Sunday, September 20, 2020

Plenty of Nothing

As Alice said to the White King In the Looking Glass, I saw which he replied, I only wish I had such eyes to be able to see Nobody. Nobody is like Nothing…… And Nothing’s plenty for me.

What’s up? Nothing much. And therein lies the tale.

Shakespeare, that rascal, wrote Much Ado About Nothing but his nothing was a pun for No Thing, thing being the term for phallus at the time. Nothing has quite a history.

Poetry changes nothing said W.C. Auden………but people die everyday for lack of it wrote William Carlos Williams. Maybe that nothing which poetry changes is worth looking into.

There is a vast something in Nothing. It’s the absence better left unsaid or unsayable. Look for the meaning of a poem in among the words. The intervals make the music. The pause is pregnant.

When a friend needs our ear we are best advised to be quiet and reflecting. Just being present and silent allows the flow. All is nothing at all.

One of the problems with this world is our hunting and gathering of too many things. As the comedian says, I don’t want everything. Where would I put it? With our consumer brains we want, we grab, we accumulate heedless of consequence. The earth is scarred. The air is toxic. Our souls are not fed.

On that Streetcar Named Desire we lose touch with a healthy simplicity. Maybe that new car, shirt, shoes, I-phone was merely a distraction. Much can be said for nothingness.

At this age our time is now to liquidate. No attachments, the Buddha said. Disowning isn’t all that easy. That Kwakiutil mask is still blessing the Hopi pots. I’d like to think those books on one shelf are in conversation with those on the other. Wittgenstein is in dialog with Foucault and Samuel Clemens with Dorothy Parker. Reluctantly we'll let them all go. I’ll invite them to our fantasy Thanksgiving table.

In the end we have the Nothing which is Everything. It has all been interjected one way or another. The album is in my inner vault, that inviolable place which takes up no space, gathers no dust and is impervious to the next quake.

As Janis Joplin screamed about freedom…. It’s just another word for nothing left to lose.


Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Magical Thinking

For those of us in California, PCH means Pacific Coast  Highway. It’s that vertical ribbon of highway which runs through Malibu and later winds into and out of Big Sur, with waves crashing below. However, to folks in Dreamsville, USA, PCH is short for Publisher’s Clearing House. The wait for that phone to ring or that knock on the door is their retirement plan.

Wait, says our inspirational leader, one bright morning the coronavirus will just disappear. Yesterday he also proclaimed that the weather will soon get colder. Since autumn begins in a week that’s a fairly safe bet but it won’t necessarily mean the end of the fire season.

Trump, in his infinite wisdom, relies on his audience’s short term memory loss as his unfulfilled promises stack up. As a devout naysayer to science and one who sits next to Jesus he believes there’s a time for fire and a time for floods; a time for pestilence and a time for hydroxychloroquine. Gaia sighs awaiting his next delusion.

And when a tree falls on your car or your house explodes it must be part of God’s plan. After all, everything happens for a purpose, doesn’t it? Actually no, it doesn’t.

Our thoughts and prayers are with you. That’s nice. I suppose. This has become the stock phrase for politicians. Translate as, Don’t expect this fire, this hurricane, this mass shooting to bring with it any new legislation.

Those words get the bearer off the hook. Too bad the sentiment is wasted. When we extend our fervent wish for a friend’s recovery it is all we have to express our love. And that matters to the extent that self-healing can happen.

But do thoughts and prayers travel through the contaminated air into the bloodstream of the infirm patient? Or vibes? Or pulsating energy transfers? Or pins in an effigy?

Count me among those who do not subscribe to wishes or curses. Nor can I, as an avid fan, determine the course of a ballgame by standing on my head or opening an umbrella while sitting on the couch.

I’ll probably lose a few friends saying all this. Prayers are wishes sent to God but she doesn’t answer mail no matter how many candles we light or gospel we mumble or how loud the exhortations from the pulpit.

What causes God’s wrath? We do. From denying, from abusing our habitat, from electing morons, from abdicating our duties as custodians. God’s wrath is nothing more than a cocktail of neglect and randomness.

Don’t bother me, say those in their moral torpor, I’m waiting for the phone call with my PCH sweepstakes retirement check.

Monday, September 7, 2020

Hidden Spring

On Friday Peggy took the stairs. All nine of them. A small step for humankind but a giant step in her return to ambulation. We didn’t plan this burst of energy; it came about because the medical transit vehicle was a no-show.

We may never know what resources we have until called upon to make the leap. The other lesson learned by me is that aging is a one-time adventure. We don’t get to rehearse our stumbles and bumbles. It’s all improvisational. I wouldn’t miss it for the world.

Peggy’s appointment was for an infusion of iron for her anemia; a certain motivation for making her way both down the stairs and back up on our return. The benefit of the I. V. has yet to be in evidence. The shortest distance from here to there is a zig-zag, sort of like life itself.

Part of the drama of aging is the discovery of what stuff we’re made of. In Coleridge’s Kubla Khan he writes, Where, Alp the sacred river ran / Through caverns measureless to man / Down to a sunless sea.

Coleridge never finished his poem. He was famously interrupted from his opium dream by a Person from Porlock. The poet, Ted Weiss, took this to suggest the beginning of the end of Romantic Poetry. In his book, The Man from Porlock, he makes the case that this was the metaphorical imposition of reality upon poetic flights of fancy. I doubt it. There was much more gas left in the tank. More likely Coleridge’s imagination simply dried up or the narcosis wore off.  

