PUTNEY — Elena Harap Dodd, actress and writer, has lived in Putney for decades. She toured her one-woman show, “Meet Eleanor Roosevelt,” from 1991 to 2014, after co-founding the Streetfeet Women, a Boston area writer’s collective 40 years ago when she was living in Roxbury. The group recently published an anthology, “Metaphors Are Not Enough.” The collection includes memoir, poems, very short plays, excerpts from a novel and reflections.
The title of the book speaks to its richness. The pieces are varied in perspective; in some, the writing is almost entirely metaphorical; some are composed of very concrete details, and many are a combination of the two. Some poems are concrete and down-to-earth: in “Lunar New Year Poem,” Christina Liu begins:
The pigeons outside our grime,
Our cracked glass overlooking
Triboro Bridge, our tribe, warbled.
Later in the poem, the taste of red Jell-O and the sound of New Year’s firecrackers become emblems of her alienation, shame and fear:
We swallowed while
Fire crackled new animals:
Rams. Pigs. Tigers.
Dragons breathing into
Our small cavities.
Sharp tongues lashing
On our faces. Blood welts.
In a similar switch, at times the nonfiction turns to metaphor. Dodd, whose family were Jewish immigrants in the early 20th century, rarely saw her relatives until a celebration of a cousin’s 50th birthday. In “Minutes of the Meeting,” she describes being thrilled to get to know so many family members, and near the end of her visit, she sees “plain three-ring binders” containing minutes of previous family gatherings. While many of the minutes were simply concerned with where the next meeting would be held, there were also reports of births, deaths and other family news. Dodd experiences “an indescribable sense of fulfillment” to feel herself part of a large family; in a clever double meaning, she also felt “minute, ... a brushstroke in an endless scroll.”
Dodd, with her Jewish heritage, and the Chinese-American Liu represent only two of the diverse perspectives in the anthology. Lymyn O’Sing is also Chinese-American; the playwright Mary Millner McCullough is Black; and Mary Birnbaum and Andrea Humphrey are Caucasian. In a recent interview, Dodd commented on the group’s varied backgrounds and experiences.
“The fact that it has such diverse voices is really relevant now,” she said. “We’re in a time of diversity — and resistance to diversity — in our whole society.”
Streetfeet Women is marking its 40th anniversary. The group started very informally in the Roxbury section of Boston.
“It started out as a group interested in theater,” Dodd recalled. “I was in a neighborhood called Mission Hill, near what was then the Peter Bent Brigham Hospital. (The hospital later merged with two others to form the Brigham and Women’s Hospital.)
“Mission Hill was strongly Catholic — it had a basketball team and a landmark was the Catholic church. It got developed when the trolley was coming out. There were German and Irish families, and, later, Dominican families.”
According to the Streetfeet Women website, the group got together in 1980 when Dodd created “Portraits of Sisters,” a performance piece based on her sequence of poems about Boston women. In 1985, they formed Streetfeet Women, and the group attended the Non-Governmental Organizations [NGO] Forum at the United Nations Decade for Women Conference in Nairobi, Kenya, “an experience that has defined Streetfeet’s mission ever since.” The troupe has traveled widely to perform, from a trip to another NGO Forum in Huairou, China, to venues as small and local as the Putney Public Library.
The pieces in the book reflect the diversity of the writers. Humphrey, who grew up in Ithaca, New York, draws on the Odyssey and Odysseus’s wife, Penelope, as a basis for three fictional excerpts from a novel about Nel, a young girl growing up in the writer’s hometown. In one of the pieces, Nel’s grandmother recounts her horrific experience during the German occupation of her homeland in Greece during the Second World War. In “Smoked Oysters,” a brief theater piece, McCullough shows the double grief of an adult son trying to help his father dress for his mother’s funeral; his father, who has dementia, can’t understand why his wife isn’t there, at home.
There is joy as well as grief and sorrow in these pages. Lymyn O’Sing writes of the healing power of connecting with her ancestors through Taichi, and how love helped her husband through a devastating depression. In her poem “Ars Poetica,” Birnbaum compares poetry to roller skates:
Oh, swoop! swoop!
On the wheels of words,
Speeding past the ghost bricks of tenements, laggard
The entire anthology is a celebration of writing both to communicate concrete experience and to amplify experience and emotion through metaphor. It is available at local bookstores, the Putney Public Library and at lulu.com. Please call your local bookstore or library to confirm availability.