Sunday, June 27, 2004

Look !


Friday, June 25, 2004


It was clear within a few measures that the piece's title referred not only to the instrument for which it was written, but to the dynamic in which it was to be played: soft. And also, by extension, to the substance -- the topic, the agenda, the motive -- of the music, a long piano piece by the contemporary American composer Morton Feldman. The piece was about softness. A specific type of softness: audible softness. Which is a matter solely of dynamic, not of precision. Of quietness, not yielding, blurry texture.

So immediately the subtext of the piece (a subtext common to all pieces, of course) became evident: listen. It was a bodily imperative. It pulled me, the listener, bodily, toward, into, the music. The better, as the tale goes, to hear it with, my dears. It called my ears themselves into question. Those fleshy sound cones and their little whinging diaphragms, their jiggling ossicular chain, the chambered nautilus of the cochlea, the ionic fluxing nerve strings, the big dark brain and all its dark little drawers. It ordered the body: sit still, lest your creaks and rustlings overwhelm the music.

It was a new piece to me. And, as difficult contemporary music, lacked the predictable gestures and pathways of baroque or classical pieces or popular songs. Listen to enough baroque music, and you can predict where it will be a few measures hence. Anticipatory hearing. Listen to a familiar piece, and the brain hums along, anticipating its every move, trumping it, racing it to the resolution. It's comfortable and comforting, like an old friend's face that one doesn't really see anymore. But the Feldman piece was a difficult stranger, and, unschooled in any musical vocabulary that would help me talk to myself about it -- this is a sonata, this is a fugue -- I was at sea.

Which was a good place to be. The piece was setting the body up to listen as carefully as possible. Demanding it. So I took some breaths and let go of thoughts much as one does while doing sitting meditation and directed my attention to the sound. Of course, the listener was there, too, most of the time, like the thinker in sitting practice. But it was keeping a low profile -- more nagging, than, say, the thought "these seats are really hard," but low enough.

Along with being soft, the piece was slow, with lots of sostenuto. Chordal rather than contrapuntal. So slow that the very onset of the sound of each chord broke open and revealed itself as a complex event -- hammer on and off string, vibration. Which led backward to key, finger, arm, brain-eye-ear: the pianist. The signs on the page before her. Thence to the composer, and his ear and mind and hand and musical experience.

So chord followed chord, slowly, softly, complex, shifting, dissonant. Into the body. Within the body. For brief moments there was simply the music. Sound and time. The sound now. The sound just past -- echoing, resonant, in memory. And pure receptivity and emptiness.

Then suddenly, deep into the piece, a crashing chord: forte. A hundred bodies startled. A hundred adrenal glands squirted out little jets of adrenalin. A hundred hearts went from andante to allegro. The chord decayed -- loud faded to soft -- and, even within it, the stately succession of slow, soft chords continued.

It was an amazing moment in an amazing piece.

It was a piece about listening. About attention. About the nature of sound, and the nature of hearing. In the same way that abstract expressionist art is about the nature of color, line, and their interactions. One can write about it, sure, but mainly it's between the sound and the ear, the canvas and the eye.

And it struck me, later, that this was a quasi eucharistic experience, a communion. The audience was one body, one ear, united in the aural body of the music. The pianist -- the marvelous Ursula Oppens -- was the priest who caused the transubstantiation of sign into living sound.


Ordnance Music

It was a perfect early summer evening in Boston, in that vanishingly small window between cold, damp spring, and oppressively hot midsummer. The concert was at Jordan Hall at the Conservatory; as we walked toward the hall, my husband, an alumnus, marveled aloud at how his memories of his days there over twenty years ago were less than vivid.

As we settled into our seats, I thought more about memory.

My first time in Jordan Hall had been in 1971 or 1972. I attended a concert by the Dutch recorder virtuoso Frans Brueggen, and wrote about it in my journal with the ecstatic enthusiasm of the unworldly undergradute that I was then. I suspect that the writing was the reason that I remember it so well. My husband and I tried to recall the times we'd attended concerts at Jordan Hall together, and could, between us, exhume a mere fragment: some program that included Stravinsky's L'Histoire du Soldat, with narration by the late, locally famous public radio classical musical host, Robert J. Lertsema.