Thirty-five years ago, we visited the home of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. He is said to have believed that there were underground waterways in that region of England. In fact, we all possess some untapped springs within and Peggy reached deep down to find that stream by which she navigated those nine steps.

What allows the athletes to push themselves beyond themselves to break the four-minute mile? Up until 1954 it seemed an impossible barrier. When Roger Bannister first did it he ran seven tenths of a second below four minutes. Today the world record is almost seven seconds faster. Who cares, I hear you ask.    

I do, for one. When I followed such things, I used to listen to track meets on the radio. I recommend it for exercising the muscle of the imagination. Staring into the art deco speaker I could see the runner panting his way around the track and collapsing but not quite finding that extra push to beat the stop-watch. Perhaps he was nine steps short.

We don’t know every room in our mansion. There are  locked doors with secrets inside. The poet knows this but conceals as much as she reveals. The poet manages the nine steps but the well from which it is sourced and scooped remains mysterious and not necessarily replicated. Today we dip once.

Another poet, Ann Lauterbach wrote a book entitled, On A Stair. She suggests it may also be read as, Honest Air. For Peggy managing those stairs required a deep breath of honest air.



Wednesday, September 2, 2020

Land's Sake

In the past 170 years we have gone from Alice’s Wonderland to  T.S. Eliot’s Wasteland to Walt’s Disneyland. If this is progress, I’m on the wrong bus. And now Trump seems to think Kamala Harris wasn’t born in this country because she’s from Oakland. He must be thinking of Thailand or Iceland. Or maybe he is just upset because he couldn’t buy Greenland. Or perhaps he can’t forgive New Zealand for their enlightened approach to the Covid virus.

My preferred Land would be Wonder. Not as in white bread but the state of being astonished. There is an immense mystery to life which Eliot seems to be wary of without the presence of a supernatural being to propitiate. April is not cruel; it is full of wonder.

Yes, of course, Western Civilization was shamed by the cruel folly of World War One which had just ended when Eliot wrote his monumental poem. He lamented the absence of God in its aftermath. Could it be God picked up Lewis Carroll’s adventures of Alice and got curiouser and curiouser. Maybe it killed him the way curiosity killed the cat.

The bulbs that burst in April do indeed wither and go to Mulchland but that’s not the way Walt Disney saw it. His flowers are paper or silk; they never die. Just as Mickey Mouse and Pluto have found immortality, his Frontierland perpetuates the American myth.

Part of that myth is, Land of the free and home of the brave. I prefer Woody Guthrie’s, This land was made for you and me.

As far as Lands go my stop would be at Birdland, the jazz joint I remember from the early 1950s where Ella, Sarah and Billie sang and Lester Young, Charlie Parker, and Dizzy Gillespie blew. Those were the sounds that deposited me in a place to wander and wonder.  

Going back to Land’s Sake, I think that expression passed out of our common tongue about seventy years ago along with, For Pete’s Sake. Land is a euphemism for Lord and Pete stands in for Christ all of which brings us back to T.S. Eliot who couldn’t find God in the Roaring Twenties or in Be Bop and certainly not with the Mad Hatters so he landed in the Church of England. 

Some of us are willing to walk that Lonesome Valley all by ourselves. Not even Walt Disney can grant us a constant renewal on our lease.


Wednesday, August 26, 2020

Boy Scouts and Me

I was a boy scout once. I left in disgrace failing to make the requisite knots. We had to demonstrate our dexterity with square knots and clove hitch, bowline and nooses. I could say it was the noose that got to me but actually it was all of them. I think a part of my brain is missing or tied up in knots. Let’s just say I never learned the ropes.

I’m not sure if I left as a Tenderfoot or never even attained that low rank. I remember wearing the uniform and marching. Left, right, left right. Another abhorrent activity. It reeked of soldiering. When we weren’t marching, mindlessly, we played boy/men games such as alley-oop. And other masculine nonsense.

The one prank which revealed the reckless nature of our troop was the Hidden Rope Trick. Three or four scouts would gather on each side of Lefferts Blvd as if pulling on a rope that wasn’t there. The purpose was to fool the cars. In fact, cars did screech to a halt endangering the drivers and those behind. Great fun for the brainless.

These memories returned to me recently when reading about the removal of a statue of the founder of the Boy Scouts, Robert Baden-Powell. It seems Baden-Powell was not only an imperialist and racist but also an admirer of Adolph Hitler and Mussolini. Why am I not surprised?

The one thing I came away with is the scout’s motto, Be Prepared. In fact, Baden-Powell came up with these two words in honor of his own initials, B.P. Here’s another initial which could be applied, B.S. as in Boy Scouts.

I suspect I didn’t learn preparedness from them. I tend to think I was born preparing for every eventuality. But even that has its downside. Living with anticipation or readiness robs one of spontaneity, of living in the moment. Should I smell the flowers or run in for an umbrella? There must be a balance between considering consequences and ordering key lime pie. Peggy is one who mostly lives in the moment. She has tried to teach me but I need another thirty or forty years of remedial lessons.

When B-P founded the organization 110 years ago fitness was all the rage. Teddy Roosevelt was a model of the slight, bespectacled kid becoming the intrepid wild-game hunter and exercise freak. When shot by a would-be assassin he merely paused and continued his speech. How else could he charge up San Juan Hill in Cuba? Let the fool charge. Let him lead the cavalry against machine guns in World War I.  I’ll stay home reading the manual about helping old people cross the street. And now I’m one of them.

