Wednesday, September 18, 2019

The Garden of Verse: Poets and Authors Get Some Attention

"Reading is essential to democracy," said James Wald, chairman of the Mass. Center for the Book, at the Sept. 17 Mass. Book Awards presentation held in the Great Hall of the Statehouse. Remarkably enough, the state's Constitution agrees, quite explicitly in a section entitled "The Encouragement of Literature, etc." Largely written by John Adams, the Massachusetts Constitution states (Ch.5, Sect.2): "Wisdom and knowledge, as well as virtue, diffused generally among the body of the people being necessary for the preservation of their rights and liberties... it shall be the duty of legislatures and magistrates in all future periods of this commonwealth to cherish the interests of literature..."
            The legislature and the Mass. Center for the Book carry out that Constitutional responsibility by making annual awards for best books in Fiction, Nonfiction, Poetry, Young Adult and Early Reader categories. With a three-year backlog since its last public presentation of awards, the organization publicly acknowledged winners and other honorees at a large public gathering in the Great Hall of the Statehouse. 
           My 2017 poetry chapbook was nominated for an award, but did not receive any further recognition. I decided to attend (with Anne; hence the photo) and clap for the winner after receiving this stirring communication from event's organizer, following a back-and-forth negotiation over whether the event had room for me or not:

Thanks for your RSVP to the MassBooks event at the State House on Tuesday, 9/17.  Response to the invitation was swift and robust, and we are in the happy position of being oversubscribed for the event, and we are sorry that you were put on a waiting list.  Please know that you are heartily welcomed to attend the event.  

            In addition to writers and their plus-one supporters, the session was attended by some 15 legislators and a few representatives of publishing houses among a gathering of some 200 aficianados of the book.
            Among highlights, a special Mass. Literacy Award was presented to Beacon Press, a Boston publisher long committed to publishing works that serve the public good.
            An award recipient with a national profile, author, Harvard professor, and "New Yorker" staff writer Jill Lepore spoke in praise of an early American book lover: Jane Franklin, Benjamin's better-read sister. When the first US Congress asked Ben what books it needed for its new national library, Lepore recounted, Ben replied, "Why don't you ask Jane?"
            Lepore also noted that the city of Boston had failed to preserve Jane Franklin's home and suggested that the Mass Center for the Book name its awards after her.
            Among other honorees who took advantage of the occasion to make a point, poet Ilan Stavans, author of 2018 winner "The Wall" noted the long history of opposition between tyranny and books. "The Chinese emperor who built 'the great wall of China' ordered all the books in China to be collected and burned," Stavan said, "because books cause people to think, and thinking might cause them to revolt."
            According to the Book Awards press release, "'The Wall' is a poetic exploration...of the U.S.-Mexican wall dividing the two civilizations, of similar walls (Jerusalem, China, Berlin, Warsaw, etc.) in history, and of the act of separating people by ideology, class, race, and other subterfuges."
           Other poetry awards went to "Vivas to Those Who Have Failed: Poems" by Martin Espada, a 2016 collection that invoked the vision of Walt Whitman and included "a cycle of sonnets about the Paterson Silk Strike and the immigrant laborers who envisioned an eight-hour workday."
           And to Richard Hoffman, whose volume "From Noon Until Night" received the best book award for 2017. Hoffman told the gathering, "You can't make a living as a poet, but you can make a life." 
           Other titles went on my own ever-growing list of books I mean to read. Notably, the novels "The Unmade World" by Steve Yarbrough, a book set in a time of  political and cultural upheaval in the US and Eastern Europe; and "The World of Tomorrow" by Brendan Mathews, a book about three Irish brothers having the best (or the worst) week of their lives in 1939 New York.
             And too many others to mention. In fact the full list of books honored in the agency's 4-page event program contains a wealth of recommendations for anybody's reading list. 
             State senators and representatives took part in the awards ceremony by presenting honors to the authors in their districts -- in what most certainly have been a grateful bow to the legislators for past assistance and an appeal for future budgetary generosity. One of these worthies, perhaps the rep from Salem, going straight tot he heart of the business, proclaimed that Massachusetts has the most celebrated literary history of any state in nation, praising his state straight-facedly as "the home of authors like Thoreau and Dr. Seuss."
            Well, there you have it.
            Thoreau and Dr. Seuss.
            Who can beat that?

