Saturday, December 31, 2011

2012! Finally

So many things to be thankful for -- friends and lovers, decent eyesight, books, all of the books being written and read, Borges and Montale and Levine, dogs and old people, a good view and a sunny day, foggy days, all ten of my fingers, smart phones.

I am not making too many resolutions this year except to begin a novel, write at least ten poems I am proud of, be a better daughter, and not spend so much time on the internet. I will also finish reading The Aeneid. I am going to be attentive to my writing life.

Today is the last day of 2011. Tomorrow is the first day of a new year. This poem is not one of the 2012 ten. It is only the last poem I'm writing in 2011. Well, I think so anyway. There are still a few hours left. So much could still happen.


It’s already 2012 and I know too many souls
who won’t stop reading me

about the end of the world. How twelve months from now,
it will finish. Everything will finish.

With solar storms and supervolcanoes, there’ll be a rebalancing
of the universe, the dispensation of all
consciousness. All I can do is open my hands, show them
its palm and wrist, the blue rivers running

with fish, their surfacing almost a kind of forensic
defense. A prediction becoming visible. Open my hand
to catch the leaf, the ball, the full weight of light
thrown down on top of me. We all know too many souls who say

live every day like its the last. Tell them, find me
Jeremy Schwartz, even one soul who will make a fire hot enough.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Art as Something Other than Truth

I want to start with a long quote from Maggie Nelson’s book The Art of CrueltyThis comes from a chapter in which she discusses how artists and writers have somehow, in at least some spheres, become regarded as ‘tellers of truth.’ Or that they are at least supposed to be ‘tellers of truth.’ Whatever that means. Here’s her quote:

When it comes to art, I personally cannot see the use-value of these proclamations, nor of the related, superficially inverse claims that a culture’s artists are somehow its “priests of truth.” I don’t mean to suggest that one isn’t working toward something while working on a piece of art, something that could be called “truth” (though it might also be called “making it work,” “aesthetic resolution,” or some such thing). But to approach works of art or literature with the hope that they might deliver a referendum on truth, or provide access to Truth-truth, is to set up shop on a seriously faulty foundation. A work of art may tell us little about factual truth, or about Truth-truth, but that is no reason to banish or belittle it. So long as we exalt artists as beautiful liars or as the world’s most profound truth-tellers, we remain locked in a moralistic paradigm that doesn’t even begin to engage art’s most exciting provinces.

She goes on to say:

By virtue of its being multiply sourced, art cannot help but offer up multiple truths. To a moralist in the market for “an ordered universe and objective truth,” such an offering can be only a contradiction in terms. Worse still, because of its episodic nature, art offers the passing impression of truth, without the promise that the truth revealed will have any lasting power.

I quote this, not because I want to belittle or begrudge artists their role in telling truth. On the contrary.

Art is important not because it shows us the one version of truth; it is not important because artists are prophets are visionaries. Rather, art is crucial because it allows us to recognize other perspectives, other versions of what might be called truth. Art forces us to shift our vantage point so that our view shifts, broadens, brightens. Of course, it doesn’t mean that what the spectator sees or hears is what the artist intended. I don’t think most artists have such agendas. Art opens a door, without the confrontation inherent in most rhetoric, and the spectator is often changed, even if in only a small way. 

I am entering my third week of my fellowship residency at Vermont Studio Center. I am surrounded by artists, all who are telling their version of what might be called truth. Although I don't think they would call it that. They are just laying it down, in paint, in stone, in words, whatever it is.

P.S. Maggie Nelson is, in my opinion, a genius. Her book of poetic essay Bluets is among my favorites. Her book Jane was a thriller of a poem. Anyway. Enough gushing. Go read her work.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The Quick Wit of Lydia Davis

Last night, I heard the fiction writer, translator, poet Lydia Davis read her work at Johnson State College last night in Vermont. As an aside, I’m in Vermont for a month, writing poetry at the Vermont Studio Center on fellowship. So lovely! Anyway, back to Lydia Davis. I love her work, for its conciseness, for its edge, for its wit, for its dark humor. Stripped of all description, stripped of all narration, her ‘stories,’ if one dares call them that, translate the interior musings of a deliberate and attentive mind into what I want actually to call verse.

This is a very very short story poem (unpublished I think) that she read last night:

Contingency versus Necessity

He could be our dog
But he’s not our dog
So he barks at us

There is so much contained in those words as it relates to human/animal relations and love. What happened to their dog? The elliptical three lines leave us filling in the blanks. Like a poem.

She reminds me that the details left out can often be the best part of a poem. Strip it down, she seems to say. You can read more of her work here.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

The Lemon Trees

I just returned from a week in Florence. I am reeling. I am settled. Sometimes one must leave for a place the opposite of everything that is familiar to know what is real.

Florence is filled with art and poetry. Dante and Boccaccio, Bernini and Michelangelo. To see their work is to feel inadequate, is to feel inspired. To be drunk at 2AM in front of The Rape of the Sabine Women by Giambologna in the Loggia dei alters all your perceptions. The moon seemed full every night. I cannot write. I can do nothing but write.

