Crouwel’s simple, clean, techno, democratic, signature style lettering and design a bit unimaginative, sterile, and restricted. Nonetheless, this style of signage was easily readable and reproducible in various media such as electronic stock market ticker tapes, train station and airport arrivals and destination boards, and early computer monitors.

In addition to typefonts, Crouwel also designed museum exhibition posters, catalogues, and books (dozens of which are on display in gallery 0.13). True to his minimalist tendencies, he abbreviated the Stedelijk Museum’s name to SM and used the same sort of monochrome backgrounds, lettering and numbers as on his stamps. In the collection of the dozens of Stedelijk posters he designed is one example of a concept board with measurements and notes for a 1970 Claes Oldenburg exhibition which features a sculpture, with a leather-like texture, of some sort of red fruit being juiced on an old-fashioned, hand juicer. Another is a Marlene Dumas exhibition poster from 2014. Posters for the Berlage’s Haagse Gemeente Museum are also included and feature architectural drawings and the type placed diagonally across the poster.

His love of drawing and typefonts, is described lovingly and in detail in Lex Rietsma’s 2019 video for the Dutch Broadcasting Corporation in gallery 0.11. The documentary tells of Crouwel’s years at Groningen’s Minerva Academy, where he studied fine arts and his years at Amsterdam’s Rietveld Academy. The film also mentions Crouwel’s houseboat in Amsterdam moored nearby the Olympic stadium, this house’s minimal Danish design, and its ’50s style furniture featuring a white formica-topped dining table, which Crouwel regularly covered with pencil drawings and then later scoured away. One of this son’s in the video also mentioned his father’s tendency towards graphiomania. He said that if they went out to eat in a restaurant and there was a paper tablecloth, the tablecloth would be covered with his father’s sketches by end of their meal. The video ends with nonagenarian Crouwel showing a woman of a similar age how to make his New Alphabet fonts with a stylus on a smartphone. On the facing wall of this gallery are examples of the more than dozen corporate logos Mr Grid created in his minimal, lineal style including those for Auping, the cities of Rotterdam and Groningen, the Rabobank, the Amsterdam Stedelijk Museum, and Teleac.

The last gallery, 0.10 features one wall with articles about Crouwel in Dutch newspapers such as the Books section of de Volkskrant, and an NRC Handelsblad article about his work with London Design Museum. Included with these clippings is a photo of the man himself sitting in his library surrounded by floor-to-ceiling walls of books, where he looks happy and at home.

However, this is where the exhibition literally dead-ends. Crouwel’s New Alphabet could have provided an interesting, interactive activity for school children, (similar to the 2017 Amsterdam School’s ‘Build Your Own Clock’ activity), many of whom were present during my visit to the exhibit. These students could have spent time using Crouwel’s New Alphabet to write their names or brief phrases. A few might have considered (a few years later) a career in design as a result of such an exercise. In addition, what also was a bit disappointing was that there didn’t seem to be a catalogue for this exhibition available in the Stedelijk’s bookshop. Fortunately, there was one last copy of The Monocelli Press’s The Debate: The Legendary Contests of Two Giants of Typography by Crouwel and Jan van Toorn, which I purchased to help remember some of the artefacts in this remarkable exhibition about the design and the art of a remarkable man.

Keith Moul – Borderlands Photos

Keith Moul
Borderlands Photos

Keith Moul likes to drive around and stop at anything interesting. If there is space at the side of the road, he’ll stop (and sometimes on an isolated road in its middle). He processes the shot in Photoshop, without ever changing the content, but only to sharpen, contrast and provide maximum saturation (to his eye) depending on the subject.

Damrak Bikepath, Amsterdam, Keith Moul, photograph, 2018

Landscape with Arizona and US Flags, Keith Moul, photograph, 2018

Japantown, San Francisco, Keith Moul, photograph, 2018.

Ian C. Smith – Time, that stalker

Ian C. Smith
Time, that stalker

In a Vancouver youth hostel, exhausted after hitchhiking from Kingston, N.Y. to the Labrador Straits then backtracking via Newfoundland and Prince Edward Island, across the Canadian prairie below the widest sky lodged in memory, to the Rockies, beyond to Alaska, before sleeping on deck through the Inside Passage’s fog to Vancouver Island, I see one-way trans-Atlantic tickets from Seattle drastically discounted pulsating on the notice board. Almost broke because I miscalculated the exchange rate, we need to get back to our moulding caravan and wreck of a car in rain-swept Kent.

