Sunday, December 26, 2010

Profiles of Snowpeople

On the last day of 2009 I took a long walk through New York City and came across several snowpeople: Bob, Estella, Harry, Charmaine, Phil, and Sandra.

P1000909 Bob lives life on the edge. He loves fun, thrills, and mugging for photos that he shares with his 1,079 Facebook friends. Across the water is his favorite girl, Lady Liberty; if he had to choose he would pick her over Lady Luck, most days.

P1000911 Estella is an abstracted artist and armchair philosopher. Sometimes she's not sure that she exists; she might have had arms at one point, or eyes, or maybe she only imagined that she did. She will sublimate one day, she's fairly sure, and wonders if as a gaseous vapor she will still be Estella or become something else entirely.

P1010040 Harry woke up with a hangover today, and the light still hurts his eyes. Why get drunk the night before New Year's Eve? Harry doesn't remember the last time he celebrated anything with real happiness.

P1000932 Charmaine has a taste for the exotic. She's dreamt of traveling to tropical lands and sipping pinacoladas to the sound of surf and steel drums. She knows that this is an impossible dream for a snowperson, but she does her best to live it anyway and liven up her cold life here with a touch of the sultry and exotic.

P1000931 Phil is pretty sure the world is going to end soon. The stroke of midnight sounds about right. He can feel the ground giving out from under him every hour.

P1000933 Sandra hates being made out of snow. She figures that if she wants to stick around for many more seasons she'll need to graft herself onto something that lasts, like a tree. But nature can't accommodate a tree-snowperson hybrid, not for long.

Week in Seven Words #47

My eyelids giving up.

finger food
One lady declares that they're the best, all those tiny treats to pluck from the trays and pop into her mouth. She makes a slow appreciative circle round the table, her fingers dancing over chips, crackers, guacamole, and beans, gingerbread, olives, grapes and cheese, puffy cakes and chunks of chocolate.

Hollow-boned, flying through the night. Can't figure out when to stop and for how long.

It's nice to see the relief on their faces when the exam is over; they know that no matter how they did they get to go home now and reacquaint themselves with a full night's sleep. (A full night and an extra half-day, more like.)

When I think too far ahead I tense up. Plans are precarious, people change. Sometimes I wonder how anything can be planned.

Five minutes before joining the conversation, I tell myself that I'm going to work on my papers and not socialize.

In the tiny office they sit on the floor, backs to the wall, laptops and notebooks open on their legs, and everything seems confusing, everything, so I crack a joke now and then and some of the pressure lets up.

Friday, December 24, 2010

The sunny side of the week...

It's Friday! All week I've been looking forward to Friday.

I've got some cooking to do before the Sabbath starts, and I can barely see the surface of my desk, but for the next hour or so I'm going to just sit. Sitting is grand. It's cold outside, it's warm in here, my feet are up, the TV is murmuring something unimportant. And when I do some of the housework later, I know who I'll be listening to:

"Life can be so sweet... on the sunny side of the street!"

I hope you've found yourself dancing down a sunny street or two this holiday season.

Warm wishes to you all.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Week in Seven Words #46

She tells me about her new glasses, what they look like, how she realized at school with the blackboard and clock getting fuzzier and fuzzier that she'd need them. Her words remind me of when I put on my own first pair of glasses, the summer before fifth grade. How I slid them up my nose in the optician's shop, and the little squares on the shop's screen door leapt out sharply, along with the trees beyond and the license plates on the cars parked by the curb.

The clouds are a powdery pink, and the glass walls of the building blush in the sunset.

They're overworked, I'm overworked. We'll muddle through this together.

A wooden stairwell, carpeted, the air thick with potpurri and the banisters twined in holly. On the wall above the first landing a mirror hangs too high for people to see their reflection. In some places it's spotted a moldy black. I wonder, if I were to drag over a stepladder, what I'd see in its surface.

Students, pale and sniffly from stress and lack of sleep.

For a few hours each week I need to use an office in their building. The office they give me doesn't open at first to any keys; who knows what’s happened, I’m told, and who was the last person to have set foot in it - maybe the lock was changed. An aura of mystery builds around the room, until at last I’m given a key that works. The lock clicks, I find a small dark room, no window, no visible light switch, a desk rearing up with its legs sticking out like a creature making a last desperate defense of its lair. An empty thermos and a granola bar sit on the other desk. From the floor a phone occasionally purrs; its blinking red light hints at messages that may never be heard by human ears.

