IMG_7361The novel Clio’s Mobile Home is a facet of my creative work. Several characters in my novel write poems; I am serious about writing poetry. I also work on short shorts, and short stories. They are all modes of thinking about identity, transcendence and beauty in contemporary life. Art keeps us aloft, but it is more than decoration. Its force can be astounding. The artist becomes an instrument, and art lives to tell the tale.

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Gatsby in Seattle

Growing up in Pittsburgh, we knew a lot about the Carnegies, Mellons, Fricks.  Once these robber barons made their fortunes in the ruthless American way, they moved towards polishing their elbows, cultivating art and manners through acquiring European art and civilization.  They bought old masters, cathedrals, collections and funded showy but public endeavors.

Now consider Seattle, poised on the Pacific, looking to Asia, remaking contemporary civilization in its tech image. And consider their fortunes: Microsoft, Amazon, Starbucks, Boeing.  There is an unusual density of public art, a surge of maturity and refinement with this big money behind it.  Is the maturing of Starbucks what generated its refined and elegant Reserve coffee lounge?  Usually this kind of design fetishism is reserved for a bar in Barcelona or high French boutique or a Milano Prado boutique — or in the old days, a museum.  The coffee salon is monochrome – as sleek and sensual as a highly polished coffee bean – with hints of whiskey, chocolate and cigars.  Or as buttery and textured as the shirts in Gatsby’s closet.  It is understated, even as it manages to suggest Charlie and the Chocolate Factory for caffeinated adults.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation partly funded a superb outdoor sculpture park with stand-out pieces by Richard Serra, (also a model of gorgeous monochromist), Calder, Jaume Plensa, Nevelson.  What can be said of the public library in relation to all those old Carnegie libraries we visited as children?  This Seattle Public Library is a prismatic cantilevered glass masterpiece, with innovative environmental design.

I remember stopping in front of the Carnegie Library in Pittsburgh where my sister and I used to shout out the line we’d memorized from “Merchant of Venice,” etched on the bronze plaque of the running fountain: “The quality of mercy is not strain’d.  It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven/ upon the place beneath:  It is twice blest…it blesseth him that gives and him that takes.”   Shakespeare said it all.

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Portland: So Who’s Weird?


No, you’re weird!  Portland wants to say we’re not the problem, dude, you are!  We’re repurposing our buildings from the old West and turning them into little boutiques, craft beer joints; we love grunge, even on Monday nights when the band plays and no one shows up.  We ride urban bike; we have Williamette Valley wine on tap. We leave our unwanted things on the side of the street so someone else can pick them up.  We have soft air, laced with an ever-present hint of rain.  We also have our others, who are not “we.”  They are the alt-Righters whom we protest who protest us.  At the airport, a straggly group, World War II vets, I heard, led by a bagpiper.  There were wheelchairs, tattoos, biker wear all wrapped endlessly in the American flag The new frontier is a conceptual one: the battle to name who is weird.

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Birthday/Willing Suspension

 

Willing suspension of disbelief –
how useful to have jargon at hand when age creeps.
Those numbers, no! It’s just accounting
of yesterday and tomorrow, for today’s
moment is out of time.

Enchantment has long been
one of my cards.
Why not ride the foam of my origin and creation?
For giddiness only. I sprang from no
one’s head – I live in deep appreciation
of my now-gone mother.

As for my play with numbers,
good fiction always tells prismatic truth.
Hoist away, let’s lift a glass of something
bubbly and toast the fine new year.

 

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Flute Music of September

 

 

Flute Music of September

Welcome back, self, after a most
social August.  My espadrilles
are mercifully silent on the brick

the soft rope and rubber sole help
me hear the cleansing
flute music of September.

I’m eavesdropping on a new conversation.
Let me be stealth to myself
and listen with attention

keen to that harmony, accord
with the steering department to where
I am called.

 

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Summer of Love

 

As if I were totally innocent of the question, and the conundrum fresh and unexamined, I asked myself while brushing my teeth this morning: artist: what’s the right thing to do? As if I had not been studying what “resistance,” thinking hard about what Matisse and Picasso and the Russian poets had done during their war years. The question popped into my head: To write or not to write…that “nonpolitical” poem. Then, as I padded downstairs, to appreciate (or not) that ripe peach.