The English couple selling the tickets have a double-barrelled surname that includes ours. My flimsy invention if challenged is we both prefer using shorter, easier, versions of our names for our passports. I understand those novels about spies with nowhere left to hide as we hitchhike south, walking through the border into the U.S. where we were earlier declared aliens after a dodgy employment fiasco, to reach the airport with many hours to spare.

Time creeps in dusty light, the concourse gradually busier. Our (their?) flight pushes in, top of the board. Houston, then London. Or not. Or what? Led away by security? The flight continues to Paris, romantic in autumn, but we crave the shelter of our makeshift base, fidgety waiting for the queue to lengthen.

Sweat cooling, we clear Customs and Immigration to the boarding lounge, hazy runways seen through glass dreamlike, a faint whine that could be a police siren a taxiing jet heard from our almost soundproof safety. Illness racks her high over the Atlantic, a reaction caused by my guilty hubris. Fearing a wasted life I can’t know that one day I shall edit this faded news alone, trying to recall if I knew at heart she had not wanted to share my yearning journey.

Gene Groves – Hanging On

Gene Groves
Hanging On

It is compartmentalized,
placed in a plastic tray with the items at airport security.
Watch, purse, mobile, shoes, handbag
do not completely fill the space.
There is room for pain at the edge
to slide along a conveyor belt
through the detecting machine,
invisible to enquiring eyes.
It walks with her through the arch
rings no bells there.
She holds her arms out,
clothes are patted,
her hair mussed.
She is told she is okay,
can collect her baggage.
She wishes she could leave it behind.

Gene Groves – Contemporary Issues in Estuarine Physics

Gene Groves
Contemporary Issues In Estuarine Physics

You called me your beautiful woman of the estuary
a poet’s take on darling
This was not an issue.

We were physical then
This was not an issue.

Never my contemporary
I joked about your five-year lead,
said the age gap was too great
though this was not an issue.

At every estuary I think of you
beautiful, bare.

On these edgelands
across seaswept spaces
sand blows into our eyes.
We do not see clearly.

Elvis Alves – The search for home

Elvis Alves
The search for home

We escape to find space to
settle the mind. Where is
home away from home?
There, relief abounds and
sleep is not a stranger. In
this land, birds sing sweet
songs. The seasons are
long and mellow. Mother
Nature, too, can learn to
behave — somewhere far
from here.

Elvis Alves – For Victims of Natural Catastrophes

Elvis Alves
For Victims of Natural Catastrophes

We cross the river to the other side where a mother
and child wait for the sun before going forward. The

new day a promise fulfilled to them. And us. So we
celebrate life every day because a catastrophe can

happen without a moment’s notice. Uprooting. To
transport the will where it does not want to go.

A stubbornness unfamiliar only in its familiarity,
like a counterpart that is part of the whole.

Life happens with intrusions. It is true that every-
thing breaks and needs fixing. An answer that precedes

the question that births it. There is a fate
that becomes you and that you need to make.

David Butler – Judgement

David Butler

It was the awarding of ‘costs against’ that finished the old man. That the case might finally be lost was a prospect he’d gradually come to accept, as he’d once come to accept that mother’s illness was terminal. As the appeal drew near, Finley, the family lawyer, began to warn with increasing frequency and alarm; had advised again, on the very steps, to settle out of court, even though it would mean conceding the bloody point. My father was not the man for turning.

The case of ‘Cafolla versus Grogan’ began in the most trivial way imaginable. At the bottom of our drive stood a magnolia. This tree was mother’s pride, transplanted the very month they’d moved into the place. Ever since the chemotherapy had meant she’d had to quit being an English teacher, she’d become devoted to the garden. Gardening, and also bird-watching; these, she’d say, were her consolations now, because although she continued to write occasional poetry, the Muse seemed to operate increasingly at the whim of her noxious treatment.

At first the Grogans were sympathetic. The Grogans were builders, which is to say, Paddy Grogan was a builder, as his father had been. Indeed he’d built our place, all those years before, when there was nothing about but fields. I’d just turned two, so have no first-hand memories of how it was back then. I’ve seen the photos though, the rough field planted with improbably tiny shrubs and my mum and dad with their improbably long hair. Good fences, they say, make good neighbours, and sure enough, no sooner had he laid the foundations of our house than Paddy Grogan had had planted a row of leylandii on his side of the wire fence. The last point is not without its significance. The row of trees was on his land, not on ours. Also significant, that our property, which we held on a hundred year lease, lay to the north-east of that line of sombre monsters.