Monday, September 16, 2019

The Garden of Change: Marian Meyerson (1927-2019)

 Anne's mother, Marian Meyerson, died last Tuesday, Sept. 10, at the age of 92.
     She was living in the Hebrew Home in New York City, where she spent the final few months of her life, receiving kind and excellent care. She lived lived the whole of her life as a New York City resident. She lost her own mother early in life; and her sister died in a childhood accident. After her mother died, she lived with her father and various relatives. 
      Anne was very close to her mother throughout her life, maintaining connection with nightly phone calls and frequent visits. Our children, Sonya and Saul, felt very close to her, and their grandfather, and have lasting memories of their grandparents' role in their childhood. 
        I am quoting to post here an excerpt from the eulogy Sonya gave at her grandmother's funeral last week, that captures something of Marian's uniqueness as a warm and perceptive human being. 
        And then I'm going to post the obituary I wrote, with Anne's input, for the website of the funeral home where the funeral was held on Sept. 12.
        Here's Sonya on her grandmother: 

"Grandma loved meeting people, learning their stories and what motivated them, what their passions were – and then found ways to engage with them. She was curious about the world, and adventurous - the postcards she sent me from her and grandpa’s trip across the world certainly helped inspire my own travels. She was kind-hearted, and hated bullies. I remember her standing up to a customer at Guido's, in the Berkshires, who was harassing the shopkeeper unreasonably- - afterwards her assessment had been that he “was NOT a nice man.” It’s worth noting she used a similar phrase when describing McCarthy, or Stalin, or the current president, or Robert Moses, or the unfair music critic in the Berkshire Eagle…

"She was fiercely independent, and loved learning and teaching and discussing - from whatever book her poetry club was reading, to my assessment of Middle Eastern politics, to her running history of how Manhattan was changing. She was also sharp and smart and expected you to bring your full self into the conversation at all times. The last time I saw her, at the Hebrew Home, as we were walking back to their rooms I pointed out a model train set and said something like -- “oh look, grandma, I didn’t know they had a train here.” To which, without missing a beat, she replied, “Well of course, Sonyalah, how do you think we got here?”
Here's the obituary: 

Marian Meyerson, the loving wife of Leonard Meyerson, died peacefully at age 92 in the residence she shared with her husband at the Hebrew Home in Riverdale. 
Born in Brooklyn, NY, Marian was the daughter of Anna Levy and Sam Goldberg, the beloved wife of Leonard Meyerson for 70 years, the mother of Joel, Anne and Michael, and a grandmother to Sonya, Saul, William, Andrew, Sam, Quinn, Dian Dian, and Libby.  She leaves also her beloved brother, Arthur Guild, her loving in-laws, and many extended family members and friends.
A child of the city with an appetite for both culture and nature, Marian loved beauty, art, music, theater, New York City, her summer home in Stockbridge, Mass., and her educator’s work with children and seniors. She collected works of art and craft, appreciated the talents of others, had an eye for fashion, contributed to worthy causes, talked easily to newcomers, showed appreciation for a job well done, and made friends everywhere.   
She had a sympathetic understanding of others, a gentle touch, and a willingness to share the wisdom of her own experience. As her husband Leonard says, “People loved her.”
After graduating from the New York City schools, Marian put herself through college while working and raising a family, and graduated from Hunter College. Earning her teaching credentials in early childhood education, she taught in the Yonkers public school system, rising to the position of principal at the time of her retirement.  
While teaching, Marian was a founding member of a women’s group that met regularly for decades. She helped to start a poetry group that met to discuss the classics. 
In retirement Marian devoted the next 20 years to her role as a docent at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, studying the museum’s treasures and sharing her knowledge widely. She led group tours in the Met, introducing visitors to the museum’s illustrious works and bringing illustrated lectures about great works of art and the artists who created them to the residents of senior homes. 
Throughout their life together, Marian and Leonard were active participants in the artistic and cultural life of the world’s greatest city, attending concerts by the New York Philharmonic, opera and theater at Lincoln Center and many other venues. They were supporters of progressive political causes and the Civil Rights movement, taking part in an early civil rights demonstration in Peekskill, N.Y., after political antagonists tried to prevent African-American activist and singer Paul Robeson from speaking.  
They also contributed generously to social justice, arts, and city park organizations.
They traveled widely, to Europe, the American West, the Canadian Rockies, and the Caribbean. They were enjoying a lengthy tour of China when the Tiananmen Square protests began in 1989. They visited their grandson Saul during a semester abroad in London. And in their eighties they paid a last visit to Paris, in the caring company of their granddaughter Sonya.     
For many years Marian and Leonard hosted a large Seder for their extended families at their home in Riverdale. They also hosted visitors at their summer home in Stockbridge, introducing their circle of city friends to the Berkshires region. 
Lifelong lovers of classical music, Marian and Leonard were at one time Friends of Tanglewood, the outdoor venue for Boston Symphony Orchestra. Their connection to Tanglewood dated to their early years together, at one point raising local eyebrows when Marian attended a symphony performance in shorts – a story she told on herself. 
She was a founding member of the Mishkan Ha’am  Congregation in Hastings. 
Those who wish to make charitable donations in her memory are asked to contribute to an organization of their choice. 

