Sonnet for Reji

 

Sonnet for Reji

The world is a noisy dangerous place
racked with hunger, hatred, and despair;
rent by  lies of religion, homeland, and race,
it often weighs too heavily to bear.

We want to do the right thing but we don’t
know what it is. Where is the answer to our prayer?
We listen; we wait; we suffer; and still it won’t
come lift us from the muck to radiant air.

You grab your brush— your sacred sword and shield —
you battle the demons devouring the light;
you summon visions angelic that lie sealed
in the blind tumultuous bosom of deepest night:

You make art, you cast your spell, you dance, you give
us beauty, hope, joy, a reason to live.

 

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A Hymn of Peace

A song is always running through my head. Always. Ask anyone who knows me. If I’m not humming out loud, I’m humming silently, no matter the time of day or what I’m doing. The songs range from Wagner and Verdi to the Crystals and the Rolling Stones or the Beatles or 50’s hit parade standards (“Kiss of Fire,” “How Much Is That Puppy in the Window?”) to  Rogers and Hammerstein to the Soviet National Anthem to George M. Cohan’s “Over There,” and on and on ad infinitum.

I learned many of the corniest old songs in Glee Club in the seventh grade at John Burroughs Junior High School in Los Angeles. (I remember all my glee club songs: “Day-o”, “Vive la Compagnie”, “The Jumby Song,” et al). The melody of the song I was singing this morning comes from Jean Sibelius’s Finlandia, and with different words is the unofficial Finnish national song. The English words I learned in Glee Club were written in 1934 by Lloyd Stone, an America poet, and his version of “A Hymn of Peace” now appears in many hymnals.

The words embody a sentiment as fine and true as ever and stand in contrast to all jingoism, nationalism, and national chauvinism. It is about the unity of all nations in the quest for peace. It moved me then, and it moves me now. Now more than ever.

A Hymn of Peace

This is my song, O God of all the nations,
a song of peace for lands afar and mine;
this is my home, the country where my heart is;
here are my hopes, my dreams, my holy shrine:
but other hearts in other lands are beating
with hopes and dreams as true and high as mine.

My country’s skies are bluer than the ocean,
and sunlight beams on cloverleaf and pine;
but other lands have sunlight too, and clover,
and skies are everywhere as blue as mine:
O hear my song, thou God of all the nations,
a song of peace for their land and for mine.

 

 

Cantus sings A Hymn of Peace

 

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Failing Brilliantly

Portrait of John Keats, left. Right, Life Mask made by a friend.

 

 

In his “Ode to Indolence” Keats addresses his own state. Neither Love, Ambition, nor Poesy itself — its premise or its promise — rouses him any longer. He prefers his zoned out “waking dream” state — pulse weak but impervious to pain. Until inspiration rouses him again, he gratefully offers himself up to indolence.

The ode was written in late May or early June, 1819. Keats was 24, a brilliant failure. His father, a stablehand, was dead, as were his mother and grandparents. A miserly tea merchant was appointed reluctant guardian of the five Keats children until he too died. Keats’ beloved younger brother Tom, for whom he was responsible, died of tuberculosis at 19. When he wrote this poem, Keats himself was sick as a dog and dirt poor, with no hope left of fame and glory, and no will to do anything else. He doubled down on his misery and wrote anyway, aware that it would never bring neither penny nor praise.

His indolence was part malady and part resignation. He died a year and a half later.

John Keats remains the greatest lyric poet in English (only because Shakespeare was preeminently a dramatist). When engaged, he wrote 50 lines a day, intricately rhymed and metered. He didn’t squeeze it out. Miltonic lines of iambic pentameter spun out in intricate poetic forms. His work so teems with sonnets (Shakespearean and Petrarchan)  one might conclude that the genes for his consciousness came in interlocking fourteen line chains. When he wasn’t scribbling he was spent and somnolent, the state he so eloquently describes in the ode, too disengaged to care any longer about love, ambition, or fame.

Then, ironically, next night, a nightingale singing in a tree outside rouses him. Poetry — perfection — streams out and another ode is written. He crashes from exhilaration to indolence, a state not conventionally blissful but sublimely disengaged.

