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

came to the door
in a black ski mask

ripped up our baby photos
tossed fire on our roof
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.


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

(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


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

Who is too many things
To too many people
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

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

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, 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

(First published on line at poetsforlivingwaters)