I don’t suspect even Baden-Powell prepared for the ignominious removal of his statue in Poole Quay, U.K. before he would be dumped into the ocean. I wonder if they used one of his damnable knots to hoist it down.


Friday, August 21, 2020

Late Years

Peggy is regaining her stamina in accord with her own clock. About the pace in which a melon ripens or paint dries. In football terms it would be a ten yard gain followed by a nine yard loss. I count that as a one yard pick up. I push but not too hard. She needs to reinvigorate after being deconditioned by eleven days in the hospital. At ninety-nine this is no easy task. She carries each of those years in her step; a century of freight.

Her spirit and her body are not yet on the same page. The vitality in her voice and voltage of her imagination must wait for her bones and blood flow to get the charge. She is not spent. Her best poem is the one she hasn’t written yet.

Aging is an adventure if you don’t let the inflammations, irritations and occasional lapses of memory get you down. We get to laugh at ourselves. It may be the gun lap but that can take years. In fact there is no clock; we swallow it along the way.

My dear friend, Roger, is in his final days. He chose not to have his brain tumor treated. He is leaving us on his own terms just as he has led his most remarkable life. Born in France in 1937 he was sheltered by a farm family just outside Paris during the war and came to this country ten years later to live with the family of his half-brother. Abused by the disturbed woman in that household he ended up at Vista del Mar where he spent his teenage years. He had a steep climb ahead.

He found his calling as a landscape architect where his burgeoning imagination blossomed designing parks and public space. Roger carried with him an enormous solitude out of which his creativity soared. He lived his movie; the storm and the wound, the insistent drive, fierce integrity, bold vision, robust aesthetic issuing from his indomitable core.

Organizing a garden is like writing a poem as it domesticates the wild but not altogether. It reenacts the cycle of life as Roger reinvented himself. Plants assert themselves bending toward the light. The poetry of bringing together disparate elemental life became Roger’s legacy finding expression in his watercolors, ceramics and glass work…and most of all in his loving nature. He had the gift of renewal and was rewarded in his final years with Adele, the love of his life.

Peggy, even in these dark times, continues to write affirmations. She has earned it. If they are love letters to her circumscribed world it is because she has found the joy, even eroticism in language as words seek new couplings. She has an affinity toward the light part of which is her own incandescence. As the photographer, Paul Strand, said, All light is available light. She bends toward the source.

Monday, August 10, 2020

Missing In Action

A funny thing happened to me in high school. I disappeared. There’s a hole in my chronicle. I might say that I sat in one of those brownish chairs wearing my special brownish shirt and vanished into the woodwork but that was in college when I prayed to the God, I swore I didn’t believe in, not to be called on.

High school was different. Maybe I was at the beach with a million other New Yorkers on a sweaty Sunday in August. No, that was when I was probably about eight years old. My family had rented an orange umbrella with black stripes. I dashed into the ocean and must have drifted a while because the black-striped orange umbrella had multiplied a thousand fold. In fact everybody had the same umbrella. I was rescued by a lifeguard who found me wandering aimlessly after I stepped on someone’s sandcastle.

I can name everyone in my eight grade P.S. 99 class plus all those who skipped as well as those who were left back but I cannot count more than five or six from the Forest Hills High School graduating class of 1950. Where was I? I was thin but not that thin. I majored in anonymity. Forest Hills was a perfect place to dematerialize. There were no forests and no hills. Nor was there a me.

I imagined that everyone else had grown up that summer of ’46, except me. Maybe I overslept or had the mumps. I surmised that they knew something I didn’t. Not academics. They knew how to be grown-ups. They wore sport coats. They shaved. They dated. They knew small talk and big talk, flirts and blurts.  They were equipped to make their way in this world. I was still in the ninth grade of elementary school…..except it stopped at eighth.

It had never occurred to me it was all a game and they were faking it. I had to learn the art of being an impostor, suave and debonair. I couldn’t do Cary Grant or Clark Gable. Maybe I could attempt Henry Fonda or Spencer Tracy. I finally settled for second banana, the guy who ends up with second bananettes.

Somehow I got through it all but thoroughly lost. Too old to be a street urchin, too young to be a derelict. I followed my father's steps into Pharmacy School. It was the wrong prescription. In my freshman year we had to deliver a presentation before the class of 150 on some topic pertaining to the practice of pharmacy. I spoke about hiccups. This should have been a clue I was on the wrong path. 

My years at Brooklyn College of Pharmacy were one big hiccup. When I found myself it was too late. My mother said pharmacy was something I could always fall back upon. I fell for the next fifty-three years.

Being found may be overrated. I prefer the idea of becoming. We're all works-in-progress. Even at this age this clay is still soft. 




Wednesday, August 5, 2020

Two Good Men

There they were, two men I highly esteemed, at each other’s metaphorical throats. And poets yet.

In 1979 I found myself at Port Townsend, Washington, for seven days. It was the annual Centrum summer poetry workshop / conference.  I choose to be part of a small class headed by Stanley Kunitz. He was a mere 74 at the time, practically middle age for him. Kunitz was twice appointed Poet Laureate of the United States, first in 1974 and again in 2000 when he was 95. He died at age 101.

He was the most eloquent essayist I have ever read, writing about poetry. His erudition was vast and almost casual as it elevated his conversation. In the group Kunitz presided with a gentle authority. His criticism was constructive, severe at times, yet never personal. His voice seemed to carry the entire canon of Western literature with some Basho and Lao Tse thrown in.

