Monday, May 29, 2023

Memorial Day

       War will exist until that distand day when conscientious objectors enjoy the same           reputattion and prestige as the warrior does today.    John F Kennedy

Like most other holidays today is a pale version of what was intended, having strayed far from its origins. Even more ironic is the name, Memorial Day, set aside as the day for remembrance yet it has long been the day of forgetting. It ranks even more notable than the Fourth of July (Independence Day), Labor Day and Veterans Day (formerly Armistice Day).

What began as Decoration Day after the Civil War at which time graves were festooned with flowers and the 600,000-war dead memorialized on May 30th, is now the last Monday of the month and largely observed with mattress sales and backyard BBQs. (We consume 800 hot dogs per second on this solemn day.) It has been reduced to just another three-day vacation devoted to consumerism or the beginning of summer. Monday marks the time to leave the big city and set out for the second home, if you’ve got one, so as not to endure the sight of the homeless.

Americans have become world-class dunces when it comes to history, civics and just about all antecedents. We suffer from collective amnesia and act as if anything that happened before the smartphone is prehistory.

A friend once told me a student in his class thought that Lincoln was a contemporary of Aristotle. Maybe forgetting is the wrong word; ignorance better describes our state of mind. 

It could be argued that the last three wars fought in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq were shameful misadventures better erased from our chronicle. But erasure only compounds the wrongdoing. If we took this weekend as an occasion for truth-telling the time would be well-spent. We might mourn the tragic death of well over a million lives lost to American weaponry as well as our own soldier's lives squandered.      

                            If anyone questions why we died

                           Tell them because our fathers lied

                                                     Rudyard Kipling                    


Friday, May 26, 2023

No Bumps on Eleventh

Think of it as an alternate route

running parallel to traffic-choked Lincoln Blvd

not that I care about congestion

but Eleventh is scenic with dazzling lawns

and canopies of ficus trees embracing overhead

while reptilian roots slither from tree to tree

half in, half out of their minds, like myself

and soon jacarandas will grace

a few blocks of Eleventh with a dazzle of purple

reminding me of the color bad prose can get.

There you are Eleventh, all four and half miles of you,

from the golf course in Venice

to the coral trees on San Vicente

the north and south of you, a paved green belt

where one creates their pace without speed bumps

unlike those other parallel paths avoiding the Americana

of Lincoln Blvd with its quick lubes and fast food,

car wash, Big Macs and road rage to the on-ramp.

Oh Eleventh, a secret no longer, you are the fork

Yogi Berra said to take, less trod, for those who think

they don’t conform as they leave the herd

and find themselves part of another herd,

in a single lane plus one for bikes

where one might ponder and commune

far from the madding, close to what once was.




Monday, May 22, 2023


Just when I finish describing my father as deliberate and risk-averse I‘m remembering how he would go off, now and then, to bet on the horses at Roosevelt Raceway where they ran the harness-racing. If he was lucky his two-buck bets paid for the Long Island railroad fare to get him home.  

He was a man of enormous equanimity, a mild-mannered pharmacist who was quick removing a cinder in an eye but otherwise weighed everything as over a torsion scale tapping powder on one side and a scruple or grain on the other.

He could settle an agitated crowd by his demeanor alone. One August night a million gnats gathered on the storefront of his pharmacy covering the Ex-Lax sign and window display of empty pinned boxes. To my eight-year-old eyes it seemed like an invasion out of a comic book. He was a shaman with an assurance on his face which sent the neighborhood dozens home unafraid of an alien landing.

I think of the garden of herbs whose scent he carried on his body as if some healing tonic was brewing in his coat pockets.

I never saw his temper erupt yet he would grind fascists to dust (as I imagined) in his Wedgewood mortar and pestle. My father who swallowed his vehemence was the model of a law-abiding citizen, so I thought.

Seventy years later I was so glad to be proved wrong. Among old photos and letters, was an official document from the court citing his violation of the Volstead Act, better known as Prohibition. Evidently, he had been cited for dispensing four ounces of ethyl alcohol without a prescription.

Before repeal of that law pharmacists could legally fill prescriptions for absolute alcohol for medicinal purposes, of course. He must have defied that stipulation on one occasion. For that I applaud.

In the broader sense I take it to mean we cannot wrap up a person as someone to be fully known. There are always parts dangling out that don’t fit. Deal with that, AI.  



