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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On the Battleground of Spring

We’re in the season of renewal. Passover and Easter are a prelude to redemption, rebirth,   reincarnation.   Bulbs signal regeneration with the tentative pale green shoots.  There is no end to the season’s “re”words – regeneration, revival, recharging, restoration.  Re re re – “re” is the birdsong, or songline of the season.

With all this burst of renewal, why the angst? Regardless of what brooding, angsty T.S. Eliot and his famous line, “April in the cruelest month,” people report feeling churned up, unsettled. They are prey to colds. Doesn’t nature, in modeling cycles, tell us that spring is glorious and inevitable whether we’re ready or not?

Nature does lead the way – it shows that spring is a struggle between forces. There is a tension between cold winds and hot suns, hail and a sun-kissed afternoon.  They come one day after another, or at the same time. It is a battle of winter and summer on the ground of spring.

Language tells the same story. The prefix “re,” from Latin, means again and again, or backward motion, as in taking a step back.  Retrace, refurbish, retro.

Renewal isn’t easy. It’s comfortable to stay in the bunker where one’s mental world describes and explains phenomena. It’s familiar to see everything as nasty and brutish. Narrative is darkly written. Granted, it’s hard now to bear the “naiveté” of “hopefulness.” It’s a marginal position; one is the underdog.  It demands both faith and strength.  Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring is packed with explosive energy. Birth and rebirth require tremendous, even violent force of breaking out.  It’s not for the faint of heart.  Do it.


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Poets Resist!

I want to show off the work of Eve Dora O’Shea, creator of our poster.  And tempt anyone who would like to join our forces tonight.  Where better to start reclaiming words from the noose of ideology and propaganda than in poetry.  Community is where it’s happening.  Word Power!

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Tacos, Baskets, Emanuel Ax

To stage a happening, you put unfamiliar elements together and see what happens.  Put a classical superstar pianist like Emanuel Ax in a taqueria like La Lupita, in the Spanish Olneyville neighborhood of Providence.  Let it rip.  In he walks, the stage-famous, black-tails type in his soft shoes and simple clothes, his mussy white hair and beat-up backpack.  You give him an electric keyboard (it’s not Carnegie Hall, guys).  If the tacos aren’t ready and the server calls out “veinto uno!”in the middle of the Brahms, make it a part of the piece.  Same with the sirens and further calls for enchilatas and quesadillas. The crowd in the back are abuzz, kids wandering, people fascinated.  The performers – Community MusicWorks musicians who have brought Mr. Ax (now “Manny”) here – are racing to keep up with the maestro like race horses with a grand horse in town.  His smile shows the grand time he’s having.

What do you do for encore?  Set up another concert in a community center, one familiar to Community MusicWorks students who study violin, in private lessons or in daily orchestra, as part of this extraordinary free program.  To show how music can be woven into all lives, set the stage under the sign of a basketball hoop.  Welcome, for free, lots of people after a free pasta dinner; this time set up a real piano.  Listen to the hush as Ax plays two solo pieces.  Feel the deepening of attention in the gym as he and the MusicWorks Collective embark on Mozart’s Concerto No. 14.  It leads the audience into wide emotional terrain, but what remains, like a cloud, is the tenderness.  Ax has a tenderness when he leans down to listen to little kids who come to hug him afterwards.  Same as when he plays “We Shall Overcome” for the entire string-playing collective.

Ax has been stirred to act, realizing the arts don’t reach across borders unless one makes a point of it; he mentions the “marginalization” of classical artists, even someone of his stature, in the cultural dialog.  He wants to be heard.  The marginalized kids want to be heard.  This is what happens when both sides have an open ear and tremendous receptivity.  It’s a happening.

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In the snowbound world
lifted off its tracks
in a windy Nor’easter years ago

my girl burst in the door
fresh from the mall,
face aglow. She couldn’t

wait to show it – the tiny
little thing of lace,
strapless, backless

with a tulle, tutu skirt
all pale and blushing
like a rose.

Who am I to tamp down
anyone’s ecstasy – but really?
The lace we were watching

had piled up to ten inches
wrapping cars and ground;
and that path I’d shoveled…

But oh, that spring dance –
it was 7th, 8th grade – so
fluttery, buttery –

The howling winds,
its frosty cheeks, pursed lips
kissed the innocence

a whisper tucked in its bluster:
here’s to not thinking
it out too hard.


