Better Call Phil

It’s been six months since my last post. I know I should be putting content out there every day, but I am happy to lead a quiet, private life instead.

I did publish “Day Trip to Deerfield” in the Berkshire Edge magazine (Out and About) in May:

I had seen the “Unnamed Figures” exhibit in New York prior to writing the piece. 

The good people who run Paran Recreations at Lake Paran in North Bennington had a great idea: erect two illustrated informational panels at the lake, one about the history of the lake, one about its ecology. They applied for and won a grant to finance the project and unveiled the results last summer. 

I always approach a local panel with dread at what I will discover. The committee spent the grant funds on some first-rate mounts and printing, but enlisted a local college student as a volunteer to write the text (I have been informed). The editorial committee approved it, even though the name of the organization was misspelled and the word “incredible” was used five times in a row to describe species that dwell in or by the lake. I brought these shortcomings to the attention of the organization and got an estimate on new panels ($900). I volunteered my time to correct and as necessary rewrite the texts. The board met to consider matters. Their representative told me that they are “comfortable” with the present panels. I don’t have the energy to fight this one. I avert my eyes from the panels when I go for a swim. I have been considering changing the name of my business to “Better Call Phil.”

The Curator of the Bennington Museum does call me. I am always delighted to help the Museum as a volunteer, and I enjoy previewing (and reviewing) the wall labels for the always-intriguing exhibits. “Vermont Rocks” is on right now.

Greetings, Friends

That’s the way the annual New Yorker Christmas poem traditionally begins…

I have been, as usual, away from my Voice and Word desk these past few months, because I have been busy in the field. 

“Voices of the Fallen” played for two successful performances at the Bennington Theater on Veterans Day. I spoke an opening background monologue myself. We adapted Darrell Holovach’s music from the Battlefield audio project and used projections as well, but it came down to actors telling their stories to an audience. They did an excellent job, under the direction of Ingrid Magdelayne, who also directed “Voices from the Grave” two years ago. Once again Steven Thompson drove down from Akwesasne to play the role of the slain Mohawk chief and stayed with us in Pownal. The first show was videotaped by CAT-TV from a fixed camera at an angle to the stage, but it will serve as a record for the curious. 

With the exception of Steven, we were all volunteers (I prefer that term to “amateurs,” although it was love of the theater that impelled us to devote so many hours to the play). The actors were paid a pittance – an honorarium – from funds raised by the Friends of the Bennington Battlefield for this year’s public projects. The scripts can be read on their own, in sequence, like extended Spoon River pieces. I loved writing in (mostly) blank verse and hearing actors speak the words that we had worked so hard together to polish.

It occurs to me that I could specialize in monologues of the dead. I have now written them twice. I could trade in re-animations, traveling from town to town, bringing their dead back to life. Sure enough, someone suggested having the houses along Monument Avenue, or at least their former owners, speak to us in a new production. But I think I may have run my course.

The week following the shows I gave an illustrated talk on Robert Frost as part of a post-show performance by a very good Frost impersonator. The script was well done, too, and Amelia and I were invited to dinner with the actor and writer/road manager. They put on two shows, both well attended. The Q and A with me followed the matinee.

The day after the Frost shows, I did my part (7 minutes of illustrated talk on Bennington’s past patriotic commemorations) for a presentation on the 250th at the Bennington Museum in the Historical Society’s Sunday speaker series. The following week I repeated it at a public meeting with the Bennington Selectboard.

Then it was off to the Masons (only, it wasn’t). I got asked to fill in for another speaker at the Bennington Masons’ 200thanniversary banquet, with reps from other Vermont lodges present as well as the local Masons. I am not myself a Mason, but in my Battle book I noted the Masons’ participation (complete with the scattering of corn and pouring of oil) in the laying of the cornerstone of the Bennington Monument. I was to, and am to speak on the history of Bennington. I would have spoken in early December but for the death of an eminent member of the lodge, which cause a postponement of the event. I had prepared in a whirlwind. Now I can let my script settle until spring, when they’ll try again. 

