Like One: Poems for Boston, edited by Deborah Finkelstein


One year ago today, two bombs exploded on Boylston Street section of the Boston Marathon. The two pressure cookers, each loaded with nails, ripped through flesh, severed limbs, and killed. But the city of Boston is on the way to recover, including the decision whether or not the surviving perpetrator deserves the death penalty. While the wheels of justice turn with its deliberate slowness, art provides another means for community healing. Like One, edited by Deborah Finkelstein, operates as both an aesthetic and charitable salve.

Finkelstein’s aim was to use the anthology “to raise money for The One Fund, the charity that helps the victims of the Boston Marathon Bombing and their families.” She goes on to say, “[I]t will also be used as a resource to help readers heal.” With that program in mind, Finkelstein selected poems that were “positive and joyous.” A day will come when there will poetry about the event, but that day has not yet come.

Finkelstein’s selection runs the gamut. Among the thicket of state poetry laureates, she has included poets like Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, Robert Pinsky, Robert Frost, and William Carlos Williams. Think of this as a collection of poetic comfort food.

The anthology exhibits Finkelstein’s gift for creative juxtaposition. In Jan Seale’s “Believing Is Seeing,” we get a narrative poem about a mother and her son looking at the stars through a telescope.

“First you find Orion by his belt.”
His finger points me to the spangled girth.
And then we telescope the Great Hunter:

Then we realize the intrusion of technology:

Minutes go by. The click of the telescope timer
corrects what we cannot–-our restless ride
on this galloping star-drenched porch.
And then the gift: three clear and perfect points,
three diamond apples where none were before.

With this connection between mother and son, simultaneously familial and intimate combined with the vast expanse of space between Earth and Orion, we stumble on to the next poem, Walt Whitman’s famous, “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer.”

Whitman’s poem became famous once again when it was used in Breaking Bad. Here another Walt listens to a recitation of the poem by his lab assistant:

Among human pleasures, wonder is among the most revered. A remnant of childhood innocence (and ignorance), it is difficult to replace and unvarnished wonder is something rarely achieved. Whitman, fed up with the astronomer and “the proofs, the figures, [that] were ranged in columns before me,” decides to wander off by himself and “in the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,/Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.” While an anti-scientific reading is obvious, one can also see Whitman, the American Sensualist. One can look at charts and proofs and hear arguments for or against specific astronomical minutiae, but there are times when one needs to just stop and look. Avoid the in-depth descriptions of museum labels and just look. Let your eye take you where it fancies.

Like One is full of these moments, these juxtapositions. While the tendency in art programs intended to heal can tend towards schmaltz (“We Are the World” for childhood hunger) or crass patriotism (“Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)” regarding the 9/11 tragedy), Like One avoid cheap sentiment and emotional pornography.

The simplicity of the Boston Marathon Bombing’s execution is met with the simplicity of poetry, like Donnelle McGee’s “Green Hills in Vermont.” We see another aspect of American Sensualism.

This is how I can save myself
Like this –

Among her personal pleasures she includes:

Reading Neruda.

Kissing the read and black medicine bag I keep tucked in my pant pocket.

Eating strawberries off her flat, white, pierced belly.

Visiting upstate New York, summer after summer … after summer.

The poem’s simple list comes across like a series of images, akin to a film montage, each line like a frame or a scene. This short simple poem came after a three page narrative poem, “Cocktail Party,” by Benjamin S. Grossberg.
Another memorable juxtaposition is between Kevin Stein’s “On Being a Nielsen Family.” Like Black Flag’s “TV Party,” it includes a list of networks and TV shows, but Stein likens the scientific experiment to being “the Postmodern Descartes,/ pledging, “I watch, therefore I am.”” We are what we watch, or else our Netflix suggestions would be a lot less accurate. This examination of American life is followed by Judson Mitcham’s poem “Kudos.”

But why no praise for the lazy,
no kudos for the slow, no hallelujahs
for those of us who do so little, no trophy

for performance on the sofa,
for snack-related achievement,
for freestyle in the long nap category,
for world-class work with the remote?

If America is home to fat TV watching slobs, least we can do is be proud of the fact, right? The juxtaposition of “Nielsen Family” and “Kudos” has a wonderful snarky tinge to it. The anointed Nielsen Family diligently writing down its watching habits, making inventories of shows watched, is set in stark contrast to “Kudos.” Besides the American art of legitimizing media consumption with scientific analysis, there’s the American art of doing nothing. But why do we work and study in the first place? As Tacitus said, “Other men have acquired fame by industry, but this man by indolence.”

Like One offers comfort and joy in its poetic construction, some poems gliding into each other, some jutting up jagged against each other, their oppositions creating sparks and light.

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