March 18, 2017 § Leave a comment
This picture is a few years old, but it suits the day
I went on a post-birthday walk in Washington Square Park, the air scrubbed clean and the sky a nice wintry white. Depositing checks, buying salmon and salad and green grapes and coffee beans but mostly getting out to remember these days are precious, even at their most ordinary, even with money worries and the housework not done (for months), the novel unfinished; it’s unknown how many I have left. I engaged in that useless rumination: if I live ten more years, twelve more years, fifteen more years, how many books can I write, countries can I visit, beauty take in, kindness offer.
The answer is simple: some, maybe. Today I let the beauty of an icy sidewalk pause me (memories of childhood slipping, skating, daydreaming) and the perfection of a tumble of grapes bring associations of art and books and the pleasure of feeding a loved person: I may nibble on a few, but Charles will eat most of them. And now I am petting the little cat who is always at my side, Sister Milk Paws, and she gazes at me with what may not be devotion but looks like it. I thank the invisible watchmaker for the exquisiteness of whiskers.
I am sixty-two. My brother, who has been dead a long time, would be sixty-six. I can’t live for him and he remains nowhere; my thoughts, others’ thoughts are our own productions, not keeping him here even a tiny bit. I’m writing a novel about a woman who tries to keep her dead husband with her; who sees his ghost; readers can make up their own minds, but I am not writing a real ghost. That’s for another sort of book. She comes back from the abyss she wants to enter (spoiler).
Why I started this book—long ago—doesn’t matter; what matters now are the little descriptions I wedge in, of New York in 2005 and 1975; of chocolates, high heels and spring; of love, grief, envy and fear; of the ceaseless movement of the mind over the bumpy pitfall world and coiled power of others.
A great poet died yesterday. Here is one of my favorites, set in my own neighborhood.
In the Village
By Derek Walcott
I came up out of the subway and there were
people standing on the steps as if they knew
something I didn’t. This was in the Cold War,
and nuclear fallout. I looked and the whole avenue
was empty, I mean utterly, and I thought,
The birds have abandoned our cities and the plague
of silence multiplies through their arteries, they fought
the war and they lost and there’s nothing subtle or vague
in this horrifying vacuum that is New York. I caught
the blare of a loudspeaker repeatedly warning
the last few people, maybe strolling lovers in their walk,
that the world was about to end that morning
on Sixth or Seventh Avenue with no people going to work
in that uncontradicted, horrifying perspective.
It was no way to die, but it’s also no way to live.
Well, if we burnt, it was at least New York.
Everybody in New York is in a sitcom.
I’m in a Latin American novel, one
in which an egret-haired viejo shakes with some
invisible sorrow, some obscene affliction,
and chronicles it secretly, till it shows in his face,
the parenthetical wrinkles confirming his fiction
to his deep embarrassment. Look, it’s
just the old story of a heart that won’t call it quits
whatever the odds, quixotic. It’s just one that’ll
break nobody’s heart, even if the grizzled colonel
pitches from his steed in a cavalry charge, in a battle
that won’t make him a statue. It is the hell
of ordinary, unrequited love. Watch these egrets
trudging the lawn in a dishevelled troop, white banners
trailing forlornly; they are the bleached regrets
of an old man’s memoirs, printed stanzas.
showing their hinged wings like wide open secrets.
Who has removed the typewriter from my desk,
so that I am a musician without his piano
with emptiness ahead as clear and grotesque
as another spring? My veins bud, and I am so
full of poems, a wastebasket of black wire.
The notes outside are visible; sparrows will
line antennae like staves, the way springs were,
but the roofs are cold and the great grey river
where a liner glides, huge as a winter hill,
moves imperceptibly like the accumulating
years. I have no reason to forgive her
for what I brought on myself. I am past hating,
past the longing for Italy where blowing snow
absolves and whitens a kneeling mountain range
outside Milan. Through glass, I am waiting
for the sound of a bird to unhinge the beginning
of spring, but my hands, my work, feel strange
without the rusty music of my machine. No words
for the Arctic liner moving down the Hudson, for the mange
of old snow moulting from the roofs. No poems. No birds.
The Sweet Life Café
If I fall into a grizzled stillness
sometimes, over the red-chequered tablecloth
outdoors of the Sweet Life Café, when the noise
of Sunday traffic in the Village is soft as a moth
working in storage, it is because of age
which I rarely admit to, or, honestly, even think of.
