Luciano Iacobelli’s DOLOR MIDNIGHT reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Luciano Iacobelli DOLOR MIDNIGHT Quattro Books, 84pp., $20.00

There is a poetry in gambling and Luciano Iacobelli has written an important book about it. As a child watching the neighbourhood men play dice in the streets, he felt “the poetry crawled across our young souls….”  Like poetry, gambling is an art. The energy of gambling inflames Iacobelli’s language to a high level of poetic speech. ” I come to practice my art…/so that when death arrives/ it’s features will be known.” Iacobelli is a kind of Canadian François Villon who finds glory in his vice: “…it’s always my falls that summon miracles/draw up enough compassion and grace/to bring forth angels.”

Dolor Midnight  is a rich tapestry of stories: portraits of gamblers, anecdotes of addiction. Iacobelli is honest about his own addiction: “take a 16 hour bus ride to New Jersey…/play  3 or 4 hours just to quell the fever/then return home to be back in Toronto by Monday morning/in time to teach my first class.” In the seven sections of the book, Iacobelli writes fascinating poems about the history of cards, dice, horse-racing, casinos, the habits of gamblers, and he reflects brilliantly on the kind of things that go through the mind of a player : “How many birds will land on a branch”; “some say luck can be trained/ you can whistle and it comes.” His speculations rise up from philosophy to religion: “what counted was how nothing became something/how a fish and a loaf/multiply into/ feast.”

Iacobelli’s wit churns out surprising one-liners: debt is ” a sea weighed down/ by its own salt”; nostalgia is “hope walking backwards.” These are very satisfying to read. But, at the heart of his book, is Iacobelli’s effort to articulate why the gambler is driven to take risks after losing. He asks whether it is a “genetic disposition…/or chemical wave washing the brain”? If so, is gambling a vice or a disease? He doesn’t settle on either of these alternatives. Rather, he moves the issue to the spiritual level: taking a gamble is “an attempt to outrun the weight/return to the original lightness.” If that is the case, who can point the finger at “tossing dice for the last time/ a sick old yellow man wears an oxygen mask/ and who is to blame him….” Iacobelli’s art is both ruthless and compassionate. If I had to choose a single word to describe the poetry of Dolor Midnight,”  that word would be ‘redemptive.’

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Review of Valentino Assenza’s THROUGH PAINTED EYES

Valentino Assenza, Through Painted Eyes, Piquant Press, $19.95

Here are some admirable lines from Through Painted Eyes, Valentino Assenza’s first full-length collection of poems: “that precious/subliminal taste/of the past through/my senses.” These lines say that though his form resembles chopped prose, the lines are in fact made up of ‘spoken word’ held together by the real voice of a sensitive personality. Assenza’s memories come through his senses, and this conveys the livingness of the episodes and characters making up his personal epic journey into the past. Whether he is chronicling growing up with his mother in Toronto neighbourhoods, or among relatives in Sicily where he spent summers with his father, Assenza’s memories carry with them a sense of life: “my father peeling/me a cucumber from/the garden,/ and a lizard/crawling across a stone wall.”

Through Painted Eyes contains a gallery of portraits, notably Assenza’s father, grandfather, relatives and neighbourhood characters drawn so you get what these people meant to him, and still mean. The portrait of Jack the barber and his ‘victims’ is touching and deft, conveying a sense of neighbourhood life in the class of Laurence Hutchman’s Two Maps of Emery, and that is makes me think somebody should appoint Assenza poet laureate of a Toronto neighbourhood, perhaps Leslieville.

Whether he writes about life in Sicily or in Toronto, many of Assenza’s spoken words are in the Sicilian dialect, and he scatters phrases throughout these poems, where they function like charms and spells and incantations summoning up a richness in the mouth that is one of the more rewarding effects of reading his work, and all the more so if you’ve had a chance to hear him read. “The Tobacconist” is one of his best in performance, where you also get a strong sense of how at ease the author in his world where he is happy to fit in. There are dark touches in the poems due to separation, death, and failure of ambition, but remarkably, there is not a trace of alienation in Through Painted Eyes.


