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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What Augurs, Biden?

A smart observer once said about our new president: “If you ask me who the luckiest person I know, it’s Joe Biden.  If you ask me who the unluckiest person I know, it’s Joe Biden.”  As a lover of paradox, a light went off when I first heard it.  It seems like a joke, a mocking play on reason, a Woody Allen wisecrack that one knows immediately is smart, and later profound. The way an oracle would speak and we wouldn’t understand it, though we’d count intuitively on its deep truth.

Biden’s biography fills the blanks of the paradox – his success as a debut politician was followed by the deaths of wife and daughter.  He would have died of a brain aneurysm, ignoring his health and stumping away on the campaign trail if hadn’t been forced to drop out of a presidential race on charges of plagiarism.  His son, Beau, died young of a brain tumor.   After eight years as Vice-President, he’s fulfilled his ambition — in the most wrenching stretch — of becoming President.

We live in paradoxical times.  We’re lucky – the election went our way. We’re unlucky – part of our poltiical body tried to burn down the house.  I heard, as the inauguration neared, people were nervously organizing and ironing as women due before they’re about to have babies.  Nothing is guaranteed, and the successes of America the literal, the exceptional and idealist must open to the shadow life of paradox.  The biblical Isaac survived a binding, but his shadow death walks alongside him as a human. Experience of tragedy is just on the other side of exuberance, suffering clings as a double. If we’re lucky, as a country, we just might mature enough to hold a truer sense of absurdity, to admit that success is willed only to a small extent, if at all, and chance plays the major hand. Between the two forces, a reminder to be human. It depends how we play our hand.

*Ted Kaufman quoted in Evan Osnos’ biography of Joe Biden, “The Life, The Run, And What Matters Now.”

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Stuck in the Stalls of History

In Roberto Bolaño’s Savage Detectives, his sprawling novel of poets, revolutionaries and Pinochet, I remember most vividly the scene of a poet trapped in a stall of the bathroom as riot police entered her university.   Where else would she be?  She is Auxilio Lacouture, poet and auxiliary individual, manic monologuist.  She is bound by the ordinary, which becomes extra-ordinary, in spite of and because she’s a minor actor in the stream of history.  She missed megaphone calls to evacuate because she was reading poetry in the can. Thus she becomes part of the surreality of reality overlaid on the streets and in her own vivid consciousness, as public and private eruptions, of multiple narratives over several days of her own obsessive confinement.

Lacouture recalls: “I lifted my feet like a Renoir ballerina, my underwear dangling down around my skinny ankles and snagging on a pair of shoes…I saw the soldier who was staring entranced into the mirror, the two of us still as statues in the women’s bathroom…I heard the door close…

“I saw the wind sweeping the university as if it was delighting in the last light of day.  And I knew what I had to do.  I knew.  I had to resist.  So I sat on the tiled floor of the women’s bathroom and in the last rays of light I read three more poems by Pedro Garfias and then I closed the book and closed my eyes and said to myself: Auxilio Lacouture, citizen of Uruguay, Latin American, poet and traveler, stand your ground.” 

My daughter and I were burning onions for a French onion soup the day the insurrection took place.  We witnessed the coup by play-by-play accounts, by a torrent of words as we were darkening onions.  We were pouring broth over heaps of caramelized onions stuck to the bottom of the dutch over, scraping up the brown bits when the coup was going down.  We are part of a river and it’s going somewhere and we don’t know whether we’ll be judged for some other bit of goodness that we did, or didn’t do.

Where were you? 

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2020: Opera Extraordinaire


I was given to lying prone on the living room carpet, pencil in hand, contemplating my topic sentence. It was a strange luxury: the blank page and a sentence-to-be.  In my mind’s eye, I knew it had to be multiple. There couldn’t be just one angle, one point of view or concept to explore on a sixth-grade paper.  It was a good thing I had a stack of paper handy.

Skipping ahead, how many voices, or topic sentences would we need to write about 2020?  The mind splits under the pressure.  It’s been a behemoth of a year, and any rational attempt at “making sense” is a slippery, doomed adventure, without multiplicity. 

Better to imagine the year as a screaming, overstuffed, opera, exhausting in its sheer number of plot lines and tonal shifts.  You didn’t want to cry but there you were crying at something sentimental that now rang true.  There was sacrifice, there was love against all odds. Death always in the background, or on the other side of the flimsy stage door.  That’s what made the singing so moving, the sorrow, even in love songs, so poignant. 

When the opera quiets at intermission, you are soaringly happy, with inner circle, with friends.  I was happy with a square of grass, a flower, a word.  When I listened to the mute language of things. 

Sometimes from all the screaming and confusion, my mind got fuzzy.  I seethed from the cage of futility.  I raged, scoffed, then laughed at national farce.   I bled, then tried to be nourished by things as they are.  The same image of my physical self on a film strip would be repeated, with only the color radically shifting according to mood.  

One thing I’m grateful for: to have been saturated with emotion, saturated with experience.  Things mattered.  Chaos mattered.  At the edge, we did small things, though we were charged with personal accountability.  We found lightness at the center.  When we pack our suitcases to take forward into the future, they should be lighter and filled with an open weave of memory and desire, of fierce attention, of strong beauty.
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Solstice, burning bright

Solstice, winter, covid: we are close to the dark.   Those winter days that swing between flat gray and blindingly bright gray work a subtle palette. 

