Tuesday, November 30, 2010
Monday, November 29, 2010
This morning, while contemplating some possible changes on my website, I found this drawing I made in 2001 of the chair my father used to relax in when I was growing up. We still have it, of course. It was reupholstered once, back in the late Seventies. It’s between fifty and sixty years old.
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11.29.2010 #1 (drawing)
Sunday, November 28, 2010
Saturday, November 27, 2010
All things testify according
to their natural, light-given truth:
leaves, twigs, meadows, and birds,
wild streams and errant tufts of fur,
dry weeds whispering remember me,
baked crust of aromatic earth.
I nod to the mossy water
conversing fortuitously in a ditch,
push back my hat, scratch my head,
wonder at the miracle of melted snow.
I rub dirty hands on threadbare jeans,
revel on bended knees to dig,
every inch a mile closer to myself,
past walls etched with veins of gold.
Summer speaks, autumn listens,
cold winter declares its grief.
When I care beyond my strength to know,
spring drags me out of bed,
makes rainbow tea,
butters my bread with sky.
I swallow the light and go outside.
In the wink of an eye,
my dreams no longer fit their shoes.
From Songs and Letters, originally published January 30, 2006.
In the Forum: close but no cigar.
Friday, November 26, 2010
Daylight spilling from his tattered sack
takes all night to reach the ground.
I’m a penny on a railroad track.
“Old Man Winter” added to Poems, Slightly Used.
11.26.2010 #1 (drawing)
Thursday, November 25, 2010
Wednesday, November 24, 2010
One winter when we were still living on the farm, I came down with the flu and was unable to work for several days. During that time, our dog, Spike, waited outside our door and refused to leave. When I finally did emerge, he was so happy it nearly broke both our hearts.
Spike was more than loyal. He was an innocent child who herded the neighbor’s cows and rolled in their fresh green mounds and then proudly wore them home, only to be bewildered and crushed when we shooed him away. A few hours later, he would return from a swim in the ditch, his black and white shepherd coat dripping and clean.
I am redeemed.
In those days, we were grateful on mornings when frost stiffened the heavy clay soil, because then it wouldn’t stick to our shoes. Except in a few areas where the ground was on the sandy side, the winter rains turned our farm into a sea of mud. This might not seem important, but when you spend three full months pruning vines and trees, the amount of mud you carry with you on your shoes and ladder has a direct relationship with how you feel at the end of the day — merely tired, or completely exhausted.
Either way, it was exhilarating to work outside on cold winter days. It was a pleasure to work with someone, and an even greater pleasure to work alone and absorb the vineyard and orchard atmosphere — the dry brown leaves crunching underfoot, the feel of wooden pruning shear handles in my gloved hands, the sound of the curved steel blade cutting through dormant wood, the wet smell of the brush and decaying weeds — bright crystal shouts of joy.
The winter days had a grand cumulative effect that made me feel my mind was being restored — almost as if wisdom were tangible in the frosty air. And then there were the vines and trees themselves, each individual works of art and sculpture, magnificent and familiar beneath their husks of shaggy bark, or their proud scaffolds ascending, dimpled and smooth, with budded twigs like naked bouquets.
It was like being alive inside a giant painting.
From Songs and Letters, originally published December 15, 2005.
Tuesday, November 23, 2010
Monday, November 22, 2010
A special thanks to blog friends Jenny and Ande for including my poem, “Before me, the past,” in their new poetry blog, rufous salon. Their plan is to publish no more than one poem or poetry video each day — and, fearless souls that they are, I know they will include a variety of voices and approaches.
The editors also maintain their own blogs; from there you can learn more about them and what they’re doing. Jenny’s is called Cinnamon; Ande’s is Faun. All three are linked here in the sidebar.
My thanks, also, to Jasmin, who has kindly shared the poem on her blog, Rosenwunder.
In the Forum: a self-diagnosed neurotic hypochondriac.
Sunday, November 21, 2010
Before me, the past speeds ahead.
It arrives, I know not when.
Behind me, the future is silent.
It knows that I am dead.
Pity, there is no grief in starlight.
Mercy, cries for the unborn.
Duty, is a failed science.
Love, walks alone.
You show me a sign.
A bright, fathomless smile.
As if there were, anything.
As if we were, real.
As if, rainbows give birth to children.
And they do: rainbows, and strawberries.
Fallen angels, white as any snowflake.
Black as an eye in a song.
Blue, as when light returns.
Green, because everything is so damn silly.
Honeyed as any flower.
Or as the scent and color of skin.
