Monday, December 26, 2011

News from the Muse: The Muse of Fire


Marked By Fire: Stories of the Jungian Way

This life is the way, the long sought after way to the unfathomable which we call divine
—C.G. Jung, The Red Book

Marked by Fire: Stories of the Jungian Way is a soulful collection of essays that illuminate the inner life.

When Soul appeared to C.G. Jung and demanded he change his life, he opened himself to the powerful forces of the unconscious. He recorded his inner journey, his conversations with figures that appeared to him in vision and in dream in The Red Book. Although it would be years before The Red Book was published, much of what we now know as Jungian psychology began in those pages, when Jung allowed the irrational to assault him. That was a century ago.

How do those of us who dedicate ourselves to Jung’s psychology as analysts, teachers, writers respond to Soul’s demands in our own lives? If we believe, with Jung, in “the reality of the psyche,” how does that shape us? The articles in Marked By Fire portray direct experiences of the unconscious; they tell life stories about the fiery process of becoming ourselves.

A Word from the Sister
The publication of “Marked by Fire” is exciting. I want to share a portion of Naomi's essay in the collection, especially the part where I show up and play a pivotal role. I hope you’ll want to read more....
Drunk with Fire
How The Red Book Transformed My Jung

Support me for I stagger, drunk with fire. . . . I climbed down through the centuries and plunged into the sun far at the bottom. And I rose up drunk from the sun . . . The Red Book
There has been a breach between C. G. Jung and me. How could that happen? I had no idea who I was until I met Jung, nor had I had a decent conversation with my soul. Jungian analysis showed me my way into the world, and into my inner life—it opened the door to the poet I'd left behind in my childhood. But when I encountered Jung's suspicious attitude toward artists—so like a Swiss burgher—the poet in me was offended.

Enter The Red Book. When I sat down with that enormous tome on my lap and leafed through its gloriously illuminated pages, its visionary poetry, its astounding paintings and mandalas, my heart opened to my illustrious ancestor—all was forgiven. I felt vindicated. Jung, as I'd always suspected, was a closeted poet.

What is this Red Book? During a difficult time in his life, after his break with Freud, Jung was deluged with powerful images and visions. He wrote them down and painted them. He created a strange and beautiful book—bound in red leather—to hold them. It looks like a medieval illuminated manuscript. The Red Book was not published, even after his death, because of concerns that its wild, prophetic tone would cause people to dismiss Jung as a mystic or a madman. When it finally came out in 2009, it surprised the Jungian world by creating a media sensation and selling out its first printing


With the publication of The Red Book my Jung has been transformed. He is "outed" as a poet and a painter. He writes directly out of his vulnerability, working out his relationship with his soul in the depths of the mythopoetic imagination, just as I do. In The Red Book Jung reclaims his soul—or rather she reclaims him. She appears to him and becomes his guide. She is an inner figure with a mind of her own. This honoring of the voice from within, which Jung would later call active imagination, is one of his greatest gifts to me. Instead of ignoring or dismissing voices that speak to me from within, Jung taught me to listen and to engage in dialogue with them. When "The Sister from Below" began speaking to me, telling me she was my muse, my soul, my writing life took off....


When Jung implores, "Support me for I stagger drunk with fire," I feel a tug and am deeply moved. Why is this? They are wildly poetic words—in the Dionysian mode. They take me down to that primal level of religious feeling—worship of the sun, our source. I know the states he describes. To be drunk with fire tells it all—the creative ecstasy—at once wildly enlivening and demonic—fire as Dionysus, fire as Shiva, fire as Pele. Certainly being a poet can mean being drunk with the sun from the bottom of time. One finds oneself climbing "down through the centuries" pursuing a word, an image, a phrase of goat song.

It has been essential for me to write directly out of the experience of being in other realities, rather than describing such states from a safe distance. In The Red Book Jung contains his intense and overwhelming experiences by writing them down, by painting them. I recognize that urge. I have shelves and shelves of journals in which I've worked to contain my own fire, to follow inner figures, to work with poems and with dreams, to dive below the surface of the times to what is moving in the depths. And I always feel better, more grounded, more real to myself after I do.

Enter, the Sister from Below. She's got an idea:

Why don't you take your own advice? Do an active imagination with Jung, now that you feel this warm glow of kinships libido for him? Imagine you two are sitting by the primordial fire, as he puts it in The Red Book:
An old secret fire burns between us. . . . The words uttered at the fire are ambiguous and deep and show life the right way. . . .
[We] will respect the holy fire again, as well as the shades sitting at the hearth, and the words that encircle the flames.
This makes me nervous. Jung is the master of active imagination. Is it hubris to invoke him? But I have learned to listen to the Sister. So I sit down, with my notebook. Jung, I discover, is reluctant. He is not at all sure he wants to engage in this exercise...



Marked By Fire: Stories of the Jungian Way

Volume 1 - Inaugural Edition, Edited by Patricia Damery and Naomi Ruth Lowinsky. Available Spring 2012

Contributors to Marked by Fire: Jerome Bernstein, Claire Douglas, Gilda Frantz, Jacqueline Gerson, Jean Kirsch, Chie Lee, Karlyn Ward, Henry Abramovitch, Sharon Heath, Dennis Patrick Slattery, Robert Romanyshyn, Patricia Damery, and Naomi Ruth Lowinsky.

Paperback & eBook editions - Advance Orders Welcomed

Product Details
Paperback & eBook editions: 150 pages (estimate)
Large Page Size Format 9.25" x 7.5"
Publisher: Fisher King Press; 1st edition (April 2012)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1-926715-68-3
ISBN-13: 978-1-926715-68-1

Saturday, December 17, 2011

News from the Muse: The Muse of the Dark




The Muse of the Dark

For Behold, Darkness Shall cover the Earth
(Handel's Messiah)

We are approaching the winter solstice. I always fight the dark—resisting its dark embrace. I don’t like getting up in the morning when it’s still dark. I don’t like going home from work in the evening when it’s already dark.

And yet, if I slow down and listen more deeply to myself, there is a yearning to descend into the dark—to crawl into a cave and ruminate, to vegetate. After all, I love the night. I love sleeping, dreaming. I wrote a poem about longing for sleep.

Sleep

I am crawling around the edges of you
longing for you
sweet sleep
that my grandson fell into this evening
as I walked him and sang
and his head hung heavy
on my arm

sleep
why do you hold yourself back from me
you were my first love
you wrapped me up in my mother’s dark
knew me before I knew light
filled me with all I’ve become

sleep
my oldest familiar
open your doors to the streaming stars
let lions loose to dance in the sky
and those who are gone
let them return
to speak my name

for everything that’s lost
is found in you
and everything changes
its shape

rock becomes a giant lizard
flame leaps from the rock
becomes word
becomes snake
becomes backbone
mine!

sleep
only you can wash away
the day’s bile
this one I’m arguing with
that one who rubbed me
the wrong way

lead me down into your secret pools
rub oils into my body
take my muscles in hand
and smooth them out

O sleep
lay your big blue weight
upon me

(first published in crimes of the dreamer)

Sleep is a god, a healer, a magical realm. Then why is the dark time of the year so difficult?

