Who was Cassandra?
In the Iliad, she is described as the loveliest of the daughters
of Priam (King of Troy), and gifted with prophecy. The god Apollo
loved her, but she spurned him. As a punishment, he decreed
that no one would ever believe her. So when she told her fellow
Trojans that the Greeks were hiding inside the wooden horse...well,
you know what happened.
the cassandra pages
words, pictures, and a life
Thursday, July 31, 2003
The ECOTONE topic for tomorrow, August 1st, is "Trees" (or "Trees and Place"). Please consider writing an entry on your blog and posting a link at the Ecotone Wiki.
A raznochinets* needs no memory – it is enough for him to tell of the books he has read, and his biography is done.
Osip Mandelstam, The Noise of Time
It’s been fascinating to read everyone’s comments and advice about book accumulating… er, collecting. And if anyone wants to know why keeping a journal is worthwhile, this is an example of how it forces the real issues into the light. Underneath the stories of my father-in-law, and my friend and his painful book divestment ordeal, lurk my own conflicted feelings about being 50 and facing two potential paths: getting rid of “things” in order to be more free, to travel light…and wanting to collect certain things I haven’t had until now. So I’m thinking today about what that really means to me: whether those two paths are incompatible or not, and what choices are right for my heart and spirit even if they aren’t necessarily practical, or even particularly logical.
It’s true that I don’t want to be burdened with material possessions; we’ve made conscious efforts to get rid of things that we don’t need. A major hoe-ing out of our attic and closets two years ago was a big step in that direction. Our house is fairly large but lacks efficient storage space, which contributes to clutter…but I sort of like a semi-planned, aesthetic clutter and find it much more comforting and liveable than a minimalistic living space.
But when it comes to actual things, what do I care about? Paintings, photographs, certain talismanic possessions – a cup, a chair, a textile - that remind me of family or friends, or places we’ve been. And books. I’ve sometimes made myself think, “If there were a fire, what would I save? If I had to move to just a room or two, what would I want with me?” And as hard as it is to weed through these things – the bed you’ve slept and loved in; the furniture that reminds you of your childhood; the curtains that have shed their soft rose glow to countless mornings – it’s the art we’ve made ourselves and the little quirky, often value-less but irreplaceable reminders of other times and other people that I’d most want to have.
Books can be bought again, I suppose, but what makes them special to me is the way they mark out my entire life – the life that is really me. Books tell far more than an array of clothes or music or credit-card receipts: no wonder the government wants to access our library records. If a perceptive, patient person were to study my shelves I think they could reconstruct my identity with considerable accuracy, odd as it is: all the twists and turns are there, the hopes, the passions, the origins and detours as well as the constant threads.
Cull? What exactly are we excising when we cull, oh, James Watson's Molecular Biology of the Gene, or The Leonard Cohen Songbook, from 1970, or Charles Goren's Point Count Bidding, even though I might never open any of them again? There's Aristotle's Physics, and nearby,The Tao of Physics, and Calculus and Analytic Geometry, and a copy of Heidi given to my mother by her grandfather in 1931 that I can remember being read aloud to me. One story follows another: a month, a week, a year out of a life. Faces, tears, caresses.
There aren’t that many volumes in the house right now – maybe two thousand – we’ve been frugal and kept a lid on our tendency to buy books before anything else – although I’d hate to say how many times we’ve come home from a trip with suitcases filled with exactly that. The reason I’m thinking and writing about this is that right now, I want to buy more, at the same time as I’m trying to relinquish other kinds of things. I guess I needed to admit it.
Maybe the thing to do is put up some more shelves.
*raznochinets - an intellectual who is not associated with any of the principle social classes, such as the nobility, priesthood, merchants, etc.
Wednesday, July 30, 2003
From the exhibition On the Ground by Galina Lukianova,
We had new friends over for dinner last night, and as we walked around the house I was noticing how there are books…everywhere. And what’s strange about that is that I’m not a book-collector, really, not the way some people are. Although J. and I both love books we try to buy only the ones we really want to have, for keeps, or books we need professionally or for reference. The trouble is that we still have nearly every book either one of us has ever owned, and the shelves are full, so the overflow has gone onto tables…beside the bed…well, I’m sure this is nothing new to most of you. The question in my mind today is how to manage it.
For quite a few years we’ve had a feebly-enforced policy of one-book-in, one-book-out. We did a one-over-lightly shelf-purge, and that helped, but we need to be much more ruthless. J. built me two beautiful bookshelves for my office, and they’re full now too – how did that happen? – beside me here are my references books: foreign language dictionaries, annotated Bibles and parallel New Testament, style guides, and above and beside them the books on spirituality and religion, histories of Christian Europe and the Middle East, my small collection of Thomas Merton. On the other office bookshelf are poetry books, essays, and philosophy, mythology, my old Greek books, and Shakespeare, along with the book arts, design and calligraphy. There’s a pile of books I’ve borrowed from friends, and another pile – the Polish one – from the university library. I’d like to own at least half of these last – but there’s no room on the poetry shelves. The rest of my books, far more numerous than these, are upstairs.
I remember talking about German philosophers with my father-in-law one afternoon in his second-floor study. His library was arranged in tall bookshelves on two sides of the room, and we sat on a blue velveteen sofa with the afternoon light spilling in over our shoulders onto the gold-and-blue oriental carpet in the center. “Sometimes I just come up here and sit with them,” he said, gesturing with a smile toward his books. “I don’t know what it is, this contentment. I don’t even need to take down a volume, I know them all by their bindings.”
When he moved to a retirement home at age 92, there was no question of priorities: furniture was expendable, the books were going with him. My sister-in-law bought matching bookshelves and lined his new living room and study; the carpet went back into the center of one room along with the velveteen loveseat and the bust of Socrates. Today when we visited him, he was sitting amid his books, many strewn on the floor or on tables, with the door to the balcony open so he could see his tomato and parsley plants, and the hummingbirds buzzing in and out of his feeder.
Another friend of mine is getting ready for such a move, at a considerably younger age, and the other day he wrote: “I got talking with an old book dealer and agreed to show him my first editions, so I'm hauling them off the shelves and feeling I'm amputating myself at the knees.”
I wrote back, in alarmed capitals, “DON’T DO IT!!” He didn’t sell much, but the visit from the dealer left him shaken and depressed. I can well imagine why.
With all this in mind I look around and wonder what should stay, and what should go… or whether, maybe, I could fit one more shelf in somewhere.
Tuesday, July 29, 2003
I'm preparing this morning for a monthly interfaith service for peace that I lead - it will be today at noon - and came across a few quotations that I'd like to share:
It is clear that peace is as fragile as the human condition of which it is a part. temptations abound to lessen its realization. Not least of which is the ego that seeks its own power, and the greed hidden in its shadows. Albert Huerta, S.J.
If you want peace, work for justice. Pope Paul VI
Time itself is neutral; it can be used either destructively or constructively. More and more I feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than have the people of good will. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence of the good people. Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of people willing to be co-workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of stagnation. Martin Luther King
Elizabeth, Elspeth, Betsy and Bess,
All went together to seek a bird's nest.