Saturday, May 20, 2023

Two Phone Calls...From Twelve Years Ago

Conversation with Barbara

She……Hello, Peggy?

Me…….This is Norm.

She……Why do you sound funny?

Me…….I’m in the shower.

She…….What are you doing there?

Me…… Next to washing, I do some of my best thinking in the shower.

She……Maybe you should wake up in the shower.

Me…… I’ve been here since last Thursday.

She……I think you’re clean by now.

Me…….An electron microscope shows all the organisms in our eyebrows and fingernails.

She…… And some of them are good bacteria, I’ll bet.

Me…… I wish they were labeled.

She……All creatures great and small.

Me……As we speak, trillions of microbes are going down the drain.

She……Sounds like my portfolio.

Me……..Maybe you should hang up and call your broker.

She……I wonder why they say “Triple A” or “Double A Plus.” Why not say 100, 99, 98?

Me……I like the “Double A Plus.” It makes failure sound like something wonderful.

She……Failure makes you try harder.

Me…….What are we talking about? I suppose you want to speak to Peggy.

She……I forgot what I was calling about.

Me…….That’s OK. I forgot why I’m in the shower. Peggy is in the bathtub.

She........Is she thinking, too, or just getting clean?

Me…….. I can hear her singing.

Conversation Between Ralph and Me

Him: My sister-in-law is staying with us for a few days. 

Me: Is that good news or bad news? 

Him: I enjoy her …….. 

Me: … for the first hour and a half? 

Him: Right. When I visit relatives overnight I always stay at a motel. I like my privacy and expect others do, too. 

Me – That’s because you didn’t have any pajama parties as a kid. 

Him: I didn’t even have any pajamas. 

Me: Now they call them sleepovers. In our day I can hear mother saying, “I never heard of such a thing.” Besides we were so poor…,.. 

Him: How poor were you? 

Me: We were so poor I slept on the kitchen chair. 

Him: Who had chairs? The floors was too good for you? 

Me: We rented out the floor to pay the rent. I lived on the fire escape. 

Him; I was raised on day-old bread and dented cans and thought bread was supposed to be green. I miss fire escapes.

Me: Right. My mother had a love/hate relationship with air. There were two kinds of air; the dreaded draft that caused all disease and fresh air that cured it. 

Him: It’s a good thing I had penicillin from the day-old bread to cure me from the miasma.

Me- I think my mother was a visionary.  


Wednesday, May 17, 2023

Sunday in the Stadium with Paint

The poetry is in the paint. She is part of the canvas. A dot, a smear among the 42,703. A hundred years ago the fans in the stands would have worn straw hats and suspenders. Sixty years back, white shirts and fedoras. Now the scene is colored jerseys with names and numbers of their imagined selves as if seventeen in perpetuity.

She will paint the smell of mowed grass and hotdogs, the sun and creeping shadows creating increments of green. Her brush will catch the coiled anticipation on faces waiting for Godot, for deliverance, chasing youth like a long fly ball. The artist can never paint still-life again. Neither Cezanne’s apples nor Dutch flowers in a vase. She sees the buzzing fly of death played out on the pitcher’s scowl, the batter’s killer instinct. Hey peanuts, getcha peanuts.

Call it community, these 42,703 living / dying, as if it mattered for a few hours, while players pretend they really care. From a distant perch it is theater and she catches all that in her strokes even as each face becomes a speck in a Jackson Pollock drip. The field is an abstract expressioist splotch of color amid a stretch of negative space … up the alley, off the monetized wall of reds and blues against the mowed lawn, opposing uniforms and the black-attired ump.

Her pigments are in motion; barrel of bat meets stitched ball. Crowd on its feet, hugging or high-fiving. They are transported further than the home run back to their own home in the glory days of youth. They remember the feel of the wood as it met the ball as if life would make sense from now on and everything fit.

Fans know the rhythm of the game, the undulating wave circling the lower deck. They know the high drama of the third act. Many are also in their late innings. Will there be joy in Mudville? Yes, finally. A blooper drops in. A base is stolen. A gust of wind carries the ball. She paints the vicissitudes. The hunches that beat the stats. She dabs some yellow in the corner; the mustard that comes off the hotdog.

