she looks at her baby’s photographs
laying on a blanket just a few
another fixes her ID badge
at the collar and two others talk
half-built skyscrapers slide behind grey
girders, old trestles against dappled
grey clouds in the late spring sky—while
noses dive into magazines and
books and fingers dance on touch screens, eyes
straining for backlit words—while
the conductor crackles with news from
up the line that we can’t hear about
things we can’t see—while
wet napes dry against cool air as hips
rock and jerk to absorb the shocks of
one man gets up so the woman with
a cane can sit down and apply her
makeup layer by layer—while
smells of coffee and sweat push against
each other hanging from straps on rails
hanging from the ceiling—while
the dark tunnel moves, its walls broken
by shallow wells filled with words read by
those who care what they say—while
a man wears a salmon buttoned down
shirt folded over his chest like a
headphones and earbuds build parallel
worlds far away from everything here
in the everyday droll—while
a really tall black girl in purple
clutches her diploma as her mom
smiles and sits down—while
strollers and bicycles park against
seats and poles and a backdrop of plaids
checks, stripes, and solids—that
wash the scene and keep it vivid, live,
connected. There’s no race there’s only
—Brooklyn, June 2015
Notes and Credits
The opening photograph was taken during a raging snow storm on the F-Train’s Culver Viaduct overlooking Carroll Gardens and Red Hook. The train comes above ground briefly there to cross the Gowanus Canal, then diving back down underground in Park Slope. “Two of Us on the Run” is a song by the group Lucius, which formed and cut its teeth in my neighborhood here, Ditmas Park, Brooklyn. I saw Lucius at the Prospect Park Bandshell this summer and then I bought their CD over iTunes and had it on my phone while I took the subway to work over the last few weeks. Brilliant song, wonderful treatment, makes me wish I had a daughter to play it for, over and over again. And when I listen on the train, I think of all the stories traveling with, on the way somewhere in the city.
Like a cat caught chasing her own tail
I ought to shake you off. After all
these years the betrayals seem less wrong
than part of who I am. We both know
we knew and still know now, though we haven’t
spoken for years and probably never
will. Our life remembered roams this place,
troubled heart sleeping in doorways on
streets that look empty to those who lack
empathy. They don’t know what it’s like
to endure sadness for sadness’ sake.
How did I wake up here? The simplest
answer is not enough. It cuts to
the soul, a death-wishing admission
that I was and will always be less
than I wanted to be—for you, for
me, and any who comes after. The
hard penance is to forgive yourself.
New York and Orlando April 2015
Notes and Credits
I took this painting from the Wikimedia Commons. In Russian, its name looks like this: Исповедь. Бернардинский собор во Львове (Церковь Святого Андрея УГКЦ). Google translates it as “Russian : Confession . Bernardine Cathedral in Lviv ( Church of St. Andrew Church).” I can’t find a painter’s name or year in all my trying on the Net. Yet of all the things I encountered when using search terms like “confession,” “penance,” and “forgiveness,” this is the most sinteresting and haunting thing I found. Mere commons photographs of confessionals would not do. The pain and loneliness of confession and absolution are captured here, and that is what I sought. The poem itself is my own journey. Not sure how far along I am in my own forgiveness, but with hope I will get there one day. It’s the only way I can begin to return the love I have, so I need to work on it.
I ran to love but hid from its embrace.
I looked at it instead through windows,
where love so deep took its place besides things
out of grasp, too expensive, too precious
too good. To want but never have was
perfection, to hold yet be restless, bet
nothing while everything rested in dreams
that replaced what we did with a stream of
desire till life crashed in. Glass spilled the day
I broke your heart, but the heart I crushed was
my own. It lives now behind glass with things
that never took place while the Furies’ buzz
kills forgiveness and fans faint embers of
loss. All I have is there, too precious,
too good, too gone, and I can’t remember
why or how. In a weak moment I
imagine a word that might bring us back
when a voice cries “No! Love is not selfish.”
Love claims and love lets go, one easy as
the other, remorseless, beyond joy or
pain with no thought to please—but only to
be. Behind the glass is nothing now but
empty space. No door, no window, no vent,
no way through or round but to feel the rain
of a thousand shards fall to the ground. I
try not to howl or jump when I am cut,
for cuts heal. And love lives like this: patching
over scars and new skin, sometimes clear and
others deformed but always relentless.
You cannot hide from love; love tells me this.
For love always tries again, not to get
it right, but just to love, again.
