Tag Archives: poetry

The truth and parallelism

photo 20

F Train—With Two of Us on the Run

I listen to angelic voices—while

she looks at her baby’s photographs
laying on a blanket just a few
weeks old—while

another fixes her ID badge
at the collar and two others talk
quietly—while

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
sliding underground—while

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
kimono—while

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
a runner.

—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.

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The truth and letting go

Исповедь_берн_собор

Penance

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.

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The truth and love, again

tilda24f-3-web

Love, Again

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.

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The truth and miracles

Miracle

Why do you need a miracle?
Miracles don’t pay your rent,
Pulse your nerves, light the dark,
Still the Earth, or make you well.
Miracles do nothing on their own.

Miracles don’t feed your heart.
This only blood can do, be it
Yours or mine, flesh to flesh
Dried in place.  Stained like rust,
Blood never lets you go.

Miracles live on air
Because they are nothing
New or old under the sun.
Borrowed or blue, nothing at all
But dreams too afraid

To cross that line and cut your skin.
Miracles are cheap excuses for love
Deferred, leaving hope for dead.
They are God-machines grinding down
Your sharp edges until you are dull.

I am no miracle, but I am more
Than you deserve.  Now as then,
Your treadmill grace beats your brow.
Too humiliated to save face,
You struggle for something else to save.

You wear this miracle like a shield
Of dreams.  Proud behind it, you have no fear.
That wish protects, but at a price
You know so well, and so do I,
Every time we go to sleep alone.

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E/F – The glass of art

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

a young man in Mound Bayou, Mississippi who just wants to vote

a painter who can’t figure out how make the dawn seem like the dawn because it means something else

Elvis Presley

Rosa Parks

Jack Lemmon asking Shirley MacLaine to see The Music Man in Billy Wilder’s Apartment of family values

John Lennon saying “we’re more popular than Jesus

Watson and Crick walking into the Eagle Pub in Cambridge, England, on February 28, 1953, saying that they had found “the secret of life

Idiot Wind

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.

Bonus track:  The Apartment

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The truth and amoebas

The mighty amoeba

Your body isn’t your own,
exposed for all it really is:
permeable, full of holes,
part of the world.
A floating thing tossed and spit
on tumbling water not always clear,
you become home to others,
little animals here
at play in the world.
You could be a tree, or grass, under
tiny feet that make no sound of their own,
their steps heard in quickened heartbeats
and restless groans
that shake the world.
You’re full of holes that leave
you open, a window lost of glass,
panes rattling, short of breath,
waiting, waiting, hoping to pass
this sense of a world
stumbling moments from death,
moments from life.

____________

The name of the poem is Sickness.  I wrote it in Belém in February of 1993, as I was coping with the onset of amoebic dysentery.  It was rather a rough time, and this, the worst and latest in a cascade of different ailments since my arrival in Brazil the previous November.  I was adjusting to my new home, I told myself, but I began to re-conceive my relationship to the world.  Except for a bout of the flu at age 9 and a one-day bug at age 13, I’d never been seriously ill in my life.  When I met the amoebas, my body-as-fortress gave way to a new understanding of myself as a being in the world, no different really than a bug, participating in the world along with all the other creatures of existence, open to all those creatures, part of the landscape.  In the world – the amoebas helped me understand Heidegger and Sartre.

We’re all part of the landscape here, guests of each other, parts of each other.  Somewhere in the human genome, shot through my body and yours, there is DNA that we inherited from a common of ancestor with amoebas.  According to Richard Dawkins in his lovely The Ancestor’s Tale, our most recent common ancestor (MRCA in biospeak) would have existed between about 1.3 and 2 billion years ago.  This being, some kind of single-celled thing, would have eventually given rise to amoeba and other protozoans, in one evolutionary path, and the things that became plants and animals on another path.

Most recent common ancestor, collapsed tree

All creation is locked in struggle for the limited energy of this world.  This struggle produces rainforests when so many beings stretch to outdo others in an effort to trap the sun.  The struggle produces abundance as well as scarcity, cooperation as often as annhiliation, and a long-standing collaboration between us humans and the hoards of friendly bacteria (and even some amoeba) that live inside our bodies and help us be “human,” as it were.

Notes and Credits

A really interesting article about amoebas can be found here, by Wim van Egmond, and it includes really great photos of amoebas in action.  The photo of an amoeba at the beginning of this posting is taken from the site, Helpful Health Tips, which discusses the causes and treatments for amoebic dysentery.  More detail on the different kinds of amoebas can be found in this piece on Innvista.  Getting past dysentery meant mountains of Flagyl and a lot of examinations and tests, not only in Brazil but also after I got back to the US in 1993 and in 1994.  I never was the same again, but then again, were we ever?