Review of Tom Hamilton’s EL MARILLO by Stanley Fefferman


El Marillo is an elegaic work of great passion focused on Hamilton’s late wife, Rhena Hymovitch, and her humanitarian passion to bring ‘boots-on-the-ground’ aid, relief and protection to thousands of displaced ‘campesinos’ during the 1980’s in El Salvador where she lost her life.

El Marillo  commemorates the thirtieth anniversary of her death with poems that record the brutal conditions she and Hamilton worked under from 1984-88 when Hymovitch drowned. The book concludes with a handful of poems in which Hamilton reflects how the passing years have been marked by his devotion to his late wife’s memory.

Hamilton’s verse forms are, as he says, “a consequence of extreme lived experience matched with a poet’s imperative to give it voice.” His lines are filled with facts: “penecillin, amoxocylin, tetracycline, Imodium, with no expiry date/ later than ours we hope….” They also record actions: “…finally we sneak under the bridge turret and sleeping/ machine-gunner as we cross Rio Lempa, then traverse the playa seca,/ to the pueblo, El Marillo, with our forbidden medicinal cargo.”

The thought lines run in long  narrative and discursive stanzas sometimes marked by a complexity of rhythm, a loftiness of diction, and a profundity of thought that blossoms into a more traditional mode of poetry:

“Terror is to the survivor what valor is to the warrior: a priest;/consider the multi-faith corpses whose myriad beliefs/ had this covered; a mystery who will get it;/humour is their talisman, any swatch a field.”

Hamilton’s verse often rises to an eloquence that extends to the limits of speech in lines like ” No hand/ is big enough to cover the river’s bloody mouth…” and, “oblivion/ pure, unmitigated nothingness compels him to pray.” The latter line is from the closing poem of the book. Entitled “Susto,” it serves as the concluding portion of Hamilton’s elegy or lament for the dead, in which, traditionally, the grieving poet reconciles himself to the loss and experiences a realization that allows him to let go. Through the closing lines of the poem, in the formal elegaic manner, the poet uses his ‘susto’, the illness of his grieving, to liberate both the memory of his beloved and himself: “yet, with susto./ you take up and face what you’ve long been seeking/to exorcise: the dread you must embrace to extinguish.”

Tom Hamilton’s chapbook is so personal and so intense, I have to let go of some lines that leave me in the dark, even after several readings. It is possible their darkness forms a part of Hamilton’s intention, as he seems to indicate in the closing lines of this remarkable poem: “bituminous train cars,/ their tomorrows trail off; each day/to follow they ‘ll see me, not whole, but if not for the darkness, they wouldn’t see me at all and they wouldn’t know.”

El Marillo won 1st place in the 2018 Big Pond Rumours Chapbook Awards. I say it possesses the ‘gravitas’ to earn a permanent place in the archives of this country and beyond.

The Heart of All Music reviewed by Sharon Goodier

The Heart of All Music: Poems about Music and Musicians, by Stanley Fefferman, Aeolus House, 2018. 52 pages.

Fefferman’s poetry is a phenomenal verbal symphony of sound, lyricism, imagery, rhythm, and reason. A former critic, he knows music with the intimacy of a lover.
It is possible to appreciate The Heart of All Music without being familiar with the music pieces that inspire his verses because Fefferman’s themes, like those of Berg’s Piano Sonata #1 are worked “in a grand architecture” that becomes an open house invitation to the palace of music. His experience of the music becomes ours as he describes “the buzz of an autumn fly/dying over piano keys”, “A conversation between agonized strings”, John Hammond “driving a cargo of blues down the road/like a runaway mule train”. Nowhere does Fefferman allow his poems to become runaways. His talent is like a scalpel, leaving no fat, nicking no bones, no blood suppurating from a badly closed stanza. Fefferman’s poems take us on a journey from the “querulous conversations” of Schuloff, to Bartok’s “sadness so tender,” to Brahm’s “golden lightning of imagination,” and music that is “a look into the face of suffering/for reasons to sing as long as there is life”

I was inspired to google as much of this music as I could find online, but that is not necessary in order to read this book. Fefferman’s poetry is music to the inner ear in the brain’s poetry centre which then stimulates the production of serotonin making you feel good in a way that plain prose does not. Even his prose poetry tickles the receptors in the brain because these poems are lyrical, rhythmic and full of images, visual, aural, tactile and the metaphors are concrete. Imagery and metaphor are processed in the poetry centre of the brain.