Monday, September 2, 2019

The Garden of the Earth: Summer in the Berkshires -- Too Big for the Camera

Photos taken on our recent stay in Berkshire County, in western Massachusetts. With hikes in sunny wildflower meadows, silent greenwoods; under billowing clouds, along brooks -- in Jug End in South Egremont, at Tyringham Cobble, though Stevens Glen, up Hancock hills where the Shakers once lived and dammed a flowing brook for power... also through Bullard Wood and Gould Meadow, bordered by the Stockbridge Bowl and Tanglewood... and many miles to go this autumn.

Too Big for the Camera: Jug End, Tyringham, Stevens Glen

These are the far fields
We drive, now, to find them
No plough has cleaved their earth
    for generations,
the croplands and pastures of a nearly forgotten civilization, 
as if aliens had once farmed these lands, 
imposing upon them the annual revolution of the blade and the hoe, 
a visceral survival of coaxing food from the earth, feeding your beasts in the fields,
so they would feed you. 
Our money has moved on, and we have followed
No more cash on the barrel-head,
greenbacks no longer wave from the seed head,
those once wavy fingers of Cornus, 
the foundational green divinity of a civilization
that was once our own

Earth restored to earth, left fallow, abandoned to the 
    peculiar beauties of elements cruel
        to human flesh, the cold love pressed upon living things
Now we turn earth and water to the playgrounds of cities,
    abandon the vine and tangle, the thrust of stem and spike 
        and flower,
the old romp with Ceres in the unregulated market place of fertilization

So they return, 
old world incarnations of the pastoral and hay field 
uncultivated by human hand, 
they bloom yellow, white, the pinkish blue of honey-bee balm suddenly everywhere this season, a harvest of itself;
lacy tops, yellow-headed circles of transfigured solar—
All his primal energy unrestrained by human geometries,
    evolution in confusion

What do we see in you?
Deep and distant Jug Head, or sunny Gould,
Or the climbing barrow of Tyringham, cobbled from IceAge vintages
    surging with richly flowered necklaces of white and orange,
corn blue, field flowers unknown to us, a native nirvana
Catnip for butterflies and bees grass-hoppering in the midday sun,
    feeding splendor for the swallows,
flyover for the hawk,
these massy estates of some wild pluming

We go only to gaze,
stroll in the mowin’ --
keep to the preservationists' paths,
obeying the signs
    Eyes on the earth
        and all its splendid jewelry
        of a greeny wealth gone wild  

Friday, August 16, 2019

The Garden of Lies: The Latest Attempt to Poison America's Legacy as "A Nation of Immigrants"

The moral abomination who currently occupies the oval office has done it again. He has appointed somebody to an important government position who hates the very service that his department has always provided for the betterment of the nation.

            What does his latest 'pick-a-stooge' appointment to high federal office--acting Director of Citizenship and Immigration Services Ken Cuccinelli -- fail to understand about "a nation of immigrants" and the history of this country's founding and subsequent growth, development, and astonishing success.