The years went by. The leylandii topped twenty foot, thirty. I entered secondary school. Then came mother’s dark diagnosis. I say dark, because of a poem she penned after her treatment began. She’d wanted it to be her epitaph, but for once father put his foot down. Alright, just so you don’t give my headstone any of your Cafolla photographs! ‘Malignant’, she titled the piece. I can still recite the punchline, which describes the dull ache abutting her ribcage: ‘an eyeless tuber grubbing the dark earth / to give birth to what Lilith?’ I never really got poetry, still don’t. Especially my mum’s. To my ear, it sounded like when she’d put on her telephone voice. I doubt my father got it either, any more than he ever really understood his Irish wife. But that one has stayed with me, down the years. Quitting her job was tough, but then, my mother was one tough lady, and before long the acre upon which our house stood became not merely her world, but a living sculpture.

She’d been on chemo about a year when one day one of Grogan’s trucks – they were forever going in and out of his place on weekends – took a few branches off the magnolia. Now as said, relations were still pretty amicable between the two families. They weren’t unsympathetic people, just so long as you didn’t cross them. Yes, there had been a spat about the tom that was continually fouling our beds and whose caterwauling on moonlit nights was the wail of a demonic infant. Several times, coming across a garland of feathers on the lawn, my mother had cursed the malicious beast. But he’d disappeared months since. I won’t say that my dad was directly involved; I will say he’d throw me a sly wink on any occasion the subject had been broached by Maureen Grogan.

But the magnolia was another matter. The affair caught Paddy Grogan at a bad time. There was all that business with the Riverside estate: the flooding and the backed up sewerage. And then, my father was never the most subtle of men, certainly not when it came to wording. As much as on her frail body, chemotherapy had wrought havoc on my mother’s nerves, made her prone to mood swings and fits of temper as though to make up for the long hours of lethargy and listlessness. Usually, she vented it on my hapless father. The morning she discovered the mutilated branches, she was coldly furious: pure fecklessness had devastated the great plant whose arms, she’d always said, stood like candelabra each March. I seem to remember a poem in which she compared it precisely to a candelabrum in the hand of Persephone, thrust up from the gloomy underworld to herald her return. Why, then, she entrusted the letter to my inarticulate father is anyone’s guess. I’m being unfair. I’ve no doubt he was articulate in Italian, or whatever dialect of Italian they speak around Palermo. After twenty years in Ireland he still spoke with a thick accent. But then, he was a computer programmer, and I guess interpersonal skills were not exactly at a premium in his workplace.

I never got to see the note he penned (and actually posted!) to our neighbour. Whatever it contained, it must’ve put the builder’s nose right out of joint. A couple of weeks went by, and then one morning a registered letter arrived from the firm of Bradley and McCoy, solicitors. There was some sort of a deposition; or a professional opinion (I was only fourteen at the time, and have never been entirely au fait with the legal shenanigans). In any case, an opinion was expressed, on National Road Authority paper, that the magnolia had become something of a hazard – both of our driveways gave onto a bend – and that it needed to be either removed or drastically cut back. The councillor who’d signed the letter was Grogan’s brother-in-law. Needless to say, mother was livid. Father, too. Something in his Sicilian blood must have been roused by the blatant chicanery of the move.

His first instinct was to go to law. Two can play at that game, he said (he had the love of cliché and saying of the imperfect speaker). Mother prevailed. She’d have a word with Maureen Grogan, first. They could take her tree after she was gone. Would it kill them, to wait? After all, she’d remind her, when the Grogans were looking for planning permission to put in that extension with the picture-window into their roof and the Farrellys had objected, which side had they supported? ‘But dear, we object was too high,’ shrugged my father. ‘Well it was too high! But we didn’t object outright. That’s the point I’m trying to make. If we had’ve objected outright with the Farrellys, there’d be no picture window now for them to look out of. That’s the point, Fabrizio. It’s as well to remind them.’ If that tack didn’t work, then we might try a countermeasure. In proportion as the leylandii had grown, so too had their shadows. By this time half of the garden was in perpetual shade, the lawn mossy and threadbare. ‘Go you,’ she instructed, ‘and have a word with Fergal Finley. Tell him what the situation is. If they so much as touch my magnolia, I’ll have them take down their precious leylandii so I will. We have a law in this country called daylight saving.’

At this time, as said, the Riverside estate was weighing heavily on Paddy Grogan’s mind. To that extent, as my old man repeated with glee, we had him over a barrel; the last thing he wanted was another lawsuit on the books from another disgruntled plaintiff. The upshot was, without any recourse to Finley, not only was the magnolia left intact; the builder even agreed to have the leylandii trimmed. But he wasn’t altogether the eejit. ‘I don’t mind doing it, Fabrizio, if it gives your missus a bit of pleasure. The only thing is, I think you’ll agree it’s only fair we go halves on the expense. Now, how does that suit you?’ My dad held the other man’s gaze, behind each of their eyes an entire ancestry of cunning. He too could be magnanimous. ‘And we forget about magnolia?’ ‘That’s what I’m saying to you. Have we a deal?’ They had, they spat, and they shook on it.

