MLK, Always Arriving

“And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you.”   Most of us can hear Martin Luther King’s thunder and cadence from his speech in Memphis the day before his death in 1968.  He knew – a voice was whispering in his prophet’s ear, an angel pressing against his heart – that he would not be crossing the finish line.  Moses, the prophet who led his people out from a narrow place of oppression, also was open to the terrific presence of destiny; he, like King, only saw it from the mountain top. 

Those of us who are still here: we are still, always arriving.  We’re not in the Promised Land, that’s for sure.  All we can really do, is to be in the becoming.  Still, always arriving.  We’ve been still, always arriving since we left the ennui of Paradise. We throw questions, try to dominate, cure. We try to stare down the enemy though, as if in a mirror, we’ll see our own face in its acts of aggression.  Learning to love the questions themselves, rather than the answers relaxes the drive to conquer. As King said, mental freedom, illumination can move things. 

Today also on the Jewish calendar: Tu B’Shevat, festival of the trees. Today trees are sheathed in ice in New England. The sap is there, held in tension, in suspense, waiting, always arriving.

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Armageddon Blues

I am happy to see my poem, Armageddon Blues, in the winter issue of Salamander.   The poem is full of irony and tenderness for the challenges of everyday life in times of siege. The unthinkable seems to suck all the energy out of the room.  I see certain personal hallmarks: I play with dialog and dialectic, two voices, two positions in this extended address (which is one sentence).  I explore a subject of continuing fascination: the ways that art speaks, with fragility but force, to macro political forces.  And in order to insure human values along with survival, the necessity to guarding one’s own place of beauty and goodness.

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Winter Dance

Winter Dance

Birds moving in the dead of winter –
where to?  Half the tribe
whirls towards the west, then
breaks with sudden panic, flapping

to an open tree; they mark
its naked branches
hot-house blooms forced open
or scarves that burst, unfurling in a magic trick.

Tuned up in loud plurality,
they once again alight,
some left, some right.
Another of nature’s children

caught so glaringly in their confusion?
Whose glare? What moves me in sync
with their confusion? What desire?
What winter dance?

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The New on my Sleeve


In spite of my jaded self,
wearing Ecclesiastes as a badge
sewn onto velvet sleeves,
I laugh.

The sky knows no
calendar.  It doesn’t give
a whiff for New Years.
But damn, those clouds,

puffed sweetly across the sky
seem new.  They’re tipped
in mauve on a sky cleansed and blue.
The horizon of our gentle city
is pressed with elemental
shining cubes.

Nothing new under the sun?
Of course.  The old cranky sage,
if scratched, would admit this:
Goodness is recycled.

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The Intimate Nature of Radical Times

Oh, the curse from the Chinese: “May he live in interesting times.” We’re living those interesting, precarious times: we are in the middle of structures, nations, assumptions breaking apart. London is calling, Paris, Brazil, US falling.  We’re deep inside that process!

But what does it mean to be a witness to history? More frequently than not, it will look circumstantial, something like the poet in Roberto Bolano’s “Savage Detectives” who was talking stall to stall in the women’s room while a coup was happening. Unfolding of lives coexistent with unfolding of human events in time. We will be gauged by the intimate, by the personal. By what we create, salvage, dream. The values we discover as essential. Otherwise we will be dispersed, our heads endlessly spinning.  Here are some images from the month when “Paris was burning!”

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To France: The Gift of Not Knowing


For Noël, the French received a gift of unknowingness. It’s a lucky gift!  Les gilets jaunes have doled out confusion to their compatriots who are singularly sure of themselves, gifted in the pur et dur, the absolute.  Their clipped  “mais oui!” or “mais non!” has, until now, been singularly annoying.

In this new moment, when asked about politics, people pause, hesitate, search for words that are taking days and weeks to form. They glance out the window at the full moon, the crumbling cornices, the slate roofs. Roll over, Descartes! Perhaps there are no answers at all!

Yes, the conceptual ways of thinking are sinking under their own weight.  The good news is that the French have a great correction in their back pocket.  Food, or exquisite attention to the everyday.  The marchés are cornucopias of oysters, escargots, fishes, feathered pheasants; they have a milky way of pungent cheese, chocolate and of course the faucets nearly run with wine.  Celebrations aren’t just about consumption: they are happenings of community.   I also think of Francis Ponge’s poems about oysters and escargots.  When systems can’t be trusted, when they fail, go to what you can touch, taste, what is close to the heart. Don’t go to nihilism, go to regeneration.  It’s a chance to reimagine what society could be, to clear space for imagination and the beauty of what is.

We saw a show of the photographer Willy Ronis, whose brilliant eye caught French culture in various states of undress, layered with two or three complex emotions. Reading a plaque, I was astrounded when the critic wrote, ‘After the interruption of the Occupation, he returned to …” Feathers ruffled at first, I thought, “As if the Gestapo was a minor thing!” Then I remembered la durée. I realizing this is the strategy of half full: back to everyday life, back to reality.


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How to Do Thanksgiving during a civil war

Even the hardest hearts have a soft spot for Thanksgiving.  It’s love for the cornucopia, the  harvest that spills in fullness from a stony season.  It’s the fact that somehow our motley immigrant crew has extended out in bursts and starts from the Pilgrims, creating continuity of the myth in our discontinuous arrivals and nationalizations.  Except for Native Americans and turkeys, minorities – Jews, Italians, Irish, black – have seized the chance to be equals at the table, and even though it is symbolic, the symbol glows like the torch we know and love(d).

