Monday, February 28, 2011

Red Book Dialogues

The C. G. Jung Institute of San Francisco has been hosting a series of dialogues between Jungian Analysts and leading teachers, writers and artists in the community--all inspired by the recent publication of The Red Book.

The final event in the series will take place Friday, March 25, 2011 at 7:30 PM and will feature Maxine Hong Kingston in dialogue with Naomi Lowinsky and Rhoda Feinberg. The venue is the Unitarian Church at 1187 Franklin Street in San Francisco.

Tickets are available at [$25 General Admission ($10 Student)]

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Music Muse

The Music Muse was a visitor when I was a girl. She was not really my muse. She belonged to my father, a musicologist and a fine pianist. My parents were German Jews who raised me and my brothers in the great European tradition of music and literature. Musical evenings were a family ritual, especially when my mother‘s mother, my Oma, came to visit. They connected us to our European roots. My father had entered my mother’s family as the piano teacher, in Holland. When he married my mother in 1938 he entered a family that had the means to escape the catastrophe that loomed over the Jews.

My father was a haunted man. He yelled at my mother. He yelled at us children. Ghosts were riding him, but he seldom spoke of them: his mother and father had died in the Shoah; so had millions of nameless dead, whose fate he’d escaped.

When the Music Muse came to our house all the raw angry pieces of the day fell away— the atmosphere softened. My mother relaxed. My brothers relaxed. My shoulders relaxed. My angst and my vigilance took a breather. The ghosts were there; I felt them. But they had stopped careening around, making a big commotion. They settled down, as did we children, and listened to the Music Muse.

She came as Bach. My father’s crisp, clear articulation enhanced the long lyrical phrases of a fugue or an adagio. He had been on his way to becoming a concert pianist as a young man in Germany, when he injured his hands. They were small hands—he could barely reach an octave. It was a catastrophe at the time. My father taught me that something good could come out of the bad. It changed his path. He always said that he was grateful, because he was much more suited to being a scholar of music.

Sometimes the Music Muse came as Schubert. I loved to hear my Oma sing Schubert lieder, my father at the piano. They are poems set to music. Oma’s voice vibrated with feeling. She was telling her story through those songs. My soul was stirred. I was filled with a longing for something intangible that lay beyond the everyday, beyond the fear and the rage, beyond the unredeemed dead and the broken lineage. Music, I’ve come to understand, was the religion of my childhood. It was blessing, solace, and prayer, how spirit became manifest, how passion was expressed, how soul returned to our haunted lives.

My father, I can hear him now, would be the first to say that the Music Muse and the Poetry Muse were sisters, even twins. They began life together back in the beginning of human time. He would point out, if he were alive to comment, that my poetry is very musical, and he would take full credit for that. Certainly it was he who inspired the title poem of my new collection, “Adagio & Lamentation” which invokes one of those musical evenings in my childhood. And it was my musical step daughter, Lisa Safran, who put this poem to music, bringing the Music Muse and the Poetry Muse together again.

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 shadows 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

Photo: Edward Lowinsky (toward the end of his life) by Nikki Arai

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

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Naomi Lowinsky is at it again, or is it The Sister From Below. . .

A Word from Naomi

Becoming a grandparent is one of the great amazements of a lifetime. Who knew the birth of the child of one's child could so change one's world? Maybe that's why the anthology, Child of My Child, is doing so well on Amazon. (As of 11/22/10, it is ranked at #33 on the Bestsellers List for poetry anthologies.) I'm pleased that it includes two of my poems "In the Garden" and "Emanuel."

The novelist Lucia Nevai, in reviewing this anthology writes: "'Little house of God -- may we deserve you' are the final lines from Emanuel, a poem by Naomi Ruth Lowinsky, which evokes just one of the dizzying number of surprising, yet universal emotions that explore the grandchild-grandparent relationship in this unique anthology. At first, one wonders how the scope of these poems can continue to broaden. But finally, one feels the subject is limitless. The publisher reports being overwhelmed with a mountain of submissions on the topic. Perhaps we can hope for Child of My Child Volume II."

Child of My Child makes a wonderful holiday gift for anyone who has, loves, or is a grandparent! It's a great time for them to buy the book, too, because Amazon is offering it at a 28% discount right now.

For the Amazon link click: Child of My Child.

I am also very pleased to be part of a Poetry Flash reading by poets whose works are included in Child of My Child: Moe's Bookstore, Berkeley, CA, Feb. 10th, 2011 at 7:30pm.

And now, one of the Child of My Child poems that was recently published by Fisher King Press in my newest book of poetry Adagio & Lamentation:


on the day you descended into our world circles within
circles opened one hundred and fifty thousand
people marched up Market street to protest a wrong war
not in our name not in your name Emanuel they chanted
and the drag queens of the city came out beautiful in their highest
heels their sleekest black velvet and they thanked us so much
for coming out to say “no blood for oil” “war is not healthy
for children and other living beings” and an old man on rollerblades
gave yellow roses to the little girls and a woman bared her very pregnant
belly with a peace sign painted upon it and i spoke every hour
on my cell phone to your mother to find out how close
were her pains it was a few hours before your dark head
would crown your broad shoulders twist out and that glistening coil
of your cord from the other world which your father cut
while your mother cried out to behold you old wisdom
still clinging about you Emanuel it was the day after the full moon
in Capricorn and the people had awakened to the gathering armies the gulf
upon which we all teetered and returned to the streets as we had
when your mother was my baby girl and we walked up Market street
to protest a wrong war

Emanuel you have descended and the world is so new your first poop
is big news and your good latch upon your mother’s breast you are
so sweet so calm a being released from forever to sing among us

little house of God
may we deserve you

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Happy Thanksgiving to all you grandparents and grandchildren!