But I could, oddly enough, remember quite clearly where I'd sat those two times -- on the left side of the hall in the 70's, and on the right balcony for L'Histoire. How will I remember last night's concert ? Will I remember the thin, quiet man who sidled up to me in the Dunkin' Donuts as I waited for my husband to get coffee, and whispered do you have any spare change ? Will I remember our conversation about memory ? How does the likelihood that experience will fade from memory effect its value ? What fragments am I shoring up against what ruin ?

Jordan Hall is small, old and beautiful. Filling the back wall of the small stage are ranks of organ pipes; gilt cherubim cavort above them. The stage pillars are ornately carved, and the ceiling rises to a tall, windowed dome.

As I considered the organ, I found myself doing some mental calculation.

Does its existence counterbalance, or nullify in any way the existence of guns and bombs ? Windchest for warchest ? And, if so, is there a strictly numerical relationship -- one pipe organ equals 1000 small arms or a cache of machine guns or an SUV packed with explosives ? One clarinet equals a grenade; one oil painting a surface to air missile; one poem a magazine full of bullets.

Or maybe it doesn't work that way at all. Maybe the ordnance nullifies the organ, vox humana and vox angelica, rendering it as culturally irrelevant and outmoded as the pudgy-kneed cherubim. I gazed at the two side-by-side pianos -- black steinway grands -- on the stage. They reminded me of coffins. I imagined them exploding, performer and all. Limbs, keys, wire sprayed everywhere, ceiling to floor. Such a thing could happen.

I thought back to Brueggen in the 70's. During one of his pieces, likely some baroque sonata, an actor was stationed in an easy chair beside a floor lamp, and read the newspaper through the whole piece. As if to say: ho hum. Wallpaper music. Easy listening. Backgound music. I seemed to remember that the Boston Globe had even noted this little gesture of self-critique on its editorial page. Had Vietnam been the context of his small protest ?

The Jordan Hall cherubs, I reflected, were not without irony. Not simply decorative kitsch, but serious irony. A reminder similar to Brueggen's man-in-the-armchair.

This was a concert of the Conservatory's annual summer piano institute, which I assume includes among its students the most avant garde and promising of young musicians. And the pianist was Ursula Oppens, well known for her performance of new music. Modern music, post-modern music. Music that takes the dislocations and brutalities of the zeitgeist into account. Music that is post-tonal, post-Auschwitz, post-Hiroshima, post-AIDS, post-Church, acknowledges randomness, the death of God, and the ongoing ascendency of greed, cruelty and force in the world. Broken-hearted music. Which does not mean joyless.

Here's a poem I wrote six or seven years ago in an even more bitter frame of mind.

iii. Like Birdsong

Can you recall what music was before
the instruments were reclassified
by raw material, flashpoint, melting point,

before drumsticks, mallets, bows and violins
were kindling wood, before stripped bassoons
and clarinets, split for firewood, burned,

before the necks of cellos and bass viols,
the unstrung harps and gutted baby grands
were stacked up for cordwood, before the flayed

drumheads and sheared-off strings were stitched
into rucksacks, hairshirts and mattresses,
before trumpets, cymbals, glockenspiels, trombones,

spitvalves, thumbrests, leafsprings, and ligatures,
were all cast into the defiler’s fire,
fusing to a useful, dull alloy

and every last sixty-four cents’ worth
of water vapor, ash and quicklime
dispersed like birdsong on the afterwind ?


Thursday, June 24, 2004

Take That, Sigmund

I was walking along the river path today with my camera. It was around noon, and I saw a worker from a nearby plant unwrapping his lunch on one of the pathside split-log benches. I approached, smiling. He stared back, and said:

That's quite a lens.

I acknowledged my macro lenses heft and utility. He continued to stare, seemingly dumbstruck, so I moved on.

But it IS quite an impressive looking lens, and he was not the first passerby to comment on it. And so far, all the strangers who have commented on it have been guys. It's not that only guys strike up conversations -- I've had any number of brief, pleasant chats with women strollers, bikers and dog-walkers, and none of them have admired my big lens.