They found a bird's nest with five eggs in,
They all took one, and left four in.
I grew up as an Elizabeth in a household of Elizabeths. For four generations, women in my direct maternal ancestry had been named either Mary Elizabeth or Martha Elizabeth, and given variations of the middle name as nicknames, so the nursery rhyme above was very familiar to me. I was always "Beth", but I got called "Elspeth" and "Bess" on occasion, and formally always used "Elizabeth". My mother remained "Martha" ; my grandmother was "Beth", and my great-grandmother had been "Libby" or "Lib".
Although this part of the family had been in America for generations, there was a definite anglophilic streak, and it gave me an affection for Elizabeth I, for whom I think we were all indirectly named. My own grandmother was a true matriarch and a determined feminist, and often got called "The Queen" for the imperial manner in which she wielded her thimble and needle while expounding on some subject, or the more subtle but very effective ways she kept the family in line. In her bookshelves I found echoes of Tudor England: the wives of Henry VIII, biographies of Anne Boleyn and Catherine of Aragon, as well as Shakespeare's tragedies, sonnets, and histories. We weren't latter-day royalists - far from it. But there were definite ties: we were Anglican, England was a touchstone, and there was always tea and a tin of biscuits at 4:00 pm.
I found out today, through mysterium, that this year is the 400th anniversary of the death of Elizabeth I, and spent a little time looking through the exhibitions surrounding that commemoration. I was struck by these two depictions of the beginning and end of Elizabeth's long and remarkable reign, and by some of her own words that have survived:
WRITTEN IN HER FRENCH PSALTER, 1554-5
No crooked leg, no bleared eye,
No part deformed out of kind,
Nor yet so ugly half can be
As is the inward suspicious mind.
and these lines from her speech to Parliament (1559), when they challenged her about remaining unmarried and childless:
I have already joyned my self in Marriage to an Husband, namely, the Kingdom of England...And do not (saith she) upbraid me with miserable lack of Children: for every one of you, and as many as are Englishmen, are Children and Kinsmen to me; of whom if God deprive me not, (which God forbid) I cannot without injury be accounted Barren. ..And to me it shall be a full satisfaction, both for the memorial of my Name, and for my Glory also, if when I shall let my last breath, it be ingraven upon my Marble Tomb, Here lieth Elizabeth, which Reigned a Virgin, and died a Virgin. (from Primary Sources: Tudor England)
Comments "Please do!" is what I most want to say. Visits to this site have increased dramatically over the past three or four weeks, so I know there are a number of people reading it regularly. I'd love to hear from you, either in comments or by e-mail (click "write to me" at left). We've had some very interesting discussions in the comments threads since I added them to the site, so I simply want to encourage people to read them, and invite everyone to participate. My interest in blogging really comes out of a desire to encourage conversation, and to keep learning as well as writing. I'd also especially like to hear what you find interesting (or not) among the subjects talked about here. A big thank you to everyone who has been commenting, and to those who haven't -- please add your voice!
Polish Poetry Bibliography There's an updated, growing, decidedly incomplete bibliography of books of and about Polish poetry on the "book notes" page (see link at left). Suggestions for additions are most welcome.
Blogroll Additions Please be sure to visit the three blogs that are new to my blogroll (but not to my reading - I'm just slow at getting them up there): Creek Running North, the beautifully-written, wide-ranging journal of Chris Clarke, editor of Faultline, an environmental journal in California; London and the North, the photoblog/journal of "Coup de Vent", who divides her time between London and Yorkshire; and Soul Food Cafe, an exciting and encouraging site for writers, and about writing, that is the labor of love of Australian Heather Blakey.
Saturday, July 26, 2003
Sphagnum Moss on Granite (by J.)
This afternoon, a little stir-crazy, we took a drive out along the river and through some of the small towns, ending up at a roadside family diner where we probably eat once a summer. It’s a vintage place, with window-service by a local teenager, falling out of her lowcut tank top behind the sliding fly-screen, and hand-painted signs: “clam roll, $4.50”, “chicken basket, 6.95”. The picnic tables are patrolled by the resident scavenging chipmunk, and the outdoor bathrooms with their swinging white-and-green painted plywood doors smell faintly of mildew. The family lives in an adjoining house, and there’s nothing else on this curving, narrow stretch of road but tall overgrown maples on the right, and thick white-pine-and maple forest stretching darkly up the hill on the left.
When you place your order you’re given a small handwritten number on a little white slip of cardboard, and even though there are only two or three cars in the parking lot, a loudspeaker announces: “Number twenty-three, your order is ready for pick-up! Number five, please come to the window!” We sat and ate our sandwiches and fries at one of the picnic tables. “This place is right out of the 1950s,” I said. “Same vintage as drive-in movies.”
“No,” J. said, “a little later, if it were 50s there would be one of those heavy grey metal swing sets.”
“Look behind you,” I said. “There it is.”
On the way back we stopped at a used-book store in a small town, where the elderly proprietor sat eating a plate of dark maroon cherries with her daughter and listening to public radio. J. looked at the regional history section, while I rummaged through the poetry shelves. I found a small first-edition of Galway Kinnell’s second book of poetry, Flower Herding on Mt. Monadnock, published in 1964. It’s hard to recognize the now thickset and tweedy Kinnell in the Kennedy-esque, white-shirt-thin-black-tie photograph on the endflap. The book cost $4.00, a dollar more than the original price on the dust jacket.
I heard Kinnell read (very well) earlier this year, at a ceremony at the Vermont State House for the installation of Grace Paley as State Poet. Most of the former laureates of Vermont, including Kinnell, were there… except for Frost.
The title poem of Flower Herding on Mt. Monadnock is in ten parts; here is the ninth section, describing in a few words the ascent up an eastern mountain: dripping water, moss, and big granite rocks.
From a rock
A single trickle like a strand of wire
Breaks into beads halfway down.
The birds fly off
But the hug of the earth wraps
With moss their graves and the giant boulders.
Some Kinnell links on the web: poems here and here, an interview, and a bio with more links and a recent photograph.
I found myself at The Moscow Times today, following a link from LanguageHat about the "small muttered words" Russians use to express various emotions. In case it isn't already obvious, I'm fascinated by these differences between cultures, so I loved learning, for example, that "tsk tsk" in Russian is a wag of the head and the syllables "ai-ai-ai".
From The Moscow Times I went to The St. Petersburg Times, and discovered an avant-garde exhibition of video and audio installations exploring "the dividing line between history and memory" at the Anna Akhmatova Museum:
The aspiration towards catching and depicting the shadows of the past is natural to the museum - the main organizer of both projects - as true and false scents of the past are among the chief motifs of Akhmatova's poetry.
Every monument is already linked to a particular location, with most of them being on Vasilievsky Island. The choice was inspired by the famous line: "I will come to die on Vasilievsky Island," from one of Brodsky's untitled verses. The idea has been widely criticized for its banality and for telling nothing about Brodsky's personality, but no convincing alternative has been proposed, with the exception of Preobrazhenskaya Square, very near to Brodsky's former apartment on Ulitsa Pestelya...