In my private meeting with him I presented a poem (since lost) with some trepidation. He read it carefully and his response puzzles me to this day, in its ambiguity. He said, This poem cannot be improved upon. I’ll never know if he meant it was so good not to tamper with it or so bad it was beyond repair. As I recall I just thanked him and ran off.

In the room next door to the Stanley Kunitz workshop was another one of my heroes, William Stafford. He had been appointed Poet Laureate in 1970.  It wasn’t so much Stafford’s language that impressed me, it was his approach to poetry as if it issued directly from his being. Every morning, at dawn, Stafford walked a few miles and out of that came three poems. They were raw and immediate. He was a man without guile. His embrace of the world was especially non-judgmental. Most remarkable was the way he responded to the poems of others. 

I attended one session in his group to witness an interchange I’ve never seen before or since. When students read their work to the class Stafford’s rule was: No Praise, No Blame. He was able to work with the poet to guide that person in becoming his own best critic. It was transformational. He believed that all of us are poets with the innate authority to express our art.  That unique voice belongs to us; it only needs to be fully relied upon and released. No external authority figure needed.

A poem without secrets lies dead on the page. These are the words of Stanley Kunitz. I believe this is true of all art. There is a mystery to our being. Words dance around that inviolate core. We offer a glimpse which can describe but not explain its secrets.

One evening I was to meet with William Stafford in the dining hall for a private meeting. I arrived to see these two highly evolved souls shouting at each other across the room. It was a sight I would gladly have missed. I didn’t catch their point of contention. When Stafford greeted me, we left. I didn’t have the courage to ask about their disagreement. Maybe that falls under the heading of the eternal mystery. Even saints have pushable buttons. I had the profound experience of both men; clearly there were differences.

Stafford was probably the least combative person I’ve ever known, He was a Conscientious Objector during World War II. Kunitz was a lifetime gardener. He regarded his plants as little allegories representing the fierce will to survive. His poetry was an attempt to penetrate the mysteries of existence.

Maybe Stanley Kunitz took offense with the unpolished spontaneity of Stafford’s work. Or perhaps Stafford took exception to the position Kunitz assumed as arbiter which (he may have felt) robbed the poet of his own creative impulses. Or could it be they were at odds over the spiciness of the day’s soup?   

Sunday, July 26, 2020

Hills, Stairs and the Big Climb

Our dear friend Judy R. is an ace photographer. What I merely glimpse she composes. Stairs at Disney Hall become an abstract of intersecting angles with increments of light and shade. What are stairs but a series of horizontals within a diagonal to reach the vertical? She is a poet without paper capturing creases in the landscape and on faces. Stairs are what humans do to hills and high rises. We step, we climb.

Like Jack and Jill to fetch our pails. Sometimes we break our crowns or, like Sisyphus, our boulders betray us at the top and roll back down.

Artists have to find their place, their perch. half in, half out of this world. As A.A. Milne put it…….Halfway up the stairs / Isn’t up / and Isn’t down / It isn’t in the nursery  / And it isn’t in town / All sorts of funny thoughts / Run round my head  / It isn’t really anywhere / It’s somewhere else instead.

Five hundred years ago the Inca’s built a city on top of hill in the Andes. This was far more than a hill of beans.  It takes 3,000 steps to reach the top. I’d hate to have made the descent and forgotten my car keys. They managed their crops by terracing the land around and preventing mudslides. It might also have prevented invading pseudo-pious Conquistadors. However by the time Spanish marauders arrived Machu Picchu was buried under dust and rubble. It wasn’t unearthed till 1911. 

Mt. Everest might be good for intrepid sled-riders but I’m not one of them. Forget about my Flexible-Flyer. I’d rather watch photos. Maybe, one day, Judy will take the wrong freeway and end up there with camera at the ready.

High as it is nothing compares to our figurative mountains. Those seemingly insurmountable heights we need to ascend. Peggy is on such a climb. At ninety-nine she is inching her way on her own path, in her own time. Among her vital equipment is a spanking new aortic valve. Her impulse is to rest. My mission is to push, just a little. Deep breath….hold….and out…..ten times…..three times a day. No stairs or escalators, just an arduous journey, a lift made possible by her buoyant spirit accompanied by a chorus of love calling her.

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Virulence, Vaccine and Valve

To say that 2020 has been a bad year is to say that World War I was a family squabble or Moby Dick was a gefilte fish. This year has been twice blighted. First by the pestilence of Trump and then by his virulence actualized as Corona virus.  

In an episode of the Sopranos which has stuck with me, one of Tony’s thugs is killed and a memorial service is held in his house. After the priest says his usual platitudes he asks if any of the assembled would like to add a good word. A long silence follows until a voice from the back shouts, His brother was worse.

So our world got worse last Monday when Peggy’s heart attacked itself… or was it assaulted by the weight of the world? In came a squad of strapping paramedics at 3 A.M. and out they left with Peggy, horizontally, to St. John’s Hospital. I was told not to come; I wouldn’t be allowed in due to precautions set in response to the virus.

Indeed Peggy’s heart is capacious with a wide embrace touching the heart of everyone she has met, both personally and on the page. Her poetry issues from her being. Its incandescence is an essential lantern to see us through these dark times.

While awaiting an angiogram she wrote a poem for the cardiac surgeon. As many others it is both immediate and transformational. It will hang on his wall. After some probing and imaging, seven days after admission, she underwent a Trans Catheter Aortic Valve Replacement.

