White birds over the gray river. Scarlet flowers on the green hills. I watch the Spring go by and wonder If I shall ever return home.
This poem is by the Chinese poet Tu Fu, (713-770)
It is from an anthology edited and annotated by Czeslaw Milosz. The anthology contains many poems by Tu Fu and by other Chinese poets too -- as well as poets from many other countries and times, including many living poets. Aside from those anthologies meant to survey poetry from an historical point of view, this is the most varied and broad ranging anthology I've ever read. The title is A Book of Luminous Things, an International Anthology of Poetry.
National Poetry month begins tomorrow, this is a preview. I've been reading a lot of poetry lately, I have a lot to share.
Two very different theatrical experiences: one at the Trinity Rep, the professional regional theatre in Providence, Rhode Island, connected to Brown University, and the other a simulcast from the National Theatre of London. Comparisons are somewhat unfair because of size and budget differences as well as history my the experiences were so different I keep mulling about them. The play at Trinity Rep was Love Alone, a new play by Deborah Salem Smith, a young, award winning local playwright. A cast of 6, a basic set [minimal furniture], the space was the smaller of two in that theatre, seating 175 and was nearly full -- good for a Wednesday matinee. The play was a "topic" play, the characters, sketched out more than fully drawn, served the purpose of showing the complexity of a frequent occurrence: the death of a hospital patient after a "successful" operation and the dilemma of the young anesthesiologist on whom blame was laid, acted out beside the grief of the dead woman's family, a lesbian partner and a rock singer daughter who sued for malpractice. A loaded subject. To me a subject that suggests a teleplay not a theatrical drama in which I hope for deeper understanding of people, not a discussion of a subject that is discussed in magazines and newspapers.
The production was well done, the pacing was especially admirable as the expected and necessary short scenes dovetailed between two sets of protagonists, doctor and her husband, partner and daughter. There were small directorial missteps from my point of view but I'm very picky about such things. Altogether a successful afternoon of not untypical American theatre which more and more reflects the influence of television and movies. Spare sets are refreshing, not a hindrance for the audience, generally competent actors are satisfactory to most audiences.
The next day a simulcast from the National Theatre of London of She Stoops to Conquer,. Oliver Goldsmith's comedy of manners Young director Jamie (?), with the full potential of one of the best companies in the world, staged the play with elegant over-the-top comedy and maximum panache, adding music sung by the cast and played by a sizable ensemble of musicians to mark scene changes. The imaginative exaggeration of character and acting was always high spirited without silliness or cloying cuteness. High comedy, not at all high drama. An anecdote for the ills of the time, political, financial. This was theatre with all the stops pulled out. It's equivalent does not exist in America although many Broadway musicals aspire and sometimes come very close to such taste and finesse.
How lucky I am to have had two such experiences in a single week.
Sometimes one tries and tries and tires again and eventually succeeds. I have been trying to find a home for this essay about traveling in a little known kingdom in Nepal for a while. Rewriting and resending and finally "To See the Queen" has been published in an online travel journal called Transitions Abroad. You can read the article by clicking here.
Three photographs are included in the article, the two here were not. Above is a shrine/monastery called a gompa in the capital city which is called Lo Monthang, in northwestern Nepal just 12 miles from the border with Tibet. The second photo is the mode of transportation the queen used to come to the city from the royal estate few miles away. Yes, donkeys. At the time I was there the only wheels used were prayer drums. It was a trek into the past; it was unforgettable and in a ten years it has now changed a great deal.
Early last week a news item described a young nomad Tibetan from in the southeastern mountains of China who loved to read. Even while out watching the animals she would read books. She became a nun. The authorities announced that Tibetan would no longer be used in schools, only Chinese, even in ethnically Tibetan areas -- although now so many Han Chinese have been induced to settle there that they have become the majority. This young woman doused her robes with gasoline, wound wire around herself so the robes could not be easily torn off and immolated herself.
A few days later, in Delhi, a Tibetan immigrant, a young man who was not a monk, also set himself afire. He seemed to be protesting the reaction the Chinese authorities had to the nun's death which was to harangue more vehemently than ever about the Dalai Lama whom they have demonized at every opportunity for the past fifty years.