Even in my Freudian days, I'd never really connected with the concept of penis-envy. It seemed far fetched. Silly, even. Who'd want one of those inconvenient-appearing, oddly hydraulic, stuck-on, after-thought-like dangly things ? I was, all in all, rather pleased not to be burdened with one. And not to be burdened with the attendant worries about comparative size and function that seem to plague some men. Not that we women are free from body-part size issues. Who's got the smallest waist, longest legs, biggest breasts: these are the measures our surreptitious glances take.

But today, on the riverbank, with my camera, and without even trying, I'd become the alpha male.


Tuesday, June 22, 2004

Get Your Grimy Little Mitt Off MY Constitution

I'm no student of government, law and social policy. I'm about as far from a "wonk" as one can get, although I love the word and would like somehow to apply it to myself. (Wildflower wonk ?) But isn't one of the chief bits of rightist republican dogma the states rights thingy ? I mean weren't we reminded during the recent Orgiastic Reagan Obsequies of one of the Gipper's first political speeches, some deeply coded gem delivered in the deepest bowels of the south, that extolled "states rights" AKA the "right to racial segregation" ?

Yet when it comes to marriage rights, the prospect of individual states deciding for themselves to move into a 21st century of tolerance and freedom, sends the same folks into a dither about the the "confusion" that will result. And sends them scuttling to the federal Constitution, into which they propose to ram some rights-denying, homophobia-enshrining, church-and-state-separation defying nonsense.

My fellow physician, the loathsome cat-murdering thoracic surgeon and gay basher Dr Frist, currently Senate majority leader, has decided that there's no time like the present for Constitution desecrating. And, of course, "it's not political."

So The Mitthead's going to Washington. To testify before the Judiciary committee. And, again, it's not "political," as his various highly remunerated, unsavory (homage due here to that master of complex political epithets, RiAF) mouthpieces have been reminding us. The Mitthead has no aspirations whatsoever toward the White House. Uh huh. Right.

It's to prevent confusion.

Is "prevent confusion" going to become the new right wing code word for legislating homophobic bigotry ?

Viz: "He will argue that, even if gay marriage is confined to Massachusetts residents, some of those married couples will eventually relocate and test the limits of their rights in other states, and the issue will no longer be confined to Massachusetts. He is expected to call for a federal constitutional amendment as the only way to avoid that confusion nationally."

And, for that matter, doesn't the constitution already contain confusion-avoiding language that guarantees all (that's A-L-L) citizens equal protection under the law ? And some thingy about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness ? So wouldn't a clause prohibiting same sex marriage make the document internally self-contradictory ?

Myself, I think it's time for the Mitthead to do the only honorable thing. Follow his Connecticut colleague Governor Rowland's example and resign in disgrace.


Saturday, June 19, 2004

Transcendental Etude IX

She'd found herself, of late, counterpoising the time before her birth with the time after her death. It was a strange exercise in parsing eternity that, for some odd reason, she found comforting. A mind game that she didn't dare deconstruct, for fear of unearthing its utter bad faith.

There was no doubt that, deny it as she might, she was looking for consolation. That she still harbored after all these hard boiled years a teeny tiny flame of theological optimism that, at the very last moment, a deus ex machina would arrive and solve, or better still, abolish the problem of mortality. She pictured Jesus descending in a Power and Light bucket truck, smiling in his hard hat, revealing that all that Heaven stuff was true after all. Or at least some temporal guru -- roshi, sensei, teacher, lama, priest -- would materialize and give her the one teaching or practice that would do the same: abolish death.

The funerary phrase echoed in her mind:

I am the resurrection and the life. He that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live.

Now how exactly does that work ? Her husband, dismissive and sardonic, claimed that this was the prize nugget of literal, personal immortality that drew people into the Christian fold. Eternal life. No death. You get to stay you forever. With all your friends and family. In Heaven, the proverbial far, far better place . The place of one's reward . She suspected that, at the bottom of her quest for transcendence, lay a primitive wish to continue as herself in perpetuity. The whole gnarly package -- lank hair, bundled neuroses, crinky neck, bad bones, stifled and raging appetites, propensity for melancholia, everything. How could it be otherwise ?