Success! She now has a spanking new bicuspid or mitral valve. The term describes a valve with two cusps or leafs allowing the blood to flow into the aorta. If arteries are highways this is the tollbooth. As the valve narrows it causes a Sig Alert. I prefer to think of it as a river running its course and getting refreshed as it cycles.

Another name for the valve is mitral, derived from the word mitre, as in a bishop’s hat. (I just looked it up; otherwise I wouldn’t know about such things.) How apt that the church has found its way on to this page. It was divine intervention from the hospital chaplain, Father Patrick, who on our behalf, blessed us twice. He and Peggy had formed a loving bond on previous occasions. Now he has prevailed upon the hospital administration to allow us to visit with Peggy in her room on two days leading up to the procedure. I almost considered converting but I’m afraid that would be a leap too far.

She will be coming home tomorrow. With a little help from her 2020 model valve I expect her Mississippi will be rolling along to steady chamber music. No muddying. No reefs.

May this sweet stream signal a turnaround for 2020. I can see a ship loaded with vaccine coming around a bend along with the restoration of dignity, compassion and science its cargo.

P.S. I’ve just been corrected. Forget what I said about the mitral (bicuspid) valve. It wasn't that one. It was the tricuspid valve. 

Saturday, July 11, 2020

My Trip To Bountiful

I could write how I strap on my backpack two or three times a 
week and set out past the last row of homes, with their well-behaved beds of roses, into the wild communing with red deer under a cacophony of crows circling a bee-loud glen. Over there is Robert Frost’s bending tree and his not-taken path beside the rubble of an unloved wall.   

In fact none of this happens but I do take out the garbage every few days with due diligence. There are two rubbish bins; one west, down the hill on Raymond and around the corner and the other up the incline and headed south on Highland. I’m still looking for a route that is downhill both ways.

As I recall I’ve never encountered deer of any color but I do pass a commotion of crows reminding me whose woods these used to be. I hear that goats have reclaimed Main Street in some towns and penguins are stopping traffic in Capetown, South Africa.

My plastic rubbish bag is exhibit-one filled with evidence of our consumption or rather the leftovers of our lives. Pits and peels, bones and rind along with tissues, tea bags and yesterday’s flamboyant bouquets make for a rich mulch. The dump is full of ripe gone to rot. I am pallbearer in the grand cycle. This is where it is always winter where withered Christmas trees mingle with the excess of our celebrated civilization. Where putrefaction reeks against the promise of renewal.

In his poem, Man On the Dump, Wallace Stevens suggests this is also where poets live beating their tin cans, stubbornly, as if to answer the grackles of peevish birds. How do we converse with the decay of rancid voices? Forty percent, plus or minus, speak in fluent vitriol contaminating our common air.  Hurry, November 3rd. There is poison in our midst to be dumped.

Over three years of spewed hatred plus six months of virus hankering to multiply even as we are hunkered down and I walk to the dumpster writing this page out of my head in the silence of exhausted words. Rising from of our decline and fall a nascent poem takes shape, paragraph to stanza, stanza to music. A limp stalk stiffens as reed to the mortal coil of a bluesy sax.  

Friday, July 3, 2020

Fourth of July

This is the day Thomas Jefferson declared that all propertied white men are created equal. The rest of you guys, get over there. And you too, wives, sisters and daughters. You may be equal but not to us plantation owners who are more than equal. Nor are these savages who were so hospitable we never left. Nor are those dark-skinned people we buy and sell who have built this country. They have no inalienable rights but they shall count as 3/5 in the census. All these conditions were enshrined in the Constitution. There was cotton to be picked, stolen land to be tilled, bales to be lift and barges to tote.

Where do I sign, said our Founders. And these were the enlightened. But not enlightened enough to imagine that our creator endowed everyone with the right to life, liberty and to the pursuit of happiness. The declaration begins with the phrase, When in the course of human events... Are those who are shackled, dispossessed or indentured not human? 

In fairness it needs to be said that our floundering founders were bold and brave men. By signing their names to this  document they were committing sedition with a bounty on their heads and subject to hanging.   

From 1800 to mid-century the slave population quadrupled from one to four million. The face on our twenty dollar bill was a particular abomination. He hungered for their land and was particularly angered because the Choctow nation of five tribes were reported to be harboring runaway slaves, all 3/5ths of them. He then relocated 46,000 Native Americans about twelve hundred miles away, indifferent to their Trail of Tears or the thousands who died along the way. Jackson was no visionary. He dumped them on oil-rich land which then meant further displacement generations later.

Is it fair to judge our Founders for their role in human bondage? I believe it is. The truth about inhumanity is self-evident. In the case of Jefferson, the Marquis de Lafayette urged him to liberate his slaves and the Polish military commander and engineer, Thaddeus Kosciuszko, offered to compensate our esteemed author /architect / inventor / and President for his losses. But the man from Monticello declined, even upon his death bed. Apparently, he had grown accustomed to his privileged position and Black lives did not matter. After all, manumission might have set a bad precedent.

In fact, upon Kosciuszko’s death, in 1819, he bequeathed $20,000 to Jefferson but T.J. took the money and passed on his enslaved men and women to his nephew. So much for declarations of independence.  

In Lincoln’s prose-poem we call The Gettysburg Address he got his first sentence wrong. Maybe on purpose. Four score and seven years ago in 1863 our fathers did not conceive of a new nation. We were not a nation for another eleven years when the Constitution was ratified. In 1776 we were, at best, a confederation of states. The sovereign states, to this day, are loathe to relinquish many of their Antebellum ways.