When I was looking around the web for amoeba-related sites, photos, and such, I came across this company, Rogue Amoeba Software, LLC, and it’s blog.  It has nothing to do with this post specifically, except that it’s a very cool name for a company, and especially suggestive for a software firm.  Our computers and their software are, like our bodies, permeable, full of holes,
part of the world
.  We’ve made information systems in our image, both on purpose and by accident, just as it was presumed by some we ourselves were made.

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The truth and Brasília, 2: Torsos of Steel

brasilia-trespoderes

The Dream

From 1956 to 1960, Brazilian architects, engineers and peasant laborers called candangos built a new capital, Brasília.  This was the realization of a dream first voiced in 1827, just 5 years after the country became independent, when an advisor to Emporer Pedro I suggested that he move the capital from the colonial city of Rio de Janeiro, on the coast, to a new city in the interior.

Brasília, as it eventually came to be called, was a Brazilian version of Luso-Manifest Destiny.  The new city was built on the legacy of the Bandeirantes, slave hunters and prospectors whose journeys into the South American interior in the 16th and 17th centuries extended Portuguese holdings – Brasil – at the expense of the Spanish crown.

President Juscelino Kubitschek asked Oscar Niemeyer to head up the team that would create the new capital.   A native of Rio de Janeiro, Niemeyer was already an internationally renowned architect, his design for the United Nations Head Quarters in New York an immediate icon of post-war modernism.  His designs for Brasília’s government buildings, plazas, monuments, and National Cathedral created something of a modernist theme park in Brasília, and in 1987 the city was designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.

For Brasília, Niemeyer collaborated with another celebrated Brazilian designer, Lucio Costa, whose plans for the city took the national dream into the air itself – from above, Brasília’s layout looks like a giant bow, loaded and aimed at the heart of the continent.  Costa’s Brasília conformed to the modernist Athens Charter of 1933 almost to the letter, creating a city of functionalism and (for many) modern alienation.  Landscaping was done by Roberto Burle Marx, another of the generation of Brazilian modernists whose work defined an era in South American history.

In the Plaza of the Three Powers, Bruno Giorgi’s sculpture, Os Candangos, memorialized the northeastern Brazilians who built the capital.  In the national discourse of the time, these impoverished peasants were living symbols of Brazil’s colonial and agrarian past.  By coming to Brasília and building the city, they were transformed into new pioneers who would settle the vast empty spaces of the country’s interior, from the dry plains of Brasília through the vast green desert of the Amazon.  Unlike the North American slaves who built the White House and the U.S. Captiol buildings, the candangos were memorialized as part and parcel of Brasília’s futurist vision.

The architect must think that the world has to be a better place, that we can end poverty . . . . it is important that the architect think not only of architecture but of how architecture can solve the problems of the world . . . The architect has to always be political.

—Oscar Niemeyer, 2009

Hard Winter

Meanwhile, in London, Sylvia Plath was pregnant again.  Her husband, Ted Hughes, was having an affair with another woman, and they were destined to separate soon after the birth of their son, Nicholas.  In the 13 months after Nick’s birth, Plath wrote most of the poems in her second collection, Ariel, and published her autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar.  Then on February 11, 1963, Plath left her children sleeping in their room, sealed the door with wet towels, and committed suicide with oven gas in the kitchen.

Among the poems she wrote in this period was Brasilia, which was not published in Ariel.  Like Zweig, Plath was thinking about the past and the future and the trouble with seeing it through.

Will they occur,
These people with torso of steel
Winged elbows and eyeholes

Awaiting masses
Of cloud to give them expression,
These super-people! –
And my baby a nail
Driven, driven in.
He shrieks in his grease

Bones nosing for distance.
And I, nearly extinct,
His three teeth cutting

Themselves on my thumb –
And the star,
The old story.

In the lane I meet sheep and wagons,
Red earth, motherly blood.
O You who eat

People like light rays, leave
This one
Mirror safe, unredeemed

By the dove’s annihilation,
The glory
The power, the glory.

It was one of the coldest winters on record in England, and Sylvia Plath’s life was falling apart even as she was bringing new life on.  How long she had intended to take leave of this life is not something we can know.  She had attempted suicide before, and she was troubled by deep emotional struggles that went back to childhood.  Her relationship with Hughes held some high points in her life, but now he had left her for another woman.  What is clear, however, is that once she made her decision, she executed it with consummate intentionality.  She meticulously protected her children as she took her own life.

Like Zweig, she left two works for posthumous publication, one pointing backwards, one pointing forward.  The Bell Jar was on its way to publication; in this, her semi-autobiographical novel, she exposed a world she knew in the past, a world she tried to leave once before.  As she died, the manuscript for Ariel and Other Poems, her masterwork, lay on the desk, each poem typed and left in the precise order she wanted for the book.  The first word of the first poem, “Morning Song,” was “love.”  The last word of the last poem, “Wintering,” was “spring.”

