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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George and Francesca: The Magic Box

Francesca Woodman: George Lange

In writing about his friend photographer Francesca Woodman, George Lange talks about a “magic box” that he kept after she died in 1981, a box of relics – not only photographs but clips of hair, napkins, contact sheets, scrawled notes, goofy things for she was fun and silly.  For decades, he couldn’t open it – beware the risk of dark holes!  And then he did. 

What’s fascinating is the tumble effect, the successive falls into were engendered by that opening. The contents became a show, staged in Denver at the Museum of Contemporary Art, and I had the good fortune to hot-tail, then fall into the opening.  George is my dear childhood friend from Pittsburgh, and when I started college at Brown, he and Francesca were fast friends down the hill at RISD, in Providence.

Fast-forward to the opening this fall, (multivalence of words).  Walking through the frames – Francesca’s pictures that George had salvaged, and his own beautiful work of their everyday – I began slipping in time, crossing into those set pieces, stages, surreal concoctions. Down the rabbit hole I went along with the seductress Francesca playing with borders and playing with time, still exerting her desire to plunge deeper and deeper into inanswerable questions.  She seemed fully formed, fully live, slipping in and out of vision, never impossible and never possible to grasp.  

Border crossings were preoccupations of Francesca, who might be seen as a Rimbaud-like figure, having done her major work by age 22 (Rimbaud wrote all his poetry before quitting at age 21 — not committing suicide).  Like Rimbaud, her work, though twisted and sometimes violent, finds its power in its moving and radical innocence.  Somehow behind it all, there is an Eden, an Eden of the mind.  That fugitive Eden must be lost; we find it in art, lose it, seek those moments where it flows through us.  The limitless creative freedom of youth is intoxicating.  Artists change, and Francesca never aged with us; she is preserved  without the real grunge of disillusion that we gather moss.

 George wanted to show his friend’s playfulness, free-spirited rather than the doomed gloomy genius that in fame since her death she’s become.  What comes through is the affirmation, the yes that denies despair as truth. George and his camera were there, in attendance to the astonishment of the everyday, an everyday that is layered, strange, full of risk.  The work lives in the space of creative freedom that accepts but also affirms conditions that we love and sometimes might have wanted to escape.

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“Some beetle trilling its midnight utterance.”  

Beetle song opens Denise Levertov’s “Continuum,” a poem of late-summer return.  Returns can be precarious transitions…maybe you’re like me, having come back home with a certain euphoria, having recalibrated by quieting the melancholy news junkie part of self.  I’d been lucky enough to overhear in my own voice too much cynicism and slid off that lid.  In doing so, I unleashed a new creative flow. 

Levertov continues:
I recall how each year/returning from voyages, flights/over sundown snowpeaks/cities crouched over darkening lakes/hamlets of wood and smoke, I feel…

Even the feeling part is confusing.  Does your whole self come back?  Does part of self get shut down amidst the weight of “reality?”  Is the conversation with self still audible? 

Using a September metaphor, strands of our reality seem to swing like hammacks strung between tall trees. One loose strand is the reality TV show of Donald Trump trying to steer weather according to his whims. Serena Williams as falling hero. There is real suffering in the catastrophe of the Bahamas which demands an open heart.  

How can we hold values of openness and maintain the pole of poetic value?  It’s a tricky challenge that requires ongoing practice and community involvements. I’d also posit querying and challenging the self — but don’t take my example of insomnia, with long sessions of inter-self conversation.  

Turn attention to the real in the earth.  As Levertov concludes her small but powerful lyric with the unity and durability of what she finds:

the same blind face upturned to the light
and singing
the one song,

the same weed managing
its brood of minute stars
in the cracked flagstone.

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Cut Me Loose

How freeing to discover the curious way French acquaintances and friends are judging the US.  Fortunately Trump is not sucking out all the oxygen.  While they despise him, they’re perplexed by this passing nightmare and don’t hold it against us.  They’re too sophistcated to think people are defined by government, or a job, or whatever.

The residual image I heard evoked is the North American sky.  Our big sky, our wide horizon that stretches imaginatively from one invisible pole to another.  The immensity of that sky, the cut-freeness makes them sigh. It signifies space apart from set patterns and expectations, from deep tradition.  These same people are staunchly defending their core French values – egalité, civility and decency. The sigh is about regimen, tradition, shuffling to the same beat. Americans might find it charming that everyone rushes to lunch at midi, less charming to sit in six hours of traffic crossing from Spain to France because everyone takes the same vacation schedule. That big open permissable sky is the one they talk of reverently and breathe deeply.

Baudelaire wrote a wonderful poem in which a stranger is asked what he loves: country, God, family.  He denies it all.  The only thing he loves are clouds.  They can’t take that away from him.   The stranger brings valuable vision and truth. As an antidote to the stifling weight of the US now, I’m bringing along the stranger’s vision of big clouds and big sky. 

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Summer Bed

The pine prepares a bed
dropping its needles

long and thin
as angel’s hair

and smooth, each connected
to a partner,

toasted like hay or ochre
anticipating our autumnal bed

though now we lay head to head
watching the summer stars

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Refugees: The Tragedy of Frenemies

Rivesaltes, France

I saw a discrete sign for a Memorial to Internment Camps at Rivesaltes, outside Perpignan, France, and finally decided to visit.  Lacking indication, you’d have to know or have a reason to take the plunge. You’d have to choose right at the roundabouts, take long forlorn stretches along the industrial zones, follow noncommittal arrows to the Memorial.  Even then, you’d have a powerful visceral reaction to the moody remains of barracks that housed a succession of people caught between regimes, history’s thorns, undesirables, worse.  But who were interned, harbored, shipped, killed? 