The destruction of a once unique Buddhist culture is almost complete thanks to the overwhelming influx of Han Chinese as well as other Chinese into Tibet where Tibetans are very much treated as second class citizen and denied even the right to own a photograph of the Dalai Lama. Although President Obama is currently traveling in China he seems to be entirely ignoring this gross denial of civil liberty to an entire country's natives. Ongoing treatment of repressed peoples does not make the news, the rest of the world would rather hear about the latest rebel protest, the latest example of domestic violence or doings of some celebrity. No one seems to be speaking up against mighty China for their inhumanity toward some of the most humane people on earth.
Spring has arrived early and I'm also thinking forward to April being poetry month. I've been reading quite a bit of poetry and found one in which repetition seems very right. The photo herewith is not a mere stone -- more like the result of an avalanche. You can think of it as a visual pun to go with the poem.
In the Middle of the Road
In the middle of the road there was a stone
there was a stone in the middle of the road
there was a stone
in the middle of the road there was a stone.
Never should I forget this event
in the life of my fatigued retinas.
Never should I forget in the middle of the road
there was a stone
there was a stone in the middle of the road
in the middle of the road there was a stone.
by Carlos Drummond De Anrade (Portuguese)
This is from an anthology edited by Czeslaw Milosz, A Book of Luminous Things
The world is so big and try as I do to have a picture of it and some knowledge of its history, I will always discover new things. Some discoveries are accidental. In a Goodwill store I found an ugly, fat book, the cover so tabloid lurid I was almost ashamed to purchase it for the going price of fifty cents. The pages are yellowed but I will finish the 658 pages tonight. I bought it because the author, Mario Vargas Llosa [in the picture] is the preeminent Peruvian writer of our time. I've read many of his books and admire him.
South America is almost invisible to most Americans. In school we learn a little bit about Cortez destroying the Inca empire, and later, if we read travel material, we learn about Machu Pichu's discovery by Hiram Bingham. The continent almost doesn't exist in our minds. I have read what I could find, Marquesz and Allende, Bruce Chatwim's Patagonia and others. When I began reading this vast novel I thought it was entirely fiction -- the charismatic preacher, the Counselor, who gathers the poorest of the poor peasants and builds a city in a desolate, desert in western Brazil. But part way through the book I went to Wikipedia and discovered the Counselor's stronghold, a city called Canudos, which eventually had a population of 30,000 was real and the war of the title was an horrific one where, after the believers destroyed two forces, enormous armies were sent to destroy Canudos. The people fought hard and fiercely and inflicted great losses on the Army but were eventually destroyed, men,women and children, 30,000 of them, as their leader had predicted "at the end of the world."
As Llosa writes of it, using many historical persons and military actions, we see a great political travesty, the usual iron hand of authority crushing the most helpless of citizens. And we see why these people needed to believe the end time preachings of the Counselor and why they fought to destroy the Antichrist as they saw the Army.
I have only the last 60 pages to read this evening and I am steeling myself for the final tragedy. Like any good novelist -- and he's a very good novelist -- Llosa has created many characters the reader identifies with, even though many were bandits, murders, some are freaks of nature, and there are figures from the nobility too, all suffer from this war that I never knew existed until I accidentally found this physically ugly book and bought it on the strength of the author's name.
I think it's sad so few people read to be educated and most read only to entertained, to pass time -- what a waste of our precious, limited life time. This book is emotionally painful, but intellectually exciting both for what I'm learning and for the skill of the author.
Signs: a young woman in shorts and t-top, barefoot walking her dog beside the ocean
the lawn covered with miniscule little white with pink flowers, I know not what kind
a young couple having spread a sheet beside a lake, he in bathing trunks, she in bikini, preparing to sunbathe
crocuses everywhere -- but the forsythia in the photo are from last year on April 5 -- could happen again this year by April 5
birds singing me awake in the morning, birds singing as I type this at 7:00 PM as the sky turns a mauve-y-gray-blue
the clam place has reopened and so has the soft serve ice cream place
the nurseries are advertising all kinds of plants, lawn fertilizer, mulch
and on and on ... spring has come early to the eastern half of the USA. We are enjoying it even if those famous April showers may turn out to be shiver-making and nasty. The birds will be settling into their nests with their stoic determination and we will never know what to put on in the morning to be comfortable during the day.
