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, 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 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?


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 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:


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.

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
She lifts her head to the mountain
She pricks up her ears…

This poem was first published in the Jung Journal