Friday, May 29, 2009


The tree has many names; Poinciana, for M. Poinci, 17th century governor of the French Antilles, Flame Tree, Mohur Tree, Red Flame, Royal Poinciana, Flamboyant Tree.

This one is flaming on the corner of Michigan Avenue and Thirteenth Street in South Beach, its span at least fifty feet.  

I had a cousin who believed that red was disreputable.  The Flame Tree is scarlet, red with an orange tint.  Red, scarlet, vermillion, crimson, carmine, rose: my favorite colors.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Fury on Washington Avenue

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

Fairchild Tropical Gardens: Ditching the Tour

The temperature was ninety degrees. Though my sun hat promised complete protection and the tops of my feet were covered--a friend had told me that the Florida sun had raised blisters on her insteps--rather than walk in the hot sun we took the tram tour, and for an hour I tried to shut out the driver's voice. He spoke rapidly, without pausing, stuffing us with information. The man in front of me fell asleep; I envied him, and thought of the person in an Emily Dickinson poem who is known to "close the Valves of her attention--like stone."  I couldn't manage to shut the valve all the way.  By the time we reached the last stop I was ready to scream.  It had been years since I had been forced to listen to anyone.

John got our lunch from the car; we hiked back along a road free of trams, and ate at a shady table--bananas, Greek yogurt, dates, bread, plenty of water.  Iguanas skittered across the grass.  

A few steps from our table was the conservatory, which housed orchids, like this yellow one.

We headed back to our car, taking a different way than we had come, happy to find our own way in the shade of a long pergola, where these aqua marine flowers hung from a vine, glowing as if someone had turned on a light switch.      

Twilight: South Beach

At seven-thirty last night, the horizon faded; the pale blue sky merged with blue water.  In the far north, when the horizon disappeared, and Inuit kayakers could not tell the difference between sea and sky, they would often come down with kayak sickness, a gentle term.  Kayak sickness meant losing one's mind.  No danger of losing the horizon here in South Beach.  Just fix your eyes on the people in the distance; in this case, a model and a fashion assistant waiting for the photographer to load up his camera.  If you embiggen the picture below, you will see that the assistant is holding up a reflecting disc to shine more light on the model, as if she needed it--not with that torch of a wig.

I walked with my feet in the warm water and treated myself to a sand-pedicure.  When I came off the beach, Cuban music drifted out of the restaurant called "Havana."  My feet were sanded smooth.  I put on my shoes and walked home.   

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Bert Stern's "Steerage": Burning Stars, Jade Silk, Camarros

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

Breaking Out

"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. 

They have more force than I could summon at three o'clock this morning when I found myself in a tedious dream in which I would be graded for a course I never took, until I said--in my dream--"But I have a Ph.D."  Blake also wrote: "If the doors of perception were cleansed, all things would appear infinite."  I'm not sure about seeing the infinite, but perception is clearer in daylight. In sunlight I'm not confined by stale dreams.  I can walk out of our condo and every few steps find boundary-crossers like those plants, and though a sign commanded, "Limpie su mierda, la gente camina aqui," the dogs were not obeying.   

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Memorial Weekend on Ocean Drive

While news of Iraq has disappeared from the front page, on Ocean Drive in South Beach, near Wet Willy's where people down for Urban Weekend have been partying since Friday afternoon, Veterans for Peace has put up a memorial to those who have died in the Iraq War.

Each foam-board headstone has the name, dates, and rank of the dead soldier--so many in their twenties.

As I walked among the thousands of headstones, a van pulled up.  The driver told me he was there to let people know about his son, Alexander Arredondo, who was killed in the war.  The mother of the dead boy said they had taken their van to Times Square, and Washington, parking as close to the White House as they could.  They must have had Alexander when they were young: they themselves were so young.  Their son's things were displayed at the back of the van, along with a blue-covered copy of the Constitution.  Posted on the door were directions about how to send packages to the troops.  "The flag is tattered," the father said, lifting a corner and letting it drop, as if he were examining a pair of trousers that on closer examination he had decided not to buy.  

Friday, May 22, 2009

Poetry Reading: Books & Books

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."

More poets read.  There were poems about rowing, poems about the Jersey shore.  One poet wore wings and threw pornographic pictures onto the floor.  I'm not sure why.  I sat back and listened.  

