Wednesday, August 22

Raincheck in a drought

Come back tomorrow.
There is no poem here.
I tried but…

... no iris blossoms dropped
voluptuous tears on the page,
there was no elixir I could distill
from the morning mist;
you know, from that misted meadow
of my sleep where your voice
once foaled six galloping dreams?

There was only silence,
dry dry layers of silted silence
caked and crusted
on the notepad.
If I could crush and grind the crust
under my fisted palms
and blow the dust and flakes
of silence at my own face,
into my own eyes
then maybe …
… but no. No.

I even tried imagining
I was a little girl imagining
that if I blew hard enough
on the six candles
daddy would stride in through the door,
walk over and hug us,
home for good from the I-promise-this-is-the-last
tour of duty.

With my eyes shut tight under her curtained bangs,
the candle flames flew away
and the wicks saluted smellily
but dad did not walk into the room
and I didn’t write a poem
and I am not sure if what I imagined was being the imagining girl
smelling the smelly candles
or the father stuck somewhere
on the other side of the door.

I don’t even know who the girl is
or if she even is or ever was
or if dad ever made it home.
Strange, I did hear his voice.
“Happy birthday” it said,
but our eyes were closed and I don’t know
if the voice was here
or there, on this
or that side of the door.

I don’t really know if it matters.
I think it might, perhaps it must,
but I can’t be sure.
All I know is that
there is no poem here.
Please come back tomorrow.

Saturday, November 12

Festina lente

One of the many rewarding moments on my trip to the lovely and enthralling city of Krakow this summer was an unplanned visit to the Remuh synagogue and its Renaissance-age cemetery. Founded nearly 500 years ago in the 1550s and used until the end of the 18th century, the cemetery has a remarkable collection of  centuries-old stelae, headstones and stone coffins discovered during conservation works. It is surrounded by an outer wall built largely out of unmatched pieces of incomplete gravestones.

The site is located in Kazimierz, the old Jewish quarter of the city, very close to the hotel where we were staying, so María and I decided to go with our daughters one morning. As it turned out, later that day we would visit Auschwitz, where, for reasons both hideous and obvious, there are no tombs or graves. So, though unintended at the time, the trip to this graveyard would in retrospect seem fitting and proper, a moment to visit and pay our respects to the ancestors of some of the so many who perished at the death camp.

While strolling amongst the gravestones, I was struck by a custom I had never seen before: visitors would place small stones on top of the tombstones and stelae. The inscriptions on the stones are largely etched in Hebrew and many are badly faded, so I had no idea who was in the graves we were filing past, whether man, woman or child, or in what year or century they had died. Nevertheless, I instinctively felt moved to search the ground for the right pebble and place it atop one of the tombstones, joining in a rite whose meaning was unknown to me, yet at the same time familiar, perhaps in much the same way that most ancient secrets are...

My bare Christian head
capped by a yarmulke,

I stand before
the undecipherable.

Strangers gather to string necklaces
of gravel whispers on a stone throat

and listen to its ancient tongue,
swallowed whole but still wagging.

Stones that clink like flint chalices,
vessels of mute blessings,

in each stone a word embalmed
(in the beginning was the word).

Soft stones of alchemists
quarried from secrets guarded

in the sliver of space between
molten lead and frozen mercury.

My own pebble is hewed
from poems I never learned

but have always known
yet fear I will not sing.

Worried fingers warm
my rounded stone

before I perch it atop
the roof of this tilting stela,

repeating a rite felt more
than understood,

above illegible words
chiseled in a language

I will only know
the day I meet

the stranger who today
for some reason

has chosen me
to remember him

in this petrified choir
on this verdant morning.

Come now, time.
Come blow on our ember stones.
© Lorenzo — Alchemist’s Pillow

Written for Tess Kincaid's Magpie Tales prompt for this week. Click on this link to see the other magpies.

Tuesday, November 1

Plea for Mercy

Long have I cherished the perhaps unoriginal but abiding belief that all art is a plea for mercy, that underlying all our poetry, music, painting, song, all our dancing hopes and rhymed and rhythmed rituals, is a plea for mercy, a petition to be reprieved, a pitch, if not quite for immortality, then for at least a new dawn, another child, for another day to see the harvest of what has been sown and hear new chapters in the unfinished story, an appeal for the circle to remain unbroken, the chain whole … just a little while longer, dear lord, just a little while longer…

Yes, all art is a plea for mercy.

On the shadow throat of the pilgrim’s path
each chanted step is a prayer,
at the bottom of the heart’s well,
each gulped silence
a plea for mercy.

Every saxophone solo that noodles the sacred night
as the moist nostrils of the newborn calf
nudge and nuzzle the silent udder
is a plea for mercy.

Every lullaby
epilogued by a rose-puckered kiss
on the fevered brow
of the sleeping child,

and every eve when a lover petitions
the stars with verse, a shepherd deflowers
the wind with song, a lone rhapsode
stitches geese into the clouds,
is a plea for mercy.

