Friday, July 15, 2011

The Muse of Summer

The Story Behind the Poem
The muse makes weird things happen, excites your passions, moves your soul.
Lowinsky, The Sister from Below, pp. 2-3

Interior of My Grandparents North Berkeley Home
Oil Painting, 1943, by Emma Hoffman

Summer is my season. Summer fruit is a joy. I love it for breakfast. This morning it was glowing Bing cherries, sweet strawberries, a half a golden apricot, a handful of blueberries with my morning yogurt. Our summer garden is a joy. Dan tends the roses. They respond in vibrant yellow, salmon pink, fire orange. He brings bright treasure into the house. The Buddha of the kitchen window sits surrounded by all this color—his eyes closed. Mine aren’t. Dan’s tomatoes are gathering red. Their smell is ecstatic—sends me back to the girl I was, on summer vacation in Vermont—intoxicated by the smell of tomatoes in the sun. Dan feeds the birds. Finches and hummingbirds come, flashing their yellow bellies, their fuschia throats.

Summer is my season, the season of my birth. Summer’s colors and smells take me back to my new baby days in my grandparents’ North Berkeley home. I feel at home in summer, in my body, in light dresses, in my connection to earth and sky. I feel held by the warmth, blessed by the light, until the fog rolls in. Then I complain about what a cold wet blanket the fog is, how it interrupts my summer bliss. Dan, who doesn’t do so well in the heat, is grateful for the fog. And I must admit, there have been a few days, as the earth warms, that I too have welcomed the fog.

It’s not just the fog that intrudes on my bliss. For the summer I was born was war time, Shoah time—a terrible time for the world, for the Jews, for my family. My immediate family had made it out of Europe, and after a period of limbo, had found a home in America. They were haunted by those who did not get out, especially by the ghosts of my father’s parents. The ghosts wove themselves into my earliest sense of the world. They are always with me.

All this sensual delight, this stimulation, this seduction and color, this hot and cold, these ghosts that wander between the worlds, are heaven for a Muse. She thrives on summer fruit and roses, on tree light and dancing shadows, on long reveries in which the ghosts hold forth. She lures me to places I’ve never gone before. She rummages through her dress up box and puts on costumes I’ve never seen. One summer she showed up as Iris, a goddess I‘d never kept company with before. Iris demanded a poem.

Iris is the rainbow goddess, goddess of color, goddess of vision. She is a flower; she is psychopomp—she bridges the worlds between humans and gods. She is associated with writing, for writing bridges the inner and outer worlds. Some say she has recently appeared to star gazers as a planet. She guides the souls of dead women. No wonder she showed up, demanding her due. She was one of the goddesses present at my birth, and I had not honored her. Here is the poem that came:

Regarding Irisblue eyes are hers dark almost violet like the fierce
painter’s eyes of my mother’s mother and she slips off
her rainbow bridge making sense of the vision I had
as a girl of a being of light crossing over the water

she says she was there at my birth she
and her sea sister Thetis it was dawn
on a summer Wednesday far from the transit camp
Lag Westerbork where my father’s mother gave up

the ghost and Iris a small recently discovered
planet rose on the eastern horizon she the forgotten
goddess who carries a box of writing implements draws color
out of the glistening air is good at delicate negotiations between

those who belong to forever and those who are just
passing through gathered blessings for me from the sea
full of secrets full of wandering fish from the dead
who gave me sea horses to ride goat song

and shimmer my baby body was touched by the purple
of ghosts their blues their deep maroons and I was gifted
with every pleasure of voice of tongue of kicking feet full
of my mother’s sweet milk all joy to her who had longed for a child

and my mother’s mother painted my sea shell sleep and the red begonia
which glowed on the dining room table it was California and the yellow
hills stirred their big lion bodies and my hands reached out to touch
the light ah! I can see her face who is lilac and rose whose nipples

are apple blossoms who flings her green breasts at the dreaming sky
even now sixty years later as I sit on a wooden porch I can see
how she draws violet and orange out of trees words with their long
roots out of the seas and at the horizon she gathers me gold and silver
out of the summer air
(Published in Adagio and Lamentation)

Often my poems take me places I don’t know I’m going, show me inner landscapes, lead me to sacred springs I had not imagined. Sometimes when I read them years later, I understand that they have been prophetic. I suddenly understand my recent obsession with writing poems that respond to my Oma’s paintings. Iris has been engaged in “delicate negotiations” between Oma’s soul and mine. She carries a “box of writing implements” and “draws color out of the glistening air.” Iris bridges the world between writing and painting, between the dead and the living. She is what Jung would call the “transcendent function.” Jung writes:
The process of coming to terms with the unconscious is a true labour….It has been named the “transcendent function” because it represents a function based on real and “imaginary,” or rational and irrational, data, thus bridging the yawning gulf between conscious and unconscious. It is a natural process, a manifestation of the energy that springs from the tension of opposites, and it consists in a series of fantasy-occurrences which appear spontaneously in dreams and visions. Collected Works V. 7, 121
I began my collection of poems “Adagio and Lamentation” with the poem “Oma” in which I invoked her, asked her to “come visit me.” Years later, thanks to Iris’ “delicate negotiations,” she has. It is summer, my season, and I sit in deep conversation with my Oma. I spend hours looking at her paintings, at her oil painting of the “red begonia/ which glowed on the dining room table.” I am sure my baby eyes were transfixed by that flower; I am sure I reached for it with eager hands. In this season of my birth I am given back something of my earliest images, Thanks to Iris and her rainbow walking between the worlds, to the “transcendent function,” to Oma’s skillful paint brush and her willing ghost.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

