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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Ring Them Dubrovnik Bells

In the ’70s my parents had Liza Minnelli on heavy rotation, and that’s Dubrovnik first lodged in my head.  Across all that time, Dubrovnik – exotic and homely, worldly and worldweary, embedded with lessons of travel – has stayed with me.  Through all the hoops of irony and wit, I got a culture lesson which wasn’t wasted when I visited.

Here’s the set-up of “Ring them Bells”: Liza Minnelli sings of Shirley Devore who goes capital hopping looking for a husband.  Not a looker, she strikes out all over Europe – London, Madrid, Mallorca, Berlin.  Someone says, “Try Dubrovnik, dear, before you go home!”  First day  she met a guy on the beach who took her reason away.  They introduce themselves: she’s Shirl Devore, he’s Norm Saperstein.  Not only are they Jewish New Yorkers, it turns out they live next door to each other on Riverside Drive!  She had to go to borrow a thou’ and go to Yugoslavia to meet a lover next door.  It was all delivered with broadest accent and humor.

On a mission, Shirley heads straight for the guys in Dubrovnik, never talking about the beauty of the fortified city, polished stones, swimming off rocky cliffs into azure blue waters.  What does she care about sea powers like Venice that challenged it; Napoleon’s betrayal; certainly not Croatia’s Nazi collaboration!  (Shirley visited in the ‘70s; Yugoslavia was intact, so no need to think about the “War of Independence.”)  

In that way, she was somewhat like the tourists of today with their selfie sticks.  The medieval town, church, monasteries are but backdrop for their faces; at least Shirley was looking for love, they’re into self-love! 

As much as Dubrovnik was a prop for this theatrical song, I gathered from it something of the old world Jewish consciousness, at once cosmopolitan and provincial, realist and wise.  Do what you’ve gotta do, wherever you are.  Time is short.  Don’t expect too much of life – you’ll be disappointed.  Age-old Dubrovnik, worn-at-the-edges, brocade and Ottoman, seemed to share this.  Small countries, like minorities, have to keep their heads down, move cautiously while still doing what they do. 

Don’t forget – the travel changed Shirley entirely.  She had to leave home to discover what she wanted.  The wry moral of the song is: Girls, don’t stay in your apartments, step into the hall!


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Serbian Tempers

I thought it was gauche, unseemly at first to vacation on a land of recent wars. Yugoslavia fell apart, was tragic, bloody and rife with hatreds in the 90s. But if we avoided every piece of land soaked in blood, how could we move, no less travel? At the same time, every piece of land is part of some celebration, and certainly drenched in the everyday. So I was off to Belgrade.

This capital, a crossroads of many empires, is a rough mix if there ever was one. Kitschy Orientalism meets crumbling Soviet gray meets modern Balkan. With its cheap rent, good education and aesthetics, it’s also a bristlingly hip city with an all-night club scene muscular in its defiance.

Defy, defy! That’s the defining trait, and of course, everyone defies something different. Serbia is a mosaic of crazy passions. I had to invoke Serbian filmmaker Emir Kusturica to find a way: It’s best to neither avoid nor analyze, but give into bearers of various madnesses. Mad royalists praise their ancestors’ heroism and sue to regain their palaces. People mourn Tito’s experiments in giving health education and housing to grand and small; Orthodox Christians hate Tito for denying celebrations on their saint day.

Conspiracy theories abound: Tito died after his WWII Partisan heroism and was played by an actor for decades after!  The current press is a deep State (American) project. Serbs rule!  Boasting about food, culture, religion is a national sport. Like Jews, if you put two Serbs in a room, you have three arguments. Nationalism is dangerous, unless it’s your own.

In the rural countryside, women milk their goats, families braid their daughter’s hair by a crumbling barn. All are united by a tart dislike of the Turks until they have to go to Istanbul for sophisticated operations.

Anti-Western rhetoric is par for the course – after the 1999 NATO bombing of the city, there’s enough bitterness to go around for decades. As under Tito, Serbia tries to find a “third way,” but stays unfixed. That’s just scratching the surface of the mosaic.

