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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Place, No Passport Needed

The house of my recurring dreams 
so real yet nowhere I’ve ever been
a place to put up my imaginary feet
each night a new set of contexts
relations to be worked out

in my lucid jetlagged state
I ask little of this curious place
a borrowed dream, someone else’s memory
Paris, not quite country, silhouette
on the edge of sunset

place to a peripatetic poet
a buffet of imagination and reality
buffet of the cosmos

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Baudelaire Walks Pandemic Paris

Walking through Paris in the (imagined) aftermath of a pandemic, I had the uncanny feelings of déjà vu, that things had disappeared and been replaced, leaving behind a residue of scented melancholy.  The gap between then and now ignited a play of imagination, of desire.  I had the sense that a great poet had walked this terrain before….voilà Baudelaire!

Baudelaire, delicate but so durably modern, was a visionary of things shadowy, emotionally complex and fugitive, errant.  He was a vagabond in the city he inhabited, an internal exile as he moved roughly every two years due to poor finances. An exhibition, “Baudelaire, la Modernité Mélancolique” at Bibliothèque Nationale lists some 20 of his addresses all over the city.  More trenchant, he retained memory of Paris as it was cut asunder by Baron Haussmann and remade for a new world.  The poet was brilliant at giving presence to things absent.  He created images that were less precise rendering than color of a memory. 

Baudelaire sang.  One of the youthful letters in the show, he complained to his mother when she erased his primacy in favor of her new husband.  The calligraphy of “à moi, à moi” — what about me! — soars with doubled underlining and accents graves that fly like the crescendo of musical notations.  The emotion is real, the emotion is all.  

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Madrid: Light, Shade, Goya

Goya, I’m understanding your mystery.
I see your country through your emotions.
You who said that there is no need for color, 
only light and shade. 

A man crossing a plaza in full sun
will have the crackle of sun around him,
the scintillation of green, yellow streaks, red vibration,
all the colors on his black suit, and still be immersed
in that great color: black contains all colors. 
He will be alone, old, wearing a black coat.
Complex and emotional. 

The browns and golds and muted reds, 
dark unlit interiors, heavy slabs of wood; 
those varnished red tavernas and tiendas
under Plaza Mayor; a drink with the nerve 
to be called Sangria.

There’s never a standing being, a cat, a person,
a leaf, a lantern, even a fire, that doesn’t move 
with its shadow.  The shadow in Spain, for all its sun,
is all-consuming. 

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The Alchemical Saffron Harvest

Years ago I started imagining a saffron harvest, conjuring up the process of hundreds of humans, with their hands, turning fields of flowers into an essence, a spice, dried stigma so concentrated it’s almost like a drug. Time passed.  As I let it float, it took on disorienting dimensions.  I imagined it as a Dionysian foray into color, or a metaphoric turning of one matter — flower — into another — a spice.  Or one color — violet — into another — deeply inbued red-yellow. An ever-expanding chain of one sense – color – becoming another — scent — and another — flavor.

What luck to find myself in Consuegra, a small town in La Mancha, Spain, for the celebration of this year’s saffron harvest.  Behind every foray into color there is a ground, real people, a story. It rained. We watched children compete in saffron plucking contests, as if a spelling bee or lego competition.  Elder women peered over shoulders of the children — the spectacled, the quick, the chubby — until the first girl jumped up, having separated the pale violet petals of the autumn crocus, picked that morning, into a pile of zingy red threads. 

What a marvel of patience! How arresting to see the old women leaning with their milk-blue eyes full of concentration as they extracting the silky threads.  Color became the mode of transport of tradition across time, like an echo, a talking drum.  (Hillsides of windmills mark the travels of Cervantes and Don Quixote in La Mancha.) That evening, threads are toasted in homes over sieves until a cooler darker brown emerges.  Alchemy! Red gold. It makes the head spin, inside a wave of scent, color and flavor. 200,000 flowers for a kilo of the stuff. Disruption of the senses!  

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Jewish Ghetto, Airbnb & other Cafe Stories

It’s an amazing feature of change.  The twisted winding streets, narrow as crooked fingers, are now lit with happening cafes, cold brew, bars serving Aperol spritz.  The old Jewish ghettos, once places of shame and confinement, are where you’ll find bright faces of the global generation.  It almost doesn’t matter the city, Vilnius, Girona, Krakow, Paris.  

The old Jews would be amazed — very old, depending on the city!  In Palermo, Sicily, where the merchants were thrown out long ago, names of alleyways are trilingual, written in Italian, Hebrew and Arabic.  Amber lanterns light the way for long nights of drinking and circus of socializing.  Palermo considers itself perennially In the Middle — so here Jews are among many of the middle layer of culture. 