To travel, to live in other countries, to speak with someone whose language is not your own, is to see the world from another chair. It is to learn how things smell differently, sometimes better, it is to relearn how to see and taste and think. Even if the experience is filtered through your own culture and biases. It changes you, not just for those few days, forever. You can’t help but carry something of the scent back with you.

For me, for me as a writer, going from place to place is crucial to my creative process. I know it is the same for others. Though not for everyone. Travel estranges everything, especially what you return to. When I returned from Italy, even wine and bread smelled differently. And lemons. I spoke with an Italian man about what I loved about Italian poetry. Most of all it is Eugenio Montale. Most of all it is his poem "The Lemon Trees." The man I spoke with knew very little English. I speak no Italian. But we both could say Montale. I pasted my favorite translation below in which the last stanza explains everything I’ve just said. Where the sight of a lemon tree can remind you of everything amazing in life, where the sight of a lemon tree can “blow your bones wide open.”

Listen, the prize poets stroll

only among the trees

with uncommon names:

boxwood, privet, acanthus.

Me, I love roads that run out

among grassy ditches into

mud-puddles where kids

hunt skinny eels; lanes

that follow field-banks down

through beds of reeds and

end up in back gardens

among the lemon trees.

Best if the birds' chatter-prattle

is hushed, swallowed up

by the blue: then you'll hear

- clearer in the still air – the whisper

- of companionable branches,

and catch a sense of that smell

that can't tear itself from earth,

drenching you in edgy pleasure.

Here, by some miracle, the battle

between one distracting passion

and another dies down, and here

even we who are poor
up our share of wealth –

and it's the scent of lemons.

Look, in these silences

which things sink into

and seem on the verge of

opening their closest secret,

you'd expect once in a while

to uncover some mistake

in nature, the world's still point,

some weak link, the loose thread

that leads us at last

to the heart of truth. Eyes

rummage in every corner:

the mind seeks agrees argues

with itself in this perfume

that floats – as day fades –

over everything; a silence

in which, in every dwindling

human shadow, a troubled

divinity could be seen.

But the image fades, and time

takes us back to the din of cities

where you see the sky only

in bits and pieces, off up

among the chimneys. Rain then

wears the earth out, dreary winter

settles down around the houses,

light grows miserly, the soul bitter,

till one day, through a half-

shut gate, you see

among the trees in someone's yard

the yellows of lemons –

and the heart's ice melts,

and with their music

the golden trumpets of sunshine

blow your bones wide open.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Midnight Despair in the Garden

I am so filled with despair regarding Israel’s prospects. I can’t seem to write poetry. I can barely read it.

I have four step-children, whom I adore, who are good and kind and deserve bright futures. They will all serve in the Israeli army. The first, the dark-haired one with amber eyes and who likes to sleep late and is the only teenage girl I’ve met who doesn’t like Justin Bieber, enters next year. At no point in the last thirty years, has Israel been so isolated. At no point, has its soldiers been so unsafe. I blame Netanyahu and Lieberman, Israel’s current Prime Minister and Foreign Minster, respectively, who together formed alliances with the Israel’s religious Orthodox parties and right-wing to obtain majority in the Knesset (the Orthodox who could care less about the futures of my stepchildren except that their taxes fund their religious schools and pay for their innumerable children).  In return, the government continues to pour money into the coffers of the religious, the right-wing settlers, and those who believe any settlement with the Arabs represents existential suicide.

I also blame the Palestinians who elect rabid fundamentalist leaders who yearn for Israel's destruction. I am realistic enough to know that Israel often felt it had no choice but to react violently when the rockets were being fired, its own people were being slaughtered. But there have been moments of potential compromise. Compromise desired by good people on both sides.

There were so many missed opportunities that a little imagination and compassion could have taken advantage of. They say that many Israeli Arabs cried the night Israel’s Prime Minister Yitzak Rabin was murdered by a Jewish extremist, that many are still crying.

Instead, settlements have expanded 50% since Oslo, Israel is more isolated, Egypt and Turkey who once were partners at least on paper, burn down our embassies. My own father asks, what does Israel want? We have treated the Arabs so long as enemy they have become enemy.

Many Israelis and Jews dismiss Obama, who while perhaps not doing enough in terms of tough love, had Israel’s back even in the worst of times. Didn’t he sit their, his hand under his chin, while Netanyahu lectured him on the error of returning to 1967 borders? Even I couldn’t watch that charade.

Now, I feel, we are in the worst of times again.

There are so many kind, generous, intelligent people here, in Israel. I believe that even the hearts of the right wing are not evil. Why are they being gagged? Why are we letting the fanatics and ignorant decide our fate?

I wish Israel would do something insane. Assuming a Security Council vote is delayed (which it probably will be), and the Palestinians take a vote to the UN General Assembly.  The GA doesn’t have the power to create a sovereign state, but it can upgrade the Palestinians’ current status at the UN from a non-member “observer entity” to a non-member “observer state.” That would give the Palestinians the same status at the world body as the Vatican (not that Catholics don't have a lot of injustice to answer for). That means it could become a member of a variety of UN organizations such as UNESCO, UNICEF and the World Health Organization. What if Israel voted ‘YES.’ The facts on the ground would not change for anyone, BUT it might force the Palestinians to begin acting like a real country and perhaps recognize Israel’s right to exist, respect borders, step away from terrorism. It might also force real negotiations on both sides, force serious people to take charge. It’s a big ‘if.’

