Showing posts with label Emma Hoffman. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Emma Hoffman. Show all posts

Monday, June 10, 2013

The Muse of Exile

they say home
is a place
in the mind

—Adam David Miller

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

Emma Hoffman

Many Houses Ago

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

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

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

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

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

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

View From a Lost Home, oil by Emma Hoffman

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

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

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

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

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

Adam David Miller

Crossing Cultures

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

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

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

Aboriginal Art, Toledo Museum

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

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

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

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

Al Young

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


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

for Al Young

My people are the people of the pianoforte and the violin
Mozart people    Bach people    Hallelujah people
My people are the Requiem people    Winterreise people    Messiah people
who crossed the red sea   Pharaoh’s dogs at our heels

Your people are the drum beat people   the field holler people    the conjure people
Blues people    Jubilee people    people who talk straight to God
Your people are the Old Man River people    the Drinking Gourd people
singing the Lord’s songs in a strange land

My family had a Sabbath ritual
We lit the candles      sang Go Down Moses     sang Swing Low Sweet Chariot
sang slave music freedom music secret signals in the night music
my father said you never know
when Pharaoh will be back

I was young
I was American   I thought
my people were the Beatles     the Lovin’ Spoonful    the Jefferson Airplane
singing Alice and her White Rabbit through all
those changes my parents did not understand

That didn’t last
That was leaving home music      magic mushroom music
Puff the Dragon music floating off to Never Never land
now heard in elevators in the pyramids of finance

But Old Man River still rolls through my fields
Bessie Smith still sweetens my bowl
Ma Rainey appears in the inner sanctum
of the CG Jung Institute      flaunting her deep black bottom

My father’s long gone over Jordan
and I’d hate for him to see
how right he was about Pharaoh

but I want you to know    Al

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

Gretel (Hoffman) Lowinsky, age 9


Naomi Lowinsky, Leah Shelleda, Frances Hatfield and Patricia Damery

Harms Farm, June 22, 2013

4:30 pm

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 21, 2011

The Language Muse

With words you pull up the underworld. Word, the paltriest and the mightiest.
C.G. Jung The Red Book

I have been musing about language ever since I can remember. As a child I wandered between my parents native German, their adopted Dutch -used for secrets- the Italian I learned young, when we lived in Rome and Florence, and English. In my last posting I wrote about my father’s angry curse, “Potfadorry, which was frightening, magical -of mysterious origin. I thought it was a German expression. My friend Carly, who lives in South Africa but is Dutch, informs me that it’s a Dutch word spelled "Potverdorie” and meaning damn you --but with some humor.

The swirl of languages was fascinating and confusing. I remember being 5, getting off the ocean liner that had carried my family from Italy to New York Harbor. My mother’s cousin Annemie was there to greet us. “Oh” she said to me “the kiddies will be so glad to see you.” Kiddies? I thought, does she have kittens? No kittens. Just cousins Callie and Pampy. I felt dumb, and disappointed.

I muse about expressions as they dance in and out of fashion. I was amused to discover that the long gone rhyme besotted saying of my youth “See you later alligator” has a contemporary cousin. Our teenage grandson Justin texted: “Okey Dokey artichokey.” I love it!

Some phases seem to me to express the poetic soul of the collective. A favorite of mine, one that has emerged in recent years, is “back in the day.” It sets a tone, enchants, invites us into a shimmering mythic time when things were different and we were young. It’s a bit like “Once upon a time” because it opens the way to a story. Another favorite of mine is “back of the beyond,” which holds an alliterative tension between back and beyond. Back is where we keep the trash cans, where the backdoor man makes his appearance, the part of our bodies that we can’t see, the part that we place on the toilet seat. Beyond, in contrast, is open and shining, the mystery of the after life, an evocation of the unknown and unfathomable. The back of beyond is both disgusting and marvelous.

These expressions resonate with cultural and personal associations. They feel good on my tongue and in my heart. They sing with the joy of speech.

But sometimes an expression comes along that bothers me a lot. It sets my teeth on edge. It irritates me and puts me in a foul humor. “Gone South," as in “the market has gone south” is one of these. It flattens and negates. It conveys a quantitative image of a graph with sharp angles pointing downwards. That’s South. That’s bad. As opposed to sharp angles pointing upwards. These are North. That’s good.

I find this offensive. South to me is warm and sexy. South is full of music, hot nights, vivid flowers. I spent my youngest years in the American South -North Carolina. Now we all know that there was plenty of bad stuff happening in the South in the forties, when I was a baby and toddler. But I was a lucky child. My father’s first teaching job in this country was at Black Mountain College. It was a radical school -desegregated, with my parents help, in 1945. It was the fountain of much energy in the arts and poetry. When I visited the site of the long gone college some years ago I realized that I had been blessed by the very landscape of that place. My world was magical. The log cabin we lived in was called “Black Dwarf.” The school was situated at the shore of Lake Eden. It was Paradise.