We are a culture addicted to light—the sun’s daily cycle no longer controls us. We live in electrical light, fluorescent light, virtual reality, on Facebook and Twitter, we work, shop, answer e-mail 24/7. We are lost to the wisdom of cycles—the cycle of the day, the cycle of the year, what Bear knows when she crawls into her cave. Of course, I’m no more interested than you are in giving up my illuminated nights. I love watching “Mad Men;” I love reading in bed.

However we pay a heavy price for all this light. How do we get our down time—time for our thoughts to meander, time to play, to pray, to muse, to remember, to forget, to re-create ourselves? How do we nourish the cave dweller in our souls, the moony dreamy eyed poet? Here’s a poem about that.



LET NIGHT BE FOR SLEEP

You can’t trick gold
out of the Black Sun

Nor diamonds
out of virtual space

Your wild ride
from coast to coast—

over dayglo towers
that know no night
that see no dreams
that limit you to what
can be found
on a laptop—

has screeched
to a halt:

Snake on the trail!
Is it a rattler?

You must shed old skin
Rub your irritation
all over some big rock

Sit in the dark
not knowing
your next life

When she comes around that mountain
Will you sing?


It is so hard for us to sit in the dark, not seeing, not knowing our next life. It is, however essential. When Jung built his tower at Bollingen he wanted no electrical light. And at Tassajara, the Buddhist retreat, there is no electrical light. I was at Tassajara once. I remember the dark pull of the night—so grounding, so profound. I felt attached to the earth and to myself. Daybreak was an epiphany. Trees, flowers, our cabins, the river, emerged into being as if for the first time. The world was reborn.

In Grace Cathedral to hear the Messiah I am pulled into the dark of that deep cavernous vault, pulled by the music I’ve known since childhood and its magical evocation of the Christian mystery.

The Cathedral is filled with people. They’ve added rows and rows of metal folding chairs behind the pews to accommodate us all. We’ve turned off our cell phones, disconnected ourselves from hectic brick and mortar shopping, from manic on-line shopping. We sit together in that dark cave, yearning for something ancient and sacred. Human voices call out to the divine for comfort, for meaning, for illumination as they have since the Shaman chanted.

Behold, I tell you a Mystery....we shall all be chang'd...
(Handel's Messiah)

Approaching the winter solstice I am glad to be among others engaged in this ancient ritual of the dark time.Below the Judeo-Christian strata we find the Old Religion—call it Pagan or Goddess religion—we find the myths that honor the natural cycles of sun, moon and earth, the myths of descent. Persephone went down into the underworld. So did the Innana. Betty Meador, a Jungian analyst who has devoted herself to Innana titled one of her books Uncursing the Dark.
In it she writes:
The myth discloses an archetypal pattern of opposites. On the one hand, the woman descendant is the highly civilized culture bearer; on the other hand, at the bottom of the underworld, she is the single human animal, separate and alone...

I hope in this season you'll take time to tend your soul and your animal nature, that you'll burrow down below the noise, the endless demands for activity and consumption, the addiction to light of our culture. I hope you'll find your own way to pay homage to the cycles of the natural world—the power of the night, the cave, the dream, the moon. Do so and you'll glimpse that mystery of transformation; perhaps you'll feel changed, reborn. Here’s a poem about that.


PANTOUM FOR A WITCH’S SABBATH

Long ago when night was your familiar
You knew the moon and the moon knew you
I mean carnally
Those stories about sex with the devil are about this

You knew the moon and the moon knew you
Joy from the sky made a music in your body
Those stories about sex with the devil are about this
Moon penetration stars awakening

Joy from the sky made a music in your body
Lion arose horse flew
Moon penetration stars awakening
Something from forever loved you for a night

Lion rising horse flying
Roots of the tree reach up into the sky
Something from forever loves you for a night
And the moon sings

Roots of the tree reach up into the sky
Branches touch down into earth
The moon sings
Naked you are and flying

Branches touch down into earth
I mean carnally
Naked you are and flying
Rooted in the night your familiar
(first published in The Pagan's Muse)


Friday, November 25, 2011

News from the Muse: The Muse of Ekphrasis

The Muse of Ekphrasis

I see behind the mirror of your eyes, the crush of dangerous shadows, the dead, who look greedily through the empty sockets of your eyes, who moan and hope to gather up through you all the loose ends of the ages…. C.G. Jung, The Red Book


[Painting of Naomi, Age 2]

Jung’s relationship to the dead has always spoken to me. He understood that the dead and the living need one another--the dead give the living purpose and past; the living give the dead hands and eyes. This is how it has been between me and the spirit of my grandmother, the painter Emma Hoffman. I blog about her frequently. She is one of my spirit guides.

When I was a child I knew her as Oma. She painted me as a toddler, full of light. I was the first grandchild born after years of wandering, years of catastrophe. She told me her stories of loss--the loss of three of her children, the loos of her home in the hills above Kassel, the loss of her country, Germany. She, her husband and her surviving children fled the Nazis during the 1930s. I remember how her eyes went fierce and inward as she painted. Oma showed me that making art can be a way to transmute grief, a way to bear the unbearable.

There is a loose end that troubles us both. Her paintings live on after her in my home, my mother’s home, the homes of my brothers and cousins in Israel, the homes of distant kin with whom I’ve lost touch. But her spirit looks through me and wonders:

Emma Hoffman was a fine painter. It’s not just her family who thinks so. The art historian Alfred Neumayer, who taught at Mills College in the 1950s and ‘60s was an admirer of her work. He wrote of her:
She studied from 1901 to 1903 under the best painter then available in the German Capital, Lovis Corinth. This means she was guided toward an Impressionist style since her beginning. She remained faithful to it, yet developed an ever lighter palette and an increasingly spontaneous brushwork.
When I saw the “Birth of Impressionism” show at the De Young Museum in San Francisco, I could see what Neumayer meant--the flow of light in Monet reminds me of Oma’s work. Consider, for example, the watercolor on the cover of my poetry book Adagio & Lamentation.


After this watercolor made its way so gracefully to the cover of Adagio, thanks to my husband Dan’s photo and my publisher, Mel Mathews' elegant design, Oma’s spirit was aroused. She loved having her painting out in the world. I told her I’ve always thought she should get more recognition. Maybe someday I would find a graduate student in Art History who would want to study her. Someday never came. Finally my grandmother’s spirit confronted me and said: You write poems and books, you give lectures, you knew me and my work. This is for you to do, not for some graduate student.

I spent much time last summer intensely studying her work. I put her pain filled self portrait in my study, on the very easel she had used.


[Self-Portrait, 1936]

It spoke to me. I studied other paintings of hers, some were in my possession, some I had photos of, thanks to Dan’s help. A suite of poems emerged.

There is a fancy Greek name for this sort of poem--Ekphrasis--poetry that responds to art. It has a long history going back to Homer’s description of Achilles shield in the Iliad. Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn” is a famous example. I had never before been drawn to write Ekphrastic poems. Suddenly I found them very compelling.

