Independence EveryDay


Morning wakes hours before its city creatures.
I see light through the shutters:
cool insides while their clapboards communicate color — 
hydrangea pink, hydrangea blue —
to the morning.  Slate gray street, 
a herribone brick sidewalk. 

Couples inside, 
coffee darker than their peignoirs.  
It’s a holiday.
The 4th of the seventh month, almost mid-summer,
almost tipping over. 

I like to think
they’re in their temple of freedom 
in bed talking or kissing,

their call to arms
their own defense 
of our freedom.

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The Poet who mistook a Sunflower for Eve

As the poet must give up control of meaning to the reader, so the abstract painter must let go – rejoice! – in happy (mis)interpretations of her viewers.   After seeing Joan Mitchell’s large canvases (seen here in detail), I offer these animated, poetic (mis) sightings.

JP: Amid the roiling violence of energy, who is always there: the angel.  Everything is doubled, rage and love, despair and endurance.  In modern life, paradoxical Baudelaire is never far from us.  

But no, the swing of this angel’s knee is too delicious, and her hair part of the motion in and for itself.  Lo, Eve!  The wind is kicking up.  The pale translucence winding behind her – the pink snaky squirm – is a minor thing.   

Joan Mitchell Title: Sunflowers

JP: How radiant, the zucchini flowers! Light oranging the petal, sluices of stem, the tremble, soft pale follicles.  How does she paint with fine ground dust of pollen? Swallows of light, collapsible wet creases, petal bells, to be smeared, stained, psalmlike.

Joan Mitchell Title: Minnesota.

JP: What did you expect to shower down? That it’s petals and pollen, cream mint, manna – that it sits like Bernini’s mystical St. Teresa of Avila, gold showering from the upper right corner – only means it’s been here before.  

Joan Mitchell Title: Rivière

Joan Mitchell, “I carry my landscapes around with me,” David Zwirner Gallery, New York.

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Genesis, Moonstone Beach

Nocturne: Blue and Silver – Cremorne Lights 1872 James Abbott McNeill Whistler 1834-1903 Bequeathed by Arthur Studd 1919

Thanks, Crosswinds Poetry Journal, for publishing this poem in Volume IV !

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What is Mother’s Day without the kids?

Primavera, Senior Year
to Eve

As the languorous calm of winter ends,
enter gardeners, whirling bees–
riotous breakaway

And all the things I wanted to hold onto–
a child’s hand, cool as an oboe;
lamplight; reading
by the window

lying in bed with extra pillows,
talking to my daughter, texture
of voices like patent leather
straps overlapping–

begin to loosen. The velvet ear of
close attention has been lost to racier
attractions. She is all hunger and eye,
I on the sidelines.

Go ahead and throw garlands,
untighten, cultivate the longer hours.
Who, just who taught her
to shake the rafters?

Thanks to Literary Mama for publishing my poem in its March 2019 issue. Thanks to George Lange for the top photo.
Unending love and gratitude to the girls for the circus, the fun, the astonishment and beauty that keeps us so connected.

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Passover, Notre-Dame and the Book Thing

“Golden Haggadah” from medieval Spain

The idea that Notre-Dame might be reduced to a hole in the ground, a collection of rubble terrified me.  When I lived in Paris, or before that, or after, the Cathedral lodged itself deeply in my being. A friend mentioned he just loved the smell – the stone-cellar and incense smell, the millennial smell.  To those who lob the charge that a church is just a building, I’d answer that it embodies a reach towards beauty and a divine; the anonymous artists were launching a message in a bottle to us in the future.  If someone got spacey and was questioning reality, they only had check that  massive stone exemplar of material culture – touch feel it, know its place on earth in the now.

I’m thinking, now of the book I’m going to be reading tonight, the Passover Haggadah.  As a material object, it’s generally minor, though I do love the book as object.  This ritual book collects up narrative of escape, the road, liberation, impermanence made continuous through telling.  Wandering Jews cherish our books which contain worlds.  They’re portable and tell of things that couldn’t be saved, couldn’t be etched or carried or kept in stone. Stone is irrelevant.

