Saturday, December 19

To paint the speed of light ...

For me, one of the most moving wonders of Claude Monet's art was his valiant struggle to continue painting despite severe vision problems that brought him to the brink of blindness late in his life.

From around 1905 to 1923, his cataracts worsened, greatly affecting how he saw colors, light, the boundaries of objects. This had great impact on his work. By 1922 he was nearly blind and had to stop painting, before having one of his eyes operated on in 1923. He declined to go ahead with surgery on the other eye, but did resume painting and continued to work until a few months before his death in 1926. For a fuller discussion of how these problems affected his vision and painting, I recommend the article "The Blurry World of Claude Monet Recreated" on the Live Science website.

I mention this as an introduction to the stirring poem "Monet Refuses the Operation", in which the poet Lisa Mueller imagines Monet explaining to the doctor why he will not undergo further surgery. I read and heard this on the Chicago Poetry Tour available at the Poetry Foundation website.

'Monet Refuses the Operation' by Lisel Mueller
Doctor, you say there are no haloes
around the streetlights in Paris
and what I see is an aberration
caused by old age, an affliction.
I tell you it has taken me all my life
to arrive at the vision of gas lamps as angels,
to soften and blur and finally banish
the edges you regret I don’t see,
to learn that the line I called the horizon
does not exist and sky and water,
so long apart, are the same state of being.
Fifty-four years before I could see
Rouen cathedral is built
of parallel shafts of sun,
and now you want to restore
my youthful errors: fixed
notions of top and bottom,
the illusion of three-dimensional space,
wisteria separate
from the bridge it covers.
What can I say to convince you
the Houses of Parliament dissolve
night after night to become
the fluid dream of the Thames?
I will not return to a universe
of objects that don’t know each other,
as if islands were not the lost children
of one great continent. The world
is flux, and light becomes what it touches,
becomes water, lilies on water,
above and below water,
becomes lilac and mauve and yellow
and white and cerulean lamps,
small fists passing sunlight
so quickly to one another
that it would take long, streaming hair
inside my brush to catch it.
To paint the speed of light!
Our weighted shapes, these verticals,
burn to mix with air
and changes our bones, skin, clothes
to gases. Doctor,
if only you could see
how heaven pulls earth into its arms
and how infinitely the heart expands
to claim this world, blue vapor without end.
Lisel Mueller, “Monet Refuses the Operation” from Second Language. Louisiana State University Press, 1996

For more information on Lisa Mueller see the brief biography elsewhere on the Poetry Foundation site. The photos of the paintings are from Monetalia, an excellent website on all things Monet.

Top: Claude Monet. Weeping Willow and Water-Lily Pond. 1919. Oil on canvas. Private collection
Here: Houses of Parliament, London. 1901. Oil on canvas. Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, USA

Friday, December 18

Cinnamon tea and lemon peels

For María, canela y limón ...

Lazy afternoon pastel blues

cinnamon tea and lemon peels,
under the jasmine tree,
cinnamon tea and lemon
under the jasmine, we

linger in the long lazy

afternoon sunset breeze
pastries for communing bread
afternoon in the sunkissed breeze
pastels for communion, red

pomegranate smeared on azure
the horizon tugs on longing eyes, your
gaze on throbbing pomegranate seeds
my silence hammocked in your smile

Marlene Dietrich. "Lazy Afternoon", Live at The Cafe de Paris in London 1954:

Wednesday, December 16

On genius, geniuses and the sources of creativity (and where oh where can I get me one?)

Lately, I have been watching some of the talks on the wonderful TED — Ideas Worth Spreading website. Most truly live up to their billing as "riveting talks by remarkable people, free to the world".

A case in point is the one given by the writer Elizabeth Gilbert in February of this year. I embed the video below, although you may want to see it directly on the TED site so you can get the other background information on the speaker, the full interactive script and list of other talks (Elizabeth Gilbert at TED).