These old questions are only getting sharper and more nagging, since we seem to be in a permanent time of threatening war, or permanent breakdown. There is a Baudelairean theory, truncated here, which I still believe in: 1) Beauty — the real thing, not one that’s worshipped, fixed and/or superficial — transcends cruelty, power and pettiness. Being faithful to it means having faith that there will be a time afterwards; we presuppose continuity.  2) Beauty is absolute, but channeling it down into our world and lives creates community of entirely different people. The exchange is something you want more of.

I happened to drift into an exhibition that noted that the Summer of Love, the high season in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood, is 50 years old (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston). It was 1967, and the Vietnam War was raging. Looking at the photos, what trickles up is community, intuition, release. The political raged in protests, and elsewhere became violent. But it also took the form of typography, music, record covers, hair. It took the form of posters that worked with European color theory, borrowed from Viennese Secession, made post-modern collage. It took the form of Love. At least for the summer.

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Dreaming in Greek

Athens’ past is so strong – as idea, as dream – it dominates the dirty white sprawl which extends 300 degrees around it – 360 degrees, if it weren’t for the sea. In contrast to this vertical spread, the Parthenon stands as the city on the hill. It keeps its marbled watch during the day, is warm at sunset and has the starry gleam of electricity at night. My arty literary daughters, seeing it all for the first time, felt themselves in a great, powerful presence.

The Parthenon with its statues, many of them removed to the nearby Acropolis Museum, and the Archeological Museum, lodged in our being, and continue to haunt as afterimages. What is it that inserts itself? Why is this taut grandeur with exquisite sensitivity engage us? As an ideal, it’s moving and distant, then disturbingly intimate. We’re witnessing high drama – the human struggle of the spirit in communication with a body, recognizing its potential for freedom and limitation of our darker selves.

We were staying on another hill, Lycabettus, and got to see the Parthenon at all hours, from our slope to hers. We arrived on the deadest day of the summer, August 15, Assumption, when the city of one virgin, Athena, pays homage to another virgin, Mary, and the people go happily to the islands. The gates were rolled down over shops, in some neighborhoods completely graffiti-covered; it was unclear whether they would ever open again. Other neighborhoods were spiffier and kept up. In the crisis, Greeks we met were uncannily sanguine, current woes balanced by their long historical legacy, their love of country. There is much pain under the surface, no doubt, but they recognize their country’s beauty. We were lucky to have a swimming pool on our rooftop. We felt on top of the world.

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Shape-Shifting in Thessaloniki

Portrait of a Jewish Woman from Thessaloniki

The Thessaloniki experience has to include both ghosts and crowds.  Walking through the old souks on a mid-August holiday, its corridors are full of shadows, smells but no people, plastic bags flapping on the skeletal rafters.  This is a good image for a polyglot city that has shifted, lost and gained identities countless times through its 24-century history.

On the same holiday, there are families and students having coffee and cake, strolling along an arching seaside esplanade that could be a twin of Nice or Tel Aviv.  Hipsters get cooler in the creative urban planning of giant city fans, make use of the endless possibilities for renovated spaces which have become coffee houses, clubs and bars.  Thessaloniki is Greece’s second city after Athens, yet known as a kinder, more dynamic place.

It’s hard to beat Athens’ history but Thessaloniki is dosed with fascinating past.   In 15-17th centuries, the Roman agora that centers the city was part of a large Jewish city – large population of Jews settled after leaving Inquisition Spain, eventually becoming the majority.  The Ottoman Empire allowed them to coexist, coopting their skills.  As mosques, the ruling Muslims were using the city’s early Christian churches, which themselves borrowed imagery of peacocks and gardens from classical sources.

100 years ago this month, a massive fire wiped out most of the Jewish Ottoman city.   Many residents of this Jerusalem of the East became refugees and fled, after manipulative urban planning, to other countries.  In one of the 20th century’s crueler ironies, most of  the remaining Sepharads who had survived fires of the Inquisition and an uncontrolled bread oven were exterminated by the invading Nazis.

Thessaloniki stories continue – when the Ottoman Empire collapsed, and Greeks took the city back in the early 20th century, a massive exchange of population took place: huge population of Muslims moved to Turkish lands and Greeks moved from Turkey back in.  Minarets were all torn down, disappeared.  It’s a little known “ethnic reorganization.”

