Day 296 4/18/14: Courage, Diction, Breath

medea3On the threshold of a new obsession, I ask: how much do I want to know of Maria Callas?

Did she really throw a shoe at someone?

Was she better fat or thin?

What was the texture of her exile?

How much of the transcendence I feel  is because I do not understand the words she sings and how much is just the sheer miracle of her voice?

My brother Sean reminds me of the poet Frank O’Hara who, as Allen Ginsberg once said, “loved everything.” O’Hara understood that a poet could not afford to fall out of love with poetry. Frank O’Hara loved movie gossip and he loved painting and he loved the ballet. Sean loves punk rock and film noir he loves baseball and he loves ballet and he loves Maria Callas. Once Sean took me to the Boston Ballet. As beautiful as it was, I felt alienated. It’s a story of gesture, I told myself, of yearning, of emotion. Get out of your head. While Sean swooned and even cheered his favorite dancers, while he transcribed his rapture in a worn pocket notebook, I fell asleep. When I woke up and there was a huge ship onstage. The ship seemed to cleave straight through my gauzy dream shreds, and the elegant, muscular and utterly alien narrative that had unfolded on that stage. Admire ballet? Marvel at it? Yes, but “get” it, even on a visceral level, no.

Around that same time, Sean gave me “Master Class” by Maria Callas. I don’t know Puccini from Verdi. I don’t know Italian. Sure, if the opera is “Macbeth” or “Medea,” I have a bit of a frame for the foreign sounds, but otherwise I have no clue what’s being mourned or exalted. But it doesn’t matter. When Maria Callas sings, I am enthralled. I want to live inside the story of her voice, a place both cavernous and intimate. Maybe it’s the draw of the unfamiliar. Her voice reminds me of unexplored Aegean, all the places I never got to see on my all-too brief tour of Greece. Her face is the drama of landscape, the stark, savage, beautiful and frightening.

Part of my deep attraction to “Master Class” is its documentation of process, of Callas’ comments to her students at Juilliard:

Remember always feel the words you are saying.

 You must do it a little cleaner.

 No. The “R” must not be heard.

 I know it’s difficult on the breath, but it must not be heard, eh?

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the poetic process was as collaborative? If there were some rehearsal hall of the mind, where the predominant voice was not the relentless critic, the internalized harpy, but the compassionate master there with us as we construct each line, test it, cross it out try again, the voice that never overwhelmed us with its own skill, but remained a guide there to remind us:

Love the phrase that you are singing

 However difficult Maria Callas might have been in reality doesn’t matter to me. I only want to find within myself that voice that understands the nuance of word and breath, the abiding presence that cares how and where the notes or words are placed and will not be fooled by “fireworks,” but insists on “expression.”

All my main gods are men. John Lennon, James Joyce, Bob Dylan. I have a few goddesses: Virginia Woolf. Marilyn Monroe. What does a goddess give one that a god does not? I don’t know. But when I see scenes from Pasolini’s film adaptation of Medea, I want to scale the stark Anatolian hill and follow Maria Callas inside that severe temple.

My old writing teacher John Rechy used to keep pictures of his goddesses on the wall: Garbo and Marilyn. “She was a creation!” John used to cry when trying to articulate the majesty of Marilyn. I loved that description. A creation! Equal parts self-invention and natural force. John’s students met at a dining room table underneath these glamorous triptychs—two Garbos and a Monroe, if I’m not mistaken.

While we worship  the cheekbones and shadows and fierce eyebrows, we often forget that creation is a process. “Master Class” reminds us of how instructive, how valuable it is to see how a song, a phrase, a voice is made.

Once I stepped out of a New York blizzard into the sanctuary of a quiet library to see the original manuscript of “The Wasteland” and I remember thawing out under the yellow light and looking at the marked up pages, Eliot’s naive and simple stanzas nearly obliterated by Pound’s insights, his demands. I remember the delight of driving from Boston to New York with a fellow Beatles freak who found listening to twelve consecutive versions of “No Reply” to be not only a delight, but a serious education in phrase and harmony and desperate joy.

