How would you like to live in the desert? I do appreciate the strange and austere beauty of these arid lands, but everything there seems to want to kill you: rattlesnakes, coral snakes, Gila monsters, wild pigs, scorpions, giant spiders (tarantulas and huge wolf spiders), centipedes, jaguars, wolves, mountain lions. Look up—you’ll see vultures, hawks, eagles, ravens. Even the plants are all spiked with nasty needles, and the juices of some are deadly to drink. Not a hospitable and easily domesticated place at all!
Paolo Soleri was born in Italy in 1919. Shortly after the conclusion of the Second World War, he earned his master’s degree in Architecture and came to the USA to study with famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright in Arizona. In 1950, he and his wife Colly went to Italy to work on several large architectural projects; they must have liked the desert because they returned to Arizona in 1956. In 1969, by then a professor at Arizona State University, Soleri coined the term Arcology, a combo of Architecture and Ecology, for his book, Arcology: The City in the Image of Man. And in 1970, with a group of supporters, he began to build Arcosanti.
Arcosanti was Soleri’s dream project. The intent was for it to be an example of Arcology, a self-sustaining community in the desert with a full-time population of roughly 5,000. Located about an hour north of Phoenix, just off Route I-17, it’s been going ever since, over 50 years. Soleri died in 2013, but his followers carry on the tradition. At this point, Arcosanti has a bakery, a spacious café, apartments and dorms for residents and guests, an art gallery, gardens and greenhouses, hiking trails, a foundry, various ceramic and woodworking studios, a swimming pool, and an amphitheater (live music). Visitors have access to tours and workshops. The actual full-time population is now only around 100. Still, the idea is to build a sustainable micro-city by building up, not out. Soleri was wary of unregulated urban and suburban sprawl.
Soleri evidently had a fondness for working with bronze. So the foundry here specializes in bronze work, specifically elaborate bronze bells, internationally famous. You can hear the wind-blown bells chime and bong across the grounds.
Living in the middle of the desert may not sound like such a treat, but you never know. George Lucas is said to have visited Arcosanti and based Luke Skywalker’s home Tatooine (the desert planet) on it, but this story is unverified. If you want to visit, I hear there’s a lot to do—you can book an Airbnb or a guest room, but it’s advisable to call several months in advance; hosting over 30,000 visitors every year keeps the joint fairly packed.
The domes, spires, inclined walkways, and odd artistic architecture—all the color of sand and stone—make the place look like the cover of a futuristic science-fiction novel. You can check out lots of recent videos online.
I think the world needs more Arcosantis.
The Latest Event: Poetry & Music
The third open-mic poetry & music event of the season was held on Saturday,
March 5th , at the Creative Spirit Community Arts Center in downtown Potsdam.
The event was hosted by the St. Lawrence Area Poets (SLAP) in collaboration with
the St. Lawrence County Arts Council. The turnout was pretty good, about 25-30
people. I’ll run through the poets & musicians & hope I don’t leave anyone out.
Steve LaMere kicked things off with four songs strummed on acoustic guitar,
including Creedence Clearwater Revival, & the big hit—David Bowie’s “Space
Oddity.” Steve sings with verve.
Nikki Farris read one of the poems from her brand-new book, Pieces of Me.
Nikki was forced to leave early but promises that she’ll be back.
Next up was the always surprising & resourceful Alaina Goodrich, who
recited some poems, sang a cappella a cute song that she had written that morning,
& concluded with a wicked rap poem inspired by Will Smith.
Donald McNutt read a seasonal late-winter early-spring poem by William
Carlos Williams then sang & played a number of Pink Floyd songs, his specialty.
Aviva Gold followed McNutt with a few acoustic songs that to me belong
somewhere between Folk & Country. Let’s call them bits of Americana. My
favorite was the one about plowing the roads in St. Lawrence County where it’s
always snowing. Aviva also included a song she wrote about her chief musical
inspiration, Brandi Carlile.
Back to poetry. Kayla French shared several amazing poems about growing
up in a toxic city, life & death–& gritty, enlightening travels through Latin
America. And, a first-time apiarist, Kayla also read one about her sweet little bees.
