Thursday, April 30, 2009

View from the Back Door

The only thing to do is get out into it!  Walk down the boardwalk toward that blaze of light.  You can see a bit of the dark red Japanese maple on the right just putting out leaves.  Soon the cherry tree will blossom.  The bird feeder is throwing its shadow on the grass.  This morning there was a male goldfinch and the usual sparrows. 

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Bagel Bards

Any group that names itself "The Bagel Bards" can't take itself too seriously.  Irreverence rules at the 9 am to 12 noon, weekly Saturday morning meetings in Davis Square, Cambridge, Massachusetts, at Au Bon Pain--I'd call it Au Mal Pain, though one Bard praises the frosted cinnamon rolls.  

Last Saturday morning, I asked this informal group of poets to jot down what they liked about the Bards.  "Being with The Bards is better than water boarding," Irene Koronas wrote.  "Saturday at the bards allows me to go unmedicated for the morning," another Bard commented.  And another, "Love it--love it.  It's the only place I can come and not be mugged."

Athena Pappas wrote a poem on the spot: "that moody cepheid/ clears the window/ for the bagel bards/unaware of my pulse."  For those of you, like me, who didn't know: a cepheid is a star that has used up its main supply of hydrogen fuel, is unstable and pulsates.

Sometimes a poet will read a finished poem--we are not a workshop--or bring his or her recently published book, but mostly we talk and laugh.

Doug Holder, who with Harris Gardner founded the group in 2004, remembers past meetings: "I know we had the noted Clayton Eshleman visit us.  His pants . . . looked for all the world like resplendent pajama bottoms."  He also heard Hugh Fox hold forth on his "theories of Mayan Culture and Kaballah."  Recently the poet and artist Irene Koronas told me about her 'course of study.'  She reads the books that come to her by chance.  Lately chance brought her a discarded carton of books by the Greek philosophers--did she pick them up out of the trash?  She's reading Plato, and when done with a book, blocks out certain words with colors.  I should have asked her, What colors, Irene?  And how do you decide what words get the color treatment?   Gloria Mindock will soon be traveling to Europe to read from her new collection of poems. She'll be spending time in Romania.  Why Romania, Gloria?

Here's to unstable, pulsating stars clearing the windows for this democratic group!  Anyone can join.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Letters to the Dead

Years, decades, centuries after their deaths, the departed are remembered in the New York Times. Every year, on the date of the death of  Richard III at Bosworth Field in 1485, the Richard III Society posts an in memoriam notice.  Another society remembers Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford--some people believe it was de Vere not Shakespeare who wrote the plays.  (Here he is in chartreuse, better-dressed than Shakespeare.)  These notices are amusing, eccentric, odd.  They have the quality of lost causes: transforming the child-killer Richard III into a hero, the Earl of Oxford into a great writer.  

The in memoriam notices that take the form of letters to the dead are never eccentric.  'GOODMAN, Roger--To my husband on his 49th Birthday.  I miss you now and always.'  'MAGUIRE, Ian, Esq.  You were my world.  Never out of my thoughts, Sheila.  Miss you always.  Love, Helen, Cleo, Adam, Olivia.'  (I've changed names and details.)  In order to write such a letter one must believe that the beloved--buried under a ton of soil, burnt to ash, drowned in the ocean, fallen into a glacier--is alive and able to read or what passes for reading in the afterlife, where the Times is transmitted daily, the words floating into the ether, entering the minds of the dead--I can't imagine them with ears or eyes.  One must also believe the dead remember the living and look forward to seeing them again.
I confess I read these letters daily!  I need to hear their sad hopefulness, though I do not believe our words reach the dead.             

Friday, April 24, 2009

Sudek's "Labyrinth in My Atelier"

This time of year the increasing sunlight streaming through the windows of my house reveals dirty streaks on the glass, dust on the tables, the spider webs on the chair rungs, the chips in the paint, the smudges on the kitchen cabinets, the piles of old paper, even the grit in the corners, but when I look at Josef Sudek's photograph, "Labyrinth in My Atelier," I forget about tidiness and dirt.

