December 15, 2010 § Leave a comment

I’m betraying my cats with another, a Brooklynite named Medici, with long, thick, incredibly soft fur—tabby brown-black with white fluff on the belly. His eyes are that particular underwater sage green only cats have, and he has a short face, like Fitzroy’s, but much milder and dreamier. Philip says he named the cat Medici because he’s so princely, but in fact he’s more like what a prince would have in his cat harem, if princes had cat harems, as some surely must. This Medici wouldn’t poison his relatives or dominate European banking; he prefers to roll on his back for a strange woman, and nearly fall off the bed for his pleasure. If there’s any prince he reminds me of, it’s Prince Genji—gelded of course.

When I get up to write, he follows me into the living room and sits calmly at my feet, and then on the couch beside me. One of the 8,000 reasons I never had children was that I feared being watched all the time, and here in my near-dotage I am watched by cats, which isn’t so bad when it’s Medici and Sparkle (Medici’s roommate: large, gray, shy) but at home feels dangerous, because Fitzroy and Mouchette know too much.

They can’t report on me to anyone, but they can mirror me back to myself, they can react with unhappiness to my unhappiness, they can grow up sneaky and drawn to drugs (Mouchette) or seething with violent fantasies (guess who). Just imagine what my human children would have been like. I prefer not to.

But it is nice to have a cat like an ermine coat lie next to me purring loudly, and not even because he wants to be fed. Philip’s cats have an automatic dry food dispenser and don’t expect anything more. They love for the sake of love. They weren’t rescued from the street, like mine were. What does that tell you? In cats, it takes such a harsh childhood to produce neurosis, while in humans all its takes it being born. I know that, in theory, humans with lovely childhoods become lovely adults, but I haven’t actually seen that. Maybe it’s the ape ancestry that dooms us. Or maybe the key to male contentment is being gelded at birth and never let outdoors, and female contentment would follow (though we’d have to go out to do the shopping). The problem is that nobody wants to geld babies.

To see the some cool pix…Cats of Italy click here

Which I found on an interesting site about an expatriate in Italy (also recipes!). Click here

The Cat

Along the hallways of my thought,
As if at home, there prowls a cat,
A strong, sweet, charming, splendid cat.
He mews: the sound is barely caught,

So soft and diffident its tone.
Cries of contentment or complaint
A throaty resonance contain,
A charm, a secret of their own.

A voice that slakes and saturates
The deepest shaded parts of me
And fills my soul like poetry;
Like magic, it rejuvenates.

It lulls to sleep my cruel malaise,
Contains all ecstasy as well;
There is no need of words to tell
The long complexities of phrase.

No bow could rasp across my heart,
Though perfect instrument it be,
And make it throb more royally,
More resonant in every part,

Than does your voice, mysterious,
Seraphic cat, eccentric cat;
An angel’s song is in your throat,
So subtle and harmonious.

His fur is dappled brown and blond,
And has such sweet perfume, last night
When I had touched him with one light
Caress, my hand became embalmed.

He is the soul of our abode:
The judge, the king, the inspiration
Of everything in his small nation.
Perhaps a demon, is he God?

When, as by a magnet’s spell,
This cherished cat has caught my eyes,
Then, docilely, to analyze
They turn and gaze into my self,

With what astonishment I see
The fire within his pallid pupils,
Lighted beacons, living opals,
Which contemplate me fixedly!

Charles Baudelaire (translator unknown)

Three Ladies

December 9, 2010 § 1 Comment

Leopardskin Jasper and Brilliant Glass Necklace

I used to make fruitcakes for Christmas gifts. Scoff if you like, but they were delicious. I miss having the space to do that, to allow six or eight cakes to bathe in generous spirits for a month, while the ground turned purple and dimmer and crackly and Charles walked around wearing a blanket to conserve heat. Now, I make jewelry, and oddly enough it takes up even more room (though it doesn’t tempt me to add rum to my tea in mid-afternoon). Of course, I make jewelry to sell, which is why it takes up so much room.

I mostly sell over the Internet. I prefer selling in person, because the quality of the work is much more evident, and I can talk to the customer. But on the other hand, I like surprising people (I get effusive emails). I’m shipping overseas today, which means standing in line at the post office, because no matter how often I do it, I can’t ever get the customs forms right.

