In the Merry Month of May

May 28, 2013 § Leave a comment

James Carter, photo Vincent Soyez

James Carter, photo Vincent Soyez

We went to hear the James Carter Organ Trio Saturday night, and it was most definitely a holiday weekend: Carter, who’s always been a showman, piled on the razzamatazz so thick I felt like I was watching vaudeville. He tortured his horn into doing animal tricks: a Cadillac full of monkeys burning rubber on the California coast road, a dozen toucans celebrating spring break in a Jetblue restroom. And the audience patter was so slick and curlicued I wanted to throw pineapples at him.

Of course, there was also some fantastic music, truly virtuoso stuff. Carter can grandstand because he knows what he’s got. (An extra pair of lungs, for one thing. Horn players always amaze me. I’m the kind of person who gets tired blowing up balloons on the first balloon.) He entered the jazz scene in the early 90’s, talent spilling out his pockets, flaking off his shoes, leaving trains of hot glitter wherever he walked. You could say I had a crush on him.

The audience, which at the Jazz Standard is usually a mix of foreign tourists, American tourists, serious young people and Jersey couples who’ve been in the music business for 40 years, was almost all American tourists. “Do they even know who they’re listening to?” Charles asked.

“They do now,” I said.

Carter’s grown older (fancy that), put on weight, and though he’s still got charisma, doesn’t exude that supremely confident sexual heat that used to make my heart—well, not my heart—

It was a fun if short evening: we had dinner at our apartment before the set, then walked home after: Park Avenue South (wandering young folk), Union Square where the buildings and pavement gleamed from the earlier rain, the fading flowers on Fifth Avenue. I love the cool weather. It was probably disappointing if you were at the beach, but perfect for hanging around lower Manhattan.

Sunday, I worked for the Cathedral (at home), answered client emails, vacuumed, made a pork and green bean stir-fry with garlic, onion and hot sauce. Monday, I did the taxes…the 2011 taxes…the IRS is not so embroiled in scandal that it’s completely forgotten about people with bureaucratic avoidance syndrome. Thank god for credit card “Your Year in Spending” statements and online scans of checks. I did almost all of the prep work without moving from my laptop, although when I added up how much I squander on books, it made me wish I spent more time writing them.

The next step is to make Charles figure out his income and expenses, a fraught endeavor likely to result in repeated questions about things I couldn’t possibly know the answer to, and early afternoon drinking.

I dreamed a friend’s mother, ill with cancer, had an operation where her mind was transferred into the body of a cat, supposedly temporary. It was a pretty little cat with soft gray hair who cried when I picked her up, clung to my chest, then skittered off to flirt with the cat down the street. “What is she thinking?” I asked. “Is she thinking like a person or a cat? Can they do that to me?” My friend got angry that I wasn’t respecting the dire experimental nature of the treatment.


It’s funny when the mind thinks about the psyche,
as if a grasshopper could ponder a helicopter.

It’s a bad idea to fall asleep
while flying a helicopter:

when you wake up, the helicopter is gone
and you are too, left behind in a dream,

and there is no way to catch up,
for catching up doesn’t figure

in the scheme of things. You are
who you are, right now,

and the mind is so scared it closes its eyes
and then forgets it has eyes

and the grasshopper, the one that thinks
you’re a helicopter, leaps onto your back!

He is a brave little grasshopper
and he never sleeps

for the poem he writes is the act
of always being awake, better than anything

you could ever write or do.
Then he springs away.

Ron Padgett

Love Comes in at the Eye

May 22, 2013 § Leave a comment

Fitzroy's opinion of  the freelancer's site Elance

Fitzroy’s opinion of the freelancer’s site Elance

“I’m more attracted to women’s noses than their breasts,” Charles said as we walked down Lafayette in the warm summer evening.

“I’m attracted to their dresses,” I replied, looking at all the bright, patterned cloth and bare shoulders. We had nothing much to do, so wandered into Astor Place Wines & Spirits for a free tasting of German Rieslings. Nice cold wine, lots of info about where the vineyards were in relation to the Rhine River, which made me want to interrupt and whine that I didn’t win the wine-tasting Rhine River cruise sweepstakes I entered last year, ten days and plane fare, dinners.