Instead of spring cleaning--not that I do much--I peer into his labyrinth.  The fabulous foreign musty filth of it all!  (Click on photo to enlarge.)  The candles lead me in. If you look closely, you can see that at one time he did light them: melting wax made those slightly wavering lines.  Dangerous: lit candles on that altar banked by nests of paper.  To the right of the candles is an icon of the Virgin, a cup whiter than wax, a clock.  What time was it?  Where is the light coming from?  Did he sit here and drink from that cup?  Did he pray?  What was written on all that paper piled up to the ceiling?  There must be something in the pocket of that garment.  I want to open the drawer on the right.  The detail is as immeasurable as a coastline, the outline of a tree in full leaf.  The detailed accumulation fascinated him.  It does me!


Blondes and Men in Glasses

How much they resemble each other, these couples: Marilyn Monroe and Arthur Miller, Billie Dawn (Judy Holiday) and Paul Verrall (William Holden).  The blond beauties are ditzy and sexually confident; the men in glasses are writers, stunned, in love.  

Judy Holiday and William Holden star in "Born Yesterday," based on the play by Garson Kanin.  Billie Dawn really seems to have been born yesterday.  She knows from nothing, as her brute of a boyfriend, Harry Brock, might say.  Billie and Paul educate each other.  When Paul kisses Billie, she says, 'What are you doing?'  Paul says, 'If you don't know, I mustn't be doing it right,' and kisses her again, this time more effectively.  Paul doesn't buy her diamonds as Harry does: he brings her books and an enormous dictionary; he talks about serious things with her; he takes her to see the great sights in Washington, where Harry has come to buy favors.  

Billie Dawn wakes up at the Jefferson Monument--what a novel place for a shock of recognition!  When she reads Jefferson's words cut into stone, "I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man," she says, 'That means women, too.'  She realizes that Harry Brock is a tyrant, she his victim.  Whenever she's resisted him, Harry has slapped her around--not playfully.  But she and Paul outwit him, trap him, stop him.  
The film ends happily: Billie Dawn and Paul marry.  There's no divorce in sight.  I wish Garson Kanin has written the lines for Marilyn Monroe and Arthur Miller.  Can't you imagine them kissing?  Or Marilyn in glasses, surrounded with books, sitting on a pile of books, like Billie Dawn, while Arthur talks to her about Jefferson and freedom?

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Josef Sudek Photographer (1896-1976)

Born in 1896, Josef Sudek was wounded on the Italian front in 1916, lost his right arm, and later lived through the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia, when he and his sister barely ventured out of their small house in Prague. Only a few trusted visitors knew the location of the secret doorbell.

Sudek is called "The Poet of Prague," but I would also call him a poet of interiors, of windows, as you can see from the photos above.  Closed into his house, Nazis commanding the streets of Prague, he photographed the interior; he worked with what he had.  Sudek says it best: "everything around us, dead or alive, in the eyes of a crazy photographer mysteriously takes on many variations so that a seemingly dead object comes to life through light or by its surroundings  . . . .  To capture some of this--I suppose that's lyricism."  
Nothing seems to have stopped Sudek from taking pictures.  His luck held out.  The Nazis fell.   Sonja Bullaty, a Czech Jew, who against all odds had survived the concentration camps, apprenticed herself to Sudek.  It was Bullaty who built  up a collection of Sudek's prints and arranged for them to be exhibited in America.

I hope--like Sudek--the dead objects around me will come to life!            

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Sir K. & Lady Doocot at Hawthornden Castle

A friend called it a homey castle, never mind that a hundred people could fit into the drawing room.  Thanks to Drew Heinz, of the ketchup fortune, five writers at time are invited to live at Hawthornden for a month, expenses paid.  Drew Heinz owns the place.  

I loved being there.  At breakfast K, one of the writers, would read us snippets from the newspaper--a woman was found wandering confused in Torquey.  When asked what the trouble was, she said she had asked for directions to the airport for the plane to Turkey. I wonder if K. made up the story.

One day, K. and I went sight-seeing and came upon a doocot (dovecot).  After taking a picture of me in front of this charming building, he nick-named me, Lady Miriam of the Doocot.  Now he just calls me Lady or Lady Doocot.  I call him Sir.  He's from Brooklyn; I'm from Paterson, New Jersey--land of the untitled.  

Sir K. was a wonderful traveling companion.  If I hesitated to spend money, he urged me on.  He turned out to be right.  John is still praising a sweater I would never have bought for him if it weren't for Sir K.

On our last night at the castle, we decorated ourselves with lapel pins we made from ketchup packets we had taken from a pub.  Not a drop of ketchup was ever served in the castle.