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

South Beach: Near & Far

Across the street is the pale yellow and pink Flamingo Plaza, where polo players used to stay in the 1920s, when nearby Flamingo Park was a polo field.  The dark green in the foreground: kamali trees, which are said to have originated in Hawaii.  Wild tropical storms for the last few days, plenty of sunshine in between storms.

On the balcony below, my neighbor's chair is empty, but hillbilly music rolls out from his open doorway. Soon he'll come out with his book and coffee. He'll be wearing shorts; when he goes out at night, he wears black, a cowboy hat and a rhinestone bolero.  From time to time he cooks pasta and sausages for us.

I've been in most of the morning while the corroded broken down stove that gives off shocks is taken out.  Being in here in South Beach is not like being in at home in Massachusetts.  There's so much light; there's the little balcony; there's my neighbor's music--Hank Williams' voice broken up by the wind, a ship on the horizon, nothing between this shore and the coast of Africa.       

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

South Beach Scene

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.   

Demonstrating workers outside a pub on Washington Avenue.  I asked whether I could take a photograph.  No problem.  They had been marching smartly; when I raised my camera, they straightened up even more.  I'm sticking with the union.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Brookline Poetry Series

It was clear there was a poetry community in Brookline, Massachusetts: people were talking to each other!  Thanks to Aimee Sands, Susana Roberts and Ann Killough, coordinators of the Sunday afternoon reading series founded eight years ago and based at the Brookline Public Library, there is a vital audience, new comers and regulars.

The tall windows of the room facing Washington Avenue looked out into the trees' fresh new green; the walls were hung with bright paintings by local artists; the paintings will go to The House at Kent Street, which provides accommodations for families whose children are undergoing treatment at Children's Hospital.

Elizabeth Kirschner began with poems from her recent book, "My Life as a Doll."  "Brave poems," someone said.  I followed with poems set in South Beach and here in Massachusetts, then an open mike.  The audience was engaged--everything a reading should be.               

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Walk after Rain

It rained hard this morning, and it seemed as if the plants were zooming up as the rain fell. As soon as I left the house, taking the brick path near the black oak, the rain let up; it was cool, overcast, fresh, few people about. 

My neighbor made the globe out of colored bits of glass as a memorial for her cat, "Spanky."

I wanted to take a picture of a woman jogging, but did not.  Iffy for amateurs like me to photograph strangers without asking permission.  She was moving so quickly there wasn't time.  

Now home; oven lit to take the chill off.  Tomorrow night I'll be leaving for South Beach; where, I'm told, the ocean is hot as coffee.  Not that I mind this cool--for walking.  It's too cold to ride the waves. 

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Cell Phone on Lincoln Road

Though I used a cell phone myself, I did not broadcast my conversations and had very little tolerance for those who did until I overheard a young man on Lincoln Road in South Beach.  He was a few steps in front of us, as John and I walked on the south side of Lincoln Road, across from Books on Books.  'He's there, he's there,' the man said.  I looked toward where he was looking: a handsome man sat reading  in full view at a table in the large window of the bookstore's cafe.  The man on the cell phone was trying to get up his courage to meet the man.  He was very nervous and kept asking for reassurance.  'Yes, but,' he kept saying, astonished that the man had shown up.  He backed away from the store; the man in the window did not look up from his book.  The cell phone conversation went on, the person on the other end apparently persisting, encouraging.

We passed the young man and made the circuit of Lincoln Road Mall--past the Van Dyke, past the ice cream place on the corner of Meridian, past the Community Church--and then crossed over to the north side of the mall and walked west toward Books and Books.  By this time it was twilight.  There in the lighted window were the two men, talking to each other across the table.     

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Cheerful Cemetery

Today was my first day out of the house since Sunday when I woke up with a cold.  I treated myself to lunch at Sofra, a wonderful cafe and bakery in Cambridge on Belmont Street. After I had eaten a savory pastry with fennel, and a delicious macaroon, I took a long walk in Mt. Auburn Cemetery, a gently cheerful place, where it seems the dead have just stopped for a rest under the trees.

Mt. Auburn is an arboretum,  as much of a garden as a cemetery.  The saucer magnolia (picture above) was in bloom, along with lilac, azalea, honeysuckle, red horse chestnut, dogwood, and more.