I have kept the same furies, though my domestic rage
is illogical, diabetic, with no lessening of love
though my hand trembles wildly, but not over this page.
My lust is in great health, but, if it happens
that all my towers shrivel to dribbling sand,
joy will still bend the cane-reeds with my pen’s
elation on the road to Vieuxfort with fever-grass
white in the sun, and, as for the sea breaking
in the gap at Praslin, they add up to the grace
I have known and which death will be taking
from my hand on this chequered tablecloth in this good place.
January 13, 2017 § 1 Comment
James Carter, just because he’s the prettiest
As some of you know, I’ve been dealing with a very sick kitty as well as the general post-apocalyptic, werewolves-in-the-street blues so it was nice to go to Birdland for a show titled The Story of Jazz with greats James Carter, Eric Alexander (dueling tenors!), Jon Faddis, Vincent Herring, Jeremy Pelt and many more. Starting in 1917, moving on through the years. Very smooth, lots of heart and just great, great music. Wish you could all go. It’s on through Saturday. Wish I hadn’t had a headache and we’d stayed for the second set.
Of course listening to music from 1917 (first jazz recording) with its long-ago rhythms can spark that nostalgia—what I was once so prone to, Paris in the 20s, the Village in the 1890s—before we were born, a world that seems more innocent because they do not know what we know, though it was nothing of the sort, boys dying by the millions because of the stupidity of men. A person I work with noted recently that it was the centenary of Wilfred Owens death (find a poem by him in my last entry), which it is not; he died in November 2018, but being reminded of that year–1917–does make me think of him and of Siegfried Sassoon: two poets who made me feel The Great War in a way even the famous novels of the era didn’t.
At Birdland, Charles was wearing his red “Make Racists Afraid Again” baseball cap and while we were waiting to be seated a staff person came over and started to say something, then looked closer and said, “Oh…I was going to ask you to take your hat off.”
“I’ll take my hat off.”
“No, I thought…it said something else. It’s fine, keep it on!”
I love New York, even if it did produce the piss-haired werewolf-in-chief, his rabid sons and iBlanka, who seems to have married her granddad, the original predatory landlord Woody Guthrie sang about in “Old Man Trump.” (Kushner’s management company has been publicizing his new East Village luxury condos—rent-stabilized tenants forced out—by saying Allen Ginsberg wrote “Elegy” there. You know, the poem otherwise known as “Kaddish.”)
Two poems, a section of Ginsberg’s “Kaddish” because we all feel that way a bit lately, and a poem written very recently by Elissa Chavez (click on her name or the title to learn more about her). But first, here’s a YouTube link:
Strange now to think of you, gone without corsets & eyes, while I walk on the sunny pavement of Greenwich Village.
downtown Manhattan, clear winter noon, and I’ve been up all night, talking, talking, reading the Kaddish aloud, listening to Ray Charles blues shout blind on the phonograph
the rhythm the rhythm—and your memory in my head three years after—And read Adonais’ last triumphant stanzas aloud—wept, realizing how we suffer—
And how Death is that remedy all singers dream of, sing, remember, prophesy as in the Hebrew Anthem, or the Buddhist Book of Answers—and my own imagination of a withered leaf—at dawn—
Dreaming back thru life, Your time—and mine accelerating toward Apocalypse,
the final moment—the flower burning in the Day—and what comes after,
looking back on the mind itself that saw an American city
a flash away, and the great dream of Me or China, or you and a phantom Russia, or a crumpled bed that never existed—
like a poem in the dark—escaped back to Oblivion—
No more to say, and nothing to weep for but the Beings in the Dream, trapped in its disappearance,
sighing, screaming with it, buying and selling pieces of phantom, worshipping each other,
worshipping the God included in it all—longing or inevitability?—while it lasts, a Vision—anything more?
It leaps about me, as I go out and walk the street, look back over my shoulder, Seventh Avenue, the battlements of window office buildings shouldering each other high, under a cloud, tall as the sky an instant—and the sky above—an old blue place.
or down the Avenue to the south, to—as I walk toward the Lower East Side—where you walked 50 years ago, little girl—from Russia, eating the first poisonous tomatoes of America—frightened on the dock—
then struggling in the crowds of Orchard Street toward what?—toward Newark—
toward candy store, first home-made sodas of the century, hand-churned ice cream in backroom on musty brownfloor boards—
Toward education marriage nervous breakdown, operation, teaching school, and learning to be mad, in a dream—what is this life?
by Elisa Chavez
Since you mention it, I think I will start that race war.