People-watching from a library window. The first reckless forerunners of snow spin through the air.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Week in Seven Words #45

My knuckles crack open in the cold.

All eight candles are lit along with the presiding shamash; the light they give is defiant and cheerful.

A slender journal in Hebrew, and the story of a girl who lived decades ago and died young. She left a deep impression on her teacher, who wrote about her elevated spirit and discerning mind; this teacher wanted to preserve her writing and keep her memory alive. In her black and white photo she looks serious and severely lovely.

The project drifts off course and onto some rocks. It groans, tilts, and waits in weary silence for intervention.

Their eyes appear on the screen as two blank white circles on a black square. The circles squeeze to nothing and spring to full circumference; they waver and blur and shift from side to side. They seem to belong to a cartoon character blinking out of a dark room.

My front door won't admit me, and at first I'm not sure why.

Snow drifts down in the late afternoon. It's the best time of day for it, knowing that there are warm places waiting for me at the end of the day's work.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Extracts: How do we love?

At last the sun came up bewilderingly bright. Sylvia could see the white sails of ships out at sea, and the clouds that were purple and rose-colored and yellow at first began to fade away. Where was the white heron's nest in the sea of green branches, and was this wonderful sight and pageant of the world the only reward for having climbed to such a giddy height?

Sylvia, a shy young girl who lives with her grandmother in rural New England, climbs an enormous tree. This is an arduous undertaking, done in secret.

The tree seemed to lengthen itself out as she went up, and to reach farther and farther upward. It was like a great main-mast to the voyaging earth; it must truly have been amazed that morning through all its ponderous frame as it felt this determined spark of human spirit wending its way from higher branch to branch.

She makes this climb in the hopes of spotting where the elusive white heron hides its nest. A friendly hunter has offered her and her grandmother money if she can find out where the bird lives.

Will Sylvia discover the location of the heron's nest? If she does, will she tell the hunter where to find it, so that she can earn money and approval, while the hunter bags himself another bird for his collection of specimens?

That's the part that makes Sylvia uneasy:

Sylvia would have liked him vastly better without his gun; she could not understand why he killed the very birds he seemed to like so much. But as the day waned, Sylvia still watched the young man with loving admiration. She had never seen anybody so charming and delightful; the woman's heart, asleep in the child, was vaguely thrilled by a dream of love.

One of the best elements of Sarah Orne Jewett's story, "A White Heron", is its exploration of different kinds of love.

Sylvia loves the creatures of the woods with a kind of sympathy to them; she loves them as they are ("The murmur of the pine's green branches is in her ears, she remembers how the white heron came flying through the golden air and how they watched the sea and the morning together...").

The hunter loves the birds chiefly because of what he is able to get out of them - another addition to his collection, a reward for his skills, the satisfaction of having the specimens stuffed and in his possession to admire and study as he pleases.

The story got me thinking about the ways in which we love other people. Is it more with a sense of fellowship, of loving another like yourself and as they are? Or do we love them insofar as they are useful to us and satisfy whatever urges and desires require satisfaction (a kind of love that ties into the "pageant of the world"). Is it a blend of both?

Sylvia might get her chance to win some money and admiration, the currency of a wider world with which she's had little contact (and never really fit into before she went to live with her grandmother). But what would she be giving up to earn these rewards? And what would she be losing if she turns away from the money and approval and the kind of love society might offer her?

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Week in Seven Words #44

The boys set multiple dreidels spinning at once. The dreidels whir around the table, sometimes clacking off each other and shooting over the table-edge. At the end of each round one of the boys likes to line up his dreidels and see which letters they fell on (what are the odds of getting four gimmels?) Their younger brother thinks it's more fun to climb onto the table and swat down all the dreidels; I call him the "Dreidel Monster", and he laughs in delight.

We light Hanukkah candles simultaneously in different cities and sing together over the phone. "Maoz Tzur" makes me feel like a sturdy stone cottage full of light.

They're a comic team, bopping each other on the head. They've been doing this for years - sometimes playfully, other times hard enough to knock each other out.