I gave a talk, with Katie Brownell, called “Inside the Battle of Bennington” to the Bennington Historical Society on Dec. 17. The Museum had vigorously promoted the talk, and the head count was 79, a full house. I spoke about groups that have not been included or have been misrepresented in Battle commemorations past, chiefly Blacks and women, though I touched on other groups. Katie Brownell, a Friends Board member who has presented on Sarah Rudd, spoke about Sarah’s pension file. Katie also spoke the words of Sally Kellogg I quoted in my script. Her contributions made for a livelier talk. One man came up to me afterwards looking crestfallen. My having pointed out that Molly Stark had never set foot in Vermont had shaken him up. Legends die hard! Here’s Jackie Marro’s video of our talk:

My last Voice and Word act of the year was to supply an idea, a photo, and an intro and outro for a “Vermont Begins Here” post on Bennington’s coming attractions for 2024.

My own calendar is quite free. Watch this space – every few months…

Love and Death

I recently wrote about “For the Love of Vermont,” an exhibit of more than 200 paintings from the Lyman Orton collection now on view at the Bennington Museum and the Southern Vermont Arts Center. I was writing for the Town of Bennington’s “Vermont Begins Here” site, and I touched it up for the Berkshire Edge:

Meanwhile, “Voices of the Fallen” came to the Bennington Battlefield on August 5 and 6 for six sold-out performances. Tom Hughes, one of our Vermont 250th Commissioners, who has seen many re=enactments and knows the Saratoga campaign, thought highly of it, which I find reassuring. I had not seen rehearsals or costumes. They were in the hands of Ingrid Madelayne, director, and Peter Schaaphok, producer and costumier. We all collaborated on the scripts. I took the lead in drafting some, Ingrid and Peter others, in the style of our “Voices from the Grave” show of two years ago, with one exception: Sipp Ives’s monologue is written (by me) in the style of “Hamilton” rap. Here’s the actor, Marquis Heath, who performed it:

To see all those resurrected soldiers in the outfits they would have died in at their acting stations on the hilltop was an arresting sight. They did a splendid job. Audiences seemed attentive.

The show was notable for having a Mohawk actor from Akwesasne on the U.S.-Canada border play the Mohawk chief who was killed at the first encounter of British and American forces two days before the main battle. This is was what I had envisioned from the first, and it came to pass. Finding and funding the right person was a process of many months of persistence on our part, with critical help from NY Parks. The upshot was that we had Steven Thomson perform the monologue that I had excerpted in large part from the 1805 speech of Sagoyewatha/Red Jacket on Native and English religion, which reviews the history of white settlement on Native lands. The script had had to pass muster with the New York Bureau of Historic Preservation (we were performing in a NY State Park); we got the green light only ten days before the show. Darren Bonaparte, Federal Historic Preservation Officer for the St. Regis (Mohawk) Nation, had already given it his approval in correspondence with me. All the care and effort was worth it. Here a few pictures:

The whole cast:

We are going to mount an indoor production in Bennington on the Bennington Theater stage for two shows on November 11, Veterans Day. The “Voices of the Grave” show worked well indoors. I have high hopes for “Voices of the Fallen.”

Frost, History, and Fabulation

I. The (new and improved) third edition of Robert Frost in Bennington County is out. The first edition was my foray into local history, at least between covers (I’d published a piece on Mark Twain’s 1871 visit to Bennington in the Bennington Banner in 1985). It took me three editions, but I think I’ve finally got it where I want it. “At Present in Vermont,” the excellent 2021 Frost exhibit at the Bennington Museum, as well as my own research into Frost’s involvement in the early years of Bennington College, helped. I was also able to incorporate my research onto the background of Frost’s “To a Young Wretch” and reproduce two woodcuts by J.J. Lankes. As ever, I’ve depended on the skills of graphic designer Leslie Noyes (with whom I first worked in 1985 on a catalogue for the Bennington July Program) to put words and images into an attractive package, now 32 pages long.