I could’ve swung either way? But now I’m definitely spending
the next 4 years converting your daughters to lesbianism;
I’m gonna eat all your guns. Swallow them lock stock and barrel
and spit bullet casings onto the dinner table;
I’ll give birth to an army of mixed-race babies.
With fathers from every continent and genders to outnumber the stars,
my legion of multiracial babies will be intersectional as fuck
and your swastikas will not be enough to save you,
because real talk, you didn’t stop the future from coming.
You just delayed our coronation.
We have the same deviant haircuts we had yesterday;
we are still getting gay-married like nobody’s business
because it’s still nobody’s business;
there’s a Muslim kid in Kansas who has already written the schematic
for the robot that will steal your job in manufacturing,
and that robot? Will also be gay, so get used to it:
we didn’t manifest the mountain by speaking its name,
the buildings here are not on your side just because
you make them spray-painted accomplices.
These walls do not have genders and they all think you suck.
Even the earth found common cause with us
the way you trample us both,
oh yeah: there will be signs, and rainbow-colored drum circles,
and folks arguing ideology until even I want to punch them
but I won’t, because they’re my family,
in that blood-of-the-covenant sense.
If you’ve never loved someone like that
you cannot outwaltz us, we have all the good dancers anyway.
I’ll confess I don’t know if I’m alive right now;
I haven’t heard my heart beat in days,
I keep holding my breath for the moment the plane goes down
and I have to save enough oxygen to get my friends through.
But I finally found the argument against suicide and it’s us.
We’re the effigies that haunt America’s nights harder
the longer they spend burning us,
we are scaring the shit out of people by spreading,
by refusing to die: what are we but a fire?
We know everything we do is so the kids after us
will be able to follow something towards safety;
what can I call us but lighthouse,
of course I’m terrified. Of course I’m a shroud.
And of course it’s not fair but rest assured,
anxious America, you brought your fists to a glitter fight.
This is a taco truck rally and all you have is cole slaw.
You cannot deport our minds; we won’t
hold funerals for our potential. We have always been
what makes America great.
November 9, 2016 § 1 Comment
The above picture taken this September in Seville–this is what humanity is capable of–
When you’re not a happy person to begin with, when you’ve spent months fighting the depression and anger made worse by quitting an SSRI, when voting for a moderately liberal and very smart woman for president on a beautiful, crisp, blue-sky fall day has given you a lift, and there’s poetry to read, to write, words put together with rigor and magic—and then the unspeakable happens….
The disbelief: like a death not quite in the family but very close…the slime that won’t wash off…and beyond the central nuclear horror family, the New York vampire, the bridge troll, and silver-haired poison elf rubbing their sulfurous hands…
I don’t want to go on. I have jobs to finish, animals to care for, loved ones. Not likely to check out. But I want to. I feel like I want too much of the good stuff that there seems not to be enough of though we all can make it whenever we try—kindness, charm, laughter, imagination—and nature is so beautiful everywhere.
Those who voted in this remnant of a human being live in some of America’s grandest and most gorgeous landscapes, and they mostly have families, homes and plenty of food. They are human, like me, subject to despair and rage, the pleasure of hate, stupid decisions. But the attraction of this hell-hound is beyond me. He offers nothing. He cares for no one. He has no skills except grandstanding and losing other people’s money.
And in other news, do you have any idea how thin the arctic ice is this fall? Do you know that several recent peer-reviewed papers suggest a warming world is much more sensitive to carbon, that the “runaway” warming possibility with methane releases, etc., and abrupt temperature increases (as in a decade or less), always a lurking maybe, seems much more likely now? Not certain by any means. But it’s there—not just the bad that we think we’ve accepted but the much worse we can’t even imagine. Maybe it won’t happen. Maybe it will. The children in their cradles know nothing: when will you tell them?
This is the most important event of our lifetimes, the one that will define us forever, that makes terrorists into dusty action figures stuffed under the couch cushions and economic crashes into summer rainstorms with a chance of mild hail.
Many of my Facebook friends are writing inspiring posts about being strong and going onwards. I appreciate that and love them—I love you all, my friends, my readers. I have had those moments of strength and uplift today (a few). But I am the grumpy old woman, feeling much older than I actually am, and as you know from fairytales, grumpy old women should be listened to.