Here is my grandmother’s painting of Lake Eden, and a couple of poems about my childhood in the South.

Painting of Lake Eden by Emma Hoffman

(Black Mountain College, 1943-47)

Garden of the sun dappled baby I was
and the tow headed toddler, I can see me now
on the wooded path, beloved of the morning

and the night, drunk on mother’s milk
and daddy’s lullabies, cradled in the rapture
of the mountains, captivated by the fiery flash

of a Cardinal in flight, seer of the light
in willows, and in the waters of Lake Eden
enchanted by the song of the Carolina Wren

transported into sleep on wings of Bach and Schubert
enfolded as I was in this Black Mountain tribe
of music makers, paint stirrers, pot throwers, leapers in the air

Outside the gates—news of the war
Smoke rose, bombs fell
Inside the gates—faculty fights

for or against, communism, twelve tone music, short shorts
on young women. In the basement of the cottage named
Black Dwarf, a Moccasin frightened my mother. But I

lucky baby, took my first steps
between your apple and your wild
rhododendron, greedy for the names of your every living thing

Early I lost you. Lately I’ve found you
again. Sweet spot, source
of the singing in my heart, and my communion
with the mountains


Who came up with so fairy tale a name for you?
Once you housed my greenhorn parents
the upstairs poet, his toy trains, the library lady, and me

Did I roll down your sunny lawns? Did I learn about stairs
on your front porch, or up the long flight
to see the trains run? Was there snow

in the winter? Did your windows let in summer’s
full foliage? Do you remember my first step, first word, first mashed
banana? Did you protect me in my sleep? Did you practice magic

in the way of the little people? Did you teach the toddler I was
to cast the circle, call the directions? Are my dreams inscribed
in your walls? Did creatures from other realms fly about

your ceilings? Are you haunted by my parents early love—
my father’s Well Tempered Klavier; my mother’s Mozart Divertimenti
by Roland Hayes singing, in your living room, that Old Pharoah

should let our people go?

You, little house with the enchanted name
toadstool under which my whole world hatched…

This is how my grandmother saw me, when I was a toddler.

Painting of Naomi, Age 2 by Emma Hoffman

Italy is also South, also magical, also a beloved childhood landscape. When I’ve traveled there as an adult, I’ve always felt profoundly at home, even though, sadly, I have lost my Italian. Some part of me knows the music of that language in my soul and in my hands. When my grandmother’s family fled Germany in 1932, after Hitler’s rise, they went to Italy, to Capris, for a brief holiday, to recover after so much fear and grief, before they moved on to the Netherlands. My grandmother’s painting of that Southern landscape hangs in my living room.

Painting of Capri by Emma Hoffman

Nowadays my favorite South is Mexico. Dan and I recover from the stresses and strains of our lives by going South to Mexico in the winter. We go to an enchanting small town, San Pancho -north of Puerto Vallarta and stay in a lovely B & B- Casa Obelisco, whose owners have become our dear friends over the years. It always soothes our souls to be there, reconnects us to our deeper lives.

Go South. I recommend it. Ignore the media hype about Mexico. There are no drug wars in San Pancho. It’s safer than North Oakland. Ignore the graphs about the endless ups and downs of markets; ignore the news of wars and disasters. Gaze at the bougainvillea and the hibiscus. Take a long walk down the beach, watch the pelicans grazing the waves with their wings. Fill your tired eyes with ocean, sky and palm trees. Have a margarita at sunset. Decide which of many fine local restaurants you’ll visit tonight.

Write a poem.

Gone South

One who has too many things to do
Has gone South, by the sea. She
Watches the curl of a wave. It crashes
Into a thousand thousand drops -all reflecting
The one

Who is too many things
To too many people
To her senses

Ocean in her ears, purple
Bougainvillea, yellow hibiscus, green palms
In her eyes, breeze
In her face, bringing news
To her nose
Of fish, wet sand, sea salt
To her tongue

Seagull cries. Someone
Opens the gate, calls out

Later, she and her Dan
Will sit on the roof
Caught in that moment
Before sun falls
Into sea
Before moody moon
Takes over
Seven pelicans float past

Let this moment linger
Let the sun engrave
Its dying lavender magenta
Into the belly of the clouds

Let the too many things
Dissolve into
The One

Sunset, San Pancho, Nayarit, Mexico. Photo by Dan Safran

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Grandmother Muse

The muse has not ceased to surprise me since the publication of “The Sister From Below.” In that book she is weird and uncanny—a siren, a seductress, a shape shifter—a being from the archetypal realm. The Greeks knew nine muses. Recently, I’ve been visited by a variety of forms of the muse. They inspire my poems. One is someone very familiar: my grandmother. Her spirit insists she be given her due in my pantheon of muses. How can someone as ordinary and safe as a beloved grandmother be a muse?