Material culture is dissolving into a haze.  We’ll be doing a lot more of the wandering exile narrative thing, it seems. Forests and species will be translated into words by writer, poets, narrators. We’ll be telling each other about glaciers, extinct frogs and birds in books.  We’ll be carrying them with us in our bags, on our backs, taking and transmitting evidence of a world of constant change.

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Headiness of Spring Cleaning

Wolfgang Tillmans

I had a highly complicated scaffolded reaction to a spring cleaning talk that I’m attempting to unravel.  It led to a revelation, and that I’ll try to unravel too.  It took place in a series of metaphors – which made me happy, because I have trouble with stark simplicity.   The metaphors laid out in synagogue yesterday situated the concept of housekeeping to an egg within an egg – fine in itself, as it went from messiness to holiness in a single jump. I delighted in that lofty jump, although I came to a roadblock with the structure that Rabbi Flam sketched out.

How to convey.  Listening to the rabbi’s first mention of housekeeping – this is the season of removing flour, crumbs and junk from the kitchen and cleaning the home for Passover – I felt slightly queasy.  Order = holiness? Here, we part.  If you’re Venus, I’m Mars.  I’m simply compositionally different.  But something spoke to me.  As I was cleaning kitchen shelves this morning, listening to a comedy news show and reflecting on how Jews clean with a feather for Passover, about my mother, about the history of housekeepers, mental hygiene and the like, I came to certain clarities about my own nature. 

I looked at my curated notion of decorating – the piled magazines on a bronze table, books on the wooden antique bench, the stacks of travel pamphlets, the drawings, boxes, etc.  The proliferation of contrasting patterns, the color.  Curious photographs. My structure has its own particular structure. 

This paradigm of my house – all those wandering rooms filled with bright, conversational curiosities – also resembles my mind. Having given up the fiction that I might become a neatnik, or “organized,” I can only thin and balance this thriving chaos, the paradoxes and prisms of thought where voices and objects are somehow part and parcel of each other, part of a metaphor that contained the banal and cosmic, in synagogue and in my mind and hasn’t quite thinned out yet.

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One Big Tented L.A. Thing

The extremes of capitalism require a lot of forgetting, the erasing of suffering experience.  Satisfaction is calling, it is immediate, exists in the present and demands our full attention.  We can pull along conflict for only so long, for it will sure get in the way of our satiation. 

In Los Angeles, I had to forget that entire tent city I’d seen five minutes before arriving at a gorgeous art space, Hauser and Wirth, forget the waste spaces of highway with people like driftwood, to get to the art.  The scale of homeless population reflected the west – vast, long vistas I wasn’t prepared for.  We’d landed an hour earlier.  Welcome to confusion.

The art, fortunately, didn’t exclude life – Annie Leibovitz’s retrospective was excessive and marked by raw vital messiness, mostly of another era of culture clash, the 70s, both seemingly more violent and more innocent.  The humanness of desire and struggle was poignant, marking a swath of human history.  In the maelstrom was music, drunkenness, ecstasy, sadness, communion.

It took me a while to get onto the thing about LA – the wastespaces and no-places are the thing, and the places where people gather to eat, drink, play are little happenings. 

Tending towards extremes myself, I was convinced by evening that a great tent-like restaurant where we can all gather and eat together would solve America’s arid abstract polarization.  If everyone could eat sparkling food, quit the virtual on-line highways and dig into the pleasure of our common earthiness, wouldn’t we be better off?  The name of one tent-like restaurant, Bavel, may stem from Babel and while it’s evolved cuisine, it’s also a big tent with a mezuzah on the entry wall, staffed by hip Asian bartenders, women slugging bread dough in the kitchen, the whole all array of hipster humanity, where old Jews can come in for a bowl of hummus and foodies can choose crudo scallops with pomegranate molasses, citrus and serrano oil.  All the flavors were a revelation; it dissolved the day’s tensions. 

One could argue that a meal, a  one, is another powerful present that allows us to go on.  And we discussed over dinner, aren’t these accomodations akin to survival techniques of people in truly repressed regimes and camps?  The open consciousness scoops up what it can. 