Our brains ache, in the merciless iced east winds that knive us . . .
Wearied we keep awake because the night is silent . . .
Low drooping flares confuse our memory of the salient . . .
Worried by silence, sentries whisper, curious, nervous,
But nothing happens.
Watching, we hear the mad gusts tugging on the wire,
Like twitching agonies of men among its brambles.
Northward, incessantly, the flickering gunnery rumbles,
Far off, like a dull rumour of some other war.
What are we doing here?
The poignant misery of dawn begins to grow . . .
We only know war lasts, rain soaks, and clouds sag stormy.
Dawn massing in the east her melancholy army
Attacks once more in ranks on shivering ranks of grey,
But nothing happens.
Sudden successive flights of bullets streak the silence.
Less deadly than the air that shudders black with snow,
With sidelong flowing flakes that flock, pause, and renew,
We watch them wandering up and down the wind’s nonchalance,
But nothing happens.
Pale flakes with fingering stealth come feeling for our faces—
We cringe in holes, back on forgotten dreams, and stare, snow-dazed,
Deep into grassier ditches. So we drowse, sun-dozed,
Littered with blossoms trickling where the blackbird fusses.
—Is it that we are dying?
Slowly our ghosts drag home: glimpsing the sunk fires, glozed
With crusted dark-red jewels; crickets jingle there;
For hours the innocent mice rejoice: the house is theirs;
Shutters and doors, all closed: on us the doors are closed,—
We turn back to our dying.
Since we believe not otherwise can kind fires burn;
Now ever suns smile true on child, or field, or fruit.
For God’s invincible spring our love is made afraid;
Therefore, not loath, we lie out here; therefore were born,
For love of God seems dying.
Tonight, this frost will fasten on this mud and us,
Shrivelling many hands, and puckering foreheads crisp.
The burying-party, picks and shovels in shaking grasp,
Pause over half-known faces. All their eyes are ice,
But nothing happens.
August 29, 2016 § 1 Comment
Me and Lucian, Grand Canyon, 1979
Union Square Farmers Market, late on a Saturday afternoon. Sunny and hot but not quite as hot as it’s been. The raspberries were $2 a box, so I bought four. Thought of making ice cream, but big bowls of Greek yogurt and a cascade of red berries will be better.
The zucchini were almost gone at the next stand (though zucchini were, of course, everywhere) and I bought the tiny conjoined remnants and a tomato with a second belly growing out of its top. I felt virtuous buying the misshapen veggies, thinking of the tons of waste this country produces, much of it due to cosmetic preference. The idea of thousands of pounds of produce plowed under at the farm because it’s just not pretty enough, while children go hungry, makes me angry. But it’s also true that I like my little oddities, especially the zucchini, which I will separate surgically and then slice fast into pale green rounds before they even know they are individuals.
Is there any color as delicate as the inside of a zucchini? I once had a blouse almost that color—a silk blouse inherited from my grandmother, with narrow pleats and tiny mother-of pearl buttons. It was too big for years and years, though I wore it anyway, and then too small. The silk fell apart in my hands finally.
Corn and string beans. I’d like to slather the corn with spices and roast it over a fire, but in this apartment it will be boiled and messily eaten, kernels falling to the floor where Fitzroy will attempt to eat them, my poor sick cat who can’t absorb nutrients and is always hungry, though he eats upwards of a pound of food a day. He prowls, hoping against hope someone has left a mouse heart under the table.
String beans were my first love among vegetables. I ate them from a can as a child and sometimes now the flavor of fresh ones makes me taste metal. In my 20s, I served them with butter and garlic or lemon and dill. Now I also like them cooked, chilled and tossed with olive oil and chopped tomato, or cucumber, red onion and feta. I still have a child’s love for their shape, tight skinny twigs, how they lie on the plate like an armful of kindling.
I chose a small cantaloupe in remembrance of a cat I bought as a four-week kitten in a pet store on the Upper East Side in October 1976. I named him Lucian after Balzac’s poet in Illusions Perdue, Lucian de Rubempré. At night, Lucian would climb into my bed and suck on my neck like a toothless vampire. His neediness made me anxious. He also loved cantaloupe and would lick the seeds clean.
Later, when I was married and renting where pets weren’t allowed, Lucian went to live temporarily with my stepchildren and their mother. At that point, he was renamed R2D2. My stepdaughter once came downstairs to find her mother in the kitchen crooning to the cat: “You’re so pretty; why are you so stupid?” It’s a remark I often think of as I make my way through life.