The post office ladies are very kind. They’re swift too, though there aren’t enough of them, which is why the powers that be removed the clock from the post office wall. Every time I go, I learn from their firm, efficient friendliness. One has an unfailing cheerfulness, brisk hands and a depth of calm like an African lake (she’s Korean), and I envy her family, though it may be that she’s so calm because she has no family; one has a sardonic eye and a crackle of irritation that make me cringe when I’ve been especially stupid, and feel an equivalent relief a moment later, when her crooked smile forgives me; and the quiet one lets her boredom show in such a way that her off-duty pleasures become almost visible, reminding me of my off-duty pleasures.

I like all three ladies, and after so many years, think of the three as if they were aspects of one. When occasionally there’s a man working, and he’s never as fast and rarely as friendly, I feel impelled to protest (of course I say nothing). This is a woman’s job, to stand and receive all those confused about customs, about whether to spend $20 overnight postage to get grandmother’s card to London by her birthday (I say nothing about that either), whether insurance is worth it and which stamps are prettier. Not that I’d mind if men could do the job. But they can’t. They haven’t yet. Not as well. Not in 20 years.

The Three Ladies

I dreamt. I saw three ladies in a tree,
and the one that I saw most clearly
showed her favors unto me,
and I saw her leg above the knee!

But when the time for love was come,
and of readiness I had made myself,
upon my head and shoulders
dropped the other two like an unquiet dew.

What were these two but the one?
I saw in their faces, I heard in their words,
wonder of wonders! it was the undoing of me
they came down to see!

Sister, they said to her who upon my lap
sat complacent, expectant:
he is dead in his head, and we
have errands, have errands…

Oh song of wistful night! Light shows
where it stops nobody knows, and two
are one, and three, to me, and to look
is not to read the book.

Robert Creeley

The Triumph of Death, or The 3 Fates. Flemish tapestry (probably Brussels, ca. 1510-1520). Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Never Enough Libraries

November 20, 2010 § 1 Comment

books at The Morgan Library

Today we went to the Morgan Library, and saw some Degas drawings, photos taken in France just after WWI, and Pierpont’s interior library, now restored to its former glory. The Degas didn’t hold my attention, which was admittedly frantic and NYC jittery; I kept exclaiming to Charles, “I’m so sorry for all the people around me!” as I talked too loud, plowed into others attempting to use the same bit of ground, and was generally unable to comport myself among genteel multitudes.

The library calmed me. The ceiling is so high and fresco’d, the low settees so velvety red, the bookshelves full of so many editions of Dickens, Balzac, Thackeray and Zola, as well as The Lives of British Admirals and Biographical Memoirs of George Washington. There were also beloved favorites such as The Peterkin Papers, A Child’s Garden of Verses, The Life and Adventures of a Fly, and The Funny Old Woman Who Went to The Moon. Actually, I haven’t read the last two, but I’m sure they’d be worth the trouble. I tried to find them for you, but only managed to uncover scholarly references in academic journals, which required subscriptions. So you will have to write your own versions. Send me copies.

I also enjoyed his collection of ancient seals, my favorite being the Griffin Fighting Griffin Demon with A Dagger over Small Calf Below. I love that having dreamt up a griffin, they then went on to imagine a griffin demon (distinguishable by his tail and the dagger he wields); was this a griffin who’d strayed into unholy arrangements, or just the natural corollary of the griffin, all beings having a demonic counterpart?

Which brings me to the photographs of France after WWI, commissioned by Anne Morgan, Pierpont’s daughter, who organized relief efforts. The photos are haunting: indomitable old women among ruins; children playing store in the rubble; old men living in quarries; toddlers being bathed and fed by brisk young volunteers. No able-bodied men. And in the film footage, when the traveling library truck comes to town, all the children in their worn black boots run after it, leaping into the air in excitement.

Charles said, “You can see how they might think, the next time the Germans invaded, that it would be better to just give up than have to go through that level of destruction again.” Indeed. First the griffin and then the griffin demon. Not that I should malign griffins…

*Morgan was one of a group of bankers who rescued the government in the panic of 1893, supplying the Treasury with $65,000,000 in gold. One could argue that the 2008 bailout was payback; one could also argue that it’s the banks’ place to have mountains of ready cash. That was what they were invented for. But, like the rest of our cultural institutions, they’ve been failing regularly since the beginning. Just not regularly enough to plan for.