The Motherline Muse

Motherline stories evoke a worldview in which all beings and times are interconnected…They are as common as the repetitive loops made in weaving, crocheting and knitting. They are as powerful as touching a grandmother’s face in childhood, or seeing a daughter suckle her newborn child.
Naomi Ruth Lowinsky, The Motherline p, 23

I’ve been reading Patricia Damery’s novel “Snakes” whose narrator is the breast–feeding mother of a plump baby girl. My body remembers the suck of my own babies’ mouths, the sweet breast feeding reverie, the intoxicating smells of baby skin and my own milk. I remember the pleasure and I remember the overwhelm.

The muse would come to me in those days—baby at my breast, on my hip, in the stroller. She’d say: “Why aren’t you writing about this? A mother’s experience is the foundation of everyone’s life? It’s so powerful. Where are the poems, the novels, the essays about this demanding, amazing and transformative experience?”

“When do I have time to write?” I’d lament. I knew the muse was on to something. I felt deprived by the lack of literature about this most profound human experience. This made me edgy and defensive. “The baby is hungry. The baby needs changing. There’s dishes to do, and laundry. There’s dinner to cook. My body belongs to the baby. So does my head. How could I even focus?”

All that has changed in my lifetime, I’m delighted to say. Many women, myself included, have written about the mysteries, joys and sorrows of mothering. I wrote a poem recently, about my problem.

Your Problem

In a peanut butter and jelly haze
in play dough and lego worlds
amidst unmade beds and Mrs. Dalloway
lost in a pile of laundry, all the edges

of your days unraveling, between baby cries
and dinner, between the earth spirit
who has opened you up, and the call
of that angel before you fall…

If there are rainbows
you don’t see them. If songs are singing
they don’t sing to you. If poems are forming
deep in the dangerous woods, you can’t hear them—

Poems are wild things, they’ll eat you up
just like the wolf, your grandmother has warned you—
but somewhere in a grotto, the witch
who has known you all your life, is busy
fermenting her brew…
(first published in Ibbetson Street)

If I could give my confused and disoriented younger self, just one book to read, it would be “Snakes.” Why “Snakes?” Because it would give her courage and hope. She would understand that her way of being and seeing has value and beauty.

Angela, the first person narrator and central character in “Snakes” does not suffer from the problem of my younger self. She is both mother and artist— a weaver. Weaving is her medium and her way of perceiving. Her voice weaves a rich tapestry of many threads: the bodily sensations of her milk letting down when her baby cries, the healthy smell of breastfed baby shit, the emotional trials of parenting two prepubescent boys, her ambivalent feelings toward her visiting, recently widowed mother, her spirited conversations with her dead father, her marital issues and lusty love for her husband, her memories of the small family farm she grew up on and her grief about the loss of that way of life, her meditations on her ancestors, her fear of snakes, her fascination with snakes and the myth she tells her sons about a shape-shifting serpent and his human bride.

“You mean you don’t have to write paragraphs that focus on one thing at a time?” my younger self marvels, remembering red marks all over her creative attempts in college. “You mean you can write about a woman’s gaze, her bodily response to a man’s nakedness? Listen to this:

“Let’s swim,” Jake said, pulling off his clothes. I stood spellbound. His body was lean and forbidden, yet I looked at every muscle, the tautness of his belly, the bulging of his thighs…I watched the curve of his buttocks as he hung midair and then ever so slowly, slipped into deep waters.
p. 85

“You mean you can leap from memory to myth to talking with a ghost to funny family conversations in which big brother calls baby sister “the Leech” to philosophizing about the loneliness and grief of ancestral farmers in the Midwest while writing in plain speech that is accessible and poetic?” My younger self is amazed. “You can loop back and forth in the generations, remembering yourself as a child as you deal with your children and your mother’s response to your mothering? You can weave a Zuni myth about a beautiful maiden who marries the sea serpent Kolowissi into a dialogue with an eleven year old boy?”

“Lived with a snake” Trent used to say. “She married a snake?”
“Kolowissi is a god” I’d explain. “He can take any form. But his favorite is that of a serpent.”
p. 33

“Just like that she weaves the ordinary and the marvelous into one fabric.” My younger self is impressed. She has suffered under the fallacy of categories. I wish she could have known what Angela knows: that all the realms are interwoven. That is how her mind worked. Still does. But back then she thought there was something wrong with her mind, that modalities were supposed to stay in their separate categories like university departments, or milk and meat, according to Jewish Kosher law. This muzzled her, hobbled her, kept her in a mental strait jacket, denied the flow of her thoughts. I wish she could have known what Angela knows—that magic is always present, as surprising and as ordinary as a snake slipping through yellow grasses on a California hillside.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Exploring the Creative Process

On Monday, June 27 at 12pm EDT (9am PDT), I am being interviewed by Steve Dahlberg and Mary Alice Long Co-Hosts of Creativity in Play.

