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.