This anthology of poetry was unlike any I've read before. Milosz introduced each poem and wrote short essays for several topical sections. His choices included many European poets unknown to me and quite a few Chinese poets, especially Tu Fu, who lived in the 7th century. I like to post poems every day of April for National Poetry month. But here's a taste from this book, a poem that surprised me in many lines and touched me as a whole, by a poet whose name we have but dates are unknown. Milosz tells us she was a serious Christian reader of the Old and New Testament. Her name was Anna Kamienska [Apparently Polish]
A Prayer that Will be Answered
Lord let me suffer much and then die
Let me walk through silence and leave nothing behind not even fear
Make the world continue let the ocean kiss the sand just as before
Let the grass stay green so that the frogs can hide in it
So that someone can bury his face in it and sob out his love
Make the day rise brightly as if there were no more pain
And let my poem stand clear as a windowpane bumped by a bumblebee's head.
Four women were sitting in a bar -- this is not a joke, it's an anecdote -- just talking. All were between say 63 and 73 and all had hair various shades of gray ranging to white. They were casual friends and were talking animatedly. A younger woman from the other end of the bar was preparing to leave but came over to ask, "Are you all related?"
"No," the group said.
"You look like you could be, especially you and you, and you too, and maybe you."
"Well, we like each other," ones said.
The younger woman left with her companion. Said one of the four, "Over 60, everyone looks alike."
Said another, "Everyone between forty and sixty looks the same age to me."
I wrote about age and beauty a few days ago. This is not about that, this is about stereotyping and agism. The human brain needs to put things into categories, or so Darwinians tell us. We returned to talking about lectures on Islam and misunderstandings most Americans have. We're trying not to generalize or stereotype, if we can learn at our age ... perhaps there's some hope.
As I became conscious after a satisfying night's sleep, I realized the sound I heard was birds singing -- or calling for mates -- possibly from the still nude forsythia bush just beyond the window. Spring is here although it's still chilly and not yet green outside. A wonderful way to start a day!
Last evening I read an article saying the only truly quiet place in America is in a wilderness in Oregon but that is not silent. The author meant quiet as being without man made sounds. In what he called the "last square inch" of quiet, birdsong mixed with raindrops on leaves, wind rustling leaves, and running water nearby. I believe that is hyperbole, that there are equally quiet places say in the Maine woods, the heart of the Adirondacks, many places in the Rocky Mountains, far from roads, not on airline flight patterns. But hype to make a point is the American way.
My birdsong can be easily canceled by the fans on the forced air blower that heats my apartment. I have lots of other man made noise as do most people: the refrigerator, the people upstairs walking around, water in pipes, my shower and toilet -- and those above me -- and all the appliances, vacuum, dish washer, microwave, telephone, hair drier, etc. Plus nearby is a stop light so I get not only vehicles from intersecting streets but the frequent sirens of police, ambulance and fire department. Happily I have no neighbors who play loud music or television. I have whole days when I don't feel like turning on my radio even though it's set to a classical music station.
The article emphasized how bad the ambient noise is for us both psychically and physiologically. Yes, I believe young people who listen to loud music on earphones [or buds as they now are sized and called] may be doing damage to their hearing. And I believe constant noise interferes with our concentration and serenity. I don't think this is such a new phenomenon although surely motorcycles and sonic booms, sirens and helicopters are more damaging than say the wooden and steel rimmed wheels and metal shoed clip-clop of horses drawing carriages, carts and wagons over cobbled streets in cites of the past. That kind of noise goes back to at least Roman times, maybe even ancient Egyptian times when chariots were first used. We are a noisy species. I find it sad that many, especially young people, seem afraid of quiet. Truly you cannot "hear yourself think" if your mind must mutltitask by filtering out the ambient sounds to make room for your thoughts.
Links to TED TALKs are sent to me by friends every so often. Most are interesting, only a few have disappointed. The most dynamic one I have ever heard was sent to me last week by a woman in my writing class which I call "Writing with the whole brain." I am interested in how the brain works and have read a great deal in neurology and psychology. Also I've read a lot about what science is learning from the advanced Tibetan lama meditators who are seeking to control their brains so that they can enter a state of bliss at will and remain there as long as they choose.
This TED TALK by a woman neurologist who watched her brain divide is functions as she was having a massive stroke, is the most dynamic and thought provoking of the TED talks I've heard so far. Perhaps the stroke itself prevented her from acting rationally and seeking immediate help when she had an unusual headache, or she simply did not realize she needed help. She actually spent about four hours watching the ways her right and left hemisphere's perceived what was happening. When the logical side was entirely blanked out, she entered states of bliss - "Nivana" was her word - that I believe meditators work long years to achieve. They learn to move into that state at will and stay there as long as they wish -- or so I understand from what I've read.