            Or rather what doesn't he fail to understand?

            According to the US Census Bureau, 2 percent of our country's population consists of Native Americans (6.6 million as of 2015). That means 98 percent of of census-counted Americans came from somewhere else -- i.e., we are (almost) all of immigrant stock.

            In the service, however, not only of historical amnesia, but of his enabler's sadistic taste for punishing those in need, the new immigration services boss decided to rewrite Emma Lazarus's famous poem that celebrates the Statue of Liberty and concludes with the oft-quoted nation-building lines: 

"Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!" 

            But according to the new Tumpetty-puppet's rewrite, those lines should read: "Give me your tired and your poor, who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge."

            New immigrant boss Cuccinelli's ignorant, racist assumption drew a quick rebuke from Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and author Sonia Nazario, who pointed out, correctly, "The reality is that immigrants who come here legally are no more likely to be on welfare than people who are born in this country. ... The reality is that immigrants who have come to this country, whether they are poor or rich, are what have made America great."

            Let's look at some famous instances. The Pilgrims who arrived here from England and the Netherlands in 1620 could well fit the apt and stirringly eloquent description of the immigrant population in Lazarus's poem: "..your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.."

            Since Trump's appointees are famously ignorant of history or the mission of the agency they've been given stewardship of in order to further the occupant of the White House's nasty, small-minded prejudices, let's look at the history of how the United States came to be. Whose view of immigration is better supported by the facts -- that of Lazarus's beloved poem? Or Cuccinelli's Trump-twisted version?

            The nation's most famous European immigrants, the Pilgrims, were surely 'tired' after the hardships of a 17th century Atlantic voyage. They were 'poor' after spending whatever funds they had assembled on commissioning and provisioning a ship for the voyage. They had "huddled" beneath decks of their not terribly ocean-worthy vessel during the storms of the North Atlantic. And I'm sure they were yearning for a breath of fresh air, though they would have been happier about the New World's open-air accommodations if they hadn't arrived in winter. And they were literally a match for another of the famous poem's depictions: "homeless" and "tempest-tost."    

            As for 'standing on their own two feet,' many of them could barely walk off the ship. Some remained on it all winter. The group's survivors soon received valuable assistance from Plymouth's indigenous residents who, despite suffering terrible losses of their own from plague germs brought by prior contacts with Europeans, taught the new arrivals what crops to grow and how to grow them. And at that famous harvest-time "first Thanksgiving," it was the Indians who supplied most of the food.

            In the wake of the first scattered immigrant societies in New England, New York, and Virginia, migrants from England, Scotland, Holland, Germany and other European countries founded the colonies from which grew the nation that became known as the United States of America. Some of them arrived with sufficient wealth to 'stand on their own feet' economically, perhaps after the sea-sickness wore off. Many others relied on the assistance provided by religious or national communities already here.

            No 'immigrant policies' decided whether they would be granted admittance or not. They took their chances, risked their lives, in coming to a foreign shore. Some prospered; some faltered. But you certainly could not predict who would or would not become valuable contributors to society based on what was found, or not found, in their pockets on the day of their arrival.

            The immigration policy apparently favored by Trump and his latest mean-spirited acolyte -- requiring new immigrants to demonstrate that they had the means to support themselves in their new country; a requirement generally known as  "a means test" -- flies in the face of history.  

            Unlike the spoiled occupant of the White House, who was born rich and therefore assumes only rich people are valuable members of society, the majority of of this nation's most important, famous, creative, patriotic and otherwise valuable  contributors would not have passed "a means test" when they arrived in America.

            If a means test were applied to immigrants in those early days, would David Carnegie, a poor Scottish immigrant, have been allowed off the boat? JP Morgan was a 19th century financial tycoon, railroad baron, and symbol of wealth in the first Gilded Age (we're unhappily enduring the second one right now), but his early immigrant ancestor was just another soldier of fortune when he arrived from Wales in 1636. Ben Franklin's ancestors were 17th century English Puritans seeking religious freedom in a new land; they did not arrive with full purses.

