Friday, October 19, 2018

The Muse of Women’s Rage

The Furies embody the dark side of the binding power of eros, the madness of blood betrayed, the primal affective cry when one’s substance and identity are denied.
The Book of Symbols
In the fury of women lies the power to change the world. —Rebecca Traister
Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger
The Ghost of Clytemnesta Awakening the Furies.
Painting by John Dowman (1750-1824)

Whose Fury?

I am still reeling from the Kavanaugh hearings a few weeks ago. I watched them soon after Dan and I had returned from a magical time in Venice. Unplugged from the news, we had been absorbed in a luminous watery world of incandescent canals, boats, cobblestone streets, arched bridges and the heady freedom of no cars. We wandered the mazes of the ancient city, held in place by masses of great tree trunks fastened to the mud deep below. We meandered, got lost, got found, got lost again, found ourselves in a mass of human bodies packed on a vaporetto full of fellow tourists joining our delight in this glorious world. You could tell the native Venetians. They were the ones with the bored looks on their faces. The rest of us were in an enchantment.


Our time in Venice had been a retreat, a purification, a cleansing of the soul. By luck we had happened on an exhibition—Idoli: The Power of Images—of ancient clay figures, including many I’ve marveled at in books. I was heartened, strengthened, in this time of patriarchal strongmen taking over our world, to find myself overcome, again, by the luminous power of the goddess, so recently returned to us through archeological excavations. I was reminded of the work of Marija Gimbutas in particular, who has awakened so many of us to our deep roots in the feminine. 

Idoli Exhibition
I was reminded of my first intimations of the Goddess, as a young woman in India, and later as a young woman returned to America in the late 1960s, when news of our ancient divinity began to illuminate our lives and experiences. The patriarchy was coming to its end, we told each other. The power of women would prevail. It didn’t go the way we’d expected.

Something happened to me watching those hearings. It was as though a plug of mucous shot out of my throat and made way for a muse I have denied most of my life—the Muse of Women’s Rage. I grew up under the archetypal shadow of a patriarchal father’s rage. My father was a refugee Jew from Germany. In my child consciousness father and Hitler were merged. His fury ruled our home, made it a terrifying place, made my mother’s shoulders slump, her eyes fill with tears, dragged my brothers by the ears, sent my own anger deep into hiding in the basement of my soul. My father hated angry women. He said they had “hair on their teeth.” I convinced myself that anger did not become me. 


Incandescent with Rage

Watching the morning session of the Kavanaugh hearings, feeling the power of Blasey Ford’s painful testimony, and how it was blown to smithereens by an afternoon full of hectoring, furious white men, made me, to borrow a phrase from Rebecca Traister’s opinion piece in the NYTimes Sunday Review “incandescent with rage and sorrow and horror.” (“Fury is a Political Weapon” Sept. 30, 2018) I’m not used to managing this kind of feeling. I find Traister’s opinion piece, and her new book Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger, very helpful. She argues that rage can be fuel for political and creative engagement. Like fire, rage can be used to illuminate, to cook, to create a clay goddess, and it can be used to destroy. I found her advice strengthening, encouraging. In her opinion piece she wrote:
If you’ve been feeling a new rage at the flaws of this country and you want to change your life in order to change the world, then I have something incredibly important to say: Don’t forget how this feels. 
Tell a friend, write it down, explain it to your children now, so they will remember.
Clearly I have to change my life by owning my rage. Clearly I have to use my words; they are my tools. I offer you this poem—my expression of the rage of women. I say to you who read this: If this poem speaks to you, please send it on to your friends and your kin. Urge them to vote, to get others to vote in our upcoming midterm elections, perhaps the most consequential elections of our lifetime. I urge you and your friends to support Emily’s List, which supports women candidates all over the country. Whatever is your mode of political expression, use it to voice your feelings about our frightening times.

Me Too
September 27th 2018

All of us are you   Christine   in this moment
All of us in tears   because that’s what we do when we’re mad
All of us took off the day    to watch you tell
what few of us have ever dared to tell
All of our eyes dart   from senator   to prosecutor
Prosecutor?     Whose nightmare is this?

