Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Gardens of Verse: Poems about Unspeakable Subjects

            I had a professor, and a very good one, who once spoke about "the poetry of the ineffable."
            That's a word for what's all around us but cannot be easily named or defined, if at all. 
             Common as the air we breathe, but just as hard to see. The feeling of being home again after a period away. Recognizing a voice on the telephone before a single word is understood. The last dribbly bits of consciousness before we sleep. The little twitch of nerves that tells you it's time to get up. Life, love, the universe. 
              The ineffable, by its standard definition, means "incapable of being expressed or described in words."
And yet here they are, poets -- going at it in the August edition of Verse-Virtual.  (
You can say it's part of the job. 

 Tom Montag's poem "Speak, Tree" brings me right up against the moment when I stare at a tree, or a line of them, against a blue sky, something I do a lot, particularly in summer. Is there a term for this activity? I don't think so. The poem begins:

Speak, tree, of all
you've seen, your whole
life holding sky.

 I've never thought of that relationship ("holding sky") between trees and sky, in quite that way. And when we contemplate trees against sky are we doing what this poem suggests: asking the tree to share its wisdom with us? There's no common word or expression for that relationship, either. But now we have a poem for it. 
             Tom's poem "In the Margin" also approaches experience for which we do not commonly have words: The gap, or distance, or connection, between "here" and "there," and between "new, now" and "old." How do we get from one to the other? His poem offers us a way to think about the problem (or is the solution?) in its wonderfully concluding phrase: "this leap between.

            Penny Harter's poem "Deja Vu" seems to me about an equally unknowable quality, the what-ness of existence, to which the poem keeps throwing lifelines of meaning. In a stanza about "the future," already compared to the "neighboring field" or something waiting "around the next bend," she writes :

What has already happened there wraps itself firmly
around our flesh like a rope hauling a climber up
the slippery scrabble of a nameless mountainside.

             The present isn't any easier than the future to grasp in our minds. In what appears to be a related poem about time -- "Just Now," one of those good old ineffables -- the poet depicts some of the sensations of an instant of time as

washing through the wall into a ghostly form
whose half-life I cannot catch in my net.

I don't know how many removes this array of imagery takes us from the 'thing in itself,' but the poem's imagery -- the half-life of a ghostly form washing through a wall -- gives us a good idea of what we're up against when we try to catch hold of the present.

           "The Swimmer" by Donna Hilbert is a vividly poetic reminiscence that mingles some enduring mental snapshots of what sounds to me like early adolescence just the way her characters, after swimming in the rich kids' pools, mix experimental sauces for magical ends:

we dipped crackers
in mustard, Worcestershire,
any liquid found in their kitchen
went into our sauce,
an extra-strength potion.
We dipped, ate, were transformed
into amazing girls...

We have no words, certainly no completely rational explanation, for how we change from what we were to what we have become. Perhaps some little bit of what we were survives the transformation. 

The problematic idea of time runs through David Graham's poem "Most of the Time We Live Through The Night" -- an intriguing title borrowed from Robert Bly.

Most of the time Sunday has
little to tell Saturday night, and almost nothing
Monday morning needs to hear
A second poem, titled "No Recent Activity," suggests that while 'most of the time' we make it through our nights, we won't make it through all of them. This poem addresses another of these hard to put into words subjects, in large measure because we choose not to talk about i... as Keats did in a poem titled "When I have fears that I may cease to be." 
And this poem does to:

It's all air eventually, That's exactly 
what we hate and deny every breathing day.
You don't need to stroll the cemetery
to feel earth's friction rub against you.

Great image. Ah, there's the rub.