—New York, April 5, 2015
Notes and Credits
The opening photograph is taken from the NY Daily News piece, “Tilda Swinton sleeps in a glass box for surprise performance piece at Museum of Modern Art,” by Margaret Eby, March 23, 2013. No photographer was attributed. The piece is a strange play on celebrity that makes me thing of Goop. But it still seems a good photo for the poem, which puts the experience of love into museum boxes in order to dissociate from the pain while keeping the experience alive with false hopes. Writing the poem made me consider that love is not so sentimental as automatic. We bring sentiment to love that isn’t there and needn’t be there. Love will never be more than what it is. Never build a life around love, but around what you bring to love. And as for love itself, let it be what it is. My first love post was one of the early TRS posts; looking at it now it feels like life has changed so much. And love is here, again.
Old Stone House – Washington Park – Park Slope, Brooklyn
336 Third Street, b/t 4th & 5th Avenues
Brooklyn Reading Works presents The Authored Voice: Storytelling Across Lives and Media, an evening of stories and conversation with Murray Nossel, Catherine Burns, Trisha Coburn, and Edgar Oliver, moderated by John Guidry. These award-winning panelists will talk about the various media they have used to tell stories—performance, film, books, videos—and the different ways they cultivate voice for themselves and others. We will explore how storytelling is cathartic, empowering, entertaining … and sometimes a pretty good business. Join us at the Old Stone Housein Park Slope on February 13, 2014, at 8:00 pm. A $5 donation at the door is appreciated to defray costs of wine and refreshments at the event.
MURRAY NOSSEL is co-founder of Narativ with Paul Browde, a company that has developed a storytelling methodology based on Murray and Paul’s stage performance, Two Men Talking. The performance began as an improvised telling of the story of their friendship, from their school days in South Africa to New York in the 1990s and the present. Storytelling was central to Murray’s practice as a clinician in AIDS services during the height of the epidemic, and he is also an award-winning filmmaker whose work includes Why Can’t We Be a Family Again?,A Brooklyn Family Tale, Paternal Instinct,and Turn to Me,featuring Nobel Prize–winning author Elie Wiesel. Murray holds a doctorate in Social Work from Columbia University and teaches in Columbia’s Master of Science in Narrative Medicine program.
TRISHA COBURN has worked for a number of years as a fine artist in Boston and New York. She received her BFA from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and Tufts University, and she is also an interior designer with De La Torre Design. Trisha’s storytelling began with a one-day workshop at Narativ and eventually led her to The Moth, presenting her story, “Miss Macy,”on tour and on The Moth Radio Hour. Trisha is currently working on a collection of short stories based on her childhood experiences growing up in Alabama. She lives in New York and has three wonderful children.
CATHERINE BURNS is The Moth’slong time Artistic Director and a frequent host of the Peabody Award-winning The Moth Radio Hour. She is the editor of the New York Times Best Seller The Moth: 50 True Stories. Prior to The Moth, she directed and produced independent films and television, interviewing such diverse talent as Ozzy Osbourne, Martha Stewart and Howard Stern. She is the director of the solo show Helen & Edgar, which opened at The Public Theater in January with the Under the Radar Festival, where it was named a pick of the festival by The New Yorker, Time Out and WNYC. Born and raised in Alabama, she now lives in Brooklyn with her husband and two year old son.
EDGAR OLIVER is a novelist, poet, and playwright who has been lauded as “a living work of theater all by himself” by Ben Brantley of The New York Times. He is a member of the Axis Theatre Company, under the direction of Randy Sharp. His one-man show East 10th Street: Self-Portrait with Empty Housewas the recipient of a Fringe First Award at the 2009 Edinburgh Fringe Festival. His most recent show, Helen & Edgar, directed by the Moth’s Artistic Director Catherine Burns and produced by Moth Founder George Dawes Green, did a sold-out run at The Public Theater with the Under the Radar Festival. He has published three collections of his poems—A Portrait of New York by a Wanderer There, Summer, and The Brooklyn Public Library—and a novel, The Man Who Loved Plants.
JOHN GUIDRY is the curator & moderator of “The Authored Voice.” John uses storytelling to amplify and strengthen the voices of individuals, organizations, and causes. He has worked in public health and community development as a researcher, consultant, and movement leader with numerous organizations around the world. His multi-media social marketing and health communications campaigns have reached millions globally, and he has published two books Engaging the Community in Decision Making and Globalizations and Social Movements. A new project, “The Pursuit—Stories of Joy, Suffering, and the American Dream” is in development now—stay tuned to Truth and Rocket Science.