As the first child born in the New World to a family of German Jewish refugees from the Nazis, I had a special tie with my only surviving grandparent, the painter Emma Hoffman, whom I knew as Oma. Oma showed me that making art can be a way to transmute grief, a way to bear the unbearable. She did not show up as a muse until after her death and after a dream I had in which I saw her dying—a long hard labor—as in giving birth. I wrote a poem about that—“Self Portrait of My Grandmother“— forty years ago.

If a muse is a catalyst—a call to one’s creative spirit—my Oma is that. Her death agony, as I saw it in my dream, as I imagined it in my poem, was my birth as a poet. Oma called me into my calling. In “The Sister” I describe the writing of that poem as “a tunnel blasted through rock.” It opened me up to my passion for writing, and to the realm of the imagination. Here is a section of the poem:

Listen Oma: I’ll tell them!
I’ll tell them you painted tigers
and flowers and babies and trees
and you could make a shadow
outgrow the thing that threw it
so intricate, so subtle you drew it

I’ll tell them you bore six children and buried three
outliving the six million and all the generation
that you knew
a refugee Jew
But they say you must take your medicine now
Oma—when will this death be over?

(first published in” Open Reading.” Republished in “red clay is talking.”)

If a muse is an inspiration, my Oma is that. Her fierce focus, her life stories, the way she tied me to the past and to my future, inspired my first book, “The Motherline.” Here is a passage about her from that book:

Once a month as regularly as the waning moon we visited my Oma on Sundays, my first husband, my baby, and I. Oma was the right word for my grandmother. The resonant, round sound felt ancient in my mouth. Her eyes were so deep you could see eternity in them. She had soft withering skin and a slow thoughtful walk…

It was a chorus in my life, a monthly refrain that took us to a sanitarium inn the wine country, where Oma lived. As in a ballad, where each verse tell of events progressing although the chorus is always the same, so this visit was always the same, and that was a comfort. In the midst of studying for exams, the baby getting teeth, the car needing a brake job, and the growing protest about our country’s involvement in Vietnam, the visit to Oma was as predictable, as soothing as a lullaby. Her soft, inward melancholy, her hand on my shoulder, were a reassurance and a blessing. (p.121)

If a muse is a frequent visitor, a guest from mysterious realms, my Oma is that. She has come to me over the years, in dreams, in memories, in reverie, in her paintings. Sometimes a painting breaks through and I see it with new eye. I described a favorite watercolor in “The Motherline”:

Do the dead know when they walk with the living? Oma, do you know that you are always with me? Your life work of painting hangs in my home and my office. Do you remember the watercolor of the living room in Berkeley where I visited you often? You painted the light streaming in through the arched window onto floors and rugs. It is a painting of inner space—one you lived in as an old woman and I visited as a girl. You served me tomato soup and crackers in the light from that window…That painting hangs in my office now, grounding me in my own childhood as I listen to the stories of other people’s childhoods. (p.129)

If a muse is a call from the depths my Oma is that. Twenty years after I wrote that passage, I found myself flooded with longing for her. The poem that came to me then, refers to the same watercolor. It is the opening poem to my new poetry collection, “Adagio & Lamentation,” and the watercolor is on its cover. Here is the poem:


I wish you could stop being dead
so I could talk to you about the light so we
could walk among the vineyards as we did
forty years ago near St. Helena and you

could tell me again how the light of late
afternoon is so different from the light
of morning I was too young
to grasp your meaning but I believe

you said it is all about the fall of shadows
that when you paint it is not light that streams
from your brush but deep purple violet blue
you shaped emptiness and there was light

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

of sorrow so many dead how to gather the light
of all the windows from all the houses of our lives
to make this bright trail I still follow along the gleaming
floor of the room in which you showed me how

to draw out the french windows to the unseen
garden a river of light that lifts
the Persian carpet into the air

So you see, this Grandmother Muse has cultivated my art and wandered in and out of my poetry and prose for forty years. There is an ancient practice that has always appealed to me—feeding the dead. I’ve thought of my writings as offerings to my ancestor, my Oma. I wonder if the dead can be honored in this new medium, the Internet. Oma, in this month of your birthday, does it feed your spirit to have a blog posting devoted to you?

Naomi Ruth Lowinsky