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Foodie Talk in Belgrade

Belgrade. Food is the easiest way of entering a culture I don’t know and haven’t nailed yet. It’s a language that crosses borders. The fruit seller in the little neighborhood market knew from my face that he had the most amazing figs. The vendor kept offering us different cheese whose language is goat or cow, fresh or salty; always delicious. I recognized a very specific smell of spiced cured meat from Pittsburgh where many Serbs emigrated.

On the other end of the spectrum was the Ottolenghi of Belgrade, a showy riverside restaurant where I was completely attuned to their spin on a food culture, call it Mediterranean/Ottoman/Levantine with a dose of Slav. History of migrations, empires and settlements shows deliciously through the food culture. How the street names keep changing with each regime – that’s for another day!

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From Sea Urchin to Craggy Mountain

Not content to merely look at the imposing Montenegrin mountains, I had to meander three hours on switchback and winding roads to Zabljak, an enclave of summer sports that required down vests and leggings. I’d just gotten an understanding of the sea-happy coast; now it was A-frames, après-hike, goats and beer. Trying to categorize the place, I flashed on sleepy Alpine ski town, German physical culture obsessions, and soon, the meadows of the Sound of Music. The mind jumps to what it knows and delights in comparisons and adjustments.
Once we started walking, I started paying more attention to what was really there – the towering pines, apparently virgin growth, cluster around glacial lakes and a National Park. Entrepreneurism, until the recent flurry of tourism, is represented by little stands of berry and mushroom sellers (chanterelles, porcini!) at every turn. Scattered on the slopes are spotty little villages in disrepair, disintegrating into the soft hay. Cows wander up the slopes of mountains. On the higher elevations, an array of smart hikers – lanky locals, Serbs, Hungarians, British, French – in serious hiking boots, poles and tight pants, attack the superb organized hiking paths. Models fill bottles from the mountain spring where a saint is thanked for the source.  It’s a gesture, though maybe more than that – the big picture here is nature and the emerald lakes, “eyes of the mountain,” that see it all.

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Montenegro, What’s in a Name?

My grandmother, who spent her widowhood taking cruises, would bring us back dolls from her exotic travels. I was happy to see one of the pairs – a man with a red vest and thick mustache, his wife in an embroidered skirt – in the window of a souvenir shop in Budva, Montenegro. What a relic! The country of the folk couple, Yugoslavia, no longer exists; and Serbia, the country Montenegro broke away with after the war, is no longer its master and partner. Since 2006, Montenegro has been an independent country of 600,000.
How do you pin it down? Its name means Black Mountain in some mishmash of Romance language though the mountains are not black but either green, covered by burly trees, or granite gray. The country calls itself different versions of the black mountain – Chernogoria, in Latin letters, or Crna Gora written in its Cyrillic alphabet.
It has the magic combination of rocky cliffs sliding into gorgeous Adriatic water, which makes it a popular tourist destination. Thus the international language of seaside holiday – inevitable muscle guys and girls in string bikinis; flashy Russians; massive yachts from Russia and Jersey; some scorched-skin Brits. Cool beats, rock n roll, seaside beer and spritzers paid for in euros.
Some of the tourists visit the stone fishing villages like Perast – they take in 1) the 17th century palaces dating from the long Venetian occupation and 2) the short perfect espresso dating from the same. They wonder how the devastation of the ’90s civil war could have occurred near these fjord-like enchantments even if the fighting took place further away, in Bosnia, Kosovo. Here, though there are more Orthodox worshippers, the Orthodox and Catholic churches sit side by side, and Muslims visit both. And the local women start the day chatting with the widows who sit behind the open shutters on the back streets. Remnants of the old world.


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What France Brings to the Table

That French people come together on a hot summer afternoon to eat a ripe meal with their average fellow mortals – that makes me love the French.  For what France brings to the table in the family of nations IS the table, the utter love of fully immersing in finer points of food.  It might be  a crisped skin of a duck, cêpes, the potatoes of course golden; a wine that takes no prisoners.  The lunch might take two hours or even three.   “We’ll all arrive at noon at the same time,” the French saying goes.  Live in time, don’t worry about it. 