The Ode to Indolence has conventionally been considered inferior to the either “Ode on a Grecian Urn” or “Ode to a Nightingale.” Both are hard acts to follow. They exist at a level of perfection at which “better” is a logical inconsistency (despite what the authors of the United States Constitution thought when they wrote of “a more perfect union”). Perfection means there can be nothing better.

Not perfect in that way, perhaps Ode to Indolence shouldn’t be.  It’s  luster is all its own. Whether there is a greater or lesser luster is nit-picky. If there is a first, it is primus inter pares — first among equals. Keats  speaks with bitter irony in a language rich in classical allusions.  His education was not encyclopedic, but it is accurate. He tells us he does not recognize the faces of the urn in his vision. This surprises him because he is steeped with “Phidian lore,” referring to Phidias, the preeminent sculptor of the Athenian Golden Age, a paragon of perfection. Keats had seen the Elgin marbles (friezes pilfered from the Parthenon) reassembled at the British Museum.

Here I must say that the Elgin marbles — stolen as they were and still at the British Museum — are staggering. They are absolutely lifelike and run in long stretches,  temple friezes flowing like movies. Each individual figure, each scene, each sequence, tells a story in a completely naturalistic — if idealized — imagery, body after magnificent body in furious motion. The Greeks remain the undisputed paragons of naturalistic sculpture. The best of the Romans only copied them. As soon as the Roman Empire adopted Christianity as the state religion, the church suppressed artistic naturalism in favor of hieratic Byzantine iconography, a style so nonhuman as to appear anti-human: rigid, hieratic, and highly symbolic. The Parthenon marbles aren’t symbolic. They show human and divine beings in action, living and dying doing heroic things. Their beauty is heart-stopping. One is awed the mere fact that their creators were only men, not gods. What those men (and they were men, most of them slaves) achieved transcended them.

That is what Keats saw. Not only the formal perfection, but the vitality, the rush and tumble of life itself, not the fray but the sublime, not a narrative of gods and goddesses at war but the real story of the human spirit rendering cold marble malleable and infusing it with unconquerable life of incomparable beauty, an image of the life force.

So John Keats, Phidian sophisticate, is stunned that at first that he does not recognize them. Then he does, in the break between the first two stanzas. The urn rotates three times. He knows them well.  They are his nemeses. He doesn’t want to see them. He wants to be free of them. “Why did ye not melt,” he asks, “and leave my sense unhaunted quite of all but — nothingness?”

As the urn revolves before his eyes he calls them out: Love, Ambition, Poesy. When they suddenly disappear he’s momentarily rattled. ”O folly! What is love! and where is it?/And, for that poor Ambition — it springs/from a man’s little heart’s short fever-fit.” And as for Poesy, “she has not joy — at least for me.” He was happily day-dreaming until they came. He only wants his daydream back again. He banishes them “into the clouds, and never more return.” He sinks gratefully back into an indolence that sounds so gorgeous that you can’t blame him:

My sleep had been embroider’d with dim dreams;
My soul had been a lawn besprinkled o’er
With flowers, and stirring shades, and baffled beams:
The morn was clouded, but no shower fell,
Tho’ in her lids hung the sweet tears of May;
The open casement press’d a new-leaved vine,
Let in the budding warmth and throstle’s lay…

It would be foolish not to stay. He tells Love, Ambition, and Poesy that he sheds no tears at their leaving.

So, ye three Ghosts, adieu! Ye cannot raise
My head cool-bedded in the flowery grass;
For I would not be dieted with praise,
A pet-lamb in a sentimental farce!
Fade softly from my eyes, and be once more
In masque-like figures on the dreamy urn;
Farewell! I yet have visions for the night,
And for the day faint visions there is store;
Vanish, ye Phantoms! from my idle spright,
Into the clouds, and never more return!

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/52995/ode-on-indolence

 

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Three

Choosing three (each under 35 lines) was nearly impossible, but not… I had help.