Creativity in Play describes the interview as one where “we'll explore what the creative process looks like and how it works across poetry and therapy….”

I'm looking forward to it! For more information, click here.

Monday, May 30, 2011

The House That Was My Muse

The Story Behind the Poem

A house was once my muse. How can that be? Most houses are about keeping out the rain and the noonday sun.

From the outside the house was a shoe box—upended—with plain redwood siding. But from inside the house was all eyes: eyes on the western hills where the fog flowed in, eyes on the inner valley where blazes of trees announced the changing seasons, eyes on the long view out to a distant reservoir, eyes on the setting sun as it swung along the hills— north to summer, then west and south to winter. It was a poetry house, a muse house.

Most poetic of all was my poetry porch—a small glassed in deck off our bedroom—and the house gave me new eyes, or rather, it gave me back the eyes I had as a girl. Birds flew below us. Hawks were at eye level, making slow circles until their eyes caught motion and they dived. Once, I saw a golden eagle perched on the nearby power pole—watching me watching him. The poet I’d been as a child in the mountains of Vermont, in the ivy woods of Princeton, returned to me in that house. She had room to play in a structure that cultivated the contemplative, the imaginal, the wild.

Sometimes, at night, we’d wake to the uncanny “hoo hoo” of an owl, perched on a corner of roof, staring at us. Often, after work, Dan and I would stand on the living room deck, pour drops of red wine on the distant earth, say “Pacha Mama”—thanks to our mother—the earth.

Our houses shape us—they orient our senses, teach us what matters, give us our outlook on life. Before the muse house Dan and I lived in a strong warm maternal house in the city, with dark wood interiors. In those days we paid scant attention to what was happening outside. It was a house that sturdily embraced our complicated family: Dan’s three kids, my three kids, a dog, a cat, the custody dance of every other weekend vs. Dad’s week, Mom’s week. How many for dinner? When the kids grew up, we wanted a house just for us two.

The muse house on the ridge was a blessing of light, a lesson in the circles of life. It sang to me in the hot tub. It whispered fragments of poetry. I wrote and I wrote.

The house was also a headache, a money suck, a catastrophe waiting to happen. It leaked in the rain. We replaced the roof. It still leaked. We replaced the windows. It still leaked. The drip drip drip woke us in the night. It was water torture.

It needed to be painted frequently, for it stood three stories tall on that ridge and was beaten by weather. It cost a small fortune to paint because it required scaffolding. The house, Dan said, would keep him from ever retiring. It was making him crazy. Slowly, sadly I came around to Dan’s reality. We needed to sell the house. That was when I heard the lament of the house:

Lament of the House

How can you tear me apart, empty me out?
Haven’t I stroked you with fingers of light?
Haven’t I gentled your eyes? Filled you to brimming over
with the green world? How it goes
golden and brown? How it loses

its leaves and goes bare? Haven’t I given you
joy— shown you the setting sun
with streaks of purple and orange,
with white fog like sea foam
flowing over the western hills?

Haven’t you stood on my deck, you and Dan
poured red wine unto the earth
said praises, said blessings?
Haven’t I held your clay goddesses, your dancing
Ganesha, your gathering of Zuni frogs?
How can you tear me apart, empty me out,
get me staged to be god knows whose
fantasy house on a ridge? I who’ve been source
of your source, sanctuary, sacred seat
from which you’ve seen clouds form, hawks dive…

Haven’t you sat in me—on that old yellow chair—and been visited
by poetry? Haven’t you stood in me—naked,
moonstruck— in the gaze of the great horned one?
Will you send your gods into exile in cardboard boxes?
Will the soles of your feet forever be gone from my spiral stairs?

Where will your wild enthusiasms go, your wrestling
angels, your love cries? “Nasty,” you called me
when I thrust that long redwood splinter under your nail.
How else can I say it? You and I are inside one another.
How can you tear me apart, empty me out?
(This poem was first published in Poppyseed Kolache #2, Summer 2010)

Some time ago we learned that the young couple to whom we sold the house had to walk away from it. They were under water. The Great Recession had devoured their livelihood, their equity. And my magical house, my poetry porch, my glorious views hung desolate, abandoned, on the ridge— a foreclosure notice flapping on its front door, under the bare, late fall, wisteria which—I can see it in my mind’s eye—will make fervent purple blooms overarch the entrance, come summer.

The other morning Dan looked up from his newspaper. “It’s been sold” he said. “What has?” “Our old house.”

And indeed, we drove by to see trucks and cars parked in front of the house on the ridge, and work being done.

Thank you, whoever you are, who bought that magical house. Please take good care of it. May it bless your lives as it did ours.