She got her undergraduate degree in Sobriety.
She got her undergraduate degree in Sobriety.
The brilliant Olympia, Washington poet Lucia Perillo, one of the few I’ve known who’ve received the amazing MacArthur Fellowship, has recently died. She was not only fabulously talented, she was a very sweet person. I’ll never forget how, several years ago when I was a featured poet at a venue in Olympia, she attended my reading by traveling alone, across the city, in her wheelchair. I highly recommend that all who are visiting my blog get your hands on a copy of her extraordinary volume of poetry titled Inseminating the Elephant. It was published in 2009 by the Northwest’s most prestigious independent poetry publisher: Copper Canyon Press, in Port Townsend, WA.
I have been reading, with significant delight, a volume of poetry by Timons Esaias, titled Why Elephants No Longer Communicate in Greek. It was published this year by Concrete Wolf (Kingston, Washington), and was the winner of the 2015 Louis Award. Poets who are age 50 or older, and have not previously had a full volume of poetry published, are eligible for the Louis Award Series. I had not been familiar with this poet, who teaches at Seton Hill University, near Pittsburgh—where he lives.
He can be very clever and funny in his poems, and sometimes hair-raisingly serious. Here’s his example of in-your-face cleverness:
is an affectation
of those who
can’t fill the page,
even get the line all the way across.
Esaias is extraordinarily erudite about history and literature.
And not without pungent opinions. Here’s a passage from
“Like An Old War Horse”:
Safely in the ground lies the last war horse,
three or four decades now; and more than a century
is gone since any horse, trained to gunpowder,
joined, nostrils flaring, in a proper charge
Were I still a creative writing professor, I would use this volume
as a textbook. Mainly because he is very effective at getting
the reader right into the place, or concept, of his poems.
One of the few concerns I have about this extraordinary volume
is the rather ornate type-font used for the cover, which
actually makes it challenging to read.
For 19-21 August, I joined family and friends to celebrate my niece Katie’s wedding in Hood River, Oregon on the Columbia River. Here’s the poem I performed:
A Wedding Toast
May your love be firm,
and may your dream of life together
be a river between two shores––
by day bathed in sunlight, and by night
illuminated from within. May the heron
carry news of you to the heavens, and the salmon bring
the sea’s blue grace. May your twin thoughts spiral upward
like leafy vines, like fiddle strings in the wind,
and be as noble as the Douglas fir.
May you never find yourselves back to back
without love pulling you around
into each other’s arms.
By James Bertolino
13 August 2016
Ishmael Reed was the founder of the still active Before Columbus Foundation down in Oakland, California. That organization has, for years, identified books for the American Book Awards. I noted yesterday that I am still listed as a Before Columbus Foundation board member, and for a number of years was empowered to choose books to receive American Book Awards.
This morning Anita reminded me that an Ishmael Reed novel opens with a quote from one of my poems—what an impressive memory! So today I’ve gone to my collection of books by Reed, and found both the hard cover and paper editions of Flight To Canada, which opens with the quote “Evil dogs us” by James Bertolino. And, in the paper edition, the copyright page also carries this information: Grateful acknowledgement is made to James Bertolino for permission to reprint “Evil dogs us,” from his poem “Where We Go From Here” in Making Space for Our Living, published by Copper Canyon Press, Copyright © 1975.
The first story on this blog is an autobiography. This is my fiction. Posted 4 August 2016
I was twelve years old and my first girlfriend, Lonnie (who I sometimes called Loony, just for fun) was two inches taller than me. She was thirteen, and her body was changing fast. When we’d meet in the hallway at school, she would smile wide, stand above and look down at me, then ask, “How is my little pathogen today?” I didn’t know what pathogen meant, but liked the “path” part, imagining she was thinking of being on the path to me.
