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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Immersed in Oswald’s Nobody

I love the verbal incantation, the spell of words cast by poetry.   Our current social crisis, with its urgency and ER alarms, seems to overwhelm the lure of musical sound.   It’s no wonder that I love the power that poet Alice Oswald, keen magician versed in multiple voices, summons in her new book “Nobody” (Cape, 2019)  

Oswald takes as her starting point a hapless side story from Homer’s Odyssey, the fate of an anonymous poet. “The poet” is taken to a remote island, left to die in a triangle of love stories between mortal and divine.  The narrative gives Oswald the occasion to write immersively, from the inside out – immersion and dissolution in water a theme she works with seeming inexhaustible attention and imagination.  For instance: “and the waves pass each other from one colour to the next/and sometimes mist a kind of stupefied rain/slumps over the water like a teenager.”  The poet delights in her mystical moves – closeups, long shots – with meditative intelligence. In the chaos of our world, a willful individual divorced from and standing against the natural world is quaint and unsustainable.  “Nobody” is classically old and radically new in this elegy of human consciousness. The process of dissolution is also a process of recovery, a baptism in the experience of universal nothing.  What remains is the song, many-voiced, long-lasting – a moving incantation.

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Moscow Mania

Moscow of eclectisms. Moscow of vast spaces. Moscow of KGB, and crossroads of empires, Moscow of mayonnaise salads. All those old things are still there, now layered with the new — Moscow of 100 open kitchens with tattooed chefs, young girls with velvet pasha pants working the maitre d’ desk. Moscow of boulevards, wind-swept, as long as the steppes, full of men and women in kick-ass boots chatting, gossiping. Shiny food courts that seems to spin like a lit aquarium of world cultures. The young with a niche passion, a slash of bone, pale oyster cheek. There are still drivers guarding their Mercedes tank, bald-headed, spread-legged and packing as they wait for the owner. That part of the dark ambitious ’90s is evolving as Moscow claims its place, transforming old kultur into a place on the culture map.

Gallery space in the Garage Museum of Contemporary Art

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Petersburg’s Fresh Waters

Standing by the river Neva, wanting to compose poetry in St Petersburg, I couldn’t hear beyond the lines of great poets – Akhmatova, Blok, Tsvetaeva, Mandelstam. History dominates voice, especially in Russia. The Revolution, Stalin’s terrors, the siege, all produced that great heroic resistance. We’re not in the same history. We’re in a vertiginous whirl, a global mess – oy! We stare, fixated, single-minded, stuck in one voice, while the river rushes in its own voices. 
I like a multiplicity of voices, both full of critique and full of observation of humble objects that affirm our reality. So in Russia, who will write about young designers, scattering autumn leaves in its planked floor to show their rough hemp and peasant dresses? A hipster cafe by the canal, millet with pumpkin and pumpkin seeds? Restaurants that serve persimmon and yuzu over tuna. Inside the elaborate old palaces, there are concerts full of the whimsy of avant-garde 20th century music; inside the Marinksky a cleverly staged play on globalism as conceived a century ago – Puccini does the Western (Broadway, cinema) in opera, staged in St. Petersburg by a Frenchman. There still exist women guards who, if they move two muscles, it’s one muscle too many. Range of military and police in a range of colors and uniforms. But this isn’t your father’s St. Petersburg. The trudging step has picked up, the despair on faces simply has shifted. Of course I’m not addressing Putin; the polemic on both sides is hot and live; tirades against the evil imperial west is the other side of the same coin. Demonizing is not my bag. Empiricism, yes. Poetry, yes. Standing by the Neva hearing fresh rhythms and words – one hopes.

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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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Continuum

“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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