I worried about who would be willing to publish these poems with their paintings, since most poetry magazines operate on a shoestring and color images are so expensive. When Lucy Day the publisher of Scarlet Tanager Books, which published my first two poetry collections invited me to submit poems to an international online magazine Levure Litteraire, I thought of that suite of poems and paintings. It’s no big deal putting images on line. Lucy was all for it. So was Rodica Draghincescu, the editor of Levure.

A few days ago appeared in my inbox. I was excited. I spoke to the spirit of my Oma and told her her loose ends could stop flapping--seven of her paintings, eight of my poems in response to her paintings, were out in virtual space. The spirit of my Oma roused me in the wee hours of the night. She was all astir. Where is virtual space? she wondered. She died before personal computers, before the Internet, before e-zines.

I don’t know where virtual space is. I can tell her what it’s not. It’s not the Beyond, where she’s been wandering for forty some years. It’s not Hades or the underworld. It’s not the imaginal world. It’s not even a dream that wakes me up.

The ancients ones say it is important to feed the dead. I thought I was feeding my Oma with this tribute. People all over the world can now see some of her paintings. Why doesn’t this settle her down, give her some peace?

The spirit of my grandmother says: It’s not in the nature of spirits to settle down. We’re always in motion. We’re part of the flow behind the curtain of what you know. Maybe you’re the one who needs to settle down. This is just as much about your life work, your aging, your flapping loose ends as about mine.

Whew. A Zen slap from a spirit. She always did have those piercing eyes that saw right through me. She painted me, age 14, scared of my life. I wrote a poem in response to that painting.


[Portrait of Naomi Age 14]


Portrait of the Girl I Was, Age 14

Although I don’t enjoy
Looking at you—a clogged life
In a white dress, holding red flowers—

(Oma must have thrust
Those blood blooms
Into your haunted hands)

Although you sit there—deer eyed
Ready to bolt—Cossacks will gallop through
Nazis will kick in the door—

Although the music’s
gone underground, and you’ve lost
That wild horse you used to ride

Although you’ll dream
Of spitting broken teeth
Into the road for years

Before you learn
The sanctity
Of your own red room

Although I’ve never noticed
This before—behind your back
In a far corner

Of canvas—there is an open
Window, a hint
Of radiance, a glimpse

Of green trees—
You can’t see it yet, but
Oma has painted
Your way out…

I did not know until I wrote this poem that Oma had painted my way out of collective trauma, ushered me into the imaginal realm that has been my salvation. What began as a wish to honor my grandmother’s life work, has become a deeper recognition of how she and I continue to shape one another.

Of course, the fact that my poems and her paintings are together, on the virtual pages of an international publication, does not solve the problem of how her work will be gathered and appreciated after I’m gone. But it does allow you, dear reader, to see some of her work. Here’s the virtual path: click the link http://www.levurelitteraire.com, then scroll down the right side of the page to "Multilinguisme/Languages," click on it, click on English, then on my name, Naomi Ruth Lowinsky.

Friday, November 18, 2011

News from the Muse: The Muse of Age


Photo of Emma Hoffman, age 80, surrounded by her paintings

The Muse of Age

I have been invited to do a poetry reading for a conference called “The Poetics of Aging.” What an interesting name. It implies that there is something poetic about aging. What can this mean?

As I sorted through my poems I was surprised to see how many fit the theme. I hadn’t thought of myself as a poet of the aging process, but I guess it makes sense. My poetry began with an anguished wail of a poem about the death of my Oma. She was a fine painter and it was through her example that I learned how meaningful it is to make art out of one’s life. Also, she had been a poetic old lady as long as I knew her. Though that poem burst through me in my late ‘20s I didn’t really hit my stride as a poet until I was in my ‘50s--a time when the issues of age begin to shape one’s consciousness. It’s a shock to realize that age has long been a muse for me.

I’m not sure what the conference planners mean by the “Poetics of Aging” but I can tell you my musings about it. The word poem comes from the Greek poiein, which means simply to make, to create. Many of my poems are about what I make of growing old, of visitations from ghosts, of watching my mother lose her orientation, of seeing friends get ill, or drop dead after taking a shower one morning before work; what I make of the losses, the pleasures, the bodily and emotional aches; what I make of the long view age brings; what I make of death’s presence. That’s poetic.

The word “harvest” keeps coming to mind. This is a time of harvesting the long work of becoming myself--I’m just figuring out how to be who I am. It’s a time to harvest poems, to gather them for readings, publications, to let them lead me into blog postings. I harvest the fruit of a lifetime of relationships with so many I love. People I knew when I was much younger seem to be making mysterious reappearances in my life as though to bring me full circle. That’s poetic.

I think of the other meaning of harvest, as in the “grim reaper.” Death is a kind of harvest as well. That’s poetic.

Aging is embarrassing--words slip out of your ken, whole movies of your life disappear into thin air, familiar faces lose their names. You used to say “It’ll come back to me.” Now you’re not so sure. Aging is humiliating--you lose capacities--things you used to do easily become difficult or impossible. Fingers don’t work, knees complain, getting up in the morning requires a long unraveling. How is that poetic? Well, how about a poem that lists your complaints? Here’s one:


BECAUSE OF WHAT ACHES

Because your knee, like the knee of your father before you
prophesies rain

Because you’re as weather beaten as the willow
which creaks in the night

Because your hips are as surly
as a girl at fourteen—fire tamped down and smoking—

Because your knuckles are cranky, remembering
your grandmother fumbling with buttons, with jar lids

Because words have failed with your brother
don’t do much good with your son

Because your neck tries to rise above
an aging tangle of knots

Because you’ve given yourself to the wild ride—chased after toddlers
broken commandments, had words with the owl on the roof—

Because your eyes long for the mountain
Because the old rose still blooms

You’re not ready for ash, or thin air

Submit to the fire your early drafts
your sagas of shame, your lost directions

The truth is—you’re still tied to this ferment—
because of what aches

[First published in Eclipse]


As often happens, the poem leads me into unexpected places, and suddenly the poem shows me that what aches is what matters--what ties me to all this ferment. I make the poem and the poem makes what aches more bearable.

Death is a frequent visitor to my meditations. How long do we have before we pass into who knows what? If you’re lucky enough to have a partner, who will go first? Love changes as you age. If you’re lucky it gets sweeter and deeper. Also harder to make. What’s poetic about that? Poetry goes everywhere. Who says you can’t write an aging love poem?


LATE IN LOVE

The body gets cranky— hips lament, knees argue, hands
become ancient maps—making love requires a strategy
of pillows. Touch me where I ache. Tomorrow
is a sly intruder. Remember me to the hours that cup our wine.

It’s been years since the blood thundered.
Whose shadow will be first to fall? The cards say
our work is done. The shovel is at rest. The cards say
there’s more to come— look how this day brims over.