We drank a thimbleful of a new ginger-flavored cognac, cut with sparkling wine. It tasted like a cross between craft ginger ale and the nectar of the gods. I stood there with those drops on my tongue and saw myself swallowing 6 or 8 ounces—the biting creamy sweetness sliding down my throat—then darkness—and waking up in another world (and I don’t mean the world of headache and vomit). The world where edges are always rounded, where people are naked like the nudes of great paintings, where poetry flows like water and water speaks in its own erudite tongue.

Astor Wine, in its new incarnation on Lafayette Street, is big and roomy. It’s the kind of place that makes you want to buy one of everything, not because you’re feeling alcoholically deprived, but because there are so many choices, with such pretty labels, and the years and vineyards and countries all compete for attention so politely.

The aisles are wide enough. The traffic isn’t bad for 6:30 in the evening. The jug wine cabinet is only steps from the locked “rare dessert wine” cabinet, where one can see a $599 half bottle of wine behind glass, and wonder if the old boyfriend’s credit card number has expired yet. The traffic was mostly couples. I glanced around, trying to see what connected them. I was too overwhelmed by memory, though, and only saw myself, myself, myself, in different eras and guises. If I were young now. . . if I had known then. . . .

Home to dinner: lamb chops, roasted onions and asparagus served on a fold-up table in the bedroom; iTunes routed through Apple TV (Chet Baker, who always sounds one or two stages of sad beyond where I’ve ever been); cats on the table, the bed, the floor, one each. Charles asks to be read something and I read him the previous five paragraphs of this entry, composed before dinner, and he laughs at the old boyfriend’s credit card number joke. Then he says, “The only way I can get a message to my girlfriend is through your blog. She’s too busy to answer my emails.”

“Can I quote you on that?”

“You can quote me on anything.”

“I like to remind my readers I’m not the only one who sinned against the bonds of matrimony,” I say, and he looks at me quizzically. Sinned? Bonds? That’s not the way we look at things.

Though I sometimes do. The pain of jealousy is brutal. But I never cut Charles off, never stopped being his friend, never let anyone else hurt him. That wouldn’t be enough for most people, but Charles and I are different from most people.

He’s playing his guitar in the street every day, making a little money. He doesn’t need to make much. I’m getting more work and we’ll be okay, pay off the debt, stay in NYC. When my nerves subside, when my nerves uncross their legs, when my nerves return or leave or sheathe themselves in fur, I’ll write my own stuff again. In August. Maybe sooner. Meantime, this is it, my bulletins from the land of needy cats, thawing hearts (I’m at the stage where, if I were a pound of ground beef, you could bend and slowly break apart the mass), and creative aging. On the Internet nobody knows you’re a dog. I have my own version of that, but this is the Internet so it shall remain behind the veil.

As if I haven’t told you all everything already.

A Drinking Song

Wine comes in at the mouth
And love comes in at the eye;
That’s all we shall know for truth
Before we grow old and die.
I lift the glass to my mouth,
I look at you, and I sigh.

W.B. Yeats

A Noun Sentence

A noun sentence, no verb
to it or in it: to the sea the scent of the bed
after making love … a salty perfume
or a sour one. A noun sentence: my wounded joy
like the sunset at your strange windows.
My flower green like the phoenix. My heart exceeding
my need, hesitant between two doors:
entry a joke, and exit
a labyrinth. Where is my shadow—my guide amid
the crowdedness on the road to judgment day? And I
as an ancient stone of two dark colors in the city wall,
chestnut and black, a protruding insensitivity
toward my visitors and the interpretation of shadows. Wishing
for the present tense a foothold for walking behind me
or ahead of me, barefoot. Where
is my second road to the staircase of expanse? Where
is futility? Where is the road to the road?
And where are we, the marching on the footpath of the present
tense, where are we? Our talk a predicate
and a subject before the sea, and the elusive foam
of speech the dots on the letters,
wishing for the present tense a foothold
on the pavement …

Mahmoud Darwishh translated by Fady Joudah

Loving Dave Brubeck

May 12, 2013 § 2 Comments

Eugene Wright

Eugene Wright

Yesterday, the Cathedral hosted a memorial service for Dave Brubeck, the great jazz pianist and composer—and in Bill Clinton’s words (via letter read aloud) “world-class human being”— who died last December. What a thrilling occasion! Brubeck’s widow, Iola, asked us to take joy in the music and it wasn’t possible not to. Silly Charles thought there would be too much talking and he’d fall asleep. Nope. Two hours passed like a few minutes.

