The Story Behind the Poem
The muse makes weird things happen, excites your passions, moves your soul.
Lowinsky, The Sister from Below, pp. 2-3
Oil Painting, 1943, by Emma Hoffman
Summer is my season. Summer fruit is a joy. I love it for breakfast. This morning it was glowing Bing cherries, sweet strawberries, a half a golden apricot, a handful of blueberries with my morning yogurt. Our summer garden is a joy. Dan tends the roses. They respond in vibrant yellow, salmon pink, fire orange. He brings bright treasure into the house. The Buddha of the kitchen window sits surrounded by all this color—his eyes closed. Mine aren’t. Dan’s tomatoes are gathering red. Their smell is ecstatic—sends me back to the girl I was, on summer vacation in Vermont—intoxicated by the smell of tomatoes in the sun. Dan feeds the birds. Finches and hummingbirds come, flashing their yellow bellies, their fuschia throats.
Summer is my season, the season of my birth. Summer’s colors and smells take me back to my new baby days in my grandparents’ North Berkeley home. I feel at home in summer, in my body, in light dresses, in my connection to earth and sky. I feel held by the warmth, blessed by the light, until the fog rolls in. Then I complain about what a cold wet blanket the fog is, how it interrupts my summer bliss. Dan, who doesn’t do so well in the heat, is grateful for the fog. And I must admit, there have been a few days, as the earth warms, that I too have welcomed the fog.
It’s not just the fog that intrudes on my bliss. For the summer I was born was war time, Shoah time—a terrible time for the world, for the Jews, for my family. My immediate family had made it out of Europe, and after a period of limbo, had found a home in America. They were haunted by those who did not get out, especially by the ghosts of my father’s parents. The ghosts wove themselves into my earliest sense of the world. They are always with me.
All this sensual delight, this stimulation, this seduction and color, this hot and cold, these ghosts that wander between the worlds, are heaven for a Muse. She thrives on summer fruit and roses, on tree light and dancing shadows, on long reveries in which the ghosts hold forth. She lures me to places I’ve never gone before. She rummages through her dress up box and puts on costumes I’ve never seen. One summer she showed up as Iris, a goddess I‘d never kept company with before. Iris demanded a poem.
Iris is the rainbow goddess, goddess of color, goddess of vision. She is a flower; she is psychopomp—she bridges the worlds between humans and gods. She is associated with writing, for writing bridges the inner and outer worlds. Some say she has recently appeared to star gazers as a planet. She guides the souls of dead women. No wonder she showed up, demanding her due. She was one of the goddesses present at my birth, and I had not honored her. Here is the poem that came:
Regarding Irisblue eyes are hers dark almost violet like the fierce
painter’s eyes of my mother’s mother and she slips off
her rainbow bridge making sense of the vision I had
as a girl of a being of light crossing over the water
she says she was there at my birth she
and her sea sister Thetis it was dawn
on a summer Wednesday far from the transit camp
Lag Westerbork where my father’s mother gave up
the ghost and Iris a small recently discovered
planet rose on the eastern horizon she the forgotten
goddess who carries a box of writing implements draws color
out of the glistening air is good at delicate negotiations between
those who belong to forever and those who are just
passing through gathered blessings for me from the sea
full of secrets full of wandering fish from the dead
who gave me sea horses to ride goat song
and shimmer my baby body was touched by the purple
of ghosts their blues their deep maroons and I was gifted
with every pleasure of voice of tongue of kicking feet full
of my mother’s sweet milk all joy to her who had longed for a child
and my mother’s mother painted my sea shell sleep and the red begonia
which glowed on the dining room table it was California and the yellow
hills stirred their big lion bodies and my hands reached out to touch
the light ah! I can see her face who is lilac and rose whose nipples
are apple blossoms who flings her green breasts at the dreaming sky
even now sixty years later as I sit on a wooden porch I can see
how she draws violet and orange out of trees words with their long
roots out of the seas and at the horizon she gathers me gold and silver
out of the summer air
(Published in Adagio and Lamentation)
The process of coming to terms with the unconscious is a true labour….It has been named the “transcendent function” because it represents a function based on real and “imaginary,” or rational and irrational, data, thus bridging the yawning gulf between conscious and unconscious. It is a natural process, a manifestation of the energy that springs from the tension of opposites, and it consists in a series of fantasy-occurrences which appear spontaneously in dreams and visions. Collected Works V. 7, 121I began my collection of poems “Adagio and Lamentation” with the poem “Oma” in which I invoked her, asked her to “come visit me.” Years later, thanks to Iris’ “delicate negotiations,” she has. It is summer, my season, and I sit in deep conversation with my Oma. I spend hours looking at her paintings, at her oil painting of the “red begonia/ which glowed on the dining room table.” I am sure my baby eyes were transfixed by that flower; I am sure I reached for it with eager hands. In this season of my birth I am given back something of my earliest images, Thanks to Iris and her rainbow walking between the worlds, to the “transcendent function,” to Oma’s skillful paint brush and her willing ghost.