Several members of the jury didn't give their support to any of the projects that reached the final round, on the grounds that they all lacked original ideas. "I was disappointed," said jury member and art critic Arkady Ippolitov. "The poet doesn't deserve to return to St. Petersburg in the shape of an iron-cast doll reminiscent of a turn-of the century policeman. When I look at these works, I want to ask if the authors wanted to create a monument or to win the contest."
One has to wonder what Akhmatova and Brodsky would have thought.
After the previous post on this topic, Chris left a thoughtful comment about Adorno’s challenge about whether there can be poetry after Auschwitz:
“I understand that he meant by "poetry" a certain kind of disconnected, apolitical verse, but even so. I spoke a long time ago with a survivor of one of the camps, who told me that her will to live was sustained by a small bird she'd see on the other side of the wire. Even if a poem isn't some grand angry statement of opposition to evil... who's to say which verse will be someone's bird?”
All witnesses and survivors of horrors have to decide what that bird is for them – what it mean to be alive in the aftermath -- and of course some never recover. As Stalinism began to strangle free expression, artists in particular faced Faustian bargains: keep writing, but write for the State; keep writing, but write banal or traditional poems as if nothing has changed; if you can, go into exile so you can write freely, at the potential price of forfeiting your mother tongue and your home; write, invent, create, but for the drawer, or at risk of censorship, imprisonment, torture, and death.
Rozewicz was not a writer who decided to go head-to-head with the authorities, and so far as I’ve been able to determine, he was not overtly political after the war. He certainly did not give up on poetry, but he decried those who sold out, and he also decried those who wrote as if nothing had happened, calling this “Ham acting. The illness of literature,” and commenting that some poets “perform their ‘poetry dance’ resolutely to the end without reference to the state of humanity, their country, or even their own condition.”
“The dance of poetry came to an end during the Second World War in concentration camps created by totalitarian systems. The departure in such Grenzsituationen from such special ‘poetic’ language has produced poems which I call stripped of masks and costumes…it is precisely the poems written in Grensituationen, in ultimate situations, ‘prosaicized’ works, which created the conditions for poetry’s subsistence and even survival. In the works of every writer, even the greatest, such poems are very rare…”
Writing about another poet, Leopold Staff, Rozewicz admired a poem that he said was “not a poem, but rather a description of a situation the poet had found himself in…a piece of information passed by the poet to other people…which one might also call a poem.”
Rozewicz’s own poetry is reductionist, or perhaps more accurately, it proceeds from a kind of via negativa: what is left after nothing?
After the end of the world
I found myself in the midst of life
people animals landscape
this is a table I said
this is a table
there is bread and a knife on the table
knife serves to cut bread
people are nourished by bread…
When the nearly-drowned man comes to the surface, what is the scrap to which he can cling? In Rozewicz’s case, especially in these early poems, the answer is “not much”. But out of that nearly-nothing: an egg, a grain of salt, an old woman – he creates poems not out of adjective-encrusted rooms, but rather from what one critic calls “a rather desperate humanism” that refuses to pretend anything.
had left a vertical opening in the wall
I sometimes think
my home is too conventional
all sorts of people
can easily get in
had the builders not left
that opening in the wall
I would have become a hermit
I waste my time
coming in and going out
a revolving door has lately been installed
enter the affairs of the world
but neither a blossoming apple-tree
nor a little
neither a star nor a golden hive
neither a stream
teeming with fish nor buttercups
have ever appeared in it
and yet I shan’t wall up this door
maybe a good man
will appear in it
and tell me who I am
(From Tadeusz Rozewicz, “They Came to See a Poet”, transl. Adam Czerniawski, Anvil Press Poetry , 1991)
My 94-year-old father-in-law has always loved to eat, until the past year or so. “I’ve lost my sense of taste,” he says, shaking his head mournfully, every time we sit down to eat. “Nothing tastes good. Even those little Moroccan olives you brought me – I love them! – but no taste!” Some of this seems to be physiological, but I also think it’s a way of saying he misses his wife’s Middle Eastern cooking. Nothing made by me or my sister-in-law quite measures up. Something strong-tasting, I thought. Maybe pickles?
Over the weekend I made two jars of torshi left – pickled turnips. These are a great Middle Eastern delicacy, along with many other kinds of torshi, but I had never made them before, since my husband has historically made one of those scrunched-up, “I’ll throw up first” faces whenever I mention turnips. In Montreal we ate at a restaurant where a plate of these pickles, crisp, pungent, and pink with beet juice, came to the table with some small delicious olives as an appetizer. Crunching one of the pickles and making pleased sounds, J. asked, “What are these, anyway?”
“Turnips,” I said, deadpan.
Up go the eyebrows. “No kidding! Can we make some?”
I used Claudia Roden’s recipe; it was very easy. Her New Book of Middle Eastern Food (Penguin) is an even greater treasure than the original, and it includes some lovely drawings and stories about the foods she’s describing.
Squatting on the pavements of busy streets, vendors sell home-made pickled turnips swimming in a pink solution, or aubergines looking fiercely black and shiny in enormous jars. passers-by dip their hands in the liquor, searching for the tastiest and largest pieces, and savour them with Arab bread provided by the vendor, soaking it in the pink salt and vinegar solution or seasoned with oil.
I haven't been playing the piano much lately. Actually, I stopped taking lessons a few years ago and it's been harder, without the pressure (some might say, "terror") of a regular lesson to really make myself practice. And somehow, after September 11th and the subsequent months of politics and war, it's been difficult to play. Music has always been a way for me to deal with my emotions. I've always been able to find some composer whose works seemed to express what I was feeling or thinking, and even with the limitations of my technique I could find satisfaction and release through playing. But it's interesting - these past couple of years I haven't been able to figure out what to play. Even Bach, the reliable fall-back when all else fails, hasn't done it for me. I'd turn to something for a few days, and then stop, still hungry, dissatisfied, frustrated.
But in the past week I've felt a renewal of interest, and even though my playing has really suffered through neglect and the piano is out of tune in the summer heat and humidity, I've been putting in some time at the keyboard. Last night I sat down, quite late, while thunder rumbled outside and rain began to fall in a steady rhythm. The window to the street was open, and I took the second volume of Mozaret sonatas off the shelf, turned to one at random, and began to play.
45 minutes or an hour later, I don't know, I stopped. I went out onto the porch and stood there in the dark. The air was dense, thick, and in the darkness the streetlights spread on the wet pavement. It was 10:00 pm. The phone rang. It was our neighbor, who's here for a few years from Iceland while his wife does some medical training. He was a pianist himself at one point in his life.
"Thank you for the music," he said.
"Oh my God, you could hear me?" I said. Our houses are close together. They've just had a baby, and yesterday evening I heard her crying, but I also heard the air conditioner in their bedroom, and thought it probably drowned out all sounds from the neighborhood. "My playing is so bad, I'm really out of practice."
"I couldn't hear that, I couldn't even tell what it was...we had drifted off to sleep with the baby, and then we woke up to the thunder and rain, and these faint sounds of piano music. And it was so wonderful. What were you playing?"
"Ah," he said. "You know, I haven't felt like playing for years. But since our daughter was born, I've felt an urge to perhaps play again. Just - what do you say - not seriously -?"