The woman's experience affirms that the state of bliss is not supernatural, not bestowed by reaching some godhood, but a state that exist in the normal human brain although it is not accessible under normal circumstances. Yet, I think many, if not most, people have had moments of that bliss -- powerful moments sometimes occasioned by specific circumstances [perhaps like the so called runner's high] when brain chemistry triggers a kind of concentration that is not usual in every day life. I have experienced this strongly and at length at least three times, and more fleetingly several times. I do not think I am unusual in this way, although I may have looked at the experience more questioningly and been less inclined to attribute it to spiritual practice than others might. I have never experimented with mind altering drugs -- that is another area of inquiry and discovery.
I think science has only begun to understand the human brain but I'm happy they are trying and beginning to have tools with which to measure. I am discouraged that so many who are inquiring into these phenomena seem blindered to others who are looking at the same phenomena from other disciplines. Although segmented into right and left, ancient and "modern" and physiologically distinct areas, the brain is a whole and should finally be seen as one organ with many parts that interact.
On his way out the door to return to college after spring break, Noah's mother called to him, "Don't forget your box of matzoh." 180 degree turn, Noah went into the kitchen for his box of the Passover "unlevened bread" and headed out to meet his ride. So what? Before Noah was born his parents, one Jewish, one with no specific religious background, became born again evangelical Christians. Their church is still the lynchpin of their social and intellectual lives. So why is his mother sending him off with a box of matzoh? Why was it that a couple of days ago when I stopped at her house to pick up something she was making matzoh brei for lunch and told me of shopping a bit out of her way because she had a coupon for a dozen boxes of matzoh. [FYI: matzoh brei is a concoction of broken up matzoah and eggs. A bit like french toast, often eaten with butter and cinnamon or even maple syrup.]
As Noah's grandmother, yes, it was I who introduced this part of the family to matzoah brie, many long years ago although it was certainly my Jewish husband who inspired the whole thing. At Noah's age, I was almost entirely unconscious of all Jewish customs and had never tasted the peculiar flavor of matzoh. In truth, I did not grow fond of it and have long since moved into other phases of my life that include no Jewish rituals at all -- nor any Christian ones either.
What is the moral of this story: It's simply Hey, you never know what's going to be an influence. Yesterday afternoon was a birthday celebration. Akitchen conversation turned to the changing eye and hair colors of the children in the family. We older generation understand dominant and recessive genes but the conclusion about what the babies were going to look like concluded, Hey, you never know.
Women writers' novellas is the subject of a course I am taking. The anthology we are using begins with some almost forgotten women -- or rather women forgotten until the women's studies became a part of many college's curricula. We have read authors I had not read before: Rebecca Harding Davis, Kate Chopin and, this week, Nella Larsen whose name was utterly unknown to me. (We also have read Gertrude Stein and Edith Wharton who have received attention continuously and the ones we will read during the remainder of the semester are more modern and more well known). Nella Larsen, in the photo above, was this week's writer. Her story Quicksand was judged by most in the class to be unsuccessful. I believed her character until the final section, many others in the class felt the same way. Apparently after this novella she stopped writing during the last 23 or so years of her life. We know that Kate Chopin also stopped writing at an early age.
I wonder did they really stop writing or did they stop trying to publish? Did manuscripts eventually become tinder for a fire? Nella Larson was a woman of mixed background, half black, half white, she wrote about trying to find her identity and being true to it. Kate Chopin wrote about seeking freedom of expression in a restrictive society. We have no idea how many women writers were never recognized. They may have published here and there in local newspapers, poems in this or that weekly publication, short stories in small magazines. Maybe many of them were not very successful. Maybe they weren't even very good. But we know, because historical societies have sought them out, that many women pioneers, homesteaders, wagon trainers, kept diaries that have become precious historical documents.
Until the women's movement of the mid-20th century women writers were more apt to disappear than be remembered unless they were lucky enough to play in "the big boys' club", as did Gertrude Stein, Edith Wharton, and a few others. Being taken seriously was especially difficult for black women -- and still is. Yes, we have Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou, and a handful of others. But I spoke to two knowledgeable women after the class yesterday and asked if they had ever heard of the playwright Adrienne Kennedy. No. She was a neighbor of mine and a friend in New York. The first black woman playwright to win not one but two Obies. Her work is well known in black studies but black studies is an invisible area doubled compared to women's studies which is semi-invisible to the great male establishment that still defines American literature. Being a woman is hard in the arts; being a black woman is harder.