I long for “the gesture of mind veering along the edge of an emotional cliff” in my own poetry but I am too much of a thinker, not enough of a feeler. Fefferman is both, allowing us to surf with him on feelings finally landing on the white sand of reason. Like the music he loves, his poems “replay themselves in the mind/long after the instruments are silent”. The Heart of All Music: Poems about Music and Musicians is a masterpiece.

The Heart of All Music: Poems about Music and Musicians, by Stanley Fefferman, Aeolus House, 2018. 52 pages. $20, Buy it on Amazon.caIndigo.caQuattro

FOX HAUNTS by Penn Kemp. A Review by Stanley Fefferman

Penn Kemp. Fox Haunts. Aeolus House, 2018. 97 pp.

The way suburban garden fences are a line the fox crosses from the countryside to steal our chickens, is like the line fox, since time immemorial, has crossed from the countryside into our myths, into our dreams, into our literature and our language. Shenanigans is derived from the Gaelic word for fox. A skulk of foxes is the collective noun. Jimmie Hendrix sang of his “Foxy Lady.” And here is a stanza from Penn Kemp’s poem to Inari, the Shinto fox-god deity:

Fox girls dance beneath the twisted maple
calling their sister to transform from mist
as beguiling women with red in their hair.

Fox Haunts, Kemp’s 24th collection, is a meditation in 90 poems on a predator who is our closest neighbor and who is getting closer all the time as it’s habitat yields to subdivisions. The longest section of Fox Haunts, entitled “Urban Fox,” consists of poems about foxes Kemp might have encountered: her writing can be elegant.

It’s true you walk on toes like cats
like a ballerina of the wildwood.

Kemp empathizes with the drama of the hunt, the inside as well as the outside of it.

Fox circles her prey, closing in
on her victim in ever tightening
gyres. Her fixed glare freezes

poor rabbit into terror so pure it
dissolves to acceptance, suspended
acquiescence, adrenalin overload.

Almost like peace. Soft as comfort,
this compliance in the fox’s grasp.
Just a single shriek before the

neck snaps.

At her best, Kemp’s narrative and poetry are transparent. She has variance in her voice: sometimes she addresses her images directly to the fox:” I come upon your prints on/muddy path, neatly, deliberately splayed.” Sometimes, she drops into a journalistic mode and addresses the reader directly in what sounds to me like chopped prose: “Like Canada Geese, Fox may/be adopting city life to avoid/ hunters, the tough slog of/country life. Clever fellow.”  Only to follow that with a passage of the most startlingly direct poetry:

They look upon the easy prey of pets, soft
and vulnerable bichon frisés left outside
by themselves in the yard, those with no
defense but a petulant, startled bark —

before they are meat, carried off dangling
in the soft jaw of a mother triumphantly keen
on feeding her kits.

Kemp is ‘entranced’ with the world of “Wily wiry trickster tales,” and devotes a section to ‘Fox’ references in the writings of Taliesin, Ovid, in the legend of Samson, in other Hebrew Scriptures relating to Solomon and Ezekiel, in Aesop, W.B Yeats and St. Exupéry, Akiro Kurosawa and Alice Munro whose father raised foxes for fur on a farm where he also kept ” Old horses in the barn waiting/their turn to be fed, to be feed.” As for the night sky, Kemp puts fox in the constellation Canis Major and Canis Minor, This bit of Fox arcana brings into close focus the mythical resonance of that beast in the human imagination.

After having the pleasure of reading Fox Haunts,  and of writing down these few thoughts, I look forward to more hours with the book, looking into the stories behind lines like:

Fetch Laelaps, a bitch commanded to catch all
she chases. Let her seize that Teumessian fox!

Fox Haunts is one those rare books that can become a companion.

ABOUT PENN KEMP.  She has been dubbed “a one-woman literary industry” as London, Ontario’s inaugural Poet Laureate and Western University’s Writer-in-Residence. Kemp was the League of Canadian Poets’ Spoken Word Artist, 2015. Her website is

Poems About Depression

I received an email saying that depression is a very popular theme in poetry published online. I checked it out. True. Tons of them on Poem HunterInteresting LiteratureHello PoetrySoul-Awakening. I spent some time reading through.

