Showing posts with label Adagio and Lamentation. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Adagio and Lamentation. Show all posts

Sunday, November 1, 2015

The Muse of Lost Homeland

A Letter to my Grandmother

Emma Hoffman as a young woman
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…
—(Lowinsky, “Many Houses Ago” in The Little House with Stilts Remembers)

Your Birthplace

Berlin, Germany
September, 2015

I write you—
You have come into the world again
with the haunting strength of letters
—Nelly Sachs, in “Glowing Enigmas”

Oma, I have come here for you. You were born here, in 1881, raised here, studied art here. You learned about family, animals, birds, trees, roads, sun, and moon here. You learned your alphabet of colors and the song of your soul here, in this Northern light, where it is fall. It’s getting cold. The young women wrap their necks with colorful shawls; the young men wear leather. You would not recognize this city. 

Most of the Berlin you knew was smashed to pieces by the allies in the last months of WWII. Many of the spare, square, renovated buildings preserve a piece of the bombed, bullet riddled past.

Oma, I don’t find Berlin beautiful. I find it exciting, interesting, respectful of its ghosts, full of life in its many forms, the kindness of strangers, ironic graffiti, and shadows from the Soviet and Nazi past. You wouldn’t be moved to paint much here, Oma. There are too few trees. The Old Synagogue is gone. Though you were never a religious Jew you liked to paint interesting buildings. Did you know the New Synagogue, built around the time of your birth? Parts of it survived the war. Other parts were renovated. That old Byzantine style cupola is so lovely. It would stand up well beside the Basilica of San Marco in Venice, where Dan and I just spent some time. The dome appears suddenly, blue and gold and gleaming, exotic in this rectangular city of blacks, browns, whites.

The New Synagogue

It is, however, painful to get near it. It bristles with metal fences and with security, because Jewish sites in Germany are at such risk of terrorist attacks. So much history here. A “Juden Frei” (Jew free) Berlin was never achieved, Oma, hard as they tried. A small band of survivors, hidden in attics and basements, preserved what they could of Yiddishkeit after the war. But now in this modern city, full of young people, wild night life, students, business people, young women with diamonds in their noses, young men with dreads, we hear that Jews are coming back to where their great grandparents made their lives. It is cheaper to live here than in Tel Aviv or San Francisco. There is an energetic feeling of new life and possibility.

What surprises and moves me deeply is the pull of German—my mother tongue and yours. I never speak it in America, though in recent years surprise myself from time to time by dreaming in German. But here, in Berlin, German pours out of my mouth so effortlessly, from some unconscious spring. And it feels good, “heimatlich—” at home.

We sit in a restaurant in our hotel, in “Die Mitte,”—the middle of Berlin, used to be East Berlin, and hear English, Hebrew, German, Danish, Italian, Turkish. We overhear business meetings, friends sharing confidences, travelers telling stories of the journey, young folk with laptops working on a project in a cozy corner full of books. It is an experience of “Gemeinshaft”—community, and “Gemütlichkeit”—comfort—that would stun you in the city where you saw Hitler staring at you in a café in 1930 and knew, in your intuitive way, that he wanted to kill you and your people.

I’m sure you knew, though I didn’t, that Jews have lived in Berlin—“the place at the end of the swamp”—since 1200 CE. Your maiden name, Osterman, means “from the East.” When did your ancestors come? Were they refugees? So many questions come to me here, in the city of your birth, almost a half century after your death.

Refugee Reality
We are refugees from that room
with its single bare light bulb
Will our visas ever be granted?
Will our dead know where we’ve gone?
—Lowinsky, “Refuge” first published as “Limbo” in Levure Litteraire
Everywhere people are talking about the refugees flooding Europe. Germany, of all countries, has offered haven for many. Can you believe that, you who fled for your life from Germany? America didn’t want to let you in, didn’t want a flood of Jews. Eventually, after what must have been frightening times crossing borders with false passports, you and your family were given safe haven. Now it’s America that wants to build a wall to keep people out. And here, in the city of the former wall dividing East and West, signs on buses and on walls declare “Alles is Möglich”—everything is possible. That used to be how things felt in America. No more.

The International Herald Tribune is full of the stories of the refugees. How they pass through Turkey, take a boat to Lesbos, just six miles into Greece, hoping to go further North, to Germany, if they’re lucky. How strange that Sappho’s little island has become the main point of entry for Europe. 2000 to 3500 migrants arrive there daily on inflatable rafts. Many don’t make it to safety.

Syrian Refugees Arriving in Lesbos

Hungary has closed its borders, built barbed wire fences, tear gassed, water cannoned, beaten, the war terrorized, hungry, exhausted refugees looking for haven. Here we are again, Oma, the dangerous border crossings our family knew in your time—how my father snuck across the border from Germany into Holland in the middle of the night, how my 18 year old mother and her older cousin took the train from Austria to Holland in 1938—when borders were closing—terrified that the cousin’s left wing connections would land them both in detention. In America there are people seeking refuge from dangerous gang riddled countries like Honduras. There are mothers and children, as well as unaccompanied children crossing borders, riding the tops of trains, risking everything to escape the impossible situations behind them, and to find their relatives in America. If they make it to the American border they are held in detention. There are politicians running for president on the promise to keep out the refugees, people like we were, fleeing for our lives. Round it goes, round and round. Where it will stop nobody knows.