It took two full days to trim that hedge. Special machinery had to be brought in; a cherry-picker, two workers, a truck to take away the branches. A week later, the bill arrived. ‘The guts of three grand, are you mad?! Well the cheek of the man! He’s charging us for the hire of his own machinery, look it Fabrizio!’ Examining the invoice, this was certainly the case; even the two workers (on overtime) were employees of Grogan & Son plc. ‘You’re not thinking of paying this, I hope.’ ‘Over my dead body,’ declared my father. ‘You think I’m born yesterday?’ And that was when he was allowed follow his first instinct, to the law.

Fergal Finley had been the Regan family lawyer from time immemorial. Never mind the present house, it was Finley had signed the contracts on my maternal grandmother’s house, up in the village. It was Finley who’d drawn up, and seen executed, three generations of the Regans’ wills (a taxonomy of cancers had played havoc with my mother’s side of the family tree). But he was semi-retired now, all his life had been a small-town lawyer, whereas Bradley and McCoy were city solicitors. ‘Am I correct in saying there was no actual contract drawn up between you? The trees, d’you see, are entirely on his side of the boundary.’ He and my father were pacing the bald lawn to our side of the mutilated hedge. ‘No, is wrong. We shake on it.’ ‘Yes but Fabrizio, the point in law is that there is nothing in writing.’ They paused at the magnolia by the gate as Finley sized up his client. ‘Was there a witness, itself?’ ‘My son. He witnessed.’ Under wild eyebrows the lawyer eyed me. I shrugged, as much as to say, what do you want, that’s my old man for you! He’d have to find a tack more sensitive to Sicilian notions of honour.

The result, of course, was a foregone conclusion. It was round one to the Grogans. To be fair to Paddy, he’d tried to reason with us. ’Do yourselves a favour. It goes to court it’ll end up costing you ten times as much. There’s no one wins from these situations only the lawyers and with your poor missus the way she is, well…! Look, you can pay me back in instalments if you’d find that easier…’ He may as well have spat on Fabrizio Cafolla as add that last suggestion about paying by instalments. Perhaps that was why he said it; because as we were to find, that man had a vicious, vindictive streak in him. But then, as he was to find, where my father’s sense of honour was concerned, reason could take a back seat.

Still, things might have blown over if fate hadn’t intervened. A full year had passed since the affair of the damaged magnolia. Mother’s condition had deteriorated, and that week she’d been admitted to Castlebar for observation. She was due back out on the Saturday. It was early May, the month where promiscuous country roads have their hedges massacred, so that I wasn’t surprised to overtake a leaf-eating tractor as I cycled home from school on the Thursday. But the council truck pulled up at the foot of our drive was another matter entirely. I immediately phoned my dad, but by the time his car pulled up the damage was done. Mother’s splendid magnolia was no more. I followed the train of dark Sicilian curses to the Grogans’ front door. Now, it may well be that Paddy Grogan had forgotten all about the affair, as Maureen insisted. In all likelihood he had, for he had far bigger fish to fry. The downturn had left his business with a mass of debts and lawsuits. That’s as may be Mrs Grogan, the point was, from the moment he’d involved his brother-in-law, the councillor, he’d set in motion a process that had led to this crime. Yes, crime! And he must pay.
In proportion as mother’s condition worsened, father became more intractable. Perhaps it was his way of feeling he was fighting her disease; perhaps his way of not thinking about it too closely. One way or another, the less time my mother was able to spend in her garden, the more my father fought over every square inch and every legal scruple. I’m sure there’s an irony in that, but if there is, for my money it’s an admirable irony. Now, one unforeseen consequence of chopping twenty feet off the giant leylandii was that our house was now overlooked by the Grogans’ box window. Worse, it overlooked the patio, which was south-facing, and so was where mother liked to sit out, on her good days. ‘We should never have allowed them to build that monstrosity,’ she sighed one weary morning. And whether that was the germ that infected my father, or whether it was a campaign over which he was already sitting in brood, from that day he began to show up at work less and less, and to be seen more and more in the offices of Fergal Finley and of Castlebar Town Council.