"We call it 'noodling around'."
"Ok! Noodling around. Yes. It's funny, when I used to play I was very involved in technique, in playing fast - it was almost a geeky thing, I felt sort of the way I do when I go out and ride my bike hard. But it's odd - the music that has stayed with me and that I find myself thinking about now is more romantic - Chopin nocturnes, things like that. I just wanted to tell you that it was so nice to wake up in the dark and hear this - faint notes - and the thunder, and the rain."
Poetry in Poland, as in Russia, is given the status of national voice. Ordinary people read and memorize poetry, and poets, once they are accorded the laurel wreath of national recognition, are greatly respected and viewed with high expectations. In his overview of the last 20 years in Polish poetry, Jaroslaw Klejnocki mentions a joke that he says isn’t far from the truth: “The difference between French and Polish literature is that 300 novels and 30 books of poetry are published in France each year, and the reverse is true in Poland.” He goes on to say that, to use a simplification, Poles “have almost always preferred poetry to prose as in poems they looked for explanations and, more importantly, for emotions.”
Mid-to-late twentieth-century poetry in Poland has been dominated by four great writers: the Nobel winners Czeslaw Milosz and Wislawa Szymborska, and their fellow poets Zbigniew Herbert and Tadeusz Rozewicz. Except for Herbert, who died in 1998, all are still writing. Adam Zagajewski, born in 1945, has more recently gained international stature. The so-called “brulion generation”, (named after a late 1990’s Cracow and Warsaw literary magazine) are even younger writers who, Klejnocki says, are still considered too young to be taken really seriously. I hope I can get to them eventually.
I wanted to start with Rozewicz because I think he’s the least known, certainly to me, and because I’ve been stunned by his poems. He was born in Radomsko in 1921, studied art history, and is a poet, playwright and novelist. He’s lived in Wroclaw (formerly Breslau), in Lower Silesia (SW Poland) for the past thirty years.
His first book of poems, Niepokoj (Anxiety), came out in 1947, and his second Czerwona rekawiczka (The Red Glove) in 1948. The poems I’ve read from this period have a matter-of-fact, observational quality that reflects a person who has lifted his body from the rubble and looks around clearly, alertly, intelligently. Even this early in his career, the poems seem masterful in the way they convey both the poet’s mind and emotions with control, economy, and great integrity. Rosewicz is already making deliberate choices. Speaking about that period of his life, he wrote about studying art history “in order to reconstruct man bit by bit”, and continued:
“I was full of reverential wonder at works of art (the aesthetic experience replaced religious experience) but simultaneously I felt a growing contempt for all ‘aesthetic’ values. I felt that something had come to an end for ever for me and for humanity…so I tried to rebuild what seemed most important for life and for the life of poetry: ethics.”
Here are two poems, the first from Anxiety and the second from The Red Glove:
I am twenty-four
led to slaughter
The following are empty synonyms:
man and beast
love and hate
friend and foe
darkness and light.
The way of killing men and beasts is the same
I’ve seen it:
truckloads of chopped-up men
who will not be saved.
Ideas are mere words:
virtue and crime
truth and lies
beauty and ugliness
courage and cowardice.
Virtue and crime weigh the same
I’ve seen it:
in a man who was both
criminal and virtuous.
I seek a teacher and a master
may he restore my sight hearing and speech
may he again name objects and ideas
may he separate darkness from light.
I am twenty-four
led to slaughter
Saddest of all is leaving
home on an autumn morning
when there is no hope of an early return
The chestnut father planted in front
of the house grows in our eyes
mother is tiny
you could carry her in your arms
On the shelf
jars of preserves
like sweet-lipped goddesses
have retained the flavour
of eternal youth
soldiers at the back of the drawer
will stay leaden till the end of the world
while God almighty who mixed in
bitterness with the sweetness
hangs on the wall helpless
and badly painted
childhood is like the worn face
on a golden coin that rings
(From Tadeusz Rozewicz, “They Came to See a Poet”, transl. Adam Czerniawski, Anvil Press Poetry , 1991)
More in a few days; something different (and shorter!) tomorrow.
A Blog for Everyone: a front page BBC story today, spurred by AOL's decision to bundle blogging software with AOL9 - but they'll be called "journals" because "too many people find the term 'blog' confusing."
Afghans flout fur ban: Snow leopard coats? Sounds too horrible for words, but apparently there is a growing trade in illegal furs in war-ravaged Afghanistan. The main market: international peacekeeping troops.
Sunday, July 20, 2003
If anyone were to ask us what we struggle toward the most in human life, I am guessing the most common and most general answer would be “happiness” (with “love” as its subset?) I decided a while ago that “happiness” is a very relative term, and that basing my life on trying to find it, seize it, and keep it is not unlike trying to grasp handfuls of water. The more we allow our eyes to be open, the less (in my opinion) we are able to hold onto a naive sort of happiness, especially if we see it as something we somehow “deserve”: the inequities in our world are far too apparent. Happiness in our culture seems to be commensurate with “having”, and is therefore a moving target: we are a society of little Midases, tallying up our hoard far more often than we might like to admit, and addicted to comparing ourselves with anyone who jostles our elbow. But if we look up from our storeroom, we may notice the paradox that people who have far less than most of us in the West often seem to have greater equanimity.
One of the most common and deserved charges leveled against Americans, not only by Third World residents but by Europeans, is that we are so naïve, living with an immature outlook on life because of our country’s prolonged, privileged, largely unscathed adolescence and myopic ability to distance ourselves from suffering elsewhere, even when we are deeply implicated or the direct cause of it.
I’ve been wondering if this is partly due to how we define “happiness”: isn’t our goal often quite far from “self-knowledge” or “wisdom” or “truth”, or even “the capacity to give and receive love”, but closer to, if we’re honest, “getting what I think I want when I want it”? or even, more psychologically revealing perhaps, “feeling safe from anxiety?” If that’s the case, then it’s no wonder so many marriages end in divorce, or that our health care system is out of control. No wonder we went crazy when Sept 11th happened, and went to war in Iraq so that we could keep filling our oil tanks and tilting at imaginary nuclear windmills.
What I seem to be particularly interested in is how people find beauty, serenity, equanimity, and purpose even in the midst of suffering, war, violence, destruction, anxiety and loss, because that is a far better description of how our world actually is than the fairyland we often pretend it is from this side of the moat – ignoring, of course, the kind of life led by millions of unprivileged Americans. That’s what drew me a few years ago, I think, to reading a lot of Russian literature and poetry written before and during the Revolution and Stalin years, and more recently to reading post-war Polish poetry, all of it haunted by a Polish* critic’s challenge, “Can there be poetry after Auschwitz?”
I’m going to try to write here, off and on, about some of that in next weeks, hoping to share with you the grit and transcendence and inspiration I’m finding in some of this work.
