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Book Bag

huang po and the
dimensions of love

By Wally Swist

Southern Illinois University Press

www.wallyswist.com

Amherst poet Wally Swist has been on a roll in recent years, recording an audiobook of his work with one publisher and being named a finalist for a poetry prize offered by another. But his biggest accomplishment was becoming a co-winner of another poetry prize, this one from Southern Illinois University Press, which has published his latest book.

“Huang Po and the Dimensions of Love” is named after a ninth century Chinese Zen Buddhist master and contains 62 poems, including some that Swist penned several years ago and reworked for the new volume. Like much of his work, the verse in “Huang Po” reflects both his study of Eastern religions and philosophies and his careful observations of Valley landscapes.

Poems like “Sharp-Shinned Hawk” also resonate with a deep appreciation of the power and mystery of the animal world: “An explosion of cardinals, juncos and black-capped / chickadees out of the nimbus / of the sugar maple’s crown leaves the branches / in one electric instant, clattering. / The sharp-shinned hawk zeros in / to settle on its target perch; / its talons curl to grip the bark.”

Swist, who had two stints as the poet-in-residence at Fort Juniper, the small cabin Amherst poet Robert Francis built in North Amherst in 1940, also includes a number of poems in his new volume that pay tribute to Francis and the simple pleasures of living at Fort Juniper.

“Sometimes the quiet here in the cabin / is so keen that there’s a ringing that comes with it” he writes in “A Deeper Quiet, Then Silence.” “The quiet and silence restorative, then I enter / the sound of the river from the bridge above it. / What is restorative is in the cleansing of that: / being filled by the movement in the rush of the water.”

Wally Swist will read from and sign copies of his book on Wednesday at 7 p.m. at Broadside Bookshop in Northampton. He’ll be joined by Northampton poet Michael Miller, who will read from and sign copies of his book, “Darkening the Grass.”

AMERICAN PHOENIX: THE REMARKABLE STORY OF WILLIAM SKINNER, A MAN WHO TURNED DISASTER INTO DESTINY

By Sarah S. Kilborne

Free Press/Simon & Schuster

The Mill River Flood of 1874, one of the most famous chapters of local history, was the first great dam disaster in America, killing 139 people and wiping out several prosperous mill villages along the river’s narrow valley between Williamsburg and Northampton. Perhaps no place was hit harder than Skinnerville, a small industrial complex named after the silk mill of Joseph Skinner of Haydenville.

In “American Phoenix,” Sarah S. Kilborne, Skinner’s great-great-granddaughter, tells the story of how Skinner, a major figure in American silk production, was left near financial ruin when the 1874 flood destroyed his mill. But Skinner, who had already overcome a poverty-stricken childhood in England to find success in America, dramatically rebuilt his career in Holyoke, becoming one of the leading silk manufacturers in the world by the beginning of the 20th century.

Kilborne’s narrative covers the history of the silk industry as well as Skinner’s upbringing in the slums of London, where he got his start in the business, learning valuable skills he would bring to the U.S. He had little formal education — a fact, writes Kilborne, that would bother him throughout his life — but he had drive, native intelligence and a commanding physical presence: “Skinner was a big, tall man, with a temper quick and fast. He always meant business.”

“American Phoenix” also includes a riveting account of the Mill River Flood and its aftermath, such as the questions raised about the private corporation — Skinner was a member of it, though not an active one — that had financed the construction of the dam that failed. Corporation members had opted for a much cheaper plan than had been recommended but were not found accountable after the flood.

Mostly, though, Kilborne’s book offers a close look at a rags-to-riches story that saw Skinner, who had arrived in America at 20 with little in his pockets, become a leading silk manufacturer, lose everything, then within 10 years build a new silk business employing 300 workers, a business that would eventually boast 1,000 employees. As Skinner once wrote, “Talk of giving up ... NEVER.”

Kilborne will read from and sign copies of “American Phoenix” at the Wistariahurst Museum in Holyoke on Monday at 6 p.m. and at the Odyssey Bookshop in South Hadley on Wednesday at 7 p.m. The latter event costs $5 or purchase of the book.

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