Tuesday, December 28, 2021

What Do You Know, Joe?

When Joseph and Mary got to the inn 

God forgot to make reservations 

and there was no room except in the manger. 

That's what happens without Planned Parenthood. 

There was also no room in Joe Manchin's mansion 

to consider children, students, melting glaciers 

or overpriced prescriptions.  

That other Joe in the White House thought 

Manchin’s doors were open but the Maserati 

took up the space and the yacht was no Ark. 

Seventy-five years ago, Jo Stafford addressed G.I. Joe 

as she sang You Belong To Me

After the good war was over Joe McCarthy 

in his drunken stupor thought he saw Joe Stalin 

in every movie studio, every barber shop, 

and the bottom of every bottle he drank. 

Senator Joe was born with Joseph Conrad's

Heart of Darkness

Joe DiMaggio and Joe Louis would have been next. 

It took Joseph Welch to ask if he had even an ounce of decency. 

How many cups of Joe will it take 

to wake America to the needs of the average Joe?

Joseph Campbell found heroes with a thousand faces

as he breathed new life into the archetypes.

Maybe the greatest Joe of them all was Joe Green.

Not Mean Joe Green, the football player 

whom I wouldn't want my sister to marry if I had one 

but Guiseppe Verdi, aka Joe Green,

composer of twenty-eight operas

including Aida to whose theme we dutifully marched

entering the auditorium at P.S. 99

with Joseph Koplowitz in front of me

and Josephine Sherashevsky behind. 

 

Thursday, December 16, 2021

Looking Back

These are the days designed for year-end letters and list-makers. Those among us with a knack for packaging life, wrapping it up and shelving it for easy retrieval.

Peggy was a world-class lister. Into her pad went every book read, movie seen, play performed, even every friend. Of course, poems written got a book of their own. I’m sure the origin of this need must have its deep psychological roots but who am to list them?

Not too many years ago I could list my ten best films of the past twelve months. Now I can’t remember if I saw that movie this past year or if it was three years ago and besides, I’ve long since been unable to rattle off ten of anything.                                                                              

I could dazzle you with my three favorite vegetables: asparagus, cauliflower and beets. But what about eggplant? Yup, they’re good. And yams. I never met a yam I didn’t admire. I almost forgot spinach and then there’s broccoli and corn and everything I throw into my salad.

The point of all this is, why bother? There is no hierarchy of veggies or fruits. Or pies. Or actors. Or art. Or Olympians. Let them all take a bow. No losers. Allow them an occasional wobble or bobble. Life itself has no straight lines. Give them all an exhibition, a metal and a first-class ticket home. 

I cannot quite leave this year listlessly. Here are a few offerings I leave you with.

Best place to resettle if the Repugnants win the next 2 elections: Portugal, Slovenia, California, only if we secede.

Preferred gadget or appliance to explain to visiting aliens: Ice cube tray.

Best novel of which I have read 22% according to Kindle: The Promise by Damon Galgut.

Proudest horticultural achievement: It’s been three months now and my orchid is still happily wagging its tongue.

Best resolution for next year: Resist making lists.

2021 never will be missed. Four months ago, Peggy left me, us, this world. The void is unfillable. I’m consoled by her spirit evidenced in so many she touched. In the diminished light she always found what is luminous in our midst.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Monday, December 13, 2021

Art As Antidote

About thirty-five years ago there was a scary fire in the west San Fernando Valley. I remember speaking to a nurse at the time asking how she dealt with it as the flames were seen coming across a nearby hill. She told me she ran in the house and made the bed.

A few days ago, a chartered plane carrying the UCLA basketball team was experiencing a nasty storm causing the aircraft to bounce mightily in its descent. What did the athletes do in their distress? They told jokes. Might as well go as the giggling Buddha.

If poems are serious jokes, jokes may be their nascent first cousins. Both set the scene, create tension and end with an epiphany, great or small.

There is a conflagration in our midst. Making the bed won’t help nor will a pillow over the ears. A wildfire of imbecility and loathing is scorching our land, our decency, our institutions, civil discourse and language itself.

It seems that no evidence to the contrary, no rationality can reach their deaf ears. We are dealing with a confederacy of dunces, a lynch mob, with virulence pathological.