Mother died that August. It did nothing to dampen his agitation. If anything, it poured fuel on it. The kitchen table was taken over by plans and blueprints. A land surveyor was called in, and for several days, our garden was host to all manner of tapes and tripods. Grogan looked on with sarcasm and derision. He’d fought his own losing battle with the banks, but he’d be damned if a crackpot Italian was about to get the better of him in his own back yard. And what it all came down to, in the end, was a matter of six inches. (I’ve endeavoured to be as accurate as I can in this, but Finley is an old man now, and from my father, of course, there can be no hope of accurate information.) At the time of the proposed extension, unlike the Farrellys who had lodged their objections in the strongest terms, our family had objected only to the scale of the affair. The plans had been modified, the extension completed in record time. All that was old history. The Farrellys had sold up years since. If it was out of scale, the window had never been an issue between our families. But, meticulous measurements were now revealing that, all along, the bould Paddy Grogan had flouted the new plans by a matter of three inches. ‘We have him!’ cried my father, his fist pounding the table. Finley wasn’t so sure, but they went to court on it.

It was thrown out. The judge, a woman, was not impressed. Fabrizio Cafolla was not impressed by the judge. By this time he was no longer an employee of Horizon Computing, and could devote all his energies to the niceties of the law. Finley he cajoled, bullied and begged, and between them they drew up an appeal. Justice Deirdre Brennan had ruled that the breach was trivial. That in itself was scandalous! No breach of regulation could be deemed trivial. There was a point of law to be ruled on. But then, added to that, my father had brought in a civil engineer, an expert on soil mechanics. He could demonstrate that, over the eleven years since the monstrous room had been added, there’d been a subsidence of a minimum of three inches. That meant that that the original breach, the original flouting of the law, was a matter not of three but of six inches. Six inches, minimum! ‘We will see that in this country there is justice!’ cried my father. This time, it was not on the table that his defiant fist came down. This time, it was on the headstone of my mother’s grave.

The appeal was dismissed, in even rounder terms. The old man still held out the hope that, in the matter of costs, the judge would be a Solomon. Surely he must understand that a point of principle was at stake. Finley shook his head, and the gravel voice of the law berated my father for wasting the court’s time with such trivial nonsense. Costs, in their entirety, were awarded against, and Bradley and McCoy, solicitors, did not come cheap.

The costs were ruinous. We would be forced to sell up. But that in itself wasn’t the worst of it. Two days after the Judgement, catching sight of Grogan’s smug countenance peeping through the leylandii, my father seized up a garden shears. He made it two-thirds the way across the lawn before a stroke felled him. It was the first in a series. These days he sits, hour after hour, in the nursing home, one side of his body stupefied with paralysis, his mouth depressed, his eye indignant. There are times, few enough, when I have succeeded in raising a spark in it. When I told him that the Grogans, too, had had to sell up, for instance. Or the time I told him that his father had died. Thanks to the small inheritance, I would after all be in a position to do a law degree.

Bryan R. Monte – AQ26 Autumn 2019 Book Reviews

Bryan R. Monte
AQ26 Autumn 2019 Book Reviews

Lee, Donna J. Gelagotis, Intersection on Neptune, The Poetry Press, ISBN 978-0-9967779-9-5, 106 pages.
Goswami, Amlanjyoti, River Wedding, Paperwall Media & Publishing, ISBN 978-93-82749-86-8, 106 pages.
Cutler, Juliet, Among the Maasai, She Writes Press, ISBN 978-1-63152-672-5, 289 pages.

This summer I received an unusual and interesting combination of books describing life in three different countries and continents — the US, India and Tanzania. Two are poetry books; one, a memoir. Two are by previously published AQ writers; one by a new writer with a book blurb written by another AQ contributor.

With such an interesting combination, I couldn’t wait to dive in and explore these books especially during the (again) record-breaking temperatures this last summer. I am happy to report these books all ‘transported (me) to a better world’ as Franz von Schrober wrote in his lyrics to Franz Schubert’s ‘An die Musik’.

Donna J. Gelagotis Lee’s poetry book Intersection on Neptune, won the Prize Americana in 2018. It is a collection of poems based on the experiences of three generations living in Coney Island, New York and Elizabeth, New Jersey. Lee’s poems describe her great-parents emigration and difficulty of setting up businesses in their new country, their experience of xenophobia and the push to assimilate, and also the natural beauty and cultural hegemony of both these landmark locations important to America’s history.

Lee’s book is divided into two parts: New York and a second, three-times-as-long section, about New Jersey. The New York section is set in Manhattan, Brooklyn (mostly Coney Island), and in New York State. The New Jersey section is set in Elizabeth, Central New Jersey including Trenton, Hamilton, and the suburbs, rural New Jersey, along the Northeast Corridor, near the Pine Barrens, and at the shore. Intersection on Neptune describes the lives of three generations in these places.