II. The Bennington Museum is a favorite subject for my occasional pieces. The exhibitions are consistently of a high caliber. The recent one called “A History of Bennington” was provocative in the best way. I published about it for “Vermont Begins Here,” VT Digger, and the Berkshire Edge:

III. I recently wrote about a new trail up to a new lookout on Mt. Anthony.

I climbed all the way to the summit of the mountain for the first time, too. No view from the top, but a new lookout is planned even higher than the recently cleared and very fine one off Zaphod’s Run. 

IV. I just refreshed my old Bennington County town portraits for the SWVT Chamber’s Shires Area Guide. That was an early Voice and Word project and enabled me to get to know every town in this county, from Readsboro to Peru. I got to write sentences like “The store still carries the coarse-grained polenta favored by those hardy Italians” (the ones who came to work in Readsboro a century or so ago).

V. Lastly, I’m writing monologues for “Voices of the Fallen,” a sequel, at least in kind, to “Voices from the Grave,” the cemetery show that I and others put on two years ago in Old Bennington. Ingrid Madelyne is once again directing and co-writing. There are ten monologues, by nine men and one woman, who reads (in translation) from an actual letter from a Brunswick (German) soldier’s wife that was taken from his body at the Battle of Bennington and preserved at the Massachusetts Historical Society. Lion Miles quoted from it in his 1981 Battle Day address. The challenge is going to be to find actors (for one thing). Performances are only two months away (Aug. 5-6 at the Battlefield). The ten pieces from the Battle’s diverse cast of characters fit like a puzzle and tell the whole story (so to speak) of the Battle. Four men die instantly, five others of their wounds, so they learn the outcome before they die. Perhaps “puzzle” isn’t the right word, because it suggests 2-D pieces, and here we’re offering what strikes me as pieces in 3D (or 4). Don’t miss it.

Year’s End 2022

“The world exists to end up in a book,” wrote Mallarmé. I like to have ulterior purposes as a tourist, so I was happy to take a “day trip to Wilmington, Vermont” assignment from the Berkshire Edge in order to put my existence into writing for others. Wilmington is only 20 miles east of Bennington on the Molly Stark Scenic Byway (a.k.a. Route 9), but my prior experience of the town was limited to lunch at Dot’s, dinner at the Anchor, and time spent at Bartleby’s Books, which carries my titles and once hosted a poetry reading by me and other minor poet. Oh, and I had stopped to get a photo of the statue of Molly Stark herself for my Battle book. Amelia and I made a day trip of it on September 30 and had a good time. You will too (pp. 55-57):

Last year I wrote about the Bennington Museum’s annual end-of-year art show for the Berkshire Edge’s online news site. I did it again:

I thought those Bennington Triangle T-shirts were so clever that I bid a modest sum on one and was one of the winners. Meanwhile Amelia bid on a piece by Bennington’s Rhonda Ratray just for fun and found she had bought the painting. I hadn’t mentioned to her that it was one of my favorite works in the show. It illustrates an incident in the childhood of the protagonist of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, when it rained stones on her house:

Raining Stones — Rhonda Ratray
Bennington Museum photo

I never thought I would provide the text for a sermon from the pulpit of Old Bennington’s Old First Church, but I was told that the Rev. Clarke used at a Sunday morning service in December my piece from several years ago telling the story of Robert Frost’s Christmas poem “To a Young Wretch.” In Frost’s poem, “Christmas feeling” prevails (barely) over resentment at a young spruce’s having been rustled from Frost’s Gully property in South Shaftsbury by two local youths, who were caught soon after the act by the local constable. The poem is a splendid parable about justice and forgiveness in a case where two “goods” were opposed. It concludes:

And though in tinsel chain and popcorn rope
My tree, a captive in your window bay,
Has lost its footing on my mountain slope
And lost the stars of heaven, may, oh, may
The symbol star it lifts against your ceiling
Help me accept its fate with Christmas feeling.

On that note, see you next year!

a tag line about Phil goes here