Friday, May 29, 2009
Thursday, May 28, 2009
I was walking north, a few blocks from club Twist, when I heard a woman shouting. Her voice could have filled a stadium. “I’m going to smoke that pipe. I’m going to do anything I want. If you have something to say to me, I have something to say to you. Do you hear me?” Did I hear her? She might as well have asked if I had heard a passing freight train or a jet breaking the sound barrier. My ears stung; my skull vibrated. The voice went on at the same pitch, unrelenting as the Furies of ancient Greece. Whatever she had smoked in her pipe--crack, crank--it hadn't wiped out her hallucinations. I turned around. The woman advanced at a race-walking pace. I flattened myself against the scorching wall of a restaurant. All along Washington Avenue, people made way for her. I was terrified she would catch me looking at her. What are you looking at? If you have a look for me, I have a look for you.
With her chin jutting up, she turned her handsome head to the side and stared at enemies invisible to us. Her clothes were immaculate—white pants, white tee shirt—but her hair was nappy; it seemed to spring from her head with each shout. She was tall, athletic, well-muscled. One punch from her balled up fist would knock me over. A group of men drinking Cuban coffee outside a grocery story, backed up and let her go by, staring into their tiny paper cups as if they contained a mystery; they looked embarrassed and thoughtful. We all looked embarrassed and thoughtful. About what? The human race. One of our members was out of her mind.
The Mayo Clinic's online article about paranoid schizophrenia is absurdly, blandly reassuring: "But with effective treatment, you can manage the symptoms of paranoid schizophrenia and work toward leading a happier, healthier life." Could she be helped? One might as well try to stop a volcano. But what do I know?
The psychologist James Hillman calls these sightings of mad people occasions for "soul making." By this he means, occasions for the deepening of the psyche. I would rather the woman were well than I had a more developed soul, as if we had such choices.
Wednesday, May 27, 2009
Tuesday, May 26, 2009
I've been reading Bert Stern collection of poems, "Steerage," and thinking about how much we've heard about American individualism; and, in American literature, about writers like Melville, who have what one critic has called, the voice of “the imperial self,”: majestic, heroic, grand. In “Walden,” Thoreau, though a less imperial writer than Melville, still creates a narrator who lives heroically alone in his tiny cabin in the woods and sees few people. He’s a man without family. In actual life, Thoreau walked daily to Concord village to see his mother. In contrast Bert Stern writes about his deep connection to the living and the dead. He sheds his ego and takes on the voices of his ancestors who immigrated to America from Eastern Europe. Through him, we hear his dead mother’s account of the voyage. The family is out to sea; order falls apart; the family loses its center. Sailing in limbo, his mother says, “Nobody talked. We could not look at the sea or the dead sky/ above us. We hung between these. We would be here always.”
In “Lotty is Born” Stern bears the weight of generations: “All suffered to bring me here to this room/ where I write, bigger than the house/ my mother was born in.” Beautifully, in fluid lines, he registers a dissolving self: “I am somebody’s dream . . . let them tell me if they can/ if I am recompense for what they endured.”
A descendent of those who in steerage endured the stink of “of seawater and piss, animals and human sweat,” Stern brings his ancestors into the light. His mother says, “my spirit was waiting for me, dancing on the shore.” The spirit is feminine, like the Shekinah: the principle of immanence, the divine showing itself. I’ve heard the Shekinah described metaphorically as a single green leaf that keeps falling to earth but is never seen to land. Stern refers to the Shekinah in “Hannah Remembers,” notable for its sense of shining, never-ending time: “Evenings that went on forever/ still unfolding.” In “Driving Home from Elizabethtown” the poet is gathered into transcendent light:
. . . I am ready to fall
with the turnings of poplar
and oak. Through the windshield
even the thin rain that takes on
gold light from the sun in its falling
is fuel for the burning.