LOUISE CRAWFORDis the founder of Brooklyn Social Media, a firm devoted to PR and social media for authors, artists and entrepreneurs. Since 2004, she has published the popular Brooklyn blog Only the Blog Knows Brooklyn. She is the founder of the Brooklyn Blogfest, an annual networking event for bloggers, and Brooklyn Reading Works. From 2005-2010, Louise wrote Smartmom, a weekly column for The Brooklyn Paper about parenting and modern life.
A friend of mine told me about a playwriting workshop he attended some years ago. The instructor was David Mamet, and after the lecture someone asked Mamet what made him a great playwright.
“I write plays, and you don’t,” was the reply. David Mamet, it seems, talks like one of his characters.
Write what you know
You can’t be a great artist of any kind—playwright, sculptor, painter, novelist, etc.—if you produce nothing at all. That’s what separates Mamet from those who would like to be writers. It does not, however, separate Mamet from all the other writers who in fact write, whatever anyone thinks of it.
Apart from writing well or competently, writers themselves have little control over many other factors that separate great writing from just plain writing. For the fact is that great writing will never be recognized as such if it doesn’t have a context in which it flourishes and speaks to enough people to make an impact on the world. Great writing itself isn’t a pure quality, forever-set and canonical. What we think of as great writing is shaped as much by the times to which it corresponds as by any inherent qualities of the writing itself. Write what you know, as they say; if you’re in the zeitgeist, the rest will take care of itself.
Paint what you are
Jackson Pollock dared to follow his muse, wherever it led, regardless of what it meant, and he let his technical abilities take him to places other painters couldn’t dream of. In that particular moment—post-World War II United States—his paintings made people see art and, one might argue, the world, differently. His was a singular genius, exercised and exorcised against a cultural backdrop that needed his art to understand itself.
No. 31, 1950
The Pollock room at the Museum of Modern Art, on the fourth floor, is a slide show of singular dedication and focus that seems to culminate in the famed Number 31, which spans an entire wall. From painting to painting, Pollock moves from semi-representational work to increasingly abstract renderings that burrow each time more deeply into his consciousness itself.
Amid the soft footfalls and hushed voices in the room, Allen Ginsberg howls and yells and scratches at the seams of that world, trying to break out. There is my own father huddled in a French Quarter coffee shop with his Aunt Carol, herself a painter, telling her about his poems or talking about art, trying to find some safe, comfortable place to let an idea fly from the heart. Every splatter and spray of paint on that vast canvas is a voice from a world suffocating in Sylvia Plath’s bell jar, tapping on the glass I am, I am, I am …
a woman in an abusive marriage, serving cocktails to some chain-smoking Mad Men caricature
a girl or maybe a wife pregnant with a child she cannot bear to bring into this world
Watson and Crick walking into the Eagle Pub in Cambridge, England, on February 28, 1953, saying that they had found “the secret of life”
The voices blew through the tragedy of Pollock’s own life and the terror of his private demons, inseparable from the age he lived in because he made it so in his work. As Pollock himself put it, “Every good painter paints what he is.”
Sylvia Plath, writing atop a stone wall in England
Does context make the art? It’s a chicken-and-egg question that cannot be answered. It’s impossible for most audiences to enjoy Shakespeare without an interpretation, and an interpretation like Scotland PA is nothing short of wonderful and luminescent of both Shakespeare and modern American culture, as much for the Shakespeare and the Paul Rogers and Beethoven dominated soundtrack as for the send-up of drive-through fast food.
One without the other is a hollow experience—art or context. Pollock helped us understand the times in which he lived, and the resounding verdict on the worth of his work is that with every passing year he continues to reflect and refract his times even more intensely. It’s all there on the canvas: the straight-laced, short-haired, hourglass-figured, white, clean, modern, scientific world of tomorrow epitomized in Robert Moses’s 1964 New York World’s Fair. It’s all there, splattered, fractal, chaotic.
Art becomes art because it helps people to understand their world. It remains art because it continues to do so, over and over again. What makes art great is something that millions of people determine every day, in all their infinitely innumerable actions and words. What makes great art great is not so much its inherent greatness as the fact that it survives at all.
“Idiot wind, blowing through the dust upon our shelves, we’re idiots, babe, it’s a wonder we can even feed ourselves.”
Notes and credits
Photograph of the glass margarita chalice with paint brushes, pens, pencils, etc. against the backdrop of a living room wall by the author.
Photograph of Jackson Pollock, No. 31, at MoMA, taken by the author, July 25, 2010. Find Pollock all over the web. This is a great photograph inspired by Pollock.
Sylvia Plath on a stone wall, from Mortimer Rare Book Room by way of the Amherst Bulletin.
