Book Bag: ‘Sun on the Muddy’ by Jim Armenti; ‘Common Place’ by Thomas E. Johnson, Jr.; ‘The Adventures of Robo-Kid’ by Diane deGroat

By STEVE PFARRER

Staff Writer

Published: 02-03-2023 4:49 PM

Sun on The MuddyPoems by Jim Armenti; photos by Dave Madeloni; edited by Dan Lombardo; Levellers Press

Jim Armenti is well known in these parts for the varied roles he’s had in the regional music scene. The multi-instrumentalist — guitar, bass, clarinet, mandolin, fiddle and who knows what else —  has gigged for years with Lonesome Brothers, Klezamir, the Young@Heart Chorus and as a support musician for many other players, and he’s taught music to myriad students.

Armenti, who lives in Westhampton, is also a prolific and admired songwriter — so it seems a natural step for him to put his hand to poetry.

In “Sun on the Muddy,” Armenti has compiled over 50 mostly free-verse poems that explore a wide range of subjects, including family biography, such as his mother’s colander and his father’s mandolin. It’s a good-natured collection, divided into three sections and illustrated with abstract photos by his friend Dave Madeloni.

In the prose poem “The Date,” Armenti recounts the only formal date he was ever on, at an Asian restaurant in Cambridge, where one thing he remembers is that “I wore clothes, for sure. I didn’t own special / clothes, so I made sure they were extra / clean.”

Another recollection: His date was a cute woman with a nice haircut who “knew her way around a menu / and though I was adrift in a strange land full / of adults and she seemed to fit in there, / I just pretended and did what I always do which / is make conversation.”

While the poem “Colander” speaks to the importance of meals and food prep in Armenti’s family when he was growing up, in “Colander Shadows” he offers a memorial to his late mother, noting that childhood losses had made her “not tactile” with her children, though she expressed her love in other ways.

“I never noticed while / she was living that she didn’t / touch with her body. Instead / the light of love and life / flowed through her and / the holes of her losses to / leave delicate patterns of light / all around, intricate shadows of / the nature of her understanding / her deep desires for us.”

Armenti’s poems are accompanied by dozens of abstract pastoral photographs by Madeloni, a longtime Valley educator and music fan who, a year into the pandemic, stopped to take a photograph of a puddle while jogging along the Northampton bike trail.

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As he describes in a preface to Armenti’s poems, Madeloni “for some unknown reason” flipped that photo upside down on his computer and discovered a new passion: photographing puddles and playing with the images to show that “places where rain gather(s) for temporary refuge … (can) hold such beauty and vulnerability.”

The photos in “Sun on the Muddy” indeed offer unusual tableaus, where the sky above a tree seems to be speckled with droplets and ice crystals, or a woman with an umbrella is framed by pavement overhead and water below. Armenti says he was drawn to Madeloni’s photos after seeing them on Facebook during the pandemic.

“(M)y perception had to keep shifting, from distorted image to rippling water, from up to down, backwards to forwards, while always first seeing simply a beautiful, often pastoral image,” Armenti writes. “These are the same effects I find in a poem, the gentle leading of my thoughts in some novel, interesting way.”

A book launch for “Sun on the Muddy” takes place at The Parlor Room in Northampton on Feb. 5 at 2:30 p.m., at which Armenti will read some of his work and play music; Madeloni will also display and discuss his photographs. A book signing will follow.

 

Common Place: The PublicLibrary, Civil Society, and Early American ValuesBy Thomas E. Johnson Jr.Levellers Press

After a career in landscape architecture and then with the U.S. Foreign Service, Thomas E. Johnson Jr. retired with his wife to Amherst in 2012. And in the following years, as the couple explored the landscapes and small towns of western New England, Johnson says he noticed that, more often than not, the town library was the most architecturally distinguished building in a community.

That set Johnson on a quest to discover more about the history of public libraries in the U.S. and to profile selected libraries in New England with interesting histories. He’s compiled those findings in his book “Common Place,” a title he says speaks to a public library’s critical role in promoting a sense of community and civic values.

Johnson notes that a number of the oldest public libraries in the country are in New England, including in Franklin, Massachusetts, which began in the late 18th century with a donation of books made by, well, Benjamin Franklin.

Altogether, “Common Place” profiles 16 libraries in the six New England states, including those in Athol, Conway, Holyoke, South Amherst and Turners Falls. For each of these chapters, Johnson offers a history and physical description of the library and an assessment of its current status — with some thoughts on its future.

 

The Adventures of Robo-KidWritten and illustrated byDiane deGroatNeal Porter Books

Diane deGroat might be best known for her series of books on Gilbert the Opossum, the bespectacled, shy critter who has to navigate the uncertainties of elementary school. But the work of the Amherst children’s book author and artist extends much further: According to her website, she’s illustrated over 150 books.

In one of her newest books, “The Adventures of Robo-Kid,” deGroat offers two stories that merge into one, as a comic book hero emerges from the pages of a story to befriend a young boy, Henry, who likes to read about him. 

Henry, a grade-school student, is immersed in a story about Robo-Kid, a young hero who saves the planet from a dangerous asteroid. But Henry’s mother tells her son to put the book aside because it’s time to go to school — the last thing Henry wants to do, because he has to take a swimming test he’s afraid he’ll fail.

In one of the storylines, Robo-kid complains that saving the day every day “is boring! Why can’t I be a superhero in the real world?” Henry, meanwhile, is slumped gloomily in the school locker room — until Robo-Kid crawls off the page of the comic book in Henry’s backpack and tells the boy he looks worried: “How can I help?”

Henry’s thrilled and wants to know if Robo-Kid can aid him in swimming in the deep section of the school pool. Robo-Kid wants to boost Henry’s confidence, but this “real world” he’s in is posing more challenges to him than he expected. Who needs to help who? Or can the help be mutual?

Kirkus Reviews calls DeGroat’s story, aimed at readers ages 4 to 8, a “super blend of everyday courage, the inner lives of readers, and rising to the challenge of doing something difficult.”

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