 In Toledo, Spain, long famous for its large intellectual medieval Jewish community (ten synagogues, including two truly spectular renovated buildings), old timbered ceilings and walls constructed of tenth century pebbles lend atmosphere to the best small restaurants.  And since it’s Spain, don’t be surprised to see a flashy hoof of serrano ham sitting on the counter of a place with the chutzpah to call itself Cabala!

History is full of its tragedies and ironies, messy intricacies, mysterious energies.  Have a drink in the Cabala!

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Why Palermo

Why Palermo, a friend asked when I was making plans.  To gather the last strands of summer sun, like harvesters with a basket, I said, or something such.  Everything sings in the sun.  Instead, there has been some sun and much storm. The stone streets gleam slick and gray between the medieval buildings; the streets with arms extending out like a wet octopus. 

I might have said more interesting things: I love the mash-up of cultures, the never-finished project of culture building.  When I was 21 and dizzy with discovery, I said this was the first Arab country I’d been in.  Was it the pressure of colors — greens, pinks of fish, oranges, figs, the persimmon I ate everyday with fresh ricotta and semolina bread on a park bench?  Even locals here still talk of their Arab city — the gardens made urban market, sumptuous and overflowing in crowded alleys with fruits, fish, vegetables.  It’s a vision of possibility – a world of overflowing excess – that exists, and exists, no less, in the shadow of crumbling buildings!

The streams of cultivaters — Carthinigians, Phoenicians, Greeks, Arab, Normans, Italians, Cosa Nostra – are all still felt. Along with palm and orange trees, cats, graffiti, conversation, cars, garbage.  This fertile energy threatens to overflow at all moments, is always almost too much, pulls back with its own logic.  To know a thing, you put yourself in the middle. That’s the beauty of it. 

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The History of Palermo in Eggplant and Gold Mosaic

You could write the history of Palermo in gold mosaic, in eggplant and raisins, in 14th century palaces whose doors stand alongside a tangle of rubble, of blood.  You could stand looking at scooters wheeling down a medieval alleyway and wonder about that history, how it fits coherently, those glittering domes and walls of gold-leaf tessesrae of world treasures mastered by Roger II, that great unsung Norman whom we can thank for red Arab domes and art brilliance. 

You move out of the way as an egg-shaped car comes towards you, take a seat at the storefront bar.   Order a glass of local village wine.  Think about how caponata, its silky sweetened eggplant, raisins, olives couldn’t exist without Arab markings.  It was day when you started putting together this history; now a half moon has risen over the palm trees.  The piazza with an abandoned convent is packed tight with stools, people drinking.  Cars are leaning on horns trying to get somewhere, but where, a notch ahead, it moves like the ocean’s surf, waves of energy roaring forward, then pull back. Some people drink from their cars in traffic.

This is a land clawed back from the Mafia. Playgrounds post plaques that they say we don’t pay. All around town you see attempts at this other mythology. It is a city that’s back and a city beyond, worthy of its mystery.

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It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane…Travel Again

Stop doing something, then start again to incur wonder. I.e., travel! You give your suitcase to strangers and pick it up on a Mediterranean island? You fly in the belly of a mechanical bird? Suddenly you’re above the clouds where the sun streaks pink, you look out the window again and you’re in darkness. You fly over a sepia city, small beads sewn into a warm fabric, a ground. There is a sinuous line dividing dark ocean from coast, dark wash of the Atlantic to urbanscape. This is night, do they never turn off the lights? It could be any city, but this is Lisbon, the first stop out of three. It’s 5am. Men shine in their fluorescent green vests, joking as they unload bags from the belly of the bird.Up and away to Rome, descending towards Rome. How stunned the ships, becalmed toys in the Mediterranean. What is that jagged shark…if not our plane’s trailing shadow. Flying over land, that cluster of reddish structures has the brush of the antique. Get closer, there’s a Roman amphitheater in the middle of weeds and industrial blocks. Made it to stop three. Welcome to Palermo, Sicily!

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In the Beginning, the Slug

Alexander Calder

In the Beginning, the Slug

From confusion and darkness

over the deep, this —

divine days of early fall, glitter

of high blue, lush watered grass. 

Something shimmers, the length of a necklace, 

flecks of silver, of pink, of blue almost tinsel

on the lawn like living breathing Mylar 

delicately held by every blade of grass.

What could be more humble than the slug?

A snail without home on its back.

Secreting a minuscule rainbow

to grease its wayward path.

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With barely a whisper, the cicadas

With barely a whisper the cicadas
bid adieu and disappear 

last week, we were drowning in tomatoes
fringing with scissors the basil
stirred by their rising symphony 
like rowdy children they were heard but not seen
the electric body, the buzz on the ear’s horizon

the last guests to leave the wedding 
trance-drunk on their own exhilaration
they drop from the circle dance 
or crawl out on all fours
little death then death death

their curved line suspended
by the dry cough of trees
the schism of sun warmth and breeze
pure fidelity goes underground
the open earth breathes deep

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