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Book Bag: ‘Gillyflower’ by Diane Wald; ‘Bread Poems’ by Jonathan Stevens

  • “Bread Poems” by Jonathan Stevens. Contributed image

  • “Gillyflower” by Diane Wald Contributed image

Staff Writer
Published: 9/12/2019 8:00:16 AM

Nora, one of the narrators of the short novel (or long novella) “Gillyflower,” is, in her own words, “happily married,” with a decent job and good friends, and she enjoys some success as an artist. But Nora has also long been somewhat obsessed with an aging actor, Hugh Sheenan, and in 1984, after she sees him perform in a play in New York, she sends him a letter that touches off a meeting between them — and jolts their lives.

The author of “Gillyflower,” Diane Wald, is a graduate of the MFA Program for Poets & Writers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and has published poetry widely for years, winning a number of awards; she’s also taught writing and literature. But “Gillyflower” is the first published work of fiction for Wald, who’s 70 and lives outside Boston.

Her story is told, all in first-person voices, by four characters: Nora; Hugh; Rick, Nora’s husband; and Leon, Hugh’s old British Navy buddy and secretary who, as Leon describes it, is also Hugh’s “wife, mother ... valet, and occasional confidante.” Moving back and forth in time, the book is an exploration of the way chance encounters and unseen connections can bring total strangers together, and the different ways people can view the same events.

It begins with Nora, looking back on what’s happened and talking about her long-held admiration for the Irish-born, Peter O’Toole-ish Hugh, who’s now in his late 50s (perhaps 20 years older than Nora) and whose legendary boozing and womanizing makes him look even older. She buys a new dress to go see the Broadway plays he’s in, “The Lion’s Share,” and feels calm enough — but before she leaves for New York, she has two strange dreams about Hugh that shake her up a bit.

Hugh, it turns out, has also had a strange dream about an encounter with an unknown young woman. Then, toward the end of the play, with Nora seated in a front row seat, just a few feet from Hugh, another odd event takes place, prompting Nora to send her letter and a drawing to him with her explanation of what had happened: “Writing to Hugh Sheehan, and sending that drawing, had been a kind of exorcism.”

Hugh might wonder if he needs an exorcism himself, because Nora’s letter and drawing and his own dream have unnerved him. He’s decides to meet this mysterious woman, even as Leon wonders just what his old friend is up to and Rick tries to make sense of his wife’s odd behavior: “Of course I knew she still loved me, but my Nora had gone away. She wasn’t always there for me behind those funny eyes … she moved in a private world that began to shut me out more and more.”

What Nora and Hugh will discover when they meet takes a surprising turn in what Kirkus Reviews calls “(a) haunting meditation on lives that intersect in unexpected ways.”

‘Bread Poems’ by Jonathan Stevens

When he’s making bread, Jonathan Stevens, the co-founder and co-owner of Hungry Ghost Bread in Northampton, clearly spends a lot of time thinking about the process and the essential role this staple food plays in everyday life. Because when he’s not making bread, Stevens can sometimes be found writing about it.

In his new book, “Bread Poems,” Stevens finds inspiration for his verse in the full life cycle of bread: from the growing and harvesting of wheat (with a little bee pollination thrown in for good measure), to the firing of an oven, to the kneading of dough, to the stacking of finished loaves on a rack.

And in these poems, bread becomes a symbol of something more: friendship and family, the pleasure of good food, the satisfaction of work you enjoy. The book advances those themes by matching all the poems with color photographs, from an image of a small wheat field to closeups of flour-covered hands molding dough into a loaf.

In “Calluses,” Stevens writes of the very beginning of his bread: “Yesterday, I became a farmer. / Hand-planting half-an-acre of Spring Wheat / was the easy part, that took only 30 / minutes. Raking it under took 5 more / hours. Filling the furrows, muddying / my knees, I kept wondering: is this / too deep? Will the birds eat all / the seeds? Will the rains come soon / enough?”

There’s humor here, too, as in “St Dominic’s Preview,” about a piece of baking equipment that finds a new life: “the Pope’s loss is my gain, / it seems: / this old dough mixer / pulled out of a boarded-up church / (St Dominic’s) up on State Street / in Portland. I imagine a 40-year / apprenticeship making sacramental wafers / and dinner buns for bingo night specials.”

Or consider “This Loaf For President,” which contrasts the solidity of a good loaf of bread — bread whose list of ingredients “is gratifyingly short,” as Stevens puts it — with today’s headlines.

“This loaf does not boast / this bread does not need / a press secretary / or a chief of staff … This bread won’t build walls, / drop bombs, sell fighter jets / or make secret deals with the Russians / this bread cannot lie / this bread does not exaggerate / how many people it feeds”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at

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