Santa Fe, La Bella

Sometimes you miss a place as you’re there, and you’ve never been there before. Or Santa Fe, as my mother might say, slayed me. It isn’t hard to say why. 1) on my way to AWP, the literary conference this year in San Antonio, Texas, I stopped to see dear friends, who used to live next door and now live in paradise. From my window up on a mountain, Santa Fe lay sprawled like a flat lizard illuminated with lights. 2) The colors, oh that ochre earth, ground down from volcanoes. By some unseen hand, it seems to have made the entire town. 3) Night is perfumed by a cool air and hot scent, smoldering sage and pinion 4) Art. Native art museums, galleries, Georgia O’Keefe and if that isn’t enough, 5) Skiing at dizzy altitudes, in glades, that somehow feels mellow. Another country heard from.

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Everyday Life: Antidote to Political Poisons

While making dinner — or reflecting excitedly on the importance of making dinner while sipping wine — I began to shape ideas that have been pressing on me during the week.  What had been expected and feared to happen in bad faith presidential action was happening.  Many of us could see the vindictiveness coming; now it almost felt posthumous.  

My anger had been simmering into something else: into a rich, bittersweet sorrow for the “we” of country. How distant we are from our “exceptional” goals (hardly the first time, hardly the last).  What poor flawed creatures!  In my wash of compassion, I felt that old-style pity. Recognizing my pivot, my poetic turn and dance move, I saw, again, that we can open to the other, be medicine to counteract the poison.

So here’s to pounding the garlic cloves with thyme with mortar and pestle!  To sizzling peppers in a pan over the flame, to share.  Here’s to winding up to the big question: Can everyday life be a moral response to political failure? 

It has to be yes.  In my kitchen, moral questions like these touch on either Torah or Tolstoy.  Last night it was Tolstoy who imagines his character Pierre, in War and Peace, as a wartime captive witnessing the execution of prisoners. He sees an abyss, an unpassable wound.  He can’t imagine how his world can continue.  Unexpectedly, a peasant appears at his side, and says, “just eat this potato.”  Generosity intrudes unexpectedly, and Pierre begins his repair. 

One person’s potato is another’s oyster or apple.  Or fig jam.  Or fresh bread. Chicken tagine with lemon and olives.  Salt cod with peppers.  Once we get started, there really is no end. 

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The New Vertigo

I like to write, but boy, do I have trouble at times settling down.  I love to write, even, but the other pole – the love of motion – makes it rough to sit at that desk.  I’ve got to keep moving.  I’m not the kind of writer to dictate into an IPhone as I’m walking, or as I’m doing spins on the dancefloor; so I do need my desk.  Once I re-discover my desk as a long-lost love, I start to wander in my head.  

I’ve paired up with a compatible subject for a poetry sequence — home/homelessness. It troubles the idea of home and explores the commonality of homelessness. Is it something about me, my tribe? Wandering Jews are well-known entity, starting with God ordering Abraham and Sarah to leave their home and get moving into the unknown.  In the current cyclical readings of Torah, we are in Exodus, wandering in the desert.   

My tribe as human?  Metaphorically we might now feel that we are all wandering in the desert.  The first thing my IPhone showed me this morning was a suggestion on the Home Screen: “It’s true that nothing makes sense.” What the —? 

My imagination has taken me from the familiar metaphor of wandering in the desert — too well known! — to a newer whirling sensation.  The ground under our feet is unstable, there’s a grave disturbance in gravity.  Gravity, the holy grail of reason and science, is unreliable.  There isn’t much ground under our feet at all.  

The motion I often feel, by will or fate, is vertigo.  When God displaced Abraham and Sarah, he sent them into vertigo to fracture their continuity and make them see life as completely new.  Vertigo, the up-ender of received wisdoms and expectations.  Vertigo, like Sappho’s bone-whirling eros.  What vertigo shows us is this: it seems artificial these days to try to make sense from the same old positions.   We have to stand elsewhere, otherwise.  Turn ourselves upside down.  Stand on our heads.  Headstand.  What an extraordinary pose in yoga. I can go upside down where, if I can hold still for a few minutes, I am aware of myself as a being en passage. It’s all beginning to make sense.

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A Poem for 19 Days into the New Year

“Mary Jane” by Noah Davis

19 Days into the New Year

Time grows, after New Years, like a cauliflower–
half handsome, half deformed, blooming
at its own isotropic rate.  On the 3rd we skate
towards war; a plane of travelers crashes
in Iran; Down Under, animals, mostly sheep, burn.

Did the bubbly not last long? At midnight
we’d stomped and danced, undid ourselves
like Mandelstam shaking caraway seeds from a sack.

Who needs hope anyway? The tough-minded
put their faith in deeds –either you do or you don’t.
Drink from that vase.  Heave up the smothering haystack. 
Hammer the everyday into words. Honor the iguana.  
It’s not aspirational to love your neighbor.   
Put your cheek close, pull the bow, feel it quiver.

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Dionysian 2020

There is a phrase I toyed with in French many years ago: “le ciel, c’est assis sur mes sourcils.” The sky is sitting on my brows. That famous gray Paris sky was hovering close to my head during winters when we lived there. I bemoaned the lack of sun which only appeared at the sunset in a slant flash at horizon’s edge.

The phrase sounds fine in English too, with a gentle tweak: “the sky is sitting on my eyelids.” The disillusion, the dark atmosphere of the US last year felt by far more oppressive than it did under the zinc roofs in Paris. The toxicity of news and social media made me want to retreat; the isolation made me wonder how to go out. The trapped feeling, the negative voice seeps into the bones.

Early 2020 extended its hand, asking to put me on its dance card. Mais oui! I danced like a fool, dipping, spinning and getting breathless with fancy footwork. Instead of gravity, more light! So here’s to releasing Dionysian energies. To staying in touch with the body, clearing the mind and welcoming whatever passes, bright, dark and otherwise. Here’s to sanity, my friends, and here’s to equal doses of delirium, to love, to dwelling in the crazy ether of being together.

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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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“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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