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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Le Noir (Winter Beach)

Le Noir (Winter Beach)

Not so fast, walker
on the winter beach

under a shrouded moon.
Desire far outstrips

your first unsteady steps.
No sight, no fixed points:

Recalibrate. A roar answers
your question before it’s asked.

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The Values of Black

Black being such a glorious color, it’s unfair to see it maligned in the season of light.  During those holiday weeks of celebrating “light,” all those little pinpricks stung me and made me think, in a Baudelairean way, about its other. I was thinking about how to decouple darkness and its sometime extension “blackness” from the metaphors of sin and ignorance of the age/soul.  I thought about how to decouple part of the daily cosmic cycle and a radically beautiful color from centuries and millennia of role play, poetry and language games.  How might race relations have been different if the color of sin had stayed in the red zones, stains of blood and sex as they were in the Hebrew Bible?  But new color games came along, Christianity codifying and equating Adam and Eve’s “original” sin to death and to the color of death.  In a much, much longer story spanning centuries, black came to mark dark ecstasies of sinners, devils, and sadly, Ethiopians.

I was listening to a magnificent sermon of Martin Luther King at Riverside Church, from 1964.  Was I surprised to hear him use the metaphors “terrible midnight of our age” and “it’s midnight, a darkness so deep that we can hardly see which way to turn”?  When he preached, I believed his midnight, his condemnation of moral relativity, hypocrisy, lack of compassion.  He doesn’t say blackness – he says darkness, and midnight.  Deep dark holes of moral/Christian failure, using the full weight of age-old cultural symbols.

The title of this speech, “A Knock at the Door,” is a midrash of a parable of Luke, which in itself is a midrash of “The Song of Songs.”  When a stranger, lover or needy person, which could be divine or part of ourselves, comes knocking at our door, we are unprepared, we hesitate, or play or hide.  The desire and demand of this other breaks in on our lassitude; it erupts, interrupts our borders.  There are so many “colorations” here, but there is a pattern.  Certain things cannot be explained, but we know to be true. Color breaks in, uninvited, irreducible, not standing for anything except itself.  

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Merry Quarantine

The quarantine was stunning, Covid we could have done without.
A walk on the snow-covered beach the last outing 
before we took to our big old house full of windows — the outside world
just beyond the dimpled glass: great rolling heaves of mist, rain, the labored breath of a bus

We laid trays of coffee — “room service!” — at the first child’s door.
Two more sick: the house now kids’ majority rule!  I slipped behind the door of my office
but an hour of virtue is all you need to know it’s no fun.  
Why bother otherwise? 

How lucky the kitchen was stocked with tiny marshmallows and French chocolate
waiting in dishes for guests that would never come…
a list of movies, a fireplace with stacks of crackling logs
six-point crumpled Kleenex fluttering as paper snowflakes in an infinity of patterns
tables littered with bottles —- cough syrup, elderberry, zinc —
and cake vying for room with white test kits

We laughed into delirium when time was a stream of barely noted
notches in the inevitable: 
and talked of dreams, Rebbe Nachman, how to organize notebooks
not optimists but expecting each day would get better

New Year’s Eve was a muted affair; 
even if historic and global, we could say we did it in our pyjamas
in our own creaturely language
although we were still stuck in the indeterminacy

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The Home Groove

This past week I’ve been flashing on Penelope Fitzgerald’s scintillating descriptions of preparing a house.  Her novel “Blue Flower,” set in the 18th century, is full of the bright crush of domestic detail, the half-laborious, half-ecstatic ritual of organizing a home.   As I was dashing around, making way for my grown kids and friends to migrate, I heard Fitzgerald’s echo — “great dingy snowfalls of sheets, pillow-cases, bolster-cases, vests, bodices, drawers, from the upper windows into the courtyard … into giant baskets.”  I’m not firing up the old Maytag with anything but a switch; still, I note my excitement to make a nest, a safe haven through methodical hands-on work.  I bent my head as I came down from the attic, carrying unrolling stored mattresses, shaking goose down through the corners of comforters, slapping pillows to life so they seem just born, cutting flowers for vases.  

We don’t have Christmas decoration like what Fitzgerald describes — “”myriad shining points of light threw vast shadows of the fir branches onto the high walls and even across the ceiling.”  There are still, always rituals of the kitchen!   I took the knives to be sharpened on a whetstone by a local knife sharpener.  I have piles of fruit and dried dates and figs, preserved lemons  in their jars preserving, prunes in Armagnac.  We beat eggs with whisks and crush almonds as Fitzgerald’s staff does –  “almond paste baked brown”! –  (I’m not missing those soups of rose-hips and onions,bread and cabbage-water, cows’ udders flavored with nutmeg.”)  I lugged piles of logs/coffee logs/electric heaters inside, but the item of the moment is the one I can’t find — home covid tests! Safe haven, feast and famine, nice work if you can get it!

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What Asked to Come Back from the Trip

One charming cliche pops up when you are going on a trip — people ask, can you pack me in your suitcase?  When you’re returning, it’s a moot point.  Or is it?   

I wouldn’t have known it when I was boarding the plane, but now that I’ve unpacked and am reorienting, certain things did ask to come back.  I’d call them mute things.  They are live elements that I encountered, with which I shared space and shared alert, vibrant moments.   They are inanimate but have subtle voice and life.   These things called and intersected my perception.  They cracked open staleness, cracked open language that was carrying pragmatic messages without carrying surprise, and winged across the abyss. Many, many aesthetic happenings that happened inside and out.

The energy of traffic that moves like the ocean’s surf, its waves of energy roaring forward, pulling back, lulled by a lazy club beat.  A dull blue bucket in moonlight as an old woman lowers it on a pulley from her terrace.  Active volcanos that grow like children and move towards the sea. The soft bee sound of motorbikes.  Color that is there beyond us.   A recognition of the brilliant chaos that swarms us, reminding us that we are participants but not masters.  If we listen, we get it.  They travel with us.  Carry on.

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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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