Lucian was a passenger on our drive across county, scared by the motion, the smell of the highway, and unimpressed with an up-close view of the Grand Canyon. He did approve of our half a house on Ellsworth Street in Berkeley, which came with a tiny yard and a lemon tree. Gray cat, yellow lemons. Blue sky. Both beings—feline and tree—enjoying the fresh air, the warm/cool days, my company on the steps, barefoot, in a denim skirt, with a cup of tea.
Then—so horrible—Lucian was hit by a car when he followed us on a walk. I can still see him lying in the gutter as we found him on the way home, a smear of red on his tiger belly, mouth a little open. A girl was kneeling by him, as in the famous Kent State picture, but with less distress. The distress was ours. He lived an hour. So pretty. A light silvery gray, with darker but subtle markings.
I bought striped beets the color of persimmons and a curly pepper. A jar of honey. I admired the rows of dark plums and some red ones, and thought of autumn. When I’m back from Portugal, I’ll make a cake. Apples and plums, pecans and brandy, brown sugar, black pepper, fresh ginger, nutmeg, eggs, butter and two cups of sifted white flour.
I hope Fitzroy is still with us. Not just until I return, not just until Christmas or spring, but forever. My mother once said (mistakenly, she admits), “Cats cannot love a person.” At 11, I didn’t see the point of this complaint. I loved cats—one cat in particular—and whether he loved me back was immaterial.
Great warriors of the night, the bed, the barn, the lap, champions of the Internet. While we do our feeble best to think out of the box, they get in the box and know that it is good. They sleep. They creep. They wait patiently by mouse holes. They wake me up from unlawful naps, meowing in my ear.
I was too young to fully appreciate Balzac when I read La Comedie Humaine, his great series of novels that includes Illusions Perdue. How fascinated I was, swallowing the classics! I loved the intricate study of motive and secrets, mistakes, betrayals, ruinous passion. Balzac, Zola, Steinbeck, George Eliot, Tolstoy, Proust. I had no idea it was all so accurate. I was Pollyanna in the dark, playing with my witch toys. Basking in the dazzle of precision-guided words.
Pretty I was then, surely—but why so stupid? I recently read the obituary and some poems of a poet who died at 25 this August. He was no dreaming ninny. He was obsessed with his own death (anticipated, cancer); I with the deaths of family in childhood. I didn’t grow. Didn’t want to. Or know how. Who knows? Berkeley sidewalks were often covered with fallen blossoms and fallen fruit, green seedpods.
I wrote in the mornings, spent all afternoon in bed reading, spending down my inheritance from my mother’s uncle, a Texas insurance tycoon, LBJ backer.
Money that could’ve, but didn’t, last. A world away.
I should go eat those raspberries.
The 25-year-old poet who just died is Max Ritvo, prodigiously talented. I’m including a poem from a poet whose work I’ve loved for a long time, Andrew Hudgins.
Day Job and Night Job
After my night job, I sat in class
and ate, every thirteen minutes,
an orange peanut-butter cracker.
Bright grease adorned my notes.
At noon I rushed to my day job
and pushed a broom enough
to keep the boss calm if not happy.
In a hiding place, walled off
by bolts of calico and serge,
I read my masters and copied
Donne, Marlowe, Dickinson, and Frost,
scrawling the words I envied,
so my hand could move as theirs had moved
and learn outside of logic
how the masters wrote. But why? Words
would never heal the sick,
feed the hungry, clothe the naked,
blah, blah, blah.
Why couldn’t I be practical,
Dad asked, and study law—
or take a single business class?
I stewed on what and why
till driving into work one day,
a burger on my thigh
and a sweating Coke between my knees,
I yelled, ‘Because I want to!’—
pained—thrilled!—as I looked down
from somewhere in the blue
and saw beneath my chastened gaze
another slack romantic
chasing his heart like an unleashed dog
chasing a pickup truck.
And then I spilled my Coke. In sugar
I sat and fought a smirk.
I could see my new life clear before me.
lt looked the same. Like work.
July 10, 2016 § 2 Comments
Edvard Munch. The Storm
As a very young woman, I liked the word “regret.” I liked the way it sounded, its Frenchness. “Je ne regrette rien” comes to mind, of course, but I don’t think it was that song, more swaggering and maudlin than I would have appreciated at 18, that drew me to the word. I see it in print: black on white, the discreet letters with that fat g in the middle. Everything regretted (still desired) lurks within that g. A Google search gives me: “from Old French regreter ‘bewail (the dead),’ perhaps from the Germanic base of ‘greet’ (weep; cry.)”