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The Miraculous Ongoing World Book Project

World Book Day, March 2, has such a universal title.  It is an opportunity to celebrate the book, but also to marvel at the devotion, the worship that a lot of people have for it.  This reverence goes beyond the simple object.  Books have rescued people in tough straits from the aloneness of their childhoods, their prison sentences or repressive regimes. Books become saviors.

It is not a far leap to think of authors who hold the book sacred, and attempt to write a sacred, all-encompassing Book that is a literary microcosm of the universe.  James Joyce had that grand view;  in Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake, for instance, he swept everything – including the Search for All – into his books’ structured core.  He took his model from Homer, Dante, Milton, and before that, The Book that started it all – the Hebrew Bible.  In the great mystical act of creation, the book exists concurrently, even before Genesis; no book, no world.

Convinced at bottom that there is only one book, authors and poets like Mallarmé and Blake attempt to stand in Creation’s ongoing stream, and through artistic revelation, channel it.  If one stays open to nature, as Baudelaire suggests in the poem “Correspondences,” one can connect with its underlying structures, the universe’s core.  It is an act of profound attention: Letters, freed from literal mundane function, mysterious incarnations of sound, are full of primordial meaning.   Writing poetry might be catching the breeze of energy as a page is turned.

The book is everywhere: World as text, World at book.  You have to be open to reading it.

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The Disruption of Beauty

Francis Picabia, Estanonisi (Ecclesiastes)

“There is a time to break down, and a time to build up.”  Ecclesiastes, man of the ages, is also man of the hour.  When Francis Picabia painted this picture, he gave it an absurd name – Estanonisi – but in appropriately double fashion, he subtitled it “Ecclesiastes.”  The prescient prankster, Dadaist and cold-blooded brilliant disrupter was living on the edge of the first world, 1913.  That explosive cultural moment was a time somewhat like now – all chaos with undetermined possibilities. The unrolling energies in the painting could be Dionsyian ecstasy, the kind that is unleashed by a crowd of foot-loose dancers, or those of the more dangerous frenzied masses.

Picabia’s doubleness fascinates me – his declared mission in life was to destroy art yet what did he do his entire life?  He made art.  He mocked and ranted against beauty yet his line drawings, his line constructs ring with poetic beauty.  He believed in “nothing” but he found endless inspiration in the nothingness he espoused.  Beauty is paradox, beauty is in the in-between.  The apostate was a hard-core believer.

In Estanonisi, painted in New York, Picabia captures the consumptive drive and fury of capitalism in  the jarring cubist frame.  In the spotlit center, though, human figures seek to take their place amidst the anonymity.  The mix is streaked with shimmering gold.  Picabia joins the manmade, human and sacred realms in a roiling mix.   Chaos – our human life –  is streaked with the possibilities of the encounter, with potential of something glorious in our midst.

The artist is cross-eyed.  While one eye observes social strife of the world, the other eye should be disciplined and focused on communicating with those age-old things: beauty, energy, cosmos, paradox.

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January 20, 2017

January 20

Something is happening back in Washington,
though we are 40,000 feet above the Mediterranean.
We are rising high, the scalloped
edge of the Holy Land a mere hem below,
through unraveling skeins of clouds,
the hush unearthly.

It is 18:30, late day rays spreading,
just another day ending.  Look! – I gasp –
the liquid fuchsia in the
untouchable distance

(while seven hours back, he
is laying his small hand on his family Bible)

That red lake of light pooled in the clouds!
Clearly not the devil’s stirring pot –
too beautiful.  No sinners turned upside down
no naked bodies skinned
although we don’t have our binoculars handy.

18:45; 19:00.  The tide is turning.
He wrests the podium.  Fans are
magnified in his mind.  Although we are in
Lebanese airspace, soon over Turkey, we can
practically see the spottiness of the crowd.

In Rome, the Tiber is misting moodily,
Paris birds are skittering gaily
in the frozen fountains of the Tuilleries.
No matter where we are
(40,000 feet above the Mediterranean),
the world is spinning madly.