I remember the views from the windows into the green glen, the sound of the loch, the taste of sherry in the little orange-painted garden room, the wood fires, the cool air, the thrilling absurdity of Sir K. of Brooklyn and Lady Doocot of Paterson living in a castle.  Did I get any lasting work done?  I don't know.  But back home I'm still living on some of those cool green days at Hawthornden.  This morning I heard from Sir K.  He was back from more travel, and eager to tell Lady all about it.       


Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The Torture Presidency

George W. Bush's years in the White House has been called "the torture presidency."  "To read the four newly released memos on prisoner interrogation written by George W. Bush's Justice Department is to take a journey into depravity" (NY Times, Sunday, April 19, 2009.)  Depravity and sadism, according to the Times, "played out with the blessing of the defense secretary, the attorney general, the intelligence director and, most likely, President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney."

Donald Rumsfeld, after reading and approving, new interrogation guidelines that included forcing prisoners to stand for four hours, wrote: "I stand for 8-10 hours a day.  Why is standing limited to 4 hours?"

George Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Alberto Gonzales; lawyers, John Yoo, Steven Bradbury, Jay Bybee: investigate them!  And if there is sufficient evidence, prosecute them for violating the laws against torturing prisoners.  

"Depravity" is a word I would expect to hear from the Christian right, supporters of Bush, but they have been silent.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Early Rhododendron & The Lost Necklace

My friend J. tells me there are two kinds of people: sorters and spreaders.  She's a "spreader."  I'm a sorter.  'What good does it do to sort things?' she asks.  'You end up with stacks.  What good are stacks?'

There is a value to sorting: it's a prelude to throwing things out.  I love to throw things out--clothes, furniture, paper, just about anything. Did you know that you can compost old clothes?  I just dumped  a moth-eaten sweater, a ratty scarf, paint-stained pants, and ancient pillowcases.  They rot faster than oak leaves and improve the soil.

When I throw things away, I feel lighter, freer.  But I admit I am sometimes too hasty.  These lovely early rhododendrons almost got the axe.  For years the plant put out only a few blossoms; it was straggly, miserable, starved though I fed it.  I'd had enough and cut it down to nubs in preparation to yanking it out, but John--he's becoming a hero in these stories--said to wait another year.  When I was little I believed everything was alive in the way people are alive: plants as beings.  If I were still the little girl I used to be, I would say the rhododendron heard John and planned to flower like mad, which it did this year.  Others will say it was my brutal cutting.  It's been in bloom for three weeks.

Have I ever gotten rid of something and later regretted it?  Yes.  A necklace of red crystal beads.  I gave it to a friend and immediately regretted it.  It was old glass, faceted, some beads worn and slightly cloudy like sea glass, this necklace from my aunt.  I wish I had it still.  I don't believe my friend valued it as much as I did.  It seems to represent a lost possibility.  It's not just the loss of the necklace I regret but something unnamable.         

Thursday, April 16, 2009

I'm Too Small for My Impulses

John and I went to see "The History Boys" when it was playing in Manhattan, and during the intermission went out into the street.  A stocky man of medium height rushed out of the theater, dragging a light-skinned black, teenaged boy by the neck.  He slammed him against the wall.  He was shouting, enraged.  The boy looked stunned; his dark eyes were wide open.  In his blue blazer, shirt and tie he looked like one of the history boys.  He did not fight back.  

I did.  I rushed at the man.  'Stop it,' I shouted.  He let go of the boy and with his arms extended ran after me.  Somehow I got away and hid behind John, cowering.  I am just a little over five feet tall and weigh a hundred pounds.  John is a large tall man.  (Both of us were in our sixties.)  I peeked around him.  The man was screaming, 'She can't talk to me that way.'  His eyes popped out; he was red in the face, and kept waving his hands.

'And what do you think you are going to do?' John said in a low steady, almost nonchalant voice.  I had my hand on his broad muscled back.  The man went silent.  He dropped his arms and walked away into the theater with the boy in front of him.

I followed but lost sight of them.  When I told an attendant what had happened, she gave me a weak smile.  There was nothing to be done.  Of course, I should have called 911; I had my cell phone with me, but my impulses took over.  At least John and I diverted the man, and he stopped beating the boy.  Next time I'll have to think before I go up against a dangerous person. It won't do to act like a foolhardy pup if I'm going to try to help someone.

PS: after reading this post, John wanted me to include the race of the abuser: he was white.  Does knowing his race and the race of the boy may a difference to the story?    

