Monday, June 10, 2013

The Muse of Exile

they say home
is a place
in the mind

—Adam David Miller

The Muse of Exile has been singing to me since I was a girl. She sings a wanderer’s song, longing for lost landscapes, lost homes. She gives me many poems.

Emma Hoffman

Many Houses Ago

I wish I could see
those fabled houses from before I was born
the home of my grandparents in the hills above Kassel
the home of the poet Nelly Sachs on Lessingstrasse in Berlin

the crystal, the silver fish knives, the music room, the library
the well-tempered Bach, the Hölderin, the Goethe
Buber’s “Legend
of the Baal Shem Tov” who, it is said,
                                                to the radiance…

We wander around America
transporting what’s left
of the crystal, the fish knives
from haunted house to haunted house

the house with the pond and the scary catfish
the house with the frieze of dancing maenads
the house on the ridge where we watched the sun circle
from summer to winter and back

But always I am also
in that other life—refugee reality
the Nazis have confiscated home
Nelly Sachs has made it to sanctuary
sits in a white room in Stockholm
talking to stones

O the chimneys
....cleverly devised houses of death
when Israel’s body dissolves
into smoke.
        (first published in The Pinch)

View From a Lost Home, oil by Emma Hoffman

Where is home? Is it in the Europe my family fled because of the Nazis? Is it in North Carolina, where my father had his first job at Black Mountain College and I was a baby in that Eden? Or Italy, where I was 4 and 5 and spoke that language fluently, I’m told. Hearing Italian makes me feel strangely at home, but my tongue has lost its music. Is home in Queens, Princeton, Berkeley, India, Oakland, Orinda, Pleasant Hill? Is it in Barton, Vermont, where we spent summers by Crystal Lake, or is in Chicago where I visited my mother for so many years, before dementia exiled her from the great lake in which she swam well into her eighties?

The Muse of Exile was singing up a storm on the trip Dan and I took recently to the mid-west. I gave a talk in Cleveland about my grandmother, the painter Emma Hoffman. The Muse of Exile was her inspiration as she painted self portraits, portraits of family, landscapes, interior scenes of the houses in which she lived: these paintings reflect her losses, her wandering, her search for a new life. I have been tracking her exodus for years in my writing, first in The Motherline, then in many poems. In Cleveland I could see the theme of exile resonate on people’s faces. We are all exiles of one sort or another.

Ticket to Exile
The Muse of Exile sang to me in a different key as we wandered around Ohio and into Indiana where I have family. I was reading Adam David Miller’s memoir, A Ticket to Exile. Miller is a fine poet who has written a gripping book about the pre-Civil Rights movement South. The intense drama of his book is described on the back cover:
At age nineteen, A.D. Miller sat in a jail cell. His crime? He passed a white girl a note that read, “I would like to get to know you better.” For this he was accused of attempted rape.
Miller says he has an eidetic memory, which enables him to bring up scenes from his youth with great clarity. His memoir transports one into the 1920s and 30s Jim Crow South. Its structure is riveting. It opens in the middle of the drama:
I had typed that note, I would like to know you better, after work the evening before, on my thirty-dollar used Underwood, a machine I had bought on five-dollar installments with money I earned as a carhop…and…as a cobbler’s apprentice at a black-owned shoe repair shop in town.
The passing of the note is observed and Miller’s life is forever changed. The chief of police, with whom he is friendly, from whom he was about to buy a used suit, comes to the shoe repair shop to arrest him. He sits in jail, terrified, not eating. End of Part I. The reader keeps seeing him in jail, wondering how he’s doing, while he takes us back to his early childhood on his grandma’s farm, to his later childhood with his stalwart mother in Orangeville, South Carolina. He gives us rich, sensuous portraits of what life was like in his family. He describes the farm:
…good bottomland cleared from the swamp, [it] had been owned by the family since what many called the “farce” of Reconstruction. It had supported twelve mouths, twenty-four hands, working year-round.… 
They grew cotton for cash, corn as food for humans and animals. Tobacco was later to replace cotton as a cash crop. Vegetables: beans, tomatoes, okra, and the root crops, beets potatoes and rutabagas filled the garden. There were apples, pears, peaches, pecans and black walnuts in season. Berries and nuts were gathered from the woods…
The women knew what herbs to gather in the woods if someone were hurt or sick. He lived in a rural world of Black people; saw his first white people on the road to Orangeville when he was four and his mother came for him.

