Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Grandmother Muse

The muse has not ceased to surprise me since the publication of “The Sister From Below.” In that book she is weird and uncanny—a siren, a seductress, a shape shifter—a being from the archetypal realm. The Greeks knew nine muses. Recently, I’ve been visited by a variety of forms of the muse. They inspire my poems. One is someone very familiar: my grandmother. Her spirit insists she be given her due in my pantheon of muses. How can someone as ordinary and safe as a beloved grandmother be a muse?

As the first child born in the New World to a family of German Jewish refugees from the Nazis, I had a special tie with my only surviving grandparent, the painter Emma Hoffman, whom I knew as Oma. Oma showed me that making art can be a way to transmute grief, a way to bear the unbearable. She did not show up as a muse until after her death and after a dream I had in which I saw her dying—a long hard labor—as in giving birth. I wrote a poem about that—“Self Portrait of My Grandmother“— forty years ago.

If a muse is a catalyst—a call to one’s creative spirit—my Oma is that. Her death agony, as I saw it in my dream, as I imagined it in my poem, was my birth as a poet. Oma called me into my calling. In “The Sister” I describe the writing of that poem as “a tunnel blasted through rock.” It opened me up to my passion for writing, and to the realm of the imagination. Here is a section of the poem:

Listen Oma: I’ll tell them!
I’ll tell them you painted tigers
and flowers and babies and trees
and you could make a shadow
outgrow the thing that threw it
so intricate, so subtle you drew it

I’ll tell them you bore six children and buried three
outliving the six million and all the generation
that you knew
a refugee Jew
But they say you must take your medicine now
Oma—when will this death be over?

(first published in” Open Reading.” Republished in “red clay is talking.”)

If a muse is an inspiration, my Oma is that. Her fierce focus, her life stories, the way she tied me to the past and to my future, inspired my first book, “The Motherline.” Here is a passage about her from that book:

Once a month as regularly as the waning moon we visited my Oma on Sundays, my first husband, my baby, and I. Oma was the right word for my grandmother. The resonant, round sound felt ancient in my mouth. Her eyes were so deep you could see eternity in them. She had soft withering skin and a slow thoughtful walk…

It was a chorus in my life, a monthly refrain that took us to a sanitarium inn the wine country, where Oma lived. As in a ballad, where each verse tell of events progressing although the chorus is always the same, so this visit was always the same, and that was a comfort. In the midst of studying for exams, the baby getting teeth, the car needing a brake job, and the growing protest about our country’s involvement in Vietnam, the visit to Oma was as predictable, as soothing as a lullaby. Her soft, inward melancholy, her hand on my shoulder, were a reassurance and a blessing. (p.121)

If a muse is a frequent visitor, a guest from mysterious realms, my Oma is that. She has come to me over the years, in dreams, in memories, in reverie, in her paintings. Sometimes a painting breaks through and I see it with new eye. I described a favorite watercolor in “The Motherline”:

Do the dead know when they walk with the living? Oma, do you know that you are always with me? Your life work of painting hangs in my home and my office. Do you remember the watercolor of the living room in Berkeley where I visited you often? You painted the light streaming in through the arched window onto floors and rugs. It is a painting of inner space—one you lived in as an old woman and I visited as a girl. You served me tomato soup and crackers in the light from that window…That painting hangs in my office now, grounding me in my own childhood as I listen to the stories of other people’s childhoods. (p.129)

If a muse is a call from the depths my Oma is that. Twenty years after I wrote that passage, I found myself flooded with longing for her. The poem that came to me then, refers to the same watercolor. It is the opening poem to my new poetry collection, “Adagio & Lamentation,” and the watercolor is on its cover. Here is the poem:


I wish you could stop being dead
so I could talk to you about the light so we
could walk among the vineyards as we did
forty years ago near St. Helena and you

could tell me again how the light of late
afternoon is so different from the light
of morning I was too young
to grasp your meaning but I believe

you said it is all about the fall of shadows
that when you paint it is not light that streams
from your brush but deep purple violet blue
you shaped emptiness and there was light

Oma come visit me sit at your easel as you always did
your brush poised your eyes as fierce
as a tiger’s show me how to create
the luminous moment among so many shades

of sorrow so many dead how to gather the light
of all the windows from all the houses of our lives
to make this bright trail I still follow along the gleaming
floor of the room in which you showed me how

to draw out the french windows to the unseen
garden a river of light that lifts
the Persian carpet into the air

So you see, this Grandmother Muse has cultivated my art and wandered in and out of my poetry and prose for forty years. There is an ancient practice that has always appealed to me—feeding the dead. I’ve thought of my writings as offerings to my ancestor, my Oma. I wonder if the dead can be honored in this new medium, the Internet. Oma, in this month of your birthday, does it feed your spirit to have a blog posting devoted to you?

Naomi Ruth Lowinsky