Self-love. Who would have thought it ? The word cried out for a German translation. Selbstliebe. Like some Freudian affliction. The French amour propre was too genteel. She thought of Erik Erikson, that old Eight Ages Of Man psychoanalytic nemesis of hers, each of whose developmental stages from basic trust vs. basic mistruct to ego integrity vs. despair she'd flunked, spectacularly. She'd been thinking, lately, of the last stage. The one she was approaching. If she ever, that is, got herself out of the muck of stagnation vs. generativity or where ever she'd been floundering these past few years.

Ego Integrity. The phrase pissed her off. It seemed so smug, so complacent, so self-satisfied. Like a room of carefully arranged trophies. Fetschrifts. Diplomas. Honoraria. The last piece of the jigsaw clicks into place. All one's oral rages and anal shamefulness successfully overcome. Inhibiting guilts and inferiority replaced by entrepreneurial and optimistic industry and competence. A proud and firm sense of identity flourishes in place of role confusion. Intimacy ("mutuality of orgasm with a loved partner of the other sex with whom one is able and willing to share a mutual trust and with whom one is able and willing to regulate the cycles of work, procreation and recreation so as to secure to the offspring, too, all the stages of a satisfactory development") is ascendent over bitter isolation. One is generative, productive, forward-moving not stagnant and fallow.

Then, finally, full of enough Ego Integrity (and blissfully unafflicted by its negative counterpart, despair) so as "not to fear death," one, well, dies.

Not to fear death ??? Did it really say that ?

The whole project struck her as some booster clubby extrovert's manifesto.

She arranged her failures on Dr Erikson's epigenetic staircase. Issues with food. Shame of her body. Shyness, withdrawal. Sexual conflict and ambiguity. Divorce. And, of all things, motherhood. Herself, a mother ? Unbelievable. Then medicine. What was she thinking when she signed onto that ? And poetry ? A failed dilletante. Religion ? Was there ever a bigger misfit ? Oddly enough, as she went though the familiar litany of self-grievance, it seemed more like gazing at old wallpaper than wrestling with despair. She thought of the early journals she'd written, full of discussions of these very things, yet full of anguish. Where was that anguish now ? Furthermore, she reflected, weren't some of the character traits that she had found useful in helping her understand and exist in the world -- ambivalence, restraint, modesty, even inhibition -- products of Eriksonian epigenetic failures ?

What was that Thomas Merton had written ?

Despair is the absolute extreme of self-love.

Was that not another way of putting the first two noble truths ? That life is suffering, and that suffering arises from clinging ?


But still, there it was. That nagging little selbstliebe that kept her stealing sidelong glances at the hard-hatted hunk in the bucket truck, wondering what in Heaven's name he meant by that wink.



Grass used to be, well, just grass. The green stuff around the house that Dad fussed over and mowed. The lawn. When I became a homeowner I found I was also a defacto lawnowner. Plus the proud owner of an oblong backyard filled with barkmulch. Determined to make good on our suburban obligations, we hired a gardener to install a back lawn. Twice. And then I, two dead lawns under my belt, and armed with a rake and a bag of seed, played sower. Flung handsfull of grass seed about, willy nilly, and dutifully hosed it down each morning and evening. A crop of frail blades emerged and were soon overcome by a burgeoning swathe of crabgrass.

So I gave up and bought a weed book. And began to study the natural ecology of our weed lawn. Left to its own devices, the back yard greens. Crabgrass, clover, yellow wood sorrell, bedstraws, speedwells, madders, nutsedge and, later, spurge all appear. Plus dandelions, hawkweed, poorman's pepper, shepherd's purse, swallow wort, chicory -- all sorts of interesting little plants, little niches, a patchwork of derelict flora.

Fred, across the street, put in a lawn this year. Replaced the dusty, half-green patch where he used to park his car. Within a week his threadbare dirt patch became a lush emerald swathe. Our sidefence neighbor, former owner of a child-betrodden, toy-strewn dirt-and-mudflat backyard, put in a lawn, seemingly overnight. Lush, green, landscaped. The first we knew about it was a note, taped to our back door, which said, basically, Ahem well hello would you kindly cut down your maple trees which cause us no end of shade, mold, rot and mildew.