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As the World Turns

I would have had to go to a remote polar island to get away from the Trump inauguration, and even then someone would have wandered by wearing a red Trump cap. The obsession is global, as if we ever doubted that we were one world.

Israel has been an interesting perch from which to watch.   Israelis are confused – “How did you Americans elect someone so vulgar?  She should have beat him with her left finger.”  While admitting their reigning state of confusion, they are absolutely opinionated (some for, many against).  And in this state of opinionated confusion, anguished about their own political isolation, Israelis push along the daily pathways with dizzying energy, making life fast and bright.

Haifa, the high-tech and innovation city, shines from its perch on a glittering Mediterranean bay; it’s built on several hillsides, the winding corniches reminiscent of the splendor of Nice.  Ships carrying European market goods – high-end goodies from Paris and London – move in and out.  They satisfy the national hunger for design – by restaurants, coffee shops, lofts.  So long to the old laid back style – it’s move, move, move.

Built on insecurity and full of inequality, Israel is a society on the move.  On the train to Tel Aviv, I see teenage soldiers lolling around everywhere, back and forth on trains with their guns and phones, with their cigarettes and chewing gum.  They get out at Tel Aviv – as the saying goes: Haifa works, Tel Aviv plays, Jerusalem prays.   Tel Aviv is exploding.  Neve Tzedek, an artist neighborhood a decade ago is a pricey though charmingly beautiful Soho, and hipsters have made the old Arab village of Jaffa an explosion of creative fashion and food, with designers working every edge, every burst of imagination to its limit.

Israelis inhabit the famous contradiction, “Things couldn’t be worse.”  Then, add with a grin (even on January 20): “Eh, life is good.”

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Timing Out in the Levant

I’m happy to be in Israel on the Friday morning before Shabbat, when the country takes a break from politics and from time itself, switches from the contemporary Israel to an eternal space.   The seaside city of Nahariya is like most resorts in winter – a bit tawdry, strange to itself, a place that shivers at sixty degrees.  The Levantine stain is on the once white tile.  It’s on the white Mercedes and on the third-generation white Bauhaus buildings.  Souk alleyways have given way to ’60s alleyways, little stainless steel stands that sell falafel (everywhere), hummus and salads.  Mattress stores and cheap clothes on street side racks and aging Russian furriers watch women pass by in fake furs.

We arrived Thursday night when the full moon was shining over the darkened desert hills.  Now people are now shopping for their challahs, their chicken, their pomegranates, oranges, salads.   As the sun warms the early afternoon, people sit talking in outdoor cafes.  The faces, even in the predominant Jewish community, are fascinatingly diverse.  It makes you ask, What is a Jew?  In the meantime, green parrots walk on the  electric wires between shaggy eucalyptus trees.  Shabbat Shalom.

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The Strange Way History Stares

History has a sly way of looking at us.  It inhabits another body – a work of art, ancient walls and cobblestones, even a person – and stares, hoping that we’ll notice.  It’s not that history is jealous of the magnetic present and doesn’t want to be forgotten.  It worries for us, so flush with the “now” and wants to desperately remind us of what we’re forgetting.

I saw these drawings by Whitfield Lovell at the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., months ago, and have been staring at me since then, with their heaviness and heartache.  They’ve stayed with me throughout the political explosions of 2016, as we trudge forward into 2017.

More than how they speak to me, history is speaking through them, pleading ardently for recognition.  These are drawings the artist based on photographs he recovered from forgotten places.  They aren’t relatives; they are anonymous.  They are full of distinguishing particularity yet they stare out at us with preternatural strangeness.   The warning wind of the past is flowing through them, the ache of foresight and foreknowledge.  They’ve been there and they see the tragedies ahead.

Within their frame, they collide with a “foreign” object, a bunch of dried flowers, a beaded stream of tears, a brooch, a knife.  Like a burning bush, objects communicate, correspond, are part of the often unrealized yet to be deciphered conversation.

Martin Luther King Day approaches next Monday; Trump’s inauguration the following Friday. History is staring, challenging us to recognize old tragedies and how we are courting them again.  It speaks from its depths to ours, challenging us to recognize our own profound and intimate human values.  From there life springs.  Its challenge is no small feat, simply: continuity.




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