Even the slab of alienating concrete that seemed to announce inability to speak, to find words for man’s inhumanity to man was a bit of a ploy.  There is hidden information about the Spaniards fleeing Civil War, the doomed Jews, the Gypsies, then the Algerian “Harkis.”  But you’d have to want to go down into the unknown.  You’d want to investigate how these spaces speak to ambivalence and ambiguity of transmigration, of lies, fear and political cowardice that plague us now.  

Shelter is always a two-way street, turning on the hinge of hospitality/prison.  In the ancient world, Greek hospitality served the purpose of putting the wandering stranger under control.  So it was in 1939 when the Spanish and Catalan Republicans fled Franco’s conquest and thought they were coming to a friendly country.  But the country wasn’t friendly.  It treated the wretched refugees whose numbers and socialist ideas were threatening, with lack of food, water and medical help.  So it was with Jews who thought they were fleeing from Germany and other countries to a safe zone, “free France.”  They were housed in Rivesaltes barracks “safely” until Vichy cut a deal with Nazis to keep their territory soldier free and delivered 2,251 Jews to Drancy and eventually to Auschwitz.  (Another half were helped to escape.)  Gypsies were brought from the north of France and detained as undesirables.  

The list goes on with successions of needs of a state’s questionable history – Algerians who fought for the French became hot potatoes, wanted nowhere, not thanked for their help, housed here until society repositioned them. 

Rivesaltes also rings bells as the site of the Perignan airport – a small, Lego-like structure which is the windiest airport in France.  Riversaltes also the name of a wonderful sweet wine.  Oh, the multivalence of words!  Shelter, internment camps, hospitality centers, and all these hedgings speak of the uncertainties, fissures and failures of society to rest, humanely, with the familiar other. 

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Le Plus Ça Change…

As the French take to the barricades to figure out what the country is about, one thing they don’t doubt is food. As Eric Delalande, a brilliant chef who traded Madison Avenue for Place des Marchés in Villèsque, a remote village in the Corbières, says: Le plus ça change, le plus c’est la meme chose. Or “They can’t touch our food or our wine!”
What Americans consider elitist and fetishy – wine-making, fancy cooking – is almost democratic for the French. There are endless stories of a quasi-motorcycle gang having long discussions about a sauce or character of the wine with a maitre d’. Tant mieux! Pleasure is a reality, and reality pleasure in a pleasantly confusing way.
The wine-makers I met during our tour around the Corbières prove that working the earth not for skeptics, not for critics, but for those who connect, all in, body and mind, with what they do. In a certain way, the famous critical thinking of the French turns to deep earnestness, to sharing, to values. You can question the meaning of life endlessly, in circles all you want, but test it against a gaspacho with frozen chèvrę scoop, a grilled magret with a glass of Fitou, and the moment gains a bit of forever.

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Blank Space: Bastille Day

What’s not to love? The first lines of the French chalkboard – “Today we celebrate” have been carefully written once. The last line shows traces of previous fêtes, erased and written over. Today’s humble last line, dashed off, ignoring a grammar mistake, is “Fête Nationale.” Bastille Day. 14 Juillet. A hot still Sunday under the sun in the South. Stretches of vineyards, no one about. It exudes timelessness. Tomorrow there’ll be something else to celebrate in the vacant space. It will be simple. Monday under the sun with fresh bread and croissants.

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Independence EveryDay


Morning wakes hours before its city creatures.
I see light through the shutters:
cool insides while their clapboards communicate color — 
hydrangea pink, hydrangea blue —
to the morning.  Slate gray street, 
a herribone brick sidewalk. 

Couples inside, 
coffee darker than their peignoirs.  
It’s a holiday.
The 4th of the seventh month, almost mid-summer,
almost tipping over. 

I like to think
they’re in their temple of freedom 
in bed talking or kissing,

their call to arms
their own defense 
of our freedom.

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The Poet who mistook a Sunflower for Eve

As the poet must give up control of meaning to the reader, so the abstract painter must let go – rejoice! – in happy (mis)interpretations of her viewers.   After seeing Joan Mitchell’s large canvases (seen here in detail), I offer these animated, poetic (mis) sightings.

JP: Amid the roiling violence of energy, who is always there: the angel.  Everything is doubled, rage and love, despair and endurance.  In modern life, paradoxical Baudelaire is never far from us.  

But no, the swing of this angel’s knee is too delicious, and her hair part of the motion in and for itself.  Lo, Eve!  The wind is kicking up.  The pale translucence winding behind her – the pink snaky squirm – is a minor thing.   

Joan Mitchell Title: Sunflowers

JP: How radiant, the zucchini flowers! Light oranging the petal, sluices of stem, the tremble, soft pale follicles.  How does she paint with fine ground dust of pollen? Swallows of light, collapsible wet creases, petal bells, to be smeared, stained, psalmlike.

Joan Mitchell Title: Minnesota.

JP: What did you expect to shower down? That it’s petals and pollen, cream mint, manna – that it sits like Bernini’s mystical St. Teresa of Avila, gold showering from the upper right corner – only means it’s been here before.  

Joan Mitchell Title: Rivière

Joan Mitchell, “I carry my landscapes around with me,” David Zwirner Gallery, New York.

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Genesis, Moonstone Beach

Nocturne: Blue and Silver – Cremorne Lights 1872 James Abbott McNeill Whistler 1834-1903 Bequeathed by Arthur Studd 1919

Thanks, Crosswinds Poetry Journal, for publishing this poem in Volume IV !

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