The fountain you tend is a psalm—it sings
to the stones and the lilies, of the spirit
that stirs the grasses, whirs hummingbirds’
wings, dances trees, leaps free

of the body’s complaints.

[First published in Sierra Nevada Review]

--
So much poetry is about our transient passage in this life--how the fact of our death makes luminous and vivid our lives. And the making of a poem small thing that it is--makes love leap free of the body’s complaints in the pages of a book, a poetry review, or on a blog.

My Oma’s late in life self-portrait portrays a radiant woman in the full authority of her art. She is my inspiration still for the “Poetics of Aging.”


[Emma Hoffman, Self Portrait 1957/8]

Friday, November 11, 2011

News from the Muse: My Lorca Muse

The Story Behind the Poem

Where is the duende? Through the empty arch comes a windblowing relentlessly over the heads of the dead, in search of new landscapes and unknown accents; a wind that smells of baby’s spittle, crushed grass, and jellyfish veil, announcing the constant baptism of newly created things. Federica Garcia Lorca


It is just over a year ago since Dan and I were in Andalusia (Southern Spain)--a trip we’d planned for many years. It was a pilgrimage for both of us. Dan’s Sephardic Jewish ancestors called us. My dark eyed, dark haired grandmother, who left me her Spanish shawl, called us. The Golden Age of Spain, when Jews, Muslims, Christians lived together--mostly in harmony--influencing each other’s cultures, poetry and music--called us. The restless dead--those who suffered terrible deaths in the Auto da Fe of the Inquisition, or in the Spanish Civil War--called us. The ghost of Federico Garcia Lorca, the great Spanish poet who was murdered by the fascists in Granada, whose work has spoken to me as long as I’ve been writing poetry, called us.


Today the mail brought me a small poetry magazine, Visions International, which has published four of my poems from that trip to Spain. This is what calls me to write about Lorca, who sprang to life as my muse in Spain. I was reading Leslie Stainton’s fine biography, Lorca: A Dream of Life, all over Southern Spain; it helped me understand Lorca’s power over me. Stainton writes: “The poet’s mission, according to Lorca is ‘to animate...to give life’” Yes! “Metaphor, Lorca insisted, must give way to the hecho po├ętico--the 'poetic event' a phenomenon at once illogical and incomprehensible, as miraculous as 'rain from the stars.'” Yes!

Lorca cuts through to the essence of image, to the immediacy of experience. He works to achieve those moments when something from the depths leaps to mind, breaking the rules of rationality, yet making a deeper kind of sense. In Lorca’s poetry, the conscious and the unconscious meet. This is what I’m after in my own poetry, but it is not easy. Lorca gives me courage and inspiration. The distinction he makes between metaphor and “poetic event” strikes to the heart of what I’m after both as a poet and a Jungian--felt experience that brings together body, soul and spirit, inner and outer, dream and waking life.

I remember standing in his bedroom in the lovely Lorca home outside of Granada--the Huerta de San Vicente. There were red, blue and yellow Moorish tiles on the floor, a tall palm outside his peaceful window. It was there--at his small wooden desk--that he sat and wrote. Over his bed hung a shrieking image of the Mater Dolorosa. Lorca carried within him that paradox--deep peace and great agony.

I saw the grand piano, and the Victrola on which Lorca is said to have played a recording of a Bach cantata over and over while working on “Blood Wedding.” Again, the tension of peace and agony. I remember white lilies on the table, and a portrait of his little sister Isabel playing the piano.

I mused over the distinction Lorca makes between the Muse and duende. “All that has black sounds has duende,” Lorca said. “These black sounds are the mystery, the roots fastened in the mire that we all know and ignore, the mire that gives us the very substance of art.” For Lorca, the duende has everything to do with death. Spain is a country haunted by restless ghosts and their terrible deaths. But Lorca doesn’t think much of the muse. For him she is distant and tired; she doesn’t deal directly with the dead.

Not my muse! My inner landscape is haunted by restless ghosts and their terrible deaths, and the Sister from Below speaks directly from their realm. In my memoir, The Sister from Below, she appears as a ghastly Eurydice, a “ghostly wraith, a dark specter....Her dark eyes are black eye sockets." She describes herself as “the black hole, the void...the place of rot...the black earth of the soil being turned.” So you see, she is the mire of which Lorca spoke, the duende which blows “over the heads of the dead...smells of baby spittle, crushed grass...,” becomes the rich soil of poetry and deep song in which new life can grow.

Turning over the mire and the soil of my experiences in Spain when we were in Granada, I worked on a poem that had begun in Madrid. I hoped to evoke Lorca. It was difficult. I kept sliding into story when I wanted deep image--bitter root from Africa, incantatory Arab magic, duende. So I sat with my notebook, looking out a window at the luminous Alhambra, and called on Lorca to help me with the poem.

He turned out to be a charming ghost--said he loves visitors. He was also a very generous ghost. He lent me his tools: his gypsy knife (the courage to slash away at what is not essential), his Harlem feet (those jazz rhythms he heard in New York that break through expected beats) and his abracadabra tongue (the incantatory use of language--just this side of magic which casts spells, invokes gods or moods, calls up a dead poet).

Here is the poem my Lorca Muse helped me write:


FOR LORCA, ON THE BROKEN BACK OF HIS STORY

Always, always: garden of my agony… The blood of your veins in my mouth
Federico Garcia Lorca


Time has not washed you away, nor have the rains
In the Puerta del Sol, or sorrow’s brown river

They still dream you in Madrid, they feed you
apples and honey, but what of

The hungry mouth of your grave, what of
The silver coins that never found your eyes?

Eyes of the Guernica bull. Burning eyes
Of my ancestors in the Auto de Fe…

Feed me on pomegranate seeds. Long ago
You promised me, what Grandfather Goethe

Promised us both. Show me
The face of your death. Hand me

A basket of bone to gather the parts
I need— your gypsy knife, your Harlem feet

Your abracadabra tongue. Your blood sings
In my veins. Your roots grow in my belly. Time crushes

Your harvest, with purple feet. Time has not
Washed you away, nor have the rains

In the Puerta del Sol, nor sorrow’s brown river
(published in Visions International #85)




Picasso's Guernica

Friday, November 4, 2011

News from the Muse: The Day of the Dead Muse


Truchas, New Mexico

At dawn of the Day of the Dead I saw the sun rise over the Truchas Peaks. It blazed in the branches of the aspen, whose leaves were yellow and glittering in the thin air.

We don’t sleep well here. Is it the altitude—8,000 ft.? Is it the thinning of the veils between the worlds at this time of year? Is it the spirits in motion, touching us, awakening us to other worlds?

Dan and I are here with our friends Patricia and Donald, in a state of arousal and amazement. The mountains are touched with snow; the aspen and the cottonwoods are glowing with gold; there is a holiness here that holds us and guides us—we walk in beauty.

On the Day of the Dead I was touched, as I often am, by the spirit of Don Sandner. He loved this land and knew it well. He had studied the Navajo and their rituals and learned from them the deep ways of an ancient people. He brought that knowledge to the community I joined in the ‘80s, when I became a candidate at the San Francisco Jung Institute.

