Friday, July 31, 2009

Willow along the fenway

This image was made over a year ago, and I am posting it now because I want to illustrate the things I was concerned with prior to last August, just a year ago. I've made reference to my various health problems; I discovered during 2006 that walking was very therapeutic, both physically and mentally, and so became a dedicated walker in the parks, by ways, and neighborhoods of Boston. Boston is a wonderful city for walking and I'd like to tip my hat (you know about my hat) to Antonia Pollak, our parks commissioner. This willow tree is in the fenway, right in front of Simmons College. If you know the area you will realize that the roar of traffic is only slightly to the right of this tree.

The pastoral nature of the image is deliberate. I was immersing myself in the beauty of God's creation. I was consciously trying to mend the despair I've spoken of in earlier posts by praising the beauty I found around me, but I was doing that by pointing out the unadulterated beauty of the natural world without any reference to man's place in it. Fortunately subjects abound in Boston and I have a great many images like this.

Medically,I was also trying to build myself up as much as possible because I knew I was facing a very rigorous year of harsh treatments, which I was warned would leave me bedridden for most of 48 weeks. That started in December of 2007, and for quite some time I continued walking from Holyoke Street to Beth Israel for my weekly treatments- hobbling I should say, but still with my camera, then only one way, and then, by last summer I was on the "T." and no longer walking in Nature.

I have included the detail because I want to illustrate what I have been doing with the images. I hesitate to call them photographs because they do not respond to the technical formalities that really fine photographs should, and because I have never considered myself to be a photographer. I am a painter, and I have managed to learn how to take the raw material my digital camera produces and translate it into images that I would have painted. I hope you can see in the detail some of the levels of manipulation, both of the image and of colors. I actually combined many images to try to give the impression of the movement of the air, and an experience of a moving viewpoint. They are very consciously not a depiction of the place they were taken, but a more generalized and romanticized image.

When I came to the point last summer that I couldn't get around my focus had to change, and my attitude also changed. For me, when I get really, really, sick I become very aware of the fragility of life. I had spent years in despair- I refer to this period in "Lent, part 2," then I had come to treasure this life and immersed myself in it only too find myself to weak to participate. That is where I was last summer.

I am going to show you now what came of it. As with Kingfishers it became a suite of images and words that I think of as a book- so the graphic presentation is also an important part of it for me. I will try to give some sense of the graphic presentation in the following posts. Let me also say, that the treatment ended and I've been recovering from it nicely so don't worry if the tone in the poems seems a bit dark from time to time- all is well and I am in life with both feet- at least I think I am. I sometimes feel that after my last "Near death" experience they didn't quite get all of me back, but that's another story, and a very nice one too!

I call what follows a "Portrait of August." You will get commentary as well as the poems themselves.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009


The hatch shell was filled with Haydn

Clouds moving east above it

Growing as they did, roseate

Against the fading sky, and grey.

Brahms brought the waltzing night

And a flock of geese flew to the river

The fountain in Copley Square is still.

It's basin trembling with reflections

Of the tower of Old South Church

While 8 young women pass;

Tall as giraffes and lithe

Their silk dresses bright like jewels,

Short like flags above their heeléd legs.

Laughing, they wear plastic crowns

And party beads and two hold hands.

A bachelorette party they tell me,

I wish well and happy the bride.

The man making my meal

Is blond and wears a baseball cap.

And his skin is fine. Inside

His arm is a tattoo. Initials

And small dates rank up his arm.

As he hands me the bag

And says my name I see

The list is long. He wears it with grace.

Along the park the sky is deep

I see some stars, the horizon glows.

It is beautiful.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009


"His front door refused to budge, which is why Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., just home from a trip to China filming a PBS documentary, set his luggage down and beckoned his driver for help."

So begins an article on Gates' arrest in this morning's on line edition of the Boston Globe, I encourage you to read.

Some of my readers know why this catches my attention. At least Gates still had a home to return to when the dust settled. The situation seems extreme, but it is only Gates' fame that makes it so. We have been convinced that the American values of liberty and justice are threatened, and I agree that they are, but not from without. They are threatened from within, and the threat is directed mostly, but I can tell you not exclusively at Blacks and Hispanics and Muslims. While Gates position makes us all sit up and take notice, and perhaps this will bring some much needed attention to the problem, the problem is a quiet cancer that grows in our society. We delude ourselves if we think otherwise. I am in a position to know.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Hats off?