Later today, soon in fact, I have to mow my weedlawn. A neighborly obligation. I keep my weedlawn tidy. I do spare interesting plants and plant clumps. I have no interest in cutting down maple trees or obtaining my own emerald sward. I would have to hire a gardener. Men with machines and poisons. An army. To protect my lawn. Nah. There are enough battles in the world.

At the river, the grass is ascendant. Magnificent. Prolific, prodigal, carzily diverse. Seedheads -- or, latinately, inflorescences -- sprout the most extravagant sexual doohickeys, and toss back and forth in the wind and sun. (My botanic vocabulary is not what it might be.) I look, and look, and look, never tiring of the wild display. Grasses, flaunting and disseminating and inseminating. And between them, flowers. Wildflowers, weeds. Rushes, sedges. The meadow renews itself. There are technical words for all these parts, these flowers and stems ans seeds and leaves -- and each plant has a name. Has two -- common, and latin, low church and high church. Like our beautiful language, English, that saxon and latin chimera. Seed head, inflorescence. Grass. Panicum. Poaceae. Agrostis. I think of the millions of poems in the world. Poems written, read, poems fertilizing the brainbeds from which other poems grow, poet to poet, generations of poems -- and suddenly the world's surfeit of poems that once dismayed me by its sheer size, delights me, delights me as a meadow does, succeeding itself year after year.

See ?


Thursday, June 17, 2004

Wild Garlic Struts Its Stuff

I've finally identified the flame- shaped plant that I've been admiring: wild garlic. The pods have opened, revealing beautiful pearly white spheres, from which tiny blue flowers cantilever.



Sunday, June 13, 2004

Earthly Delights 3


Blue-Eyed Grass


Downy Brome Seedhead

Baby Queen Anne's Lace


Dame's Rocket


Fringed Sedge

Hop Clover

Maple Leaf Gall


Red Clover

Rosa Multiflora

Sheep Sorrel


Soft Rush

Tower Mustard

Whorled Loosestrife



Saturday, June 12, 2004

Transcendental Etude VIII

What had she been doing in church all these Sundays ?

She'd felt a bit like Alice through the looking glass and down the rabbit hole.

She gazed out of the window of her study at the bright, beautiful morning. Sabbath morning. She could not bring herself, she knew now, to continue her shaky little experiment in looking to her own tradition. What good was looking to her own tradition if she found herself translating it all into something else ? The beatitudes were not the heart sutra, even though poverty of spirit, meekness, hunger and thirst for righteousness and purity of heart could be construed as types of emptiness. And the kingdom of heaven could be painfully reconstructed into Buddha mind, but the metaphor was distractingly geometric and monarchical.

What good is "the body of Christ" as an ontological metaphor if it only includes the baptized ? The most powerful image of the body of Christ that she'd seen lately was in Resnais' Night and Fog , which contains the famous, terrible film footage taken after the liberation of the Nazi death camps: emaciated cadavers being thrown into mass graves. The wildly splayed limbs of the heaps of bodies had reminded her of crucifixion. Political suffering. Evil institutionalized. Affliction meted out by cadres of the rich and powerful, organized into structures of force. Were the six million Jewish dead not part of the afflicted, God-infused Body ?

She thought of the squirrel that had languished for two days in her neighbor's rooftop trap. Her husband had left the neighbor a note, and the next morning the cage was gone. But where was the squirrel ? She'd seen the neighbor, after he'd bagged his first unwelcome guest , headed into his back yard with loaded cage in one hand, rake in the other. She could only imagine the poor thing's fate. Was it not part of the afflicted, God-infused Body ?

Many would answer with full, faith-filled conviction: No. And no. No Jews or squirrels (or divorcees or gays or Buddhists or users of the Pill) are allowed in the Kingdom. True, there are other, more liberal quarters of the Kingdom that all of the above can, if not fully inhabit, at least provisionally visit.

But, still, if a religion is going to account for the existence of and the fuction of and the meaning of something as massive and overwhelming and beyond-understanding as Being Itself -- the Source and Foundation of the Universe and all other Universes, consciousness, space and time and beyond -- how can it exclude anything ?

Why church, anyway ?