There have always been refugees. Exodus and diaspora, go back to the beginnings of human history when our ancestors wandered out of Africa. Did they do so out of curiosity, the urge to explore? Were they driven by conflict or drought? When Dan and I were in Venice I read Jan Morris’ fine book, The World of Venice. She writes:
Venice was founded in misfortune, by refugees driven from their old ways and forced to learn new ones. Scattered colonies of city people, nurtured in all the ease of Rome, now struggled among the dank miasmas of the fenlands…They learnt to build and sail small boats, to master the treacherous tides and shallows of the lagoon, to live on fish and rain–water… 
If we are to believe the old chronicles, the foundation of Venice occurred on 25th March 421, at midday exactly.
Are we at the end of one era, entering another, like the ancient Venetians?

Forsaken City
O the habitations of death,
Invitingly appointed
For the host who used to be a guest—
—Nellie Sachs in “O the Chimneys”
In Berlin, Oma, it feels different. There are commemorations of the lost Jews all over “Die Mitte.” There are “Stolpersteine—”stumble stones—brass markers embedded in the ground so passersby will stumble over the names of those who lived here and were murdered in concentration camps. There are powerful sculptures, like one by Willie Lammert, called “Frauengruppe,” Group of Women—concentration camp figures emerging out of their nightmare, looking disoriented and gaunt.

Frauengruppe, by Willie Lammert

There is the Jewish Museum, which was an overwhelming experience for us. The old building, late 19th century, is connected to the new building by an underground passageway. One is forced down, down narrow steps into the dark gray walls and confusing maze of the building by the esteemed architect, Daniel Libeskind, who shaped his creation like a shattered Jewish Star.

Berlin Jewish Museum

One can follow the axis of the Holocaust, the axis of exile, the axis of continuity; there are voids to symbolize the lost fragments of European Jewry. One gets lost, disoriented, exhausted. The Holocaust Tower is a strange dark place, a very high triangle at the apex of which a crack of light is seen. When the heavy door closes behind one it is hard not to panic.

I was particularly taken by exhibits of Jewish family life in Germany before the Second World War, the time during which you were raising your big family, before all the deaths and the horrors. I was amazed to see a beautiful portrait by your teacher and mentor, Lovis Corinth, of his Jewish wife–to–be, Charlotte Berend. The portrait was made in 1902. You would have been twenty-one. I think you were studying with him then. Did you know Charlotte? She was just a year older than you, also a painter and a student of Corinth. I could see his influence on you in the warmth of feeling, the exquisite brushwork, and the feeling of interiority touched by light from without.

Portrait of his Charlotte by Lovis Corinth

There is a sculpture of a table, one standing chair and one chair knocked over, in bronze. It is called “Der Verlassene Raum—” The Forsaken Room—by Karl Biedermann. Around the edges of the work one can read inscribed lines by the great poet of the Shoah, Nelly Sachs— an essential muse to me. Did you know her work? She was born in Berlin, the same year as you were. I’d love to imagine you, Charlotte Berend and Nelly Sachs, lovely young women in a Berlin cafe, talking about your creative lives. What difficult futures lay ahead for you. A quote from Nelly’s poem is: “O ihr Schornsteine, /O ihr Finger, /Und Israels Leib im Rauch durch die Luft! “ O you chimneys/O you fingers? And Israel’s body as smoke through the air!

The Forsaken Room by Karl Biedermann

* * * * *

You can find more poems and stories about my grandmother, Emma Hoffman, in the Summer 2014 Issue of The Jung Journal, V. 8, # 3, in my book of poems, Adagio & Lamentation, and in The Motherline: Every Woman’sJourney to Find Her Female Roots.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

The Piano Teacher Muse

I saw “The Pianist of Willesden Lane” recently at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre. This one woman performance piece is a variation on the Jewish refugee story I have told so often about my own family in poetry and prose (The Motherline, The Sister from Below, Adagio & Lamentation). Mona Golabek tells her mother’s story of escape from the Nazis as a child via the Kindertransport—a British program organized by Quakers and Jews to save Jewish children and bring them to England. Golabek is a pianist from a potent Motherline of pianists. She tells her mother’s story in music as well as in words.

Mona Golabek

Her mother, Lisa Jura, was a brilliant pianist—a prodigy. When we meet her she is a child of fourteen, played eloquently by her daughter. We’re in Vienna, 1938. She is dressing up to go to her piano lesson. She is excited. She loves her piano teacher and has been practicing a difficult piece in preparation for her concert debut—Greig’s Piano Sonata in A Minor, op. 16. Her teacher turns her away. The Nazis have annexed Austria and it is forbidden to do business with Jews. Her mother, Mona’s grandmother, offers to teach her herself. That is until it becomes clear that the Jews are in terrible danger. It is difficult to get a child on the Kindertransport but Lisa’s parents manage to find a place for her—the oldest of their three daughters—hoping that her musical talent will protect her. In miraculous ways, it does.