We have just finished black history month and are moving into women's history month. Then comes April which is poetry month. Some groups have lobbied for recognition in some way -- but, in practice they are barely recognized at all.
The Style section in today's NYTimes had an article about cosmetic companies at last picturing women who are mature in their advertisements. The article specifically talked about Diane Keaton and Ellen Degeneris. We think often of beautiful actresses who are not just over 50 but over 60, like Judi Dench and the incredible Sophia Loren. We just saw Meryl Streep and Glenn Close looking wonderful at the Oscars. For we ordinary women who do not have to look smashing on camera and don't spend large parts of our day at spas, with stylists and make-up artists these images flit past our consciousness like pretty little birds outside the window. We aren't going to have face lifts and botox injections and don't have personal trainers. Their world isn't our world. We look in the mirrors and see faces older than we think we are. We are so trapped inside our own images and ideas that we can't see our own personalities on our faces. But others seem them and many of us are lucky enough to be loved just as we are.
I am among older women -- over 50 but the average age, I'm told, is 73 at the Academy for Lifelong Learning where I take classes and teach a couple of writing courses. The women I see are a sample of women that can be seen almost anywhere in the US in the local supermarket or mall or high school auditorium watching grandchildren perform. They, perhaps, take a little better care of themselves than many for they are smart and attuned to things around them. Most wear make-up, but not so you'd really notice,they take care with their hair and clothes but It's mostly a do-it=yourself look. They look good. I can't think of any who are movie star beautiful, but, of course, they aren't movie stars, they are wives, mothers, grandmothers and some, like me, are even great-grandmothers. They are active and engaged in life, in learning, in sharing with one another,most are active in their community. They are beautiful in quiet ways. Scroll down a little and see how beautiful the poet Szymborska was in her 70s.
This little bird, which seems to me to be some kind of jay, since it was a very dark blue and had a jay-like crest on its head, was on a bush just outside my sewing room window. I did not see him arrive but he sat very still, occasionally turning his head so I could see a big bright eye and the crest. I went and got my camera, took a picture, watched him a bit more, sewed a bit and he was gone as suddenly as he appeared. I do not remember seeing a bird like this before. But I have been hearing bird calls which tell me some spring birds have returned. Four Canadian geese are definitely back, they arrive for breakfast most mornings, stay an hour or so and then go on, possibly to their favorite luncheonette. But they come year after year and are very visible being so large. During the summer small birds of the LBB species [little brown/black birds] often visit that bush outside my sewing room window but they only rest a bit, hop from limb to limb and then go about their business.
About a year ago I saw the film Man on Wire on a friend's TV. This is the documentary about Phillipe Petit who tight rope walked between the Twin Towers in 1974. As a documentary film it is brilliantly edited, deftly told with many of the people who helped him sneak in and set up the wire, the background music has been laid in brilliantly -- Eric Satie and Vaughn Williams' Lark Ascending among others. It won an Oscar for best documentary.
I saw it again this afternoon on a larger screen and was even more moved than the first time. We see a driven individual with an great skill and intense passion to perform feats high in the air that become works of art -- more moving than most "happenings" because they are nearly superhuman. They touch an archetypal feeling, that we can walk on air, which is akin to the flying dreams most people have had. We see clearly when Petit finally walks out on the wire that that he is consciously defying death. Yet he is able to put himself into a meditative state that allowed him to walk back and fourth eight times, lie down on the wire, get up and dance on the wire -- proving he was in HIS element which everyone watching knew to be supernatural. The feat is thrilling. The man's spirit, intense and yet full of fun, is more elfin than human except that he is totally driven from the moment he saw in a paper that the the Towers would be built. He extended the definition of what is humanly possible as surely as have the astronauts, as have Beethoven or Vermeer or Shakespeare. Few people comprehend that, indeed, man is not limited by the forces of gravity. Only the fabled yogis have demonstrated this in the past and we don't have them on film.
The mid-70s are a surprise! Part of me remains in the 50s -- age, I mean, not decade of 20th century. It's a joy ride, new experiences land in my lap and I've become a better quilter, poet, writer than I expected. It's a rich life for a person never rich financially. Hey, this is what the mid-70s are like!