The Land of Storybooks

At evening when the lamp is lit,
Around the fire my parents sit;
They sit at home and talk and sing,
And do not play at anything.

Now, with my little gun, I crawl
All in the dark along the wall,
And follow round the forest track
Away behind the sofa back.

There, in the night, where none can spy,
All in my hunter’s camp I lie,
And play at books that I have read
Till it is time to go to bed.

These are the hills, these are the woods,
These are my starry solitudes;
And there the river by whose brink
The roaring lions come to drink.

I see the others far away
As if in firelit camp they lay,
And I, like to an Indian scout,
Around their party prowled about.

So, when my nurse comes in for me,
Home I return across the sea,
And go to bed with backward looks
At my dear land of Story-books.

Robert Louis Stevenson

Wild Thing

November 20, 2010 § 2 Comments

Gary Snyder

I went to the new Poets House on the river to hear Gary Snyder. It was a small gathering, for members only: 80-100 people. Everyone had that poet look which stands out so much in New York City: softer, hair mussed, a little distracted, bohemian in a don’t-look-at-me way. I know very well how caustic poets can be but when I’m in a room of them, I’m reminded of a postcard I used to have, a painting of two sheep sitting next to each other, knitting sweaters from their own wool.

Snyder is a short man, white haired and sinewy, with a deeply wrinkled, canny face and an air of recalcitrant—not to mention rude—health. He looks like a Ken Kesey character who wandered into a Tolkien book and then quickly exited.

He read some poems, then sat down for a conversation with Jonathan Skinner, editor of Ecopoetics. Snyder was in New York promoting a documentary called The Practice of the Wild. Given that obvious hook, not to mention Snyder’s reputation, Skinner steered the conversation to the environment. He asked what wildness is. Gary said, “Well, wildness, nature—let me say what nature is. Nature is the whole phenomenal universe, everything that exists, other than the supernatural, if you believe in the supernatural, although in India, this is interesting, they believe that the supernatural, gods, demons, are all part of nature, just a part that’s invisible to us.” (He went on about India for quite a while but I forget the rest.) Then he said, “Wildness is process. The kind of process where human self-conscious agency is not involved. The intellect is not wild, but the body is wild. Language is wild. The mind takes care of language the way the body takes care of digestion, without your having to think about it.”

He talked about how children acquire language—and the precocious thing his 2 year old granddaughter said—and explained how differently language is learned in English, where the alphabet is random in relation to sound, while in India children learn sounds in order from the front of the mouth, the sounds lips make, to the sounds of teeth and tongue, and the back of the mouth, the throat, etc. He discussed his background in linguistics and the six languages of China, as different as the romance languages of Europe but all written exactly the same, so everyone in China can read the same newspaper. I’ve read about this, but don’t really understand it, so if you want to know more, go look it up.

Skinner, asking his next question, referred to Gary as an encyclopedia and Snyder interrupted him to say that these were necessary answers. The cranky old man took the stage more fully when Skinner mentioned that Snyder hadn’t read any nature poems. “I already explained what nature is,” said Gary. “I could read some outdoor poems, if you want.” And then digressed to tell us that Koreans have the most intelligent writing system in the world. (You can look that up too.)

Don’t imagine I wasn’t enjoying this. I love to listen to the deeply erudite, especially when they make dazzling leaps. But he was cranky. He talked about the language of feeling being monosyllabic—in reference to where speech started—and Skinner said, treading cautiously now, “You make it new by going back.”

“I’d just as soon make it old,” Gary retorted. I started to think about age; how some poets, reasonably famous in their later youth and middle age, but marginalized, as poets are in our culture, become fetishized in their eighth or ninth decade as we realize they are leaving us, leaving us with all their memories of how things used to be, in that bygone golden age we used to shrug off as our parents’ youth. They’re leaving and we didn’t treasure them enough, we took them for granted, and now we want them more than ever…anyway, I’ve seen it before, and it’s both heady and annoying for the poet. Or so it seems. But I know that Creeley died and I never knew him; that Ginsberg died and I never heard him read; that Pound died and I never dared to be an intrepid 20 year American girl in Italy charming her way past the wife…

Finally Skinner, trying to steer this unwieldy craft back to Climate Change, which is what I at least was somewhat anxious to hear Snyder talk about, ended up expostulating, “Where do you get your optimism?” This, perhaps, in reference to Gary’s earlier remark that his grandchildren would be able to live in the deep woods and have village buses pull up in the morning to take them to market, where they’d buy and sell handmade goods, swap gossip, then write a poem or two waiting for the homebound bus, which I imagined as something between a yellow school bus and the Merry Pranksters’ vehicle, paint a little faded…when in fact we all know our grandchildren will live in Brooklyn and sell cloned body parts to the superrich.