Regret also sounds like my own first name, though I didn’t realize that until I started writing this. Mostly I liked it because it was a signifier of a lived life and of melancholy, and while I had plenty of the latter—and stubbornly clung to it—the former was still a mystery. One cannot regret without having done something, unless one regrets doing nothing or not enough—and even that seemed oddly appealing to me at 19 or 21: languid, somnolent, poetic. Sometime around then, or perhaps a couple of years later, I read Henry James’ great novella The Beast in the Jungle, which is all about the life unlived, death-like regret, and how it can be created, piece by piece, by a longing for beauty, mystery, the sublime.
I had a longing for beauty, mystery, the sublime. It was the part of myself I was most proud of. I thought it would take me to the tops of mountains, the depths of oceans, distant magical cities. I wouldn’t be so foolish as the man in the story, though. I knew that, just as I knew that I wanted to write with as much breathtaking poise and discernment as James, albeit with a bit more sex. And I haven’t been (as foolish, I mean). I have been differently foolish. This is not the place to list all my mistakes, especially because even now I can’t tease out what were really mistakes and what is the ongoing mistake to consider something a mistake. But I am well acquainted with regret.
It is corrosive, unrelenting. It is a constant yammer, the obverse of the self-consciousness of youth, which thinks itself so different as to be monstrous, while regret knows one is so similar as to be banal and will beat you about the head for it. Regret is neither generous nor kind. I associate it with those travellers (in fiction as in life) who fasten on strangers and pour out their resentments and self-pity, hour upon hour, into a time stretched to forever. At best, this is comedy. I think of Lot’s wife who was turned into a pillar of salt because she looked over her shoulder. I was never a bible student so I assumed religious people knew what this meant and only recently discovered that there is a bit of discussion about it. Did her action reveal her longing for what was left behind (including her daughters), or did she merely suffer the effect of gazing upon the face of the destroying God? What does salt have to do with it? The story of Lot’s wife’s is akin to the Orpheus and Eurydice story. An utterly human reaction, glancing back to make sure she really follows, means the rule broken and the wife lost.
When I first read them, I found these stories unfair. Not that I didn’t understand they were metaphors; I still found them unfair. It takes age to bring a different perspective, to see the clear and present danger of too much looking back and therefore the need for such tales, opaque as they may be to young readers. The implicit message is: trust God (or the god). I don’t, actually, but I admit I ought to trust something; would be happier if there were an area of life, loosely called the spirit, where I could let go and believe that if this is not the best of times and circumstances, it’s the only one I have and therefore, by default, the best. It is a time infinite until it is over, minutes upon minutes upon hours, and who can say any of us deserve more than this unfathomable magic?
There is a place for regret, perhaps the place I imagined at 20; the older person, standing by a window looking out at the rain, mind touching lightly upon wrong turns, wrongdoing, feeling a shiver of sorrow and something else, something ineffable and French. The older person is beautifully dressed, in a spacious and well appointed library, standing on two healthy limbs, looking at a landscape that does not include leering demons, crazed assault rifle murderers, mutant giant insects, unnamed evil from beyond the stars.
My library is not spacious (it is also my bedroom and work space). There’s no room to stand by the window because boxes of jewelry-making supplies and old notebooks are piled everywhere, and the windows are dirty anyway. And if I did look, because I do look, this direction or that, inside and out, what I see too often is leering mutant evil from beyond the stars.
I regret that.
Ode to the Unbroken World, Which Is Coming
It must be coming, mustn’t it? Churches
and saloons are filled with decent humans.
A mother wants to feed her daughter,
fathers to buy their children things that break.
People laugh, all over the world, people laugh.
We were born to laugh, and we know how to be sad;
we dislike injustice and cancer,
and are not unaware of our terrible errors.
A man wants to love his wife.
His wife wants him to carry something.
We’re capable of empathy, and intense moments of joy.
Sure, some of us are venal, but not most.
There’s always a punchbowl, somewhere,
in which floats a…
Life’s a bullet, that fast, and the sweeter for it.
It’s the same everywhere: Slovenia, India,
Pakistan, Suriname—people like to pray,
or they don’t,
or they like to fill a blue plastic pool
in the back yard with a hose
and watch their children splash.