Some of us watched Anita Hill face those same   white men
those same    dead fish eyes     a generation ago Anita was so
self possessed    Not one hair    went astray    in her careful do
while your scared hair    Christine    blows around    tangles
in your eye glass frames     tries to hide
the terrified fifteen year old in you we all are
For who of us has not felt    that heavy hand over our mouth
Who of us has not feared    death by suffocation?
Who of us has not heard    that nasty laughter?

Shirley Chisholm locked herself in chambers      Wept her rage
at those old boys    who dismissed     diminished betrayed her
They could not tolerate     a black woman    running for president
Who of us did not feel    primordial fear    when Hillary spoke up
while the guy with that schlong of a tie    stalked her mocked her
Who of us did not feel the hot tongs    of the Inquisitor
when in the Quicken Loans Arena    in Cleveland    in 2016
a guy with a tie incited the crowd to    “Lock Her Up!”    “Lock Her Up!”

All of us know what happens    to those who refuse to do
the patriarchal dance     of diffidence
We’re stalked    pilloried    diagnosed as disturbed
in the womb     We bleed from our eyes
Well you’re showing them    Christine    not one iota
of rage    not a drop of disturbance    You make sweet and pliant
eye contact    name your terror    though sometimes we glimpse
the owl in your soul    how your roots reach down     to your own hard truth

You’re a flower in a fierce wind    pulling petals in close    until
storm over    goddess willing    you rise
to your full stature    dismiss the security detail    return
to your everyday home    with its two front doors    teach psychology
make dinner    walk the dog    help the boys with their homework

But this is not the end of it      Your dance of diffidence
settles nothing      He’s back    the one we all remember from forever
beating his chest    roaring       No one stops
his predatory attack    his entitled engorgement     for which we are
a handy piece of flesh    to be grabbed    groped    banged    nailed
                                                                                                     to a broken
                                                                                                                 branch
                                                                                                                             of the tree

All of us know    what he’s not saying
that we’re witches    bitches     we are let’s say it aloud
CUNTS      And what is a cunt    but a portal    into a new world
we all come through     unless Caesar gets his way
and what is a witch    but a woman of power
who knows her own nature    is a part of all nature

In my dream    a brilliant black girl paints the world    in every living color
She’s Changing Woman    Woman of the Craft    Woman becoming us all
She runs strong    as a wild horse    dodges rocks and fissures     Maybe
it’s your dream Christine    and we’re all with you    on the wings of the owl
in the deepest part of the woods    where the oak grove remembers
the ones we were before
                                                                              we were grabbed groped banged nailed


                                                                              Naomi Ruth Lowinsky

Changing Woman

Thursday, August 16, 2018

The Muse of Good News




In Bad Times
Good news is essential medicine, especially in bad times. We live in outraged, heartbroken, burnt out times as we pass through the first anniversary of the Charlottesville white supremacist rally that turned deadly. Susan Bro, mother of Heather Heyer, the young woman who was killed by a neo-Nazi backing driving into a peaceful counter demonstration, was on the radio. She has created a foundation, with the help of many who mourn her daughter, which will provide scholarships to young people with Heather’s activist values. Heather understood about inequality and racism. Her mother wants her legacy to grow and thrive. Bro said:
Unfortunately, we’re still at such a racial divide that it took a white girl dying for white people to wakeup and pay attention," she said. People of color, she said, "have been fighting this fight for many years – this is not news to them.
In the way that good can sometimes emerge out of horror, the white supremacist rally that was organized on the anniversary of Charlottesville at Lafayette Square in Washington D.C., not far from the White House, was a bust for the alt–right. Only some two-dozen people showed up. It was a triumph for the counter demonstrators who were thousands strong, and who shifted the conversation to the real issues of mass incarceration, inequality, and systemic racism.


Holy Smoke!
Meanwhile, back on the west coast, California is on fire, again. At last count twenty fires were burning all over our state. They intrude on our state of mind, trigger memories of last October’s fires, of dear friends who lost their home. Smoke fills the air, makes it hard to breath, smothers our sacred Mount Diablo, drapes the sky in veils of ash. What have we done to our earth? Who came up with the name “holy” for that fire in Orange County? Holy smoke! Holy terror! Holy moly! Holy cow! Holy crap on a cracker!

The word holy comes from word roots than mean whole, heal, health, and sacred. Fire is a dangerous god, demanding sacrifice, an essential god who warms the hearth, an out of control god who reminds us how little control we have, a healing god who opens seed pods in the forest, growing new life. How to keep faith with such a god when our world is in flames and the Holy Fire threatens our way of life. The governor says: “this is the new normal.” He knows, what our president refuses to acknowledge, that fires in the west and floods in the east are, at least partially, a function of climate change.