Stern’s “Wait,” the long poem, which comprises part five of “Steerage,” is a triumph, sweet and mysterious. The Shekinah takes the form of a dying girl who lives inside the man Stern calls “Jacob.” “He called out to her as one might/ throw a flower at a star.” The girl keeps falling, imperiled, but she comes back to life: “she’s close as your skin, still humming her tune.” Stern gives the girl a voice: “She said this. The girl said this/ now was always as it is now.” Nothing is lost. Time is eternal. The poem ends by connecting a tender earthly image—“the turnip’s sweet spheroid,/ its little tail”—with an image of fire and living water: burning stars and icicles dripping as if they were “breathing.”
Besides water-fire-falling-burning poems in which Stern invokes a self’s dissolving in radiant never-ending time, there are poems about closely observed everyday life. (I prefer the spirit-Shekinah and daily-life poems to the fable poems, “What the Teller Knows” and “Early autumn in the Mountains,” which seem unreal to me.) Stern writes about his neighbor, Kenny, a Vietnam war veteran; he watches him capably “sizing boards with a handsaw,/ setting them snug.” But at night, in his dreams, Kenny keeps shooting at a girl who is “hardly a shadow.” Stern describes Kenny’ son, “washing his car,/ a black Camarro/ with V8 engine,” and the everyday of American life with its skateboards and televisions playing all night in store windows.
“Tea,” which I’ll quote in its entirety, demonstrates the lyrical beauty of Stern’s poems. Here, the feminine appears as a muse. “Tea” is also a love poem that recognizes the separateness of the beloved:
That clear song—
was it you while I slept,
slipping down in your jade
silk to feed the stove
with pine and drink your tea
alone, at down, as you like to do?
Stern could be describing his own clear song: tender, lyrical, beautifully phrased.
Monday, May 25, 2009
"Damn braces," wrote poet William Blake. These plants seem to be following his advice. Tree roots break out of concrete constraints; strangler fig roots escape through an iron fence; a poinciana tree pushes through a ficus hedge.
Sunday, May 24, 2009
Friday, May 22, 2009
Since it was Florida, since it was Books and Books, the reading was festive and off beat. While some people drank wine, Denise Duhamel led off with "Delta Flight 659, to Sean Penn," which she calls a "mock sestina," with every line ending with a variation of the actor's last name. The reading was taped, and Denise encouraged us to clap hard because she said--with ironic humor--the video might be shown on TV and make her famous. She read another sestina, "I Dreamed I Wrote a Sestina in My Maidenform Bra"--"A-cup breasts," "nubbins"; "Be-cups," "snubbins"; "C-cups droopers"; "D-cups super droopers"--and held up a poster of the fireman's and her favorite Maidenform ad, "I dreamt I went to blazes in my Maidenform bra."
Wednesday, May 20, 2009
Tuesday, May 19, 2009
I went out right after breakfast. The little sandwich shop that faces the alley parallel to Washington Avenue was filling up. There's nothing suburban about South Beach. Short sleeves and no sleeves; tattoos on display. Mango smoothies on the menu. The smell of Cuban coffee.
Monday, May 18, 2009
Sunday, May 17, 2009
Thursday, May 14, 2009
Wednesday, May 13, 2009
Tuesday, May 12, 2009
Monday, May 11, 2009
I've been nursing myself through a miserable head cold by drinking hot lemonade and reading Cavafy's poems in the new translation by Daniel Mendelsohn.
Sunday, May 10, 2009
Friday, May 8, 2009
Thursday, May 7, 2009
Tuesday, May 5, 2009
Monday, May 4, 2009
Sunday, May 3, 2009
Friday, May 1, 2009
Someone has strewn the Arlington Town Hall fountains with orchids. Drenched in water, which is turned on as soon as the danger of frost has passed, they will last for at least a week. In this economic downturn, with many of us cutting spending, eating beans, buying our clothes in second-hand shops, swearing off Starbucks coffee, you might think I would criticize this display. I won't.