Poetry changes nothing declared W.C. Auden. Yet he also wrote (in 1939) we must love each other or die. How about massive doses of poetry, music, dance, painting et al… and the love it engenders.

Gatherings of liturgical music for the holidays may bring with it a short reprieve as long as assault weapons are checked at the door. We can usually count on the Nutcracker to generate a few hours of consanguinity, particularly if your seven-year-old is in the cast.

Any music from high to low can cut through the vitriol, even mine. There are many rooms in our manor house with unlocked doors. Surely Sondheim found an audience in both camps.

At his colloquial best Robert Frost’s poems reach the heartland. So does Theodore Roethke and Jane Kenyon, Ted Kooser, Barbara Hanby and Linda Gregg. Poetry taps into the commonweal. I would argue that even angry poetry contains within its seed a life-affirming impulse.

As I write this, I’m trying to convince myself. Like that nurse we sense our Democracy being consumed by some hellish inferno. We are reaching for any act to restore order and repel the false idol along with those who are in bed with him.

Mozart’s clarinet concerto is filling the room. I’m looking at a book of Japanese woodblock prints. The arts can be a backdoor to soothe the sin-sick soul.

Sinatra does it his way the year round. His voice along with Cole Porter’s and Irving Berlin’s songs are at the bedrock of our shared heritage. Add to this the creative burst of Handel’s Messiah. These Hallelujahs can bind our wounds, suspend the malice and the fear behind it in ways that political argument cannot.

 

                                                                                                      


Thursday, December 9, 2021

Words, Those Squishy Things

Language is such a chemical / alchemical thing, so elastic and combustible with salubrious smoke. Put two slumbering, inert words together and the drapes can catch on fire or, at least, cause serious giggles.

I just read an article about a sports team described as exceedingly mediocre. That was worth a sudden smile. Give me an oxymoron and I’m happy. One of my favorites is Dark White. but the most famous is probably from the Bard whose Juliet parted with such sweet sorrow.

My third request for an email address from my step(less) son caused me to write in the subject space, A Gentle Nudge. It worked. He not only answered my request but told me a Gentle Nudge was the name of my step(less) granddaughter’s pre-school.

This got me thinking about possible names for an ice cream flavor, Transcendental Fudge or Existential SludgeGet Ben and Jerry on line one.

I had names for my three daughters when they were mere tater tots. They are my aviary having each taken flight. Shari, my first-born, was Peanut Annie . Now, the strokes in her paintings move with a kinetic grace, a quiet ferocity.

Janice, my tiny one, now fifty-nine, was Chester Apple. As a deaf person she knows the walls of this world and how to climb them. She orchestrates her life through fathoms of silence with fingers like a Dudamel butterfly.

Lauren had to live with Brewster Gazelle. It is the strangest one of them all. She, in turn, dubbed me Chief Big Toe. Consigned as she is to the middle of the muddle, she has grown elongated wing spans reaching from porcupine meatballs to Venus in transit. She sees back from what use to be into realms beyond.

Those names of endearment were all scrupulously deliberated blurts that somehow stuck, at least in my memory vault.

I must have heard a sort of music or cadence in the syllables of Brewster Gazelle which later morphed to Brewster Gazelleshaft. Maybe I was influenced by the German term Gesellschaft but meaning has little to do with all this. Otherwise, I would have chosen Gemeinshaft. Look it up if you want to impress someone at a cocktail party.

Probably the best string of meaningless words is Fuckingbastardsonofabitch uttered by me only once in my life in a slapping, scratching, punching fight I had with Peter Dalebrook at age 12, I would guess. It was my first and last physical fight and those words flew out of my mouth as my entire repertoire of expletives. I still hear a mellifluous incantation in those sounds though I don’t suppose they would have much success as an ice cream flavor.

 

 

 

 

 

Monday, December 6, 2021

By Heart

It has probably been about 75 years since I last memorized anything beyond my pin number. Now, I consider myself fortunate if I remember where I parked my car in a multistory garage. How embarrassing it is walking around waiting for an answering beep.

So much of my college experience was memorizing structural formulas and botanical origins. I would have much preferred the Canterbury Tales in Middle English or a passage from the Bard. All that rote education was a colossal waste except, perhaps, to exercise the gray matter.