The Brooklyn section includes poems about geography ‘On the Edge of a City’, sociology ‘Kings Highway, Brooklyn’, ‘Solly Salamander, or Life in a Fishbowl on Avenue U’, and ‘Intersection on Neptune’, culture ‘Visit’, ‘Sylvia’, ‘Tea at The Plaza’, ‘Dinner at the Club’, and ‘T.S. On Stage,’ religion ‘Prayer for Gil Hodges’ and ‘The Fast’, national holidays ‘Coney Island, Thanksgiving, 1996’, family ‘Your Father’ and ‘Sylvia’. One of the best poems in this section and one of its shortest and thinnest is ‘21’ in which the poem’s speaker revels on the day of securing a ‘First // job, / best job // I could ever / want.’ This short, light lines dance on the page. I would hope that Lee would experiment more with this short line, which is quite different from the longer lines and stanzas in her other poems, ‘Tea at the Plaza’ excepted. The short two to five stress lines in ‘Your Father’, which describe the speaker’s father in a row boat, also mimic the oars’ motion and rhythm and the calmness of the setting.

One of the best qualities of Intersection on Neptune is Lee’s descriptions of her neighbourhood, the New Jersey countryside, and the pressure to assimilate. In the first poem in the second New Jersey section, ‘What’s American?’, Lee describes that after her grandfather’s shop window with a Russian name is broken, it’s replaced by one with an Americanized name. (Although the poem suggests a later softening of neighbour’s feelings during the Depression when her grandfather delivered the day’s unsold fruit and veg to needy families). ‘Hunger and Money’ also explores the equivalence of food security with money. The poem’s speaker imagines how her mother ‘saw how hunger / and hope intertwined.’ This second section includes poems about the old and new world related to home births, ‘Between Two Women’, the post-WWII boom, ‘At the military institute, c. 1945’, and the haste at which new highways were built in ‘He Built the Turnpike’: ‘The future had no patience. There were cars waiting / on side streets. Hurry. Build quickly.’

A significant number of poems in this section are devoted to the speaker’s home, school, and religious upbringing. Her love for learning and intellect can be seen both in ‘In First Grade’ for about penmanship and in ‘In Sixth Grade’. In the second poem, the speaker daydreams during class because she already knows the answers to her teacher’s questions having worked ahead on her assignments. ‘What We Knew Then’ and ‘Record Player’ are about the speaker’s socialization and awareness of the value of popular culture ‘Albums made money — sometimes / lots of money.’ On the other hand, ‘The Earth’s Provision’ is a poem about the wealth of suburban insect life before the neighbourhood-wide spraying with insecticides and light pollution in the ’50s and ’60s. ‘we believed in heaven — no wonder/ we could see the stars at night // as the smell of the earth filled our lungs and no one would question// how far we had come.

As always, two of my favourite of Lee’s poems, ‘Circa 1968 Auction’ and ‘My Horse had the On-screen Persona of James Dean’ have equestrian subjects. The speaker’s love for these animals and riding shows through in details such as ‘The chestnut had a slight limp. / The Appaloosa, a sway back. The bay / was handsome but wiry’ in the former and ‘Young riders on frisky ponies / preteens on lumbering horses / … Too close, and a kick could fly out’ in the latter. It was a poem about a riding a horse in a ring for AQ’s Education issue (AQ20), which first brought Ms Lee’s writing to my attention. The speaker goes on to mention disco of the ’70s in short-lined, columnar-shaped poem entitled ‘Remote’ and her adult awareness of the world in ‘Condo Morning in the Suburbs’ and ‘At the Shore’, where she compares the seaside of her youth to that of the present: ‘The ocean smells of landfill. / I sense erosion.’

The poems in Intersection on Neptune have the sweep of almost a century of American culture and history. It is a splendid book which captures the kinetic vibrancy of New York, Coney Island and New Jersey. In addition, it is an honest book that is not always positive about the post-WWI & II goals of assimilation and financial progress in the suburbs.

Amlanjyoti Goswami’s River Wedding is an interesting mix of East and West with the border between the two sometimes vague or missing entirely. This book’s colourful orange, green, and yellow cover, with a blue round quarter sphere, reinforces its global perspective. River Wedding’s poems have a millennial sweep of history from ancient Indian myths, to the British Romantic poets to last year’s KKK torch-lit march in Charlottesville, Virginia. Other locations visited and depicted by this world-traveller poet include India (‘Looking for Matthew Arnold in Chandni Chowk’, ‘Basanagar’ ‘Landour’ and ‘The Weather in Benares’), London (‘Reading Tibetan on the London Tube’, ‘Terminal 3’, ‘Whitechapel Dreaming’, ‘Bethnal Green’, and ‘Mind the Gap’), Washington D.C. (‘D.C.’) the Caribbean (‘A Caribbean Summer’). In addition the book has about a half dozen typographically unconventional poems including one concrete poem. In these poems about East and West are various heroes, writers and gods from each such as Ulysses, Derek Walcott, Shelley, Matthew Arnold, Leonard Cohen, Krishna and Karna, as well as family members, ancestors and neighbours. It is a busy, fully populated world Goswami explores physically and metaphysically.