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Terrible Mother's Day Present

Mothers Day Gift?  Not for me.  The "Jewelry for Life" necklace--"Order by May 7th for Mother's Day," says the ad--costs $590 for the chain and one bar.  "Bar" is right!  Each bar will be inscribed with the name of loved ones, and a date you must remember: birthdays, anniversaries, etc.  You'll never forget an important date because you'll be wearing the information around your imprisoned neck.  You will also have the satisfaction of showing off your loved ones.    

You can have your own name and birthday engraved on a bar.  Very handy when your memory starts to crumble. When was I born?  Not to worry.  Just look at your necklace, provided you can remember your name. 

What would be the equivalent piece of jewelry for Fathers Day?  I can't think of one, can you?

I've been lucky: sometimes I get flowers for Mothers Day; no one in my family is offended if I forget an important date; no one tries to put a gold rope around my neck.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Agnes Varda's "The Gleaners and I"

You must see Agnes Varda's documentary film, "The Gleaners and I."  (Available on Netflix.)  Varda begins with the Millet painting of gleaners and goes on to show us "those who bend over"--the term for gleaners.  They gather crops and shellfish after the harvest is over, and in France are protected by law.  The remains of the harvest belong to them.  With a hand-held camera, Varda films people gathering potatoes, grapes, herbs, apples, oysters, whatever is edible, not just from fields, vineyards, and oyster beds, but from the streets. 

Gleaners are not just the down and out. There's an acclaimed chef picking herbs, but mostly they are the poor, and those who chose to be poor, like Alain, who has a graduate degree, lives in a shelter, and eats off the streets.  We first see him as he picks through garbage left from the street market.  He eats as he goes, eats with discernment--the discernment of a fussy pedigreed dog.  At first I thought, He must be nuts!   He's not.  He's a bit of a saint.  At night in the shelter, for no pay, he teaches immigrants--mostly Africans--how to speak and write French.  He's a marvelous teacher. 

Varda also films trash-pickers.  Like gleaners, they are protected by law.  Since discarded objects are ownerless, a lawyer explains, these things may be taken.  We see an artist who picks through trash at night and brings his finds home on his bicycle.  At night the trash dumps are full of scavengers.  

Why should you see this film?  Though it was made in 2000, it is perfect for the present post-gilded age.  Not just that: the film is as good as Orwell's Down and Out in Paris and London.   Varda shows us the humanity of those who might otherwise disgust us.  She doesn't recoil.  She listens to the drunk who scrabbles in the fields for potatoes dumped because they do not meet supermarket requirements: they are too large; some are double, fused into heart shapes.  They stand for all the oddities that fascinate Varda and compel her kind but rigorous eye.  

The film seems to have changed the lives of some of its subjects.  Two years after "The Gleaners and I," Varda films her subjects again.  (This short is on the Netflix CD of "The Gleaners and I.") We meet Alain again, this time having coffee with a young woman who had recognized him from the film.  We see the most pathetic of the drunks.  He's sober.  (And we see another alcoholic still drinking--enough to kill her.) 

Weeks after seeing the film, I think about its people and Varda's sensitive intelligence.  I would rather be in her world than Martha Stewart's.  

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Done with Hairdressers!

For years I've paid hairdressers to cut and set my hair and more recently dye it, though my cousin remembers me as a teenager returning from the hairdressers and immediately washing my hair, which in our house meant soaping your head under the kitchen sink faucet--there was no shower in our bathroom.  I've always hated going to the hairdresser.

I have now freed myself from the detested ritual: I cut my own hair.  And I no longer dye it.  Every time I cut my own hair I feel an overwhelming sense of freedom.  No longer do I have to lean back in the chair and place my neck in the punishing notch of the tray at the sink for the preparatory shampoo; no longer do I have to make small talk with the hairdresser; no longer do I have to look at my face in the huge mirror, though my face has held up pretty well.  No longer do I have to submit to the blow-dryer.  And I love not having to spend the money. Though I went to the hairdressers infrequently, the bill and the tips added up.  

It was so easy to stop, but not as easy as refusing to wear high-heeled shoes and skirts.  The shoes hurt; I never looked good in skirts.  Is there another freedom in reach--and then another?  What other restraints may I throw off?  What habits of mind?  Let me think about it. I'll be reporting back soon.  

Friday, April 10, 2009

Nazi Logic

The New York Times (April 10, 2009) reports that the CIA "would decommission the secret overseas prisons where it subjected Al Qaeda prisoners to brutal interrogation methods, bringing to a symbolic close the most controversial counterterrorism program of the Bush administration."