I find myself responding gratefully to small stories of good news. The word “good” comes from roots meaning to unite, to gather, to bring together, as Susan Bro is working to do in her daughter’s name, as the firefighters are doing as they work to contain gigantic flames. The word “news,” of course, speaks to what Jung called “The Spirit of the Times,” the New, the Now. There are many oases of goodness in our lives. The Heather Heyer Foundation is good news. The counter demonstrators at Lafayette Square are good news. The firefighters who fight for our wildlands and homes are good news. We need to remember the values of unity, of gathering together in this fractured moment in our history. Here are a few of my recent “good news” experiences.

Holy Vegetables
In Broad Ripple, a magical section of Indianapolis along the Monon Rail Trail, where there is no longer a train, but where people run, bike, walk, push their strollers past beautiful vegetable gardens, where chard, kale, basil, and beets reach luminous leaves to the sun amidst marigolds and other flowering plants which attract the honeybees whose hive is tucked in among all the vegetative glory. Butterflies dance in the warm air; young mothers push their baby carriages into the Public Greens, the restaurant side of this idyllic farm–to– table tableaux.




It’s Saturday. Brunch is being served. The young mothers and fathers have brought their babies into the restaurant. They will have eggs cooked with fresh greens, herbs and tomatoes from the garden—a treat for them after sleepless nights and too much to do.


It’s our first time back to this restaurant since Mother died. We’ve come to visit family, and we feel the big hole in our midst. But here, watching a toddler pull his little book out of his mother’s bag with intense focus, I feel my mother’s pleasure in young children. I’m moved by the values expressed in this place, which in conjunction with the Patachou Foundation is feeding the children who suffer food inequality in this town.


Mother, if I could visit you as you used to be, I’d take so much pleasure in telling you about this program of the Public Greens, the tote bags for sale that say: “Real Food Belongs in All Zip Codes.” I can see your eyes brighten, a smile crease your face. If you were here with me, you’d turn yourself toward the little ones, sit quietly, and the children would be drawn to you like bees to a flower. They’d show you their favorite book, their teddy, their binky. You’d emit that sweet observant calm I miss so much. You’d murmur something and they would respond with all the language they have. On the way out you would exclaim about the glowing health of the chard, the tomatoes, the flowers. You’d watch the beekeeper put on her white veil to open the hive and gather honey. “It is so beautiful here” you would say. I would agree, and we would wander together through Broad Ripple, along the Monon trail, and that great empty hole in me would be filled with your presence.

One Nation, Indivisible
I don’t usually love the Fourth of July. I hate firecrackers. They seem crazy dangerous to me in our parched land. I don’t like jingoism and patriotic flag waving. But Dan prevailed upon me to join him at the Fourth of July parade in our small suburban town of Pleasant Hill. Dan is the activist in the family. He knows everyone in the political life of this town, shows up often at City Council meetings and was instrumental in the City Council's creating a "welcoming" policy toward immigrants, meaning that the police won’t co-operate with ICE in deporting or holding immigrants unless the immigrant has committed a serious crime. He goes to meetings and tells our refugee family stories of illegal immigration, how his father went AWOL from the anti–Semitic Polish army as a young man, and stole his way to America with false papers, how my parents and grandparents stole their way out of Nazi Europe, with false papers, had to live in Cuba for 18 months because the US was not letting Jews in, and eventually made their way to America.

Dan enticed me to come with him to the parade by saying we‘d be walking with the “Indivisible” float. Indivisible is a grassroots progressive political movement to engage people in the political process at a local level and stir up resistance to current administration policies. Its name connotes the goodness of gathering together to save our democracy, and to work for “liberty and justice for all.” Those are words we’ve often said automatically. How consequential they seem to us now. I’ve heard many stories from Dan about Indivisible and its brilliant women leaders. They are good news.

That’s how I found myself walking with members of our family, waving flags, and handing out red white and blue plastic leis to a diverse and good humored crowd full of families with young children and oldsters sitting on fold up chairs. The Indivisible float was not supposed to be overtly political, so the theme of the “Blue Wave” was translated into a glittering, glowing beach scene draped over someone’s truck. Turns out those brilliant women are also creative.