            Henry Knox, whose brilliant military leadership was responsible for driving the British out of Boston in 1776 and who later became George Washington's Secretary of War, was the descendant of Ulster immigrants. His father was a ship builder who came to Boston in the early 18th century, because he went broke back at home. Not likely, then, to pass a means test. But America's Revolutionary War might have played out differently without his son's contribution.

            So many of America's essential nation builders descended from people who not would not have been permitted to enter this country if arriving with a sufficient nest egg were the criterion for entrance. Andrew Jackson, a scourge to Native Americans but an apostle of universal male suffrage -- back when that goal was the definition of democracy -- grew up in poverty. Abraham Lincoln, still the greatest of the nation's public servants, grew up in legendarily humble circumstances. Lyndon Johnson, whose political leadership assured the country's only meaningful Civil Rights legislation, also grew up poor.

            Delving deeper, among the major 19th and early 20th century immigrant groups, the migrants from an economically devastated Ireland, to take a justly celebrated example, would not have passed a means test. A few decades later the descendants of those who endured poverty on both sides of the Atlantic, were serving as mayors and governors of major cities in states such as New York and Boston. John F. Kennedy may have grown up in wealthy circumstances, but his ancestors did not.

            The same general truth applies to the Italian, Jewish, Russian, Polish, Hungarian, Slavic and other Eastern European immigrants who migrated here in the second great wave of immigration from 1880 to 1920. Both farm prices and the fishing industry were collapsing in southern Italy, when millions of Italians arrived on these shoes. Jews were escaping violent repression in Russia and Poland and other European countries.

            Chinese immigrants came here -- like their European counterparts -- fleeing famine and seeking work. They found it digging the rail beds for the first continental railroad, as the Irish before them dug the Erie Canal and worked on the early East Coast railroads.

            Political and economic oppression, the absence of opportunity, drove the poor and the vulnerable from unfriendly societies to the country that most singularly represented the availability of freedom and opportunity. People do not leave their homes on a whim but because they are driven by poverty, political oppression, and in many cases by clear existential threats to their future survival.

            Beneath the Statue of Liberty, whose meaning was so lastingly interpreted by Lazarus's poem, New York City's Ellis Island received millions of newcomers who would not have passed "a means test" to prove that they could 'stand on their feet' upon arrival.

            Irving Berlin, a Russian Jewish Immigrant, arrived on Ellis Island in 1893. Where would popular American music be without “White Christmas” and “God Bless America,” his 19 Broadway shows, and many movie scores?

            Ettore Boiardi arrived from his home town of Piacenza, Italy and found work at New York’s Plaza Hotel in 1914. He eventually pioneered the product line of canned Italian pasta and sauces through his company known as "Chef Boy-ar-dee."

            Mother Cabrini arrived at Ellis Island in 1894, sent by the Pope to better the lives of poor Italian immigrants, and succeeded in establishing orphanages, schools and hospitals across the country. It was not because she brought bags of money with her. Miracles happen when a society permits talent, creativity, intelligence, diligence -- and, perhaps, faith -- to go to work.

            That society does not at first demand, 'Let me see your bank account.'

            Albert Einstein left Germany and immigrated to the United States in 1921. He wasn't there for the Nazis; he was here for Roosevelt.

            Who will be there for us in the future, if the rules of the Abominable Regime hold sway over American immigration policy, as they have already flouted all human decency on the Southern Border?

            We should take care to remember the poem, Emma Lazarus's poem, the way she wrote it, and bury the Trump-dummy's revision with the scorn it deserves

            The poem is an icon of American values. Those values are what makes America 'great' -- not its bombs or the billions piled up by the corporate oligarchs. The market value of Amazon or Facebook -- or Trump Enterprises, if in fact that entity has any value -- are worth little or nothing in the long run. Material fortunes bloom, and disappear.

            The words, and meanings, of Emma Lazarus's poem are worth everything. We forget that at our peril.

            If the current regime of the small-minded hater-in-charge holds sway much longer, the good ol' USA runs the risk of becoming just another authoritarian corporate state. Where 'the means' matter, and the meanings don't -- like Russia, or China, or North Korea or Saudi Arabia.

            Who'd want to immigrate there?