I found many poems to be raw howls of pain, and some, rhymed in stanzaed verses, a bit more elaborate, but frank enough to get across the message that the writer is in pain and has been for a long time, often with no hope for remission.

I was moved to sympathy. I also learned something about isolating details of depression for poetic expression. If I missed anything, it was “poetry”, the sense of a dimension beyond the personal complaint or within the personal complaint, the transforms the wordflow from complaint to poetry.

I would be very interest to host a discussion of poems about depression.

Meanwhile, here is a poem about depression (or sadness) that does have that second dimension, that context for individual depression (or sadness).

The Sad Shepherd by  William Butler Yeats.

There was a man whom Sorrow named his Friend,
And he, of his high comrade Sorrow dreaming,
Went walking with slow steps along the gleaming
And humming Sands, where windy surges wend:
And he called loudly to the stars to bend
From their pale thrones and comfort him, but they
Among themselves laugh on and sing alway:
And then the man whom Sorrow named his friend
Cried out, Dim sea, hear my most piteous story.!
The sea Swept on and cried her old cry still,
Rolling along in dreams from hill to hill.
He fled the persecution of her glory
And, in a far-off, gentle valley stopping,
Cried all his story to the dewdrops glistening.
But naught they heard, for they are always listening,
The dewdrops, for the sound of their own dropping.
And then the man whom Sorrow named his friend
Sought once again the shore, and found a shell,
And thought, I will my heavy story tell
Till my own words, re-echoing, shall send
Their sadness through a hollow, pearly heart;
And my own talc again for me shall sing,
And my own whispering words be comforting,
And lo! my ancient burden may depart.
Then he sang softly nigh the pearly rim;
But the sad dweller by the sea-ways lone
Changed all he sang to inarticulate moan
Among her wildering whirls, forgetting him.

Review of Home Was Elsewhere by Michael Dennis

Stanley Fefferman hit Today’s book of poetry over the head with a poetry sledgehammer with his poem “Black Spruce” from Home Was Elsewhere.  There we were ambling along, poetry happy, inside of Fefferman’s poem, liking this one, jotting the title of another down and then…

The last stanza of “Black Spruce” anvil punched Today’s book of poetry.

Don’t get us wrong, we live for those poetry moments when we are rocked, given the opportunity we would embrace the author, demand good drink in their name, and so on…

It is some sweet footwork going in inside Fefferman’s poems.

Black Spruce

Black Spruce sway in the wind
I turn to them for solace
because they never complain

White paper consoles me
On its surface words appear
like cricket chirps

When I think of your goodness
I burn and become restless
Meanwhile, what to do?

When we are together
there is such a flowing
Then, what to do?

I want you to understand
star-crossed lovers are the only kind
Love is out of this world

Fefferman has us tangled up in Henry Miller carnal glee activity one minute and meditating the next and maybe that is the true Dharma.  I will have to ask my buddy Bear, the original Canadian Buddha Bear.

Home Was Elsewhere rolls along in sort of content but still searching vibe as though Fefferman were navigating the reader into a specific channel.  And he is.  There is as much celebration in Home Was Elsewhere as there are questions.

Everything Closed in Acrylic

It is a sort of winter-day feeling
silent and clear
everything closed in acrylic

It is heart scraped raw quivering in dry air
longing for moist ‘membrance
not closed in dry poem –

official version of glittering moment –
but a sudden shock, snapped elevator cable
and us inside falling alive

It is gradual melting of stomach
unloved bones settling in socketry
loose and jingly

and all dead silence
glowing in your face
for no reason like a smile

Perhaps two birds twitter in the snow
and enormous blue jay thighs
rock a branch during takeoff

“enormous blue jay thighs” Whoosh.  I wish I’d written that.  Fefferman has the touch, a particular deft hand that elevates these meditations into poetry.  A knowing that experience plus wisdom and the open eye is enough to fill our palette and every page.

Today’s book of poetry got a bit of the big brother feeling from Home Was Elsewhere.  Not Russia – Big Brother, but the older, wiser sibling big brother who genuinely has both your interests and your future at heart.  Fefferman is sharing the way of things, how they work or don’t.

