Book Bag: ‘Journeys of Voices & Choices’ by Ernie Brill; ‘Here in Sanctuary — Whirling’ by D. Dina Friedman

By STEVE PFARRER

Staff Writer

Published: 05-24-2024 11:15 AM

Journeys of Voices & Choices
By Ernie Brill
Human Error Publishing

Northampton poet Ernie Brill, a former English teacher at Northampton High School, is a longtime writer who has worked with many small presses over the years. A consistent theme of his work has been the manifest injustice in much of the world.

In his first poetry collection, “Journeys of Voices & Choices,” Brill offers a broad sweep of work, with sections that look back to growing up in post-WWII Brooklyn, New York, to profiles of people struggling in tough jobs, to the terror of war, as well as the violence that’s a regular part of the American experience.

Writing mostly in free verse, in an unadorned style, he recalls his father’s love of music (“It was the inner music where you shone”); his mother’s compassion for others that could leave a shortage for her family (“Our clumsy efforts for attention were in vain”); and the days when baseball was king (“We sang to the Dodgers and Jackie Robinson”).

A section titled “Work” paints portraits of people whose health has been crippled by unsafe and grinding work conditions, like the longshoreman who sucked in asbestos in ship hulls for years without protective gear.

“Far’s the money goes, I’ll get by. / Better if you get me some new lungs” the former worker says to someone who asks him what he needs, as he lies in a hospital bed, wheezing through a respirator.

And Brill begins “The Fat of the Land” with some memorable lines: “We’ve waited decades for the trickle down / Some of us wear well-worn neck braces / From tilting our parched mouths up to the sky.”

As well, Brill the ex-teacher has some tart words for the strictures he once worked under, lamenting the conformity and limitations imposed by education mandates, as in “Black History Month,” where a teacher tells the class it’s time to move on to the next subject even if questions remain.

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“Why did Dr. King have to die? / Now that is a terrific question, Janie! / And I’m sure your fourth grade teacher next year / Will be happy to explore that but for now, / We need to get ready for our new Math Unit.”

Perhaps the most telling work is in “The Black Lives Matter Hybrid Haikus,” a section in which Brill uses the short poem format to recall more than two dozen Black people killed by police — not just more recent names such as Tamir Rice, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, but people such as George Baskett, a San Francisco man shot in 1968 by a white off-duty policeman after a minor traffic accident.

“Police car scrapes truck in alley / Driver and cops shout / Cops draw, take him out / In front of son, three”

But Brill also finds beauty in the world, with some tender love poems and odes to the small things that can make life worthwhile, like memories of a long-ago day at the beach: “Remember building with gleeful devotion / Moated sandcastles at the edge of the ocean?”

“Ernie Brill is a legit legend with a long history of walking the walk,” Tom Clark (aka Tommy Twilite), of the Florence Poetry Society, says of Brill’s collection. “His poems explore work and justice while always keeping in mind the beat of the people.”

 

Here in Sanctuary — Whirling
By D. Dina Friedman
Querencia Press

Late last year, Hadley author D. Dina Friedman published her first volume of short stories, “Immigrants,” portraits of people who come to the United States looking for a better life.

In her newest book, “Here in Sanctuary — Whirling,” Friedman tackles some of those issues through poetry, from visits to the southern U.S. border and a former holding camp in Florida for migrant children, to profiles of people heading north to that border to escape violence in their homes in Mexico and Central America.

There’s also an autobiographical prose poem, “Statue of Liberty,” in which Friedman, a native of New York City, recalls visits to the famous icon in New York harbor and wonders what it symbolizes today, after she meets a man in a refugee camp in Mexico, just over the border near Brownsville, Texas.

“He / tells me about being shoved into a car with his eight-year-old / daughter by kidnappers demanding ransom. He tells me about / being taken by immigration authorities and locked in a cold, / windowless room. At least, the statue still has windows.”

Friedman hones in on small details, like a doll “with a dismembered arm” that hangs on a barbed wire fence on the U.S.-Mexico border along the Brazos River, while a young boy stands along the riverbank. What, the poet wonders, does the boy recall of his home in Honduras “before the men broke windows, // took his sister’s doll, / his father’s heart.”

In “Cumbia on YouTube,” a poem about the driving rhythm of a traditional music from Latin America morphs into an account of a man named Scott who was arrested after leaving jugs of water in the U.S. desert for migrants; the charge was aiding aliens.

“When I was a kid, an alien was My Favorite Martian / or Mr. Spock,” writes Friedman.

In addition, the poet recalls members of her own family fleeing persecution from anti-Semites in Europe. But her work also celebrates the power of community wherever people can find it, with different points of view and images of dancing, sharing food, and feeling the wind on your face.

Hope, in the poem of that title, is a feeling “in my chest, / soft as the young cat / stretched luxurious across the bed. Hope / in the dream of the next step, esperanza: a puff / of milkweed riding the wave of the wind.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.