This is no year for fireworks. The country is already combusting. Let this Fourth of July be the time to revisit and redress the omissions and injustices baked into our Constitutional yeast.

Our cherished document is yet to be realized. The legacy of Independence Day is still aspirational. The lofty words need to be brought down to ground-level. Heirs of Thomas Jefferson’s 230 slaves have been emancipated on paper but not as yet freed from economic suppression, disenfranchisement, daily indignities nor from the festering worm of racism in the minds of the dominant class.  

Saturday, June 27, 2020

Baseball as Life

You had to be there. Maybe you had to be me at age eight and a half, Oct 5th, 1941. I remember it being a Sunday. (Yes, I’m right. I just looked it up). Fourth game of the World Series and the Dodgers had it won but managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. It changed my life even though I didn’t have much of a life before then.

I won’t go in to what happened with two outs in the ninth inning. If you’re a fan you already know. It has never happened again. If you are not you’ve probably stopped reading this anyway. The point is that I never got over it. As a consequence, I have never, not once, counted my chickens before they are hatched. Of course, I’ve not counted them after, either. I assume nothing.  I cushion bad news. I prepare for every eventuality. Well, not every. I don’t go to sleep in a wet suit in the event of a tsunami.

Baseball teaches us how to fail…..and live for another day. The greatest hitter of all time failed sixty percent of the time. If a player today failed seventy percent of the time, he’d have a long-term contract for about twelve million per year. If a brain surgeon had that rate of failure, he’d be selling shoes at Big-5.

Baseball at age eight is its own universe. It is the first thing I knew my parents didn’t. (No, Mom, they are not pillows; they’re called bases.) I was fluent in its jargon. Stay with it and discover poetry in its stanzas and heroic couplets. There is a Euclidian elegance in its infield proportions, a randomness in the outfield, an existential moment at the plate while the umpire confirms subjective reality.  

For refugee families arriving here in the 1930s baseball was their portal into the English language. After a year or two one could speak fluent Baseball. The game was segmented into orderly innings. It was a repudiation of the chaos and incivility in Europe. Then as now it offers the illusion of manageable drama. It is linear. The narrative moves sequentially with innings as decades. The runner travels counter-clockwise around the bases back to home where he began and back to where I began.

What happens on the field is of no real consequence and that’s not a bad thing. Trump is still an infestation to our national heritage. Even as he divides our people that other virus, Corona, is multiplying.

Soon the season will begin in defiance. Controlled pandemonium meets pandemic. Let me hear the crack of bat, the thump in the mitt, the chatter in the infield even if the stands are empty. I’ll be on the couch, eight years old again reliving my early trauma or maybe this time I’ll be on the other side taking a bow for an amazing comeback with four consecutive home runs in the bottom of the ninth to live another day.

Baseball is my arrested development. Some of us grow up. I hope to keep the kid alive in an eternal run-down between third base and home, heedless of the clock.

Saturday, June 20, 2020

Further Father

My father had a Dickensian beginning. His mother died when he was two and his father couldn’t cope. My grandfather was destitute and an alcoholic. If this were a novel there may have been great expectations awaiting but this was real life with no inheritance on the next page.

So it was that my Dad was sent to live with equally impoverished, but sober, Aunt Rose and Uncle Peretz whose profession was a peddler selling shoe laces and socks. I don’t imagine there was very much food on the table. Day-old bread would have been a luxury. I can imagine them eating a soup made from the top of carrots which were thrown away. I can almost hear my father saying, Please, Sir, I want some more. The Dickens, you say.

Wait, I lied. There was a rich Uncle Henry. But where was he? Maybe he hadn’t become rich for another three decades and even then I remember being invited to Rose and Peretz for lunch one day when I was about ten years old. I was served pot cheese and sour cream. As I recall I did not plead for some more.

When my father went to kindergarten the teacher warned the class to pay attention. In his state of anxiety he heard it as, Pay a pencil. Alas, like Simple Simon he hadn’t any. I don’t know how far he went in elementary school but I know he never went to high school. He sold newspapers in front of Bushwick Stadium in Brooklyn. At three cents a throw I guess he got to keep a penny.

Along came my mother to tutor him sufficiently to pass a high school equivalency test and then on to college for the required two years to receive his license to practice Pharmacy. He must have been dyslexic; it took an inordinate amount of time for him to read a newspaper article.

His model was compelling enough for me to follow that path into pharmacy. I remember how deliberate he was reading a prescription. In those days the ingredients were often written in Latin with a sort of educated scribble, unintelligible to most, as if the doctor and pharmacist were engaged in a clandestine operation. Simply counting and pouring came much later. Prior to 1950 drugstores were gardens of herbs with crude drugs emitting a vapor from their apothecary jars.  My father carried that scent in his body, pungent, organic and intoxicating.
A single inhalation could pacify my world.

The mean streets seem not to have left its mark on him except  his compassion for the disadvantaged which came out as a kind of abstract vehemence against greed and injustice. It landed him, apologetically, in left-wing politics. 

In the meantime his father had remarried and accumulated four more children. All of them were raised in an orphanage. Perhaps in a state of inebriation my Grandpa Louis named one his new sons, Samuel, forgetting that he already had a son with that name. Sam, meet your brother, Sam. Even Dickens couldn’t make this stuff up.

He loved his half-brothers, particularly his namesake whom I remember for his beautiful handwriting in the V-mails we used to receive during W.W. II where he served in the Merchant Marine in the North Atlantic.