Mona Golabek is a marvelous pianist, accomplished in the lush late Romantics—Debussy, Chopin, Rachmaninoff, Grieg. The family story she tells is in many ways my own. It is the story of how music can hold people in unbearable times, how music was a religion for high culture German and Austrian Jews—a way to access divine ecstasy without uncomfortable questions about religion or ethnicity. That is until that terrible moment dramatized by Golabek—Lisa’s rejection by her piano teacher. For my mother, it happened when she was 12, in the German woods with other school children, lighting a Christmas tree and singing carols. Hitler was invoked, and everyone looked at her. Suddenly she knew she was an outcast— a Jew. Being Jewish had never before been an issue.

In Golabek’s story and mine, classical music is a vessel that carries refugee Jews back to the familiar, the beloved—their lost worlds. Music lessons were essential, initiatory—a way of transferring cultural memory and values to the next generation. Ambition, creativity and drive found their outlet practicing difficult passages over and over until the passion flowed out of one’s fingers and one crossed one’s left hand over the right and back again in a crescendo of emotion, tossing one’s head and striking the final chords with bravura. This was Lisa Jura, Golobek and also my father, who was well on his way to becoming a concert pianist as a young man, until he injured his hand. He played the piano all through my childhood, played like Mona Golabek plays, though he was more likely to play Bach’s Well Tempered Klavier than Grieg or Rachmaninoff.

adagio and lamentation

when my father’s fierce fingers made Bach flow
our dead came in and sat with us     a ghostly visitation
and my grandmother sang lieder     of long ago

this is how prayer was said in my childhood     solo
piano     arguing with god     adagio and lamentation
when my father’s fierce fingers made Bach flow

music accompanied us into the valley of the shadow   and lo
Bach was torah    Mozart was our rod     Schubert led us into contemplation
my grandmother sang lieder     remembering long-ago

my child’s soul was full of glimmerings     the glamour of the gone   the glow
of candles borne by children into the dark German woods     the illumination
of the evergreen   all this I saw and more     when my father’s fierce fingers made Bach flow

my mother’s dead sister    my grandfather in a cattle car    woe
permeated shadow      stirred the curtains     took up habitation
in my grandmother’s body     filled every song she sang     with how she longed for long ago

long gone now     my grandmother      my father      although
sometimes I call them back     by villanelle     by incantation
come    my fierce father     play for me    water my soul in Bach’s flow
sing      my sad grandmother     your song is my covenant with long ago

In other ways my story is different from that of Golabek or her mother. I never looked forward to a piano lesson, as Lisa did. I never got dressed up to see my teacher. In an author’s note Golabek writes:
My mother…was my best friend. She taught my sister, Renee, and me to play the piano. We loved our piano lessons with her. hey were more than piano lessons—they were lessons in life…Sitting at the piano as a child, I would close my eyes and listen to her lilting voice and imagine her world. 
The child in me can’t imagine feeling safe with my piano playing parent. My father tried to give me lessons. He yelled at me. I didn’t practice. I didn’t take this seriously. Why couldn’t I remember what he had told me about the fingering and the phrasing? I don’t remember whether it was my tears or his frustration that ended that chapter. My mother began taking me on the subway from our home in Queens to Manhattan for piano lessons with the formidable Frau O who yelled the same accusations at me and slapped my wrists.

They were both right. I didn’t practice enough. I didn’t take it seriously. I didn’t want to remember the phrasing and the fingering. Looking back I realize my father was sending me to great piano teachers, master teachers who would have been appropriate for a Lisa Jura or a Mona Golebek. No wonder they were so infuriated. No wonder I was so traumatized. Nobody was interested in what I wanted.

Luckily for me Frau O had a lovely daughter who was my dear friend. Sometimes I got to spend the night, and we cuddled together under her big red comforter. This daughter became a renowned concert pianist. I always wondered how lessons went for her. Was she as scared of her mother as I was? How did she manage to practice and practice until she became a master of her art? Many years later, when our paths crossed as adults, I asked her. She loved music, she said. But she had to carve out her own niche which separated her from her mother. She became a proponent and performer of new music.

Watching Golabek’s performance it was clear to me that her love of her mother and her love of music were the same thing. Now, I love music. I feel lucky to have been raised in a family that taught me that love. I loved hearing my father play in the next room while I drifted off to sleep. But it is a revelation to me that a girl could feel loved and held by her mother who was also her piano teacher. The child in me has had a belief that Hitler came to live in the breasts of refugee Jews, that loss and agony got locked away in internal concentration camps, only to rise up screaming in the privacy of family life.

Golabek’s piano playing evoked the warm glow, the gold and red velvet elegance of her mother’s lost Vienna. Frau O also came from Vienna. It occurs to me now that it was not so much Hitler in her, but her longing to keep the tradition alive, that made her so angry with this stupid American born girl who refused her beloved vehicle of transport. As for me, did I refuse to practice, refuse to take music lessons seriously because I got yelled at? Or is it that my creative libido took another form?