Although the book is not physically divided into sections (something perhaps against-the-grain of a collection that wants to be all-inclusive), I feel the first 34 pages are primarily set in the poet’s homeland and among family. Most appropriately and perhaps as a sort of prologue, the first poem is entitled ‘Bard’. It depicts an older relative’s ‘ferocious bitter shout, … no soothing tongue for melting,’ and how in it the poet ‘search(es) for heart/(to) Find tender feeling.’ The poem ends, however, with this relative, in her wishes, ‘sending her daughter/ Pistols for dowry’. Weapons are present again in ‘Places’ two pages later, where the poem mentions ‘Arrivals’ and ‘Departures’ in ‘This play, / ‘Human amidst the guns,’. Gun violence appears later in ‘Re-member-ing’ in which ‘our teacher’s husband’ was killed when ‘Bullets (were) ringing the street next door’.

In ‘City Smoke’, Goswami describes a death with the metaphor: ‘You left by the window one morning’. In ‘Grandmother’ he likens this relative to a renovated house ‘of new paint / shakes in vain while stripped bare / for ceremony of coat and plaster’. In the book’s title poem, the speaker describes his mother’s antlophobia ‘afraid of water after dark’ because of a story about the rivers coming together across the village huts for a marriage. In ‘A Strange Man’, Goswami describes a neighbourhood man who Speaks to trees, scribbles / On newspapers, sells them cheap.’

The poet reveals perhaps a bit of his own personality in ‘The Blind Flautist of Panbazar’ when he writes in the title character’s voice: ‘But I like / Silent afternoons best. / When it is all /quiet around me.’ The desire for quiet and attention to light is also mentioned in other poems such as ‘Sunlight’ and ‘Away’.

The scene changes with ‘Reading Tibetan on the London Tube’. Here is a second ‘section’ with poems about London, Charlottesville, New York and Washington D.C. interspersed between religious, mythological, and philosophical poems such ‘Landour’ and ‘Rain Shelter’, ‘Diwali’, ‘A God Grieving’, ‘Abhimanyu’ and ‘The Face of Evil’ and ‘Of Goodness’, ‘The Philosopher Meets His Match’. Here, Goswami is out in the wider world, but also, as in the poems ‘Landour’ and ‘Rain Shelter’, on a pilgrimage for wider meaning as he describes his literal ascent, the ‘monkeys for company’. The next day ‘on the way home’ he sees a vista ‘green deep inside the jungle’/Not a soul in sight / And I, a traveller on the / edge of nowhere.’ The next poem, ‘Rain Shelter’ is also in this vein.

The third ‘section’ of Goswami’s book includes poems, which are certainly typographically more experimental. The first certainly would be ‘Injured Bark’, a poem in the shape of a tree. Goswami tells the tree, whose limbs have grown ‘spine-broken’ to ‘Keep going, one day, they will find in your tender bark / A home for the birds.’ Some of the poems I would include in this section have very short lines such as ‘GPS’, ‘Outsider’, ‘Canvas’ and ‘The Weather in Benares’. ‘Neighbours’ and ‘Witness are poems with two parallel columns of description which in the case of the former, readers can put together lines from the left and right columns to construct his/her narrative of a neighbour. In the case of the latter, the left hand column is composed only the repeated word ‘We’ and paired with the description of waiting out a riot because the speaker and his companions wouldn’t run and leave their grandfather behind. The last of these poems would be ‘End notes’, itself River Weddings’ ultimate poem. This is Goswami’s Ars poetica. In six notes he describes the source of his inspiration ‘that little / light that comes peering from a hole near the window.’, his ‘quiet joy’, the familiar and economic place ‘being middle born’, his awareness of signs ‘in remembrance of Priam’, his regard for poetic and philosophical traditions ‘Eliot’ and ‘Heidegger’, and lastly his respect for a ‘sixth sense’. River Wedding describes an Asian poet’s embrace of the world through the lenses of both Eastern and Western cultures.