To whet your appetite (I hope!) here is a quote from the Polish poet Tadeauz Rozewicz, who was born in 1921, participated in the Resistance, survived the war, entered Krakow University and in 1947 published his first book of poems:
It was no accident that I chose to study history of art. I did it in order to rebuild the Gothic temple, to raise inside myself that church brick by brick, in order to reconstruct man bit by bit…
Today I was at the high-priced local grocery store. I go to buy shade-grown coffee and a few other things that I can't get elsewhere, but now that I go infrequently, it's a shock. The parking lot was filled with the de rigeur cars for upscale New England: Subaru Outbacks, Saabs, Volvos, and SUVs of every type and description. Each vegetable is shiny and perfect, and so are the shoppers: well-dressed, well-fed, tanned, white-skinned, and totally absorbed in their own little worlds. Oh, gosh, today it made me so tired. I've been thinking about the rest of the world, the poor world, and a quote I heard again, not long ago, from the minister of Riverside Church in New York: "We need to remember that our having has a great deal to do with others not having." I'm so idealistic and optimistic sometimes, but this scene really hit me today, and I was left with the recurrent question: How do you get through to people of such privilege and such entitlement, that it's all interconnected? How can you tell someone like this that it may not last forever, or, at the very least, that they ought to be grateful for every mouthful of food, let alone the immense freedom we have?
" Not being alienated from one's own essential nature is itself a field of blessings." - Hui-Neng
via whiskey river
There's a lot of longing going on in the blogosphere lately. A number of the recent Ecotone posts about suburbs longed for things we've lost, for connections made difficult by time and distance, for a kind of childhood that seems impossible today. Lisa's post at field notes and Butuki's both for July 15th and 16th at Laughing Knees were especially poignant, and beautifully written - both of these bloggers are excellent, sensitive writers day after day. Carlos at Mysterium just posted a fine poem of his own composition. And Kurt, over at The Coffee Sutras, is hosting a full-fledged discussion on longing spurred by his own, as usual, very searching reflections.
I could go on for pages about this subject...it feels like I spent an entire decade, from 35 to 45, more or less consumed by trying to figure it out. I don't think we ever arrive at a place of non-longing, but we can better understand its nature - and through that, our own "essential nature" that Hui-Neng speaks about. For me, studying the mystic traditions of many faiths has been a key. All point in the same general direction - toward a God or sense of the divine, the limitless, the unknowable that is also at times absolutely immediate and non-separate from us. They tell us that glimpses of this unifying reality are possible in this life and we all have them, we just may not recognize it (I think the notion of God most of us grew up with makes this vastness hard to conceive). We also hear that insight into the nature of this reality is to be gained not by grasping and wanting, but by letting go, even "dying to self". The paradox is that you can't get onto the path without longing, but at some point, when all your human efforts to find what you desire have proved futile, you totally give up -- and there it is, a piece of the puzzle, enough to keep you going.
"You must lose your life to save it," say the Gospels. This isn't a literal statement at all, but I think it means that solving the enigma of longing actually involves giving rather than wanting and getting - giving one's old self; surrender; giving up one's myth of having the answers. We long so desperately for something or someone to complete and affirm us, without actually realizing that IT is longing for US.
My neighbor wears wild grapevines wreathed about his shoulders. He wrestles and pulls, wrenching the honeysuckle from the earth, and vines from the trees where they once hung in wild joyful loops.
Angry, hot, sweating, he sits now and wipes his forehead with the back of a wrist, sets his face and begins hacking again, reducing the terrible invasion to something he can comb and smile at, satisfied, before turning toward his day.
He sees me looking up and tells me what he’s doing, as if I too might like to relocate the brambles and their kin which lie between my feet and his to some other neighborhood.
I smile politely and tell him that I like to see the birds that live there.
“Oh!” he says, surprised. “Are there birds?”
Twenty-five years ago, when I moved to this small village, the hill in back of our property was filled with goldenrod and woodchuck holes, dotted with a few houses above. This whole hillside was orginally a farm; we planted our garden where the chicken coop had stood. Deer regularly came down to eat apples underneath the old trees in our yard, and in the evenings a reclusive hermit thrush sang in the underbrush.
By the same token, back then you couldn’t buy a decent head of lettuce – other than iceberg – from October through June, let alone fresh herbs for your pasta, or a mango, or twenty different kinds of shade-grown organic coffee. You certainly couldn’t spend an afternoon browsing the bookshelves and drinking cappuchino at Borders; there weren’t art galleries or repertory theater companies; and there was a lot less choice about almost everything, from housing to housecoats.
The coming of suburbia to rural northern New England is both blight and blessing, and I find myself participating in both. As often as I cry, “I don’t want to live in Connecticut!” when I see yet another giant concrete-block box store extending the horrible strip mall further into the countryside, emptying not only the original downtowns but the earlier, now-unfashionable malls, I do go there on occasion and am grateful for some of the amenities and convenience. The fact that my area – and my business – have been largely protected from the economic vicissitudes of recent years is a result of a healthy local economy and continued growth – the same growth that eats up farmland and turns woodlots and wetlands into commercial developments.
This sense of inexorable creep resulting in compromise – compromise of place and of personal values – is what suburbia represents to me. Although we’ve participated in forums on sprawl, and served on committees to preserve and strengthen local communities, deep down I recognize the insidious and seductive lure of change, opportunity, and convenience. The difference between me and the “flatlanders” – the suburbanites who come here from Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York and New Jersey – is that I’m acutely aware of what’s being lost.
Today, the entire hillside in back of our house has been developed. The winding road where I used to walk every morning is filled with whizzing, commuting cars, and the warbler-filledwoods at the top have been cut and replaced with a 50-unit condominium development. And even with our plantings of wildlife-feeding and -sheltering shrubs, and refusal to manicure the underbrush, the deer and the hermit thrush don’t come to our backyard any more.
“Oh?” says my transplanted neighbor. “Are there birds?”
"I've always wanted a pergola," I said to our hostess last Friday night as we walked from her backdoor to the driveway through a lovely white lattice walkway wound with flowering clematis vines in purple and soft pink.
"Ah, yes! A pergola," she said. "I haven't heard that word for a long time. We had one in the convent."
Pergola Rosita Copioli (Italian, 1948-)
I dreamed I had a pergola
which later became a meadow of weeds,
of twigs of stones. And a few steps in front,
the sea—which had spread
light and sun and infinite cries—turned
gray little by little in the white
northern light, and died out. But from
the broken limbs of the garden to the villa with its
vine-covered pergola and dark
bunches over the marble doors,
from the broken limbs, the sun
outlined my hands on the marble
and let them fall
as itself was falling.
The door jambs, the vine shoots, the small white
chairs shattered in the sun.
And from the villa not
far from the sea, dust rose
with the sun, dust and white seeds,
"Rosita Copioli graduated from the University of Bologna, Italy, with a Ph.D. in classical studies with a dissertation on “The Idea of Landscape in Leopardi.”
"Copioli’s work deals mainly with myth and nature. She is interested in the dawn of life, of history, of civilizations. Time and history are often compressed in her work. This compression is distilled in lists: enumerations of winds, of cities, of mythological characters, of minerals and flowers, of geographical places. Her world embraces the Mediterranean sea and the effects of modern civilization on the pristine world of the Greeks and the Romans."