She will be part of her own palette, on her feet focused on the vortex at home plate with runner sliding; that horizontal body colliding with the vertical catcher and diagonal umpire leaning over/ All this occurs in a cloud of dirt produced by spikes and a hand reaching for the plate in an evasive twist of his torso. Safe or out? Can the artist depict this existential moment? Almost but not quite.



Sunday, May 14, 2023

Mother's Day

I don’t want to talk about it but

she had a hard life in daily combat

with the marketplace, the neighbors,

the landlord, (that momser)

and good-for-nothing-me

when I was playing basketball

while she schlept the bags from the A&P.

But I don’t to talk about it, how she saw

cars as assassins and trucks were worse,

how she squeezed some life from my hands

crossing the street.

How she could curse in the language of the shtetl

as she mopped the floor every Friday night

laying down newspapers, all that black and white.

But I don’t want to talk about 

how she demanded cross-ventilation,

never mind the four-story walk-up.

She knew plenty, knew the price of cottage cheese,

how to get the best cuts from the butcher

in the midst of flypaper and sawdust,

how to spot the grocer's thumb on the scale (that gonif).

But I do want to talk about how 

her love survived her aggravation.

She was the foot soldier who suffered

in the trenches of her imagined war.

How she must have been tormented

by her six brothers yet                             

she found my father, orphaned at two,

how she tutored him through college,

how she knew he could settle her down

with his inexplicable calm,

his ease in this world

even though she was never at home in it

but they made a team

and when she finally called a truce

with the street, (but not Wall St.)

with that skirmish within

there was a hint of a mellow mother 

I hardly knew.

I want to talk about how

she could almost take in the flowering magnolia

I pointed out as she drove from the back seat

reminding me to just watch the road.

Wednesday, May 10, 2023

Remembering Roethke

.....But something always went out of me when I dug loose those carpets 
Of green, or plunged to my elbows in the spongy yellowish moss of the marshes:
And afterwards I always felt mean, jogging back over the logging road, 
As if I had broken the natural order of things in that swampland;
Disturbed some rhythm, old and of vast importance,
By pulling off flesh from the living planet;
As if I had committed, against the whole scheme of life, a desecration. 

Moss-Gathering by T. Roethke

Theodore Roethke's name recently came to mind since my daughter and her husband will soon be moving to Bainbridge Island in Washington state. This is where the great poet died of a heart attack in 1963. Roethke may not be a household name like Eliot or Frost but I believe he ranks among the giants of the last century. He was a bear of a man whose language had a certain gristle to it and zings with physicality like no other.

He was from a family of German immigrants who owned several greenhouses in Michigan. I understand one greenhouse been replicated now in Saginaw, Michigan to serve as a memorial shrine to him.  He struggled to reconcile his father’s Teutonic compulsion for order with a chaotic, emergent, sense of self. It was evidenced throughout his life with periodic bipolar episodes. His father died when he was 14 but was a constant presence whom he had interjected into his psyche. His genius lay in his ability to transform this inner turmoil into a flow of language which had its own musicality. In My Papa's Waltz this loving but fierce braiding of bodies is expressed.

The whiskey on your breath / Could make a small boy dizzy; / But I hung on like death / Such waltzing was not easy........You beat time on my head / With a palm caked hard by dirt / Then waltzed me off to bed / Still clinging to your shirt.

Many poets have immersed themselves in the natural world, from Mary Oliver’s sentimentality to Frost’s crusty Yankee farmer to Gary Snyder’s bear-shit-on-the-trail poetry with a Zen twist to W.S. Merwin’s reverence. None so identify with the diminutive subterranean world, fetid and teaming with worm-life, laboring to pierce toward light and life.

Roethke’s language was tactile, uneasily felt. His subject was nothing less than a report from the primordial ooze; the heaven and hell of it, swarming with malevolent forces and fecundity. His ferocity makes most contemporary poets seem pale and tepid. The visceral descriptions articulate this struggle of plant life pushing up through the soil as if tunneling through a womb.

Roethke used himself as the material of his art. He combined a pared, strict and hard-edged language with a certain grace of movement. His poems were never static; he regarded motion as emotion. If the greenhouse was his epicenter and the subject, himself, his poetry had a centrifugal power which touched me in an elemental place and, I suspect, most readers. It grabs me, slaps me around so I can almost remember that first slap which brought me to life.