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Monday, January 23, 2012
Naomi’s essay “History is a Ghost Story” was just published in Psychological Perspectives Vol. 54 #4. Here is an excerpt:
Most Stony South African God
History is a trickster, a thief. It cheats us out of where we think we’re going, what we think we own, whom we love.
On the first day we arrived in South Africa in a jet–lagged haze, we were told we had to go to the mountain. This was Table Mountain, an imposing flat topped stony god that presides over Cape Town. It was a clear bright day. There was no “table cloth,” no cluster of clouds hanging over the mountain, obscuring the view. This we were told was most unusual—coming after days of rain—an opportunity we had to seize. So it is we found ourselves on top of the world, glorying in views of the wild coast, Devil ‘s Peak, the 12 Apostles. We meandered in a strange marshland filled with wildflowers. A bright green–necked orange–breasted bird flew by. I had not understood how much of the magnetic pull of Africa comes from the landscape. In Cape Town, everywhere you go the mountain dominates—pulls your eyes, your mind, from the business of the street to the high slow language of rocks and earth.
It was August, 2007. We were living in the shadow of the Bush years—had no idea as yet we were soon to have an African American president. We felt ashamed of our own country. At the opening reception to the conference I met Mamphela Ramphele—a tall elegant woman in black, something lacy at her throat. She embodies South African history. In her youth, she and her lover, Stephen Biko, were among the founders of the Black Consciousness movement of the 70s. I had read about them, read the poetry of that time. In the new South Africa she became the Vice Chancellor of the University of Cape Town—the first black woman to hold such a position at a South African University—and a Managing Director of the World Bank.
My father’s spirit leapt and glowed—he had always loved beautiful women, was a master of seduction. Was it he in me who went on and on to her about what a beacon South Africa was to our country? We had lost Martin Luther King and Malcolm X—we had lost meaning and direction, we felt lost in the current state of corruption and evil. South Africa had changed so dramatically for the better. It was an inspiration.
Was it the spirit of my father to which she responded, saying that my people were her inspiration, for the Jews had always valued literacy and education? That’s what the new South Africa needs. My father loves that kind of talk. I had been reading South African poetry, poems that told the unbearable stories…
On the next day Ramphele was our plenary speaker. She wore a bright red dress and shawl and shone throughout the hall. She was bold and her manner was fierce, her vision wide and political. She spoke of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which had been established by the post Apartheid government to facilitate recovery of the truth of what had happened. Hearings were held in public. She described it as a ritual of healing that helped the country find meaning. She spoke of its limitations, its failures. She spoke of the social engineering of apartheid, which destroyed families by separating the men, forcing them to live in barracks away from wives and children. Apartheid also blocked the education of young blacks, and the country was still suffering the consequences of a lost generation.
I felt touched by a world of experience I couldn’t articulate—but which moved me deeply. We began to lose our innocence, the spirit of my father and I, listening to her. We had wanted to believe that a new paradigm of justice and humanity was born out of Africa, and would lead us into the Promised Land. We wanted to believe that Mandela was Moses. It’s true he had walked out of prison because of his own great spirit and the wisdom and courage of then South African president F.W. de Klerk. Mandela had been elected president, there had not been bloodshed, but, as Mamphela told us, the terrible problems of economic inequality had not been solved. Whites still lived in privilege while many Black Africans were stuck in unbearable poverty. Whites complained that their children could not get work. Their talents were getting lost because they were emigrating…
I wrote a poem about these experiences in Cape Town:
MOST STONY SOUTH AFRICAN GOD
In Suffering, and Nightmare,
I woke at last
to my own nature.
I woke at last
to my own nature.
Knife Edge Mountain
Altar Mountain where the Sacrifice is made
Most Stony South African God
We see you
You follow us all over Cape Town—
where Mandela spoke to the crowd—
We see you
At the Afro Cafe in the alley
red roses on orange and purple oil cloth
black girl entwined with her white lover
We see you
On Robben Island
where the writing on the wall reads:
“Happy Days are Here Again!”
William says he’s still imprisoned—
can’t get a job besides this-—
being our tour guide in Maximum Security
We see you
At Langa, where Brenda and her sons
share six dark rooms, one stove, one broken toilet
with fifteen other families
You have our number
At the Langa Baptist church
held in the murmur of prayer
in Xhosa in English
we call you JESUS HALLELUJAH
Forgive us for what we have done
Forgive us for what we have not
Knife Edge Mountain
Altar where the Sacrifice is made; You Saw
WHAT THEY DID
TO STEVEN BIKO
How the GIRL GOT BURNT
How the HEART SLUNK AWAY...
What did we know?
