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