I wanted to become a Jungian analyst because Jungians were the only folk I knew who were open to the fluidity I experience between kinds of consciousness. Mostly they were open-minded when I spoke of worlds beyond the everyday, meanings beyond those understood by the “Spirit of the Times.”

But Don Sandner was more than tolerant, more than interested in the mystic and the weird. He cultivated it; he lived it. He led a drumming ritual for the candidates, at Jessica’s barn in Petaluma. Before we entered that sacred space, Don smudged us with sage, and used an eagle feather—whoosh!—to cleanse our energies. Then we lay ourselves down among sweet smelling bales of hay while Don began to drum. He drummed and he drummed. And the visions and the visitations began. When the White Wolf appeared to me, he knew who she was.



He left us for the other world, very suddenly, one Easter almost 15 years ago. I had had a dream about him—one I told him—that he was walking down a river to the sea. A white baby alligator had his hand in its mouth and was guiding him. I did not know then, that the baby alligator was a psychopomp—a guide to the underworld. I wonder if Don did.

I do know that he lives in me, visits often in my meditations, is glad that Patricia and I are here, in this wild and sacred country, editing a book of essays about the living experience of other realities.

Don’s passage left a big hole in our community. I wrote about this in a poem.

SINCE HE LEFT HIS BODY
for Don Sandner

He knew what to do with an eagle feather
how to sweep clean the air around us
clear our heads of angry noise
as we entered the barn
We lay on sweet smelling grasses
we who’d been smudged, who’d been purified
and he beat and he beat and he beat on that drum—
we thought it was forever—the White Wolf appeared…
Those who know the animals
who know feather sweep, drum beat
corn dance—how the people shift
from one foot to the other—
know there is a place for each one
coyote, snake, rock, child—
So the White Wolf sings to the hills
So she sings to the fire—
The truth is
we’ve never been the same
since he left his body so suddenly—
teeth of the alligator
scissors of mind—rocks severed
from gods—
trees cut down
cut down—
Are we lost?
Nobody beats the drum
Nobody sweeps clear the air
Nobody remembers the dance
Nobody is a dark cave
where the White Wolf
still lives
See?
She lifts her head to the mountain
She pricks up her ears…

This poem was first published in the Jung Journal

Friday, October 28, 2011

News from the Muse: The Muse of Persimmons

True joy is simple: it comes and exists from itself, and is not to be sought....All you must do is fulfill your task.
C.G. Jung in The Red Book



The news from the muse is persimmons. The little tree in front of our house is aglow with them. The joy they give me is a surprise. Persimmons are new to me. I never paid much attention to them. I’m a summer fruit kind of girl. Give me a juicy peach, a sassy apricot and I’m happy.

When Dan and I moved into our town house a few years ago, the father of the seller showed us the garden he had tended. His name was Mohammed. We gathered his son and daughter-in-law were not interested in roses and trees. He introduced us to the persimmon he had planted. It had not yet borne fruit.

Mohammed was gaunt, dark eyed, white haired. He told us he was from Bosnia. I wondered what he had been through. We’d followed, with horror, the terrible stories of war and genocide in the ‘90s. As the daughter of refugees, I identify with refugees. I wrote a poem during those years about that identification. It’s in Adagio & Lamentation.

again the raptor god

I’ve never stopped hearing the screams
never stopped smelling the blood
Vietnam Vet on the radio



1. repeat after me

we are flesh (for now)
have bones
wake up in the middle of the night
in the grip of what
won’t drop us

words gather their stories around us
when we were children there was a song
about a bird who flew away

do you remember how the words grew axe heads?


all night my love you shook the bed
were you walking through the mountains to Albania?
dancing on a bridge in Belgrade?



2. the good life

we were fat and sassy
had three babies in a row
grapes grew
in our arbor
cock crow woke us
every morning



3. old lady

I have seen you on tv in your bedroom slippers
in the snow your dark haired grandson carried you
over the mountains across
the border your eyes enter
my house follow me down
the carpeted hall

rain on the roof
rain on the only blanket you have

O son of the mother
what have you done with the bones
of our grandparents?



4. Passover

the angel passed over our house
nobody

came to the door
in a black ski mask
nobody

ripped up our baby photos
tossed fire on our roof
nobody
made us to lie down
in the back yard

under the fruit trees



Persimmons came a few years later. Nothing prepared me for their glory--how they filled the tree with golden suns, how they tasted--subtle, nutty, wise. A strange thing to say about a fruit, but I find myself musing--if there were a garden of maturity, a garden of the fruit of ripeness, the tree of late life would be a persimmon.

Whenever Dan brings a handful of the elegant fruit into the house, I think of Mohammed--how moved I was by him. His son liked fast cars and motorcycles. His daughter-in-law liked shoes and boots with spikey heels. We’d seen the signs of these obsessions when we first looked at the house. They’d painted the place in blazing colors--orange, metallic blue, yellow. We changed all that. But the gifts of Mohammed, who had tended the roses, planted the persimmon, continue to nurture us and give us joy. His children have gone on to bigger and better in America. Does Mohammed remember his persimmon tree? Does he have any idea of the treasure he has left us?


I muse about the magic of persimmons. What makes them so enchanting to me? Is it that, when you cut them open, you see a design in the shape of a mandala? Is it that they look like tiny suns, or like the orb the Emperor holds in the Tarot Deck? Is it that like me, like Mohammed, they are wanderers? They came originally from China, wandered to Japan where they’ve become the most beloved of fruits, before they made their way to the new world. Is it that they belong to a genus--Diospyros--which means fruit of the gods?

The joy I feel at the sight of the luminous persimmon tree reminds me of a dream I had some years ago, of a tree filled with golden flowers. The dream took me back to Jung’s essay--a Commentary on the Secret of the Golden Flower--which is an ancient Chinese alchemical text. Jung writes: “The Golden Flower is the light and the light of heaven is the Tao.” The Tao is mysterious. It has brought golden fruit of the gods from China to my front garden in America via an old man from Bosnia.

I wish my Oma were here to paint the persimmons--perhaps a still life with glowing fruit on a silver tray, a bowl and its shadow nearby. Perhaps she’s paint the treeits branches weighed down by the golden fruit. In the middle of the night I remember that we found a painting by her, of persimmons, last time we visited my mother. She did not paint the Fuyu persimmons we’re enjoying. Hers are Hachiya persimmons. But they too, are magical.


Painting by Emma Hoffman

I wish I could give Mohammed a basket of his persimmons. Instead I wrote him a poem.


TO AN OLD MAN FROM BOSNIA

I never expected persimmons.
That tree you planted—
before this became our home—

was a stick in the winter mud.
Your name, you said, was Mohammed
I wonder what lies behind you.

You tended your son’s garden—
what he loved was—
fast cars.

It’s been three times September
since we bought this home—
that scrawny tree surprised us—

clusters of hard green fruit, turning gold.
I’d not known persimmons
their taste from another world

the splendor they steal from the sun.
I wish we could talk.
We could walk in the garden

admiring your plantings.
I’ve been wanting to tell you, Mohammed
I never expected persimmons.

