Monday, January 30, 2012

My Back Is Back

I’ve never seen my back. I know it’s there as the posterior of my front and from an occasional itch as it begs for my backscratcher. And I know when it’s not up to the task of keeping me upright, like now.

Walking at a slight diagonal is not the worst thing. The most painful part is going from horizontal to vertical. Even sitting to standing can be a twelve step program. I suppose quadrupeds never dreamed of ambulating like apes.

About half my life ago I played basketball in the park most Sunday mornings. Predictably, I’d hobble home with sciatica on Sunday afternoons. At age forty I was delusional enough to think I was twenty. (I wonder if at age twenty I thought I was ten) It seemed like a small enough price to pay. It all came to a halt when I broke my ankle. But the real end happened when the other players started calling me, sir. The one thing I wasn’t looking for on the court was deference.

I made a decision at that time to opt for a sedentary life. Of course I was on my feet all day as a pharmacist racing around dispensing miracle healings. But I declared myself unavailable for athletic activity. I was going to save myself; my knees, my back and my ankles. It worked. Besides running off at the mouth and an occasional poetic leap I stay put. The stationary bike has taken me close to my 80th year.

Now and then I’ll get a back ache but not high back pain or middle back pain; only low back. It must be the seat of all my depression. But I’ve never been depressed; worried, yes, fearful, I’ll admit to that. Alright, I’ll stop carrying the woes of the world. Right now, I can’t even carry out the garbage.

In the meantime Peggy and other friends have had epidurals sufficient to keep many doctors in many Lexus. I know that spinal stenosis often comes with age. Surely that couldn’t apply to me, could it? Naw! This feels like a simple pain-above-the-ass. I could see a chiropractor who would crack me, sublax me and sell me a fistful of herbs and I’d be cured in seven days. Or I could do nothing and heal in a week.

For the long term I know I ought to be building up my stomach muscles but I’d walk a mile to avoid exercise. There may not be any long term and I hate to think of all that waste. I’m easily bored with regimens especially if they require effort. I’ll take my chances and wait for, Time, that great healer.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Poetry Criticism

There are two movie clich├ęs that always make me chuckle.

Won’t you sit down? and, I can explain everything.

The first invites somebody in…even though I have never heard anyone put it that way. The second is the line said by a husband caught in bed with the other woman. It is usually movie code for, Give me a twenty minutes and I’ll think of something.

Every two weeks a group of four poets meet at our apartment to read their work and receive feedback. I’m allowed in because I serve the nuts and pour the drinks. I generally read a blog and offer my response to the other four poems. It ain’t easy.

Over lunch the other day with a friend who also hosts a poetry workshop the question came up how to criticize a poem. She wondered whether there was a website which suggested cogent language one might use. When I put the question to another poet-friend over lunch (we have a lot of lunches) yesterday she said something which hit home.

She felt that responding critically to a poem called upon the same faculty as relating to a friend. It entails close listening and entering into the other person’s world, suspending disbelief as well as a suspension of one’s own terms for the other. It’s a form of empathy; to meet the author, extend oneself, get on board, move with another’s cadence and take the imaginative leap.

Criticism is an unfortunate word. It implies negative thinking. Christopher Hampton, the British author, said that asking a writer what he thinks about critics is like asking a lamppost what it thinks about dogs. My use of criticism is the constructive variety.

Some poems seem intent on closing their portals, on confounding the reader or bringing in references known only to a select few. Sometimes I read a poem five times and only find an opening the sixth time around. That entering in process can be a mysterious aha moment, accompanied by an interior drum roll or zither.

I doubt if there is any special vocabulary needed; more a matter of courage to risk saying something dumb or hurtful or obvious to everyone else. Some poems cannot be explicated, in so many words. If a poem is the other woman, the movie guy caught with his pants down shouldn't even bother trying to explain everything.