Leon Panetta, Director of the CIA, said "agency officers who worked in the program 'should not be investigated, let alone punished' because the Justice Department under President George W. Bush had declared their actions legal."  Were there any officers who refused to work in the program?  "Work"?  I should say, Were there any officers who refused to torture

The Nazis also declared that torture--among other horrendous things--was legal.  After the war, they defended themselves by saying they were obeying the law.  

Alan Feldman Writes with & About His Students

A while back I wrote that most American poets were teachers but did not write poems about teaching.  I posted "Class," a poem by Linda Bamber, who is an exception.  Linda thanked me and said, 'We're supposed to act as if we always want to be somewhere else beside the classroom, but teaching is a big part of my life.'

Since that post, I've been finding more poems about the poet's life in the classroom.  Here's one by Alan Feldman, author of the collection, A Sail to Great Island.  Alan said he wrote the poem in class as the students were working on their sestinas, and that it was his practice to write along with his students.  


I've told them it's a good form for obsessives.  Love
for example may preoccupy you, like a long illness
or a splinter you can't extract, or a joy
so huge it's like standing next to a blimp.  They are children
in this art, circling the big square seminar table.  I'm aging,
wearing out my seat.  In recent years, they've been flowing through
here as fast as water.

Oh sometimes, if the shade is up, I see a sky as blue as water
over their heads, while their heads are bowed in writing.  I love
the quiet then in the room.  I can almost hear them aging--
something they like, still since to them it's growth, not an illness.
As I get older, they look like adults recently fashioned from the children 
in some fifth grade class, their child-faces sheer joy

as they assume their beauty and distinction.  Well, I know for them
there isn't much joy
in school, they'd all rather be in or on the water
with iPods, towels, surfboards, digging in the sand like children,
though I'm sure if I asked them they'd say they love
the course.  After they're absent they even show me little notes for  
  non-serious illnesses
like mono and strep, nothing like the grave things they'll get when
  they're really aging.

So it's fun for me because as I'm aging
they keep appearing here like bubbles out of a spring.  Earth's joy
in its own improvisation.  More Kids!  More kids!  For better or ill.
None any more necessary or unnecessary than the rest of us.  Made  from water
and a few cents worth of minerals, and full of love
for the sweet forms of each other, something that leads to the begetting
  of new children

though not just yet!  No, here their heads are bent like children
taking a spelling test, their hair hanging down like curtains so you
  can't guess their ages,
their books satchels, soda cans, candy bar wrappers, the sprawl
  of Xeroxed papers I love
to hand out (so I can know I'm giving them something--oh joy!--
even if it's only paper).  Yes they could be underwater
they're concentrating so silently, as though the illness

of distractibility has been cured for everyone forever, that illness
that drowns out all but the obvious meaning of words.
  Well, Children
aren't fooled by the obvious.  They know the words are waiting  
  like water
to be played with.  If I look up now I can see the sky is aging
into the color of blue snow.  But the windows are wide open.
  And they seem to enjoy
writing while wearing their bright coats, not bothered by cold,
  safely in love

with the winter that won't mean (for them) illness or aging
but amazing changes as the ice melts to water, and their
 thoughts turn into waves of joy
as they turn away from being children, and find their own new
  words to tell us how angry they are, how much they love.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Couscous Encore: Why Don't We Trust Our Senses?

My cousin sent me this story.  A few nights ago, at Eliot Feld's "Mandance," she "got talking to an older Jewish woman," who said she had grown up on 'her mother's cooking--spaghetti with ketchup.'  One day she was invited to have supper with the girl across the street. She watched Mrs. Russo carefully stirring the pot of tomato sauce and was fascinated.  When she went home, she told her mother how Mrs. Russo made the sauce. Her mother said, 'She doesn't know what she's doing.'"  My cousin added, in parenthesis, "And that's how mothers survive."  I would add, That's how mothers exert their authority.  Now that she could compare her mother's pasta slathered with ketchup to Mrs. Russo's dish, how long did it take the girl to realize she had been eating slop?   Not long, I hope.  