Friday, October 21, 2011

The Language Muse






With words you pull up the underworld. Word, the paltriest and the mightiest.
C.G. Jung The Red Book

I have been musing about language ever since I can remember. As a child I wandered between my parents native German, their adopted Dutch -used for secrets- the Italian I learned young, when we lived in Rome and Florence, and English. In my last posting I wrote about my father’s angry curse, “Potfadorry, which was frightening, magical -of mysterious origin. I thought it was a German expression. My friend Carly, who lives in South Africa but is Dutch, informs me that it’s a Dutch word spelled "Potverdorie” and meaning damn you --but with some humor.

The swirl of languages was fascinating and confusing. I remember being 5, getting off the ocean liner that had carried my family from Italy to New York Harbor. My mother’s cousin Annemie was there to greet us. “Oh” she said to me “the kiddies will be so glad to see you.” Kiddies? I thought, does she have kittens? No kittens. Just cousins Callie and Pampy. I felt dumb, and disappointed.

I muse about expressions as they dance in and out of fashion. I was amused to discover that the long gone rhyme besotted saying of my youth “See you later alligator” has a contemporary cousin. Our teenage grandson Justin texted: “Okey Dokey artichokey.” I love it!

Some phases seem to me to express the poetic soul of the collective. A favorite of mine, one that has emerged in recent years, is “back in the day.” It sets a tone, enchants, invites us into a shimmering mythic time when things were different and we were young. It’s a bit like “Once upon a time” because it opens the way to a story. Another favorite of mine is “back of the beyond,” which holds an alliterative tension between back and beyond. Back is where we keep the trash cans, where the backdoor man makes his appearance, the part of our bodies that we can’t see, the part that we place on the toilet seat. Beyond, in contrast, is open and shining, the mystery of the after life, an evocation of the unknown and unfathomable. The back of beyond is both disgusting and marvelous.

These expressions resonate with cultural and personal associations. They feel good on my tongue and in my heart. They sing with the joy of speech.

But sometimes an expression comes along that bothers me a lot. It sets my teeth on edge. It irritates me and puts me in a foul humor. “Gone South," as in “the market has gone south” is one of these. It flattens and negates. It conveys a quantitative image of a graph with sharp angles pointing downwards. That’s South. That’s bad. As opposed to sharp angles pointing upwards. These are North. That’s good.

I find this offensive. South to me is warm and sexy. South is full of music, hot nights, vivid flowers. I spent my youngest years in the American South -North Carolina. Now we all know that there was plenty of bad stuff happening in the South in the forties, when I was a baby and toddler. But I was a lucky child. My father’s first teaching job in this country was at Black Mountain College. It was a radical school -desegregated, with my parents help, in 1945. It was the fountain of much energy in the arts and poetry. When I visited the site of the long gone college some years ago I realized that I had been blessed by the very landscape of that place. My world was magical. The log cabin we lived in was called “Black Dwarf.” The school was situated at the shore of Lake Eden. It was Paradise.

Here is my grandmother’s painting of Lake Eden, and a couple of poems about my childhood in the South.


Painting of Lake Eden by Emma Hoffman


MY EDEN
(Black Mountain College, 1943-47)

Garden of the sun dappled baby I was
and the tow headed toddler, I can see me now
on the wooded path, beloved of the morning

and the night, drunk on mother’s milk
and daddy’s lullabies, cradled in the rapture
of the mountains, captivated by the fiery flash

of a Cardinal in flight, seer of the light
in willows, and in the waters of Lake Eden
enchanted by the song of the Carolina Wren

transported into sleep on wings of Bach and Schubert
enfolded as I was in this Black Mountain tribe
of music makers, paint stirrers, pot throwers, leapers in the air

Outside the gates—news of the war
Smoke rose, bombs fell
Inside the gates—faculty fights

for or against, communism, twelve tone music, short shorts
on young women. In the basement of the cottage named
Black Dwarf, a Moccasin frightened my mother. But I

lucky baby, took my first steps
between your apple and your wild
rhododendron, greedy for the names of your every living thing

Early I lost you. Lately I’ve found you
again. Sweet spot, source
of the singing in my heart, and my communion
with the mountains


BLACK DWARF

Who came up with so fairy tale a name for you?
Once you housed my greenhorn parents
the upstairs poet, his toy trains, the library lady, and me

Did I roll down your sunny lawns? Did I learn about stairs
on your front porch, or up the long flight
to see the trains run? Was there snow

in the winter? Did your windows let in summer’s
full foliage? Do you remember my first step, first word, first mashed
banana? Did you protect me in my sleep? Did you practice magic

in the way of the little people? Did you teach the toddler I was
to cast the circle, call the directions? Are my dreams inscribed
in your walls? Did creatures from other realms fly about

your ceilings? Are you haunted by my parents early love—
my father’s Well Tempered Klavier; my mother’s Mozart Divertimenti
by Roland Hayes singing, in your living room, that Old Pharoah

should let our people go?

You, little house with the enchanted name
toadstool under which my whole world hatched…


This is how my grandmother saw me, when I was a toddler.


Painting of Naomi, Age 2 by Emma Hoffman


Italy is also South, also magical, also a beloved childhood landscape. When I’ve traveled there as an adult, I’ve always felt profoundly at home, even though, sadly, I have lost my Italian. Some part of me knows the music of that language in my soul and in my hands. When my grandmother’s family fled Germany in 1932, after Hitler’s rise, they went to Italy, to Capris, for a brief holiday, to recover after so much fear and grief, before they moved on to the Netherlands. My grandmother’s painting of that Southern landscape hangs in my living room.


Painting of Capri by Emma Hoffman


Nowadays my favorite South is Mexico. Dan and I recover from the stresses and strains of our lives by going South to Mexico in the winter. We go to an enchanting small town, San Pancho -north of Puerto Vallarta and stay in a lovely B & B- Casa Obelisco, whose owners have become our dear friends over the years. It always soothes our souls to be there, reconnects us to our deeper lives.

Go South. I recommend it. Ignore the media hype about Mexico. There are no drug wars in San Pancho. It’s safer than North Oakland. Ignore the graphs about the endless ups and downs of markets; ignore the news of wars and disasters. Gaze at the bougainvillea and the hibiscus. Take a long walk down the beach, watch the pelicans grazing the waves with their wings. Fill your tired eyes with ocean, sky and palm trees. Have a margarita at sunset. Decide which of many fine local restaurants you’ll visit tonight.

Write a poem.

Gone South

One who has too many things to do
Has gone South, by the sea. She
Watches the curl of a wave. It crashes
Into a thousand thousand drops -all reflecting
The one
Sun

She
Who is too many things
To too many people
Returns
To her senses

Ocean in her ears, purple
Bougainvillea, yellow hibiscus, green palms
In her eyes, breeze
In her face, bringing news
To her nose
Of fish, wet sand, sea salt
To her tongue

Seagull cries. Someone
Opens the gate, calls out
“Hola!”