Miller was a bright, industrious boy who did all sorts of odd jobs to help support his family. He tells the story of all the houses his family moved to because of money or landlord problems, seven in three years. None of them had electricity or inside toilets. He tells stories that give us the texture and feel of that time, full of the pleasures and the humiliations of being Black. His was a restless, curious mind and he refused to imprison it in Jim Crow norms. That got him into deep trouble and in the way that deep trouble often does, opened his way into a larger world in which he could develop his many gifts. But he leaves us hanging onto the image of him stuck in that jail for most of the book. We are not released from that tension until the very end, when we learn how fate steps in to get him his ticket to exile.

He writes: “I was hit by trauma so severe that my memory was frozen. I could not visit that event for many years.” It is clear from his poignant descriptions of life in the 20s and 30s South, how much his exile cost him. He brings that lost home to life for his readers and I imagine for himself.

Adam David Miller

Crossing Cultures

Dan and I took a few days to explore Ohio. We wandered around the Vermillion River Reservation, heard the song of the bull frog and the hammering of a woodpecker. We visited the Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge and saw two bald eagles in a tree. We stayed at Maumee Bay resort, on the shores of Lake Erie.

It is also a bird sanctuary and we were treated to the sight of a baby owl sticking its head out of a nesting box. These creatures have been in exile too. We drove to Toledo to meet my e-mail friend and poetry buddy Richard and his lady Carol. We sat for hours in a Lebanese restaurant with brass lamps and beaded curtains (undoubtedly owned by exiles), eating hummus and kebabs and telling our stories of exile and wandering.

Carol, a docent at the Toledo Museum, had told us that it was imperative that we see the exhibit, Crossing Cultures, on Aboriginal Australian Art. She was right. It was a moving and mind altering experience and continued our odyssey of exile.

Aboriginal Art, Toledo Museum

These paintings are not abstract. They are the way these people, who have been exiled from their lands, pass down their knowledge of the landscape, how they mark the waterholes and cliffs and hills. It is how they were able to reclaim lands, proving by their artwork their intimate knowledge of the landscape.

The Muse of Exile was singing to me as we traveled to visit my mother in Indianapolis. She is living with my brother and sister-in-law, their teenage daughter and son, three dogs and four cats. They have given her a wonderful home. But seeing her there is another kind of exile. When my children were growing up she was “Chicago Grandma.” For me, she has always been the essence of home—a comforting, loving, funny mother, my informant on all the family stories, hub of the family wheel. Now she tells me she doesn’t know who she is or where she is. She is in exile from herself. She has lost that home in the mind of which Miller writes. My homing instinct still points to Chicago. Where is the center now?

My mother and Miller are of the same generation, though he is vibrant and clear-minded at ninety-one. A few years after Miller got his ticket to exile my mother helped my father integrate Black Mountain College in North Carolina. It became the first white college in the South to accept Black students. Exiles from their home because of who they were, my parents identified deeply with Black people in America. I grew up singing spirituals and believing that Black people were my kin.

Like the aboriginal people of Australia, my art is how I find my way home. My poems bring me back to center. Poetry connects me to the hub of the wheel of life. I have always felt at home in African American poetry, and especially loved the poems of Al Young, [link to his website] because of their musicality. Years ago I wrote a poem dedicated to Al. It is an important poem for me, and one I have often posted on this blog. I wanted to get the poem to Al but never could figure out how.

Al Young

My friend Leah Shelleda and I decided to do a poetry reading for friends and family, to celebrate turning seventy and forty-four years of being poetry buddies. Al is an old friend of Leah’s. They grew up together in Detroit. He came to our party. I realized that this was my moment. I read the poem to him and our gathered kin. I handed it to him. And when he blessed me for it, visibly moved, this exile felt, for that moment, at home.


I’m going to be just like you, Ma
& sing from the bottom of hell
up to the tops of high heaven
                         —Al Young

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   Pharaoh’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 Pharaoh 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 Pharaoh

but I want you to know    Al

every Christmas
in black churches all over Chicago
the Messiah shows up
accompanied by my mother’s
Hallelujah violin
         (first published in New Millennium Writings)

Gretel (Hoffman) Lowinsky, age 9


Naomi Lowinsky, Leah Shelleda, Frances Hatfield and Patricia Damery

Harms Farm, June 22, 2013

4:30 pm