Years ago I remember a colleague telling me about her ecstatic experiences singing classical music in a chorus. “You really have to do this” she said. I was surprised at the hot flare of anger that rose in me, and heard the sharp edge in my voice when I responded: “I don’t want to sing other people’s music.” That flare of anger became the beginning of a poem, which became the beginning of my first book of poems, “red clay is talking."

Anger, I’ve discovered, is a great opening to creativity. It is how the piano teacher became my muse.


       life after life
       I stand by the road
       and look for a home


she had been raised to sing
other people’s songs
but in the third morning of the new time
with the wisteria blooming outside her
kitchen window
and the shadow of the earth
about to fall upon the moon
she looked at the sky
the comet had inhabited
saw four geese fly east
toward devil mountain

heard the telephone ringing
the man in her house running
up circular stairs
calling her name

and suddenly remembered
the lips of the one who had sworn her
to silence
in dark waters
                                              wait for me
                                              one morning when the children are gone
                                              I’ll call
                                              put on your brown sandals
                                              wrap yourself up
                                              in your tree of life shawl
                                              come walk with me
                                                                 to devil mountain
                                                                         singing the song
                                                                         we were singing
                                                                                   before          you
                                                                                   were born

An Invitation from the Earth Muse

The San Francisco Institute is beginning an exciting series of eco-psychology programs. The first on is Saturday, February 22, 2014, 9:30 AM – 1:30 PM at the affordable ticket price of $35.00.

Indwelling: Our Human Participation in the Dream if the Earth
A workshop emphasizing the role of transformation in consciousness as an essential factor in addressing the environmental crisis. (With Barbara Holifield, MFT & Carol MCrae, PhD)
What Jung intuited nearly a century ago has never been more relevant: Western culture would become lost if we were not able to sustain a connection to nature and learn from the wisdom of the indigenous people, whose stories are deeply woven with the land. We have developed a split between ourselves and the earth.

Just what do we do as concerned citizens? What are our individual stories and what might be a more conscious collective guiding myth?

We will allow what emerges to build on Thomas Berry’s idea that hope for our future lies in our human participation in the dream of the earth. Check out Patricia Damery's blog for more on environmental issues.

Bragging Rights

The Sister from Below is proud to announce the publication of 2013’s Featured Poet: Frances Hatfield in Psychological Perspectives. Hatfield is a sister Jungian analyst and a sister poet from the mystery realms. Read six amazing poems by Hatfield and an introductory essay by Naomi Ruth Lowinsky in Psychological Perspectives (v. 56 Issue 4.)

Also, please consider subscribing to Psychological Perspectives. 

Monday, January 9, 2012

News from the Muse: The Muse of Musicology

The Muse of Musicology

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:


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 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

every Christmas
in black churches all over Chicago
the Messiah shows up
accompanied by my mother’s
Hallelujah violin

(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
chromatic art
of the Renaissance a music
that wandered
out the church door
into the lyrical
meadow this

one singing
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.

Friday, November 25, 2011

News from the Muse: The Muse of Ekphrasis

The Muse of Ekphrasis

I see behind the mirror of your eyes, the crush of dangerous shadows, the dead, who look greedily through the empty sockets of your eyes, who moan and hope to gather up through you all the loose ends of the ages…. C.G. Jung, The Red Book

[Painting of Naomi, Age 2]

Jung’s relationship to the dead has always spoken to me. He understood that the dead and the living need one another--the dead give the living purpose and past; the living give the dead hands and eyes. This is how it has been between me and the spirit of my grandmother, the painter Emma Hoffman. I blog about her frequently. She is one of my spirit guides.

When I was a child I knew her as Oma. She painted me as a toddler, full of light. I was the first grandchild born after years of wandering, years of catastrophe. She told me her stories of loss--the loss of three of her children, the loos of her home in the hills above Kassel, the loss of her country, Germany. She, her husband and her surviving children fled the Nazis during the 1930s. I remember how her eyes went fierce and inward as she painted. Oma showed me that making art can be a way to transmute grief, a way to bear the unbearable.

There is a loose end that troubles us both. Her paintings live on after her in my home, my mother’s home, the homes of my brothers and cousins in Israel, the homes of distant kin with whom I’ve lost touch. But her spirit looks through me and wonders:

Emma Hoffman was a fine painter. It’s not just her family who thinks so. The art historian Alfred Neumayer, who taught at Mills College in the 1950s and ‘60s was an admirer of her work. He wrote of her:
She studied from 1901 to 1903 under the best painter then available in the German Capital, Lovis Corinth. This means she was guided toward an Impressionist style since her beginning. She remained faithful to it, yet developed an ever lighter palette and an increasingly spontaneous brushwork.
When I saw the “Birth of Impressionism” show at the De Young Museum in San Francisco, I could see what Neumayer meant--the flow of light in Monet reminds me of Oma’s work. Consider, for example, the watercolor on the cover of my poetry book Adagio & Lamentation.