 

(if you click on it, it’s easier to read. I’m still not entirely in control here…

 

Three from the Guggenheim Collection, Venice

 

 

  1. Henri Laurens, Testa di ragazzina, terra cotta, 1920

A Greek muse,
her profile
fractured along
six-dimensional
planes,
pensive and severe,
blithe and lovely,
turned this way
and that
each faces
a different
moon.

 

 

2. Franz Kline, Senza Titolo, ink on paper

Chinese character
hastily brushed on a bank
of slow-melting snow.

 

            3. Luigi Russolo, Solidita’ della Nebbia (Solidity of Fog), 1912, oil on canvas

Bright blue world
refracted all cubist by the
brutal searchlights
of camps not yet built
beyond trenches not yet dug
for wars not yet fought.

But it’s nothing, really,
only the twisted fog previewing
freak shows soon to go off like popcorn
in the red hot time machine.

Hallucination becomes memory
on the deja vu merry-go-round of mushroom clouds
and backyard bomb shelters
instead of barbecues.

It is the One-Step-Forward-
Two-Steps-Back-Tango
through the cosmic soup of time,
flashing all stroboscopic
with the solidity of fog.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Watsu with Nicola Kapala

I am 72 years old and in generally good health, but I had to replace both my hips this year thanks to arthritis, the right on January 18 and the left on July 11. It has been a long year of pain and recuperation. I love long walks and I customarily walk three or four miles  daily, but haven’t been able to take a good walk since December 2016. My body misses the sunlight, the fresh air, and any physical motion free of pain between 5 and 8 on the universal pain scale.

Thus, it was my great good fortune this year to meet Nicola Kapala through a mutual friend and to benefit from her healing talents. My opinions below are based on two sessions in the water with Nicola.

 

 

Both sessions were at Belisle Ranch and Retreat in Avery, Wisconsin. Belisle is beautifully rural and relatively remote; about an hour and a quarter in light traffic northeast of St. Paul. Belisle is buffered from the rest of the world by 1,000 acres of rolling farmland. The ranch also has an indoor heated pool, a whirlpool, fitness room, horses, cattle, and nature trails. Jeff, the owner – and master of the water – is himself a watsu aficionado and practitioner.

The pool is located in a barnlike room of fragrant cedar. Sunlight splashes through the trees outside the window. The pool is immense. The water is 94° and is kept carefully balanced by Jeff. There’s nobody else in the water but Nicola and me. All I hear is water rippling and birds singing.

Nicola speaks briefly, asking what my expectations are as she seamlessly eases into the fluid watsu movements. Initially she cradles me in her arms, supporting my head. Flotation pads around my arms or ankles add buoyancy. She moves me slowly, first in subtle wavelike motions, and then, depending upon one’s particular needs, she manipulates your body. I imagine that the routines are as varied as the people and the motion of the water. It felt like a spontaneous pas de deux we worked out on the spot.

Nicola focuses on my hip muscles. As she extends and then flexes my arm, my body twists gracefully in the water. The slightest pressure reverses my direction. The water caresses my skin. Nicola alternately flexes my arm or my leg, she rotates me, she extends me, she stretches me and then compresses me and releases me.

With my eyes closed I lose all sense of direction, of time and space. The nearly body-temperature water is hypnotically soothing and Nicola’s movements induce a deep relaxation which releases a tremendous sense of well-being. That feeling, for me, is the quintessence of the experience, the pearl in the oyster, the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. It lasted for a small eternity.

It is clear to me that Nicola is gifted, that this is her métier, and we are the beneficiaries of her gifts. She was trained by the founders and creators of the watsu discipline at Harbin Hot Springs in northern California. Like all shamen, she followed a calling that changed her life. She told my partner Steve that as she manipulates our bodies she is praying; that the physical motions are part of her prayer; and that is what she’s doing when we close our eyes and join the dance.

If I had to sum it up in one word, that word would be bliss.

My second session lasted an hour and fifteen minutes in the water, eyes shut, in near perfect silence, focusing on my breathing while Nicola gently coaxed the tension and stress of pain from my body. Once again I experienced an intense and protracted feeling of timelessness and well-being. For a small eternity I was a lily pad floating across a ripple on a pond.