"At its most successful, my 'touch' looks into the heart of nature; most days I don't even get close. These things are all part of a transient process that I cannot understand unless my touch is also transient-only in this way can the cycle remain unbroken and the process be complete." Andy Goldsworthy
I've been following Goldsworthy's work for a couple of years, since seeing a book of photographs of his "sculptures" - for this is, by and large, the only way one can experience these pieces which are made from nature and reclaimed by it. The film, narrated only by an occasional comment from the artist as he is filmed in Nova Scotia and his home in the highlands of Scotland, allows the viewer to be present at the birth, end, and often precipitous collapse of Goldsworthy's amazing and - to me - very moving creations. Some, like his stone cairns, do persist and may be around for a very long time. But others, created of found objects like leaves of graduated color joined into long "paper chains" by thorns and set afloat in a river, or tree leaves "sewn" together with a seemingly endless "thread" of reed, or the incredible stars and ribbons made of ice, confront us with the nature of time itself, and our own place in both its relentlessness and indifferent but heart-melting beauty. This is what preoccupies and motivates Goldsworthy, along with, I think, a desire to have us look more closely at our world.
Goldsworthy works a lot with a dark, rocky river that winds through woods in his property; I think he said that he sees that river as a metaphor for life. The water has worn deep cavities in the rock, and one of his favorite devices is to fill one or two of those cavities with a starting color - hundreds of dandelion petals, for example. In one segment, he pulls a rock out of the river and rubs it hard against another, creating a red powder - there's so much iron in the rock that it crumbles red. He spends a whole day crumbling rock, and uses it to dye one of the pools. And we're shocked - what is it, but our blood, made red by iron too?
For someone who makes almost nothing that can be "sold", Goldsworthy has certainly done well through the photography that he uses to document what he makes, but I love the way his work circumvents and questions the whole art gallery establishment; it is more like dance, fleeting but haunting because it goes to the core of who we are on this planet.
At the very corner of this old map is a country I long for. It is the country of apples, hills, lazy rivers, sour wine, and love. Unfortunately a huge spider has spun its web over it, and with sticky saliva has closed the toll gates of dreams.
It is always like that: an angel with a fiery sword, a spider, and conscience.
from "Elegy for the Departure and Other Poems", 1999
This came from a young friend who has just completed a year on a Fulbright in Morocco before starting work on his doctorate in Islamic Studies. He wrote it for his hometown paper in Oregon; this is the first and most personal part of the article.
A Young American Among Arabs
“Don’t they hate us over there? Morocco, Tunisia, YEMEN for one whole year all alone: are you crazy!? Were you in a coma or something on September 11?” One of my favorites, “Do you work for the CIA?” or even better “Why should I believe you if you say no?” There were plenty of questions directed at me before I left to immerse myself in Arabic and complete a US Fulbright Scholarship in Morocco. As you might expect, I also had plenty of questions for myself.
I went there. I encountered my fear. I was not annihilated. To the contrary, even in the roughest of circumstances, I was welcomed warmly as an American and an individual. Indeed, my fears changed into a new understanding of the place I had studied in books and seen on television. After living in the Middle East and North Africa for a year, I distinguished between two Arab worlds. There is the Arab world of blood, uniformity, extremism and fear. This is the world we know through television, tapes by Usama Bin Laden, embedded journalists and commentary by “experts” who don’t speak a word of Arabic. This was the Arab world I was afraid of seeing. It was the Arab world that extremists both in the West and in the East want us to see.
There is another Arab world, the Arab world of life, diversity, welcome and humanity and even humor despite incredible challenges. This was the Arab world I saw. This was the Arab world we need to better understand. Certainly, I had encounters with extremism: on May 16 2003 the suicide bombing in Casablanca, just an hour away from me by train, brutally killed some 40 Moroccans, creating enormous popular movement and protest against Islamist terrorism. In a protest not widely reported in Western media, 2 million Moroccans marched for democracy after the blasts. In Yemen, the media and rumors have led people to believe September 11 was a Jewish plot organized by the Israeli intelligence service. At the same time, I met tribal sheikhs in Yemen who wanted to string up Usama bin Laden for trying to force a Usama bin Laden interpretation of Islam on his tribe.
Yet these rare encounters with fear and rage are not what shaped my experience most profoundly. As an American, I was targeted: not for hate and harassment, but for couscous and sweet cookies. I had to choose between three or four different invitations from families who wanted to invite me for a couscous meal. I saw Nike ball caps and American flag sweatshirts on the beach and streets of Rabat, “Addidas” spelled “addidos”, and the stylish concoction of “western” clothes that look much cooler than the shopping mall variety at home. I listened to an old, Moroccan Jewish woman, a woman my Muslim friends from the Jewish quarter call “jedati”, or “grandma”, who celebrated at the tomb of a Rabbi saint in the Rif mountains the day of the Casablanca blasts on Jewish sites. I sat in the long discussions on a 1000-year-old rampart in Yemen about “Booosh,” “Saddam” and “Amrika”: the opportunities I had to show that Americans too were not all the same.
I remember my best friend Nabil, the rastafarian, dreadlocks, reggae surfing dude who looks like somebody plucked from a San Francisco beach but who also goes to the mosque everyday and followed the Qur’an as strictly as possible, who constantly surprised me with his humanity, care and respect for others. Every Sunday afternoon in Rabat a group of Moroccan friends would come to my house for dancing to music of every style, from Hotel California to Gypsy King to Moroccan music, Samira and Khalid, and even the Can Can. We celebrated youth and life in my medieval home in the center of the Madina.
Yoruba masks illustrating "the uncontrollable passion of romantic relationships". From African Ceremonies by Carol Beckwith and Angela Fisher, via Conscientious.
Ecstasy and Irony
Two contradictory elements meet in poetry: ecstasy and irony. The ecstatic element is tied to an unconditional acceptance of the world, including even what is cruel and absurd. Irony, in contrast, is the artistic representation of thought, criticism, doubt. Ecstasy is ready to accept the entire world; irony, following in the steps of thought, questions everything, asks tendentious questions, doubts the meaning of poetry and even of itself. Irony knows that the world is tragic and sad.
That two such vastly different elements shape poetry is astounding and even compromising. No wonder almost no one reads poems.
Adam Zagajewski, Two Cities, 2002, Univ. of Georgia Press
Last night's reading was...what can I say? Interesting and curious. I had no idea what to expect for a turn-out, since it was a combined recital with a pianist, and our mailing lists don't necessarily overlap, but about 50 people came to hear us at a local Methodist church. David played two sonatinas by a local composer: excellent works but rarely performed. Inbetween those works, I read three essays. When he first called to invite me to join him, I asked David what he had in mind. "I was thinking maybe you would read something about New England," he said. "Prose or poetry?" I asked. "Hmm," he said. "Prose, I think." So that's what I did. I've never read prose formally before, except for being a lector at church, which was actually good preparation for this. It seems harder to me to pull off a convincing prose reading - it just seems awkward, somehow. I decided the only way was to just go for it with conviction and sincerity, so I tried to do that. David's playing was electric, and I think we felt inspired by each other; it was a good fit. Afterwards a lot of people came up and told me their own tree stories - I often get that kind of reaction to my writing, and I like it: that some word of mine may have served as a catalyst and permission for someone to trust and tell their own story. It's better than feeling liked you've forced them to struggle to find something to say about art - I think it's so difficult for most people. They come to support you, but they really have no idea what to say, and are afraid of sounding foolish. So I'm always happy when someone says something specific or concrete from their own perspective. Of the comments I got, I especially liked what Shirin said:
I really enjoyed listening to you reading the pieces last night. I have read other pieces but when you read them it's different. You paint the picture so vivid that it wants to jump out of listeners' head. I especially liked the willow tree's story. It was sad. You gave it a life as a creature with feelings; pain, sorrow, and even happiness and satisfaction. Good for you and barakellah.
