The williwaw — an icy, mountainous wind that literally drove some GIs crazy during the Aleutian campaign in World War II — made a chilling and beautiful appearance in both words and music, alongside the propulsive verses of nationally known poet Baron Wormser, in a haunting evening of poetry at the Institute Library.
Fifty poetry enthusiasts filled up the second-floor reading room of the library to overflowing Wednesday night to hear Wormser and Guilford-based poet Nan Meneely read, among other work, selections from her book Letter From Italy, 1944.
The reading was co-sponsored at the Library by the Poetry Institute, which organizes readings, including an open mic, every third Thursday of the month beginning at 7 p.m. at the Institute Library.
“Williwaw” uses the straightforward yet harrowing language from letters Meneely’s father sent home from his assignments as a surgeon with the U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division during their campaigns in Alaska and Italy. That poem and two other works based on those letters have been set to music as part of a larger oratorio by Meneely’s sister, Sarah Kyder. When selections were played on tape, after the poet read the letter and the poem, you could be forgiven for thinking a ghost of that original killing wind was making its way through the silent room.
In her commentary between verses, Meneely regularly returned to the poems’ source, her dad’s letters. They revealed that the firing and bombardment that killed her father’s friends were not from any enemy: “I want no more war, no more fear, no more fighting. No Japs here. They’d already cleared out. We killed ourselves the other night.”
In a deft shift of tone — because, she said, her husband was not in attendance — Meneely followed those pieces with a series of what she called “sex poems.” One described the slow, crescendoing excitement of riding, thigh to thigh, with her first boyfriend George in his big powerful car.
Another, “After Googling,” centered on thoughts that emerge after you use the internet to check out what’s become of old flames: “We haven’t kissed since 1962 ... even now I smell your after-shave.”
When Wormser took the microphone, he thanked the library’s Deputy Director Daisy Abreu, his former student at Fairfield University’s graduate writing program where Wormser teaches, for inviting him.
Wormser’s soft, sibilant voice then swelled with emotion and brio as he read his first selection for the night, “For the Yiddish Poets,” a work from his book Scattered Chapters.
One of his fans, Collinsville-based writer David Leff, had brought his copy of the book and asked Wormser to autograph it and to read that particular piece.
“I love a lot of his poems. Some you just want to hear read aloud,” Leff said. Wormser’s work, to him, was “very direct, incisive. He turns the ordinary circumstances of life into poetry.”
Wormser’s reading of “For the Yiddish Poets” did not disappoint. The work is filled with carefully observed detail, like the experience of near-humiliation when the narrator spills a few drops — a bissel, in Yiddish — of coffee on the counter of a 2nd Avenue restaurant.
The way the waitress promptly wipes it up with her dishrag makes the narrator feel he’s committed some kind of serious violation, and the gesture emphasizes the sense of exile and being the “other” that many sensitive early 20th-century artist-immigrants felt in the rough-and-tumble Lower East Side of New York City.
Poetry On The Second Floor, Prose On The Third
On the same evening as poetry was being recited in the main reading room, longer lines, of narrative prose, were unfolding one floor above.
The evening of short stories being read and discussed afterwards is a collaboration of the New Haven Review, the Institute Library, and the New Haven Theater Company. It drew a devoted crowd to the library’s third-floor gallery Wednesday night. (Click here, here, and here for previous stories on Listen Here! evenings.)
The program’s organizer, Bennett Lovett-Graff, described the story Pellegrino (pictured) was reading as “the tragic tale of a 6th-grade girl who becomes the unanticipated focus and secret-keeper of a family tragedy.” A lively 45-minute discussion followed.
The next Listen Here! at the library is April 9. Story time is always at 7 p.m., with that evening’s reading featuring the work of J.D. Salinger and Kurt Vonnegut.