When I was young we had in our family a book of riddles. This was before computer games. It was called something very imaginative like "101 riddles for young persons" I may have the number wrong. As is so often the case, it is the perplexing ones that I remember, to whit:

Q. When is a boy not a boy?

A. When he is abed!

The syntax should date the publication, even in the 50's we had to seek out our septuagenarian baby sitter to explain. In my youth the proposition that one's essence could be changed by simply lying down was troubling. I have come to understand that it can, puberty helped with that, and I find that the world continues to be indefinite, filled with troubling questions about the nature of things, such as:

Q. When walking through Copley place, as I will be shortly, I'm having breakfast with "The Other Reader," am I inside or outside? Also, when leaving one building and crossing the bridge to the next, does that condition change and, which is really the pressing concern, at least to those of us who have managed to outgrow baseball caps, do I remove my hat or not?

I have actually watched the bifurcated video screen at the top of the Huntington Avenue escalator for clues, thinking that Louis Vuitton's models would know, but have been unable to ascertain what is hat and what is hair, except in the case of the black bunny ears, but they are on what we can assume is a woman. She keeps them on, but women do keep them on, being relieved by the sexism of our culture from having to fumble with their hat as well as their shopping bags while trying to open a door. Or pass through a revolving door in defensive posture (more on that later.) Or still yet, press an elevator button. I say nothing about men's rooms.

Keeping my hat on in the hallway does allow me to remove it on entering a shop, which still makes a pleasant impression, and under the skylights it can still serve the stated function of protecting my aged skin from the harsh rays of the sun. That answers fairly well in regard to the bridge, and as we know, in some contexts the dear bought fedora is never removed- but those folks have evolved a different taste that eludes me as yet.


I suppose this could be extended into a contemplation of the question "where are we really when we enter the mall, is it possible to ascertain in any real sense?"

Meanwhile, I'm at the revolving door so will sign off. As I said, you'll be hearing about that too!


Friday, July 10, 2009

Kingfishers#12, A final word

The meditation on Gerard Manely Hopkins' poem "As kingfishers catch fire" contained in the foregoing posts was a long time gestating. Poetry expresses much in a very compact form, and projects a great deal of meaning by implication. Implied meaning of necessity depends on a dialogue with the listener, whose inference is rooted in his own experience and mood- things that change over time. As time has passed I have focussed on different sections of this poem, understanding some easily and consistently- "The just man justices" while others, " deals out that being indoors each one dwells" took a long time to find a fertile soil in my mind.

I have mentioned that "Kingfishers" was accompanied by two other Hopkins poems when I was introduced to it, and can be said to be part of a group that are beautifully lyrical. The lines about being indoors, even if their meaning seems obscure, are still so wonderfully beautiful that one can speak them in the same spirit as the tucked strings and roundy wells as part of Hopkins "sprung rhythm" without catching the harbinger of darkness and isolation which was to engulf Hopkins life and poetry. His journey to "THOU art indeed just Lord, if I contend" passed through a large number of poems that I frankly could not square with the beauty of "Kingfishers" until I had also passed though "the fell of dark" as well.

In "THOU art indeed just Lord, if I contend" we witness a retrospective dialogue of Hopkins,' in this case with the prophet Jeremiah. The first lines are a very literal translation of the beginning of Jerome's Latin translation of the 12th chapter of Jeremiah, which he then turns into a beautiful, if challenging sonnet. For many years the beauty of his latter poems was hidden from me. I hadn't collected the compost that the meaning of such as "Carrion Comfort," which ends with his own God wrestling, needed to grow. I should also add that my years of anti-clerical feeling inhibited me from accessing the religious aspect of a lot of these poems. But time and experience has made a fertile place, and my dialogue has continued, and my affinity deepened.