The best news for me, however, was the sight of a patrol car rolling slowly along, filled with brown skinned children laughing and waving, looking entirely at ease with their policeman host. The best news for Indivisible was: they won the prize for best float!

Holy Moly!
Who could have predicted this? Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a 28-year-old first generation Puerto Rican, ran against a well-established congressman, Joe Crowley from Queens, NY, and won. She calls herself a democratic socialist, worked for Bernie Sanders in the 2016 election, stands for Health Care for All, College for All. She speaks truth to power, hope to fearful ruts of consciousness; she says:
It’s not OK to put donors before your community.
This nation is never too broken to fix.
We have to do this together.
The 16 year old socialist in my soul, the one whose heart throb was the early twentieth century socialist candidate for president Eugene Debs, is cheering wildly. She has, over the years, been drowned out by the sadder but wiser voice of my mature self. Now she’s holding forth like the Parkland kids:

Why can’t we stop gun violence? Why can’t we have health care and college for all? Why shouldn’t we have a big shift to the left in this crucial moment in our democracy? Your democratic party has been shifting right for decades. Ocasio-Cortez is a new kind of socialist, not ideological. She speaks from the heart. She’s down to earth: she’s pragmatic. And anyway both you and Dan come from her district, you both lived in Queens as children. Eugene Debs ran on the socialist ticket five times. He said things that are so true today, a hundred years later:
I am opposing a social order in which it is possible for one man who does absolutely nothing that is useful to amass a fortune of hundreds of millions of dollars, while millions of men and women who work all the days of their lives secure barely enough for a wretched existence. 
To stir the masses, to appeal to their higher, better selves, to set them thinking for themselves, and to hold ever before them the ideal of mutual kindness and good will, based upon mutual interests, is to render real service to the cause of humanity.
Do something for me, the young socialist in your soul, who hasn’t had a voice for decades: Give Ocasio-Cortez the last word in this blog, for she is truly good news!

“You have given this country hope, you have given this country proof that when you knock on your neighbor's door, when you come to them with love, when you let them know that no matter your stance, you are there for them — that we can make change.”


Sunday, April 1, 2018

The Muse of Losing Mother



Mother in the surf with two of her sisters. She is in the middle

I lost my mother, Gretel Lowinsky, on January 11th 2018. She was 97 years old. Actually, I’ve been losing her for many years, to Alzheimer’s Disease, in an agonizing decline, which I have rendered into a series of poems. I visited her in her Chicago retirement home, and later in my brother and sister–in–law’s home in Indianapolis. They, bless them, provided her with sanctuary in her last years. Mother would sit in the living room, watching the parade of life around her, visited by the family dogs, by her grandchildren and their friends, tended by loving caregivers and by her son and daughter–in–law when they came back from their long days at work. She would forget where the bathroom was. She would tell me, often, that she didn’t know who she was, or where. The spacious home in Indianapolis would morph into her childhood home.

Mother in Indianapolis in 2012 with me,
her grandchildren Ari and Shoshana, and the dogs

My mother was a German Jew who fled Europe as a young woman with her family and found sanctuary in America. She was sturdy, hard working, good hearted, emotionally intelligent, and much beloved by those who knew her. She lived in Chicago for much of her life. She loved young children. For almost twenty years she worked for the Chicago Childcare Society, supporting bonding between preschoolers and their young, mostly African American mothers, teaching them about child development. She did home visits and, because she was so unassuming, humorous and kind, I imagine her visits were a welcome break for the families. She was also a fine violinist and violist. She took great pride in bringing “The Messiah” to black churches all over Chicago.

Mother with her grandson Daniel
Mother playing the viola




















Elegy is a powerful muse, and one that helped me work with the excruciating experiences of losing mother, bit by bit. In the end, there was nothing left of her radiant spirit, her contagious laughter, her love of life. She was a huddled mass in a wheelchair. Where was my mother? Her mind was long gone, but her body plodded on. I prayed she would let go, and finally, she did.

Mother woke me in the wee hours of Jan. 11th, ripping her roots out of my heart. I can still feel the pain of that rip. And then she transformed herself into a cascade of memories, as though her spirit, freed of the tangled knots in her brain, took flight over her long, complex life and poured the riches of her being into my soul.

