The 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.
So, I’m standing under a tree…
I’ve always had sly fondness for “so.” As a social starter, it used to go something like this: “So,” the best friend might say with twinkling eyes, “what happened last night?” The gossip wags, “So…guess I saw together in the bar?
“So” hangs at the edge of the story, but doesn’t have the whole story. It was a tool of wits who play at the art of conversation. I remember my six-year-old daughter, in full mimic style, placing her chin on her laced fingers. “So,” she said to me as a lady of the world, “how are you?”
I’m intrigued by the trend of people launching into social media in media res. “So I’m sitting in my car…” I and three thousand other of your closest friends lace our fingers and slide forward. But where are we in that floating ongoing conversation? There are three thousand other ongoing conversations, not to mention the conversation of people we live with in our houses, dorms and cities, not to mention other ongoing conversations. The political conversation, the Trump conversation, the climate change and spring conversation.
We seem to be unfortunate intimates in the crazy Trump conversation. Like many others, I’m choosing, at least today, to be a part of the flowering tree conversation. It’s late May, and spring has been a long time in coming. “So you thought we’d never get here,” the trees say, the dogwood, cherry and magnolia branches layered like lateral Japanese fans. “You thought we’d abandoned you.” They lean their bright faces forward to us: “So.”
Capri is Capri, people say. It’s so beautiful and elegant, the lanes lined with pines and villas, white hotels trailing down to the famous rocky grottos, sly waiters in suit jackets in the central piazza. It’s true that imagination goes first, the feet follow. In mid-April when down jackets were competing with tight white trousers and ascots, it is easier to discover the old villages behind Capri and Anacapri. The hinterlands, old ways and regular people become visible.
Every morning a group of old timers climb walks to open Santa Maria, a hermitage church in Cetrella, on the cliffs over the glittering, glorious coastline. An old man stopped at the crossroads tossing his bag of snails over his shoulder as he whispered to a shrine of the Virgin Mary. Mothers pushed their baby carriages up hundreds of stairs, the only way of reaching their perched houses. The sharp smell of wisteria, firewood, damp stone, fishermen, workers painting and prepping mansions for the season.
Tiberius built his enclave in Capri more than two thousand years ago which makes newcomers of Rilke and Oscar Wilde, Godard, Brigitte Bardot and her pouty behind (the movie Contempt, Le Mepris was filmed here). La dolce vita is as old as la vita itself.
Florence still feels handworked, like burnished gold, and an astonishment of deeply human masterpieces. The jewel box is also beset, overrun by tourists, but who can blame them – we dropped in, mother-daughter duo, for a quick day and a half. We were under the umbrella (it rained) of centuries of wealth, but the stand-out banking family and political dynasty, the Medicis, have always intrigued. As a young art history student, I asked if Cosimo, Piero and Lorenzo’s ruthless capitalism was worth the price for the brilliant Renaissance art they fostered – Fra Lippi, Botticelli, Massacio. I said yes. Vita brevis, ars longa.
History has always had rapacious capitalist mafia powerbroker in office – we have ours now. The difference is ours doesn’t have a shred of civic minded humanism. Our billionaire ego-in-chief can’t compartmentalize and rise above, even for a short time. What if he could be a patron of real culture, not cheesy ersatz stuff. Narcissism has always been a part of patronage; ego and power are part of the deal; real leaders see beyond to the bigger picture.
Testaccio, a working Roman
neighborhood where Easter
is every day,
as man is everyman.
The great dramas are woven
into the quotidian –
births and creations
our endless failings
(thus our fragile nervous systems)
and everyday salvations –
espresso and cake among
What is Seder? A time to leave doors open
like Mireille Knoll, late of Paris:
“If she could have she would
have welcomed the entire world into her home”
entertain anyone who has a mother
though she survived the Nazis,
she was knifed in old age by traitors,
convinced everyone is good
she lived til 85, entertaining to the end.
Or aide memoire to have at the door
bags already packed; and travel lightly
nervous system prepared by history
tells us to be ready to flee; at first
so imperceptible hardly anyone notices;
comfort is a Pharaoh thing;
if not flight, fight on the side of moral
As Ecclesiastes might have said:
Nothing’s new; entertain all ideas
beat nothing but our rugs, honor the sacred
skein of freedom, pour the wine, please
Lisbon is a haunting city. It is misty, caught in the process of decadence; its ambiance suggests a city that people long to hold onto yet haven’t been able to. You feel the old grandeur of gracious villas, private palaces, 18th century buildings. The narrow blue tiled apartment buildings trace the fate of the wealthy seafaring country, globalizers whose cinnamon, elephants, Brazilian music is intertwined. The empire was badly lost over a century ago and the poor country of Europe recently plunged into depression.