In the late seventies I attended a ten day poetry gathering in Port Townsend, Washington. My teacher was Stanley Kunitz. In the next room the group was led by William Stafford. Two of my favorite people. Kunitz offered his wise words in a most eloquent but authoritarian manner. I sneaked into Stafford’s class one day to witness a different approach. His rule was, No praise, No blame. He drew out the poet to express what she wished for the poem and whether she felt she’d achieved it. The entire group was drawn in and the criticism was a generous offering, judgment withheld. Won’t you sit down inside my poem?

Meeting the poem as a friend is a transformational act. We get to move an imperceptible inch.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

You Want To Make Something Of It?

Yes, as a matter of fact I do. My childhood, that is. Why didn’t I think of that when a schoolyard bully had me in a half-Nelson. (I can’t imagine what the other half was like). I probably yelled, I take it back….whatever I said. I wasn’t against fighting on principle; I was against it because I’m a congenital coward.

And now I’m running out of childhood. If I had known I was going to need it I would have paid more attention when it happened. We only get one. I want to make something of it but I may have milked it dry. I need a Boswell for my Johnson, a diarist. Imagine Tweeting your entire life? No, I can’t either. But it wouldn’t hurt if I could recover just a bit more of my temps perdu. Since I was deprived of a deprived childhood the only recourse is to write about what almost happened.

Woody Allen said his only regret in life is that he’s not someone else. My secret is that I am someone else. The real me was lost at the 1939 World’s Fair. I was walking along clinging to my father’s coat when I looked up and saw that it wasn’t my father. We had just come out of the General Motor’s exhibit called, Futurama. I was six years-old with my head in orbit. Who knew I had left my previous life behind and was about to begin anew?

I wonder how long it took my father to realize I was gone…..a few minutes, months, never? I made a remarkable adjustment to my new family. We never spoke about it. They fed and clad me and signed my report card.

One August Sunday, when I was twelve, we all went to Rockaway Beach, found a patch of sand, threw down a blanket and dug our rented umbrella into the sand. 100,000 others had the same idea. From the sky we must have looked like a garden of peonies. I ran into the waves splashing and drifting laterally to Far Rockaway, drunk on sun and saltwater. Strange how the lifeguard station had changed and the hotdog stand was gone. I wandered among the orange umbrellas until they thinned. I was finally claimed by a large family, my third parents, who had an extra place at their table and a closet of hand-me-downs.

In my last version I was carried away at Birdland listening to Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie going at it at full throttle, reed to wind. When Sarah Vaughn sang I disappeared in the smoke and sound climbing octaves.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Politics and Entertainment

Sometimes it seems as if political contests are a spectator sport along with Super Bowls, World Series, even Academy Awards. We love to watch the personalities, the betting and forecasts and the competition; what they wear, how they misspeak. We admire their narrative or mock it and expiate our aggressions. We get caught up in our favorite player’s charities, his brother’s handicap, his single mother’s hardships or his choir-boy faith.

Sports and movies are entertainment and celebrity. They are important as projections. They fill our fantasies, the myth of ourselves. They are my alternative universe. But if I don’t turn to those sections of the newspaper or flip on the TV, I can shut them out and live near-happily ever after.

The difference is that politics has real consequences in life. My Social Security and Medicare will depend on which Party prevails. The culture, affordability and curriculum of schools, availability of services, libraries, the air we breathe, encouragement of scientific research and degree of civility are all matters to be determined at the polls. Particularly now at this point in history when the noise is nasty and lies go viral at the speed of a click.

With Newt’s resounding victory practically on his home turf we are in for a long season of blood-letting. The pugnacious against the aristocrat from central casting; attack-dog Gingrich pitted against the show-dog Romney. Neither has anything to say about the economy, healthcare, foreign adventures or the mortgage crisis. Up to now we've been treated to a parade of clowns, tweedledumb and tweedledumber. Now we must endure a revisionist pseudo history teacher and a scripted robot. Both speak fluent fib and smear.

In the end we will be presented with a referendum on ourselves to determine just how gullible we are. Do we want to dissolve our government and install a multi-national corporate oligarchy, live with xenophobic fear, listen to the fundamentalist Bible-thumpers, relinquish our bedroom rights, ignore evidenced-based science and declare war on the disadvantaged?