One memory is pivotal. Twenty years ago, Dan and I were in Florence, at an International Jungian conference. Dan had found a charming apartment for us to rent, overlooking the Arno and the Ponte Vecchio. Mother came to stay with us there. In those years she travelled the world with enthusiasm and energy.

Our family had lived in Florence when I was a child of five. My father had a Guggenheim fellowship to do musicological research in the Bibliotheca. It was 1948, just after the war. Italy, like much of Europe, was devastated and impoverished. I remember that our apartment was always cold. I would sit on my hands to keep them warm. I remember eating dried bananas, because there was no fresh fruit. Mother had not been back in Florence for fifty years. This was a very different Florence, full of fresh fruits and vegetables, radiant with artwork and sacred spaces. Mother was delighted, full of stories. She showed us where the family had lived on the outskirts of the city. She spoke of Lydia, a friend or a nanny, who had grown attached to me and I to her. Lydia took me to church and had me baptized, because she didn’t want me to go to hell. When I proudly told my father about this, he hit the ceiling. But I have always felt deeply at home in Italian churches, especially in the Duomo of Florence.

Simon, Benjamin and Naomi in Florence, 1948

We traced the long walk she took to the hospital, alone, in labor with her third child. My father was too busy with his Medici Codex to accompany her. My brother Ben was born there. Mother told us she had slept on straw with the Romany women. She told us she feared for her newborn’s life. He had a hernia that needed repair. I wrote a poem about this:

Reverie in View of the Ponte Vecchio

Lavender chiffon lifts off my shoulders
light wind from the Arno cools
hot flashes

Mother in the front room
came in yesterday by train from Switzerland
summer rain

Such comfort in familiar voices
Mother and Dan discussing pregnancies
Cousins soon to be born
How beautiful the Jungfrau

Mother’s voice meanders down
a labyrinth—fifty years
since she was last here—
I was a child   She pregnant
with her third

It was just after   the war
the Germans had bombed all
the bridges   except
the Ponte Vecchio     Hitler was
fond of it

Mother walked on stones in labor
long way to the Ospedale
Santa Maria di Nuova–Careggi
slept in the straw with the Romany women
separated from her baby
by a sudden flock of white coats
his emergency surgery    She remembers
They kept him in a room with sick twins
First they turned green    then gray   then died
I thought my baby   was next


What is the kernel of this moment?
I want to crack it open    eat it
make it a part of my body forever
My brother   in his brick row house
in Toronto      surrounded
by history books    The old bridge
                                    dreaming of itself
                                    in green waters
Ponte Vecchio, Florence, Italy

I have another memory of my mother in Florence. We were in a jewelry store. Everything was aglow. She bought me an amethyst necklace. I bought her amethyst earrings. My mother seldom indulged in such “girlie” pleasures. Finery was not her thing. “Too fancy” she would say. I treasure that necklace still. Earlier in the day we stood before the Lippi Madonna in Santo Spirito. Mother kept gazing at the beautiful young mother with the inward eyes, her haloed son leaning out of her lap to play with his cousin. She kept putting more money into the light machine.


At dinner in a rare confessional moment, she spoke of approaching her eightieth year. “I am mostly in harmony with myself,” she told us. “Not always. That would be boring.” I remember how beautiful she looked in her many colored Indonesian shawl, her amethysts glowing in the candlelight. Later we went to hear a concert of Gregorian chant. Our shadows loomed large on the wall of what had once been a church, was now a military recruiting center. I hold onto that jewel of a memory. She would have a few more good years, and then the terrible decline. Here are three poems inspired by the muse of losing mother.

Posthumous portrait of JFK

Root Canal

1. Security Line

We are pilgrims on our way to see Mother   among travelers
in flip flops    with bluetooths     carrying babies      We walk
in our radiant bodies    One of us is about to crack

a tooth     Only the babies can see    old light
from past lives     Only the babies can hear
the song lines     We are pilgrims passing through

the metal detector     We remove our shoes     remove
our coats and shawls     Some of us will be hand wanded
silver bracelets    seven quarters     three dimes provoke

the security gods     The Kennedy who just died
is speaking thirty years ago on TV     His assassinated
brothers still bleed into our lives

2. Retirement Living

In Mother’s eighty-eighth year she got scammed     Sweet talkers
from the islands poured delirium into her ears      drained her purse
A Great Lake swimmer lost face      A late Beethoven violin

bowed to the gods of security      We’ve come
to see her new place among the formerly eminent
Hyde Park intellectuals      We walk the round of her days      She

gets lost      forgets her song lines      wants to sort through
scores of Mozart Bartok Bach.   What goes where?    The Kennedy who died
is talking on TV     It’s his funeral     His widow pushes back her dark

hair     She’s known him on her belly     in her thighs     She knows
his secret smell     When is it my tooth cracks?
When does that big bully nerve take over?