“I’m not optimistic,” answered Snyder. “I’m good-natured. The world is going to hell in a hand basket. If there’s anything to say for optimism, it’s that nature always bats last.”

I think he meant wild nature, not the whole phenomenal world. And anyway, we all know that. Those who worry about the planets are idiots. People will suffer; animals will go extinct; things will change beyond all recognition. But the planet? She’ll be fine. She’ll be just like me, when things go badly for awhile, eager to get started again, to invent again, glad the past was ripped away with all its constraints…

The earth is mortal, but not in any way we can understand. Mourn our culture, if you like. Mourn the tiger and the songbird, the polar bear with his thinning bones, the insects you’ve never thought about, the plants living and dying quietly far from our murderous hands. But not the planet. The planet endures. It bats last (in our terms; I won’t mention the paltry lifetime of the sun) and knocks us out of the park. It was a spectacular game while it lasted. And the afternoon is still sunny—never mind that chill—that heat—that odd gasping sound of the world’s fresh water drying up. Bless the rain and rivers. Bless your youth, or if you’re still young, bless books.

Axe Handles

One afternoon the last week in April
Showing Kai how to throw a hatchet
One-half turn and it sticks in a stump.
He recalls the hatchet head
Without a handle, in the shop,
And go gets it, and wants it for his own.
A broken off axe handle behind the door
Is long enough for a hatchet.
We cut it to length and take it
With the hatchet head,
And working hatchet, to the wood block.
There I begin to shape the old handle
With the hatchet, and the phrase
First learned from Ezra Pound
Rings in my ears!
“When making an axe handle, the pattern is not fair off.”
And I say this to Kai
“Look: we’ll shape the handle
By checking the handle
Of the axe we cut with—“
And he sees. And I hear it again:
It’s in Lu Ji’s Wen Fu, fourth century
A.D. “Essay of literature”—in the
Preface: “In making the handle
Of an axe
By cutting wood with an axe
The model is indeed near at hand.”
My teacher Shih Hsiang Chen
Translated that and saw it years ago
And I see: Pound was an axe,
Chen was an axe, I am an axe
And my son a handle, soon
To be shaping again, model
And tool, craft of culture,
How we go on.

Gary Snyder

Me Again/November 12

November 13, 2010 § Leave a comment

I’ve been on a number of anti-depressants in the last decade and lately on several at once. I added a low dose of Zoloft a few years ago when my rage and pain re my romantic life became unbearable. A week ago, I quit—ran out and didn’t feel like calling the Dr. for a new script. For a few days I felt nothing, then felt sluggish and zingy in the head, and finally, today, feel connected to my own feelings in a way I haven’t for many months. Months, not years, because the problem is not Zoloft removing the emotions but rather stashing them somewhere so they build up and breed and eventually start wafting out toxic dust….okay, this may not fit the current neuroscience paradigm but it’s a sketchy paradigm at best.

It hit this morning as I was writing a diary entry about some of the usual suspects. That material will be saved for fiction or the shredder, depending; what I want to write about here is the astonishment of being myself again, tears and all, not that distant facsimile of Margaret, listening as people say things like, “What do you mean you don’t have a brain?” Yes, I’ve had a brain all along, and was able to wield it in a more-or-less intelligent fashion, but I didn’t have my brain. It was a brittle replica.

Emotion feeds reason. We know this intuitively and scientists are now crowing about it as if they just discovered air, but it’s so vivid to me today. The hurt, the tears, and the love—feeling very loving toward my family recently—are like red blood rushing up to that gray eminence which is, in fact, not as spry as it once was, not as snappy, but all I’ve got. Yes, I’ll write fiction about the convoluted weirdness that is my life. My arms twitch as if longing to grip a steering wheel, aim into racing, six-lane traffic.