I have learned from the Marianni biography that there are also a number of coincidences- "THOU art indeed just Lord, if I contend" was written on St. Patrick's day only 30 miles from the fields I described in my own "St. Patrick's Day" (see post on March 17.)

There has been much more of my dialogue with Hopkins which I will share with you as time passes.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

kingfishers#11, A Coda

I am large, I am small
On some days short, on others tall,
Full of force,
Filled with fear,
More, or less, or naught, or all.

Always rebellious but well behaved,
Formal in manner if somewhat depraved,
Ever so kind
Even when curt
Abrupt when distracted but never a knave.

Happily depressed, I'm Saturn's man,
A.D.D. with a long attention span,
Ever sober,
Given to extremes
Exacting the rigor perfection demands.

My mind runs wide, my opinions resolved,
Generously conservative with liberalities allowed,
Retiring to the very bone,
Of course assertive when at home,
Mildly disposed with much strength involved.

I myself become confused
By so many manners used,
Facets turned to light,
"Which one is right,
Which true, which false?" I often muse.

What was it I was looking for?
Some clear cut image, nothing more
To hold with comfort
My odd shaped mind,
and bring my simple self to the fore.

Sorry, did I hear you laugh?
Have I made some kind of Gaff?
Why would you think me
Stern or haught,
Can't you see my fragile heart?

Monday, July 6, 2009

kingfishers#10, A Conundrum

I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind but now can see.
From "Amazing Grace" by John Newton

A Conundrum

My search for myself was almost fifty years long. It only ended when my diagnosis with HIV placed so many other urgencies in my way that I forgot about the search for myself for a while in my haste and worry. At that time it seemed that my years were now quite limited and that they would just have to be lived as I was. Perhaps disease is the ultimate “come as you are party.”

Circumstances were such that I felt there was justice in my being indulgent of my less practical goals in life, doing only what I wanted, was gratifying, had meaning, or a thing I would be proud to leave behind. I turned work away if I couldn’t work at my best level, tried any kind of fun on offer, and started to explore experiences I had shunned, lest I die unknowing, or worse, criticize in ignorance.

The conundrum is this: it was only then, when I was no longer searching that I found myself, or perhaps better stated, that I realized I had never lost myself. It happens this way for many, and seems peculiar to some, but I believe there is a very good reason for it. In order to search for a thing that thing must be separated from us on some level. We use our minds, eyes, and bodies to move through thought or space hoping to discover that which we seek, and certain that we will know it when we stumble on it. That which we seek, in this case is our self. It is a rather humorous image of us all inextricably bound within our selves bumping around attic and alley and bazaar in the hope of stubbing our toe on some self we think we could claim. It is after all our self that is doing the searching, but being that self is so inevitable and mundane that we can not credit it as being worthy or sufficient. What then is it we search for?

I will answer only for myself. I was searching not for myself, but for another self which would suit better the people around me and not be troubled by all the quirks and insecurities acquired through a long and unprotected life. In reality it turns out to have been more a running from myself than a searching for it.

Is there not some feeling that for all of us there is a happy place where we work at gratifying jobs with respectful people and have peace and security in our life and home and self? Could we not have that if we just could find that self that makes the promise true and doesn’t disturb others or ourselves with that which lies beyond understanding or explanation?

I say I found myself, but in truth it was more an accepting than a finding. It was compelled by a seeming necessity but the urgency brought a great gift: the knowledge that the promise was a fantasy, and like most fantasies, it’s attractiveness rested on the denial of my own complexity and richness. It required as much conformity as a suburban life might, and looked at objectively promised more boredom and less self than the present state did.I sought self, and then realized that any self that might be found would be less than the one which was seeking.

We look to heaven and forget to enjoy our earthly home, we plan for a future in focused detail while the present sails past unnoticed, we speculate on the potential of our family and friends to achieve goals and attend events, but don’t hold life’s pressures at bay while they are with us so that we can know their mind and heart, we think always of what we ought to be, or could be, refusing or unable to see what we are and feel confident in it’s rightness.

What need is there except be ourselves, as we are and as we evolve? What supposition of our own identity can be more right than the inevitability of our being as it exists this very moment? Is it even possible to see or know it with out distorting it in the process?