By heart, is what we say when someone recites a few lines from Basho or Emerson. It is such lovely phrase. As a habitat for deathless words, it confirms the heart's status as a lonely hunter.

My dear friend, Frank Dwyer, is a compendium of Shakespearean soliloquies and lyrical poetry. The lines flow like an inexhaustible underground spring, a muscle most of us have allowed to atrophy.

The art of committing passages to memory began to decline with Guttenberg’s printing press. (Safe to say nobody knew their phone number in the 15th century.

In preliterate times oral storage and transmission were our social media and about as reliable as Fox News. Hard to imagine Sean Hannity as a troubadour. No wonder the library at Alexandria was burned. More than likely the Iliad and Odyssey were the final agreed-upon versions of a consortium called Homer when set down on parchment.

There is a ratio to our sensorium. Literacy has taken its toll on acoustic space. When the visual is extended we diminish the auditory. Thankfully there are folks like Frank to recite the best words in the best order; and they also make great dinner guests with seventeen syllables of haiku between courses and a sonnet sorbet for dessert.

When words come from the heart their provenance is unimpeachable. It not only plays chamber music but is a repository of all we have let in, by heart.  

Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Solstice

Season of the sun in its southern apogee,

days of opposites, of compensation.

Jingles bells and silent night,

while cash registers ring themselves

out of the red,

skeletal sycamore outside the window

in its requiem mass.

Spruce, lit and tinseled inside.

Hallelujah.

The glitz we insist upon

to propitiate the gods

against the dying of the light.

We gift wrap our eyes.

The fabled baby is born

within the manger of bulbs

on the wild desert floor.

Deck the halls to urge the sun.

Sondheim is still, here no more,

gone into his woods

dark and deep, no menorah

to answer the solstice.

 

Only by great exertion can those

in the hemisphere below  

take our myth as theirs,

take on candles or White Christmas

dancing through the snow

in a one-horse heat of December summer

just like the ones they never knew.

 

As in the cycle of my life

I too take on a mind of winter,

barren on my inscape,

to hush the clamor.

Then overthrow the bonds,

ignite the fuse and rouse

the buds to burst.


Friday, November 26, 2021

Apple As Life

First forbidden but thank god she took a bite so all the rest of us could get curious and disobey.

Even if, as some say, it was a pomegranate, full of apple-like seeds aspiring for applehood.

Out of Eden down the primrose path Johnny Appleseed spread the stuff out of which came apples pressed for cider. Drunk is much preferred over foul water.

I was seeded in the Big Apple before it was a household phrase. Did I give an apple to a teacher? I wouldn’t put it past me.

I bobbed for apples once; I think a tooth fell out. Maybe it was one of those poisoned apples left over from the witch in Snow White.

Don’t sit under the apple tree with anyone else but me. Glenn Miller, Bluebird Records, The Modernaires.

What’s not to love in the geometry of it? Apple, baseball, eyeball, roundabout and circle of friends. And apple pie out of the oven; love a la mode.

Jonathan and McIntosh, Fuji, Gala, Honey Crisp, and Granny Smith. Shoo fly pie and apple pan dowdy / I never get enough of that wonderful stuff.

What bounces and rolls, apple-like, marbles to golf balls to basketballs go into holes. Slam dunk. Some apples become balloons.

Some become moons. Take a bite. Steve Jobs did.

On a train riding out of Delft the man seated across was peeling an apple with the agility of a sculptor. Green skin curled around the white flesh, a vernal equinox separating itself in readiness from the last snow of winter.

And walk among long dappled grass / And pluck till time and times are done / the silver apples of the moon / the golden apples of the sun. Thank you, W. B. Yeats.

Cezanne painted apples and more apples. He unstilled their still-life. The world was his apple as it orbited the bowl.

But I am done with apple-picking now / Essence of winter’s sleep is on the night / (with)The scent of apples I am drowsing off. 

So says Robert Frost, not me. Small planets apples are. Like oranges without the rind to peel. Just sink your teeth to feel the juice of life dripping.

This is how one becomes a writer: A ten-year is on the lunch line at school and spots a bowl of apples with a sign saying: Take one. God is watching. A bit further on he/she sees a plate of cookies and writes his/hers first short story: Take all you want. God is watching the apples. 