But all that was before she got breasts. I noticed the older jocks became really interested in her, and was worried that if I tried to keep them away, they’d beat me up. Later, when I was a sophomore in high school, I shot up three inches and was finally taller than Lonnie. I joined the wrestling team and became a jock myself. The coach was obsessed with our health, told us not to abuse ourselves too much (we knew what he meant) and wash frequently to ward off pathogens.
When Lonnie and I began serious dating, I wanted to know why she used to call me her “little pathogen.” She said she thought I’d think it was cute.
So no, we didn’t grow up, get married and have kids. But there was a certain feeling I had for her that I’ve never felt again. I remember that feeling whenever I came across the word “august,” as in an “august event,” or seeing someone of “august stature.” I had a theory about words back then—that many words have in them a sound, or spelling, that is found in an opposite word. Like “august” and “disgust,” Or “love’ and “remove.” These days I spend most of my time alone, and am convinced now and then that I’ve gone loony, gone around the bend.
This story was published in the Winter, 2015 issue of Clover: A Literary Rag, Volume 10. Clover is a wonderful Bellingham, Washington magazine, which can be found online at http://www.independentwritersstudio.com
It was 1950, maybe ’51, in Stevens Point, Wisconsin. I was a third grader at St. Stephen’s School. I always thought it kinda neat that Stephen’s school was in a town named Stevens, and congratulated myself on learning there were two spellings of a name that sounded the same. Stephen Kurz was a fellow student I admired, whose dad was a brewmaster at the local brewery, making Point Special Beer—which at that time came only in bottles. I didn’t know any Stevens.
We had moved to town in the middle of second grade, and I think being a new student is always harder if you begin well after the school year has started. As a third grader, I still felt like most of the other kids didn’t like me. Now I suspect it might have been at least partially due to my having a name like Bertolino, which was so different from the other names in class. And I recall that some of the kids called me “beady eyes.”
My parents had moved us into our second rental home in less than two years, and I didn’t like it as much as the first one, which was set about four or five feet above the sidewalks, and had stone walls which formed a corner where the two streets intersected. At that house I’d made a rope swing that allowed me to swing out over the sidewalk when girls were walking past, and the rope never broke.
One good thing about the second house was it had a screened porch on the street side and, in the back yard, a small greenhouse. The owners ran a florist shop in town, and had lived in the house before they put it up for rent. Anyway, I liked the greenhouse, and found cool stuff there, including a jar of sharply angled blue stones. In some ways I was probably still part toddler, because I couldn’t help but put one of those stones into my mouth. Gah! It was shockingly bitter.
I decided to take a pocketful of the stones to school and, at recess, gathered some of the third grade boys around to see my surprise. A couple of those guys had roughed me up in the past, and when they asked what those very interesting stones were, I remembered that. So I said: “Rock candy. These stones are rock candy.” Their eyes widened, and they wondered if the shiny blue lumps were good to eat. I said, “Sure, but they’re real bitter at first. You gotta suck ‘em, and the longer you suck, the sweeter they get!”
I doled out rocks to the four who were gutsy enough to ask for them, and then enjoyed watching their faces as they tried to suck the bitterness down to the sweet. Two of them quit after a little while, saying they didn’t think they’d ever taste good. The others who stuck with the sucking are the ones who later were taken to the hospital. The smarter two only spent some time vomiting in the first floor bathroom.
I, of course, hadn’t known my blue rocks were copper sulfate, which is poisonous when ingested. And had I known, I probably would have found a less dangerous trick to play on them. None suffered any permanent damage. As for me, I was marched off to the school library and told to kneel below a painting of the crucified Christ. My teacher whipped me with a steel-tipped, hardwood yardstick, after which I was made to continue kneeling on the tile floor for an hour. I decided I was supposed to learn what it was like to be crucified.
Oddly, I don’t remember there being any punishment at home. I believe I told my mother the entire story—she agreed I couldn’t have known the rocks were dangerous, and could see that I was just playing an innocent prank. Those four classmates stayed away after that, but others seemed to become more interested in me. Sometimes things balance out.