Titled "Nurturing creativity", her discussion begins by addressing the impossible situation many writers and artists are trapped in by the expectations placed on them by the public and, even more mercilessly, by the artists themselves. Very eloquently, humorously and with a gently self-deprecating wit, she traces this vexing dilemma back to the Renaissance age idea that equated genius with individuals and the belief that "creativity came completely from the self of the individual". This was a break from the concept of genius that held sway in ancient Greece and ancient Rome, where "people believed that creativity was this divine attendant spirit that came to human beings from some distant and unknowable source, for distant and unknowable reasons".

And she advocates that we go back to seeing genius in this way, arguing that believing inspiration comes from daemons or geniuses outside of us takes the pressure off the artist, not allowing them to indulge in overly narcissistic self-congratulation when their minds are fertile and, more importantly, relieving them of the anguish that comes when they feel foiled and defeated by the "utter maddening capriciousness of the creative process". I find her very effective when she talks about writer’s block and the “pit of despair” into which writers are thrown by their own feelings of inadequacy.

Well, I won’t go on and on. She delivers these ideas so well that I will enthusiastically encourage everyone to see and hear the talk yourselves. Even though it lasts nearly 20 minutes, you will surely find her ‘performance’ richly rewarding.

One of the highlights is her description of meeting 90 year old poet Ruth Stone and hearing her explanation of how poetic inspiration would come to her as a young girl out in a field in her native Virginia. The poem would rush at her “like a thunderous train of air … barreling down at her over the landscape”. What ensues from this encounter between young poet and hurtling wind of inspiration is absolutely marvelous and not to be missed. This bit begins at around 10 minutes and 15 seconds into the video (but I urge you to see the entire talk). That is followed by a very funny anecdote illustrating how Tom Waits has learned to dispatch with his own elusive and tantalizing genies.

Although I find it riveting throughout, the talk actually gathers momentum as Gilbert nears the end of her discussion. She concludes the talk forcefully with a moving and original take on the old 1%–inspiration–99%–perspiration concept of artistic creation: no matter where we think it may from, wherever the “cockeyed genius” or muse of creation is to be found, the most important thing is the “sheer human love and stubbornness” you bring to the encounter with the elusive daemons of inspiration.

I can’t recommend this must-see talk enough. Check it out and let me know what you think.

The Nine Muses of Greek Mythology

Tuesday, December 15

Bewitched, bothered and bewildered ...

Photo: Ghost boat — © Shlomi Nissim

When you close your eyes

Twitching witching hours
midnight swings on frail hinges
nudging painted dreams

Monday, December 14

Wow! Poetry works! Theme Thursday snow sorcery

The last thing I did yesterday (actually, in the wee hours past midnight) before retiring to the pillow for the night was check Theme Thursday to see if this week’s tuning fork had been posted yet. But, no, I am on Central European Time (that’s GMT +1) and the much appreciated site was still somewhere in Sunday afternoon and showing last week’s Snow Day photo.

By the time I got up early this morning, snow day had been replaced by this week’s proposed topic: history. But the real news for me was that in that sleepy interim, we got a couple of inches of nature’s “blanket of soft forgiveness”, as willow so deftly put it in her beautiful communional flurry of wafered childhood memories. Yes, snow! While that is no great news in other latitudes, in the part of Spain where I live we can go two or three years without seeing any snow, so I was delighted, to say “deleast”. Apparently, last week’s theme wished to make a gracious snowy exit before ceding the stage to the thumping arrival of history's march.

And on the subject of willow, I was touched to see that she has posted the video of Stanley Jordan playing “Willow For Me” at the manor, kindly giving thanks to the alchemist’s pillow. I am very glad you enjoyed the clip, willow, but, of course, all thanks are due to the artists, Mr. Jordan and company. There is another beautiful rendition of the song, a more stately solo version of sartorial, seigniorial, and, yes, even manorial elegance from bass great Ron Carter, which I will include below. I hope willow and all of us will be as successful in finding “soft forgiveness” in this week’s more formidable Theme Thursday topic, history, as she was with last week’s (and last night’s) snowfall. A daunting challenge.