Rivka Eckert shared a couple of hers including one serious poem about
Esthela Calderón read two of her poems written in Spanish; her husband
Steven White then read his translations of her poems in English.
Kris Rozelle’s kaleidoscopic poems were like her colorful art collages,
vibrating with words, images, & emotions.
Photographer, painter, & poet Thomas LaBarge read his two image-filled
And Marie Engels drove all the way from Dickinson Center for the event,
bringing her acoustic guitar, sheet music, & her strong, clear voice. Marie sang
roughly a half-dozen sad folk songs. The best was “Galileo” by the Indigo Girls &
one by Jewel.
Exotic John Berbrich read a couple of his & also honored the crowd with an a
cappella version of his original hard rock song, “Osaka Rocker,” after which the
joint was hopping.
Microphones & amplifiers were provided by SUNY Potsdam’s Madstop
Records. Madstop’s CEO Olivia Cole-Berry & Events Coordinator Joshua Phelps
were on hand to lend expert technical assistance.
Delicious refreshments were kindly donated by Dunkin’ Donuts & Subway.
Keeping things running smoothly were the Arts Council’s Marketing
Coordinator Jenna Clute & Programs Coordinator Amanda Mason.
A big Thank-You to everyone who donated, participated, or showed up to
watch & listen. Hope I haven’t forgotten anyone.
Amanda Mason is working on another open-mic event for April so check
the Art’s Council’s web page or Facebook page, both at slcarts, for upcoming
programs & events.
Two Book Reviews
One Branch. Stuart Bartow.
Winchester, Virginia. Red Moon Press. 2019
Reviewed by John Berbrich
Stuart Bartow’s latest collection of poetry contains roughly one-hundred
haiku and some half-dozen haibun. His book opens with an invitation,
reminding me of Robert Frost’s poem “Pasture,” which opens his Complete
Poems (1958): Frost’s entire poem is longer than a haiku, yet still short, only
two 4-line stanzas, each of which ends with the line: “I shan’t be gone
long.—You come too.” It’s a friendly invitation. Bartow’s opening haiku is
open all night
into the woods
I can see that path and longed to follow it into the depths of the book. So I did.
Haiku is frequently organized according to the season. One Branch begins
early in the year, deep winter, and concludes somewhere in late autumn. So let’s
follow along chronologically, shall we.
winter nights near the woodstove
across my table
This is a plausible winter scene, although in my house instead of cats on the table
you’d see dogs on the floor—sprawled, of course.
Haiku are traditionally written in three lines of 5-7-5 syllables. Like Jack
Kerouac, Bartow doesn’t stick strictly to this standard, but he does keep his poems
short. Here’s a one-liner:
the bear in my window winter stars
His work is so visual. There’s that constellation, right in the window, Ursa Major
of course. And he’s got this thing about the stars and the sky:
above it all
antenna still over the roof
those old shows
In the blizzard poem, you can’t see the stars yet you know they’re there—you can
feel them. And everyone can see that antenna. In my mind, I discern its skeletal
shadow on the metal roof, cast by the moon.
clothing drop off
my brother’s cowboy boots
Memories linger behind that one, some sad and others happy. One of the things I
like about real haiku is how it captures moments of life exactly right. And edging
into spring, an example:
a wobbly V of geese
in the wrong direction
Everyone who occasionally looks up has seen geese flying north in winter and
south in summer. It doesn’t make any sense, but life seldom makes real sense.
The point here is that our expectations are often thwarted and delightfully turned
on their heads.
full moon over my house
just as bright
as over McMansions
Can you see that one? I can, brightly. And there’s room for a bit of startling
humor from Oz and a North Country field:
in the diner’s kitchen
if I only had a brain
KIDS FOR SALE
away in a field
Summer, all fresh and radiant, comes next:
not one soul tonight
mimic the Pleiades
a picture-book garden
has wild bees
1930’s first baseman’s mitt
in the leather
trying to open the doors
old farm gone
brown butterflies grazing
This next I’ve experienced many times:
before the lawnmower grasshopper stampede
This one reminds me of the haiku of Issa, Japanese master poet from 200 years
ago, who often wrote with a concern for the poor unfortunates of the world.
where will you go
And the year draws toward its close with things dark and a little spooky:
a witch rings
my dead doorbell
the far side of the moon
we never found
just before dawn
moving across the yard
the wind changes
To conclude, a well-written haiku is like a small gem. Within the pages of this
book, I have found treasure. I plan to read it again.—You come too.