Scotland PA is a wonderful film. See reviews here and here, and whatever they say I recommend it highly.
There are two kinds of people: those who follow and those who don’t. Of followers, there are two kinds: those who stay put, and those who go somewhere. Of followers who go somewhere, there are two kinds: those who are led and those who are pushed, the latter including those who fall in holes whether pushed or not (go ask Alice). Of followers who stay put, there are two kinds: those who stay in a place, and those who stay in a particular frame of mind.
Of those who do not follow, there are three kinds: poets, prophets, and migrants. Of poets, it is said that they show us who we are. Of prophets, it is said that they show us who we should be. Of migrants, it is said they show us where to go next.
Poets, prophets, and migrants are called. They do not choose who they are, and mistakes can be made when callings are crossed, whether by the one who is called or by those doing the calling. When poets are mistaken for prophets, everyone is deceived. Cults are formed and lives are wasted.
There’s a whole lot of people in trouble tonight from the disease of conceit
Whole lot of people seeing double tonight from the disease of conceit
Give you delusions of grandeur and an evil eye
Give you the idea that you’re too good to die
Then they bury you from your head to your feet
From the disease of conceit.
Bob Dylan, “Disease of Conceit”
Prophets are rarely mistaken for poets, but when they are, they are generally neither and the poetry is awful. Though it is nearly impossible for a poet to be a prophet, either might be a migrant, whether on land, in dreams, or of the mind.
Leadership is an attribute given by those who follow to someone else, who may or not be the kind of person who follows. The truth is—leadership has nothing to do with being a follower or not. In the end, perhaps there really are only two kinds of people: those who do well when type-cast, and those who only begin to thrive when cast against type.
Notes and Credits
The photos were all taken by the author in the neighborhood of Park Slope, Brooklyn, in 2008, 2009, and 2010. The first is a photo of an art project my son did in the first grade (2009), drawing the human form. The second is the tunnel at the northwestern entrance of Prospect Park. The third is a garden scultpure in front of a house on 2nd Street, near the corner with Prospect Park West.
Bob Dylan was called to be a poet, but the people who loved him wanted him to be a prophet. It cost him, and some of those loved him, twenty years. After years of reflection, Dylan wrote that by the mid-1980s “[e]verything was smashed. My own songs had become strangers to me. I didn’t have the skill to touch their raw nerves, couldn’t penetrate the surfaces. It wasn’t my moment of history any more. I couldn’t wait to retire and fold the tent”—Chronicles, Vol. One (Simon and Schuster, 2004), p. 148.
Dylan wrote “Disease of Conceit,” in 1987 as he began to explore a new musical identity more aligned with his own sense of self and his mission as an artist. The song would be the eighth track on Oh Mercy, the album that set him on the path to redeeming his career with a whole new audience by the mid-1990s. In the fall of 1989, I saw him perform at Hill Auditorium on the University of Michigan Campus in Ann Arbor. It was the third show of his I had seen at that point in my life and by far the best. Toward the end of the show – as either the closing song or the last encore – he brought down the house with “Disease of Conceit.” The poetry was breathtaking.
As for those who fall down holes …
Alice on the toad-stool, Central Park, New York, December 20, 2009
April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
These, I, singing in spring, collect for lovers
Collecting, I traverse the garden, the world—but soon I pass the gates,
Now along the pond-side—now wading in a little, fearing not the wet …
Everything here is yellow and green
the ground, that winter nightmare,
has cured its sores and burst
with green birds and vitamins
The bees are flying. They taste the spring.
I took a broken root to fling
Where the proud, wayward squirrel went,
Taking delight that he could spring
Oh, give us pleasure in the flowers to-day;
For this is love and nothing else is love,
The which it is reserved for God above
Notes and Credits
T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land, ll. 1-4
Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass, #38, These, I, Singing in Spring, ll. 1, 4-5
Anne Sexton, It is a Spring Afternoon, ll. 1, 30-32
Sylvia Plath, Wintering, l. 50
W. B. Yeats, An Appointment, ll. 2-4
Robert Frost, A Prayer in Spring, ll. 1, 13-14
All the photos were taken by the writer in Prospect Park, Brooklyn – except for the white roses, which bloom every year in Tom and Laura’s backyard in Park Slope, Brooklyn. The squirrel is the most recent, taken as he chopped up and dropped leaves and twigs and flowers on all of us baseball parents while our children were at practice last week.
For the W. B. Yeats poem, I credit Jim Tolstrup, who posted on this poem and squirrels and anarchy a couple months ago.