Was it a question of a life-long hermit coming in from the cold ? Sangha-envy ? The wish for a teacher, someone who could show her a thing or two about emerging from darkness and confusion ?

She looked up at her bookcase. Next to a blurred and curling picture of Dorothy Day, she'd taped this, a Zen Gatha:

I beg to urge everyone:
life and death is a grave matter;
all things pass quickly away.
Each of you must be completely alert;
never neglectful, never indulgent.

And, on the side of her computer monitor, faded and barely legible, a fortune from a cookie:

The stars appear every night in the sky.
All is well.

Dogen. Julian of Norwich. Merton. Dorothy Day. Cookies, weeds, the river. The world is full of wisdom, teachers, paths. She'd find hers. She'd made a good start.


Wednesday, June 09, 2004


When I saw the cyclist receding down the riverside bike path with a nosegay of wildflowers bungeed to his back bikerack I bit my tongue. It would have been unseemly to lope off after him crying "Murderer ! Pillager !" He'd even taken a few birdsfoot trefoils, which I'd spotted newly blooming and richly yellow by the side of the path. I'd been pleased to have remembered their name from last year's late summer walks and I felt like I was seeing an old friend carried off by a kidnapper.

But it's hard to argue that picking a few posies for one's sweetheart is transgressive. Who'd listen, anyway ? The whole history of romance argues for wildflower bouquets. Plus, the earth is generous, even prodigal. The pathside meadows are knee high with grasses, seedheads burgeoning, and woven through with stands of vetch, campion, buttercup, clover, red sorrel, plantain, bindweed, virginia creeper, pigweed, whorled loosestrife, smartweed, asters, daisys, starwort and more. But, still. For every modest suitor plucking a bloom or two there is a whole army of Don Juans ready to strip the field down to dirt, japanese knotweed and all, leaving behind only one extra-large, drained, styrofoam Dunkin' Donuts coffee cup as a message:



Sunday, June 06, 2004

Transcendental Etude VII

The church was Catholic, circa 1960, more hall than cathedral. She felt like she was beneath an overturned ark: the tall, peaked, beamed ceiling was its ribbed hull, the low stained glass windows set beneath recessed arches were oar holes.

She was, more than ever, an intruder. This was a parish, an extended family of believers, joined by common faith and custom, from Eucharist and parochial school, through pancake breakfast and bingo, to Extreme Unction. Or whatever they called it now. She was the mysterious, silent stranger. The outsider, the observer. Stealing some warmth at an alien hearth. Welcome, sort of. Pitied ? Maybe. Or so she felt.

It was the beginning of ordinary time. She loved that. She loved the whole notion of a liturgical year, of the sanctification of time. Anticipation, Birth, Death, Resurrection, so in tune with the seasons, with the rhythm of a life. And the divine office -- vigils, lauds, the little hours, vespers, compline -- imbuing the whole day with holiness. That's what drew here here, to this house where she was a scandal, from whose table she was excluded.

There were only hymnals in the pews. No weekly missal to follow. No matter. She could fake it. She thought of the movie she'd seen recently -- Max Von Sydow as the fierce missionary priest in Hiroshima, chiding his Japanese colleague who had replaced the Latin he hadn't quite learned with a litany of trolley stops. She could do that -- light from light, God from God, true God from true God, longwood, fenway, kendall, symphony, arlington, copley, park.

The service started with a hymn. She winced as the organist began. These hymns, she thought, all sound like bad pop tunes, all sweetness and treacle. Later, the cantor sang. She didn't associate "cantors" with the Catholic Church. There was nothing rabbinical about this cantor. She was young, twenty something, shapely and demure. Her voice was thin, pretty enough, and inflected with a show tuney vibrato. When she raised her arm, the congregation chimed in. The gesture seemed, well, evangelical.

"This music," she found herself thinking, "is dreadful." She'd been listening all week to Arvo Part's magnificent 24 Prayers of St John Chrysostom. She'd even played it in the car on the way to church. Granted, Arvo is a tough act to follow, but the cantor seemed like a refugee from a high school talent show. An American Idol aspirant.

Would a lightning bolt to smite her for these thoughts ? She tried to focus on the service.