Save Our Ship. Barbara Ungar.
Ashland, Ohio. Ashland Poetry Press. 2019.
Reviewed by John Berbrich
Let’s start with the title. Who could devise a better title for a poetry book
published in these tumultuous, chaotic, deadly times than Save Our Ship? And
Ungar is sending Morse Code—a genuine plea for help. The title of each poem is
accompanied by a key letter from that title fashioned in code: like . . . – – – . . . for
Save Our Ship, et cetera. The poems are listed on the Contents page in roughly
alphabetical order; for instance, “Dear Bill” appears between “Emily Dickinson’s
Estate Sale” and “Endnotes to Coral Reefs.” Otherwise we start with “Accident
Report” and end with “After Zumba.”
Although Ungar’s poems immerse us in the dangerous destructive waters of
the present day, she includes many references to and epigraphs by historical
personages like Horace, Melville, Yeats, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Paul Ehrlich,
including numerous epigraphs from the Old Testament and references to figures in
Greek mythology. These either support the theme of the poem or present what
The poet tackles big global problems like the death of coral reefs, climate
change, the disappearance of words, troubles in the Middle East, extremes of
genetic research, big bombs, animal extinction, and wrecked relationships.
Some of these are presented simply as “mostly” found poems. The contents
of “Endnotes of Coral Reefs” come from the book Coral Reefs by Lesley A.
DuTemple and an unattributed New York Times article from April 2016. The title
“Endnotes” is meant to be taken literally. And “Naming the Animals” takes us on
an alphabetical tour of extinct species—from the Angel Island Mouse to the
Zanzibar Leopard—and concludes with the stark line: “Four species an hour.”
“Elegy” simply lists words culled from the 2018 Oxford Junior
Dictionary—samples include “acorn,” “buttercup,” “dandelion,” “heron,” “lark,”
“mistletoe,” “nectar,” “newt,” “pasture,” and “willow,”—and replaced with “blog,”
“MP3 player,” “voice-mail,” “chatroom,” and “attachment,” among others, a true
Romantic entanglements don’t always fare well in Ungar’s lines. So many
years later, she sees bits of her old flame in her first boyfriend’s face. There’s a
chance encounter with her son’s father while cross-country skiing. Although we
have the wrecked relationship of “X-Wife,” messy break-ups in Lower Manhattan,
and some bitter words for men in “Quoth the Queane,” it’s not all bad. “Interior
Paramour” is about a suave dream-lover; the poem concludes with a glow: “his
radiance / like a jack-o-lantern’s / shines from within // even when you wake /
weirdly happy / and alone again.”
In a collection as rich as this, one is sure to find intensely personal work.
Ungar addresses her deceased brother in “Dear Bill,” quoting his individualistic
wisdom in every stanza, apologizing toward the end, “I’m always late with thank
yous, / this one, decades.”
Ungar comes out in support of public breast-feeding in “Maria Lactans,”
telling mothers not to “worry about your wasband or consort. / They’re just
jealous. / American men are obsessed with nursies. / If only more fed to their
heart’s delight / there’d be less war, more / lineaments of satisfied desire.”
Let’s finish with “Cassandra,” a beautiful woman of ancient Greek literature,
cursed to prophesy the truth but never to be believed. To me, this sounds like
Barbara Ungar herself, peeking into the future, although she says it’s “Hard to see
its exact shape. The hot parts / hotter, vineyards aflame. / Cities underwater. /
Archipelagos of plastic trash. / Flotillas of fire ants.” Sound familiar? Her
comment at the end: “So many lotus eaters. / What would it take / to wake them
up?” And what, indeed, will it take for people to heed this current-day Cassandra?