Or sit in cafes, or at table with family.
And if a long train of cattle cars passes
along West Ridge
it’s only the cattle from East Ridge going to the abattoir.
The unbroken world is coming,
(it must be coming!), I heard a choir,
there were clouds, there was dust,
I heard it in the streets, I heard it
announced by loudhailers
mounted on trucks.
February 1, 2016 § 5 Comments
My oldest brother, Jimmy, was born today, 65 years ago. He died at just 14, so it’s a little hard to imagine him old enough for Medicare. If I try I can see his face: wrinkles around the eyes, the soft skin, the lines cut near the mouth so like my mother’s. His hair, if he were like the rest of us, wouldn’t be all gray yet. He’d probably have a few extra pounds, but maybe not; he was the only athlete in the family. He’d have a wife, certainly, and kids. He gave his cat to my sister (who already had a cat) the summer we successfully begged two new ones, so he wouldn’t have one of those. I can’t picture his house or imagine his career, though he had more openness to the wide world than the rest of us. I decided to be a writer at 7; my sister the veterinarian always loved animals. My younger brother’s focus seemed to be on not growing up and he’s made that work for him, though he’s incredibly responsible and caring, particularly with our mother, and earns a living. But he’s never had a career and wouldn’t want one—“Johnny” and “career” just don’t mix. Jimmy, though—I can see Jimmy having a career. I just can’t tell you which one.
What you lose when you are as old as I am is the belief that such a thing shouldn’t happen to you. My brother. My mother’s child. How can I say that when I read about Brazilian babies born with microcephaly or Syrian children drowning off the coast of Greece? Sure, in the world I would create, if someone would only make me God, children wouldn’t die. Nobody’s children, ever, nor suffer horrible diseases, disabilities, cruelty, abuse or neglect.
But this is the world we have and everybody dies unexpectedly, even if the doctor just said about the 98-year-old, “It will happen tonight.” The crossing from one moment to the next is inexplicable, unbearable, and the foundation of the world. We all know we wouldn’t be here without the millions and millions of deaths the world is built on, from the earliest life forms, the amoebas, blind fish, saber-tooths and Neanderthals, to our grandparents getting out of our way. It is a spiritual practice to learn to see death (mostly one’s own) as akin to a leaf falling: ordinary, lovely, reassuring.
When I was 10, I wouldn’t have given my life for my brother’s. I knew I was selfish that way and suspected my parents might have chosen differently if they had any say in the matter. I didn’t blame them for that: it was enough that I would choose myself. Now, of course, it’s different. I think I’d give what years I have left to have had him with me since 1965, though who knows what I’d really do if Rod Serling appeared with a notarized offer. The tricky thing about thought experiments like this is that if there is some being with the power to change life and death and time, death loses much of its sting. (My Catholic aunt died happy that she was soon to see Jesus.) The point of death as we know it is, as people like me know it, people who are not believers—though sometimes we have our fancies—is that it is faceless and indifferent. You may be killed by a maniac with a knife or a drug-addicted doctor, but death itself has no personality.
That is what Buddhists say to embrace. The no-thing. Let go of the material world, which passes. Beloveds, who die. It’s easier to imagine doing that now than it was at 10—much easier. I have far less longing, curiosity, wild wonder at beauty and knowledge, less ambition (though it’s still there, banked coals). But if one is to let go, why, I wonder, is it so important to be kind? The Dalai Lama, who knows a lot about this, says that’s all that really matters: kindness.
I am kind, when I am, because of death and suffering, because I understand that you don’t want it to all be over, to lose them and the world and yourself; and you will. It is the proper response to the barely put together shambling creatures we are, hugging our wounds like furry little sharp-toothed pets. Jimmy was kind (not always). He knew how to be. He would be more so now. I’m with the Greeks: the dead still exist someplace but it’s really nowhere, no food, nothing to look at, nothing to do. No punishment or reward. Just awareness, forever, that there is such a thing as life and you don’t have it.
What I mean is, that’s the death I carry with me. Not Heaven, Nirvana, or nothingness (how to carry that?) But a bunch of shades in a dim cavern, remembering feasts and friendships, the sun on the waves: love, jealousy, betrayal. Or that moment when you wake up before everyone else and look at them sleeping: this one’s mouth open, drool on his lip, sun on his hair; that one curled in a ball, blanket over her head. Dreams pacing under eyelids. Husband, wife, mother, father, sister, brother, child, cat.