Intimate, as graveyard stone.
Whispers, with cold gray fingertips.
Wet shoes: where have I been?
And how did you find me?
A siren in a cityscape.
Moonlight, on a table.
Perhaps, or, simply, fate.
A wet sponge by the sink.
A leaf, a candle.
An unexpected need.
“Before me, the past” added to Poems, Slightly Used.
Saturday, November 20, 2010
When she was twelve,
my mother’s mother rode a horse
into the rugged mining town
of Bodie, California, to get supplies.
When she was fourteen,
she left home and went to San Francisco,
where she folded pretty linen in a rich man’s house
and cleaned up after him and his wife and children.
She returned to the gold country
to help her mother on the farm in 1906
just before the great earthquake.
She had a husband and four daughters.
She made pies and jams on her wood stove.
She did the wash by hand, and later with a wringer.
She did not approve of alcohol.
When she was seventy-six,
my mother’s mother sat at my aunt’s dining table,
a pale child behind a serving platter of succulent ham.
Mother, do you want some carrots?
She said yes, as if she were defined by them.
When she was eighty-six,
my mother’s mother rode in a wheelchair
to the dining room at the nursing home.
A stranger pushed her there.
We sat with her in the visiting area
while my mother combed her long white hair.
Arms, so thin, legs of which she was unaware.
Faces, names, forgotten, memories undeclared.
Who is this man, these children, and who are you?
My husband, your grandsons, your youngest daughter.
A hint of recognition lived and died on her thin, dry lips.
Then, like clear water splashing on sun-blessed stones,
she spoke of people she knew long ago.
But the bridge she had crossed to find them
had fallen into the bay, along with so many other things
I still don’t know today.
From Songs and Letters, originally published June 4, 2005.
In the Forum: an unplanned plan.
Friday, November 19, 2010
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The Story of Chaucer’s Canterbury Pilgrims Retold for Children, by Katharine Lee Bates. Illustrated by Angus MacDonall. From the Canterbury Classics, a series of supplementary readers edited under the general supervision of Katharine Lee Bates, Professor of English Literature in Wellesley College, Wellesley, Mass. Rand McNally & Company, New York (1909). 316 pages. $1.00.
A Sentimental Journey Through France & Italy, by Laurence Sterne. With selections from his Journals, Sermons & Correspondence. Edited with an introduction by Professor Wilbur L. Cross. Liveright Publishing Corp., New York (1942). Black & Gold Edition. 307 pages. $1.50.
In the Forum: Proust and all his elves.
Thursday, November 18, 2010
1:52 a.m. A series of familiar domestic scenes composed as life-sized photographs, each of which can be opened like doors with a flapping, clacking, wooden-plastic sound. Behind the last, my mother is sitting upright on a plain brown couch from my childhood, her head against the wall and face older than ever, with deep-set wrinkles the grooves of which extend upward into her gray-white hair. She is smiling, and even though I know she’s alive, I’m so surprised and overjoyed by it that I cry out oh oh oh in a voice that wakes me up, and then continues, as it slowly ebbs into a moan.
In the Forum: this volume is affectionately inscribed.
Wednesday, November 17, 2010
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It took only six days for Rahina’s portrait to arrive from Scotland. It’s stormy here this afternoon and the light level is low, but I couldn’t wait to take a picture of it on the first likely perch that presented itself. Seeing it in person, I’m convinced of one thing already: the man in this painting knows more about me than I do.
Rahina, thank you.
After posting the picture of our 1951 Hotpoint, I thought why not turn back the clock a few more decades and post pictures of a real icebox. This wonderful piece was converted to its present use many years ago by my mother. The icebox itself came from the house in the story that follows.
A Tiny Piece of Fresno, Another Part of Me
The biggest cockroaches I have ever seen were the shiny monsters that skittered out from beneath the old claw-footed bathtub in my grandfather’s cousin’s house in downtown Fresno when our family was there to button up her affairs. Assuming she bathed occasionally, she sat in that tub while those creatures in their sturdy shells multiplied and went about their business.
When Roxie died almost thirty years ago, she left some uneaten ground meat in a frying pan on her stove. There was a wooden spoon in the pan, and the simple chair she had been sitting on put her within easy reach. To travel from room to room, she followed a narrow path that wound through a half-century’s accumulation of debris. At first glance it seemed a mess, but there was a kind of rhythm to the arrangement. I got the idea that whether she was looking for a candle or a particular piece of sheet music published in 1924, she knew exactly where it was: in a dishpan on top of the cardboard box full of colorful wool socks that had been knitted by hand in the Old Country, or around the corner from the tablecloth-and-old-letters department in a shoe box near the window seat.