After this watercolor made its way so gracefully to the cover of Adagio, thanks to my husband Dan’s photo and my publisher, Mel Mathews' elegant design, Oma’s spirit was aroused. She loved having her painting out in the world. I told her I’ve always thought she should get more recognition. Maybe someday I would find a graduate student in Art History who would want to study her. Someday never came. Finally my grandmother’s spirit confronted me and said: You write poems and books, you give lectures, you knew me and my work. This is for you to do, not for some graduate student.

I spent much time last summer intensely studying her work. I put her pain filled self portrait in my study, on the very easel she had used.

[Self-Portrait, 1936]

It spoke to me. I studied other paintings of hers, some were in my possession, some I had photos of, thanks to Dan’s help. A suite of poems emerged.

There is a fancy Greek name for this sort of poem--Ekphrasis--poetry that responds to art. It has a long history going back to Homer’s description of Achilles shield in the Iliad. Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn” is a famous example. I had never before been drawn to write Ekphrastic poems. Suddenly I found them very compelling.

I worried about who would be willing to publish these poems with their paintings, since most poetry magazines operate on a shoestring and color images are so expensive. When Lucy Day the publisher of Scarlet Tanager Books, which published my first two poetry collections invited me to submit poems to an international online magazine Levure Litteraire, I thought of that suite of poems and paintings. It’s no big deal putting images on line. Lucy was all for it. So was Rodica Draghincescu, the editor of Levure.

A few days ago appeared in my inbox. I was excited. I spoke to the spirit of my Oma and told her her loose ends could stop flapping--seven of her paintings, eight of my poems in response to her paintings, were out in virtual space. The spirit of my Oma roused me in the wee hours of the night. She was all astir. Where is virtual space? she wondered. She died before personal computers, before the Internet, before e-zines.

I don’t know where virtual space is. I can tell her what it’s not. It’s not the Beyond, where she’s been wandering for forty some years. It’s not Hades or the underworld. It’s not the imaginal world. It’s not even a dream that wakes me up.

The ancients ones say it is important to feed the dead. I thought I was feeding my Oma with this tribute. People all over the world can now see some of her paintings. Why doesn’t this settle her down, give her some peace?

The spirit of my grandmother says: It’s not in the nature of spirits to settle down. We’re always in motion. We’re part of the flow behind the curtain of what you know. Maybe you’re the one who needs to settle down. This is just as much about your life work, your aging, your flapping loose ends as about mine.

Whew. A Zen slap from a spirit. She always did have those piercing eyes that saw right through me. She painted me, age 14, scared of my life. I wrote a poem in response to that painting.

[Portrait of Naomi Age 14]

Portrait of the Girl I Was, Age 14

Although I don’t enjoy
Looking at you—a clogged life
In a white dress, holding red flowers—

(Oma must have thrust
Those blood blooms
Into your haunted hands)

Although you sit there—deer eyed
Ready to bolt—Cossacks will gallop through
Nazis will kick in the door—

Although the music’s
gone underground, and you’ve lost
That wild horse you used to ride

Although you’ll dream
Of spitting broken teeth
Into the road for years

Before you learn
The sanctity
Of your own red room

Although I’ve never noticed
This before—behind your back
In a far corner

Of canvas—there is an open
Window, a hint
Of radiance, a glimpse

Of green trees—
You can’t see it yet, but
Oma has painted
Your way out…

I did not know until I wrote this poem that Oma had painted my way out of collective trauma, ushered me into the imaginal realm that has been my salvation. What began as a wish to honor my grandmother’s life work, has become a deeper recognition of how she and I continue to shape one another.

Of course, the fact that my poems and her paintings are together, on the virtual pages of an international publication, does not solve the problem of how her work will be gathered and appreciated after I’m gone. But it does allow you, dear reader, to see some of her work. Here’s the virtual path: click the link, then scroll down the right side of the page to "Multilinguisme/Languages," click on it, click on English, then on my name, Naomi Ruth Lowinsky.

Friday, October 28, 2011

News from the Muse: The Muse of Persimmons

True joy is simple: it comes and exists from itself, and is not to be sought....All you must do is fulfill your task.
C.G. Jung in The Red Book

The news from the muse is persimmons. The little tree in front of our house is aglow with them. The joy they give me is a surprise. Persimmons are new to me. I never paid much attention to them. I’m a summer fruit kind of girl. Give me a juicy peach, a sassy apricot and I’m happy.

When Dan and I moved into our town house a few years ago, the father of the seller showed us the garden he had tended. His name was Mohammed. We gathered his son and daughter-in-law were not interested in roses and trees. He introduced us to the persimmon he had planted. It had not yet borne fruit.