Friday, December 11

Willow wades in and apprentice alchemist finds gold ...

Thanks so much, willow (Life at Willow Manor), for being the first to sign up in response to my comical pitch for followers for this new blog. As a token of my appreciation, apart from emblazoning your name on the 'honor roll of discerning geniuses in the kindness of strangers category', I got in touch with jazz guitarist Stanley Jordan and asked him to kindly strum "willow weep for me" in your honor. You can see the results below — about as happy, boisterous and virtuosic a version of this standard as I could ever hope to find, just the right thing to shake off some of the chill from yesterday's icy poem.

One of my favorite renditions of this ballad is by the great tenor sax raconteur Dexter Gordon. I looked for a video of Dexter's version without luck, but I trust you will enjoy Mr. Jordan's rendering of the old classic.

And the alchemist will be touched to find gold on our pillow, specifically, Joan Gold, who has also joined in. Joan is a Brooklyn-born artist, who lived for more than 20 years in Venezuela and has for many years now resided in northern California (in Eureka, to be exact, a name that in an alchemist's imagination rhymes with gold). She uses her blog as venue for showing "the small, very personal paintings" she does not exhibit on her website, which has many of her recent paintings, a biography and video interview.

The blog also features Joan's writings and reflections on art and life. Her latest entry, About Beauty, includes some quotes on the topic. One I particularly like is from Anaïs Nin: "We don't see things as they are, we see things as we are". It reminds me of one of the central points Roger Scruton makes in his recent book Beauty that whenever we discuss a thing of beauty, more than describing the object of our attention, what we are really describing is our encounter, our experience of it.
I enthusiastically recommend both her blog and website.

Full disclosure: apart from being a talented artist, a courageous and beautiful spirit and wonderful person, Joan Gold is also my aunt and someone I love and admire very much.

Art work: Above, Piante Promise 2009. Here, Joan Gold before her work TimeOff.

Thursday, December 10

A still winter night – shadows on the snow

This week's Theme Thursday is snow ...

A still winter night – shadows on the snow

A tidal mill, locked in ice,
buried in the night,
no throb, no pulse
no pendulum,
silent shadow in the snow.

Selene in trebled tinsel hair,
icicles tinkle for an echo.
Her frozen glare seeks out
Mount Latmos lair,
but can only paint
longing shadows on the snow

She casts her crescent spell
onto midnight’s skater
— tell Titan’s daughter the secret
trapped in stone water like
hollow shadows on the snow.

The wind whisks away
the words he will not say,
while whistling skates
carve out a daggered answer:
your lover’s cave is a nomad’s
drifting shadow on the snow.

no ebb nor flow
no to, no fro
no love
no song
no sleeping Endymion
tonight, moon shadows on the snow

Photo credits:
Top: Full Moon Fever - © Arild Heitmann
Bottom: Skater - © Jacob Jovelou

Tuesday, December 8

Today I meekly show off my sword swallowing skills. The truth is that I have always depended on …

Dear reader, No let’s make that Dear willow (Life at Willow Manor) {after all, willow, I think you are the only one reading the pillow thus far (no complaining, that’s a fine start!)}:

When I started out on this blog a few short days ago, I earnestly told myself —like many new bloggers, I suppose— that I was doing this for my own purposes and was not much concerned with having an audience. And I meant every word of it ...

… for around two days. The truth is that this does not make much sense unless I feel someone is reading and perhaps being touched, amused, moved or shaken by something they find here.

So I have timidly added the Followers widget here in the hope it will not long chirp out the humiliating message “There are no followers yet. Be the first!”. And, yes, who knows how long it will be before there are more than 1, 2, 3? I admit I find it quite daunting to think that Mr. Widget will taunt me with “2 Followers” for the rest of time unless I conscript or cajole the support of daughters, mother, bookie, greengrocer, bail bondsman, mother-in-law, parole officer or that dolt of a neighbor of mine who always gets on my nerves but who does owe me a favor.

