Saturday, October 11, 2014

Carolyn K, in her Black Mink

The last time I saw Carolyn Kizer, we'd been invited to a college in New Jersey, Seton Hall, to read together. They sent a car service, and the driver in the black Lincoln picked me up first then drove to Carolyn's hotel; she emerged from the front door,  assisted by the doorman, in a knee length black mink coat. Her hair, done that afternoon, shone in a silvery-gold orb around her face, so that approaching the car, while the driver leapt out to open the door for her, she looked like a full moon just risen over some soft black mountain. She was beautiful, her skin aglow, and as she settled into her seat and we very happily greeted each other, she allowed me to see all at once so much of her. That quick barbed wit. The way she carried herself with a certain grandeur that remained somehow charming instead of offputting. I think this was because of a third quality, the vulnerability she was not afraid to show as well; the grande dame and the aging woman who required help to get from the curb to the limo without a fall were very much of a piece,  both lit by a wonderful sense of humor.  She leaned toward the driver, confidentially, and asked if he minded if she smoked. She'd clearly won the man over completely on her way into the back seat; he said, Of course, not, ma'am, without the least hesitation, and she cracked the window and lit some long white cigarette. 

We'd known each other a little for a long time. I was, for a few days, her student, at a writers conference at UC Santa Cruz in 1978, and since then we'd gotten to know each other better when I'd hosted her at some school or another where I was teaching. A drink in a hotel bar, or a university conference center, short but comradely exchanges, the fun of hanging out with a congenial spirt. But out evening in the car, that was something else. I knew and she knew she wasn't well; the way she walked so tentatively was worrisome, and indeed in a a few months she'd have ankle surgery,  and never quite be her visible self in the world after that. Then the empty spaces of Alzheimers would appear where that garrulous lively mind had flamed and leapt. It was the right time to talk; we were alone, more or less, for our hour of transit,  all dressed up, and in the front seat our silent witness clearly approved of the experience. Talk we did. I don't really remember any of the specifics now,  just that it was a funny, frank, sometimes gossipy conversation, though if we dissed anyone it wasn't any more than we dissed ourselves, and we talked admiringly of mutual poet friends, too. 

But I do remember one indelible moment, one that for me is probably going to be the first thing I think of when I hear Carolyn's name. She was turning to flick her ashes out the limo window when she say the exit for Paterson. Oh, she said, something passing visibly over her face, in the way a memory can physically pull one toward the past, her voice deepening ti something between a growl and a sigh. Dr. Williams. I wanted to take off my clothes and lie down in front of him. 


Carolyn Kizer, brilliant and irreverent feminist, formalist, and advocate for poetry, won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1985. She founded Poetry Northwest, published a dozen volumes of poems, directed the Literature Program at the NEA, and famously disrupted what was then a very white and male tradition of Chancellors of the Academy of American Poets, a group that is not wonderfully diverse in terms of gender, ethnicity and aesthetics. She died on October 9 at the age of 89. 

Monday, June 23, 2014

Jewels by JAR

A few months ago Alex and I went uptown, taking the train to W. 81st and then the bus that goes whizzing through the park then drops you, if that's where you're going, right across the street from the Metropolitan. It's always a wonderful scene: people ascending and descending the wide steps at all angles, the busy more-or-less Classical ornament at the top of the facade, the long gray form of the north wing stretching on a seemingly vast distance away. I love this place. To enter is to court excitement; you know there will always be something there you've never seen before. Of how many buildings can you say this: inside will be an occasion of joy, a wonder, something steeped in otherness or startling in its intimacy.

We'd come to see an exhibit of jewelry by JAR, an American jewelry designer who has long worked in Paris, and for whose work the word "jewelry" does not seem quite enough. JAR makes one of a kind pieces, each a marvel of technique, each designed to astonish. 

There were, first of all flowers, or portions of flowers. A single lily petal, two stamens with their little orange boats of pollen still attached; a red poppy, half folded inward as if slightly crushed,
its petals wrapped around a dark center from which one spot of jewel-light gleamed; a stem of apricot blossoms, something like Pound's "petals on a wet black bough."

The colors are unexpected, the technique flawless and often in service of hiding itself, of seeming
to be something besides the marvelous construction it is. A bit of grosgrain ribbon is turned inside out, so that we see mostly the black underside, not the shining surface of rubies turned mostly away from view. JAR is interested in that which hides, in the precious treated not particularly as such, in marvels barely visible, splendor just peeking into view, in drama, in wit. One almost forgets, moving from one fantastic construction to another, that you're looking at enormously valuable one of a kind objects, made for clients who may wait for years, and whose pieces come encased in beautifully molded boxes of blue leather. You forget because the emphasis is not so much on value (look at this huge emerald!) as the way that stone is hidden inside a cache of golden leaves, or serves as part of a peacock's feather, or the body of a twisting fish.

It wasn't a big show, the two or three dark rooms in which one moved, at the pace of the shuffling line, from one illuminated case to he next. But we couldn't finish it; we were filled up, after investing our gazes into these tiny theatres, trying to encounter each unlikely thing on its own demanding terms. They seem to me like no other jewels in this way; he have to look at them as they ask to be seen; they set the terms of the conversation. And of course there's a little while, afterwards, when a
piece of foil crushed on the sidewalk, or a bottle cap, or even a handful of dimes dredged up out of a pocket partake of a little of that same visual wonder: what are these things made of,  how do they come shining into our field of vision, where could we wear them?