The poet Robert Creeley is buried at Mt. Auburn.  On one side of the stone is his name; on the other, this verse:

the light
of this

When I remember his verse, I usually think, "day" not "hour."  But "day" is better, more immediate.  Now I think, Look at the  light of this instant.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Poetry Sunday

If you're in town, stop by the Brookline Public Library for an afternoon of poetry. I'll be reading with Elizabeth Kirschner, followed by an open mike, so bring your own work for what should be a delightful event.
Sunday, May 17, 1:45-4:00 PM
361 Washington Street
Brookline, MA  (617-730-2370)  

Monday, May 11, 2009

C.P. Cavafy (1863-1933)

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.

No one equals Cavafy or Sappho for erotic poetry.  By his forties, Cavafy was already looking back at his nights of love:

One Night

The room was threadbare and tawdry,
hidden above that suspect restaurant.
From the window you could see the alley,
which was filthy and narrow.  From below
came the voices of some laborers
who were playing cards and having a carouse.

And there, in that common, vulgar bed
I had the body of love, I had the lips,
sensuous and rose-colored, of drunkenness--
the rose of such drunkenness, that evern now
as I write, after so many years Have passsed!,
in my solitary house, I am drunk again. 

Sunday, May 10, 2009

The Lost Ring

Years ago, when I was  little, my mother lost her engagement ring, which my father had given her in the 1920s.  Though it was much less grand than the ring in the picture above, it was the same style, but with five small diamonds and four tiny dark blue sapphires.  My father, who never made much money, must have saved for quite a while in order to buy the ring.

It was a snowy winter when my mother lost her ring.  We lived on the first floor, right over the apartment house boiler, so we got double heat, from the radiators, which would not shut off, and from the hot floor.

That spring, while she was hanging out clothes to dry, pegging them onto the line that ran from the bedroom window across the courtyard, my mother saw something glittering on the ground below, and rushed down.  There on the ground, under the window where she had been hanging out clothes, was the ring.  It had been there all winter under the icy snow, which had finally melted away.  My mother remembered that she had taken off her ring and put it in her shallow apron pocket to keep it safe as she scrubbed clothes--we didn't yet have a washing machine.  It must haven fallen from the pocket when she leaned out the window to hang out the clothes.  I'm wearing it now.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Pompeii: Phallustown

Our readers group chose Mary Beard's The Fires of Vesuvius: Pompeii Lost and Found to discuss at our June meeting.  (The person who suggested it will soon be there.)   Until I read Beard, I did not know that the motif of Pompeii was the erect phallus.  "Cock City," a friend said.  There are penis frescos, reliefs, statues, mosaics, penises carved into paving stones, penises on shop signs, winged penis pendants with bells.  If I ever thought I could understand an ancient culture, I don't think so now. 
The interpretations of Pompeii's ubiquitous penises are silly: symbols of hospitality or abundance.  Whatever they were, there were more depictions of phalluses in Pompeii than Chinese restaurants in Chinatown.  If as some say, they indicate a phallo-centric society, it was a society that often found the erect penis ridiculous, amusing, grotesque.  On a mosaic in an entryway to the baths of a grand villa a penis winks from under a toga.  

When the Monica and Bill story broke, my neighbor shouted, "How do I explain that to my kids?"  The residents of Pompeii might have difficulty explaining some things to their children, but not the male anatomy or the irrepressible vigor of the body.

Close by the statues and frescos of the Lares, the guardian spirits of the household (second picture above left) clothed and handsome, were the grotesque figures of fun. Abundant? Certainly.  They were everywhere.  

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Outrageous: Visit to a Museum

On Tuesday, to celebrate my companion's last radiation treatment at Dana Farber Hospital in Boston, and his coming through with some of his old energy, we decided to lunch at the Museum of Fine Arts, where we would see the "Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese" exhibition.

We were not prepared for the cost.  Admission for two was $46.00. Since it was an important day, we went to the dining room rather than the cafe, willing to pay the extra price.  The bill was $80.  I drank one glass of wine; we shared a dessert and had no first course.  The food was good but not outstanding.  The view into the courtyard was lovely.  As for the exhibition: works of genius in poorly lit rooms.  I had seen Veronese's "Venus and Mars United by Love" in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, where, properly lit, Venus's pearly skin glowed.  In Boston, it looked dull, though I could make out the drops of milk flowing from Venus's breast--it makes this Mars put down his weapons.

