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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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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