The submerged subjects in Robert Wexelblatt's "The Entanglers" appear to me to be love, desire and inspiration. The poem's speakers are the mythical Sirens, who at one point complain about the kind of guy too wrapped up his self-involvement to be allured.             Some guys you just can’t reach; duty hardens
            their souls or music is just a cage to
            them or they can’t get into voices that
            are nude, cool, humid, smooth, round, inveigling
            with words beneath words, sound under sound,
            who never go beyond sandy shallows
            to the bottom of green forgetfulness.
Possibly, their complaining about a bad lyricist. If these guys can't get into voices that are "
nude, cool, humid, smooth, round, inveigling
            with words beneath words," 
I probably wouldn't like their songs either. 
If "Euterpe" (the title of Wex's second poem) is, as I understand, the muse described as "the giver of delight," I definitely want her around. But, once again, where did the time go? The flow and tacking of the poem's final phrases 

...or guess with what
sore regret you would yearn ever after
to behold once more her illegible smile. 
is a fine cruise brought gracefully to shore.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Garden of Seasonal Favorites: 'Twelfth Night' at the Mount

Have you heard you ever heard this favorite quote: “Come and kiss me sweet and twenty/
Youth’s a stuff will not endure.”
Have you heard “If music be the food of love/
Play on…” ?
Or: “I will be revenged on the whole pack of you!”
Or: “… and the rain it raineth every day.”
Or: “'Better a witty fool than a foolish wit" 
The first of these is from Shakespeare’s comedy “Twelfth Night.” The second is from “Twelfth Night.” And the third, and the fourth, and … you get the picture.
Or how about:
"Some are born great, some achieve greatness, some have greatness thrust upon them.”
Or, possibly my favorite:
"Dost thou think that because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?'"

All of these are from “Twelfth Night,” possibly the richest of Shakespeare’s romantic comedies.
        Seeing the play a week ago performed by a troupe from the Teaching Program of Shakespeare & Company outdoors at the Mount, the company’s former haunt, a sylvan setting on the Edith Wharton estate in the Berkshire woods was like paying a visit to an old friend. A particular companionable and witty friend, who has a good story to tell. Even though it’s the same story each time, you never tire of hearing it. Or in this case, of watching it on the stage played by people who love what they're doing.
            The play is a tale built around a number of Shakespeare’s favorite plot devices. A storm at sea, a case of mistaken identity, twins (justifying the previous as an occasion for comedy), cross-dressing so that the heroine can play a man’s role in her tale, and multiple marriages at the end.
            Its main characters include classic Elizabethan (and Renaissance) types. A ‘cruel mistress’ who refuses the love of a perfectly adequate suitor. A narcissistic, self-involved royal suitor with a grievance – not far, say, from Hamlet – who has the luck to be situated in comedy rather than tragedy. Orsino has woman troubles, but no one has killed his father or polluted his realm. He holds languorous court in the play’s near opening (many productions skip-wreck at the start), indulging his love-sickness with the command to the court musician to feed his languor: “If music be the food of love, play on.” A few more self-referential observations later he’s tired of it.
            Enter Caesario, which is to say the shipwrecked Viola, dressed as a slender young man – “I am all the daughters of my father’s house” he/she will say a few scenes later – to whom Orsino takes an immediate liking. A certain amount of guy-affection takes place between them, shoulder slapping and the like, inherently comic under the circumstances and rather slap-sticked in this one. Orsino dispatches Caesario to be his go-between with the Lady Olivia, who's drowning her own self-indulgent neurosis expressed as prolonged grieving for the death of her brother. We take her widow’s weeds and veiled face as signs of her unwillingness, as we would put it today, to ‘engage’ with the world. Like Orsino she has servants to do her living for her.