And then it was over.

I hope to do this regularly. Nicola is a maestra and a bargain at any price. I feel particularly lucky that she lives in the Twin Cities and has access to two suitable pools to practice her particular form of healing magic. She also operates at The Marsh in Minnetonka. I haven’t been there yet, because I especially like the way Belisle Ranch, even though it is a longer drive, takes me to a world of handsome horses, barns, corrals, meadows, and rolling green hills.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Two for Ken

A humble tip of the hat to poet and novelist Ken Fontenot, part of the Austin / Alamo Bay Press posse, a mensch and a muse.

 

Two for Ken.
With love and admiration.
9.25.17

 

 

i.

It’s Here.
for Samuel Beckett, dead yesterday

 

The building that housed the future lies in ruins;

four naked flagpoles, a crumbling facade,

cracked earth and broken stones.

 

Yesterday the Premier and his wife

sat on damask sofas eating caviar;

today they feed the worms.

 

“The future,” you ask. “What future?”

You still don’t get it. The future started a long time ago

and we still don’t know how to use it.

We aren’t changing fast enough.

 

“No,” you say, meaning yes, there is still a tomorrow

just like yesterday, just like today;

“no,” meaning you aren’t responsible for the outcome;

“no,” meaning you can’t tune it in;

“no,” meaning you can’t let go;

“no,” meaning either way you hold it in your hands

and don’t know what to do with it.

Stripped naked, you eat flesh and destroy.

 

The wind blows. You dream of fresh air

and plenty as the lines settle around

your hard mouth.

“I’ve had a good life,” you say,

meaning that it didn’t hurt as

bad as it could. Resigned, you tell me

you could die with equanimity.

The horror of it all lies not in evil,

in deception, in pain or starvation, no.

The horror lies in how

it just goes on and on.

 

“No,” you say, meaning there is still a

brighter dawn. Behold the fires blazing

in the west and the sun rising in the east.

“No,” you say, meaning if you looked beyond

the easy pleasures, driving hunger, and

a vast appetite for sorrow, another day has begun.

You may call it tomorrow, but it is today.

 

Your feet are cold. The furnace is broken.

You can’t get that tune out of your head.

It strikes like an earthquake

and you don’t know what it means

but nothing is the same

so you close our eyes

and keep on breathing.

 

Larry Mellman
Los Angeles, December 23, 1989

 

 

 

ii.

Room Service

 

Everything ticks

like a bomb going off

whether you hear it

or not.

 

One more drink,

one more cigarette,

one more killing,

one more cup of coffee

one more accidental mutilation,

conflagration, immolation,

decapitation, strangulation.

A drive-by shooter kills a baby.

A man who might have been a saint

is lynched in a cottonwood tree.

 

“This place is too crazy,”

the Frenchman says.

“If you are hit by a car,

and have no medical insurance

do they leave you bleeding

in the street?” he asks.

“It’s not that way in France.”

 

 

Tick. Tick. Tick.

It’s always something.

Something about dying

that drives almost

everyone

insane.

 

Lie. Lie. Lie.

The mirror.

The clock.

The refrigerator.

Lies we tell

all the way around

to protect ourselves

from other people’s lies.

“For you, I’d make love

to a crocodile.”

“Give me a call.”

“You can count on me.”

Or worse yet,

nothing at all.

 

Passing through,

a ghost leaving only fog behind,

skid marks on wet asphalt

and diamonds scattered

by an exploding windshield.

The future already

happened; it’s the past

that continually changes.

 

 

Tick. Tick. Tick.

Strange creatures

come and go.

A gruesome-looking

piece of blubber;

the most exquisite embodiment

of human form:

bubbles blown

by a gum-chewing Ubangi

with a stethoscope

stuck to his forehead.

 

It’s something

only the Marx Brothers

could get away with

and it’s always worse

than you think.

The mirror.

The clock.

The refrigerator.

The 11:00 news.