Every scribble in a tattered notepad, sighing
to capture the melt of frost by the canyon rim,
is a plea held up like the shield of Achilles
when the thhhwang of the bow reminds us
yet again that the great arrow is in flight.

The thrilled eye that dips the paintbrush
into the throbbing crucible before the canvas,
aching to capture the poplars panticulating
in the dusk purred breeze,
is pleading for mercy.

Every crooned blues sired by a whistling train
infected with the pulse of wind-polished stars,
every hand that skips on a goatskin drum
as the barefoot girl shadow dances by the fire,
every oboe bleating the memory of a mother’s scented breast,
is a plea for mercy,

is the compass of our wearied hero on the long trek home,
is a plea, a wince, a supplication,
a hiccup in the relentless countdown,
a fistful of seed hurled at the eternal soil.

* * *

Yes, all my adult life I have held fast to this modest belief and still do even as I struggle to make it up right here and now. Yet, though I would only discover this later on, this and all other warm fuzzy certitudes suddenly turned to salt stone in that one incalculable instant when I walked beneath a crooked metal arc that muttered in a foul-breathed whisper: “Arbeit Macht Frei”.

Photos of Lorenzo shadows:
Top: On the Rocío pilgrimage trail — Spring 2011
Middle: Drinking in the Duero river between Spain and Portugal — Summer 2011
Bottom: Snagged in the barbwire at Auschwitz-Birkenau — Summer 2011

Sunday, September 11

Etching movements in the sky

The essential thing is to etch movements in the sky, movements so still they leave no trace. The essential thing is simplicity. That is why the long path to perfection is horizontal. — Philippe Petit
Today, I choose not to remember them as towers of steel or cement or glass. Nor as towers of light in the bugled air. And certainly not as exploding hives or  doomed smoldering pyres. No, I do not want to recall how they fell. Today, I prefer to remember them as they swayed, while they swung and rolled the rope under the feet of the beautiful madchild who loved them so.
If you have not seen the film Man on Wire documenting high-wire artist Philippe Petit's incredible feat of August 7, 1974, I recommend it and leave some video embeds and links below. Click on the film's name to see the trailer. 
The video below captures some of the best photos of the day and shots from the film:

For news footage from that day, including helicopter views and interview with the police officer who arrested him, see the following clip:

I recommend viewing the videos in full screen mode and at the highest definition available. Click on this link to see a slideshow of Petit's astonishing stroll, with Leon Russell singing "Tightrope" as soundtrack.

To those who built them high
and those who gaped below,
to those who tumbled down
and those who combed the rubble.

And to those of us
who see them yet,
our still hearts clutched
on the quivering wire,
pilgrims perched on this traceless trail.

Saturday, May 28

S.I.P. Gil Scot Heron

I have been in the New York area for the last two weeks, working in the City the first week and visiting with my parents and friends in NJ for the last few days, before returning to Spain tomorrow.

Ever since I left the US for Spain some 26 years ago, such returns tug my mind and memory in many different directions. "You can't go home again" goes the old truism. It may be right, but whatever truth it encloses seems to wrong us in our perpetually earnest efforts to travel back across cultures, continents, ages and periods of our lives, to reconnect and mend frayed threads.

Many memories welled up today on hearing the sad news that singer, songwriter, musician and poet Gil Scot Heron has passed on, finishing his sojourn here all too soon at just 62, before moving on to the definitive home where we are all summoned  to return. Swing in peace, Gil.

I am embedding below a clip of his classic "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised". It still packs a wallop after all these years...

An alternate reading of the poem by Gil Scot Heron can be heard here.

Anyone care to reprise this for the revolution will not be podcast?

Tuesday, May 10

Four Haiku Movements of a Near Summer Day

the sunlight nestles
on the maple’s brow and lays
golden trembling eggs

the melon’s crisp red
crunches the noonday silence
until the breeze blows

the green choirs of rye
dance glissandos in the wind
humming their sun strobed songs

fog erases my home
smears its glow onto the night
muffling my footsteps

Shoreham Lavender — © Derek Hansen
Click photo to enlarge, click on photographer's name to visit him at

Monday, April 25

Descent from the Cross

Detail of Mary of Clopas
I spent the better part of Semana Santa (Holy Week) holed up in my translator's den, pounding out an urgent tax law translation — how tediously inappropriate for a week that is celebrated and commemorated like no other here in Spain. Beginning as early as the Friday before Palm Sunday and lasting until Easter Sunday, every city and town and most villages host day after day of processions; plazas and streets fill with the slow somber shuffle of Nazarenos carrying flower-laden floats that bear wooden statues and images depicting scenes from the week that encapsulates the central drama of Christianity. The plaintive sour wail of trumpets and solemn rolling drums are heard everywhere. Some of the processions stretch on until nearly dawn.