Chances are, my grandfather had brought her the meat. I saw Roxie only once, when she was about eighty. It was hard to picture her in a grocery store. He and I had stopped at her house one day because he was looking for a couple of boards. While he was rummaging through a woodpile half-buried by weeds, she came outside to say hello. She smiled at me and said, “He looks like you, Harry,” and my grandfather said, “He ought to,” though he and I both knew it wasn’t true. One thing was immediately obvious: Roxie was nuts, but in a pleasant, harmless way. Her thin gray hair went here, her eyebrows went there, and her semi-laughing speech failed to harmonize the two. She didn’t invite us in, but was definitely pleased that we were there. I didn’t know that if we had gone inside, there would have been no place to sit.
“So,” I thought. “Here’s another relative. It makes perfect sense.”
Once upon a time, when the twentieth century was still wet behind the ears, Roxie’s father Tateos ran a little Armenian restaurant in Fresno. Tateos was married to my grandfather’s mother’s sister. The unpainted house on Van Ness had been the family home, probably after Tateos and his bride had suffered through three or four squalid rentals owned by suspicious landlords who hated Armenians and thought they were from another planet.
I think my grandfather was unofficially in charge of Roxie’s welfare. It would have been just like him to bring her groceries and look in on her from time to time. It’s possible he even paid her small utility bills. Certainly no plumber was needed to keep her bathtub, sink, or elevated toilet tank in working order. Come to think of it, I don’t remember a washing machine. She must have used her tub.
Once, while we were taking a break from Roxie’s cockroaches and dust, my father and I decided to examine her cellar. The house rested on a foundation of rough-cut redwood lumber, still in perfect condition. I was expecting some ancient jars of grape leaves and jam and a skeleton or two, but all we found were a few crude empty shelves and spider webs. Considering the convenient downtown location, if it were today, a homeless person would be living there. It might be a week before Roxie found out. Then again, if it were today, the house and its fascinating Old World contents would be condemned, along with their owner, as a threat to the sacred laws of uniformity.
For me, our dear cousin represents another piece of a complex genetic, cultural, linguistic puzzle. In other words, her presence in the family tree helps explain why I function poorly as an adult. I can’t help admiring her, because she lived a life in that dimly lit, petrified abode — a life every bit as legitimate as the ones hustling by in the street or on the sidewalk, or fussing about in the nearby department stores and office buildings. In my opinion, it was a saner life than the kind led by the suit-clad drones who saw only monetary value in the piece of property she left behind, and who couldn’t wait to dismantle and pave over her little patch of history.
It makes me wonder: If I were left alone for that many years, would I end up living the same way? I can say no, but what would it prove? What would it mean? That I am ashamed to admit Roxie’s lifestyle holds a certain appeal? Or that I am afraid that once I’m living it, I wouldn’t know the difference, and would be only a city ordinance and a bulldozer away from oblivion?
Only time and circumstances will tell. As for those who feel secure in the accidental arrangement of their lives, I wish them well.
From Songs and Letters, originally published May 21, 2005.
In the Forum: tantalizing Twain.
Tuesday, November 16, 2010
The Amorous Notes of a Barista
Introduction by Bent Sørensen
Cover design and layout by Camelia Elias
Note: Night Café is part of a book exchange with Bent Sørensen, the author of two of my favorite blogs, Ordinary Finds and Lumpy Pudding.
Monday, November 15, 2010
Sunday, November 14, 2010
Saturday, November 13, 2010
Friday, November 12, 2010
Thursday, November 11, 2010
November 11, 2010
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The first casualty
Then comes flesh
of another noble cause.
The last casualty
never knows he is.
But his silence,
From Another Song I Know, Cosmopsis Books (2007).
Wednesday, November 10, 2010
Tuesday, November 9, 2010
No day passes in which I don’t feel the close proximity of death — not death as gentle advocate arrived as memory or clad in fallen leaves, but as dark messenger or physician. Often, I feel so near death that when I speak and write it’s as if I hear my voice from beyond the veil, or that I could pass from room to room through the intervening walls. Mostly, though, I tie my shoes and go outside to get the mail. The neighbor affirms my presence with her smile. Like anyone else, I have bills to pay and miles to go before I sleep. And so I tighten my belt, wash my hands, and put my best foot forward — knowing, all the while, that each step, each action, each foolish, arrogant remark, could be my last. There’s nothing grim about it. Certainly, I’m in no hurry to die. But I love knowing, even though at times it frightens me, that I could be gone one sweet breath from now.