We each have our own masters inside already– echoes and layers—all that we’ve read and heard and loved and memorized. We don’t need to dissect their legends, but to draw on the deep pool of their mystery, of genius. We need those teachers, those great loves to become strangers to us again and again, their eternity fresh, and powerful and sharp, their names forgotten, unknown.




















































Day 293 4/15/14: The Way of the Animal Powers


Revisiting the work of Joseph Campbell, I came across this passage from his book “The Way of the Animal Powers”:

“The animal envoys of the Unseen Power no longer serve, as in primeval times, to teach and guide mankind. Bears, lions, elephants, ibexes and gazelles are in cages in our zoos. Man is no longer the newcomer in the world of unexplored plains and forests, and our immediate neighbors are not wild beasts but other human beings, contending for goods and space on a planet that is whirling without end around the fireball of a star. Neither in body nor in mind do we inhabit the world of those hunting races of the Paleolithic millennia, to whose lives and life ways we nevertheless owe the very forms of our bodies and structures of our minds. Memories of their animal envoys must sleep, somehow, within us; for they wake a little and stir when we venture into wilderness. They wake in terror to thunder. And again they wake, with a sense of recognition, when we enter any one of those great painted caves. Whatever the inward darkness may have been to which the shamans of those caves descended in their trances, the same must lie within ourselves, nightly visited in sleep.”


Day 276 3/29/14: Waiting for the Dead



Waiting for the Dead

Once the fortune-teller shut the black curtain

wound the ticking clock and set the alarm,

assuring no revelation

spilled past the allotted hour.

He held my right wrist and traced

two broadly divergent lines on the edges of my palm.

“You have the ability to transgress boundaries

and enter the world of the dead.”

This I already knew.

The paths inscribed in the body

mirror those I walk in the wooded past—

trails marked with faded red ribbons

blurred by rotting and growing.

I pass the serenity of beaver ponds,

the crude warnings nailed to trees,

the collapsed wedding altar.

But where are the dead?

Should I watch for them

in wilderness

or  feel them

rise and fall in every step?

I hear that the dead often appear

just beyond the borders.

So I follow the cold stone walls

up and down the leaf-strewn hills.

Once I dreamed that they wait for us

at places of transition—the parting of two roads

or the benches of lonely depots.

I remain alert when traveling alone.

They’re attracted to still, late hours

and fragments of their bright voices can be heard

fleeting transmissions

in moments of our greatest joy.

But most often the dead enter through sorrow

that old forgotten gate, past the whorled trees

in a forest of undeciphered lines,

of startled clearings and ever-widening paths.

(I wrote this poem to explore the idea of having a “gift” whatever that might be, and the inescapable burdens that come with it.)

Day 248 2/28/14: “All Places Exist in the Body”

Some truths we think we know. Then we actually live them. For me, one such truth is: “All places exist in the body.”  I first fell in love with this concept in 1995 at U.C. Berkeley when a poetry teacher of mine mentioned it.

In the class, I wrote a short piece about a guy I’d been absolutely nuts about when I was very young—this poem was economical, but full of dreamy sensuality and ribs rising, and concluded with a kind of hazy philosophizing that nothing was really lost if “all things exist in the body.” I changed “places” to “things” thinking there was really no difference.

But I didn’t know then that remembering with the body means more than a breathless nostalgic lust, or the addled mind throwing the mostly forgotten body a bone.

All places exist in the body. The distinction matters.

When my father died, leaving the house I had known and loved and returned to for 44 years to his mentally unbalanced wife, I became an exile. We’re all exiles. We were born exiles, after all. But we live here a while and we forget. Then someone dies or the door forever closes on some beloved place.

I learned that losing a place does not feel the same as losing a person.  And while I know better than to apply linear timelines to grief, when the initial shock and frequent, exhausting crying jags over my father subsided, the house, the fields, the woods moved in.

They took residence in my body in a way that memories of the dead never have. The opposite of an exorcism, a new settling began. I now understood that properly remembered, a well was also a throat, that doors were breasts, that the lifting of old latches, the bark of disappeared trees, all the obscure pleasures of warm mud and cold stone had to have some place to go. But not to become projections–the ever-thinning, forever looping films of the mind. These things had to go where they could grow, a place where all the restless spirits of habit could find their place.

This kind of remembering, this very physical presence that aligns the outside with the inside, so much that teeth take on the silent weight of stone walls, this kind of memory-as-occupation feels at times almost supernatural. I tried to tame it with a poem:

A moon-bright field raises hairs on the arms.

Wrists go numb remembering dark brooks.