3. Roots

Oma’s paintings dominate this place     She painted
herself painting all her ages      painted herself losing
her grip     She looked straight into her own mirrored eyes

and painted the edge of her nerve     We make a pilgrimage
to see her painting of German snow on roofs in 1931
The naked larches scrape the sky     Her sons are dead

Her sons are dead     Her sons are dead     Trees
save her     Trees leave     Trees bud     Trees flower
Trees know her secret smell     They cleanse her dreams

Trees grow by rivers     by canals    by lakes     They reflect
on themselves in oils     in watercolors     They burn orange
in the deep wood     They burn gold under water     Mother loses track

of the song lines of her Mother     Her brothers bleed
into brothers not yet born     Mother says we live
too far away     that we’ve been swallowed by the State of California

4. Going Home

I am losing my own grip     My finger prints fade     I forget
your name     All I know is the scream of a nerve     I’ve no idea
how the widow got into Mother’s TV     no idea

how an endodontist removes a dying nerve     no idea
how a plane leaves this earth     no idea
how I’ll live in the State of California
                                                               while Mother loses track of herself
         
                                                               (first published in Sierra Nevada Review)

When Trees Go Wild -painting by Emma Hoffman

Mother Approaches the Border

Mother is leaving us
slow step by slow
                          lingering step

She’s ascending the winter trees
                          without bud
                          without leaf

She looks back
                          a runaway child
                          without overcoat

Time is a broken necklace
She’s given up gathering
                          spilt beads

Yesterday
is a clanging
in the basement pipes

Tomorrow chugs down the track
blowing its horn      Where
                        are her sisters?

Who has the passports?
Must she cross
                         the border alone?

The lake’s in a bad
                         weather mood
Snowflakes lick her cheeks

Mother laughs at the ducks
how they dive into what
                         we can’t see

She has nowhere to go
                         but up
tending the business of sky

She has nowhere to go
                          but down
having settled
the questions
                          of dust
                          of ashes

She doesn’t belong to us anymore
She belongs to the naked trees
to the lake and its bad weather mood

to the ducks diving into what
                              we can’t see

                              (first published in Blue Lake Review)

Brown on Brown, painting by Emma Hoffman

Mother      Between Now and the Dark

Those Sisters with Scissors poke holes in you
Cut out tomorrow     Dismember yesterday
Entangle your yarn ‘til you don’t know who
                                          you are or where

You lose the bathroom or it loses you
as if you hadn’t just been there
I show you down my brother’s
                                          long corridor

past your mother’s final
self portrait     You wheel
your walker back to me   your daughter
                                          from California

            I see me on the potty chair
            you perched on the bathtub chanting
                                             “sass  sass  sass   spss”


You sit at table     Refuse your juice     Refuse
your tuna salad     I hear your voice in my childhood
“Eat a little drink a little”     “My voice?”  you marvel
                                       A sudden shift of light

Your gaze meets mine
“I wonder what you’ll write about me now?”
For this moment you know me    even here in Indiana

till the Shadow Sisters steal
your face from me     O I regret
the half a continent between us     I regret

I must leave you again     You point
out the window into late autumn
Red leaves flame on the backyard maple
                                        “Look how beautiful”

As if you hadn’t said that minutes ago
A sudden shift of light   and I too
can see the tree     As if

the Mother Daughter circle   still spins
As if those Scissor Sisters   aren’t forever
                                                               lurking

                                                               (first published in Stickman Review)

The Moirrae, from the Aeneid, Part I by Virgil


Tuesday, January 9, 2018

The Muse of Endurance

The Poetry of Resistance V

Conduct your blooming in the noise and whip of the
whirlwind
—Gwendolyn Brooks
“The Second Sermon on the Warpland”

Bear's Ears

Living in the Warpland
all about are the pushmen and jeapardy, theft—
all about are the stormers and scramblers but
what must our Season be, which starts from Fear?