            One of these is Malvolio, who will be tricked into believing that he is about to have “greatness thrust upon him.” He does a bit of clich├ęd thrusting to give the audience the point.
            Another is Feste, one of Shakespeare’s most appealing clowns (or court fools), who wittily proves that Olivia in her grief-hangover is more “fool” than he is. So you’re still suffering for your brother? he asks; then asserts “I believe he is hell.”
            “I know he is in heaven!” she retorts angrily.
            Then surely, the fool replies, there is no reason to grieve for a loved one who is now in a better place.
Having scored this unarguable point, Feste triumphantly echoes his lady’s earlier command: “Take away the fool.”
            The licensed fools of Shakespeare’s courts are the voice of the commoner allowed to needle nobility. The role is an egalitarian gesture to the sentiments of ordinary folk, including the groundlings who paid a penny to watch a play standing below the stage in The Globe. The best bargain in popular entertainment ever offered.    
            The fool, in his role as entertainer, is also a musician. The production we saw by the education program actors, some eight or so players who engineered quick-change acts barely off stage so smoothly it took me a while to realize what was going on, gave Feste a guitar, plugged in a mike, and turned him into a popular entertainer offering pop-song versions of the play’s classic ditties.
             Shakespeare’s theater encompassed song and dance. Today’s classic revival theater uses the same devices in contemporary ways to engage the senses enliven the action and allow comedy and enchantment to stretch beyond the spoken word. Shakespeare & Company pioneered this approach 30 years ago. For years we saw the fruits of their labors staged on the lawn and wooded backdrop of the grounds of the Mount, taking full advantage of moonlight and darkness to serve as a fairy-land of Midsummer Night's Dream. When the 'rude mechanicals' convened for rehearsal, they arrived in a contractor's pick-up truck.
            It’s highly satisfying to see how easily these classic works of an Elizabethan theater accommodate modern styles and trickery. The new "Education Program" production at the Mount employed every vaudevillean schtick in the book, sight gags, foolish tumbles and falls from unearned grace. Plugged-in Feste rises above the fray with his sad-happy "so it goes” commentaries in verse-song on the way of the world. He’s not talking about the weather when he sings “Heigh-ho, the wind and the rain… And the rain it raineth every day.”
            Or the across-the-classes wisdom-warning come-on of 
            “Come and kiss me sweet and twenty
            Youth’s a stuff will not endure…”
            The play's social comedy also offers us a war of the lifestyles contest between Olivia’s “be drunken always" frat boy brother Antonio and Shakespeare’s portrait of a Puritan abstainer Malvolio. Malvolio is both the deserved object of his enemies' take-down and the victim of a prank that gets out of hand and goes too far, weaving a thread of darkness into the play's comic resolution.
            Yet most of us take the side of the irresponsible Antonio when he responds to Malvolio's smug preachiness with the rebuttal:
            “Just because thou art virtuous do you think there shall be no more cakes and ale?”
            Almost everybody who hears that exchange is voting for cakes and ales.        
            And I'm voting for "Twelfth Night," a play with more wit than foolishness, where most of those plot twists turn out right in the end.