In a week during which every year it feels like half of Spain has gone off to the shore and the other half is marching in or watching the processions, I was unable to do either. In atonement, I want to offer you a more solitary and quieter contemplation of the story commemorated by these festivities. It was gifted to all of us by the Flemish painter Rogier van der Weyden: his masterpiece "The Descent from the Cross" (also known as The Deposition). Painted in 1435, this oil on wooden panel is one of the treasures of the Prado Museum in Madrid. Though not as widely known and celebrated as the emblematic works of Velázquez, Goya, Rubens, Dürer, Bruegel the Elder, Bosch, Titian, El Greco, Tintoretto, Raphael and so many others that keep art lovers from all over the world streaming to the magnificent museum, it is one of my personal favorites.

Descent from the Cross. Rogier van der Weyden (1435).
Click here for larger full resolution image.

I was first alerted to the wonders of this painting by a friend of mine who works as a restorer in the Prado. She explained that it is perhaps the best conserved work in the entire museum, in large part thanks to the technique used by Van der Weyden and other Flemish painters of his time of applying layer after layer of translucent paint onto an elaborate underpainting until a near enamel-like effect is achieved. The lapis lazuli used for Mary's robe is also amongst the finest that can be found in any painting from that period. As you contemplate this work, keep in mind that it was painted nearly 600 years ago. It underwent a major restoration in 1992 led by George Bisacca of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

It is quite large, 220 cm by 262 cm (a bit more than 7 feet x 8.5 feet), so the figures are nearly lifesize. I have sat long and often in front of this scene, stood transfixed by its intense tones and glowing light, paced back and forth along its panorama of pent up pain. The details are simply astonishing. I can think of no other painting that more movingly captures and conveys the contained emotion of the persons represented here, their subdued and tender distress. Have tears ever been painted any better than this? See the two embedded videos further below before you answer.

St. John the Evangelist
On the right, clasping her hands, the stricken Mary Magdalene is curled by pain and sorrow into an arc of anguish that pairs well with the bowed solicitous figure of Saint John the Evangelist on the other end. He and Mary Salome gently attend to the swooned mater dolorosa sagging down into the deep folds of her lapis lazuli robe. Christ’s limp body is being swathed in fine linen and deposed from the cross by the venerable Nicodemus, the eldest of this congregation and the first to ponder the meaning of to be born again. The descended savior’s legs are held tenderly by Joseph of Arimathea, the man who donated the cave reserved for his own burial so that it be used for Christ’s entombment instead, and whose distrait gaze here seems lost in the cave of Adam’s eyes along a diagonal time tunnel that runs from the skull next to the Virgin’s right hand, through the wounds in Jesus’ hands, to Joseph’s tear soaked face (reflecting the belief that Christ was crucified on the spot where Adam was buried; indeed, Golgotha means the place of the skull).

Mary Magdalene
The Virgin Mary and Jesus are at one again, coupled in the supple mirrored waves of their descending bodies, in the helpless fall of their arms, in the pallor of their skin tone — her virginal white further blanched by grief; his blue-grey pall of death somehow become the luminous focus of the painting. A mother and child reunion in their unconscious states: hers, the lapse between fainting and waking; his, the interlude between dying and arising.

I invite you to see the two embedded videos below to better witness what Van der Weyden has wrought with this masterwork. They come close to capturing the fascination one feels when viewing the Deposition up close. Very close. Do you see the tears move?

In this first video, I recommend setting the resolution at 480 and viewing in full screen. You would do well to turn your speakers up, too...

This second, briefer, video is largely concentrated on the holy woman to the far left, behind Saint John the Evangelist, identified by some art historians and Bible scholars as Mary of Clopas (Cleophas).

Mary of Clopas

I have always found the rendering of Mary Cleophas here to be especially riveting. The closeups allow us to appreciate the many fine details: the pin in her shawl, the reddened nose of ruddy grief, the tear about to find her lips...
An iron sliver pins the folds
where birdsong tears the sails of dawn.
Her wedding band wraps horizons
into a golden nest of muted song.

Beneath the sutured brows
her sealed oyster eyes
squeeze out pearl gel tears
that slide down tracery veins of time
to salt the gathering of new hymns
cloistered in her lips.

No shrill laments,
no cries, no wails, no
procession trumpets blare their sour dirge,
only the drum roll moaning of grief gulped down
in a throat threshed raw on Calvary stones.

Who would know the tidal wave of sorrow
was but the cusp of hope?
      © Lorenzo — Alchemist's Pillow

Further closeup of Mary of Clopas

For more information on this painting, I recommend the video and commentary at the always rewarding Smarthistory site, found here. Another closeup exploration of the painting with music is available here.

Joseph of Arimathea
The Prado Museum web page on this work is worth a visit. In addition to a brief description and history of the painting, it also allows you to hear the audio-guide while viewing a high resolution version. It is available here (the play icon there is easy to miss, it’s just above the right part of the cross. On the left side of the image, click on the full screen icon and then use your mouse wheel to zoom in and slide along this epic living altarpiece). The Prado page also has a link to see the painting in ultra-high resolution with Google Earth.