Later, she and her Dan
Will sit on the roof
Caught in that moment
Before sun falls
Into sea
Before moody moon
Takes over
Seven pelicans float past

Hush!
Let this moment linger
Let the sun engrave
Its dying lavender magenta
Into the belly of the clouds

Let the too many things
Dissolve into
The One


Sunset, San Pancho, Nayarit, Mexico. Photo by Dan Safran

Friday, October 14, 2011

The “Jahrzeit” Muse


Take pains to waken the dead.
C.G. Jung in The Red Book


Honoring the dead is an ancient and essential practice. Feeding the ancestors is a religious ritual across cultures -in China, in Africa, in Mexico. In Judaism there is a simple ritual: we light a candle on the “Jahrzeit” -the death day- of the departed. Jung says we must “waken the dead.” I think he means that it is psychologically important to wake their spirits within us.

My father’s “Jahrzeit” has just passed. I lit a yellow candle for him. I gave him an orange chrysanthemum. I always associate his death with fall colors. That fall, 26 years go, when I went to see him just before his death, in a hospital in Chicago, the colors of the leaves near Lake Michigan were intensely yellow, orange and red.

The photo of him and my mother, hanging out of a window in Cuba -newlyweds, the sun kissing their faces -graces my altar.


They were so young, just escaped from the horrors of Europe -the brown shirts, the yellow stars, the shattered glass of “Kristalnacht.” Here they are in Havana, with my mother’s family, waiting for visas to get into America. There is sweetness between them, a tenderness that I did not see much growing up.

My father died before the Internet, before blogging. But I offer him this blog posting, as part of my “Jahrzeit” ritual. I want to waken his spirit in me, to honor him with these reflections, and with poems.

In life, I was afraid of my father. We children all were. He could be full of rage, ferocious, cruel. We all quaked when we heard him thundering down the stairs shouting “Potfadorry, jezt hab ich aber eine Wut.” This means something like, “Now I’m really angry.” “Potfadorry," however, is mysterious. It seemed to my child’s ear to be a magical German expression, half curse, half joke, but always a sign of great danger.

My brother Si was talking about this the other day. He told a story of coming to me and our brother Ben for advice when he had to choose a musical instrument. Playing an instrument was a requirement of membership in the family. My mother played the violin and the viola. My father was on his way to becoming a concert pianist before life intervened, and he became a musicologist. Ben and I both played the piano and had been the objects of many a “potfadorry” rage. We advised Si against taking up piano. Play something Dad doesn’t play, something unfamiliar to him. Flute, for example. That worked pretty well until the day Si left his flute on the bus coming home from school.


Sketch: Dad at the piano, mother on violin, Aunt Ilein on cello.
by Emma Hoffman, (my grandmother)

But Si, who caught more of our father’s rage than anyone, was always the one who saw the good in him: his brilliance, his passion for music and art, his intensely liberal politics.

It has only been in the years since his death that I’ve been able to open my heart to my father, to see the beauty of his burning intelligence, to see how he lives in me.

Father, I have hated you and I have loved you. I have written many poems about you. I offer you two poems for this Jahrzeit. In “the great fugue of my father” I begin to understand how my relationship to you is changing since your death, that in many ways I am your ”spitting image.”

“at 19 before she became my mother” is written in the voice of my young mother. I imagine how she felt as your bride. Both poems are in my poetry collection “Adagio & Lamentation.” I wonder what you’d make of it. Your spirit, which lives in me, reminds me that your music, your knowledge of cultures and the arts, your passion for beauty, inform my poetry. And though you wandered away from my mother with another woman, I also know that in your way you always loved her and she always loved you. As she, now 91, wends her way out of this life, I want to honor your early love.


the great fugue of my father

I look for my father
who has been dead eleven years
i do not miss his lacerations
or how he pounded golden nails
into my brain

but death is changing us both
I feel him shifting
in my bones

I look for my father
in the usual places
steeping a Russian cup of tea
his aroma arises
his mother his father
I watch the flaming of the
red and yellow trees
his death day candles
each October

I see him in the swoop
of the hawk
the grace notes of wings
the melody of flight

I see his narrow fingers
strike the piano keys
each note his perfect child
each takes its place
in the great fugue

this morning he surprises me
in the way my eyes
take carnal knowledge of the valley
see the last gray ribbon
of fog

a sensuous woman’s peignoir
flung teasingly over the edges
of brooding hills
is it true
are we actually
laughing together
my father?

they say I am
your spitting image

stone walled
lion eyed
inward listening

a woman with a lute
is singing from another time























at 19 before she became my mother

Havana, 1939

I still like to play with my sisters even
when we’re cooking cleaning making
the beds how quickly we can make
each other laugh and when we go out
in the afternoon after the worst

of the heat to take photographs
of palm trees dark skinned
people how bananas grow
I skip like a school girl in my summer
dress surprised to find us all

alive on this tropical island
in a bright blue ocean far
from the grim trains the grieving
skies of northern
Europe is it really me

who is the first of three sisters
to be married and is he really
mine the elegant man in the panama
hat the light summer suit playing
piano accompaniment to my mother’s

melancholy Schubert lieder
you wouldn’t believe how
seriously he can speak on and on
about the flow of light and shadow
in the portrait my mother is painting

of my sister in white among
flowers it makes me giggle
is it really me whom he sends
those tender looks across the dining
room table where we sit with the rabbi

and talk about Moses is it really me
in the night when he makes it magic
soft touch of his fingers sweet
whisperings will it really be me
when we get to the promised

land will I live
far from my parents will I really
be his American wife
and bear him
American children?

(First published in Patterson Literary Review)


Friday, October 7, 2011

The Yom Kippur Muse

The spirit of the depths forced me to speak to my soul, to call upon her as a living and self-existing being. I had to become aware that I had lost my soul.
C.G. Jung in The Red Book


When the deepening, darkening undertow of fall begins to tug at me -weather shifts, days shorten, summer fruits fade, melancholy wanders into the garden- my soul sits me down for a reckoning. Though I don’t participate in organized Jewish High Holiday observances, I feel the power of this holiest time in the Jewish year in my bones, and my soul requires me to give her some serious sacred time at Yom Kippur.

My soul is a shape shifter. She comes to me as Muse, as Sister from Below, as guardian angel checking to see what I’ve done with the life I’ve been given. She shows up as ancestor, demanding my poems and my memories. She comes as the Spirit of the Times, filling me with terrors and enthusiasms -the economy, the environment, the Tea Party, the Arab Spring, and bless them that breath of fresh air brought us by the occupiers of Wall Street.

My soul is the Spirit of the Depths, come to remind me that I need “the life of eternity” as Jung says. I am required “to speak to my soul as to something far off and unknown which did not exist through me, but through whom I exist.” Jung again, in the Red Book.