Our morning read was held indoors with the furnace blasting.  -18 C here in the nation’s capital this morning and when the crew started ice-cubing through the front door the coat rack started to resemble the Michelin Man, then Humpty Dumpty, and finally a pyramid of extra coats, sweaters, scarves, and hats.  The pyramid was short lived.  It all collapsed to the floor with a quiet and very well padded splat.  Now there is a three foot tall mound of winter apparel in the corner of the office.

Milo, our head tech, has already determined that the pile makes for an excellent couch, and it is warm too.  That’s where he sat for the morning read.

Growing a Mustache on Your Fingernail

Strike a gong:

walking alone on a sunlit morning in spring
or walking with your lover, hand in hand, on a
cold afternoon, talking about her husband’s career
or coming home to a surprise, a clean sink or
someone in bed with your wife.

Strike a gong:

sparkling champagne in crystal
raised to toast to the moment when
who becomes someone, becomes so what,
and the, the Imperial Dinner:
silver footmen behind each chair

or mother’s cooking, served in the kitchen –
noodle soup, bread, meat, and cold tinned peaches,
daughter takes her first steps in the living room,
grandfather, nearly senile, recalls the days of his strength,
while outside, a thunderstorm rages.

Strike a gong:

we all take off our clothes
and dance on the darkening green
between huge raindrops
pretending to dodge lightning bolts,
but really afraid

Fefferman explains his modus operandi in part with pieces like “Birdbrain” where he outlines the rigours of a solitary life of contemplation.  The reader is left to balance the yin/yang of Fefferman’s Home Was Elsewhere.  For Today’s book of poetry it was all happy exploration.

Fefferman, whether talking about love and/or carnal passion  –  or contemplating his space in the world, he is doing it with fine poems.

Stanley Fefferman

Stanley Fefferman is an eclectic poet mentored by Louis Dudek in Montreal, Barry Callaghan in Toronto, and Allen Ginsberg in Boulder. He trained in meditation under Chogyam Trungpa, studied photography with Michael Wood and Jack Dale, completed graduate studies in homeopathy with Jeremy Sherr, and certified as a Regression Therapist with Roger Woolger. These trainings inform his poetry. Forty of his broadcasts aired on CBC National Radio. Hundreds of his essays on music, his performance photographs, and two academic textbooks were published in electronic media. Fefferman taught writing at Naropa University’s Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, and founded the Atkinson Creative Writing Program at York University where he is Professor Emeritus. Home Was Elsewhere is his first collection of poetry.

Fefferman’s first collection registers, sometimes in the same poem, the tension between the call of an inner world of experience (the complexities of love, the layers of memory) and the equally insistent call from the world outside (landscape, birdsong, weather). What is it? the poet asks in one poem. What’s it like? he asks in another. And to answer these questions he repeatedly zeroes in on le mot juste or the perfect image as he does, for instance, in “Caroline’s Laughter” both jackhammer yammer and kamikaze bumblebee.
– Ricardo Sternberg

When I first heard Stanley Fefferman read his poems I was struck by their musicality, humour and wisdom. … His poems are meditations on moments in which he dissolves the boundaries between the self and nature, challenging us to reconfigure our perception of reality with playful words and phrases and lines that surprise us with their shifting tones of voice. It is a poetry filled with insight and gratitude.
– Laurence Hutchman

So many words were perfectly surprising, so many lines lifted off the page. Many poems had the pleasing shape of a circle, or a spiral, or a leaf either drifting from branch to ground, or rising into the sun.
– Randy Roark

Beethoven Sonatas Revealed by Marc-Pierre Toth @ Gallery 345

Marc-Pierre Toth gave the first in a series of recitals of Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas prefaced by a quick and lucid demonstration of the themes of each movement, the keys of their developments, so that when he played them, perfectly as far as I could hear, every passage fell into its place in the larger whole, and the four Sonatas from the four stages of the composer’s career also fitted into the timeline of the the Great Ludwig’s creativity. Bravo. Marc-Pierre Toth goes again at Gallery 345 in Toronto on Monday, November 6 @ 8 pm. Not to be missed