Why don't we trust the evidence of our senses?  Because we don't know any better?  The members of my painting class in Provence knew better.  We had eaten wonderful food but were fooled at the Chateau d' Arnajon.  Our teacher had arranged for us to paint on the grounds of the Chateau and then to have lunch prepared by the owners, one of whom was the seventh generation of his family to live in the Chateau.  He and his partner ran a cooking school; we looked forward to the food and paid sixty dollars each for lunch described as "gourment."   After working outside all morning on the fabulous grounds among the red poppies, clipped boxwood, and beautiful vistas, we were seated in the dining room, which was painted in rich umbers and yellows, and filled with extraordinary pottery.  We were charmed.

There were bottles of wine on the long table.  We drank.  Our host entered, carrying a large pan, which he lifted high, announcing: 'Fish from our waters.'  We ate; some said it was delicious, this dish of fish, couscous, and black olives.  I said the olives were good.  Next came a dish of fowl with couscous--the bird was not identified--in saffron sauce.  The sauce was the color of dark chocolate; there was too much saffron.  We went on praising the food.  Not John. He abruptly got out of his seat and walked out; I followed him.  'The food doesn't sit right with me,' he said.  I went back in .  We were all still under the spell.  'Look at this,' one person cooed as she discovered yet another marvelous piece of pottery.  Drunk as I was I still could not finish the stringy, overcooked fowl tasting of iodine.  There was no salad, not one vegetable.  the dessert was a bakery-bought apple tart, stale, tasteless, flabby--an insult.  The Yiddish word "kvachik" best describes it.  As for the rest of the food: leftovers!  The fish was old flaked cod. As bad as spaghetti with ketchup.  

Someone asked for milk with the coffee.  Our host served us a jug of disgusting sour milk, the kind that forces you recoil from the odor.  We woke from the spell.  'I saw him'--he of the seventh generation--'drive off while we were painting and come back with bakery boxes,' someone said.  John had been faster than any of us.  Sure he liked pottery but not enough to make him swoon, not enough to kill his palate, not enough to turn him into a fool.  'They  made approximately two thousand dollars serving us stale leftovers, sized us up as American saps, and stuffed us with couscous,' John said.  That night one of our group became ill.  'Does couscous swell up in your stomach?' she asked.

After the meal, the wine having wore off, I walked into the Chateau's garden.  The raspberries were ripe.  I ate them by the handful.  I stole them.  They were wonderful.            

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Diane Churchill's Paintings: Mojacar Red

When I first met Diane Churchill at the Fundacion Valparaiso, an artists and writers colony in Mojacar, Spain, she was working small, mostly sketches.  It wasn't until we were back in the states, and I saw an exhibition of her work in New York, that I realized how much the colors of Mojacar had saturated her paintings.

There were the colors of our long walks down dirt roads, past pomegranate and fig trees, the Prussian blue of the Mediterranean, the hot sun, the reds and violets of plants floating up. But you didn't have to know Mojacar to be drawn to these colors.  Yet I liked being reminded of the place, and made to see it again, see it differently through Diane's transforming colors.  She did not paint the harsh aspects of Mojcar, which is built on a former sea bed.  The hills thrust up as if from volcanic eruptions; the roosters crow before dawn, tearing apart the violet-pink sky. What a racket!  And packs of dogs race down the dirt roads.

Diane is still working with red.  There's violet, too.  Orange and white.  

Can poets work this way?  Choose a color?  Write a suite of poems in red?  Or any other color?  I'm not sure.  Maybe one of you reading about Diane's work will try a suite of poems in a color you cannot live without.   But then, is there any color you or any of us can live without?  I would not erase one color from our palette.  

Monday, April 6, 2009

Speaking Out

In June, 1978, the day after Alexander Solzhenitsyn, gave the Harvard Class Day speech, people stood on street corners up and down Mass. Ave. in Harvard Square, talking about the speech, many of them outraged.  How dare he tell off the West and insult his hosts!  How dare he be a rude guest?  And at Harvard!  He had criticized the United States for its loss of "civil courage"; he said, "political and intellectual bureaucrats"--there were plenty in the audience--showed signs of "depression, passivity and perplexity."  Mediocrity had triumphed; the West was "in a state of spiritual exhaustion, " America in a "TV  stupor," spineless, materialistic, led by a press hungry for sensational stories.  

Had Harvard ever heard anything like this?  Their motto is Veritas, truth.  It's inscribed on the faculty club door, my friend Patricia pointed out.  "They think they own it," she said. Solzhenitsyn told them that truth had eluded them; their believing they had the truth was an illusion.