What did we not know?
pull your cloud about you
gnash your teeth
You’ve got our number
Kitchen table mountain
sit us down with those
we’ll never understand
Make betrayer meet betrayer
Make us eat our own stories
WHEN THE MOTHERS
LOOKED INTO THE FACES OF THEIR SONS’
MURDERERS, FOUND THE HUMAN
Where does it live?
What do we know
What do we not know?
GRINNING SKULL MOUNTAIN
Most Stony South African God
You’ve got our number
Follow us home…
(first published in Left Curve)
To read the entire essay you can order Psychological Perspectives, Volume 54, # 4.
Monday, January 9, 2012
My father, the musicologist Edward E. Lowinsky—a difficult and demanding character in my psyche—has been dead for over twenty-five years. Recently he made a major shift in my inner world. No longer is he a demanding and critical inner voice. Instead, he is a brilliant and tragic figure. I feel for him. How did this transformation occur? Not by dream, not by active imagination, not by the intercession of a spirit guide—none of my usual modes of imaginal work are responsible for this deep shift in feeling. It is thanks to an article by the musicologist Bonnie Gordon, recently published in the Journal of Musicology (Vol. 28, #3, Summer 2011) entitled “The Secret of the Secret Chromatic Art.”
I have always known that my father was a controversial figure in his field, a founding father of American musicology who believed that no art can be studied separately from its culture. But I have never understood his story in the larger context of his field. Gordon’s beautifully written, psychologically astute and compassionate portrait of my father helps me feel his influence in a less conflicted way.
Photo of my father by Nikki Arai
Gordon writes of my father’s first publication in America, a “strange but riveting book entitled Secret Chromatic Art in the Netherlands Motet.” It came out in 1946—just a few years after my family had emigrated from Europe, fleeing the Nazis. There is a great deal of difficult technical musicological material in Gordon’s essay, which is way over my head. But the gist of what I understand from her is that my father was convinced that there were secret expressions of protest and heresy hidden in Dutch motets of the sixteenth century. This, remember, was the beginning of the Reformation—the Protestant revolt against the hegemony of the Catholic Church and the Inquisition. On the surface, my father said, the texts and melodies followed the rules decreed by the Church. “Beneath that compliant surface” she writes of my father’s theory “lurked secret chromaticism and seditious meanings that remained hidden from the eyes and ears of the Inquisition.” She quotes my father: ”To the world at large it offers us outward form, reserving for the circle of the initiated its secret meaning.”
Gordon’s thesis is that my father “aligned Nazi Germany with the Inquisition.” She writes: “Beyond its engagement with music theory and cultural history his Secret Chromatic Art delivers a modern narrative of oppressed minorities, ‘authoritarian’ regimes, and the artistic triumph of the dispossessed.”
I know this part of my father. He loved Spirituals. We sang them as a family. The story of Black people and the story of the Jews was the same story in my childhood. As a child I learned that spirituals often hid secret meanings—communications about seditious meetings, information about finding the Underground Railroad.
I knew my father as eloquent and persuasive. I also knew him as arrogant and contentious. It was never easy to have a dialogue with him; he had to have the last word. I often heard him rant about his fellow musicologists. Gordon’s empathic essay puts this in context for me. His Secret Chromatic Art had not been well received; his theory was never accepted. I had not understood the depth of his suffering about this. Nor had I understood his influence on me. I have been obsessed with African American poetry, I have written about spirituals and their secret significations. I have been obsessed with the Inquisition, The Shoah, the Spanish Civil War, issues of tyranny and oppression. I see now how my obsessions follow from those of my father; many of my poems are expressions of his concerns. Here’s one:
YOUR PEOPLE ARE MY PEOPLE
I’m going to be just like you, Ma
& sing from the bottom of hell
up to the tops of high heaven
for Al Young
My people are the people of the pianoforte and the violin
Mozart people Bach people Hallelujah people
My people are the Requiem people Winterreise people Messiah people
who crossed the red sea Pharoah’s dogs at our heels
Your people are the drum beat people the field holler people the conjure people
Blues people Jubilee people people who talk straight to God
Your people are the Old Man River people the Drinking Gourd people
singing the Lord’s songs in a strange land
My family had a Sabbath ritual
We lit the candles sang Go Down Moses sang Swing Low Sweet Chariot
sang slave music freedom music secret signals in the night music
my father said you never know
when Pharoah will be back
I was young
I was American I thought
my people were the Beatles the Lovin’ Spoonful the Jefferson Airplane
singing Alice and her White Rabbit through all
those changes my parents did not understand
That didn’t last
That was leaving home music magic mushroom music
Puff the Dragon music floating off to Never Never land
now heard in elevators in the pyramids of finance
But Old Man River still rolls through my fields
Bessie Smith still sweetens my bowl
Ma Rainey appears in the inner sanctum
of the CG Jung Institute flaunting her deep black bottom
My father’s long gone over Jordan
and I’d hate for him to see
how right he was about Pharoah
but I want you to know Al
in black churches all over Chicago
the Messiah shows up
accompanied by my mother’s
(published in New Millennium Writings)
Until I read Gordon’s essay I did not understand how profoundly my father felt like an outsider. Gordon quotes Edward Said:
Exile is strangely compelling to think about but terrible to experience. It is the unbearable rift forced between a human being and a native place; between the self and its true home; its essential sadness can never be surmounted.Shortly after he arrived in America (years before the State of Israel was created) my father gave a talk in which he described the Jew as one with “no center of his own, he has no soil of his own, there was no landscape which would smile at him with the assurance ‘I am yours.’” My father had lost his native tongue, his professors at the University of Heidelberg who influenced his thinking and the academic future he had expected to find in Germany.