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Staying Power of Poets Resist

Last week we endured the Cohen hearings and two blanketing snow storms, along with our local Poets Resist.  My conditioned instinct is to laugh – poor poetry! — only to be replaced by a memory of our reading’s bright presence.  It was neither a blip nor a weak , not an insertion, interruption but a solid thing standing on its own alongside the forces of nature and politics.  In the melodramas and storms, it was rather steady, unforced and unmannered, the ongoingness of poets reading and singing people they hope are listening, but singing nonetheless in the space their words create. 

I think of the different tones and approaches taken by our nine poets: the whispery, the off-slant, the eloquent wit, the darkly ardent.  The open pleas, the laments.  The open door to tenderness.  The eight-minute slot per poet added to an intensity of poets concentrating their meaning and audience listening hard to what they had to say.  That focus ensured that the words left their mark.

Thank you to Peter Covino, Tina Cane, A.H. Avant, Amy Pickworth, Marcia Ranglin-Vassell, Rosalynde Vas Dias, Erin Perfect, Joanna Brown! Thank you, Riffraff for the emotional and physical space!

Poet and doctor Joanna Brown
A.H. Jerriod Avant

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Love, Our Inalienable Right

Home, for Syrians exiled by war, is gone, irretrievable, a lost paradise just as it is, at the same time, a place forever unattainable and mythic.  Listening to concerts this week by Kinan Azmeh, the Syrian clarinetist and composer, I was reminded of the  mystical desire of Arabic love poetry.  The object is unattainable. The wonderful paradox is that in evoking absence, art walked right in and created presence.

Azmeh’s music, presented by Community MusicWorks at local centers, evokes wistful longing with sighs, bends, microtonal wavering and high solemnity of Arab string exhortations — and Kinan’s clarinet wrangles with clarity and fading memory.  The feeling is raw, open and shared. Mohammed al Shawaf, a recent immigrant, jumped up spontaneously to read his own poem gathering at Dorcas Institute, a resettlement organization.  I scrawled down some of the lines as Kinan translated it into English. It’s about a nightingale who was encountering a displaced poet (apologies for the scrappy transcription!).

“Nightingale, I saw your sad face from the East…Are you a refugee like me? How did you leave heaven on earth? Everything is different, everything destroyed. Did you bring anything from home? You have awoken my feeling…. I promised you, Damascus, I would never forget you.” 

The unexpected continued to pop up.  Azmeh described how he composed part of a suite, 139th Street, melding Arabic and Hispanic cultures. But while Kinan opened the door to merengue in his Harlem brownstone, klezmer walked onto the stage. He dedicated the wonderful Syrian Wedding piece to “all the Syrians who managed to fall in love during the past eight years.  In spite of barrel bombs, chemical attacks, utter destruction.  Love is one human right no one can take away from us.”

Poet Mohammed al Shawaf

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How do you know when you’re ready?

Last week I presented a project that seemed unlikely to exist and equally unlikely to succeed, but it managed to do both.  It was a live poetry performance called Mirrors.  In spite of the simple title, every time I tried to explain to the people I’d enlisted to read, we all got tangled up.  Three groups of four pairs, with ten-minute breaks for discussion — too much information!  Just dive in!
Which we did.  

I chose bits of writing from observant feminist/literary scholar of Torah, Avivah Zornberg, whose verbal pyrotechnics and all-around genre-bending work I’ve long admired.  I placed these powerful excerpts of midrash opposite a selection of my poems.  Zornberg’s dense text, out of context, next to my dense text … a case of heightening complexity to obtain clarity? 

The idea was to put them side by side and let the sparks fly.  They’re not one-to-one correspondences, more like juxtapositions, points of departure, spiky soul mates.  Zornberg’s probing of the unconscious of a Torah passage, her eliciting of emotion inside discontinuities gaps and white spaces left room for my poetic eruptions about existential condition.  

Did they tango?  Well, yes.  Rumblings, premonitions, regret, amazement, praise – voices were liberated in the room, a choral celebration of the many.  

It was a big personal experiment.  I brought all my energy, then right afterwards collapsed into a miserable cold.  I’ve been out most of the week.  The work was ready but it took a lot of energy to be ready.  I spent the week recovering from my readiness.  I am renewed, ready to be ready again.

Thanks to Alan Flam, Louis Gitlin and the Soulful Shabbat contingent!

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