But what if Israel does nothing?

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Never-Ending 9/11

New York, September 11, 2001

It’s four days after the 10-year anniversary of 9/11. I guess it’s time to come out from under the covers. Ten years sounds like a long time, and I suppose in ten years, much CAN change. It has, but in many respects, for the worse.

I started a poem four days ago on the morning of the 11th, watching the CNN coverage of the memorial. My poem began with these lines.

I think it important to know who is being barred from the journey.
I think it crucial to acknowledge that not just anyone can go,
that some will be forced to abandon their unborn daughters
and their guidebooks,
their decapitated Barbie standing sentinel.
The nighlight left lit.

I think it imperative to go ahead and decide
      who will hand out
the pieces of paper,

who will pin the note explaining what took place
to their sleeves.

Cheery, huh? It was not going to be an optimistic or happy poem, more a reflection on how individualistic our society remains, how more individualistic, consumer driven, inward our society has become in these ten years, how afraid we remain.

It’s difficult to remain optimistic when on lives in the Middle East, though even in the wake of 9/11, there were attempts. Many Israelis thought that the demise of the Twin Towers would awaken public sentiment to the threat of fanaticism and fundamentalism. That surely enlightenment ideals would rise up to defend ‘western’ liberalism and freedom, they thought. Instead, America finds itself enmeshed in two wars with no sign of success in either, fundamentalism is on the rise, the ‘Spring’ forecast by protests and revolution in Libya, Egypt, Syria gives way to chaos and increasing anti-Israel rhetoric. The Palestinians, still without a state, will likely take their case for statehood to the UN in two weeks, and Israel finds itself increasingly isolated.

At the same time, I find it difficult to agree with those who yearn for Mubarak’s return to Egypt, that Hassad crush the protests in Syria, who wax nostalgic about Middle East police-state regimes even if the populist democracies (can we call them that) replacing them attack Israel, call for its destruction. I have to believe there is something better, and not just for Israel.

I also believe that the survival and prosperity of Israel is a prerequisite for the prosperity of the US and the promulgation of the values we treasure. As Adam Kirsch writes in Tablet Magazine,

Egyptians attacking the Israeli Embassy,
September 9, 2011
Historically, then, the fate of the Jews is tied to the fate of liberalism; and after Sept. 11, Berman showed, the greatest threat to liberal values came from Islamic fundamentalists, who spoke about Jews in terms borrowed from European fascists. Sayyid Qutb, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, blamed Islam’s problems on Marx and Freud: “[T]he atheistic, materialistic doctrine in our world was advocated by a Jew, and the permissive doctrine which is sometimes called ‘the sexual revolution’ was advocated by a Jew. Indeed, most evil theories which try to destroy all values and all that is sacred to mankind are advocated by Jews.” This, as Berman points out, is not theological anti-Judaism (though Qutb voiced that variety as well) but the kind of anti-modern anti-Semitism that identifies the Jew with social dissolution and rootless individualism. But these are the very same things that, when considered as values rather than vices, we think of as essentially American: freedom of the individual, free thought, pluralism.

Concomitantly, I believe that Israel relations with its neighbors will not improve until the cultivation of democratic and liberal values including respect for other religions, women’s rights, the rights of minorities cannot occur in Egypt, Libya, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, etc. The two are intertwined. This will not be an easy or short process, nor is success certain. In fact, as we have seen, the direction can be backward. But as was pointed out by Armin Rosen in another 9/11-inspired article in Tablet, these same regimes maintained their power in part by using Israel as a scapegoat or target for anger to deflect attention from their own repressive policies. They spread rumors and lies about Israel and their own policies about Israel, even as they maintained civil borders. These regimes had it both ways. I can but hope that as freedom of press and voice develop, as people begin hearing and reading other opinions beyond those fed to them, empathy and understanding may slowly develop. It will take years, decades. It may never happen. But it must.

The poem I started on 9/11 has now reached three pages and it is, surprisingly, becoming something of a love poem. There is also optimism and, at least in one part, a rising tide of community. Here’s one passage:

We were on the one highway leading to Kinneret Lake.
There were so many signs and stop lights,
all of them useless.
Traffic had backed up twenty kilometers.
Slowly word worked back window to window
of a terrible accident.
A few drivers leaned out of their vehicles,
shading their eyes, mouthing words
whose bitterness thickened the August heat, the smog
of the hundred idling engines.
The girl in the backseat looked up from the message
she was typing into her telephone,
Maybe they need help, her blue green eyes,
the sun lightened lashes,
meeting ours in the mirror.
Far ahead, smoke began to rise as one
by one, the people stepped from their cars
began running forward.

I don’t know if this passage will remain in the poem, or if I even trust it.

I guess like most of us, I want to believe in the goodness of people. I guess at some point, I have to. How’s that for an ending to this post?