He could speak out because he had nothing to lose, you might say.  But he had plenty to lose. His reputation, speaking fees, etc.  Look what happened to Michelle Obama when in February, 2008, she said, "For the first time in my adult life, I am proud of my country because it feels like hope is finally making a comeback."  Judging from the public's reaction you'd think she had committed an act of treason.  

To shift the subject slightly: why don't MFA students speak out?  Do any of them talk back to their instructors, reject their editorial comments, protect a vulnerable member of the seminar? Maybe not: their careers are at stake.  I did speak up in graduate school--not an MFA program. The references from my professors are still on file.  One of them said I was "bright but not judicious."  Those reference would not get me a job.  

I wish I had more courage and confidence.  When Flannery O' Connor turned in a novel for which she had signed a contract, and the editor gave her suggestions she believed were not in the spirit 0f her work, she walked out, broke the contract.  Luckily I have an editor who understands my work.  I respect her because she doesn't pull her punches; she speaks up.  In one go-round, she blue-penciled a description of a dream: "Creepy!"

So this morning, I'll ask for courage to shoot off my mouth.  What's to lose?  

Friday, April 3, 2009

Sex for Success

In a New Yorker profile of the young twin poets Michael and Matthew Dickman, Matthew, who like his brother has a talent for connecting with well known writers able to bestow favors, describes his meeting with the elderly Allen Ginsberg.  They talked about poetry.  And then, Matthew says, "'I sat down on his bed next to him and just told him how wonderful it had been, and thanked him.  And then I thought, This is ridiculous, and I turned in and kissed him, and we kissed for probably fifteen minutes.  And it was so sweet and wonderful, like kissing a mushy orange. '"  He found it "wonderful."  Why?  Because it was Allen Ginsberg he was kissing? Oranges are mushy when they are going rotten.  The writer and critic Hilton Als confesses he went all the way with an ancient man adept at providing entree to the publishing world for talented black writers.  It was like lying down in a grave: musty.  I was never up to making love to the aged in exchange for favors, and now that I'm older I don't have enough power to trade on--not that I would, though the young nourish the old.  There's a painting of a young woman--renaissance, I think--nourishing an old man from her breast, keeping him alive.  In my town there is a hairdresser on every block.  Most of the patrons are elderly women, who even in this economic downturn have their hair done every week.  "It's the only time anyone touches them," a friend tells me.  I don't go to hairdressers; I cut my own hair.  I'm lucky: my four-year old grandson is happy to let me take his hand.  His hand weighs so little but that small weight is a fresh pleasure that renews me.  Am I too wholesome?  Should I have been more ambitious, ambitious enough to overcome my disgust and lie down in moldering beds and kiss mushy mouthes?  I admit that I have been feasting, as we do when we gossip, on Matthew Dickman, Hilton Als, and Allen Ginsberg. If I actually do feast on flesh it will have to be on baby vegetables.  I've given up meat.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

South Beach: Not All Glamor

The elevators in our modest condo broke down at least once a week.  Finally the Board decided to replace them.  We were assessed for the cost.  After months the first of the two new elevators was up and running.  It gleamed, ascended and descended without a hitch.  The day after it began operating someone took a screwdriver and pried out the buttons in the control panel.  He was caught on the security video entering the elevator, caught mooning at the camera, his pants dropped to his knees.  First he mooned; then he did damage.  The security camera had not yet been installed inside the elevator; since he was not filmed in the act of vandalism, the police said he could not be charged.  The film caught the person who entered the elevator before him.  That person said there was no damage; the person who used the elevator after the perpetrator reported the damage.  The vandal owns a unit in the building.  It's his home.  Why did he do it?  My neighbor H. blamed it on AIDS and was sure AIDS had affected his mind.  I don't believe it.  He did it out of spite.  Why he was spiteful doesn't matter.  He is like those characters in Dostoevsky who vibrate, quivering with impossible irritation, a sense of having been wronged as they do wrong, hating, confessing--wasn't his mooning a confession?  Here I am, he said, and you can stick the new elevator, the elevator you and I paid for.  He's the anti-hero of the condo.  I have more sympathy for the elderly woman notorious for feeding pigeons from her balcony, who comes down to get her mail late at night.  She never wears shoes; her peds are stuck to her feet and are marked with tide lines, as if she's dipped her feet into dirty water.  Most of the elderly pick up their mail soon after it arrives, using the occasion to gather in the lobby, which was remodeled with hard-edge chic: mirrors, everything in white and gray.  They sit and talk; they soften the austere design.