Here’s my question. How does a boy, discarded by his birth father and raised as a street urchin, turn out to be such a soulful, loving, even-tempered father? I have no memory of him ever raising his voice. He never complained. He seemed at home in this world. Where did that sweet nature come from? I ask you Charles Dickens?   

My father took the hand dealt him and went further, father.


Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Words, Those Squishy Things

Yes, I do love words and I couldn’t have said that without them. I love their sound, their layers of meaning and the long journey they’ve undertaken to get here. One has to admire their elasticity, how they can stretch, bend and bounce. There is nothing more organic, rising into usage from someone’s mouth into the common tongue if it has the legs for it.

Some years ago the poet and publisher of Sun-Moon Press, Doug Messerli, prefaced his poetry reading by saying how he was more interested in the relationship between river and rivet than he was between river and bridge. I never forgot that. Doug was a language poet. His focus was not on any narrative but on language itself. In fact, his idea of a poem was to call attention to itself so the reader would accept his terms. Don’t look for a story, particularly for a single point of view. In a visual sense this was analogous to moving from representative, even impressionistic painting to cubism.

The river / rivet note came to mind recently when I discovered that the word rival also refers to river. It can be traced back to a time when opposing points of view were debated along the banks of a waterway. The provenance of words enriches their meaning.

In poetry one can assume each word has been weighed and carries with it a secondary reference. When Lewis Carroll mentioned qualities of sand in his Walrus and Carpenter poem he may have been thinking about the sand in an hourglass which is code for mortality and how he would miss Alice as she left childhood and innocence behind.

Words are for leaping in some poets’ hands. Rub them together and sparks fly. Of shoes and ships and sealing wax – of cabbages and kings. When Dodgson / Carroll brings in Tweedledee and Tweedledum as mirror images could he not be speaking of his two selves, Dodgson the math and logics professor and Carroll, the playful spinner of yarns? Add to this a third self, the social satirist taking a swipe at British Imperialism.

 Consider the Walrus and Carpenter landing on a beach where the sun is shining at night. Sounds a lot like another colony in a distant part of the Empire upon which the sun never sets. Not to belabor the point but those shoes and ships and sealing wax are all part of Victorian civility along with cabbages and kings. Gobbling oysters is what colonists do to native populations. It is all about domination and those cunning settlers.

Dodgson / Carroll sailed down the river, Isis, with Alice and her sisters telling riveting stories. The rivals were within the author and his disparate aspects. Can a conservative, devout, tradition-loving Oxford professor with a penchant for postulates and proofs write a so-called nonsense verse translated into seventy languages which hides within the lines a disparaging view of the establishment? Is that what poetry can do? Shine a light, unwittingly, upon a dark corner of society which would be deemed subversive in a more frontal attack? Let the artist roam. Allow the muse its full throat. Who knows where it may lead?     

On the other hand maybe I am all wrong. No need for cryptic messages. I don't wish to analyze it to death. Dodgson's poem stands on its own walrus feet. Millions have read it since publication in 1871, finding delightful bafflement in its illogical logic.  

Friday, June 12, 2020

Ticket to Elsewhere

There is a vault of memories which is endlessly fascinating to myself  usually bringing a smile to my face. These are probably the same remembrances that others find insufferable and never fail to elicit a yawn. And then there is trivia from that time back when I was a wee slip of a lad. Names jump out of the trash bin accompanied by a constellation of images.

So it has come to this. Mention Tex Beneke, Harry Babbitt or Anita O’Day and Helen O’Connell. I’m transported back 75 years to my neighbor’s apartment where we listened to Martin Block on Saturday morning for the top ten recordings. Which would be up three notches to number one? We would take turns being the announcer speaking into a hair brush which served as a microphone.

Trivia can be a shorthand for the long forgotten, some sort of time machine depositing me in the 1940s when radio shows, ball games and movies engraved themselves on my bones. I expect the roster for the 1941 Dodgers will still be clinging to my entrails after I forget what I’m doing at this keyboard. As for that elusive meaning of life I had it a few seconds ago but it just slipped away. 

My buddies, Earl and Fred, have a warehouse full of names to throw at me. It is what happens to late octogenarians seeking a time when we had a grip on things, or so we thought. I remember everything from that period and they know everything but we all have different everythings.

Earl has total recall. He has appeared twice on Jeopardy. Fred also has a mind for celebrity ghosts. Names like Zasu Pitts to Fritzie Zivic send me in a spin. What we saw by staring into the radio is a universe of faces and places from Duffy’s Tavern to the crusading editor of The Illustrated Press with Edward G. Robinson’s timbered voice to the mowed grass of Ebbet’s Field or the Yankee Stadium. We could even smell the mustard on hot dogs.

The three of us meet on certain subjects such as history, sports, politics, movies and pop music. Then Earl leaves us behind with his encyclopedic knowledge and passion for classical music, especially opera. There is enough common ground to keep us unburying the notable deceased.

Why do I remember everyone in FDR's cabinet but hardly anyone in Obama's? What ever happened to Joel Kupperman and the other Quiz Kids? Was Mutt and Jeff the inspiration for pairing Sydney Greenstreet with Peter Lorre?

We all carry those indelible moments. In these baffling times old names become momentous. There is nothing trivial about trivia. It conjures an essential elsewhere. Anywhere will do but we might as well be immersed in those Edenic years of innocence and excitation. As Saul Bellow put it, Everyone needs his memories. They keep the wolf of insignificance from the door. They also energize the synapses and we can travel, unmasked, without fear of the damn virus.