Thursday, November 18, 2021

Absences

Table set for breakfast; one spoon, one knife.

No more melon. Too many quadrants.

No hummingbird seen since….

Large space on the white paper.

No singalong heard with the Irish group.

I wake up holding the pillow.

Hard candies still in the bowl.

Still-life of eggshell and empty cup.

Far less trash.

Cancelled appointments.

Glue sticks and scissors found everywhere.

Wallace Stevens waits. Your bookmark.

The poem I didn’t write for our anniversary.

Opening a book with your underlining. Why this paragraph?

Your pink eraser.

Those days I squandered.

Too much space in the closet.

Old cards saved, what did you mean by that last line?


Monday, November 15, 2021

Gratitude Day

From the point of view of the turkey population this could be one of their 

best Thanksgivings in recent memory. It’s not clear whether memory is 

located in their white meat or dark meat. The word in Turkeyland is that 

unvaxed deniers cannot sit down with woke vaxers much to the relief of 

the fowl community.


In any case I’m doing my part.


My plans include a dinner of virtual turkey with Google images of 

cranberry sauce, digital stuffing topped off with fractals of pumpkin pie. 

No gluttony and sloth. No gastro-intestinal reflux. And no decline in the 

domesticated turkey population.


Turkeys are a much-maligned fowl. Their reputation for not being very 

bright is probably because of their head size and propensity to stare up 

into the rain, sometimes even drowning in the process. Give them a break. 

It’s all because of their monocular vision which results in a tilt of the head 

in order to focus.


They express all they have to say, both jubilation and trepidation with 

what we hear as an undifferentiated gobble. My guess is there are gobbles 

within the gobble beyond our acoustic acuity. In fact, only males gobble. 

Females cackle and chirp. As in other species males swell their snood, that 

piece of flesh hanging down from their beak, in the mating ritual. Those 

male turkeys with erectile dysfunction are deemed good for nothing and 

generally end up in the oven.


And why do we call them turkeys when they are native to North America, 

I hear you ask. It’s a long story highlighted by European mistaken identity, 

African imports of guinea hens and a bit of Greek mythology. The chances 

are you’ll never be asked that question even on Jeopardy.


Turkey, the country, has nothing to do with it except that according to the 

Treaty of Versailles, following W.W. I, The Ottoman Empire (centered in 

Turkey) was carved up by the European imperialists. France and Great 

Britain had a virtual food fight over who was to get Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, 

Palestine etc… on their plate


The day has devolved into football games and Black Friday Eve as 

consumers gather, full bellies and all, to storm the stores for the essentials 

of life. Though I would imagine Jeff Bezos will be rubbing his hands together 

as we flock to the Amazon website forgetting about gratitude for which the 

day had been set aside.  


There is nothing about the holiday more iconic than Norman 

Rockwell’s image of the serving of turkey with four happy heads 

on each side. Consider the notion that Rockwell, himself, so often 

inserted in his own illustrations, is missing from this one. Maybe 

he was not what we had thought. Rockwell evolved into his true self, 

an outsider, an anti-Nixon Liberal, possibly a closeted 

gay man who took all his vacations with his buddies and had disdain 

for his own American myth.


As for dining alone on Thursday. I'm fine with it. I'm likely to get 

gravy on my shirt anyway and I never know which fork to use. Like 

Norman, my namesake, I’ll not be part of this year’s table signifying 

the excesses of the American idyll.

 

Wait, I can't end on this sour note. Thanksgiving is actually my 

favorite holiday; no flags and no religious fables. There is much to 

be said about bringing together family and friends celebrating our 

good fortune and each other. There is grace inside the word 

gratitude. And that's amazing enough.

Saturday, November 13, 2021

Trash Talk

 No ideas but in things.

                       William Carlos Williams

 

Looking out the window I can see him

tossing out the big ideas, 

those recycled truths

which explain everything

as the green garbage truck,

upon which so much depends,

embraces the blue trash can

with its yellow arms like an enormous hug,

then lifts and dumps the concepts

 into its hydraulic gut,

without any deliberation,

crushing ninety gallons of abstractions

into a fraction of its thirty-ton cargo

the way a filibustering speech in the Senate

over seventeen hours of blather,

reading the Bronx telephone directory,

could be compacted to a, Hell No,

which is why poetry is best as concision,

shucked corn, tops off the carrots,

the distillate, barely adjectival,

as it grinds exhausted words into

hard-earned, new birth

having swum down the embryonic sea.