Monday, August 8, 2016

Garden of Commemoration: Every Year in Boston


            Looking backward, looking forward. Both directions giving the same signals.
            The execution of Sacco and Vanzetti, whose real-life journeys of commitment and tragic ends are the basis for my fictional account in "Suosso's Lane," took place 89 years ago on Aug. 23. Each year The Sacco and Vanzetti Commemoration Society recognizes this date with an event in Boston. This year the group, which defines its goal as the preservation of "the memory of Sacco and Vanzetti's struggle to radically change society," has invited me and the musicians J.P. Provenzano and Jake and the Infernal Machine to take part at a commemorative event held every year on that date.
            "We want to educate our neighbors about Massachusetts' radical history, and draw connections between the struggles of Sacco and Vanzetti and similar struggles today," the Society states on its webpage. "We stand against the death penalty and political persecution as well as the persecution and scapegoating of immigrants."
            For some years the Society has organized marches and outdoor rallies on the date. This year it has chosen to hold an indoor event in downtown Boston, at Encuentro5, a non-governmental organization that describes itself as "a space for progressive movement building in the heart of Boston."
           The address is 9A Hamilton Place; a location close to the Park Street MBTA Station. The event begin at 7 p.m. The group's website is
            Historian Robert D'Atillio will lead off the program by providing some background on the case and an introduction to the program. "We hope that you continue to support this timeless cause for justice and make plans to attend the event and bring friends to it," the Society states.
            A few years back a speaker at this event, Dorotea Manuela, an activist for workers' rights and Boston's immigrant communities, pointedly made the connection between the anti-immigrant background of the Sacco-Vanzetti case and the contemporary uproar and governmental crackdown against so-called "illegal" aliens.
            "(...) How strangely reminiscent are today's events," she said. "Arabs, Latinas, Haitians and Caribbeans are kidnapped from their streets and confined in secret prisons where they rot without hearing or trial. We do not even need the sham trials of Sacco and Vanzetti.
            "In addition, our xenophobes in Congress and the press announce that yesterday's Italians are today's Latino, Haitian and Caribbean immigrants. They come here, we are told, to draw our resources, to burden our schools, to overwhelm our services and to collect welfare. Paradoxically these 'lazy immigrants' are taking all of our jobs."
            I wonder what Ms. Manuela would have to say about the current political climate in this  year of Trumpery and the noxious 2016 election campaign in which the candidate of one of our two 'major' parties spouts ignorant bigotry in lieu of political policy or proposals.
            In fact, I find it hard to see how I can anything that doesn't repeat the burden of Ms. Manuela's pointed comments on the connection between the sham trial in 1921 that condemned two men who held 'dangerous' ideas about social and political change and spoke in heavy accents, the contemporary defamation of 'Mexicans' and Muslims who come from "terrorist nations."
            Perhaps I'll simply give up trying to say anything original and quote the elegant voices on this subject such as Ms. Manuela and New Yorker writer Kathryn Schulz, who have made these points already.
            Nah, just fooling. I expect I will try to say a little something about story-telling, as well as the case's continuing relevance.
            But I expect I will refer to the Ms. Schulz's recent piece by "Citizen Khan," which describes how one "enterprising man," an Afghani Muslim, planted an immigrant community in northern Wyoming. She concludes her story this way:
            "Over and over, we forget what being American means. The radical premise of our nation is that one people can be made from many, yet in each new generation we find reasons to limit who those “many” can be—to wall off access to America, literally or figuratively. That impulse usually finds its roots in claims about who we used to be, but nativist nostalgia is a fantasy. We have always been a pluralist nation, with a past far richer and stranger than we choose to recall."
            Hope to see you there.

