Back from Poets’ Camp

Back from Poets’ Camp
At poets’ camp, I wrote, I thought and read
and took the fullness as the world. 
Then I returned. Real life! So double,
Magnficent in its archly grinning way; 
the things we touch amidst the vast 
uncaressable disarray.
       There are mortal things to be taken care of
devolving fences, lost opposum, children,
unwatered lawns, crabgrass,
your hernia, those crenelated tubes and mass
fitted back in the ventral packet.
       Sedation made us notice a new
harmonious; your tone, smoothed down
a notch, brought miniparadise.  It’s not 
the heat to spark a forest fire that matters;
it’s caring for the one-worded poem between us.


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The “Food” Thing

Food is not unsung these days, quite the opposite.  Our foodie and consumer culture fetishizes it.  The constant spill of images whetting desire to look and to own almost obliterates its origins of sustenance.

A day without food – a fast, hunger strike, poverty – will bring its essential quality right on back.  Food, glorious food!  Muslims are currently observing Ramadan, a month of neither eating nor drinking, from sunrise to sunset.  The traditional custom of breaking the fast is a glass of buttermilk, a handful of almonds and harira soup.  Imagine the tang and silk of the first sip of buttermilk, the blossoming spices in the warm harira.  Maybe the sun glistens on a layer of olive oil, and underneath the diner finds a substantial puree of earthy legumes.  There is a bit of grit, a nose of minerals, a head of fragrant odor.  Most cooks make harira with lamb, but a vegan version, with plenty of lemon, is complete. The “kitchen sink” soup of chickpeas, lentils, vegetables, cinnamon, turmeric, ginger, pepper binds together like a world. Harira, as an object of worship, will last only a few minutes; it beckons, it is met, and the body are soul are nourished.

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The Breathing Gallery at RISD

This spring has been cold and dark, and it rains all the time, and Trump is pulling out of the Paris Climate Accord. And I’m working on a dark book project.   As soon as I walked into the RISD Grad Show in Providence, I saw a reflection of my mood.

The guts of some object – a cotton mattress or futon – were unraveling on the floor.  Its soft layers were exposed.  On a nearby pedestal sat a handmade book, like a family relation – same color, same fabric.  Those fiber guts had been transformed into a book!  Artist Vanessa Nieto Romero may not have been using the actual literal material. But the equation bed + guts = book seemed apt and ultimately inspiring.

Once my self-indulgent viewer was exorcized, the massive space of the convention center blossomed like an exuberant garden. Yes, it has been raining – but the rain over at RISD has been creative. As an antidote to dark times, it was inspiring. The artists – graduating master students – represent all departments, so the range of response to “our times” came in graphic and industrial design, jewelry, print, painting. There are portraits of urgency, of dislocations in nature and population on grand, ambitious scale. Students are asking serious questions and making inquiries into existential issues, minus the usual snark.

There is a video that creates a soundscape.  On its own, this amplified recording of heavy and desperate breathing would be disturbing and exhibitionist.  I peeped behind the black curtain and watched the actress as she pressed her mouth against glass, creating mist as she squeezes, shrieks and moans out the essential act of breathing.  She fills a whole wing of the whole gallery.   With her, the artwork in the room was breathing – young artists are alive and well.

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to Don DeLillo

The tail end of a violent semester
parents rush in with their Suburbans
a mixed bag of doubled emotions

Living next to Brown I see
the flying styrofoam pitched by mother
in a pique of anger.  The Chinese doctor

beside her fares no better, Pacman
mattress strapped onto his New York beemer.
Battered chairs, resculpted fans

twisted bike frames blind, without eyes
crutches, messy Amazon boxes; wait –
Is this Lourdes?  Against a wall
heaps of discarded crutches – the plagued can walk!

Oh, the disarray of time, the leap
from melancholy autumn, sentimental
goodbyes amidst the burnished elms.

Separation then seemed so stark; turns out
(frat boys belch while pretending to help)
shedding wasn’t forever.

Relief!  My own sassy, long-haired girls
are heading home – and with curated
transition will settle in.

It isn’t “Sunrise, Sunset” which I played
on the black and white upright at nine
feeling sorry for the parents bereft

It’s refeathering – the kids are moving
back in.

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Polyphonic Survival


Mais Hreish and Saleem Ashkar

We imagine Israel as the quintessential polarized society, for decades before Trump showed the US how divided we are ourselves.  I was keen to hear from Polyphony, an Israeli group whose mission is to bridge the divides through music.  Walking to the house concert in Providence, I mused if such a thing is still possible. I wondered if the conversion of “opposition” into “enemy” and now “devil incarnate,” has exhausted our chances for coexistence.  Has humanity, though our horrid behavior, outstayed our welcome?

The stage was a rotunda in host Lynn Holstein’s elegant 19th century house.  Mais Hriesh, a delicate beauty with tendrils of dark hair, had come to Providence via Bard College, where she now studies, via hometown of Nazareth.  She began playing her thin flute, and the music floated.   She made Claude Debussy’s composition “Syrinx” into pure conversation: threads of thoughts, feeling, indelible mode of intimate expression.

Saleem Ashkar came to the piano and lifted his metaphoric tuxedo tails. An international star of the concert halls, also born in Nazareth, Saleem immersed himself in a different tone of musical conversation. He took us through darkness and back with Beethoven’s Appassionata Sonata. It’s an extraordinarily demanding piece with wrenching passages that had him pounding and wailing and hovering on the keyboard.

The music implicitly answered all questions: “the indomitable human spirit” that Saleem mentioned in conversation was vibrating in all of us.  With his suave but relaxed charm, he brought up the image of oppression and freedom.  Chess player Bobby Fischer once said that if he were in prison cell, he only needed a chess board to be master of his world.  The Arab-Jewish Polyphony venture, which involves 10,000 Israeli students, offers the invaluable: “When you master a thing, you create your reality,” Saleem said.  “We overcome outer reality with an inner reality that is creative and constructive, and constructs a new reality.  It begins with the inside.”

Polyphony is based in Nazareth, the largest Arab city in Israel, and grew out of East-West Divan conducted by Daniel Barenboim. Saleem’s younger brother, Nabeel Abboud-Ashkar, is the co-founding dynamo who helps organize the pyramidal structure of music education, conservatories, and youth and professional Jewish-Arab orchestra.  Polyphony, the beauty of the many-voiced conversation, is not only beautiful, it’s survival.

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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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