 

 

A tenor in a white tuxedo

jacket and black bow tie

sings love songs

to a pale brunette soprano

with flowers in her hair;

fountains turn into

a white Busby Berkley

extravaganza,

where nothing really

matters at all

except spinning

in perfect circles

in toe shoes,

wearing pink lipstick and

a diaphanous black skirt,

whirling like a top.

That’s everything

in a nutshell.

 

“There is something worse…”

the dead novelist said.

“Not knowing.”

 

Larry Mellman
Oceanside, CA. 1990.

 

 

 

 

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Once more unto the breach, dear friends

Screen Shot 2017-01-16 at 11.00.30 AM

Two days before the day set aside to honor the legacy of Martin Luther King, President-elect Donald Trump tweeted that Civil Rights legend John Lewis, one of King’s most stalwart lieutenants, was “All talk, talk, talk – no action or results. Sad!”

Broms_photo

No need to compare the records of Donald Trump and John Lewis here, except to say that Lewis is to bravery what Trump is to cowardice. It brings to mind the selflessness and courage of those protesters and freedom riders and fighters for freedom and justice, among whom John Lewis stands tall, many of whom I proudly number among my friends and comrades.

ministers-picket-fw-woolworth-store-in-new-york-city-on-april-14-1960-cwbyc2

On February 1, 1960 four black college students sat down at the lunch counter at Woolworth’s in Greensboro, North Carolina. They were refused service because they were “Negroes.” When asked to leave, they remained in their seats. Their heroic refusal fired a movement against Jim Crow and legal segregation.

That winter I was in the 10th grade at Fairfax High School in Los Angeles. My friend Lionel asked me if I wanted to go with him to picket at the Woolworth’s in downtown Los Angeles with a bunch of students from Los Angeles City College. Lionel’s father was a communist, a lawyer, an engaged progressive in the stultifying ‘50s.

My father drove a cab. He grew up on Chicago’s South Side and was one of the most racist individuals I have ever known. When I challenged his racism, he would recall the “race riots” of 1919, when he was a teenager. 38 people were killed and over 500 injured after a black youth drowned upon being stoned by white teenagers for swimming on a segregated beach. The murder was followed by five days of violence and lynchings.

“If you go,” my father shouted, shaking his finger at me, “you will be a marked man. Marked for life. They’re all communists,” he said, as if the argument ended there.

It didn’t. I didn’t care. It was my first political action, but not my last. It was the beginning of an era of protest and political action that shook the status quo to its core. For the first time in my life I felt that I could actually do something meaningful, that I could make a difference, and it is a feeling I have never forgotten.

It is agonizing to see everything we thought we had accomplished during those years of upheaval and change being Trumped and reversed, as if history had given Bull Connor  the last laugh.

We can’t allow that to happen. We cannot stand by while history is rolled back. We can’t pretend that things have irreversibly changed for the good. They have already been reversed. Trump’s presidency, before it has even begun, is a vivid demonstration of what happens when the forces of extreme reaction seize control. They will do everything in their power — legal and illegal — to wipe out all gains made toward social and economic equality over the last sixty years regardless of the cost in human lives.

They can only be stopped by the determined resistance of the majority of people who believe in facts, in science, in progress, in peace, in liberty and justice for all.

Little did I expect that my political life would end where it began.

But it has.

I was nineteen when I stood in Sproul Plaza, Berkeley, listening to these words, more meaningful now than ever:

“There is a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part; you can’t even passively take part, and you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop. And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you’re free, the machine will be prevented from working at all!” (Mario Savio, December 3, 1964.)

It’s time once again to bend our shoulders to the wheel.

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People and places.

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An open letter to Mick White

images

Friday, December 30
St. Paul

 

Mick, I finally read Professed and enjoyed it a lot, laughed out loud a few times, and learned about things I’ve never thought about, all to the good.