Monday, August 1, 2016

Garden of the Wild: The Bear Facts

[photo from]
          Here's another oft-quoted citation from the seeming infinitude of such phrases in the works of Wm Shaxspeare. Perhaps the most singular stage direction in the history of legitimate theater: "Exit pursued by a bear."
            Things do not end well for the by no means villainous character who exits (though not fast enough), so pursued. He was a court official, a bureaucrat, in the play "The Winter's Tale," who did the business that a tyrannous monarch (his royal mind self-poisoned with jealousy) bid him do. The bear was probably not aware of any of this background when he took after poor Antigonus, seeing in him merely dinner on the courtly hoof.
            I was not thinking of this, or any literary allusion, when I caught sight of the hefty, thick-limbed, black-furred dog-like creature a hundred feet or so down the lakeside path that Anne and I were walking, a path we have walked many times before. We were intending to keep walking it a few minutes more until we came to one of our favorite "family" spots.
            One sees what one expects to see, a domestic creature. Then comes the 'check-that, actually' moment that rapidly succeeds the 'big dog' false identification. The brain does a quick double-take. Uh, no, not dog -- bear.
            So one says, on this occasion, addressing one's spouse, "There's a bear on the path."
            She replies, always a quick one, "There's a bear on the path?"
            Question: What is the first thing that happens when you spot a bear on the path? Answer: The first thing that happens is you stop worrying about the mosquitoes.
            I take a step backwards. Then another one.
            It is totally clear to me, though I am determined not to look,certainly not to stare, that the bear has seen us too. And at essentially the same moment I spotted him. He has just this moment heard our steps, or caught our scent. Or, picked up the vibe that some creature is looking at him, and so lifted his head in the sway of the same self-protective urge that set me to moonwalking back down the trail.
            Anne has turned by now, not wasting any further time on conversation, and is walking with some briskness back down the path in the direction we came from. I follow her lead, realizing I am now turning my back to the bear even though I have read in authoritative accounts that you're not supposed to run away from a bear. It just provokes them. But we're not 'running away,' I tell myself, we are simply walking away in a calm, steady manner, as if having decided independently, with no reference to any woodland creature whatsoever, that it is high time to return to the manor house and dress for dinner. Do I hear my superego calling?
            Then, spontaneously, to keep up the pretense of casual retreat, we both begin singing nonsense songs about a bear.
            "Oh, the bear went over the mountain, oh the bear went down to the lake
            The bear went back to the parking lot, it was a big mistake."
            Or words to that effect. Words that clearly, and repeatedly, include mention of a bear. As if, for some reason, we are unable to think of anything else but 'bear.' I wonder why that could be? Is there some supersititous logic in singing the word 'bear' in our nonsense lays. An unconscious belief that if we domesticate the creature in our silly song, he will remain a figure of folklore, who lives in harmless propinquity to our careless rhymes. Perhaps much like the bear who appears by chance in the midst of "Blueberries for Sal," that doughtly children's book, and departs harmlessly once some confusion over which child/cub belongs to which mother is straightened out.
            We tame our fears with silliness.
            "What's the bear doing?" Anne asks after we have walked some way and sung a silly piece back down the path. "Is he following us?"
            I have put this possibility out of my mind. I am not hearing any sound to indicate some creature, domestic or wild, is coming down the path behind us.
            My reply, therefore, is accurate if not enlightening. "I don't know. I haven't turned to look once."
            I'm aware of the old blues singer's advice, "Don't look back, something may be gaining on you." Not comforting, somehow.
            Anne turns to look back. "I don't see him. It doesn't look like the bear's following us."
            I have some other thoughts over the next twenty minutes or so. Are there sticks or branches at our feet on the woodlands floor thick enough and strong enough to serve as a weapon? As a rule, I know, fallen branches are rotten-soft. How about rocks? How likely is it that I'll find one the right size for throwing? How likely that a bear would be dissuaded by a thrown stone?
            The closer we get to the parking area where we've left our car, the more confident, if not completely relaxed, I grown that the bear is in no way interested in us. It seems unlikely that we will bump into him again by chance.
            We do stop once on our retreat -- I mean 'return '-- to the car -- to take a look at the large owl who has dropped onto a branch a mere half a dozen feet from our path.
            But that's another story.