The piano was good too. I liked it a lot. It brought out a feeling of revolt and strength. You couldn't sit and listen to it and be passive. It was not romantic though like most Iranian music.
I was also so grateful for this blogging community and realized how much more satisfying it is to have both an audience for one's creative efforts, and some ongoing feedback. It's difficult to be an artist of any sort, and last night I was really struck by the changes in my own attitude, confidence, growth, since my last reading a couple of years ago. I find that putting myself into similar situations (performances, readings, gallery shows, public speaking, presentations) separated by time is the best way to see how I've changed in my inner life as an artist...or person, for that matter...
I changed my calendar today -- I know, it's really late! -- but the reason was that I hated to say goodbye to this image.
Thanks so much to Heather at Soul Food Cafe for including one of my pieces in her "Golden Seed Grove". I'm impressed with what she's doing on her beautiful site to encourage younger writers and to make full use of the internet as a medium for writing - take a look. The essay she chose, "Requiem for a Tree", is one of the ones I'll be reading tonight. It talks about the impossibility, sometimes, of trying to capture the essence of nature in words (although obviously I'm trying, right to the bitter end!) There's an interesting discussion going on about this aspect of "place" writing at the biweekly topic discussion on the Ecotone Wiki..
Tuesday, July 08, 2003
Good morning, and thanks to everyone who wrote to welcome me back and respond to the previous post! I'm so glad I got comments working before I left. It makes me very happy to hear from every one of you.
To those who were worried about the lettuces, they're back - I had just removed some pictures to see if the downloads were what were slowing up the site. But the problem simply seems to be that Blogger's servers (some, not all, and at different times) are very slow. It's been working better since the switch to the new Blogger Pro, but I still look forward to changing over to our own domain.
Seems like a good time for some biographical details. I don't take any of the personal photographs on this blog - they're all the work of my husband, who is a professional photographer. We've been partners in our own design/communications business since 1981, and have been together since 1979. We've always worked to maintain some sort of balance between our professional work and our own art/creative work, and as any of you who have similar lives will know, it isn't always easy. When I met J., he was still working primarily as an artist, selling prints and showing in galleries, and just getting into commercial work. I had a graphic design business and was writing and illustrating, mainly in the fields of nature/biology, doing a good deal of calligraphy, getting into the book arts. I was also painting seriously (oil and watercolor). We combined our professional work into a firm in 1981 and have been doing that ever since, always trying to keep on the edge of graphic arts technology - right now we're doing more multimedia work.
Our decision about how to deal with this mix of interests was to work hard in these related design/communications fields, live frugally, save as much as we could, and "buy time" for our own creative work. At the same time, we've tried to integrate the two, so that the line has become increasingly blurred between the work we do for pay and for love, and as our careers have progressed we've been fortunate to be given more and more creative freedom which makes that possible. There has been a lot of dues-paying along the line, though...and many months and years of frustration at not having time to pursue our own work, which continued to be photography for him and moved more and more toward writing for me.
J.'s particular interest is in street photography; in the edges between things: city/country, for example; and in the endless complexity of people in their own private worlds. I keep telling him to start a photoblog or a photo site but until that happens, you'll be seeing his work here occasionally...he's incredibly generous about letting me use work, or taking special pictures for me.
More on Montreal soon. (If the scales are correct, it's a damn good thing we only stayed six days...) I'm giving an informal reading tomorrow night (it's a joint event with a friend who is a pianist) and I haven't made a final decision on the work, so that's my task for today.
Monday, July 07, 2003
Hi. We got back home tonight and I sat down to read e-mail and write a post -- and my site won't open at all. I'd appreciate hearing if people have been having trouble getting the site to load over the past few days, or if it's been particularly slow. Hopefully it's just blogger being blogger, and everything will be running fine in the morning...I promise to move this site before the end of the summer!
Saturday, July 05, 2003
LE JARDIN BOTANIQUE
We spent yesterday at one of our favorite places in the city, the Botanical Garden. It’s really much more than the name implies, because along with the fantastic and lovely perennial, rose, shrub, and demonstration vegetable gardens, and a number of greenhouses filled with exotic collections of palms, orchids, begonias, cacti, bonsai, and textile and food plants of the world, there is a vast arboretum. It’s a large park planted with now-mature trees grouped by genus, and on this very hot day we walked from pool of shade to pool of shade, sinking down onto the grass beneath the trees to drink a little water and survey the scene. The trees are full of birds – and no wonder, when you have groves of mulberries, or viburnum – and the chipmunks and squirrels are virtually tame and approach expectantly, hoping for handouts. Our longest sojourn was under a weeping European birch, which had fine white bark and tresses of delicate, green-leaved branches bending all the way to the ground and moving gently with the breeze.
One of my delights was a bed of the most perfect lettuces I’ve ever seen, planted carefully for contrast in form and color, perhaps 25 varieties wide by 8 heads of each type deep, and every one was similar in size and aspect – a veritable chorus line of lettuce beauty, strutting their ruffled, variegated and most perfectly uniform stuff.
Another haven was the garden “sous-bois”, under the trees; a shade garden that makes you long for more shade in your own (not to mention the little cascading brook, the winding stone paths, the carefully tended standard fuschias, twenty-foot drifts of pink- and rose-plumed astilbe, the impossibly large mounds of blue-green and chartreuse hostas.
And then there is the Japanese garden, a contemplative oasis with low rocky outcrops, trimmed junipers, and a waterfall into ponds that are home to bevies of mother ducks and ducklings, and colored carp as big as your forearm.
The Botanical Garden is right next to the Stade Olympique, a now-dated monument to poured-concrete architecture; the wellknown “Tower of Montreal”, a Concorde-shaped swooping tower of white concrete with a funicula running up its back, rises above the trees of the garden from every angle.
In the evening we took the metro to a new find: “Kamela Couscous”, a tiny restaurant in the Plateau Mont Royal neighborhood, for authentic North African couscous (we had ours with meltingly-tender lamb brochettes) as well as excellent pizza served on lovely Moroccan ceramic plates, and then walked home slowly through the busy Quartier Latin on St.-Denis.
Dreaming of winter (on the July streets on Montreal)
Oooh, very slow this morning after a late night. This city is so quiet compared to most that I know, but at 2:30 am there were still a lot of people on the streets: riding bicycles, talking in groups, one playing a sax on the street corner. The music and voices drifted up to our room as we talked and thought about sleeping. At 3:00 a sparrow started singing, full-throated and determined; our night wound down as its morning began.