Obama’s re-election will be decided not by dissuading the Romney supporters with their off-shore money or the Gingrich misguided rednecks who have un-caged the beast in each other. November’s outcome depends on getting the marginalized turned on and turned-out. 2008 was a triumph of minorities and students.

Those whose dream died must get real, reawakened and revitalized. Democracy tries one soul. Our constitutional government is messy, excruciatingly slow, exasperating and in profound disrepair. The Democratic Party’s enemy is, above all else, cynicism. To stay home is an abdication to McConnell and Boehner. Everything they have done since 2004 has been designed to promote disengagement.

There is an element of Obama supporters with good reason to be disenchanted. After all, both parties feed at the same trough. His embrace of the very financiers who brought about the crisis is indefensible. It may well be that very little will be accomplished if this association continues. However I would still argue that a Republican administration would be far worse. Unless Progressives take both Houses with a substantial majority in the Senate we are likely to remain in a holding pattern.

We can enjoy the spectacle of election night, even have friends over and order pizza but presidential elections are not simply a spectator sport. We are the players. Our votes are on the scoreboard. If we lose this time around I truly fear for our future.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012


I have never had an urge to seek out my ancestral home. It’s enough to know that it was either in Ukraine, Russia or Poland. In fact, what was Poland one year was gobbled up by mother Russia the next. There is an old story about a youngster asking his father whether he lived in Poland or Russia. You are in Poland, was the reply. Thank God, said the child, I couldn’t stand another Russian winter.

I, too, have an affinity for Poland and not for its weather. However if I had been born there I’d have been dead for 72 years owing to their shameful and virulent anti-Semitism.

On the other hand, it gave the world Copernicus, Chopin and Madame Curie. More recently, Poland has been the birthplace of some of my favorite people. Besides Peggy’s maternal ancestors and my new son-in-law’s family it has given us great poets and writers, pre-eminent film makers and visual artists.

Wislawa Szymborska and Adam Zagajewski are among the finest poets writing today and the work of the late Czeslaw Milosz has been widely translated into English and taught throughout this country. Szymborska won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1996. Her poems are unadorned, ironic stilettos which could only have been written by a witness to 88 years of tragedy and perseverance. Her tongue is bitter and transcendent as one must be having endured two brutal occupations and a devastating war.

Hunger Camp At Jaslo

Write it. Write. In ordinary ink
on ordinary paper: they were given no food,
they all died of hunger. "All. How many?
It's a big meadow. How much grass
for each one?" Write: I don't know.
History counts its skeletons in round numbers.
A thousand and one remains a thousand,
as though the one had never existed
… They sang with their mouths full of earth.

On Death, without Exaggeration

It can't find a star, make a bridge./ It knows nothing about weaving, mining, farming,/ building ships, or baking cakes.. / It can't even get the things done/ that are part of its trade:/ dig a grave,/ make a coffin,/ clean up after itself.. Sometimes it isn't strong enough to swat a fly from the air.. Many are the caterpillars/ that have out-crawled it. All those bulbs, pods,/ tentacles, fins, tracheae,/ nuptial plumage, and winter fur /show that it has fallen behind/ with its halfhearted work.

Krzysztof Kieslowski’s films have touched me with themes that evoke the wounds of the human heart, its mysteries and the forces which can reconnect us. He did it using the language of cinema and stretching the limits of the art form. For quite a few years Peggy and I would watch his film, The Double Life of Veronique, every New Year’s Day. Kieslowski died in 1996. He also left us The Decalogue and Trois Couleur Trilogy, Red, Blue and White. Uszula Antoniak is another filmmaker whose debut work, Nothing Personal, is my movie of the year.

During the Communist era some of the finest artists were pressed into service doing public art. We have a collection of Polish movie posters. They are recognized as the boldest, most inventive graphics in that medium. There is a museum in Warsaw devoted exclusively to this poster art. Our particular favorite is Andrzej Pagowski. What he does with a human face defies description. Candles come out of the top, birds nest in the hair, or stairs or key holes out of the eyes.