On the other hand (I have extras), right this second some synapse fires, the tides shift, and what I feel, the emotional load, reminds me of a crippled, whining, 70 pound dog I have to carry…smelly, too…yeah, I took the pills because often I want to ditch this dog, but to follow the metaphor to its logical conclusion, it’s got a nose far superior to mine.

Dogs Are Shakespearean, Children Are Strangers

Dogs are Shakespearean, children are strangers.
Let Freud and Wordsworth discuss the child,
Angels and Platonists shall judge the dog,
The running dog, who paused, distending nostrils,
Then barked and wailed; the boy who pinched his sister,
The little girl who sang the song from Twelfth Night,
As if she understood the wind and rain,
The dog who moaned, hearing the violins in concert.
—O I am sad when I see dogs or children!
For they are strangers, they are Shakespearean.

Tell us, Freud, can it be that lovely children
Have merely ugly dreams of natural functions?
And you, too, Wordsworth, are children truly
Clouded with glory, learned in dark Nature?
The dog in humble inquiry along the ground,
The child who credits dreams and fears the dark,
Know more and less than you: they know full well
Nor dream nor childhood answer questions well:
You too are strangers, children are Shakespearean.

Regard the child, regard the animal,
Welcome strangers, but study daily things,
Knowing that heaven and hell surround us,
But this, this which we say before we’re sorry,
This which we live behind our unseen faces,
Is neither dream, nor childhood, neither
Myth, nor landscape, final, nor finished,
For we are incomplete and know no future,
And we are howling or dancing out our souls
In beating syllables before the curtain:
We are Shakespearean, we are strangers.

–Delmore Schwartz

Amazing poem, isn’t it? And I like that he uses “who” rather than “that” when he writes “The dog who moaned…”

Ars Longa

November 9, 2010 § Leave a comment

Lascaux cave painting

I was reading an article in techdirt by a musician who copes with music piracy by selling “attractive physical objects.” I’m not going to tackle the problem of artistic piracy, though as a writer—one offering my words for free at the moment—it is one I worry about a lot. What struck me was that he said, “In the broad historical perspective music is frivolous non-work and we are lucky to have time to make it at all.”

His historical perspective is not nearly broad enough. Certainly it’s always been true that not every person who so desires can make a living, or any recompense at all, by being a musician or artist; even in the caveman days, there must have been those who were told to stop drawing on the walls. But this is true of any craft or profession. Not everyone can dig ditches either.

There are interesting arguments to be made about certain kinds of activity being inherently frivolous—the froth and foam of the financial sector springs to mind—but music, art, poetry, etc, do not fall into this category. Without them we would have no culture at all; no “attractive physical objects” nor even any unattractive ones (not counting the sticks monkeys use to pull termites from their nests).

Art makes culture. It’s a frightening time when even artists have forgotten this. When pundits call on Obama to “bring back the poetry,” poets may cringe at that use of the word, but it is a very telling one. Poetry and language are indissoluble. One can say poetry evolved from language, but many believe it was the other way around; that the first language was the creation (discovery) of poetry: words as names, raw as flesh, full of all that cannot be said, teaching the pleasure of verbal rhythm. Only slowly was language teased and flattened into performing other functions.

This is true of all the arts. Material goods and shelter, trade agreements, legal and political systems, religion: all these elements of culture depend on the original creation of culture through art, the continuing maintenance of culture through art, and most important for the point I’m making, popular respect for art. To imagine we can have a prosperous nation without this maintenance and respect is like the Chinese believing they could become a powerful nation by severing bonds of family, community and faith (not to mention art). Only when they quietly abandoned those practices did China start fulfilling its potential. In this country we’re taking a more erratic path. That sentence I quoted above haunts me. “In the broad historical perspective…” Being well into middle age, it’s my turn to say, “What on earth are they teaching kids these days?”