The readings began. A stout, gray-haired woman, maybe a nun, approached the lectern. She read beautifully, except for her grating Bostonian pronunciation of Lord: Lod. Rhymes with clod. She'd never liked the idea of "Lord" anyway, wincing when she encountered it in Scripture passages. It was even more grating as Lod.

But the passage was from Proverbs, a book of the Bible she'd more or less ignored. It was a stunningly beautiful passage about Wisdom. She knew, though Merton, that Wisdom was a female principle.

I was poured forth,
at the first, before the earth.
When there were no depths I was brought forth,
when there were no fountains or springs of water;
before the mountains were settled into place,
before the hills, I was brought forth;
while as yet the earth and fields were not made,
nor the first clods of the world.

She liked the image of a time "when there were no depths." Before measure. She would have to look into proverbs. "Proverbs" just seemed, well, so proverbial. Old saws, adages, inspirational quotes. Wrong again.

The psalm that followed was the beautiful one about the wonders of the universe that asks "What is man that you should be mindful of him ?" The psalm that notes man's God-given dominion over all things.

You have made him little less than the angels,
and crowned him with glory and honor.
You have given him rule over the works of your hands,
putting all things under his feet:

All sheep and oxen,
yes, and the beasts of the field,
The birds of the air, the fishes of the sea,
and whatever swims the paths of the seas.

"Crushing all things under his feet," she thought. "Or putting them in his mouth." She'd heard this psalm invoked as a Christian argument against vegetarianism. As well as an argument for wise stewardship. But in what way is God (who or what ever that may be) mindful of humans ? How could she translate that into something that worked for her ? She suspected that these acts of translation were antithetical to faith, whatever that was.

Nonetheless, she found herself translating more and more. This was, for example, "Trinity Sunday." The trinity was a tough nut to crack. What had the priest said -- she tried to recall. Creator, Redeemer, Sanctifier. Well, she herself was three things -- mother, wife, physician -- was that helpful ? Blasphemous ? She'd heard it described as Source, Word and Breath. She'd liked that. The redemption thing got into complicated economies that continued to elude her comprehension. That, frankly, exasperated her.

She couldn't help imagining the Trinity as, well, a weird contraption. Something out of Rube Goldberg. A deviant, sidewise, three-wheeled, jewel-encrusted combination bicycle and sewing machine. God should, if he were worth his smiting salt, strike her dead for that.

Why was she being so judgmental ? So pissy ? She watched as the parishioners went forward for the Eucharist. The sight always moved her. Members of the Mystical Body Of Christ. But couldn't the whole world, the whole Universe, be construed as one Mystical Body, beautiful, afflicted, God filled ? And why should anyone, any being be excluded ?

And why shouldn't a religious service be as beautiful and mysterious as possible ? Music seemed to her so much more adequate a language for of the longing, the cry from the depths, that lies at the heart of Christianity. Was she quibbling ? Did she have a right to expect the Churches "joyful noise unto the Lord" to be better than muzak ? This wasn't a concert, afterall. It was a sacrament. The holiest of holies. The magnum mysterium. That which is, by definition, beyond understanding.

She sighed as the mass ended. She'd try to be a better guest next time. If there was a next time.


Saturday, June 05, 2004

Think Of The Children

It was late afternoon. By the river, low brilliant sun alternated with deep shade. She'd sought out a stand of strange, leggy, candle-flame shaped plants, hoping the green-white, bulging seed pods had opened to offer more taxonomic clues. What were these strange beings ? She realized that the stalks and pods had sprung from a low, prostrate wetland grass that had remained green all winter. Perhaps that was a clue.

She'd seen goslings, and two rabbits; milkweed was coming up in dense stands, and white and purple asters were beginning to bloom. Tall grass seedheads were opening everywhere -- brome, bluegrass, orchardgrass -- the seeds erupting with miniscule filaments and lacy fronds, green, purple, all waving in the light and wind.

Suddenly she noticed a group of three or four boys headed toward her on bicycles. They were maybe 11 or 12 years old, crewcut, boisterous. She moved aside to let them pass. As they passed they addressed her, loudly and hilariously:

Fucking freak !

Get a haircut, bitch !

