February 8, 2008

Jamaica Plain Poets

By all accounts, the gathering should be morose. The people are sitting quietly in a chapel. At a cemetery. In February. Their attention is directed to a person speaking in a serious tone. Viewed objectively, this is a description of somber event.

But last Sunday's poetry reading in Forsyth Chapel wasn't morose. It wasn't somber. The setting and its funereal connotations were in such contrast to its intimacy and life-affirming spirit, I couldn't help but notice that each one of the events' seemingly grave attributes are actually the opposite of what's expected: the chapel is bright and gorgeous, comfortable and intimate; the cemetery is more like a park, designed for visitors, receiving them; and as for February...it was unusually warm that day (enough for Audrey Henderson to start off her reading with some "warm weather poems").

As I stood there listening, I realized that there could be no better place to have poetry readings, or, maybe more aptly, no better place to have these poets read. The tenor of each of the JP poets reading (Audrey Henderson, Carolyn Gregory, Sandra Storey, and Susan Eisenberg) was also integral to this event's...well, irony, I guess. Of course I don't mean ironic in the sense that it was jokey or self-referential. Not that kind of irony. I'm more referring to the kind of irony in which the contrast between the expectation and the result functions to emphasize the reality. For these poets all shared a liveliness, a modest exuberance, a collective antithesis to gloom.

The poems themselves were varied: a lot were autobiographical, some nostalgic, some not. Many were about other people, some fictional, some not. Sandy Storey had a theme for the night, "Science and Magic," in which she read "Man on the Moon," a poem about watching Neil Armstrong in her childhood, and a rap about sex entitled "Erotica Electronica." Carolyn Gregory told the tale of an unnamed pop star who sounds more than a little like Britney Spears (who, I guess, sounds more than a little like every other pop star). The poetry of Audrey Henderson featured regions as diverse as Spain, Scotland, and the American Southwest. Illness, and its many consequences to family, culture, and even language, was Susan Eisenberg's central theme, an important one to her.

And though many of the topics delved into the realms of uncertainty, regret, and, yes, death, the tone of the room never sunk. The poets were too interesting, the atmosphere too engaging, too connective, too alive for anything to bring it down. The acoustics carried their poems throughout the room, lending each one an authority under which the listeners could not help but succumb. We were absorbed. It proves, to paraphrase Eisenberg, that the living shouldn't be completely separate from the dead.

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