When we walk without self-consciousness we walk best I think, when we walk directly and without contrived intention. When we react as we react, give without thought, love without agenda. When being is our only purpose and our way of being is nothing more than the natural impulse of our native force. It is there, in being without conscious thought, just as our inner force directs that resides our self. It is inevitable and inescapable, as in flux as the passing days, and as complex and contradictory as are the infinite stimuli it responds to. What other way could it be? Could we be? Except to be less than we already are, divided from creation’s interdependence, an extraneous link in the chain of life.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Kingfishers#9, Selves

"Deals out that being indoors each one dwells"


How like a house our selves are;

Our eyes and mind it’s windows

And we looking hard at others' lives

Can no more see our self as others do

Than see our house as we gaze from it

At yards and houses that obscure our view.

But those on the other side

Retuning looks from inside themselves

See our self so large that like a house

It looms from distance with a clear outline

Etched sharp against the evening sky,

The windows glowing with our inner light;

Beacon, beckoning to the passerby

That which we cannot see of self.

Need we see it? Know what that beacon offers?

Would seeing it make the offer better?

I think not. That as we are we’re meant to be

Watch each step alone, where it takes wait to see.

kingfishers#8, Inner Dialogue Continued.

A Parable

In my memory it seems as though it actually happed this way! I will relate it to you.

Always I felt that strange presence. It seemed to follow me everywhere, yet I could never quite understand who, or what it was. It annoyed me, dogging my footsteps, intruding into my thoughts and making me conscious of my every word. While walking along the path one day, unprovoked, unexpected, I stopped suddenly and turned 180 degrees on my heels and confronted him.

“Why are you following me!”

“But I'm not.”

“You are always right behind me.”

“Well, if you walked more slowly we could walk side by side, perhaps even talk with one another.”

“And you always seem to turn up, where ever I am.”

“Yes, that’s true.”

“And why would I want to walk beside you, and talk with you?”

“This is a useless question, neither of us has a choice, we may as well make the best of it, you are rather amusing you know.”

“Who are you?” I demanded.

But he didn’t answer, and putting his hand on my shoulder started us down the path again.

In time I became quite accustomed to him. Although he could be rather difficult, he was also a good companion, overall very fair, and at times quite funny.

I also came to realize that he was a rather attractive person and came to be quite glad of his company.

We eventually came to a place where the path was blocked by a lake. He went to find a boat while I rested. He returned with small row boat which we got into and he started rowing across the lake. The sun was high and I became drowsy, but suddenly my attention was caught by a kingfisher diving into the water. The bird caught a fish, and as he rose above the surface the writhing of the fish sent shots of fire from it’s scales. I turned to point this out to my companion, but he wasn’t there, and I was rowing. Finally I understood and I felt whole.

Kingfishers#7, Inner Dialogue

Soul and self-

Are they speaking?

Soul says self

Is always tweeking.

Self says soul’s

No one to talk,

The stuff he does

Makes Tweekers balk,

Says he even

Talks to God!

And God talks back,

If that’s not odd!

Imago, Ego,

Then there’s Id,

They all quarrel

Like little Kids.

Each one saying

The other’s wrong.

Why can’t we all

Just get along!

Kingfishers#6, By Pretty Pool

On Reading History

It is not the least ingenuous to say

He had no idea who he saw that day

When he stopped to rest by pretty pool

And lost his heart in its rippling surface

Looking back from this end of time

It’s fair to ask “how could that be?”

But two thousand years had yet to pass

Before the arts of metal or of glass

Could perfect a reflecting surface.

So his own image he could only glean

As capricious undulations on blade or shield

Or as depicted by the imperfect arts;

But not as now with the force of light.

We reading back with our assumptions

At times seems quite unfair to me:

A complex web of strange projections,

But I see revealed in it an irony.

That as author of our ego’s love of self

Should be one as confused as we are

About what image a reflection brings;

And just as he did not know himself reflected

Reflection seldom helps us find the self we seek.