Glad to see the end of hospitals, we did not complain, but when we had to fork up $22.00 for parking--we were there for two hours--my companion said: "Everything costs twice as much as it should."  Add it up: $148.00 for a visit many people could not afford.  Museums should be accessible!   Still, we were happy to see the great paintings.  My companion admired the portraits; I liked the nudes.  For my next visit I will reserve a discount museum pass from my library and skip the lunch. 

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Dancer Antonio Gades (1936-2004)

I thought I was long past having a crush on a star, but after seeing the great dancer Antonio Gades I've changed my mind.  Gades stars in Carlos Saura's film "Carmen." (There's a clip on U Tube, Antonio Gades: Flamenco/ Carmen.) 

As he dances the farruca, Carmen (Laura del Sol) falls more and more in love with him and calls out, "Devour me, devour me."  I would have said, "Antonio, go on dancing."  

If you watch the  U Tube clip of his dancing the farruca, you will see the tremendous height he achieves, his flawless timing, the flash of light as he turns his knee to the side and lifts his foot from the floor.  In his memoir, the director Luis Bunuel, uses the phrase, "virile insolence." Antonio Gades dances with virile insolence--and grace.    

Monday, May 4, 2009

Solitary Swimmer

This morning I walked to Spy Pond along the bike path, and as I came to the jutting rock--you can see it in the photo--I thought of the solitary swimmer who dives from that rock.  She swims in all weather and goes in until the pond is iced over, which means she swims until the end of November, even as late as the beginning of December.  I've watched her arrive, carrying a tote bag, strip down to her bathing suit, and go in.  She doesn't shiver when she comes out.  She then must go home: she's wearing a wet bathing suit, and it could be 3o degrees fahrenheit.  

I guess her to be in her early forties.  She is lean and tanned, has dark blond hair, and a pleasant face. 

One day, bundled in my winter coat, I asked her whether I might interview her.  She gave me such a startled, frightened look, as if she were in a witness protection program or a person in hiding, but that can't be so: she's so noticeable.  I immediately changed the subject, speaking to her about the black and white bufflehead ducks she had swum near.  She smiled with relief but spoke only a few words.  Her long hair dripping, she seemed to belong to the race of water nymphs, aging to be sure, but unlike the nymph Rusalka in Dvorak's opera of that name, knew not to get too close to humans.       

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Red Shoes

The super-saturated red shoes in "The Wizard of Oz" (1939) take Dorothy (Judy Garland) safely back to Kansas.  A tornado had blown her out of her mid-western home and into the Kingdom of Oz, where a wicked witch threatens to kill her.  She is saved by a good witch, who gives her a magic formula: click your shoes together three times and say, "There's no place like home."  The film ends happily with Dorothy and her dear dog Toto back home in Kansas.  A girl can have an adventure and survive.

No so for Victoria Page (Moira Shearer) in the "The Red Shoes" (1948).  This brilliant dancer falls under the spell of a ballet impresario for whom art is a religion, tries to free herself, falls in love, but is drawn back to the red shoes.  When she puts them on to dance once again, she flees the stage, dances out into the night, and throws herself under a train.

Pre-war American optimism triumphs in "The Wizard of Oz."  In "The Red Shoes," made shortly after the end of the World War II,  there is no way for a woman of genius to survive. Victoria page cannot practice her art and marry the man she loves.  Dorothy holds her dog. Victoria Page holds her poor head.  In real life, Moira Shearer had a brilliant career.



Friday, May 1, 2009

Profligate Orchids in the Fountain

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.

Here's to the profligate spender who gave us these orchids, and to the profligate trees.  All of them have come out at once: magnolia Mississippian, Cherry Japanese, apple, plum, lindens, maples like enormous weeds, nothing but pink, white, and chartreuse.      

As I was taking pictures of the fountain, a boy threw pennies into the basin and made a silent wish.  The pennies glittered.  He kept going back to the fountain to look.  He lingered, as if the pennies held his wishes there in the water that spread in ripples under the descending streams.