But I will momentarily swallow the sword of stubborn pride (while it is still digestible, before being swelled by wave upon wave of widget whackers), add the whiny widget and make my humble pitch for all visitors who like what you see here and might wish to come back to the pillow again to click on that widgee thing.

As an incentive and in everlasting gratitude for your kind gesture, you will receive the lofty distinction of having your name or blog-moniker emblazoned in fool’s gold letters on the official honor roll of Most Discerning Geniuses in the ‘Kindness of Strangers’ Category that I will keep under the pillow.

No, that isn’t me in the photo — that's a real sword swallower, Dai Andrews, and I plucked the picture from his website.

Monday, December 7

Singing in the rain?

Photo: Singing in the Rain - Carina Sirbu (

Bad Morning
Here I sit
With my shoes mismated.
I's frustrated!
                   – Langston Hughes

Sunday, December 6

Living stilts

Photo: ©Dilyana Gergova (
Marcel Proust likened aging to being "perched upon living stilts that keep on growing" — the view improves but our gait becomes ever wobblier.

The sap of time
past time, lost time
pulsing through the supple wood
raising us higher and higher
to the church tower.
Ring out, chiming view!

But there is no unwringing the furrowed brow
the hickory gait will become a wobble
and moss velvet the clapping tongue
gone youthful strut and swagger
we start to teeter
we totter.

A jagged line we write
slowing to a standstill as we
learn to hear the dry cry of knots.
Is the brittle timber to snap …
Or will our petrified tower top-

After the fall
shards and splinters
new driftwood for the pool of time.

Photo: Broken pier - ©kani polat (

Friday, December 4

Music is a healing force

Don Pullen sequence by Michael Wilderman - displayed in A Tribute to Jazz Piano exhibit at The Jazz Gallery, NYC

One of the most beautiful experiences I have had since transplanting myself here to Spain some 24 years ago now was my friendship with jazz great Don Pullen, whose life was cut cruelly short by disease at the age of 54 back in 1995. Below, I recount an anecdote that I am fond of from those happy earlier days ...
Don Pullen was convinced that in a previous life he had been a gypsy flamenco singer from Sevilla, a cantaor. He confided this to me in one of our first flamenco outings in Madrid to explain why he felt compelled to take in as much of the music as he could despite the demands of his quartet’s nightly playing at the Café Central.
The revelation of the earlier life had come to him one night years before while giving a concert at the Roman amphitheater in the Italica ruins just outside Sevilla. And one of its abiding effects was that in all his visits to Madrid, which were usually one or two week stays, we would go out every night in search of flamenco music. He was always up for more, no matter how hard he had played at the club or how fatigued he might be. And I, of course, was delighted to make the rounds with him.
Three of Don's later albums have flamencoesque tunes on them. A few years later, he told me that at one point he had to stop listening to flamenco because it was becoming too strong an influence and was interfering with his composing.
One night, while we were chatting at the bar between sets at Casa Patas, a downtown Madrid flamenco venue, I noticed we were being observed from across the room by a tall, spindly, long-haired, grey-bearded gypsy. I did not know him personally but recognized the man as a quixotic fixture at the club, always seen hanging with the musicians and dancers that frequented the establishment. When his gaze met mine, he got up from his table, skirted around a few other diners, and strode up to us very resolutely, as if summoning up a great purpose that belied the generally bemused and faraway demeanor I usually observed in him.
Usted es un cantaor de Sevilla, ¿no? —“You’re a cantaor from Sevilla, aren’t you?”—, he asked, almost poking Don’s chest with the index finger of his left hand. I was going to answer directly, but instead translated the question for Don.

Before he could reply the man continued, Porque he oido que en Sevilla hay un cantaor negro que canta, pero ¡para rabiar! —“Because I've heard there is a black cantaor in Sevilla who sings so good that he sends people into a rage”.

This, too, I translated for Don, who, with a slight cock of his head and half smile, as if sorry that he had to dismiss the notion, explained to our visitor almost apologetically, “No, tell him I'm just a black jazz musician from New York”.