What I miss most is what I never knew or could have known: who he was in the privacy of his mind. I knew he was there, in his kingdom. Thinking, laughing. Making plans. It was always a secret. I wanted to bite that secret open. Never could, never would have. By now, if he’d lived, I’d have forgotten. But since he’s still 14, a part of me is still 10, and I miss him like a little sister does, wanting to know everything.
Making a Fist
We forget that we are all dead men conversing with dead men.
—Jorge Luis Borges
For the first time, on the road north of Tampico,
I felt the life sliding out of me,
a drum in the desert, harder and harder to hear.
I was seven, I lay in the car
watching palm trees swirl a sickening pattern past the glass.
My stomach was a melon split wide inside my skin.
“How do you know if you are going to die?”
I begged my mother.
We had been traveling for days.
With strange confidence she answered,
“When you can no longer make a fist.”
Years later I smile to think of that journey,
the borders we must cross separately,
stamped with our unanswerable woes.
I who did not die, who am still living,
still lying in the backseat behind all my questions,
clenching and opening one small hand.
January 29, 2016 § Leave a comment
Lovely night at the Cathedral with passionate gardeners talking about seeds: old seeds, heirloom seeds, seeds as inspiration, freedom, art; as child you watch over and as parent that feeds you. They spoke of colleagues whose grandparents started saving seeds in the 1930s, freezing them in baby food bottles. They told stories of rare plants, plant diseases, the taste of okra, the Black labor that picked the cotton and the prisoners who pick it now. They asked people’s opinions of what the phrase “keeping seeds” connotes versus the more prosaic “saving seeds.”
“Protection” “Cherish” “Caring,” said audience members. Keepsake, I thought. For keeps. Stronghold.
They spoke as part of The Value of Food art exhibition (through April 3rd in all the bays and chapels of the Cathedral) to an audience of seventy or so people who want to grow food in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, Philadelphia, New Jersey, upstate. The veteran city gardener Karen Washington, who successfully faced off against Giuliani in the 90s, organized the event with panelists Owen Taylor, Ken Greene, Onika Abraham, Chris Bolden Newsome, and Kirtrina Baxter. These are the people who are rescuing what’s left of America’s once-amazing diversity of fruits and vegetables, squandered by industry in the last seventy-five years. “When I teach, I ask people: do you come from a farm family?” said the African American Chris Bolden Newsome. “If they say no, I say, ‘go back a little further.’ That’s what all our families were doing a hundred years ago.” And further than that—“All of us. That’s what most people do in the world.”
I thought about the house in the country I used to have, where we planted mostly flowers, but also herbs. Where the laden apple and pear trees were treasures for the squirrels and deer, who must have passed their seeds on, though I don’t know if any offspring grew wild in the woods that went up the flank of the mountain. I remembered the smell of dirt in the sun, the resistance of weeds, the persistence of mint, the hardy thyme and insect-laced basil. I ran the numbers: should we buy another house in the county? Abandon Manhattan? Spend more time with plants?
I’d like to. I’d also like to stay here, with the theaters, museums and cathedrals. With the people who enliven me (though plants enliven me too, especially trees). I decided to apply to a few country writers’ colonies for the summer and bought a pack of catnip seeds to plant in a pot in the window. Charles is doubtful they will thrive. With all that we have to do and don’t get done—our messy, on the edge of uncontrollable lives—he’s not sure growing catnip is a necessary endeavor. Our beasts like the stuff we buy at Whiskers just fine. But he wasn’t there. He didn’t hear all the people raising their hands, wanting to know how they can get started growing their own food, saving seeds, avoiding “the seed industrial complex.” Saving the world, one fragile stalk at a time.
Here’s a poem of mine from my chapbook, it all stayed open, Red Glass Press, 2011.
Where I Left Her
Under my lilac
white and grainy as cement dust
two pounds of woman.
I mixed her into the earth
kneeling in light rain.
She loved this tree
would leave me on the porch to walk around it.
When I could glimpse her
only through the slender
much more was visible.
May again, bloom time.
I’m busy writing love poems.
But on the bus home
to the city there are women
carrying the harvest, armfuls
and the whole packed crew of us
ride in fragrance.
My lover makes me radiant
friends say—I tremble
like a purple cone of tiny flowers—
and makes me suffer. What I most desire
is to hide my heart
where it can never be recovered.