Mohammed was gaunt, dark eyed, white haired. He told us he was from Bosnia. I wondered what he had been through. We’d followed, with horror, the terrible stories of war and genocide in the ‘90s. As the daughter of refugees, I identify with refugees. I wrote a poem during those years about that identification. It’s in Adagio & Lamentation.

again the raptor god

I’ve never stopped hearing the screams
never stopped smelling the blood
Vietnam Vet on the radio

1. repeat after me

we are flesh (for now)
have bones
wake up in the middle of the night
in the grip of what
won’t drop us

words gather their stories around us
when we were children there was a song
about a bird who flew away

do you remember how the words grew axe heads?

all night my love you shook the bed
were you walking through the mountains to Albania?
dancing on a bridge in Belgrade?

2. the good life

we were fat and sassy
had three babies in a row
grapes grew
in our arbor
cock crow woke us
every morning

3. old lady

I have seen you on tv in your bedroom slippers
in the snow your dark haired grandson carried you
over the mountains across
the border your eyes enter
my house follow me down
the carpeted hall

rain on the roof
rain on the only blanket you have

O son of the mother
what have you done with the bones
of our grandparents?

4. Passover

the angel passed over our house

came to the door
in a black ski mask

ripped up our baby photos
tossed fire on our roof
made us to lie down
in the back yard

under the fruit trees

Persimmons came a few years later. Nothing prepared me for their glory--how they filled the tree with golden suns, how they tasted--subtle, nutty, wise. A strange thing to say about a fruit, but I find myself musing--if there were a garden of maturity, a garden of the fruit of ripeness, the tree of late life would be a persimmon.

Whenever Dan brings a handful of the elegant fruit into the house, I think of Mohammed--how moved I was by him. His son liked fast cars and motorcycles. His daughter-in-law liked shoes and boots with spikey heels. We’d seen the signs of these obsessions when we first looked at the house. They’d painted the place in blazing colors--orange, metallic blue, yellow. We changed all that. But the gifts of Mohammed, who had tended the roses, planted the persimmon, continue to nurture us and give us joy. His children have gone on to bigger and better in America. Does Mohammed remember his persimmon tree? Does he have any idea of the treasure he has left us?

I muse about the magic of persimmons. What makes them so enchanting to me? Is it that, when you cut them open, you see a design in the shape of a mandala? Is it that they look like tiny suns, or like the orb the Emperor holds in the Tarot Deck? Is it that like me, like Mohammed, they are wanderers? They came originally from China, wandered to Japan where they’ve become the most beloved of fruits, before they made their way to the new world. Is it that they belong to a genus--Diospyros--which means fruit of the gods?

The joy I feel at the sight of the luminous persimmon tree reminds me of a dream I had some years ago, of a tree filled with golden flowers. The dream took me back to Jung’s essay--a Commentary on the Secret of the Golden Flower--which is an ancient Chinese alchemical text. Jung writes: “The Golden Flower is the light and the light of heaven is the Tao.” The Tao is mysterious. It has brought golden fruit of the gods from China to my front garden in America via an old man from Bosnia.

I wish my Oma were here to paint the persimmons--perhaps a still life with glowing fruit on a silver tray, a bowl and its shadow nearby. Perhaps she’s paint the treeits branches weighed down by the golden fruit. In the middle of the night I remember that we found a painting by her, of persimmons, last time we visited my mother. She did not paint the Fuyu persimmons we’re enjoying. Hers are Hachiya persimmons. But they too, are magical.

Painting by Emma Hoffman

I wish I could give Mohammed a basket of his persimmons. Instead I wrote him a poem.


I never expected persimmons.
That tree you planted—
before this became our home—

was a stick in the winter mud.
Your name, you said, was Mohammed
I wonder what lies behind you.

You tended your son’s garden—
what he loved was—
fast cars.

It’s been three times September
since we bought this home—
that scrawny tree surprised us—

clusters of hard green fruit, turning gold.
I’d not known persimmons
their taste from another world

the splendor they steal from the sun.
I wish we could talk.
We could walk in the garden

admiring your plantings.
I’ve been wanting to tell you, Mohammed
I never expected persimmons.

Friday, October 14, 2011

The “Jahrzeit” Muse

Take pains to waken the dead.
C.G. Jung in The Red Book

Honoring the dead is an ancient and essential practice. Feeding the ancestors is a religious ritual across cultures -in China, in Africa, in Mexico. In Judaism there is a simple ritual: we light a candle on the “Jahrzeit” -the death day- of the departed. Jung says we must “waken the dead.” I think he means that it is psychologically important to wake their spirits within us.

My father’s “Jahrzeit” has just passed. I lit a yellow candle for him. I gave him an orange chrysanthemum. I always associate his death with fall colors. That fall, 26 years go, when I went to see him just before his death, in a hospital in Chicago, the colors of the leaves near Lake Michigan were intensely yellow, orange and red.

The photo of him and my mother, hanging out of a window in Cuba -newlyweds, the sun kissing their faces -graces my altar.

They were so young, just escaped from the horrors of Europe -the brown shirts, the yellow stars, the shattered glass of “Kristalnacht.” Here they are in Havana, with my mother’s family, waiting for visas to get into America. There is sweetness between them, a tenderness that I did not see much growing up.