When I translated Don's answer, the gypsy’s head popped back slightly in disbelief, puzzled and disappointed. He fell silent and then his gaze slowly drooped downward, taking a few seconds to mull over something that just didn't make sense.

Without taking his eyes of the man, Don instructed me “But tell him that in a previous life I WAS a flamenco singer in Sevilla”. On hearing Don’s matter-of-fact explanation, the man’s fretted brows unforrowed as he lifted his eyes back to Don’s. A quizzical smile gently chased away the puzzlement. ¡Claro! —“Of course”— he exclaimed, the riddle now vanquished. ¡Pues entonces yo te conocí en esa vida! —“So then I knew you in that life! — he announced, and with a triumphant wave of his arm and a generous smile he bid us goodbye, pivoted sharply on the happy discovery and strode away.

One website with a lot of material on Don (discography, photos, music, links to YouTube videos ... ) is There you can find the cover of his 1975 album Healing Force (music is a healing force, Don liked to say), graced by his daughter Tracey (the Newcomer as he called her in another memorable tune).

Juxtaposition of George Apperley's 1931 painting Canción Malagueña and photo (©Outumuro) of the dancer (bailaora) Eva Yerbabuena

Thursday, December 3

From gossamer wings to bellowed angst

Today, December 3rd, marks the anniversary of the 1947 Broadway opening of Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire”, starring Jessica Tandy as Blanche, Kim Hunter as Stella and Marlon Brando as Stanley.

I do not know if by coincidence (no mention is made of the anniversary) but today’s New York Times ( carries a review by Ben Brantley of the new production of Streetcar, directed by Liv Ullman, and now running at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Harvey Theater through December 20th. Brantley calls it a ‘heart-stopping production’, largely on the strength of Cate Blanchett’s performance as Blanche DuBois, saying the Australian actress “soars spectacularly on the gossamer wings of fantasies that allow her character to live with herself”.

The review is one of the most glowing I’ve seen in some time, especially of Ms. Blanchett, and I’ll quote Mr. Brantley at length. He briefly recalls other stage versions of the Blanche character to frame his discussion of what Cate Blanchett has brought to the role:
Most interpretations I’ve seen of Blanche, Tennessee Williams’s greatest contribution to dramatic portraiture, ride the glistening surface of the character’s poetry, turning Blanche into a lyric, fading butterfly waiting for the net to descend.
What Ms. Blanchett brings to the character is life itself, a primal survival instinct that keeps her on her feet long after she has been buffeted by blows that would level a heavyweight boxer.
Yet there’s a see-sawing between strength and fragility in Blanche, and too often those who play her fall irrevocably onto one side or another.
All the baggage that any “Streetcar” usually travels with has been jettisoned. Ms. Ullmann and Ms. Blanchett have performed the play as if it had never been staged before, with the result that, as a friend of mine put it, “you feel like you’re hearing words you thought you knew pronounced correctly for the first time.”
Followed by an interesting observation on the different perspective possibly provided on this icon of American culture by two “outsiders”:

This newly lucid production of a quintessentially American play comes to us via a Norwegian director, best known as an actress in the brooding Swedish films of Ingmar Bergman, and an Australian movie star, famous for impersonating historical figures like Elizabeth I and Katharine Hepburn. Blessed perhaps with an outsider’s distance on an American cultural monument, Ms. Ullmann and Ms. Blanchett have, first of all, restored Blanche to the center of “Streetcar.”
Ever since Brando set Broadway abuzz in the original stage production in 1947, Stanley — the young, ruthless sexual animal who is married to Blanche’s sister, Stella — has usually been presented as Blanche’s equal, in terms of both thematic import and star presence. But Ms. Ullmann’s production makes it clear that in “Streetcar” it is Blanche who evolves, struggles and falls as heroes classically have.
This Blanche is no passive victim. She knows herself painfully well, which makes her both funnier and sadder than most Blanches. Always, though, we are aware of her knowing that standing up and staying sane are merely provisional; she could topple over at any second. That delicate balance assumes its most wrenching form in her climactic face-off with Stanley, as Blanche tries to defy not only her predatory brother-in-law but also the drunkenness that keeps pulling her to the floor. Gravity is not on her side.
No one, of course, is lonelier than Blanche, and her valiant battle against that condition lends this “Streetcar” a poignancy that, by the end, slides into full pathos. Our last vision of this Blanche is, like our first, of a ghost, if by ghost we mean someone defeated by life. But an image of warmth remains, like the afterglow of an extinguished flame, of the life poured into one woman’s last stand against a fate that is uniquely her own and somehow ours as well.
Garrison Keillor, on the other hand, does note the anniversary of Streetcar’s Broadway premiere (as well as Joseph Conrad’s birthday). At his Writer’s Almanac site (, Keillor discusses the play and some of the pressures faced in making a movie out of what was then considered a shocking display of “sexuality and sexual violence onstage”.

And he ends with what strikes me as hilarious anecdote about an annual literary festival dedicated to Tennessee Williams:

Every spring in New Orleans, there is a Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival, which next year will take place on March 24–28. The Festival features panels, readings, music, acting competitions, writing workshops, and the final and most famous event of this particular literary festival: the "Stella shouting contest," also known as the "Stell-off." In this competition, participants get a chance to imitate Marlon Brando in his famous scene where he passionately yells "Stelllllaaaaa!" from beneath his wife's window, begging her to return to him after he has beaten her. A few women participate in the shouting contest, some of them shouting "Stanley" instead of "Stella," but mostly the contestant are men. They have to bellow "Stella" (or "Stanley") three times, and there are points for how loud the shouting is but also for how angsty and passionate, how true to Marlon Brando. Many men outfit themselves in a white tank top like Brando wore in the play.
All I can say is that I trust the ‘Stell-off’ is the decibel, but decidedly not the literary, highpoint of the gathering.

Well, not sure how I got from Cate Blanchett soaring spectacularly on gossamer wings to wannabe Stanley Kowalski Brandos bellowing angst and passion, but it’s been good fun. Which is what you can usually have if you visit The Writer’s Almanac site. An added plus is the daily podcast where you can hear Garrison Keillor reading the day’s featured poem and spinning a yarn or two.

Odyssey of the Great Dream

Poetry Daily ( is an "anthology of contemporary poetry" that each day publishes a new poem culled from a variety of sources. This past November 24th, their featured journal was the Sewanee Review (, from which they drew this wrenching and powerful poem by R.T. Smith.


When Odysseus descended to the underworld
and crossed the dark river to learn the key
to his destiny, he poured the ritual milk and honey,
the wine and barley and blood to summon the dead,
but he never expected to find his mother among
the shadows who were filled with mist and sifted
with the wind which had no source. He had thought
her alive and back in Ithaca expecting his return.
He had assumed the worst ordeals were his own.
But, when he reached out, shivering as he wept,
to embrace the ghost, that wanderer found
no substance, no flesh nor blood nor bone,
and he must have felt as I did that first time home
when my mother's mind had begun to wander
and she disremembered not only the laughter,
the lightning-struck chinaberry, the sunset
peaches and fireflies and the sharp smell
of catfish frying, but also her name and the fact
that she was sitting in her kitchen of fifty years
beside my father who stood there straining
not to wring his hands or surrender to the tears
welling around his eyes. She gathered her purse,
her hat and wrap, then said, Please drive me home
before strangers take every damned thing I own.
Her eyes glaucous with terror, she was exhausted
and desperate, almost herself, "an empty, flitting
shade," as Homer says it, uncertain in her haze
whether she was moving toward or away
from what might be called the Great Dream.
When she sobbed and cried, Where is my son?,
I, too, felt bewildered, and not even a seer
from the land of night and frost and smoke
could tell me what words would amount
to comfort, nor which constellation to steer by,
nor where all this heart-sorrow might end.