During insomniac nights — at 3am, at 4am — I am close to the darkness too.  As I lay awake, I go deep into it. I riff:
Darkness, my compatriot, my friend, my pain,
my swan dive, tail in the air, everything inverted.
My color palette, everything contained. 
Darkness, all swirling imagination, all nourishment, all foundation.
All restart, light, recognition of what is outside me, 
of darkness inside me that leads to the beyond.

Everyone is talking loosely, wildly, glibly of light, something we lack and thus want desperately to lure.   The electrified trees, the candles that never drip though they burn in every window every night, the bright rafters — all speak to a desire to light up in “unprecedented” fashion.  These are rituals of continuity, myths of faith that lay the way to see in darkness — considered “old-fashioned,” they are back with a bang.  As if we thought they could be replaced with bulbs!

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Playing with Woe

The protestations 
— the kicking and screaming —
where did we think horsehairs
came from
how do you get chicken soup
if not from a chicken

what did we really think 
of this reality thing

at night, unguarded 
in our heart of hearts
at the poker game, 
hurtling in the dark
do we bet on ourselves
as Americans

water and blood,
and skin and porosities and bloomy smells
from closeness, from love,
what did we think bodies were made of
if not bodies that touch and hold,
that tremble, improvise endless encounters until they 

don’t you don’t 
go down a dark alley lightly
even if you are stupid, or American

you go to the Blues
straight-up, all-American art
lugging lowdown bad news
you moan and groan

knowing reality is your dance partner
not asking who leads

you begin to play with woe
compete, restate, elaborate,
find the slinky horn, mockery,
human pulse in the drum beat

tragedy is to be stuck in a single mode
and joy improvisational — all elegance,
meditation, intentional 

“Joy is not for the faint of heart,”
says Robin Coste Lewis, riffing on Clifton
as I riff on Albert Murray, my mother,
Getting old is not for babies.

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thanksgiving in blue, quince and gray

It’s raining, a dreary gray-drenched drizzly rain. But rain blurs, takes the detail from things. What is data in rain? What is insistent, goal-driven argument? What is rain plus holiday? A chance to lay down my arms. Rest in a different kind of time. Steep in blue-gray pointillism where we can see ourselves in a continuous, constantly reimagined line. There were parents who puzzled the mysteries of cranberries and giving thanks during a World War; we once ran around Paris searching for airelles, cranberries, in a self-appointed quest. And in small pods, today all figurations of “we” will be losing some of our grievances. Yes, puzzling the mysteries of celebrating during crisis. Yes, cognizant of all the suffering and challenges – God knows we’re in the soup. At the same time celebrating the soup.

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Release

I wanted a cheap fix, a release, an anything
but the present thing, a veering from catastrophe

and know as the wind blows
there is no quick fix

but jeez, how little is granted, how stingy reality, 
how it seeps its goodness, 

what a frustrating partner is reason, seeming
other to my others, I tear my hair out

so I too began to dance, to shake off the tick
to make it make sense, I turned 

the snow globe on its head, I spun the disk, 
shook the paradigm, I know in my bones 

it is good nonetheless.

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TO THE OTHER SIDE!

Praise the stepping stones!  Simple, each notched and shaped with its own smooth surface. Laid for one purpose — to help us get to the other side.  To balance delicately over the raging chaos.  Monsters bark; still, praise the plank, several planks, foraged from the rough forest.   They feel good to the feet.   Everything old feels new,  brought back from the brink.  We’d been wandering, lost.  We wouldn’t have lasted much longer.  

The old not a destination, not an end game, not a savior.  See it as an in-between.  Horns honk, celebrations, rituals mark a passage.  The in-between is always our place.  Savor our own deep resources.  Never should they be surrendered.  We’ve taken the bridge from the abyss toward a resting place with a vision to the future.   

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THEY

THEY

Kafka saw it, part tragedy, part comic. 
They pulled us off our axis
put us in immobilis, the gnawing cell
of isolation, of terror

who is there, with a hand to catch — 
to touch us —

Time slows down     
stands 
still 
the top keeps 
spinning tottering 
neither stopping nor falling 
turning in exhaustion

We knew to cut the rug
foot-deep in the middle of the sensuous world,
each moment waking the next

Whisk, whisk.  Blow.  Spin it on its head
to rest in the dark.  
Whirl, dear life, impertinent joy. 

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October Blues (and other shades)

October’s precision.  Everything under the sun is sharp, preening with the ethic of freshly waxed cars, buffed and shined.  It is as nails made brilliant, as hard bright vernis.  Brushed wire.  It is shadow or it is not.  It is bursting pods.  It is golden rust, rods, pods.  A leaf falls into a pile of stiff percussion.  Rustling.  Crouching leaf, crouching skeleton.  Wine veined, ochre colored.  Same conversation with variation.  The earth is calling in echoes to other years.  I hear those long corridors of open Os, speaking the language of color. 

No more summer sonata, no more crickets.  Other beings supply the current of high-wire urgency.  Anxiety in the air, human panic.  Mud flats of nation and politics.  There is no joy in mudsville.  No joy in being Cassandra, having watched the hard-muscled tide of the courts over 20 years.  It’s all happening – decay.  

Americans are tuned to our tale of woe, and I’m one of them.  It’s hard to turn away, to oscillate, to equate that with care.  The next two weeks – oh, the indignity, and oh, the dignity required to be a bystander on this earth. 

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