The Brubeck brothers, Brubeck bass player Eugene Wright, and many great musicians, including Chick Corea, Paquito D’Rivera, Roy Hargrove, Branford Marsalis, Bill Charlap, Renee Rosnes, Randy Brecker and Jon Faddis played, as well as the Cathedral’s own Artist in Residence Paul Winter. Tony Bennett made a surprise appearance, talking to the crowd after we listened to a recording of him singing (spontaneously) with Brubeck at a White House concert in 1962. This “lost” recording will be issued later this month.

Get it.

The sons were all excellent (appropriately featured on “Cathy’s Waltz” written for their sister Cathy, “In Your Own Sweet Way” for Iola, and “For Iola”), as were the young musicians, New York-based alumnae of the Brubeck Institute at the University of the Pacific. They played “Blue Rondo a La Turk” and I do love that song.

Chick Corea played “Strange Meadowlark,” perfectly evoking the feeling of being 17, spending all of a June day by a river in Amesbury, Massachusetts, while LSD focused and elaborated on the ever-changing sound of the water, the sun filtering through leaves, the volume and mood of the air, and the intersecting patterns all these made—an effortless unfolding of delight, layers and ribbons of delight, time without end. I’m not 17 anymore, so luckily there’s music.

Paquito D’Rivera lived up to Mark Ruffin’s description of him as “the best clarinetist in the world,” though admittedly I haven’t heard all that many (I’m very partial to Lee Konitz). Jon Faddis ended the concert with verve and passion, and Hilary Kole, a young singer who recorded with Dave in 2010, has a voice of surpassing strength and sweetness.

And of course there were stories. My favorite was about how Dave and his wife, Iola, met. They were both in college; he was in his senior year. His mother told him he had to attend at least one college dance before graduating. He asked his roommate who the smartest girl in the school was, and when told it was Iola Whitlock, he said, “That’s who I’m taking to the dance.” By the end of the evening, they’d decided to get married, promptly did so, and celebrated 70 years together before he died. Iola, one of four people to receive a standing ovation (Tony Bennett, Eugene Wright and George Wein were the others) talked about their first visit to the Cathedral—on Duke Ellington’s birthday in 1976, two years after Ellington’s Cathedral memorial service.

Though I would like all the jazz greats to live forever, if it should happen that they don’t, I hope their families hold memorials in the Cathedral. It was a great privilege to share the love, the history, the music. The music, especially.

Chick Corea (left)

Chick Corea (left)

Tony Bennett

Tony Bennett

Iola Brubeck and George Wein

Iola Brubeck and George Wein

Strange Meadowlark

What a strange meadow lark
to be singing oh so sweetly in the park
All alone meadow lark
are you dreaming of the moons that burned so bright
and of love in flight?
Can’t you sleep meadow lark?
Is there nothing left but whistling in the dark
so sad?
Was it love meadow lark?
Were the songs you sang last summer crazy mad?
Think of all you had.
A quiet nest up in the clouds where the soft winds blow.
Far from all the noisy crowds where the earthbound go.
Your wings have pressed against a star —
boundless were the skies.
You may have flown too high too far —
love is seldom wise.
Don’t you see meadow lark
though you try your call won’t turn another lark
in flight?
He has gone meadow lark.
You can sing your song until the dawn brings light —
sing with all your might. . . .
Don’t you see meadow lark
though you try your call won’t turn another lark
in flight?
He has gone meadow lark.
You can sing your song until the dawn brings light.
Sing with all your might.
Sing away the dark . . . little meadow lark, meadow lark, meadow lark.

lyrics by Iola Brubeck

By Dark

May 11, 2013 § Leave a comment

W.S. Merwin

W.S. Merwin

We went to hear W. S. Merwin talk and read last night. I thought it was last year I heard him at the Library, but it was 2 ½ years ago. It’s been a seismic 2 ½ years, yet still memory reshuffles things.

Merwin’s voice was a little weaker, with more of that static you hear in the voices of the elderly, as if they’re on the far edge of the transmission band. He talked about poetry and language both evolving as an attempt to express the inexpressible. I’m not sure I believe that about language, or even poetry. The fact that we can never say exactly what we mean is always the subtext of what we say, but is it what matters most? “In wildness is the preservation of the world,” Merwin quoted, defining “wildness” as everything that gets away from us, that essential reality we can never hold onto, that art evokes for those with a mind to listen. This is his most persistent theme: his poems are full of what is there and not there at once, his faintly melancholy, meditative tone like fingers endlessly sliding the same silky stone from thumb to pinkie, registering that coolness, smoothness, darkness, mystery.