Kingfishers#5, Hazel

The grammar school I attended was the local parochial school, St. Luke School. After the eighth grade my parents put me in the public school system and I attended our town’s brand new junior high for ninth grade. Lloyd Broomhead was in my grade and facing this trauma together brought us into a friendship that really hadn’t existed before. The Broomheads Senior were friends of my parents so there was that familiarity to build on, and as they lived near the junior high it was natural to walk home with him. It was this association which brought me into contact with the Howes, who lived next door to the Broomheads, and whose son David was in our class.

David was a rather large overweight and somewhat goofy young man, but a true wit, even in his early teens. It was David who taught us that by carrying a clip board and pen one could get into almost anyplace, as people always assumed one to be reporting on them, and the desire to ingratiate themselves would always be more forceful than the fact that they shouldn’t let you pass. He took particular delight in the irony that the effort to get good reviews would involve actions directly contracting their purpose. It was David who used to say, “Work fascinates me, I love to watch it!”

Stopping at David’s on the way home from school became a habit, as much because of his mother as because of him. The source of his wit was soon discovered. The first time I met her she introduced herself as “Hazel” in reference to the TV character. She had been cleaning and I suppose looked the part. She was of course toying with the irony that a person in “Mrs. Howe’s” circumstance would have a maid, and I think testing for those poor souls so gullible to accept such a thing. I pity the thought of such a person at her hands. In any case she was thence always Hazel.

We were sitting at the kitchen table one day admiring a rather impressive cake she maintained that she had made “From scratch.” When she noticed that my glance had fallen on the waste basket beside me, but before I had really taken in what I was looking at she stated, “of course the box was the hardest part!”

David and I fell out of touch after High school, he going west to San Francisco and I to Ireland for college. Contact with the Howes slowly dropped off, but many, many years later I was at Symphony one night and in response to a tap on my shoulder turned to find Hazel and Mr. Howe sitting behind me. We had a warm reunion and I was pleased to find that they were well and happy. When I inquired after David her response was stunning in it’s wry statement on self knowledge:

“You know, Michael, some things never change. David is still trying to find himself, and we are still trying to lose him!”

Kingfishers#4, Prologue

I come from Gæa

And dwell in the damp earth.

On warm rocks

I worship the sun.

I am ancient, I am fear,

The feckless call me evil.

I bring you life,

I bring you death

I bring you seeing of yourself.

I am knowledge.

My name is Serpent.

Saturday, July 4, 2009


I have now picked up the theme I started some weeks ago having posted the poem "As Kingfishers catch fire," which I mentioned in my post of June 1 as having a very special significance for me. On the one hand the message of how one defines oneself and on the other the ringing beauty of the language both have been continuing inspirations.

I have been writing poems for a very long time. On March 17th I posted my poem "St. Patrick's Day" which I often cite as my first conscious attempt at writing a poem, that consciousness was in large part the result of the revelation of Hopkin's language as a vehicle of expression. My friend at RISD, Theresa Snyder, had introduced me to the poem, along with "the Windhover" and "Spring and Fall." " The just man justices......through the beauty of men's faces......" these lines have never left me, either as concepts or as models. "St. Patrick's Day" was conceived and pretty largely formed in the next year and the connection is for me direct and strong.

To know oneself is a great struggle- and accepting oneself an even greater one. Viewed from a distance that seems odd because we all are creatures of God's creation, and we all agree, or most of us do, that God does perfectly, so why should we find ourselves so lacking? We do, Hopkins certainly did, and many of the ills of life find root in that.

I have a friend for whom I care deeply who more than most disparages, despairs of, himself, despite being a brilliant, interesting, and handsome man. A few years ago I gave him the "Kingfisher's" poem, typeset and illustrated- the image I posted with the poem is from that illustration, and doing that started me on a series of writings and images that spring from the poem. They came in a flood and now I am going to share them with you now- some are prose, some are poems- each will have it's own post, they end in a piece I call "a conundrum." I'll include some of the images as well.

The theme of these all is finding oneself, and being able to find happiness with what it is we do find find in that process.

Kingfishers #2

AS kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies dráw fláme;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same: 5
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves—goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying Whát I do is me: for that I came.
Í say móre: the just man justices;
Kéeps gráce: thát keeps all his goings graces; 10
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is—
Chríst—for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.