          —Gwendolyn Brooks
          “The Second Sermon on the Warpland”

Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz
We live in a strange dissociated time, in a warped land. We’ve spent a year in fear—demonstrating, raging at the TV, looking for saviors. I see none on the horizon. We’ve had some victories, in Virginia and in Alabama. The Russia Investigation grinds on. But we’ve had to watch so much we value slashed, decimated—Bear’s Ears, The Arctic National Refuge, Obamacare, DACA, Civil Rights, abortion rights, the Paris Climate agreement. We’ve seen extreme weather events. Texas has never seen as much rain as Harvey dumped on it. California has never seen a wildfire as huge and unstoppable as the Thomas fire in Ventura. The coast of Louisiana is washing away. Puerto Rico suffered two hurricanes in a row—Irma and Maria—which knocked out the power grid for months. Hospitals couldn’t function, water and food was scarce. Pleas for help from Puerto Rican officials like Carmen Yulín Cruz—the feisty mayor of San Juan—were met with disdain and insults by our berserker president, throwing paper towels and blaming the people of the island for their troubles. Cruz responded: “You can’t handle the truth.”

The truth is—the intensity of these catastrophes is symptomatic of climate change; we can expect more. The truth is—he whom we prefer not to name is a master of hocus-pocus and deceit. He manipulates the news with incessant provocative tweeting, causing political storms and wildfires as he shamelessly exults in public about how rich the Wall Street tax cut will make his cronies, and of course, himself. We are at risk for burning ourselves out with outrage. The greed that stalks the land is mind boggling. What has become of caring for the poor, the homeless, the sick, the stranger? What has become of Dr. King’s arc toward justice? What about our souls?

In this dark time of the year I see a sea change in myself and in those I know. We are withdrawing into ourselves, connecting with our deep roots, our souls—not in defeat—but in order to endure. We are remembering how essential it is to tend our intimate lives, our families, our friends and our dreams. Dan and I take walks, watch “Stranger Things,” see children and grandchildren, make soup with root vegetables. Dan spends time texting “Rapid Resist” messages to organize the resistance. I spend time reading, writing and teaching “poems of resistance.” But I can feel how the center of our lives has dropped down to the vital and the eternal, far below the “noise and whip of the whirlwind.”

Gwendolyn Brooks

Gwendolyn Brooks is good medicine right about now. Her “Sermons on the Warpland” feed my soul and remind me of the importance of tending one’s “blooming.” She wrote these poems 50 years ago, in times which brought civil rights to national attention and in which we suffered the assassinations of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. She reminds us that we’ve been through terrible times before. She asks a question that is painfully relevant today: “what must our Season be, which starts from Fear?” Not much.

Night Blooming
The time
cracks into furious flower. Lifts its face
all unashamed.
          —Gwendolyn Brooks
          “The Second Sermon on the Warpland”

Brooks’ “Sermons on the Warpland” are blunt and truth telling. She is preaching to her own people, to “Big Bessie” whose “feet hurt like nobody’s business,” but who “stands/in the wild weed…a citizen.” In the first “Sermon” Brooks urges her brothers and sisters to “build your church…With love like lion–eyes./ With love like morningrise.” It is a love poem to a people who have not been treated with much love in a land still warped by slavery and Jim Crow. These “Sermons” are poems of direct address, of exhortation; they speak to the power of endurance and seem to me to be especially pertinent in our times.



Endurance takes many forms. My friend and poetry buddy Rich Messer sent me a poem recently that takes a more subtle, slant approach to resistance and to endurance. The word “endure” is related to Old English and Old German word roots for “true, “trust,” “tree” and “Druid.” This linguistic kinship web connects us to our pagan, oak seer roots, to the spirit of the earth, to our animal familiars, and to our ghosts. Messer’s poem is an example of what Jane Hirshfield, borrowing from Emily Dickinson, means with the phrase: “Tell All the Truth but Tell It Slant” in the American PoetryReview, Sept/Oct. 2017. Hirshfield writes:
Good poems travel in ways that are strongly or subtly, meandering, askew, counter, extravagant, peculiar, free, and freeing. Their pelts are freckled. They loosen the map lines of the literal, underslip narrowness, and let us see more than would be possible by looking at things directly. They are raids on reality that allow raids on the heart. They are lies whose intention is truth exposed more fully.
That glorious freckled pelt is camouflage. “So it is with poems,” says Hirshfield, arguing that “any good poem has lurking somewhere about it the Houdini–esque energies of the Trickster…”



Here is Messer’s poem:

Night Blooming

The anniversaries fade, waves coast

up the beach and memories retreat

unrecognized. It happened. We went on,

Knowing, uneasy, we opened

the back door, to whistle home the dogs.