Like Zweig, Plath thought she left a book pointing to a better future, but that wasn’t to be.  The Ariel that was published under Ted Hughes’s editorial guidance was not the same book.  The poems were reordered, others added, and a few, like Brasilia, removed.  This Ariel was darker, seeming to foreshadow Plath’s end, but whatever the critics of Hughes’s intentions, this Ariel made Plath who she is today.

Cold War

On March 31, 1964, the Brazilian military overthrew the democratically elected government.  As the military took control, they created the model for the “bureaucratic authoritarian state” in the developing world.  Niemeyer and Costa’s modernist visions were perverted into symbols of Latin America’s dark period, the capital’s bland functionality and order representing the kind of control that the military celebrated in its culture, the kind of functionality they wished to instill in the rest of the country.

Behind the gleaming white façades of Brasília’s futuristic vision, the Brazilian military contributed to the “dirty wars” against the left in Brazil, Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay.  These regimes took the lives of tens of thousands of people who dreamed of a different kind of democracy than the region had known.  Beyond those killed, many more were tortured, and hundreds of thousands were forced into exile.  Niemeyer, a Communist and therefore enemy of the state, went into exile in Europe.

When the opposition movements eventually took power in the late 1980s and 1990s, the world was a very different place.  Brasília was a bigger city, showing some age, surrounded by “satellite cities” and large favelas – the squatter settlements that the military tried to eradicate in Rio de Janeiro with less than efficient results.  Costa’s rationally designed city had its flaws, its ups and downs, and its critics.  For some, it seemed as if Brazil, and Brasília, had turned Zweig’s book into a joke:  Brazil is the country of the future, and it always will be.

The future that Brasília promised, that Plath saw in her mind and in her children, didn’t work out according to the original plans.  Yet life goes on.  I will continue these themes in the next posting on the The truth and Brasília, 3:  Faroeste Caboclo.

plath-tat

Notes and Credits

The critics of Brasília’s ambitious design and lofty principles are many.  I am not one of them.  I am writing to explore what Brasília means, not its shortcomings, and my approach should indicate that I believe the city’s meaning far outshines any of its shortcomings.

Lauro Cavalcanti provides a beautiful guide to Brazil’s modernist architecture that places Brasília in perspective.  In Brasília, the government sought to “turn the state into a spectacle,” and Brasília is indeed the enactment of a dream.  If you can’t go to Brasília but can find your way to New York, go to Lincoln Center, and you can witness Neimeyer and Brasília’s influence on one of the great cultural centers of the world.

Photo of the Praça dos Três Poderes, with the statue of Os Candangos, is from the Flickr site of Shelley Bernstein, aur2899.  She works at the Brooklyn Museum (according to the Flickr “about”) and has a lot of pictures from Brasília and elsewhere.  Her Brooklyn Museum blog posts are here.

The candangos are publicly memorialized in Brazil, in marked contrast to the North American squelching of the slave labor employed to build our own White House.  Without suggesting that Brazil is any less racist than the U.S., or that either country has a better social model for dealing with its racial legacy, I point this out as a matter of historical interest.  The reader may regard these facts as he or she wishes.

Niemeyer and Costa’s designs were political statements.  They expressed political beliefs in modernity, order, and democracy in the layout of the city.  Niemeyer himself was a Communist, whose architeture reflected his beliefs in a world of collective and individual democracy, the triumph of working people over the old regime and the capitalist governing class.

Oscar Niemeyer is 101 years old, and he is still working.  The quotation in this posting is taken from an interview he did with Santiago Fernandez-Stelley for Vice magazine online, at some point in 2009.  The interview can be seen on video at VBS.TV.  The video of the interview is simply inspirational.

The photo of the Sylvia Plath tattoo is from a photobucket listing from PaperCuttt.  I found it first on this site for literary tattoos.  You can also find material from the same person at another livejournal channel.  She notes that she altered the original slightly (“As I listened to the old bray of my heart….I am. I am. I am.”) but that it contains the same spirit.

I have long been greatly motivated by the poetry and writing of Sylvia Plath.  As I mentioned in the introduction to this series of posts, her Collected Poems was one of two English language books I brought to Brazil in 1992 for my year of doctoral reserach in Belém.  Over my life I have read many books on her and her life.  These resources include:  the poems themselves. Anne Stevenson, Bitter Fame; Jacqueline Rose, The Haunting of Sylvia Plath; Linda Wagner, Critical Essays on Sylvia Plath; and Erica Wagner, Ariel’s Gift.  I’ve tried to read as much as possible, and to work through the thicket of political controversy around her work and life.  I also read Ted Hughes’ Birthday Letters and have some to a deeper appreciation of how Sylvia Plath affected all those around her.  The tragedy of her son’s suicide last year brought me a several days of stark reflection on emotions, depression, and the struggle of human consiousness and life against itself.

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