A couple of you have wondered why I’m writing and blogging while on “vacation”. Thanks to LH for saying, “what’s not fun about this?”, since that’s the way I feel too. But I wasn’t kidding when I said that I often feel like we live our life in an opposite direction from most people. I think of travel as more of a “change” than a “vacation”; a chance to discover new things but also to look at my own life and self from a different perspective. I’ve spent my entire life trying to carve out time for creative and intellectual work, as well as trying to bring all the different aspects of my life into greater integration, so there isn’t the big gap I used to feel between livelihood and the stuff I really like and want to do. I couldn’t claim that it’s all become seamless, but it’s better than it used to be, and I feel a lot less pressure to escape my “regular life”.
Being an inveterate journal-keeper, I’ve written something almost every day for at least the last two decades. A lot of my journal is personal musing, but a lot of it has always been about what I’m reading, seeing, creating, thinking about, and has to do with drawing lines of connection between them. When I’m away from home, I actually write more; a few of those travel journals got edited afterwards into finished pieces. So blogging fits perfectly into that proclivity. And it’s a challenge to keep it up no matter where I am.
When J. was in Damascus a few years ago he used to stay up very late writing long descriptive letters to me on the laptop. In the morning he’d go to Zoni, one of the only internet places in all of Syria at the time, and send me e-mails on their antiquated equipment. We’d been married for twenty years already, and these were the first letters he’d ever written me. “I’m not verbal,” he’s fond of saying. “That’s your department.” But these letters – averaging a staggering 4,000 words a night – represented the flood of emotions and impressions he was receiving every day as his ancestry unfolded. He couldn’t show me the pictures, so he had to use words.
We were laughing last night, looking at the hundreds of street photographs he’s taken already on this trip. “No wonder Gary Winogrand died with so many rolls of unprinted pictures,” I said. I think every serious journal writer and every documentary photographer, no matter how private their work is at the time, is creating for an eventual audience. I can see why from the outside it might look like an obsession: art and the intellectual life are like that. But for all the inwardness and solitude and personal failings of the artist, the work has an intention that moves outward: hopeful, generous, inviting. I think about Merton’s voluminous journals and how he forbade their publication for 25 years after his death – but the reader is there, always: the unspoken partner on every page, the person in front of the photograph….
Even though I walk every day for exercise, I never cover the miles I do in a city. This morning my hip joints feel like they need to be oiled, but I’m anxious to get out and about again. Yesterday afternoon we took off in different directions; I did my bookstore browsing and a long-distance walk , visiting an art supply store and a favorite ethnic clothing store en route, while J. was in a different part of the city doing street photography. In the late afternoon I stopped in a leafy, cool park, took out the sketchbook I’d bought, and - inspired by the Michel Seuphor quote and my own mentor’s advice forma few days ago - did some quick sketches of people on benches, on the ground, on monuments, squirrels and birds in the grass. Oh, painful recognition! I used to be good at this, and I’m way out of practice. Lumpy people, non-specific rodents! Only the pigeons had potential. So the sketchbook is staying in the backpack, and I will have to take my own advice, and draw something every day until my eyes and hands are re-connected.
One of the things I love most about Montreal, besides the wonderful food, is its ethnic and racial diversity. It truly does seem like a melting pot, with more going into the pot and a far greater real tolerance, even love, of difference than we find below the border. You see all types of people in service positions here, not merely the blacks and Hispanics of so many American cities. It’s also common to see racially-mixed couples, and the fact that I notice at all this tells me something about the racism we take for granted in the States. Another aspect I love is the swirl of languages. Montrealers switch effortlessly between French and English in the course of normal conversation. This is a city filled with immigrants who speak their mother tongues plus, usually, French. That may be one reason why there are so many Middle Eastern and North African immigrants here: many grew up with French as a second language, not English.
Last night we heard a concert by Hamid Baroudi, an Algerian musician who played a fusion of jazz, rock, and traditional North African music. We were part of a crowd of several thousand, and had arrived early enough to be near the front, among what seemed to be the entire North African population of the city. They ranged from an elderly couple, she in full hijab, who sat like impassive dignitaries in canvas folding chairs, to a young Algerian woman who belly-danced through the entire concert while recording it – and the crowd -- on her portable video camera. Next to us, two sisters sang and cheered and danced with their wide-eyed children, while in front, a circle of Arab men of all ages moved slowly counterclockwise, hands raised, dancing from their hips. The music was infectious and terrific, and amplified by the delight and excitement of the dancing, clapping, Arabic-singing crowd, so happy to be together on a beautiful night with a tiny sliver of a Ramadan-like moon overhead, hearing their own music do what art has the power to do – suspend anxiety and transcend difference, war, poverty, and even the wounds of history.
From yesterday's serendipitous bookstore visit:
A Song of Waiting
I am here, waiting by the roadside, my love –
A smile on my lips ending and beginning.
In the clear night lovers are hand in hand,
A word for a word, and an endless smile.
Only my arm trembles in a night of loss.
Will I grow old before my words are heard?
Come to me just once, for the love of heaven,
I’ll light candles for you
And play my guitar.
If you’d let me, love, I’d house you in my ribs,
And if you wearied of my friendship, let you go.
But I would be waiting a lifetime;
I’d leave when the moon appears
And return at dawn,
And in spring I’d be back bearing flowers for you.
In autumn I would disappear under the rain.
Wednesday, July 02, 2003
I'm in a copy shop/internet access provider near our hotel, blogging away. Hot, beautiful day here. Below is a post I wrote last night with a shot taken by J.
Nearby is a good used bookstore specializing in literature. I just bought a book of poems by Eric Ormsby, some Paul Tillich, and a book on Modern Arab poets taken off the shelf by Amanda, the clerk who remembered me -- and my interests - from my one and only visit to the shop, "Le Mot", last year. Some excerpts coming soon!
On the street in Montreal
Bon soir! and welcome to Montreal. It’s a beautiful evening on July 1, the national day of Canada, and we’re in our hotel room overlooking a busy street corner in the center of the city. The sounds of the jazz festival are bouncing off the tall buildings around us – it’s a Cuban band right now, full of high-energy Latin rhythm – and we’ve just finished a picnic dinner of fresh French bread, salami, tomatoes, lettuce, olives (little wrinkled Moroccan ones, big green cracked Sicilians), clementines, and a few Medjool dates – with a glass of thick, iced Stolichnaya.
The street outside is quite a contrast to the picture from home I posted yesterday. When you spend your life in a largely meditative environment, as we do, “getting away” means going where there’s a pulse. I often feel that we travel in the opposite direction from many other people, both figuratively and literally: we are the ones heading into the city on a Friday night or holiday weekend, and driving back to the mountains as the campers and boat-trailers make their way back to the city and suburbs. We find that we crave the energizing quality of congregated humans, of steel and glass and concrete built audaciously high, of art concentrated into museums and galleries and theaters, and people of all colors and types animating the sidewalks with their vibrant, unlimited vitality.
Tonight I love being faced with endless choices of where to go and what to do, but I also love the pink and gold sunset in the window, splashing gilded light on the brick facades of high-rise apartments and shining the street, wet with a late afternoon rain. We both lean on the casement, mesmerized; contemplation seems to have hitched a ride with us anyway.