My father died before the Internet, before blogging. But I offer him this blog posting, as part of my “Jahrzeit” ritual. I want to waken his spirit in me, to honor him with these reflections, and with poems.

In life, I was afraid of my father. We children all were. He could be full of rage, ferocious, cruel. We all quaked when we heard him thundering down the stairs shouting “Potfadorry, jezt hab ich aber eine Wut.” This means something like, “Now I’m really angry.” “Potfadorry," however, is mysterious. It seemed to my child’s ear to be a magical German expression, half curse, half joke, but always a sign of great danger.

My brother Si was talking about this the other day. He told a story of coming to me and our brother Ben for advice when he had to choose a musical instrument. Playing an instrument was a requirement of membership in the family. My mother played the violin and the viola. My father was on his way to becoming a concert pianist before life intervened, and he became a musicologist. Ben and I both played the piano and had been the objects of many a “potfadorry” rage. We advised Si against taking up piano. Play something Dad doesn’t play, something unfamiliar to him. Flute, for example. That worked pretty well until the day Si left his flute on the bus coming home from school.

Sketch: Dad at the piano, mother on violin, Aunt Ilein on cello.
by Emma Hoffman, (my grandmother)

But Si, who caught more of our father’s rage than anyone, was always the one who saw the good in him: his brilliance, his passion for music and art, his intensely liberal politics.

It has only been in the years since his death that I’ve been able to open my heart to my father, to see the beauty of his burning intelligence, to see how he lives in me.

Father, I have hated you and I have loved you. I have written many poems about you. I offer you two poems for this Jahrzeit. In “the great fugue of my father” I begin to understand how my relationship to you is changing since your death, that in many ways I am your ”spitting image.”

“at 19 before she became my mother” is written in the voice of my young mother. I imagine how she felt as your bride. Both poems are in my poetry collection “Adagio & Lamentation.” I wonder what you’d make of it. Your spirit, which lives in me, reminds me that your music, your knowledge of cultures and the arts, your passion for beauty, inform my poetry. And though you wandered away from my mother with another woman, I also know that in your way you always loved her and she always loved you. As she, now 91, wends her way out of this life, I want to honor your early love.

the great fugue of my father

I look for my father
who has been dead eleven years
i do not miss his lacerations
or how he pounded golden nails
into my brain

but death is changing us both
I feel him shifting
in my bones

I look for my father
in the usual places
steeping a Russian cup of tea
his aroma arises
his mother his father
I watch the flaming of the
red and yellow trees
his death day candles
each October

I see him in the swoop
of the hawk
the grace notes of wings
the melody of flight

I see his narrow fingers
strike the piano keys
each note his perfect child
each takes its place
in the great fugue

this morning he surprises me
in the way my eyes
take carnal knowledge of the valley
see the last gray ribbon
of fog

a sensuous woman’s peignoir
flung teasingly over the edges
of brooding hills
is it true
are we actually
laughing together
my father?

they say I am
your spitting image

stone walled
lion eyed
inward listening

a woman with a lute
is singing from another time

at 19 before she became my mother

Havana, 1939

I still like to play with my sisters even
when we’re cooking cleaning making
the beds how quickly we can make
each other laugh and when we go out
in the afternoon after the worst

of the heat to take photographs
of palm trees dark skinned
people how bananas grow
I skip like a school girl in my summer
dress surprised to find us all

alive on this tropical island
in a bright blue ocean far
from the grim trains the grieving
skies of northern
Europe is it really me

who is the first of three sisters
to be married and is he really
mine the elegant man in the panama
hat the light summer suit playing
piano accompaniment to my mother’s

melancholy Schubert lieder
you wouldn’t believe how
seriously he can speak on and on
about the flow of light and shadow
in the portrait my mother is painting

of my sister in white among
flowers it makes me giggle
is it really me whom he sends
those tender looks across the dining
room table where we sit with the rabbi

and talk about Moses is it really me
in the night when he makes it magic
soft touch of his fingers sweet
whisperings will it really be me
when we get to the promised

land will I live
far from my parents will I really
be his American wife
and bear him
American children?

(First published in Patterson Literary Review)

Saturday, September 10, 2011

The Terror Muse

Sometimes the muse is terrifying, arrives in a fiery crash -when towers fall, when a whole country awakes to its vulnerability. I remember that September morning as I remember the day on which Jack Kennedy was assassinated, the day on which Martin Luther King was assassinated. On Sept. 11th 2001 an essential American sense of safety was murdered.

Dan and I were waking to NPR’s “Morning Edition,” as we did most mornings, when images of planes crashing and people leaping to their deaths filled our heads. I find it hard to believe it has been ten years, hard to believe how much our world has changed.