 

 

 

Tuesday, November 9, 2021

From Artifacts to Simulation

We travel to have our senses amazed, to alter our perceptions and to renew our bonds. In short, to rediscover ourselves. During my recent trip I also got a glimpse of the future and I'm not sure I want to be here when it happens. There is no thing there. Not nothing, there’s plenty of something but it is weightless and carries no antecedents

In fact, the future has already arrived; it’s a country with a language in which I have little fluency, a land of fractals, digital and virtual. It has no materiality. We’ve traded artifacts for artifice. Books are gone along with the feel of a deckled edge. The book is on a screen and I miss the physicality of it, the dust jacket, the inscription, maybe a stain here and there of Ragu sauce or chocolate, signs of the journey it has taken to get here.

When this planet withers away from neglect and aliens come for the big dig there will be no evidence of human life. Only some Google glasses and a few pin numbers scratched in the dust.

This new world is glutted with options. Just put on the head set and dial up your menu. You want an apple? Here’s what an apple tastes like. Hold the mustard on my pastrami please.  How about a football game or trench warfare? No problem. The sensations can all be replicated. What about sex? I forgot to ask.

The talk at the table was all science fiction, my least favorite genre. A pack of what-ifs. True, much speculation is now our reality. I shouldn’t have said that such stuff is a failure of the imagination….but I did. In doing so I was revealed as a certifiable snob even though the longest word I know is delicatessen.

Sci-Fi strikes me as comic book, made movie, made series, all propelled by half-baked ideas. The present is extrapolated into dystopia into the apocalypse. The genre is a refuge for people’s grandiose fantasies and fears. Maybe my mind cannot bend around the corner; maybe I’m missing out but I’m not done yet with the actual. There is too much humanity as we know it yet to be explored and too many permutations of love. Why set up supernatural conditions to test our flaws and fiber?

On the other hand, true literature can occasionally happen as with Mary Shelley’s, Frankenstein or Orwell’s 1984. It all comes down to language, that element hard to define but you know it when you feel its lift.

As Edward Abbey said, True magic inheres in the ordinary, the commonplace. Only petty minds yearn for the supernatural. Everything around them is pure miracle.

Maybe I’d be better advised to stay home and curl up in Faulkner’s world with the sound and the fury signifying nothing.  

Now it can be told. The above message wasn't really written by me but a robot impersonating me in a parallel universe from a subterranean lab as I was transported via a time machine to a distant galaxy.


Saturday, November 6, 2021

Return

Odysseus, you used to be tall and thin and now you’re short and fat.

I’m not Odysseus.

And you were young and vibrant and now you’re old and haggard,

I’m not Odysseus.

And Odysseus, you even changed your name. *

 

Odysseus goes out for a cup of coffee and a few video games. He returns ten years later as Ulysses with wild yarns to tell. It’s not what it looks like, he tells Penelope. I can mansplaln everything. Fortunately, she has a loom with a view with yarns of her own to spin which she’s been unraveling to keep away prospects from E-Harmony. She had reason to presume he was a goner but he was just mostly dead, not altogether. Our hero doesn’t suffer fools gladly. They are all seen as arch rivals up with which he shall never put. Ulysses was, as Emily Wilson says, a complicated guy. I would call him duplicitous, pragmatic, resourceful, the very model of a modern man.

I suppose I’m less complicated. Modernity eludes me. It took me only two weeks to dodge the dragon wood carving at the Chinese Garden, fight off mountain lions rumored to be roaming around the garbage dump in the woods of Lincoln City. And then there was a black bear spotted last week snatching salmon as they rushed past in Schooner Creek.

I have returned unscarred and ten pounds heavier bursting with banquets. As far as I can recall I saw no cyclops except, perhaps, that home plate umpire in the World Series, But I digress.

I’m now preparing to be on my own. Demons come and go. This is the true odyssey we all must travel returning to where we started but not quite the same person.

Peggy’s ashes have become part of the soil where her favorite coral tree stands in its skeletal phase. I leave her renewal in the hands of Demeter. Soon red flowering cones will release her radiance.