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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It Happens

It Happens

Let’s set the stage: a manicured college
of pure measure.  The lawns roll greenly.
Circumferences of mulch surround the trees.
Reason that has devised an equation for entropy
can answer every inquiry, mightily.

The forest is a mess of holy randomness.
The warp of vines wrap spruce and pine.
The maples having poisoned other seedlings,
soar through the roof of their own making.

They are timeless and totemic (a phrase from my notebook),
except for an elder felled by sickness or wind;
we tunnel under.

Overhead soar the turkey vultures.

Although a songbird screeches “teacher
teacher” as we descend, nature
has the upper hand.  Before he died,
an old man was epitaphin’
in the graveyard we’re passing.
On his headstone he got it right: It Happens.


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Lost in Celebration


Fourth of July
In the aimless wind,
             tree tops luft…

Luft!  How brilliantly the poet conjures
the circular motion —
rudderless! – of old trees shifting,
hapless sails billowing.

Trapped under a humid blanket
neither fish nor fowl
nor sun nor air
nor active compass

we’re captive, vagabonding,
shuffling, going nowhere
with a flurry of anxious
distracting motion.

On S. Main I seek refuge: millennials
sipping coffee, cold press, Internet.
I savor luft on the screen
in Dave’s air conditioning.

Now spellcheck acts up — first lift,
then left.  Utterly directionless.
When alone with nothing else to do,
looking for kicks, Google it.

Luft is short for Luftmensch, “an impractical
contemplative person having no
definite business or income.”
Luft, German for air, mensch, human being.

Beside me, a girl drawing, some tattooed kids
joking.  Jesus!  In whose eyes are we
Luftmensch American?  Careful, be
sophisticated, be mindful of the Yiddish.

Consider irony and humor with a jot
of bitter truth.  Be faithful to your word,
even in this hapless process.  Google, a second time
around, makes meaning more elusive:

One side has the word,
one side has the definition.  Microwave and
dishwasher safe.”    I’m not kidding!

The Fourth cometh – that we are going nowhere
is obvious.  We don’t know anything.
The American flag lufts like Saran around its pole.
If only I knew what luft meant.


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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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