Thursday, May 22, 2014

An ancient survivor invites metaphor...

Here's a splendid travel journal, in few words and vivid photographs, chronicling a trek to
see a lonely, idiosyncratic plant, the last of its family, an ancient survivor. After millions of years on earth, it seems to be doing quite well in the furthest deserts of Namibia. I'm guessing there are many readers who, like myself, may find themselves identifying with the writer's description of this plant: a deep root searching, only two strappy leaves visible, waiting for the desert fog that comes, now and again, to sustain. (Okay, I know the metaphor's a little on the edge of the melodramatic, but hey... the life of this plant seems to invite the imagination. And, dear NPR, "ugly" is far too easy here!)

So what if it's ugly... )

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Don't They Know?

Here's a recent interview with yours truly published by the terrific Buddhist magazine TRICYCLE. I sat down with two lovely monks, Koshin and Chodo, who've been my friends for years now. They direct, through the Village Zendo in Manhattan, a program called Contemplative Care, training volunteers in the art of being present with the ill and the dying. They are men of generosity and vision, and seemingly boundless good  humor, and through the training work they do they pass their gifts on to many.

Friday, December 6, 2013

An Exemplary Sentence #3/Marvelous Statements Concerning New York #3

At night, when the big Broadway lights go on, when the lights begin to run around high in the sky and up and down the sides of buildings, when rivers of lights start flowing along the edges of roofs, and wreaths and diadems begin sparkling from dark corners, and the windows of empty downtown offices begin streaming with watery reflections of brilliance, at that time, when Broadway lights up to make a night-time empire out of the tumbledown, makeshift daytime world, a powdery pink glow rises up and spreads over the whole area, a cloudy pink, an emanation, like a tent made of air and color.

                                                Maeve Brennan, "A Snowy Night on West Forty-Ninth Street"

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Small parable about authenticity and the imagination

A few weeks ago, driving back home from a residency in Florida, Alex and I were taking our time, poking around along the way. The South is old home territory for me, but I left Tennessee when I was seven years old, so it seems a remote world, and -- at least in the country, on the backroads that echo the South of my childhood, there's a certain enchantment or mystery about it for me, a sense of depth and of lost intimacy. I feel it in the scent of bacon grease in an iron skillet, in old foxed Bible illustrations, musty quilts, jars of buttons, fruitcake tins full of old photographs, a South quite erased along the highway.

Not wanting to let 95 hypnotize us, I pulled off at an exit in Georgia -- which seemed to me the most richly quirky of the Southern states we passed through this time, as well as the most friendly and open -because there was an antique store in an outlet mall by the road. The Southern Picker, it's called, and the place was wonderfully stuffed with a bounty of finds, from Buddhas to old whiskey jugs collaged with buttons,  folk ceramics, odd bits of furniture, a stuffed squirrel, framed photographs of somebody's glum ancestors. (Okay, I'm not sure these particular things were actually there, but you get the idea.) There was a pleasant sense of both incipient chaos and a discerning eye,  a combination I like.

A black portfolio caught my eye; when I opened it, there was a page or two of photocopied text at the front, which I ignored, drawn to the images in their plastic sleeves. Alex came over, and we knelt down and turned the pages together. These were amazing: prints from the 30s and 40s, all signed by the same artist, African-American presumably to judge by the subject matter, especially of the earlier images here, WPA-style woodblocks or linocuts of black women and men, often frankly sexual, beautifully stylized. Images of work and prayer and song, and then as we turned the pages a new set of images, more urban -- Chicago? then New York for certain then Europe. A narrative began to emerge, an artist traveling from the South toward greater possibilities, absorbing influences from German Expressionism, American scene painters like Reginald Marsh, elegantly stylized illustrators like Rockwell Kent. In fact, these images of rowing men looked a LOT like Kent's work -- were they inspired by his edition of Moby Dick? The stylistic variety was a little dizzying, and I started to wonder if this was the work of a skillful printmaker who never quite found his own way, but kept adapting practicing the styles around him. It was a thick portfolio, and the work was often beautiful, and we found ourselves wondering, as we came to the end of it,  how this man could have such a rich, wide-ranging life, and who was he?

Which sent us back to the beginning, to the typed page I'd skipped over before. The artist whose name was pencilled beside a date at the bottom of each page never existed; he was a fiction concocted by a forger, who'd lifted images from a range of artists (Kent and Marsh among them), developed a story about how he's come to possess the artist's work, and then marketed prints to dealers around the country with some success, until the deception came to light. The prints, which had been three hundred each a few years back, where now thirty dollars.

We found ourselves going back into the portfolio, re-reading the images with this new information. It struck me that they were no less interesting; replacing the narrative of how this struggling black artist had found his way in the wide world with the narrative of how a white forger had concocted this portfolio and the life it seemed to represent was equally engaging. We had imagined the original story as we first looked at the collection of prints, just as the forger had wanted us to do, and we could imagine the second story just as well.  This is perhaps a parable about authenticity, about how, at least when it comes to pleasure, it may not matter so much, but also a story about the imagination, which doesn't discern between the real and the false, since for the imaginative faculty all is invented, elaborated, made into a tale.

Now we own three of the prints: a Deco-looking cityscape, a crowded and raucous image of people going out clubbing in Times Square, and an angular figure rowing a boat alone under a sky full of stars. I couldn't really have afforded the real thing, but the handsome fakes are well within my budget, and they come with an additional layer of story, in case anyone asks.