Save Our Ship is the worthy winner of the prestigious Richard Snyder
Memorial Prize, awarded in memory of Professor Richard Snyder, who served for
fifteen years as the English department chair at Ashland University, co-founded the
university’s creative writing major, and also co-founded and co-edited the Ashland
Poetry Press. I’d like to see more work from this poet.
Among the hot bands playing gigs in the New York City Metro area in the mid-60s one could
find, among others, the Young Rascals, the Vanilla Fudge, the Hassles, and the Vagrants. The
Rascals recorded a series of hit songs, including several that shot up the charts to Number One.
The Vanilla Fudge was known for heavy, slowed down versions of songs by the Beatles, Sonny
& Cher, and the Supremes and were awarded several Gold Records. From the Hassles emerged
But the Vagrants never quite made it out of the club scene. They formed in the Forest
Hills section of Queens in late 1964 and started to record in ’65. Besides the Vagrants, Forest
Hills High School also produced Paul Simon and the Ramones. By 1966 the Vagrants were
really gaining popularity in some of the hottest local clubs, like Scott Muni’s Rolling Stone in
Manhattan, Ungano’s, also in Manhattan, and the Action House on Long Island. The band
recorded some 45s that never went anywhere. In early 1967 they recorded a version of the Otis
Redding song, “Respect,” which managed to climb to #56 on the Billboard charts. A record
company official played the Vagrants’ 45 for Aretha Franklin, who loved it and then recorded
her own version of “Respect,” which shot up to #1, obliterating the Vagrants.
By the time the band began to record their songs, this was the lineup: Peter Sabatino
(vocals, harmonica, tambourine), Jerry Storch (organ, vocals), the Weinstein brothers Larry
(bass) and Leslie (guitar), and Roger Mansour (drums). They developed quite an electrifying
stage show, complete with strobe lights, leather pants, fog machines, feathered capes,
gunpowder. On several occasions the stage actually caught fire. The fans loved it, of course.
The band developed the habit of destroying their instruments onstage. In early 1968 the
Vagrants travelled to California for a brief tour, and even opened for the Who, another
instrument-destroying-ensemble, at the Fillmore West in San Francisco.
The band members wrote a few songs, but mostly they did covers, although they did
record at least five tunes written by an associate Bert Sommer, a little-known Long Island folkie
whose first live gig was actually at the 1969 Woodstock Festival. These early songs (1965-66)
mostly celebrated teen romance rather than teen angst and were a little edgy. The vocals were
good, the voices blending almost sweetly together, with catchy hooks and an R&B influence.
But starting with “Respect” in 1967, the band evolved a heavier, rockier sound led by Leslie
Weinstein’s snarling guitar.
But still, fame (and fortune) eluded the Vagrants, and by 1968 the band had begun to
dissolve. In 1969, rotund guitarist Leslie Weinstein, better known as Leslie West, formed his
own band called Mountain. West, who died in December 2020, is particularly remembered for
his songs “Nantucket Sleighride” and “Mississippi Queen.” But that’s another story.
Interview with A.J. Murray
John Berbrich: So, Jim—when did you get serious about painting & drawing?
A.J. Murray: I took a SOAR art class from a friend named Leon LeBeau who was an excellent teacher. He encouraged me to put a self-portrait in a show and I won a blue ribbon. That fired me up. Portraits of people and animals have been my favorite things to do.
John: Lots of woodland paintings, too, w/ reflections of trees in standing water. Do you paint primarily from real life, from photographs, or from imagination?
A.J.: Mostly from pictures that I take, of anything that impresses me. It’s usually impulsive and not planned. Once in a while I like to do the Plein aire thing with friends. I do more commissions of people or pets than anything, from pictures. When I’m not busy with that it’s landscapes and I try to challenge myself with different mediums or difficult compositions. Rarely do I do anything from my imagination. When I do it’s a little surreal! I would love to be able to do stuff like Salvatore Dali, just for fun.
John: Dali is amazing, one of my favorites! Tell me, Jim, what’s the story behind this painting w/ the cows? It’s so different from the others.