Juliet Cutler’s Among the Maasai, describes her two years as a teacher in a Tanzanian secondary girls school. Although her book is labelled as a memoir, it includes not only about her experience as an American in Tanzania, but an account of the parallel world of new students from the Rift Valley for whom toilets and Swahili at the school are as equally as foreign as the Tanzanian heat and food are to Cutler. I am particularly proud of this memoir as portions of it, the description of the Morogoro Market, was previously discussed in the AQ Writers’ Group and published in AQ8. This market passage is typical of Cutler’s Tanzanian experiences. Cutler nervously leaves the safety of her Range Rover to explore the Morogoro Market alone. She becomes alarmed, however, when she notices she has caught the interest of a group of boys, who follow her. Anticipating perhaps a request for money, she’s startled to find that instead, one of the boys offers her a piece of his orange.

Parallel to her own story, Cutler describes the story of Neng’ida, one of the Rift Valley scholarship students. Her education is endangered at the very beginning when the man, to whom she has been promised in marriage, comes to the school with her mother to take her back home. However, the headmistress and the Neng’ida’s mother convince the man to let Neng’ida stay because they argue an education will make her a better wife and mother. Another student, whose development Cutler tracks, is Miriam. She left her home and travelled to the capital to ask the minister of education to help her escape from her family and attend school. Cutler describes Miriam’s friendly smile in the classroom and mentions how it lifts her spirits. Cutler also describes in detail the challenges she faced being thrown into the deep end as a new teacher with an unfamiliar curricula, replacing the twenty-year veteran, who wrote it.

Some practical household matters she describes include learning how to take a bucket bath and to reuse this water to flush the toilet, and how to purchase and prepare unfamiliar local food for her meals. In addition, there is the adjusting to the outdoor and indoor wildlife; snakes and rats, especially. Cultural issues Cutler wrestled with involved the role of the school as an institution of empowerment versus acculturation, interacting with her Tanzanian colleagues, and the Maasai practice of female genital circumcision. Cutler describes these subjects in an informed, sensitive manner, aware of her privileged, economic, outsider status. This is demonstrated in her thoughts about a visitor’s complaint at a Tanzanian national park:

I’m sorry ma’am, that you don’t like anything on the breakfast buffet, but did you know that just outside the boundaries of this national park, there are children who won’t have enough to eat today?

In her book, Cutler frequently asks her herself and her partner: ‘How could we live responsibly as people of relative wealth in the midst of poverty?’

Cutler’s memoir also describes how she grew as a teacher and how she ardently worked to prepare her students for their yearly and final O-level exams which could make the difference between returning home to their villages or to have the choice to go out into the wider world. She describes the long, song-filled, hour-long graduation ceremony attended by Tanzania’s first lady.

Cutler’s also mentions her generosity towards some street children, for whom she became known as ‘the orange lady’, by giving them oranges occasionally. Cutler also describes navigating the interesting changes in her life with her colleagues and students first, as an unmarried teacher with her boyfriend Mark, and six months later, as a married woman. These included a new house with a guard and being wary of the bats and rats that wanted to call her new home, their home. After living in Tanzania for six months, Cutler also describes the disorientation and sensory overload she experienced upon her return to US during the Christmas season to prepare for her wedding. Even shopping in a US supermarket with all its abundance and food choices in comparison to food scarcity in Tanzania proved to be an unexpected challenge.

Cutler’s memoir continues back in Africa and describes the prospects of students who did or didn’t pass their O-level exams; the former continuing on to the next form and the latter going off to trade schools or returning home, their hopes of continuing their education at the Maasai Girls School ended. Cutler’s narrative of pupils Miriam and Neng’ida continues. Miriam must stop attending school when she becomes pregnant (the law then in Tanzania) even though the pregnancy is due to rape. However, the head of the boys’ school finds a way for Miriam to continue to her education after she gives birth is seclusion. Neng’ida graduates not only from the Maasai school, but also from Concordia University in Minnesota, which Cutler witnesses.

Among the Maasai is certainly a book worth reading for those interested in Maasai culture in general and women’s education in Africa in particular. In addition, while writing her memoir of living in another culture, Cutler was careful to note her cultural biases and limitations while documenting her life Among the Maasai. AQ

Claudia Gary – Exurbia

Claudia Gary

It’s dark when I leave the railcar.
Commuters cross
where steel tracks merge with the pavement
in rows of grooves.

A car in an ill-lit corner
wakes to my key,
conducts me over an old bridge,
ascends the bank,

winds into a town, a driveway
with the same cracks
as when I pulled out this morning.
A filled mailbox.

Which end of the line is my life?
Feet on the ground,
I think of the day I moved here,
the reasons why.

In the backyard, tall willows
and maples cast
shadows on what I wanted:
houses for wrens,

bluebirds and purple martins;
a green foothold
away from the ruling business,
but not too far.