In J. D. McClatchy’s introduction he talked about Merwin as a visionary poet—the thesis of the term paper I wrote on him 40 years ago, in Russell Banks’ Contemporary Poetry class. I wondered where that girl went, who was so madly in love with poetry, who would have gone to a dozen events in the last month, if she’d been here, if I were still her.

Fitzroy woke me this morning, wedging his purring face under my nose, then noisily chewing on my hair until Charles lured him out of the room, and I went back to sleep. I dreamed that I woke up and was depressed. Instead of trying to write, I went for a walk in a neighborhood that was new to me. I felt exhilarated and so happy to be in New York. I remember pale pink cobblestones and a dusting of snow. Then a woman spoke to me, referring to a climate event in a distant country, and I tried to say something about how extreme weather is moving like one big storm across the earth, but the gestures I used to illustrate my point—hands up and churning the air—were alarming, and I realized that what she saw was a stereotypical New York crazy lady. I felt sad that I could no longer communicate appropriately.

Merwin recited a half dozen poems. Three of them were elegies for dogs. Here’s one.

By Dark

When it is time I follow the black dog
into the darkness that is the mind of day
I can see nothing but the black dog
the dog I know going ahead of me
not looking back oh it is the black dog
I trust now in my turn after the years
when I had all the trust of the black dog
through an age of brightness and through shadow
on into the blindness of the black dog
where the rooms of the dark were already known
and had no fear in them for the black dog
leading me carefully up the blind stairs.

W.S. Merwin

Where the West Commences

May 10, 2013 § Leave a comment


I learned the other day that I was accepted into Ucross, an artists’ colony in Wyoming. Four weeks in beautiful country (late August-September), four weeks with my own writing studio, lunch delivered, dinner cooked by a chef…I can’t wait for the cool nights, the billion stars, the smells. Will I get any writing done? Who the hell cares! But, yes, I will. There’s not a whole lot else to do other than wallow in nature, and there’s only so much wallowing I can do in a day.

I wish I could bring Fitzroy—he would love it so much—but no pets allowed. No husbands either; I can live with that. I’ll have to bring my own chocolate and coffee (I’m picky) and get used to not being online whenever I want.

I’ll say it again; I can’t wait to lie outside in the dark, in the immense quiet, looking up at the sky. Mornings and afternoons will be beautiful too, but it’s the nights I’m dreaming of: moonlight, shadows, a tickle of snow on the breeze. It’s been too long since I lived in the country. I dreamed about my old house again last night, the same dream I always have: we’re settled in for the weekend, spreading out, when I start to think: didn’t we sell this…? How can we still be here? Very similar to dreams about dead people where you’ve having a nice chat and then remember…damn…

Next year: Yaddo, Macdowell, Latvia. Latvia? Yep, I just read about it: a writer’s colony of one in a boutique hotel in Riga every summer. Kind of lonesome, but I guess that’s the idea. Swamp the writer with Balkan ghosts. Make her run up huge hotel tab, Russian vodka. Maybe she’ll never leave. I bet they wouldn’t care if I brought a cat.

Don’t Fence Me In

Oh, give me land, lots of land, under starry skies above
Don’t fence me in
Let me ride thru the wide-open country that I love
Don’t fence me in
Let me be by myself in the evening breeze
Listen to the murmur of the cottonwood trees
Send me off forever, but I ask you please
Don’t fence me in
Don’t fence me in

Just turn me loose
Let me straddle my old saddle underneath the western skies
On my cayuse
Let me wander over yonder till I see the mountains rise
I want to ride to the ridge where the west commences
Gaze at the moon until I loose my senses
I can’t look at hobbles and I can’t stand fences
Don’t fence me in
Don’t fence me in

Give me land, lots of land, under starry skies above
Don’t fence me in
Let me ride thru the wide-open country that I love
Don’t fence me in
Let me be by myself in the evening breeze
Listen to the murmur of the cottonwood trees
Send me off forever, but I ask you please
Don’t fence me in
Don’t fence me in

Just turn me loose
Let me straddle my old saddle underneath the western skies
On my cayuse
Let me wander over yonder till I see the mountains rise
I want to ride to the ridge where the west commences
Gaze at the moon until I loose my senses
I Can’t look at hobbles and I can’t stand fences
Don’t fence me in

–Cole Porter

Where Am I?

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