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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

The Mass Media

Torra, Torra, Torra (and Peseroff)

The UMass Boston writing department flexed its muscles Feb. 27 with intense readings by two UMB faculty members, poet Joyce Peseroff and novelist and prose poet Joe Torra. Peseroff read from her new book “East Mountain Slope,” while Torra read an excerpt from his novel “They Say.”

It was a contrast between rural and urban: Peseroff waxing lyrical on New England country houses, and Torra submitting dirges on the gritty streets of metropolitan Boston. Peseroff, in contrast to the subjects of her writing, is a city girl at heart, bringing a city slicker’s eye to the happenings of her summer retreats. The nightlife of moths around a lamp, a radio playing low, paint peeling.

Torra meanwhile handles his cityscapes with a Whitmanesque sweep. The landmarks and institutions tightly compressed into Boston’s borders are infused with a breath of the sort Whitman reserves for the treatment of his United States nation-scapes.

Peseroff opened with a poem on the loss of the quaintness of her rural homes. The poem was titled “Chamberland Road,” referring to the misspelling of the street where she resided, Chamberlain Road. Peseroff brings reference to the ruins of Rome and to commercially manufactured items, like a roll of Lifesavers, along with her eye for the busyness in the outwardly serene, to her descriptions of this village invaded by the bureaucratic niceties of suburbia.

The one lapse in the reading was a too-long introduction to a slight found-poem on the Farmer’s Almanac. The pace was quickly recovered, however, with a truly remarkable poem on a painter creating his art on a foggy beach. Peseroff engages in wild and wonderful speculation as to what the artist seeks as a subject. I was reminded of a Charles Simic poem about a painter who paints at night, with candles stuck in his hat. One might counter that the two poets could not be more different, but they both have a sense of humor, and a sense of spectacle. The poem ended with the great line, “The ebb tide lifted the wild skirts of five emerald islands”-more evidence of spiritual kinship with Simic.

Torra’s reading recounted his mother’s life growing up, told form the point of view of an innocent eye. The narrator recounts the traumas of the family, a death by drowning, domestic abuse, mental illness. She also describes, in the simplest terms, the romantic and artistic aspirations of her brothers and sisters. It is reminiscent of something like Faulkner’s “The Sound and the Fury.”

The trials and tribulations of this early-twentieth century family are run through a receptor so simple and impressionable that they collide kaleidoscopically, and one can relate to them the daily joys and sufferings of any family.

One of the most noteworthy pieces by Torra was his second, which he calls “an improvisation.” He says it is neither prose nor poem. Torra takes Robert Lowell’s Common of 1964 forty years into the future and moves it to the North End, North Station and the North Shore. I have lived and worked in that vicinity for 23 years, and it was with gritty tears and ecstasy that I heard him fly over the Schrafft’s building in Charlestown, the Spaulding Rehabilitation Center and the Old North Church, with seagulls hovering around it.

In Peseroff we watch the moths in their minute flights over furniture, into bedrooms and out onto the porch. Torra shows us the gulls of Boston Harbor, as they map out the Shawmut Peninsula and the City on the Hill. Peseroff has inherited pearls from Emily Dickinson; Torra has repaved bridges Whitman walked. UMass Boston has true descendents and legatees of America’s finest.