No one embodies the porous borders of Poland and their stained past so much as the writer, Bruno Schultz. Polish anti-Semitism accommodated Nazi madness and Schultz was a victim in 1942. His phantasmagoric stories are regarded as early post-modern and celebrated by Philip Roth, Cynthia Ozick, Jonathan Safran Foer and Salman Rushdie. He is claimed by both Ukraine and Poland.

In part, the birth of gifted artists is fortuitous, but not entirely. I suspect great art is released from oppressed and occupied regions when the lid on expression is lifted. Eastern Europe has emerged as such a place. It helps when there are past masters to build upon. Poland has stories to tell on the page, the big screen and in images like no other.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Vox Populi

The quadrennial carnival of presidential campaigning is now upon us. Show me the way to get out of this world.

Ever since voting took place for milk monitor in the 2nd grade I’ve been wary of the process. Early on we raised our hands for the boy or girl with the most polished persona to head the class. The one in charge of money had the look of fiscal responsibility on a seven-year old face. Even then the system was rigged. Sorry Henry, no graham cracker and milk without your 2 cents.

Americans accept political enfranchisement in lieu of economic democracy. We swallow agreed-upon lies. We get our hopes and wishes stoked, our fears and anger channeled. On some level we must know we’re being pandered to. There are code words we wait for. We want our old ways justified, our slumber uninterrupted.

In the 30s and 40s, Frank Capra made films about Everyman. Jimmy Stewart and Gary Cooper came from the Aw Shucks, school of acting. They had prominent Adam’s apples, gulped a lot and were therefore incorruptible… like us. Meet John Doe. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

These were the Populists. Today we have Newt Gingrich, of all people, except he has no Adam’s apple. He barely has a neck. But in his zeal to be an Anti-Romney the former Speaker is speaking the unspeakable; namely, that Capitalism is avarice, institutionalized greed, indifferent to the plight of Everyman. The emperor has no heart. Rush Limbaugh almost falls out of his ample chair. Hush that heresy!

Every so often in our peculiar political history a Populist emerges. Robert la Follette and William Jennings Bryan were early 20th century progressive voices. Even Huey Long bucked the machine in Louisiana and abolished the Poll Tax… before he became his own machine. George Wallace spoke for White Trash. The early figures expressed the grievances of the farm belt, railing against banks and railroad interests. More recently Populism is a form of demagoguery emerging as a force of racism and anti-government rhetoric. Gary Cooper has become Joe the Plummer, poster boy for guns, gospel and get-off-my-back.

But that is so yesterday. We may now be witnessing a new phenomena. Could it be that the Occupy Movement has legs and those legs have marched into Newt’s attack ads on Mitt? Does Obama dare assert what Gingrich has let fly? Politics makes for unimaginable coalitions. It took Nixon to open up China and George W. Bush to get a prescription drug program for seniors even if he gave away the treasury to Big Pharma.

The lop-sided privileges of the 1% in contrast to the plight of the 99%, now defines American life. The Democrats must carpe the diem particularly since Romney would fit Frank Capra’s casting for the manikin-face, rich man born on third base who thinks he hit a triple….and who bought the cookie factory, out-sourced the jobs to another time zone and made off with the dough.

Monday, January 9, 2012

What's Up At Downton Abbey

The new season of Downton has resumed on public television. Americans, love these period pieces shown as Masterpiece Theatre. We love the civility, the superb performances of nuanced characters and, of course, the accents. An American ear assigns thirty I.Q. points to any utterance coming from a British mouth.

Twenty-five years ago when traveling through the Yorkshire Dales we stopped off at a pub and got into conversation with a group of blokes from Manchester. I said something about loving the broadcast of Upstairs, Downstairs. Rubbish. they answered in unison. What do you like?, I asked. Dallas, they replied, that’s real.

Maybe these dramas are just soap opera but it’s the kind of soap we willingly wash away our worries with and come away feeling cleansed, even a bit more sophisticated. As Anglophiles we have a special relationship to the U.K.sharing, as we do,our mother tongue if not our mother country….even if our ancestral homeland was Eastern Europe. I suspect we take a composite of these stories and from them compose our sense of the past. What may be hokum to the Brits feels like history to us.