Tom’s narrative was fun for the Woody Allen-esque horny, inept, shleppy guy quality. But your people are all more real than Woody’s; his are always like looking in a fish bowl at a peculiar breed of Jewish New York exotics. Tom and Nelda and Emily and Camille and Barnes and Travis are funny for very different reasons (“the valorization of blondness in this society is a disease” vs. “knowledge of the feline Heimlich maneuver could be invaluable when coping with Ben’s digestive tract,” vs. “All you ever do is see them whining on TV. I mean, they’ve got casinos, right?” (Nelda sounds curiously like Javier 😉

Camille’s narrative was my favorite although it’s difficult to explain why. It’s funny, but where I laughed at Tom, I didn’t laugh at Camille. She made me laugh. I loved all the nuances of her character and the way she dealt with the others as critical older sister, indulgent ersatz mother, baffled friend, disappointed romantic, etc.

Travis was the most unexpected. Although at times he knows a little too much (“it was sort of like TV, sort of like the jail scenes in Tom Wolfe’s A Man in Full, but not quite…”), ultimately I loved his POV. It’s certainly the flashiest and most charismatic. He’s the kind of character Woody could never dream of, and he’s not only comic— he is The Inexplicable, the object against which everything else plays (IMHO) so it’s great that he has, in a sense, the last word (“I guess that’s maybe because all those other people don’t know enough to fucking care—?”)

But for me the real triumph is that none of them are played solely for laughs (well, Nelda… maybe… I’m  not so sure… ask me sometime what I would have done with her 😉 ). They are all up against the corporatization of education (a new concept for me I’m embarrassed to admit). They are all its observers, its critics, its victims, its antagonists. The corporate university is devoid of soul, the object of hate and dread and deadly irony. The animus is centered there. Each of the characters is suffused with a wonderfully unique humanity. You never condescend to them; you are never needlessly cruel to them; you open them up only to show us their incandescent cores. We may laugh at them, feel sorry for them, be shocked by them, want to slap them sometimes, but we never hold them in contempt and that is your stunning achievement in this book, I think. I have read many books where the author holds so much — sometimes everything — in contempt; or condescends to his material; or to his audience. But Professed is suffused with a generosity of spirit that makes the enemy — the corporate educational boogeyman — all the more heinous. Ultimately we can, in one way or another, “identify with,” or understand, or like, or cherish is some way, every one of these characters, just as much as we loathe, as they loathe, the big white elephant in the room that is sucking the life out of their lives.

Anyway, thank you, Mick. A lovely book, a lovely read. It was time well spent 🙂

Larry

 

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TRUMP Year One

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Say goodbye to old friends,
safety nets, dividends,
Medicare,  an annual bump
of point three percent
in your Social Security.
Forget it.
There are fortunes
to be made.

Raise your glass!
To JPMorgan Chase,
Citibank and
Goldman Sachs.
Uncork champagne!
Nothing’s too big to fail,
the rich are getting richer,
it’s Billionaires’ Day every day.
Now that America’s great for them,
you pay.

When did you realize
that you’d been played?
When they repossessed
your wheelchair?
or shut down Medicaid?
When you lost your job,
your house, your life?
Raise your glass!
They’re roasting your kids
for dinner
and they want more
special sauce.

You hated your neighbors
and wore a sheet,
shot black men
for nothing at all.
You’re straight, white
and Christian,
you never take the fall
so long as Muslims are on the loose,
and that’s all good until
no matter what you do,
the color of skin can’t save you
because it’s illegal
to be you.

Tyranny rocks on
History’s Top Ten.
It’s nothing new.
Only the uniform changes,
and the salute.
The same rude beast,
its hour come round at last,
slouches toward the White House
heading an all-star cast.

Feel duped? Afraid?
Empires crumble.
History is remade.
When we act together, tyrants fall,
whether resigning like Richard Nixon
or blowing out his brains
in a subterranean bunker,
clutching at the reins.
Which future shall it be?
It’s up to you.

Trust facts.
Read history.
Raise your glass!
to ‘never again’,
to jobs with peace,
equality, and justice for all,
lit by gratitude and respect
for one last chance
to get it right,
before the cynical armies of despair
put out the light.

Larry Mellman
Saint Paul, New Year’s Day 2016/17

 

 

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