My inevitable, possibly imminent demise is tied directly, I think, to my perception of beauty. Moments and things are beautiful in part because I don’t know if I will live to see or experience them again. And the beauty of death is, as familiar as they seem, no two things or moments are ever completely the same.
Now, it follows logically that everything I’ve said about death I can also say about life. For I do feel, alive as I am, that I can pass through walls as well as any spirit or ghost. Better still, I don’t even have to know it’s happening. Who’s to say that in some dim hour when I’m visited in clear detail by the memory of a place that I have been, that a vaporous part of me has not gone there at that very moment to see it once again — to see it and be sure; to listen and inhale; to rejoice in its sad and glad refrain?
Life as physician; life as messenger; life, which is a fleeting perception of beauty.
Mostly, though, I tie my shoes and go outside to get the mail. And when the wind blows, and the leaves come down, and I turn around to find the road behind me has already crumbled to dust, I know that I am home. And then I push on, my hand out, should someone seek it in this or any other realm.
No one suffers joy alone. The pain we feel belongs to everyone.
“No day passes” is my newest Notebook entry. Old notes are archived here.
Monday, November 8, 2010
Ed Baker and some of his muses
November 7, 2010, 9:20 a.m.
Ed’s website, Bare Bones Bonze
Well, damn it, we should be photographed with our work now and then — we and our minds and what we have done, which is, for each drop of sweat in it, play for the child in our souls. I have pictures of my parents and grandparents paused just so, in the act of reflection and drinking it in, amid vineyards and boxes of grapes, beside clotheslines billowing with bed sheet sails; of the poets and painters among us scowling beneath gray felt brims, brooding in front of upright pianos, smoking in parlors, standing by piles of fresh-split wood with axes still warm. Each in its own way shows that art is not the province of the few, but the gift of the many, a newly cracked shell, a kingdom of light without doors.
In the Forum: don’t worry about the sycamores.
Sunday, November 7, 2010
This morning, reading Proust before dawn, I suddenly saw myself as the child I was, just home from the library with even more books, one open in my lap, my head bowed to the sound of the clock and the rattle in the kitchen of my mother’s pans — and at that moment there arose, from the page itself or from somewhere else, the scent of smoke, familiar yet impossible to identify. Within myself or without, a sentence or paragraph down, fingers to text and palm, adrift to rest in this room, but not — no, never, alone.
In the Forum: trouble in Mudville.
Saturday, November 6, 2010
The beautiful portrait by Rahina I posted yesterday coincides with something I’ve been thinking about lately. When we’re courageous enough and curious enough to study someone’s face, what is it that we really see? Rahina’s painting is one eloquent answer, the more so in that it strikes so deep to the fleeting adventure of life and memory. That I could appear this way to anyone, accurate in detail and yet transformed as in a dream, I regard as a gift and a miracle. But such is the glory of art. And so it is that we are all its subjects, and are revitalized and transformed in its presence.
In the half-lit damp I see a face
In the half-lit damp I see a face —
that which remains after storm and smoke
have passed its way, then drifted on.
What becomes a man,
are the little things he does;
what defines him,
is all he loves.
In the half-lit damp I see a face —
so much older than it was,
an archeology of thoughts and dreams.
Beyond my touch, it records
the evening cry of birds,
the scent of dusk,
the beating of wings.
Friday, November 5, 2010
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Ninth in her series study of dreams, this amazing work by Rahina speaks to me like one of my own, a spirit out of the gray depths of all I remember and all that I don’t. I am deeply moved. Sharing it now, how I wish that friends and family gone from this life could see it too.
Rahina’s blog, art in oils
Thursday, November 4, 2010
Wednesday, November 3, 2010
Tuesday, November 2, 2010
I write and eat with my right hand. But for the life of me, I can blow my nose only with the left. I kick with my left foot. When my older brothers taught me how to play baseball in the dirt lot by our house on the farm, I started out batting with my left hand and only gradually learned to hit with my right. For several years, I could bat comfortably either way. I’ve always thrown, though, with my right hand. Nowadays, my right hand is much stronger than my left. There are probably many things about my hands that I fail to observe. Do they, for instance, have distinct lives, habits, and personalities? Are they, despite working well together, also on separate missions? Do they meet privately while I sleep and converse?
Drawn with the left hand, 2
November 1, 2010
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Drawn with the left hand, 3
November 1, 2010
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