All this is in a place that some describe as a “teenager” city.  Pegged by some to be the next Barcelona.  Stay tuned.

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Blue Cosmos, Greek Style

Struck by the linear perfection and balance of the Acropolis, a literary observer noted how nervous the ancient Greeks must have been – how high strung, highly sensitive, neurotic.  They were delicate and high maintenance, thus the ancient Greeks quested, they built and calmed themselves with high aesthetic achievement.  They conquered chaos through beauty and order (cosmos).

Traveling through Greece, I think about how elusive that balance is.  Greece is straddling, struggling, highly sensitive to its lack of balance and desperate to find some poised ground.

Greece is poised between many things – Western Europe and the Levant, American business and Russian orthodoxy, the market and the common good, the sensual and the ascetic.  The eagle symbol of the Byzantine Empire, which Greece was a part of for twelve centuries, faced both east and west, and Byzantine means something tangled and intertwined.

There are stony cities which are unforgiving in the heat and current economic crisis.  They feel closer to Cairo or Tunis, with patriarchal families calling the shots.  There are gentle villages and old women dressed in black and vast olive groves.  Picturesque white-washed villas and perched domed churches  and truckloads of sheep.  There is the sea – consoling, for everyone, the public good.  It’s possible that the azure blue beauty of the sea provides Greeks with their good humor and kindness.  It calms their high-strung nervous systems naturally.

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Parisian Late-Capitalist Blues

What an irony it would be if Paris becomes yet another generic European city where slick kids move from trendy cafe to darling bar to hip-chic restaurant. The French have always been such maniacs about preserving their rich culture and fabric of life – yet Paris is changing so fast, every corner sprouting a Brooklyn-style cafe, a super cute concept restaurant. The shoemaker and tabac can’t last long; the ateliers and scruffy bistros and all those cafes owners from the Auvergne will fall for new buildings, the latest trend in American hipness that entrepreneurs will sense and recreate in a pack.

The beautiful new restaurants – Daroco in the old fashion boutique of Jean-Paul Gaultier, Le Dapuhin, a white marble square designed by Rem Koolhaas and Clement Blanchet – are lovely, and widespread, and packed. Who fills them night after night? You’d hardly remember the crisis, all that unemployment, threat from the National Front. You’d hardly realize the shifting earth plates at the edges of the city, the traveling soup kitchens near Gare de L’Est, at the edge of Porte de la Chapelle where huge lines of mostly men gather as free meals are dolled out. The tent cities that are pitched under bridges.

Perhaps that explains – in an odd French way – the Parisian preoccupation with the decline of American capitalism, particularly the Depression. This year Pompidou Center hung a giant retrospective of Walker Evans, last year l’Orangerie had an extensive survey of American painting in the 1930s. It’s unclear if they are casting a superior gaze at their favorite cowboy culture, calling out the dangers of rampant consumerism. Or if they recognize shared precedents and vagaries of Western culture. My guess is the first; they snigger as they become more American, and anxious on the way.

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Summer’s Inefficiencies

We recently met a German vacationing in the South of France – all paradoxes of modern time were laid out, right there on the table, in front of our pastis.   While saying that France has the best quality of life in Europe, he briskly termed and complained, while taking a black Nicoise olive, about “southern Europe inefficiency.”   I remember another friend, a Parisian, who defined the South as “a place to waste time.”

There are vestiges here of the way time used to be experienced, before codification and regularization in clocks, train schedules and digitization.  In this corner of the countryside, the alienation from nature isn’t complete – work starts with the sunrise, the fierce wind dictates whether or not to work in the fields, the year culminates in the fever and fullness of la vendange, when sun and heat has been so absorbed by the grapes that they must be picked, and the winemaking begins.   There is also “the time of the cherries,” (synonymous for fleeting pleasures, carpe diem); sumptuous peach harvest which, gratefully, lasts as long as we’re here.

We watch a friend, born and schooled here, go about her day – at every turn, in town and in Perpignan, she embraces friends she meets, (two kisses on the cheek), stands close as they exchange great news, confidences, troubles.  Voila – the mystery of why she’s always “late!”

Then there’s the food – the food!  But not to digress.  This immersion in time (which for me becomes Proustian as well – the surging of all parts of the past, including those I never lived!) was luckily  a boon for writing, “inefficient” only to a northern German.

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