Horses become instinct, thirst.

What it can no longer return to

in the old way, the body rebuilds, reclaims

as if to say: there was always only here.

Is this wholeness at last?

The translation of all loved things

to their essence

The barn less brick

than silence that agreed for a time

to gather itself into manger and beam

The poem ends, but the house still shows up. What does it want of me? There is no danger of forgetting.

Maybe only a simple transmission of information, the declaration of an obscure fact:

On the cellar walls, long ago strangers recorded snowfalls in soft pencil, along with recipes for elderberry wine. We added to these our own statistics of startling snowfalls, how much fell, how little stayed. In the barn, the births and deaths of horses are written in blue on the inside door of a hay strewn cupboard.

I don’t know what this means. Carried in the body, it no longer even feels like a memory, just a code that if finally broken, might save someone else.

Day 247: 2/27/14: “The Man Who Loved Looking at Sharks And So Became One”

carmenI met Carmen Einfinger in New York in the summer of 1996. Carmen is a wild painter, a genius of color. That summer I spent many afternoons in the small East Village apartment Carmen shared with her filmmaker boyfriend while Carmen painted my portrait. In the end, I became yellow, red, green and orange and very tall.

In between posing, Carmen and I went to art shows and ate great food. Carmen told me about séances she’d attended as a child in Brazil. We talked a lot about painting. We listened to John Moran’s “The Manson Family: An Opera.”

In short, we had a blast.

Recently, Carmen took a trip to Tahiti, which inspired some amazing work. When I saw her ink and paper piece, “The Man Who Loved Looking at Sharks and Then Became One,” I knew I had to share it here. I loved the drawing, and the title sounded like the invention of a new myth. Carmen wrote to me about her creative process:

These images I do in my daily sketchbook come from a place of “this child” in me.

When I was young, my father was gone.

My mother was not around.

I was a child, but not this child.

This child now creates images from that lost place.

However, as much as these drawings are an expression of my lost child, they also are an expression of a lifetime of cultural and artistic development.

I believe that we have our own personal and a collective history. We keep imprints in our bodies from all our existences.

In the collective unconscious, these emotions express themselves as universal symbols creating then the universality of human emotions.

My image “The Man Who Loved Looking at Sharks and then Became One….” is a symbol for what we fear, expressed through the child in its purest primal unconscious state. The man who loves looking at sharks is aware of the danger: the shark could eat him up emotionally or physically. In order to avoid this, he must become a shark, so that he can eat the shark instead of being eaten. The child here speaks of the darker side of the shark, the one he fears.

If we are lucky and are able to live our lives without becoming fragmented, we can connect with this primal existence as many times as we wish.

I discovered this through my creativity.

Day 230 2/10/14: Great White Synchronicity

I love synchronicity.  When it happens I feel that I’ve glimpsed the greater pattern of the universe if only for a second. When it happens I feel that all is somehow well. Tonight while editing the scripts for the JAWS reading, I had just typed this description:

The fish broke water–snout, jaw and pectoral fins rose like a rocket, then the smoke-white belly, pelvic fin, and huge salami-like claspers,

when I stopped to check my e-mail and saw this image by David Jenkins on my Yahoo homepage:


Day 223 2/3/14: On Story and Healing

imagesI am privileged to have Deena Metzger as my teacher. When I read her recent essay What Story is And How it Heals, I thought FINALLY! an understanding of story that makes sense to me.

P.S. What does it mean to enter into a council with animals? Click here to read about Deena’s work with elephants in Africa.

Day 207 1/18/14: Ram Dass: Living The Mystery

imagesIn “Instant Karma!” a song written and recorded in one day, John Lennon posed the eternal question: “Why in the world are we here?” answering the unanswerable with a single, powerful certainty: “Surely not to live in pain and fear.”

In this humble blog, one of my recurring questions has been how not to shut down in the face of suffering–both my own internal sadness and the suffering of animals, of aging parents, etc.

Today I  discovered this terrific and invigorating podcast that grapples with all of these things–a 1996 Ram Dass lecture called Living the Mystery which I highly recommend. (NOTE: Skip the introductory part. Ram Dass is funny and dynamic.  Listening to this narrator is like hearing someone describe a movie in exhaustive detail and thereby  sucking all the energy & surprise out it. START listening at 17:59!