Friday, July 29, 2016

Civilization's Garden: We Are All Aleppo

[photo by anjci -, CC BY 2.0, ]
Shakespeare's audience was likely to appreciate the geographical reference in the last sentence of Othello's powerful, horrible, final speech, as he acknowledges the horror of the act he has just committed in killing his innocent wife, after his mind was treacherously poisoned against her.

"I have done your masters some services, he tells the Venetians, for whom he serves as commander and warrior -- though he is not a Venetian himself, but a Moor -- to report the whole truth of the crime he has committed "with no extenuation."
Then he states:
"And say besides, that in Aleppo once,
Where a malignant and a turban'd Turk
Beat a Venetian and traduc'd the state,
I took by the throat the circumcised dog,
And smote him thus."
          On that final "thus" he thrusts his sword into his own heart.
          Aleppo: An ancient city in Syria where Christians and "Turks" (meaning Muslims) once contended for control, during the time of the Crusades. 
            Today that city is being wiped from the earth by the so-called President of Syria and his allies, the perfidious Russians, its people destroyed by cluster bombs dropped from the sky with the intention of killing whoever remains in the city. As the Western democracies who the county's freedom fighters were certain would come to their aid continue to sit on the sidelines and cluck their tongues.  
            Today's newspaper reports that the so-called Syrian government (two words that make no sense together) has offered an amnesty corridor allowing people to leave Aleppo safely for other parts of the country controlled by the government. But the people there say 'What amnesty can we possibly expect when all the men in this place are 'wanted' by the government?'
            With a population of more than 2 million, Aleppo is (or was) Syria's largest city, and one of the largest in the Middle East. Historically, it was the third largest in the Ottoman Empire. But it's history goes back long before. According to the experts, Aleppo is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, showing signs of human settlement possibly back as far as the 6th millennium BC. The Old City of Aleppo is designated as a World Heritage Site -- once you say that about a place, any place, what else do you need to say about its value?
           Yet the same designation applied to another ancient Syrian city, Palmyra, whose irreplaceable historic monuments have already been destroyed by the war caused by the murderous gang that runs Syria today, though Palmyra's execution was carried out by the despicable terrorist gang known to us as ISIS, who took advantage of the war to add to the suffering of Syrians and Iraqis.
            A Silk Road trading center before the invasion of the Mongols, Aleppo became was a major point of contention during Middle Ages when the European crusaders sought to wrest it from the Muslim population. Crusaders besieged it in 1098 and in 1124, they failed to take it. Syrian Christians (a significant Christian population remains in Syria today), however, established their own quarter outside the city walls in 1420.
            The dictatorial Baathist Syrian government, which has ruled Syria since 1970 (with its capital in Damascus) has presided over decades of economic decline in Aleppo. Ironically, the decline may have helped to preserve the Old City of Aleppo, its medieval architecture and traditional heritage. 
            Since 2012 that heritage has suffered series losses, souqs, mosques, and medieval buildings have been partially or wholly destroyed in fighting for the control of the city. Worse is happening today.  
            So how does Shakespeare's reference to Aleppo in Othello's about-to-self-slaughter speech help us understand the city's importance? Othello, as we are told repeatedly in the tragedy that bears his name, is a "black" Moor, that is to say a Muslim from Morocco. The Moors invaded Europe in the 8th century, conquering all of the Iberian peninsula and spreading into southern France before their advance was halted. 
            This real significance of this incursion was that while most of Europe languished for a millennium in "Dark Ages" ignorance, cultural fragmentation, and disconnection from the classical civilization of the ancient Rome and Greece, cities in southern Spain became centers of culture, art and learning, because the Islamic Empire retained the learning and preserved that civilization's books and contributed to classical traditions of learning in fields such as mathematics, science, music and poetry. And, in the most important of Spain's medieval kingdoms did so in harmony with its Christian and Jewish population.
            Nevertheless, times change, and Othello became a mercenary soldier serving the Christian power of Venice, the most important rival to the empire now ruled by the Turkish-dominated Ottoman Empire -- hence Othello's to the "malignant Turk." Who interestingly is also called "a circumcised dog."
            (Should we think of Othello as a self-hating Muslim?)
            When Othello chose to throw in his lot with Venice, a late-Medieval and Renaissance Mediterranean power, Western civilization had been centered for millennia upon the Mediterranean coast of Europe, North Africa and what we now call the Middle East. Even at the time he wrote, Shakespeare's England was still a relatively insignificant island redoubt, a minor player in world affairs though it has managed to fend off the aggression of the Spanish Empire and the secede from the Roman church -- both of which were then strongly among major players.
            And as we trace the roots of Western Civilization further back in time, we see that everything goes back to the cities and settlements in places we now call Syria, Iraq, and Egypt. Agriculture, the essential basis for that bastion of civilization, began in Mesopotamia (Iraq), the first cities and codified legal systems were found in Babylon; religion, art, monumental architecture go back to Egypt and the other cities of the Middle East. Monotheism first appears in the Zoroastrianism of Persia, and took root in Palestine.
            The Greeks learned the alphabet from Byblos, a Phoenician city on the shore of what is now Lebanon. Quite possibly they also learned the seafaring and trading business which provided the economic foundation for their civilization from the sea-faring Phoenicians. And they they were much impressed by the dramatic careers of the gods of Egypt. The Romans learned from the Greeks, and from everybody else who came before. That's what they were good at -- along with imperial infrastructure building. The Romans planted cities, including a few in England.
            This is the cultural and intellectual ancestry of the West, our roots. These early nations provided the great fore-running monuments of our civilization, we are watching be destroyed.
            Othello, a Muslim, chose to serve a Christian power that fought and competed with Ottoman Islamic empire, helping to slow its westward expansion. Somehow the divisions of medieval Europe versus the Muslim "East" still bedevil us. We were still barbarians when they were learned, studying the Greeks and writing books, up to the time of the Renaissance, the recovery of classical learning, and the Enlightenment and rebirth of science in northern Europe. From that time on Europe learned fast and countries such as England and the US jumped to the head of the line and pranced as dominating characters on the world stage.
            But as civilized peoples, nations of Europe, North Africa and the Middle East all have the same roots. Everybody in the Western Civilization comes from the same source. 
            And I can't understand how we can stand by, year after year, and see the treasures of that inheritance destroyed.