There are people who do not begin

and end each day, glued to the screen.

There are people who sit quietly

in their living rooms, doing nothing

before bed. These people did not

follow our leader down to the dark waters.

They speak to each other and know

wisdom and joy. I swear this to you.


We endure and go on like boulders

swallowed by a glacier, nudged farther

south every year, etched with dark furrows.


When I sit late at night

with all my animal familiars and ghosts,

the news whispered around the circle

avoids his name. The things


we love we lose.

Who will take care of the garden?


"Night Blooming" is achingly sad, lyrical, tender, deep. The first stanza casts a calm, meditative spell on us, transports us gently into a realm of fading anniversaries, waves on the beach and memories. Things happened. “We went on.” We are in the world of the aging, watching the cycles of life. What makes us “uneasy” is not named, but it casts a shadow. What feels most vital is “to whistle home the dogs,” our loyal animal familiars.

Messer moves on to a subject more complex than growing old. We are in a political poem about endurance in dreadful times which avoids all political language and reference. The poem’s speaker describes a people who have not lost their way in the “Season…of Fear," a people “who do not begin/and end each day, glued to the screen…/These people did not/follow our leader down to the dark waters." They are not complicit. There is a hint of biblical language in "the dark waters,” a sense of mystery. We are told of a people who continue to live soulful lives with "wisdom and joy." By the end of the second stanza the calm tone of the poem has risen to a passionate oath—"I swear this to you." We, the readers, receive the speaker’s intensity with relief. We are no longer in a warped land. We haven’t blindly “followed the leader” into danger and deception. We want to join this wise and joyful tribe, or rather—through the poem’s magic—we have become part of the tribe.


Here is where Messer’s trickster comes in, and, to borrow from Hirshfield’s language, “punctuate[s] pomposity and shake[s] things up.” 

Our peaceful moment among trustworthy folk is, lest we take ourselves too seriously, unhinged. The wily speaker casts another spell, turning us into "boulders/swallowed by a glacier, nudged farther/south every year." We haven’t been able to escape the fate of our times after all. We are pushed around by climate change like everything and everyone else. We do have to face our terrors, even if—like boulders— we endure. As Hirshfield says: “Trickster stories…make spells to break the spells that…grip us.”

In the fourth stanza we return to the eternal realm, the realm of what Jung calls the “Spirit of the Depths.” The poem’s speaker has shifted from the first person plural to the first person singular. Does he want to be alone with his late night blooming? Is he casting us out? We are uneasy again, as we were in the first stanza. The real news, it seems, comes from “animal familiars and ghosts,” who avoid “his name.” Of course, in true trickster sleight of hand fashion, to announce that his name is being avoided is to bring the unnamable one into the poem and the circle, while, at the same time, diminishing him, casting him out of the great cycles of life and death, and the terrible truth that “the things//we love we lose.”

Remember, he can’t face the truth. The trickster voice of the poem has put a spell on us, and out tricked our ephemeral trickster president. The poem resists the times, resists the screens, hangs out with dogs and with ghosts, and faces the ultimate loss, our lives, with that marvelous last line—"Who will take care of the garden?"

She Who Dances with Veils
It was the summer of ’43. What did my young parents know
about the Europe they’d fled

the trains the chimneys…
          —Naomi Ruth Lowinsky
          “Birth Day”

A poem of my own has just been published in the online journal Front Porch. It too is a “slant” poem, a trickster poem of resistance, which refers only tangentially to the “evil spirits” that spook our times. Like Messer’s poem it undermines the fearful “Spirit of the Times” by casting a larger view of life as seen from an ancient cave: “Your little life and mine in the flow/of all the mothers of mothers the grandmothers of magic/the daughters of ritual skill.” The poem invokes Maia, the goddess of illusion, creation and imagination—herself a trickster. I hope you’ll check it out.