Most are set during the years just before and after the Great War which was arguably the greatest crime against humanity until the Holocaust. Downton Abbey drops us off in the middle of World War I with an array of men eager to cross the channel and serve as fodder in Flanders field. One has returned with shell shock and another connives his way home with merely a bullet-hole in his hand. I take all this as being historically accurate.

My guess is that our fascination lies with the class society of that time. Everyone knew his/her place. The hierarchy of downstairs was at least as rigid and understood as upstairs. Rules pertained. Behavior was prescribed. Dress codes enforced. Men and women were consigned, by birth, to take their place on the chessboard.

And now it was to fall apart. We like that too. The titled and privileged rolling up their sleeves, learning how to boil water and make a bed. The valet with aspirations of running a small hotel. We watch the world in its fracture. Even that is done with grace and dignity in sharp contrast to the senseless abomination of trench warfare.

How does all this relate to the American experience? Our upper class was certainly as up, but not for so long. We looked ahead while they looked back. Our rich were not titled except as Captains of Industry. We were crass and pragmatic; they were genteel but probably no less ruthless, still in command of a vast empire. Our classless society was part of the American myth and still is. Our working class now ranks low in terms of upward mobility as measured against most industrial countries. We make heroes of the exceptions and cling to the opportunism of immigrant experiences yet we also enjoy watching the British seemingly tidy social order. Fear of the impovrished upsetting our daily life is at the heart of the Republican agenda.

This country, with separation of Church and State as a cornerstone, is obsessed with Christian piety. Theirs, with the Church of England as the established religion is able to put it aside. As former colonies, having overthrown the crown, vigilant not to resemble a monarchial government in any way, we now find ourselves worshipping celebrities as royalty. Perhaps the British heritage persists mostly in our bizarre voting practices in which Downstairs votes for Upstairs and perpetuates the class division.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Remembering Roethke

Theodore Roethke’s name has recently come since my daughter and her husband have decided to settle on Bainbridge Island in Washington state. This is where the great poet died of a heart attack. Roethke may not be a household word like Eliot, Williams and Stevens 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.

Roethke was from a family of German immigrants who owned several greenhouses in Michigan.
I understand this greenhouse house been replicated now to serve as a memorial 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 bi-polar episodes. His father died when he was 14 but was a constant presence who he had been 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,

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 but 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.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Losing It

It is normal to lose things. Pauline Kael lost it at the movies. I wonder if Jimmy Durante every found Arthur Sullivan's Lost Chord. At this age all of my friends are orphans, even if Oscar Wilde said it was unfortunate to have lost one parent but both, appeared to be carelessness. Now, what was that second thing to go? We lose our innocence, our virginity, our hair and our teeth, all in the natural order of life and some of us lose our marbles. Peggy went on a diet and lost height. In World War I a whole generation was lost literally and the decade after, the survivors were lost figuratively. How a whole continent got lost we won’t know until someone from Atlantis shows up for an interview. While looking for some lost object a few years ago I had a brilliant insight, namely that everything is somewhere. Plato couldn’t have said it better or even Yogi Berra. Today I was looking for my checkbook and found a Netflix movie I’d misplaced. A few weeks ago I lost my keys and found my glasses in the search. I can hardly wait to lose my library card so I might find my lost credit card. It’s actually fun looking for my cell phone and hearing it beep, Here I Am, under a stack of newspapers. Then there’s the frustration looking for something so important, I put it in a special place; so special that I have no memory where that might be. A few weeks ago I took it to a new level. I spent three days looking for Peggy’s prescription received by mail order. I had a distinct memory of opening the package and putting the contents on the dining room table. I could picture it all because it was a box rather than the usual vial. Finally I called the pharmacy and found out they hadn’t sent it yet. I was looking for something that wasn’t there. Samuel Clemens remarked that as he aged he remembered things that never happened. Now I know the feeling. I had heard how important it is to form an image of a lost article before setting out on the hunt, As one faculty diminishes, another rushes in. Everything may, indeed, be somewhere but not necessarily in this realm. The next time I start looking for something I’d better make sure it’s not all in my head.