If this consciousness is the French tradition, gift and patrimony, does everyone get to sit at the table? In restaurants above the Victor Hugo market place in Toulouse (one amazing food town), the salt of the earth gather to eat their traditional fare.  There are “etrangers” who dig into the fat-laced patrimonial magret with their families like they were born to it..  France as a nation-state may devolve someday, but ripeness as an idea in the mortal should endure.  Happy Bastille Day!

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Wave if You Love Me

The children shuffle in, although to call them children is a stretch.  Most of them are aged 21 or 22, therefore majority age, therefore adults.  Some are 23 or 24 – there have been interruptions in their schooling, they have things to do in their lives, construction jobs or care-taking or they returned to their countries and were detained at the border.

Although they are adults, they are also, always children.  They are children because there are adults, a particular unit of adults, who will always consider them children, their children.  They had given birth to them, or adopted them and kept them in sandwiches and Nikes, in doctors’ offices and karate classes, for some 16, 18, 20-some years.

When these pairs – parents/children or adults/children or adults/adults – are separated, there is sadness, sometimes anguish that might be weighted more heavily one way or the other.  When they are reunited, you can hear the elastic snap, a sense of rightness, pride and relief at the return.  There is a connective tissue that some call “sacred,” a deep chemistry.  Neither bonded love nor accompanying fear is rational.   There could be a kidnapping, or a shooting at the corner store or sociopath in math class.

So even in a vast hall where there is an infinitesimal chance of finding one another, it will happen over and over – a hand will rise, it will wave madly hoping against hope to find the child out there, even if they will be reunited in an hour outside the hall when the ceremony is over.


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Robert F. Kennedy: No Place the Poet Can’t Go

Bobby Kennedy was recognized in his day as a Samaritan, a man deeply gifted in finding and speaking to the common core of diverse people.  He spoke in his own register – as a white, male, Yankee and “elitist” – but was nonetheless heard and embraced by blacks, Hispanics, the poor, and astoundingly, poor whites who had supported George Wallace.  From today’s fractious vantage point, it seems unfathomable.

The authentic humane poet came out in a crucible test.  Kennedy had planned to address a volatile black crowd in Indianapolis; but Martin Luther King had just been gunned down in Memphis, and Kennedy would have to toss his prepared speech and deliver the horrific news to the crowd with the obvious potential of violence.

The gutsy and real came together; stretched between grief and desire, pushed by deep emotion, Kennedy produced something transcendent.  “For those of you who are black, who are tempted to be filled with hatred and distrust at the injustice of such an act, against all white people…”  It would have been easy to deny that.  Instead Kennedy said, “I feel it too.”  For the first time, he talked about his bottomless grief for his brother, prescribing compassion and love.

And then to the crowd of stunned, seething people in the heart of the Indianapolis ghetto, he said, “My favorite poet is Aeschylus.”  What?  “And he once wrote, ‘Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.'”  It went straight to the heart.  Kennedy closed by quoting the Greeks again: let’s dedicate ourselves “to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.  Let us dedicate ourselves to that and say a prayer for our country and for our people.”   Amen.



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So I’m…..

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.”

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End Days in Naples

End Days in Naples

Here’s proposing “End Days in Napoli”
as a fabulous opera – how perfect
this baroque jostling
everyone playing their roles –
sidewalk men singing arias, girls
swishing with trays of cafe;
churches losing their swirls
in the dark alleyways.
When the metro jolts, a woman shouts
Mamma Mia! Exactly!

Enjoy the city of contradictions
as world war threatens
where energies peak
with regularity for your last day.
Go wildly religious with
marbled palaces or corner saints
though killer food will dominate.
Death by pizza (Sorbillo or Brandi)
ricotta pastries, balls of mozzarella,
anchovies, all the best, finished by
Gran Cafe Ciorfito or Bar Nilo’s espresso.

If and when the end hits,
look towards the flattened planes of
Pompeii –
it’s been done before.
On your way out,
take the elevator in the back
and bring your coin –
you get nowhere without
ten cents for the guardian.

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