She reeled into the pathside meadow as if slapped. Hot tears rose in her eyes. The boys whizzed away and their gales of laughter receded.

The wind whipped her hair -- longish, and quite gray -- across her cheeks. Her hollow, sunken cheeks. She felt diminished, pathetic. Old. Ugly. A death's-head horror. A freak. All the taunts of childhood bullies flooded back in chorus, an inchoate rush of cruel sound. Her chest -- her heart -- constricted. Civilization receded. She was naked, flayed, utterly vulnerable. She was surrounded by a crowd of youths, boys and girls, taunting, appetitive, aggressive, in full sexual display. She withered in their fierce, relentless, judgmental gaze.

Freak. Bitch. they hissed.

She peered at a clump of tiny white flowers at her feet. Ten petals. What the field guide calls inconspicuous flowers.

She'd always considered herself inconspicuous. Even invisible.

But now, in the harsh, transmogrifying spotlight of the strangers' gaze, she stood revealed.

A monster.


The Tunnel Of Love And Death

Drawn by overhanging branches and deep shade, I sidestepped down a pebbly incline to the dirty little inlet of the river that lies behind the old railroad trestle. An overturned shopping cart, there for as long as I can recall, rusted quietly in muck at the shoreline. Fresh, low greenery was quickly overtaking the upslope to the path, and wild iris and arrowheads were rising from the mudflats.

It was quiet, and beautiful. Even the half buried and half submerged trash seemed mythic artifacts, variations of Eliot's "garlic and sapphires in the mud/clot the bedded axle tree."

White petals were drifting downward through the air, and lay scattered underfoot, and when I looked back toward the path, I saw this:

The hundreds of blossoms floating in the dark water toward the black mouth of the culvert seemed like souls heading into the underworld. I suppose, it strikes me now, that I could have as easily been reminded of a tunnel of love. These were blossoms, after all, and it's springtime, the season when Persephone ascends from the underworld into the light.

But it doesn't feel like a moral springtime. All day yesterday the image of George Bush standing beside Pope John Paul made me physically ill. As much I despair at the Pope's historically unprogressive teachings on gender, I admire his promotion of peace and social justice. The images of George and Laura smarmily condescending to a religious thinker of John Paul's stature were truly nauseating. Bush's transparent attempt to appropriate the Pope's moral authority and attach it to his own grimy little elective war was as embarrassing as it was offensive.

Gazing at the blossons drifting into the culvert, I thought of Breughel's "Triumph of Death." In the painting, an army of the dead, ghoulishly rioting, is driving a crowd of the living into a tunnel

as, in the lower right corner, a prince and a courtesan make music and love.

The painting presents a grisly panorama ofdeath and mayhem. I wrote an ekphrastic poem about it in 1989.


In the corner of Brueghel's Triumph of Death
a lutanist sings between the silk-draped knees
of a singing courtesan. Together they could represent
the triumph of Art and Love in the time of plague.

But the triumph is clearly Death's:
the landscape seethes in a thick impasto
of gore and smoke, fire and rot,
under the biliary yellow of a fin-du-temps sky.

Death has spilled the backgammon,
the ice bucket, the blackjack game:
the courtesan alone ignores the ghastly scene
that forms the backdrop of this spoiled feast --
the Totentanz of the armies of the Dead.

They drive the living into a wooden tunnel like a coffin,
and on each side of it there are more of them, a countless
mass of the Dead, gathered behind their coffin-lid shields.
From foreground to horizon they riot and scourge,
mock and burn , showing mercy to no one
between the bloody sand and the tilting Catherine wheels --
not to king, priest, mother, peasant, babe or fool.

Within the green rampart of her skirt he sings;
his gaze pleads, hers falls , coy, onto the cool page;
she is shy of both her suitors: of him,
and of the grinning one behind her,
who saws away at his viole da braccio
as she sings her division upon two grounds:
love's and death's.

Each August 6th, in Hiroshima, thousands of paper lanterns are launched on the Motoyasu River to commemorate the A-bomb dead -- paper, flame and water, in beautiful, elemental equilibrium. The antithesis of the terrible, smelting conflagrations of the bombs.

Blossoms drifting toward a culvert's mouth.

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