The muse came to me in the voices of those whose lives were extinguished that day. I wrote a pantoum -a form in which lines are repeated- to give voice to the dead on both sides of the terrible story. The poem, “Voices from the Ashes,” can be found in my recent collection “adagio & lamentation.

voices from the ashes

where is my body?
who brushed teeth kissed the baby made the early train?
whose spirit’s been knocked beyond breath?
whose soul keeps running down a gone stairwell?

who brushed teeth kissed the baby made the early train?
whose burning heart whose exploding lungs?
whose soul keeps running down the gone stairwell?
where are my bones?

whose burning heart whose exploding lungs?
who wanders streets shows strangers your smiling blown up photograph?
where are your bones?
take my blood its all I have to give

who wanders streets shows strangers your smiling blown up photograph?
whose hole whose holy whose ground zero?
take my blood its all I have to give
watch my red life stream into vials and vials

whose hole whose holy whose ground zero?
I give you the life you stunted bombed in Baghdad made a prisoner of Sharon
watch my red life stream into vials and vials
for I with only a box knife have brought your towers down

I give you the life you stunted bombed in Baghdad made a prisoner of Sharon
I have crashed your Pentagon I am David I am Geburah
for I with only a box knife have brought your towers down
I am your nightmare I poison your waters I blow up your bridges

I have crashed your Pentagon I am David I am Geburah
you the high and mighty carry buckets sift through rubble
I am your nightmare I poison your waters I blow up your bridges
steel has melted buildings keep burning all is sulphur

you the high and mighty carry buckets sift through rubble
we come from the same story your Abraham is my Ibraham
steel has melted buildings keep burning all is sulphur
your ashes are my ashes

we come from the same story your Abraham is my Ibraham
the veil is ripped Azazel has his day
your ashes are my ashes
where is the angel Raphael healer of wounds?

the veil is ripped Azazel has his day
where is your body?
where is the angel Raphael healer of wounds?
whose spirit’s been knocked beyond breath?

(First published in Psychological Perspectives)

Friday, August 12, 2011

Golden Nails by Jane Downs

I was very pleased to see Jane Downs' sensitive review of adagio and lamentation in the August 2011 edition of Poetry Flash and want to share it with you. Jane is a Bay Area poet and partner in Red Berry Editions. Her work has won prizes and appeared in numerous journals. Her novel, The Sleeping Wall, was a finalist in the Chiasmus Press book contest. She recently published a handmade chapbook, The Weight of Pink Peonies.

Golden Nails by Jane Downs

Naomi Ruth Lowinsky was born to parents who escaped Nazi Germany where many of her family perished. In adagio & lamentation, Lowinsky explores the abiding effects of this history on her family. The living move out of the darkness of the Holocaust to lives in America where the threads of loss and solace, past and present are intricately and forever woven together. Lowinsky's lyricism brings us into a consciousness that is scarred by a past that also "stun(s) her with joy."

The book's opening poem invokes Oma, the ghost of her artist grandmother who was her only surviving grandparent:

Oma come visit me sit at your easel as you always did

your brush poised your eyes as fierce

as a tiger's show me how to create

the luminous moment among so many shades

These few lines introduce Lowinsky's theme of transformation and redemption through the creation of art. Her eyes, like Oma's, are as fierce as a tiger's. Lowinsky's gaze is resolute. Her refusal to look away from the devastation of the past and the realities of fear and dislocation provides the impetus for her own art making, using a pen and ink instead of a brush and paint. Her poems act as an invocation to resurrect the ghosts (shades) of the past—to bring all that surrounds them into an instant of insight. In the title villanelle Lowinsky writes:

and my grandmother sang lieder of long ago


my child's soul was full of glimmerings the glamour of the gone the glow

of candles borne by children into the dark German woods the illumination

of the evergreen all this I saw and more when my father's fierce fingers made Bach flow


long gone now my grandmother my father although

sometimes I call them back by villanelle by incantation

come my fierce father play for me water my soul in Bach's flow

sing my sad grandmother your song is my covenant with long ago

Fierceness is a requirement of art making. Through art, Lowinsky traverses time and place. Art conjures up the ghosts of family and cultural history. The music of Bach leads a young Lowinsky into the "valley of the shadow" towards the world of her imagination where she sees "the glow/of candles borne by children into the dark German woods." The children's hands hold the future, the promise of enlightenment, the hope of the forever green. Lowinsky's grandmother's lieder presage her granddaughter's future as a poet. By the end of the poem, Lowinsky has stepped into her father's place resurrecting the past with her poetry. Her words have entered historical time, joining the timeless stream of music alongside Bach, Mozart, and Schubert.

There are poems about Lowinsky's aging, her husband, immediate family, her conflicted relationship with her scholar father who "pounded golden nails / into [her] brain." Some poems are humorous, some celebratory. The sensual always co-exists with the disembodied. The poem "summer fruit" begins with:

if joy were a taste on my tongue

it would be you

juice of the peach

Lowinsky's love for and deep connection to the women in her family runs throughout the collection. In the poem "great lake of my mother" she addresses her mother:

have I told you it's from you I've learned

endurance reflection

how pain crystallized

can create

such radiance

The poems also paint a portrait of Lowinsky the poet—a woman whose experience, imagination and artistry have culminated in this haunting and life-affirming book. The last line of the book reads: " . . . the woman remembers her notebook her pen."