Until I read Gordon’s essay I did not know that among my father’s professors were Karl Jaspers and Heinrich Besseler. Jaspers was interested in mysticism, Besseler in esotericism. Gordon makes a connection between the secret oral tradition of the Kabbalists and my father’s belief in a secret musical mode of communicating forbidden ideas. So my father’s understanding of the world was influenced by German Romanticism and a fascination with Jewish and Christian mysticism; so is mine.
I did not know until I read Gordon how difficult it was for him to find a position in America. Gordon quotes a letter in which he writes of sending out eighty letters to colleges and universities before, with some help, he finally got his first teaching position at Black Mountain College. I did not know how impossible he found the burden of his teaching, providing for his family while trying to find time to pursue his scholarly work.
I did not know what the big fight with Joseph Kerman, who had been his colleague at Berkeley, was all about, though I remember hearing snatches of my father’s fury. As Gordon puts it:
The story of the secret chromatic art intersects with a larger disciplinary story of generational and ideological divides between scholars who were educated in Europe…and those younger scholars who wanted to “liberate American musicology from the stronghold of German influence in order to create a particularly American tradition.”
For Kerman, my father became the symbol of that conservative tradition. It’s the familiar story of the Prince challenging the Old King—the young buck taking on the old stag. From Gordon’s description I can see how my father’s character flaws deepened the tragedy we all have to face as we age—that we must hand over power to the younger generation. My father was not able to have a dialogue with Kerman. He fell into what my friend and colleague Sam Kimbles calls a “culture complex.” Kerman became a Nazi and a racist in my father’s eyes.
Gordon quotes my father:
Professor Kerman is playing a dangerous game with dangerous words that the older generation has heard before and fervently hoped never to hear again. Nor is Professor Kerman so young or so innocent that he can claim to be unaware of the twentieth–century use and origin of the terms ”alien” and “native” in matters of art and scholarship. One generation ago the Germans talked a lot about “alien” elements in German culture. They also did something about it.Gordon’s empathy helps me feel for my father in this story. She writes: “The debate with Kerman…situated Lowinsky falsely, I would argue, as the enemy of progress…Lowinsky stood as a straw man.”
I did not know until I read Gordon’s essay, that when his colleague Howard Mayer Brown went to visit my father on his death bed he was still wrestling with the battle over his Secret Chromatic Art. I remember him in those last days, pale and wan in his hospital bed, in denial about his impending death. I still could not engage him in a dialogue: I couldn’t get him to talk about his life, his work, or our relationship. I did not comprehend the tragedy of his life.
Maybe he understood it better than I knew. What he did speak to me about was the opera Eugene Onegin by Tchaikovsky, which was strange because he had never liked Tchaikovsky—claimed his music was kitsch. Now he was telling me the story of Onegin and Tatania at the ball—how radiant she was, how full of love for Onegin. But he, self absorbed, paid her no mind. My father closed his eyes and said: “Onegin has forever lost his chance to love.”
My father’s birthday is coming up, Jan. 12th. He would have been 104 this year. I just received an e-mail, from Bonnie Gordon responding to my thanks to her for opening my heart to my father with her wonderful essay. She wrote me about her presentation of her paper at the AMS (American Musicological Society)…
[It] turned into something of a love fest for your father and his ideas. Former students and indeed former enemies seemed to have come to some sort of intellectual peace with his ideas.Happy Birthday father.
Here‘s a poem for you:
daled for dad
you never were
a regular dad never
one of the guys
playing American ball
games such a formal
European father a scholarly
Jew you studied Catholic
church music sinned
against my mother
with your students
yet the Hebrew
letter daled is a door
way it is said and daled
was given me to
day your death
day I remember the deep
blue lake how
your delight found
words you gave me that
and the secret
of the Renaissance a music
out the church door
into the lyrical
you left me
(published in Earth’s Daughters and in Adagio & Lamentation)
Note: According to the Kabbala each letter of the Hebrew alphabet has an image associated with it, and daled’s image is a door.