So, at this time of year I set a day aside to honor a reality greater than the everyday. It is a time of reckoning, of accounting for myself, of sorting through the stuff of my life, separating what’s essential from what’s not. Trouble is -there’s so much stuff. Some of it is piled on the floor of my study. Some of it is written in my calendar. Some of it is in too many e-mails. There’s outer world stuff and inner world stuff. The latter shows up in my journals- where poems begin, where I reflect on the raw stuff of my life, wrestle with dreams, talk to my soul in her many forms. I sort through my relationships -those I love and serve- am I doing right by them? Trouble is, so much in my life is of the essence, feels urgent, needs to be tended, written, worked through, spoken.

My friend Leah says, ”Here we are in our late sixties, still fruiting.” It’s a big job, fruiting, harvesting, bringing to market one’s late life work. And yet, how blessed I am, how grateful, to have so much life stirring in me.


In Jewish folklore it is said that Lailah, the angel of conception, a guardian angel who watches over us in our mother’s wombs, who teaches all the mysteries, reveals to us our essential nature, and, just before we’re born, lays her finger over our mouths to seal in all the secrets we then spend our lives uncovering. That’s why we all have an indentation on our upper lip.

At Yom Kippur I have a frank discussion with Lailah. Am I living my life in harmony with my true nature? Am I living my life in harmony with Mother Nature? We all struggle with these issues. These themes came together in a poem, which I offer you for this Yom Kippur.


LAILAH WANTS A WORD

Lailah, the Angel of Conception…watches
over the unborn child.
Jewish Legend

You were not born for traffic
Not released into day for hustle

and drive. I did not send you past moonstone
past glow worm, to ignore the light. I did not touch

the soft spot on your crown, nor seal
my blessing on your upper lip, to be a slave

to acquisition. I sent you into the company
of frogs. I sent you to commune with willows

with oaks. Pay attention—
the frogs have stopped wooing

the oaks been sold down river
Grandmother Spider Brother Rabbit

are losing their worlds. You have ears —
Hear them. You have a heart—feel them

You have two lungs—breathe
I give you the wind

in the grasses. I give you the sight
of Coyote. She’s meandering up

the mountain. Follow her. Perhaps she will throw
your shoe at the moon. Perhaps the moon

will fill your shoe with shimmer—
Sail it back down to you—Then

will you remember
Me?

(First published on line at poetsforlivingwaters)


Saturday, September 24, 2011

The Muse of Unexpected Memories




The Story Behind the Poem

One of Poetry’s many gifts is the sudden associative leap that opens the door to a forgotten room in your soul, one full of meaning and memory. I had not expected Adlai Stevenson to show up in my poem. There he was, my schoolgirl crush. You’ve lived a good long time if you remember Adlai Stevenson. He ran for president in 1952 and 1956. Could a man with a bald spot and a hole in his shoe run for President today?

What did he mean to me, age 9, age 13? When I saw his face, when I heard his voice, something settled down in my body. I felt safe. As the American born child of Jewish refugees from Hitler, feeling safe was not familiar. But Adlai Stevenson felt like kin. He stood for an America in which I could feel at home. Stevenson was my good American father -urbane, sophisticated, witty, eloquent and liberal. Unlike my own father, who was also urbane, sophisticated, witty, eloquent and liberal, I never heard Stevenson fly into a German rage because I’d played a wrong note on the piano. What I heard him say was:

There are men among us who use ‘patriotism’ as a club for attacking other Americans. What can we say for the self-styled patriot who thinks that a Negro, a Jew, a Catholic, or a Japanese-American is less American than he? That he betrays the deepest article of our faith, the belief in individual liberty and equality which has always been the heart and soul of the American idea.

(He said this in 1952, addressing the American Legion in Madison Square Garden.) All we have to do to make that statement current is add “Muslim” and “immigrant” to the list of groups that suffer prejudice.

Stevenson was ridiculed in his time for his indecisive aristocratic air. (Sound familiar, Barack?) He was labeled an egghead. Young as I was, I knew I was an egghead, that my family and friends were eggheads, that I would spend my life among eggheads. I loved it when Stevenson said: "Eggheads of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your yolks." Spoken like a poet! No wonder I adored him.

A supporter told him that he was sure to get the vote of “every thinking” person in the U.S., to which Stevenson replied, “Thank you, but I need a majority to win.”

Stevenson was a man of moral courage and wisdom. In accepting the nomination of the Democratic Party in 1952 he said:

“Our troubles are ahead of us. Some will call us appeasers; others will say we are the War Party. Some will say we are reactionary; others will say we stand for socialism. There will be...the inevitable cries of ‘Throw the rascals out,’ ‘It’s time for a change,’ and so on and so on.”

Obama could say those very words today.

So much has changed and so much remains the same. The kinship I felt as a girl, for Adlai Stevenson, was matched by no one until Barack Obama arrived on the national stage: urbane, sophisticated, witty, eloquent and liberal, though some would argue with that last adjective. Something settles down in my body when I hear our President speak. His intelligence, his vision, his ability to contain great complexity, makes him kin. I hope he is aware of Adlai Stevenson as an ancestor.


Of course, Stevenson lost two elections. He did not face the impossible task of transforming his vision into political reality. He wasn’t given the opportunity to disappoint and disillusion us. He was not tested as Barack Obama is being tested today. And the safety I felt in Stevenson’s aura did not last. The hateful vitriol of the House Un-American Activities Committee, it’s vicious attack on the livelihoods of eggheads, artists, intellectuals, people who were my kin, and the ugliness of those cross-burning racist murderers, the Ku Klux Klan and their ilk, took over center stage in the country, and in my haunted heart. And today there is a new brand of vitriol, hatred, nastiness in our politics.

But Barack, difficult as this time is for you, for all of us who admire and support you, I think these words from Stevenson’s 1952 acceptance speech are good advice from your remarkable forerunner:

Let’s talk sense to the American people. Let’s tell them the truth, that there are no gains without pains...that we are now on the eve of great decisions, not easy decisions, like resistance when you’re attacked, but a long, patient, costly struggle which alone can assure triumph over the great enemies of man -war, poverty and tyranny- and the assaults upon human dignity which are the most grievous consequences of each....

The people are wise, wiser than the Republicans think. And the Democratic Party is the people’s Party -not the labor Party, not the farmer’s Party, not the employer’s Party-it is the Party...of everyone.

And Barack, there is just one more quote I want you to hold in your heart, as you go around the country talking sense to the American people. Stevenson spoke of our fragile planet in a speech before the United Nations Economic and Social Council in Geneva, Switzerland in 1965, the year of his death. He said:

We travel together, passengers on a little space ship, dependent on its vulnerable reserve of air and soil; all committed for our safety to its security and peace; preserved from annihilation only by the care, the work, and I will say, the love we give our fragile craft.

The poem that opened the door to Adlai Stevenson’s place in my heart is called “When I’m Gone.” Like so many of my poems it is an elegy. I am happy it has landed in a fine on line publication, Emprise Review, in which Tracy Youngblom has written an elegant essay on elegy. Any poet who aligns her work with that of Rilke and Celan, as she does, is kin to me. I hope you’ll read the essay and check out the poems in Emprise 21.