The myth has been hardy and functional.  Yet no one in this stony year would ever say we’re going to leave the table united as a family.  That didn’t happen during the Civil War or the Vietnam War; it’s not going to happen now.

As our secular religious holiday, our American Shabbat, Thanksgiving could give us an opportunity to pause and step back from another of our favorite American myths: that human ingenuity can solve it all.  Current radical activism and resistance is anthropocentric; it’s all about us.  Us v them or us v us, in a sense; the all-self, all the time show is ultimately destructive.

My father, who loved good food, used to take lunch to his office — a paper bag with two apples.   His Pittsburgh office was a sloping set of rooms above a pharmacy on Walnut Street, near Squirrel Hill.  When he got strung out with work, he’d take a stroll on the street, see other people with their own problems; and then, there was that crisp juicy apple.

Give thanks to the apple.

To the hard soil that we tend so it gives yams.   To the dried leaves that look like yam skins.  The wild river and still pools of icy run-off.   The space between the stones and how much better we are when we lay fallow.  A big American amen.

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Hills, Shadowed Valleys, Squirrel Hill

Reuben and Anne Pearlman, by Eve O’Shea

Pittsburgh is a city of neighborhoods, of hills and shadowed valleys. The valleys or “hollers” – Pittsburgh is on the edge of Appalachia – have had plenty of darkness over different eras. Parts of the city seem backwoods, almost abandoned – the light barely flickers there.

The steel industry collapsed, things got worse, things got better, and the city of neighborhoods – that’s what Pittsburgh is – picked up to become a comeback city. Houses in the hollers were picked up by young homesteaders who lived alternatively, starting B &Bs, planting organic gardens, remaking neighborhoods. The newness of the Warhol museum, City of Asylum, Mattress Factory on the working class Northside made it not my father’s Pittsburgh.

We were four generations in Pittsburgh; my grandfather grew up in the Hill District, then moved to Squirrel Hill. He was an old-style family doctor who made house calls with stethoscope in his leather kit.  He sometimes took his payment in garden vegetables, or a chicken. When the Hill became mainly black neighborhood, he stayed working there and some patients, the story goes, named their kids after him (Reuben).

They davened in Synagogue Beth Shalom; were long members there until my parents moved to Rodef Shalom. I can’t imagine the decades were easy. I heard stories of some families during the Depression having to put their kids in Jewish adoption homes, and were lucky if the kids were there when money came back in.

My father worked outside the city in the mining counties. It took not recklessness but confidence to be that “Jewish buccaneer.” It was possible. Sometimes he had to shine a powerful flashlight down those hollers.

How far have we not come? We’re subjects of history’s hills and shadowed valleys. My grand-parents and parents, who have all passed, would have been surpised if they’d been told to take literally the psalm: Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death—

Many people are reminding us alongside the darkness there is abundant light.  So be it.

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Anthropocene’s Shock of Beauty

Dear Photographers of the Anthropocene Art show,

You’ve probably noticed the problem?  It’s about reactions to climate change and the geologic epoch named for our human interference.  In your cautionary Toronto art show, with its corollary film, Anthropocene, you want to bring home the horrors of massive overreach and tread on our environment.  Images abound of our mindless extractions of riches which have rejiggered the look and function of our earth. They are troubling. But what troubled me is that your images are so beautiful.  

Why is art so damn slippery?  Artists want to get across a point – but good art rebels.  It says things you never intended.  It confuses the viewer with interpretations that multiply, then undercut each other like fencers in a duel.  They endear us to the artist who seems a mess of competing contradictions.  I get that. 

Photographer Edward Burtynsky and filmmakers Jennifer Baichwal and Nicholas de Pencier, have no doubt noticed their attraction to order.  There is pattern galore in those vast swaths of landscape seen from satellites and drones.  There is barely a visible human.  We see soil separated from its marble, sand separated from its oil.  The waters have been separated from dry land, day separated from night.  Like some divine repetition, chaos has been vanquished by the beauty of Order.  Order with its geometric designs, its repeating patterns; its colors garishly bright, iridescent and stimulating, or ochred and “earthy.”   

And it was good?  The unfamiliar, in the hands of the artist, has become beautiful.  And the modern viewer is transfixed by a beauty that might be destructive or violent or apocalyptic – spidery mining cavities, the cliffs of plastics.  

Death-in-lilfe?  Life-in-death?  Though our modern beautiful is beyond the meditative pastel, a new calm reality might be suggested, visualized on the other side of the dead-ended.  The art might function autonomously, to suggest that in the meditative mazes of roughed-up landscapes, there might be renewal.  A new way.  A place of a certain magic where things out of sense rest with different sense. 

What might we be shocked into discovering?  Could the artists help us to overlay the fear of the evolving future with images of shine, seduction, recognition?

Art Gallery of Toronto

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Candy-Colored Neon Bodega Speakeasy Baby

There must be some trick.  Urban life can’t quite be this happy.   There are three candy-colored glow-zones.  Pink walls light the space.  A demarcated zone glows in yellow from a bar fridge; from the side, a lavender color cloud.   

A bar is supposed to be at this very address.  From the street, through the window we see two smart women at the counter framed by light.  Are they fronts for candy, mass-market Chinese snacks?  

Their mood makeup, so neat and surface-perfect, gives them away.  They give it up – behind a red door is a “secret cocktail bar,” Mahjong Bar in Toronto.  Everyone has a front.  It may be artificial, but at least it glows.

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