Struck a pair of stones to start off. Left behind
ten men curled like scythes round the fire.
Left behind the bracing moon. Passed a pack
of ibex, passed the mammoth. Left the carious
canines before the rath, left the scapula—
freed space for petal dyes, for fixatives.
Passed (in a dream) Chauvet. Alsace. Lorraine.
Past the scree, past the wolf standing sentinel, her
mouth. Struck two stones to hearten the blaze,
sped up; pulled from the sack the manganese, the gilt
mixture of ochre and ore, the animal fat,
the deer bristle. The hare I speared fresh
for better reds. Mash of berries in a rolled frond.
Looked back—still breathing, still lone, set
bone to the bare wall: summoned up the aurochs
in a dervish turn, flank hot with lashes, all hot with dying and kneeling
down. Then nothing. Then the quiet
credit of our kind.

-Joseph Spece

Merwin, Again

October 24, 2010 § Leave a comment

Today, W.S. Merwin is being inducted by the Library of Congress as Poet Laureate of the United States. Friday night, I went to hear him speak at the New York Public Library. I’ve been reading his poems for 36 years, since I took a contemporary poetry class taught by Russell Banks in my sophomore year of college (which I can’t thank you for enough, Russell, especially since I don’t have your email). I remember the semicircle of chairs, the way the lines fell on the page, being asked to read aloud and being afraid I didn’t understand the poems well enough to place the stresses properly. I wrote my final paper on Merwin as a Visionary Poet, struggling for insights that seem obvious now; the other night he saved his highest praise for Blake.

In the 70’s, Merwin was a man in his prime, often compared to a Greek God, though to me he’s always looked like what he in fact is, Welsh. “Merwin” means “friend of the sea.” Today he has downy white hair, a delicate, lovely face, and the kind of faultless courtesy that comes from having a truly top-shelf soul. In his presence I was a) overcome with love for him, and b) aware of everything I had failed to learn or do. I appreciated his erudition and his goodness in the way you only can when you’re old enough to know how precious both of those are, and how rare the combination is.

His stepson, John Burnham Schwartz, introduced him. Schwartz talked too long, but as Lisa kindly put it, he was laboring to explain just how amazing Merwin has been as a stepfather and mentor, and it was an impossible task. And since one of Merwin’s main themes for the evening was that poetry—and language—came into being to say what cannot be said, it was perhaps apropos that he rendered his stepson garrulous and his interviewer nearly mute, at least in the beginning.

Merwin talked about visiting Ezra Pound at St Elizabeth’s when he was 18, and knew little of Pound’s politics except that he had pissed off the authorities with his anti-American broadcasts, which the young Merwin saw as a good thing. Pound told him that if he wanted to be a poet, he should translate, because that’s the best way to learn one’s own language. Merwin has, of course, spent his life translating: he read one of his favorites, from his latest book, a poem attributed to the emperor Hadrian. “Little soul, little stray/ little drifter/now where will you stay/all pale and all alone/after the way/you used to make fun of things.”

He said he had decided to accept the Poet Laureateship, which has refused in past years, because of Obama. He thinks the things he wants to say—about the earth and vanishing species—have more of a chance to be heard. He also pointed out that Obama’s famous cool is a very Hawaiian thing, and that’s what the rest of us don’t get. (Merwin has lived on Maui for 30 years.) Discussing Humanity’s treatment of animals and plants, he became passionate, though he kept interrupting himself to say that he didn’t want to preach because his father was a preacher.

He talked a lot, as he writes a lot, about disappearance, how everything you see you are seeing for the first and the last time, and I struggled to know this as he does, with the body and instinct, but I couldn’t and can’t. This moment as I write is not opening up to me its utter uniqueness; instead I feel the weight of sameness, of Sunday, of a little boredom, pain in my knees, and the gallop of my faithful hounds of thought who keep bringing back the same slimy sneaker.

From a recent interview
Q: You seem continually astonished by nature, love, and words. What else astonishes you?

Merwin: What else is there?

Q: Any advice?

Merwin: Yes, one important thing: Read for pleasure. Read junk. Read every kind of book. But read for pleasure. The reason the Puritans wanted to stamp out poetry was because it gave pleasure. It’s about things you love, things that you care about. Sir Philip Sidney, in the generation before Shakespeare, said, “Poetry begins in delight and ends in wisdom.” And it will never end in wisdom if it doesn’t begin in delight and continue in delight. When you read a poem and you think, “God, that is so beautiful, I don’t want to forget that,” and you go on saying it to yourself because you love it, that’s pleasure. That is real pleasure.

–The Progressive

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