Lisbon is holding onto its history, tints and traces although much of the city was lost in the Great Lisbon earthquake in 1755. This is at odds with the European trend of erasure. Fado is the music of what was; what was lost at sea, left behind, left in the unknown and ungraspable. In a small tavern, the singer accompanied by a master of Portuguese guitar, it all makes sense. The stunning church of São Domingos is like Pompeii, its grandeur mottled and gnawed away at, an eloquent sign of earthquake, fire and beauty. The centuries meet not as strangers but in active dialogue.
Now the last unreconstructed capital of Europe has a skyline of construction birds. It also has superb modern art museum, the Berardo Collection, and an edgy avant-garde that pushes off from tight tradition. The in-betweenness makes it a place of spontaneous giving.
The face, I’m guessing, is itching for a comeback as a place of truth and confrontation. The dalliance in real life with the grotesque distortions is priming us for a reality check. I was moved by two shows in Paris – small sampling! – but each did the old-fashioned thing of demanding an accounting from its subjects – and having adversaries face each other in a dialog of the eyes.
Yan Pei-Ming, a Chinese painter, who is both fully modern and full frontal figurative. In a new show called “Dating,” he puts thickly painted, liberated and sexually engaged subjects across from Popes and cardinals who glare down their noses. Time, ravages and risk of living is inscribed in guttral unavoidable ways. Pei-Ming has painted Mao, Obama, Picasso and others in the past. He gets a guttural response from the harrowing intimacy and existential individual struggle.
August Sander, a German who was one of the pioneers of psychological portraiture, took pictures during the Nazi era. The show of “The Persecuted and the Persecutors” at the Memorial of the Shoah shows vulnerable and complex humanity on the foreign workers, prisoners and Jewish citizens. Bureaucrats, on the other hand, are frigid, autocratic, tightly bound; as executors of a master race ideology, they refuse connection with any other. While there is derangement on both sides, the soft eyes of the victims bear psychological violence and poignancy of intelligent awareness. As Sander said, “I never made a person look bad. They did that themselves.”
Oh, the charms of having grown children!
The Nor’Easter knew I couldn’t miss my visit to Planet Rachel! It let me slip out under the wire and get that plane to Paris. After a spell of ersatz sleep (as much as the tattooed and beefy gents going off to St. Patrick’s Day allowed me), I met my darling daughter. Now that she’s finished her undergrad work, she’s in her town. That little crevette who was born premature in nationwide French strikes of ’95 is now a beautifully fluent cosmopolite, flowy red hair following behind her.
We’re bopping around the city, dashing in and out of thunderstorms; sitting under heated terraces with the Parisians who don’t let a gleam of sun pass unattended. We analyze the clouds, noting their individual identity. Baudelaire wrote about them, Paris designers must have coordinated the tint of the apartment buildings to resonate with the vibrating but flat light.
I’m relying on guidance of families and friends to put my finger on the pulse. A few things I’ve gleaned: Paris has long reveled in its self-selected role as standard bearer of values and artistry. How far does that go these days? Not very far. It now sees itself reflected in a mirror, or in images of others, then appropriates that image for itself. Paris is taking “food concepts” (country/decadence/colonial) and making them fey, cute, designed.
France used to hide its commercial tendencies so as not to put forward a capitalist or “Anglo-Saxon” face. It made entrepreneurial spirit take backseat to other values. That’s changing. The latest “grand projet” (the French love massive redefining projects) aims to make Paris a start-up capital. Station F, a large complex built downstream from Notre Dame, not only lends up to-the-minute hipster designed space to start-ups, it also makes available government officials, bankers and soon-to-be living space. In Pantin, at the end of the metro, Bogosian and others have built important galleries around a small runway that makes it easy for buyers to whisk in on their private jets.
We still managed to land in cafes with only Turkish toilets. And find wonderful food and wine. And the cheese – ah, the raison d’être. How many ways can they make fromage chèvre? Let me count the ways.