Saturday, September 24, 2011

The Muse of Unexpected Memories

The Story Behind the Poem

One of Poetry’s many gifts is the sudden associative leap that opens the door to a forgotten room in your soul, one full of meaning and memory. I had not expected Adlai Stevenson to show up in my poem. There he was, my schoolgirl crush. You’ve lived a good long time if you remember Adlai Stevenson. He ran for president in 1952 and 1956. Could a man with a bald spot and a hole in his shoe run for President today?

What did he mean to me, age 9, age 13? When I saw his face, when I heard his voice, something settled down in my body. I felt safe. As the American born child of Jewish refugees from Hitler, feeling safe was not familiar. But Adlai Stevenson felt like kin. He stood for an America in which I could feel at home. Stevenson was my good American father -urbane, sophisticated, witty, eloquent and liberal. Unlike my own father, who was also urbane, sophisticated, witty, eloquent and liberal, I never heard Stevenson fly into a German rage because I’d played a wrong note on the piano. What I heard him say was:

There are men among us who use ‘patriotism’ as a club for attacking other Americans. What can we say for the self-styled patriot who thinks that a Negro, a Jew, a Catholic, or a Japanese-American is less American than he? That he betrays the deepest article of our faith, the belief in individual liberty and equality which has always been the heart and soul of the American idea.

(He said this in 1952, addressing the American Legion in Madison Square Garden.) All we have to do to make that statement current is add “Muslim” and “immigrant” to the list of groups that suffer prejudice.

Stevenson was ridiculed in his time for his indecisive aristocratic air. (Sound familiar, Barack?) He was labeled an egghead. Young as I was, I knew I was an egghead, that my family and friends were eggheads, that I would spend my life among eggheads. I loved it when Stevenson said: "Eggheads of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your yolks." Spoken like a poet! No wonder I adored him.

A supporter told him that he was sure to get the vote of “every thinking” person in the U.S., to which Stevenson replied, “Thank you, but I need a majority to win.”

Stevenson was a man of moral courage and wisdom. In accepting the nomination of the Democratic Party in 1952 he said:

“Our troubles are ahead of us. Some will call us appeasers; others will say we are the War Party. Some will say we are reactionary; others will say we stand for socialism. There will be...the inevitable cries of ‘Throw the rascals out,’ ‘It’s time for a change,’ and so on and so on.”

Obama could say those very words today.

So much has changed and so much remains the same. The kinship I felt as a girl, for Adlai Stevenson, was matched by no one until Barack Obama arrived on the national stage: urbane, sophisticated, witty, eloquent and liberal, though some would argue with that last adjective. Something settles down in my body when I hear our President speak. His intelligence, his vision, his ability to contain great complexity, makes him kin. I hope he is aware of Adlai Stevenson as an ancestor.

Of course, Stevenson lost two elections. He did not face the impossible task of transforming his vision into political reality. He wasn’t given the opportunity to disappoint and disillusion us. He was not tested as Barack Obama is being tested today. And the safety I felt in Stevenson’s aura did not last. The hateful vitriol of the House Un-American Activities Committee, it’s vicious attack on the livelihoods of eggheads, artists, intellectuals, people who were my kin, and the ugliness of those cross-burning racist murderers, the Ku Klux Klan and their ilk, took over center stage in the country, and in my haunted heart. And today there is a new brand of vitriol, hatred, nastiness in our politics.

But Barack, difficult as this time is for you, for all of us who admire and support you, I think these words from Stevenson’s 1952 acceptance speech are good advice from your remarkable forerunner:

Let’s talk sense to the American people. Let’s tell them the truth, that there are no gains without pains...that we are now on the eve of great decisions, not easy decisions, like resistance when you’re attacked, but a long, patient, costly struggle which alone can assure triumph over the great enemies of man -war, poverty and tyranny- and the assaults upon human dignity which are the most grievous consequences of each....

The people are wise, wiser than the Republicans think. And the Democratic Party is the people’s Party -not the labor Party, not the farmer’s Party, not the employer’s Party-it is the Party...of everyone.

And Barack, there is just one more quote I want you to hold in your heart, as you go around the country talking sense to the American people. Stevenson spoke of our fragile planet in a speech before the United Nations Economic and Social Council in Geneva, Switzerland in 1965, the year of his death. He said:

We travel together, passengers on a little space ship, dependent on its vulnerable reserve of air and soil; all committed for our safety to its security and peace; preserved from annihilation only by the care, the work, and I will say, the love we give our fragile craft.

The poem that opened the door to Adlai Stevenson’s place in my heart is called “When I’m Gone.” Like so many of my poems it is an elegy. I am happy it has landed in a fine on line publication, Emprise Review, in which Tracy Youngblom has written an elegant essay on elegy. Any poet who aligns her work with that of Rilke and Celan, as she does, is kin to me. I hope you’ll read the essay and check out the poems in Emprise 21.

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."

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.