A.J.: I went to a gallery in the Albany area and there were numerous pictures of cows, pigs, chickens, and other farm animals. They had very high prices on them. I was blown away. I had never done a painting of a cow so I decided to try it. Later, my wife and I were driving through rural Lisbon one day when I spotted a bunch of cows in a pasture. I asked her to stop and I called them (I worked on a farm as a kid). They came running right up to me and I snapped the picture. The one closest cracked me up so I painted it. By the way, a few students from metropolitan areas have really liked that picture.
John: Reminds me of the front & back covers of the old Pink Floyd album, Atom Heart Mother. I imagine most of these works have a backstory.
A.J.: Had to look up the album cover. Holstein, the stark black and white does remind me of mine. Most of my pictures have a memory associated with them. They’re almost like old friends who I sometimes have difficulty parting with. I have a few originals that I won’t sell.
John: You are really good at faces, Jim. They seem to reveal a person’s inner character. I love this one w/ the two women.
A.J.: Thanks. Faces are my favorite thing to do. I love to see the person or animal come to life and capture their essence. I studied many faces in my career as a counselor. The young lady in the picture was raised by her grandmother, the elderly woman, who was undergoing cancer treatment at the time the picture was taken. It was a birthday present to her from her boyfriend after grandma passed. I always feel honored to be asked to do these kinds of portraits that mean so much to people.
John: This one w/ the two faces is all pencil, isn’t it?
A.J.: Yes. It is graphite.
John: I see you like working in pencil. Does that have advantages over paint?
A.J.: I do like a pencil in my hand, be it graphite, pastel, or colored pencil. I am most confident with those mediums. But I also enjoy paints, especially oil and acrylic. I think most artists have their favorites. A real advantage, if you want to call it that, is that a pencil and paper is simple and easy to prepare, use, and set up. Paints involve a lot of “stuff” in my opinion. I really like them all and am striving to be proficient in them. I bounce around in my choices. They all have their own properties and effects. Choosing the right medium for different compositions has been a learning experience for me.
John: Can you name a few favorite artists or maybe some that have influenced you?
A.J.: I don’t really know much about art history or am familiar with many famous artists’ works. A friend described me as a “realist” and I tend to agree with that. I draw or paint what I see. In portraits, the fine details of expression interest me and I try to capture them. I like some of Gustav Corbett’s work I’ve come across and as I’ve mentioned Dali’s. I can’t define myself as one-dimensional because I like it all. Paul Monet’s impressionistic work is fascinating. The capturing of light with dabs of paint is unreal. I’m very interested in art history and plan on studying more. For now I am enjoying interacting with my other artist friends and being influenced by them. It’s a journey!
John: Do you have any advice for aspiring young artists?
A.J.: The first thing that I would say, and I know it sounds corny, is to follow your heart. It’s not something that can be forced on someone. Art classes work only if you have the desire to learn. If the interest is there, pursue it. If you have the desire to do something artistic, then take the time to do it. It’s not frivolous. It’s a form of self-expression and can be very satisfying. Lastly, seek out others who have similar artistic passions. They are your soulmates.
John: Any big projects or plans for new work in the near future? New directions?
A.J.: I am enjoying doing commissions here and there and will likely continue doing that. My involvement with the local St. Lawrence County Arts Council is keeping me busy also, and I look forward to watching that grow and seeing where it will take me. Eventually, I would like to enter more shows out of the area to see how I can do. I don’t want a new job but just have fun playing artist.
AJ (Jim) Murray is a North Country native who started drawing as a child.
His 6 th grade Art teacher was very supportive, and he grew to love Art and
dreamed of someday becoming an “Artist” for Disney. Didn’t happen.
He’s a proud veteran and retired Social Worker who worked primarily with
children and youth at a psychiatric center. Jim realized quickly that Art is a
great way for many to express themselves, to relax, and to enjoy. He decided
then that he would focus on Art more when he could, and here he is. Jim is
very pleased that people like his work and he loves to share. He says, “It’s
an exciting adventure!” A.J. Murray can be reached at
email@example.com or on Facebook.