I needed an evening like this one - catching up with people I haven't seen in weeks, a long dinner with good food, lots of laughter, staying after to help clean up and then sitting at one of the tables, just three of us talking about all sorts of things until it gets late.

We start with the sprightly joy of Glinka. This is followed by the sweeping mastery of Tchaikovsky. From there we step into Debussy's engimatic lagoon with its choir of sirens. And then Stravinsky's firebird unfolds, full of dazzling unpredictable spirit (and that one golden passage in the finale when the French horn emerges from the near-silence like a lake catching the first light of the rising sun).

When I visit their apartment, there's a corner of the couch that's just mine. I know that I can sprawl there for a while.

After they visit, my fridge is full to bursting with meat, milk, cheese, yogurts and juice, cups of cinnamon-spotted rice pudding, baby carrots, pickles in tupperware, red-green apples and spicy olives, netted bags of tangerines and a bar of (opened already of course) chocolate in shiny foil.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Extracts: Ghazals and Kitchen Poems

After the last post showing autumn photos I took in Central Park, I thought I'd skip ahead in the seasons and talk about some Spring Ghazals.

The Spring Ghazals is a book of poetry by Jack Hayes. I thought it fitting to talk about the book as part of the 'Extracts' series because as I read through it there were a lot of lines that jumped out, like this verse from the poem "distance equals rate times time":
I have nothing to say about the white cirrus clouds as they canoed
over the motley sky in a distant Vermont October...

There are many moments like this in the book, where I've never seen something described a certain way (like clouds that canoe) or in another poem, "Ghazal 4/29" where he describes "smothered velvet air" - but when I read it I think of course (why hasn't anyone else described it just this way?), I see exactly what he's saying. And not just seeing it either, because any given image like that stirs up multiple senses (spirit and motion and shape, texture), so you have a "cow pond exhaling smoke" in the poem "January Morning", "an aimless magnolia morning" in "Ghazal 5/3", and "the pipe smoke's choking sweetness dispelled thru the trellis" (this one again from "Ghazal 4/29").

Poems echo in other poems in this collection. That "choking sweetness" of the pipe takes on another form in the poem "song my father taught me":
dented & heavy he fished in black pools
where perch swirled yellow the sawdust's choking sweetness

in his workshop under the bandsaw's gray evening whirr...

(This workshop also emerges in "Ghazal 4/27".)

One poem can blend various places and points in time, which mix together but remain distinct too. Different memories lap at each other, impressions hitch onto other impressions. You never know where a poem will take you.

I think a lot of this comes out in the section called Kitchen Poems. There you'll find several poems with foods as their titles (like "French Toast", "Greek Salad", "Strawberry Rhubarb Pie", etc.) These poems blend together cooking, music, life, a roving mind examining its memories and sensory impressions, and it often struck me that the cooking (or food preparation) process shaped the poem itself. Like with "Greek Salad", the memories in the poem feel like ingredients thrown into a bowl chopped (they come across that way in the reading and rhythm). In "French Toast" things seem to melt together more, amid butter, yellow and gold, and the toast itself is described at the end as being "light amber like a window - the golden crust this morning/is everyone's sweet eggshell heartache"; the food is a window opening to the world (and it gives the poem a sense of expanding out). "Strawberry Rhubarb Pie" gave me the impression of someone sitting alone savoring what might be the last sweet wholesome thing he'll eat (maybe ever, maybe only for another long while); he wants to savor each forkful that must go the way of other forkfuls and disappear - maybe like those tunes he mentions:
... not to mention a
tune you hear dreaming you can even hum it
you wake up the tune is lost inside yourself

As with other poems, there are beautiful synesthetic associations, between tasting and listening to music for instance or music and the color of sky (and potatoes) in "Potato Salad": "The sky, too, needs to be white, not exactly an oboe awash in Debussy but maybe a clarinet basking in a Hoagy Carmichael chromatic progression..."

And there are moments where something seems to swim out of the words and reach into you and wrench you.

There's a lot of beauty in these poems.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

"Autumn in New York..."

"... why does it feel so inviting?"







"Dreamers with empty hands
may sigh for exotic lands;
It's autumn in New York -
it's good to live it again."

(Billie Holiday singing "Autumn in New York" brings a smile to my heart.)