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.