Now where was I? Oh yes, Walter Winchell to Whitlow Wyatt to Whirlaway. From Jughead and Archie to Archibald MacLeish to Archie Leach. These are my Letters of Transit. Find Bogart. He'll always have Paris. 

Tuesday, June 9, 2020

Ovid As In Covid

Hidden inside that word Covid is the Roman poet Ovid even though he pronounced it Ahvid. He was all about love and transformation. Two of my favorite subversions. Love is what we are here for and transformation offers a new dimension to our lives. For some indiscretion in the eyes of Emperor Augustus he was given a one-way ticket to Romania, a fate worse than an afternoon in the Coliseum with hungry lions.

It strikes me that Ovid got it right. We are in the middle of a societal convulsion. Transformation is the operative word. The virus from bats has brought with it a toll of over 400,000 lives, a wreckage of economies and some profound behavioral changes. The confluence of this with hundreds of thousands of protesters taking to the streets demanding cultural and structural reappraisal would have brought a smile to Ovid’s face.

In fact, the two storms have interfaced. Massive unemployment has allowed for more marchers, masked and unmasked, even at greater risk for the virus. Racial injustice and inequality are, themselves, health matters and centuries of systemic racism have turned White America, us, partially deaf, blind and soulless. Liberals may not be racist but our silence renders us accomplices.

In his long epic poem, Metamorphoses, Ovid has people turning into stone or animals. Indeed, slumbering America has ossified in plain sight. It has taken a tragic loss of life to stir the consciousness of  the dominant race (us) into outrage. To measure up to Ovid’s standards we need to see the placards and chants transformed into legislation which redefines the mission of policing and revisits the standards of uniformed men and women. Public safety must not be regarded as a menace particularly to communities of color.

Seismic shifts can refresh the tree of liberty. We must not let this moment go. The act of dismantling and defunding the Minneapolis police department is a way of confronting the stranglehold by the union which has provided cover for unfit officers to remain on the job. Caught on camera some police are revealed as criminals or at least ill-equipped to deal with incendiary situations. Lethal power should never be put in their hands.      

Ovid was born in B.C. (43) and died in A.D. (17). Those were also tumultuous times. Whatever he wrote was deemed a threat to the empire. We know now when in Rome to do as the Romans do. He didn’t and for that had to pack his toothbrush and get out of town. Western Civilization is significantly the poorer because of that.

Incarceration is our idea of an enlightened form of banishment only because there is no longer anywhere isolated, uninhabited or unconnected. The shouts against brutal authority have become global. Prisons could be largely emptied without any threat to society. In fact they already have with the Coronavirus looming over the inmates.

Can legislation change a culture of racism? I say, Yes, it can and it has to some extent. Progress has been made compared to the segregation before the sixties. Clearly it is not nearly enough to enjoy black athletes, actors and musicians. Even a black president didn’t significantly alter the daily indignities suffered by people of color. But legislation with the support of leadership can bring us closer to a just society. Transformation from this to that. Ovid, I think, would agree.

Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Awakening for Change

Vandalism, screamed the newspapers, will not be tolerated. They will pay for this.

So said the London press in 1774 reporting about the Boston Tea Party. And we did pay for it through heavy taxation. Two years later it was Great Britain who paid even more beginning with the Revolutionary War.

Uprisings are not tidy. They are reckless, sometimes given to excess and, at times, self-defeating. The Sons of Liberty, Samuel Adams and John Hancock, who organized the dumping of tea into Boston Harbor are now considered patriots. If you would like a cup of tea I wouldn’t advise dipping into those waters though one of the 342 cases is now in a museum commemorating that act of looting.

Torching buildings and stealing merchandise is indefensible. I do not condone it. It is the red meat over which Fox News salivates to make the lead story. Bad optics. It is even tragic for small businesses who have already been devastated by the virus shutdown. Even the L.A. Times made looting the headline after Sunday’s widespread, largely peaceful, gatherings around the country and even in European cities.

It is unclear to me whether the bad guys are gang members exploiting the situation or White Nationalists who have infiltrated into the protest movement in order to provoke ill will. Or is this an expression of rage from a lifetime of abuse and inequality. Whether calculated or not the wanton destruction strikes at the heart of White dominant society, property rights. It is a symbolic act, however doomed, of redressing income inequality.

The upheaval we are witnessing is meant to have Liberals squirm out of our comfort zone. It takes that sort of jarring disquiet to reexamine our values. If fear has been generated it is cousin to the fear Black and Brown people live with every day of their lives. If traffic is halted so be it. If the marchers disrupt our lives it is the same disruption Susan B Anthony and the other Suffragettes caused in their decades-long battle for the vote.   

This has got to be more than a teachable moment. It must be translated into legislation which changes the culture of policing and addresses the virus called Racism. We have been rendered ignorant of our own history. Our morality has been warped. We have accepted the privileges of domination and even elected a president who lives by that creed. Our belief in the primacy of property rights goes back to our nation’s inception when slaves were regarded as property.

As for income inequality systemic shifts are long overdue. The wealth of our nation must become the Commonweal to be shared more equitably. This includes access to guaranteed healthcare, housing and education. It may take an insurrection but it shall happen if this country is to survive.

In the meantime have a cup of tea. It may or may not have been looted; if not from our mother country then from the underclass in Indonesia or India. We are a mere 4% of the world’s population gobbling up 30% of its goods. There is reason to squirm. In another thirty years Asians and Africans will comprise 80% of the world population. It is time for us to wake up from a lengthy malaise.