Sunday, December 26

Christmas birdsong

prayers felt in hearts
that minds command lips
never to utter
will nest in throats
awaiting the day
they take flight on song 
Today is that day, my friends: sing your hearts out!

Merry Christmas from me and Ray Charles ...

For a stirring gospel version of Silent Night by Ray Charles and the Jubilation Gospel Choir of Newark, New Jersey, click here.

Friday, December 24

Silent Night

To be loved means to be ablaze. To love is: to cast light with inexhaustible oil. To be loved is to pass away; to love is to last ... Rainer Maria Rilke

Tonight, on Christmas Eve, I wish all my blog friends much light, inexhaustible oil, love and everlasting hope on this holiday and always.

Sunday, December 19

Dicebamus hesterna die ...

Statue of Fray Luis de León at the Universidad de Salamanca
Photo: Jan Mariën

The expression decíamos ayer (in Latin: dicebamus hesterna die or "we were saying yesterday") is used in Spain when one wishes to make passing acknowledgement of a long silence or absence without actually discussing or even mentioning the interruption. It dates back to the 16th century poet, scholar and humanist, Fray Luis de León, a friar of the Augustinian order who studied at the venerable University of Salamanca and then went on to hold chairs there in philosophy, religion and biblical studies. It is said that he would always begin his lectures with those now famous words, dicebamus hesterna die, we were saying yesterday ...

In the 1570s he ran afoul of the Spanish Inquisition for, amongst other heresies, his translation and commentary on that sensual Solomonic book from the Old Testament, Song of Songs. The accusations soon landed the poet in prison, where he continued to write and study as best he could in the harsh conditions and isolation. After four years of confinement his name was cleared and he was allowed to resume teaching at the university. Needless to say, the university was astir with tense excitement when he returned for his first class. Legend has it that he stepped to the lectern before the expectant students and simply began his lecture with his classic dicebamus hesterna die and then continued the lesson with no mention of his forced absence of four years.

* * *

So, where were we yesterday? Ah yes, Miguel Hernández... Actually, after this break of more than one month from the blog, today I wanted to share some rambling thoughts and musings before returning to the series on Miguel Hernández another day.

The first thing that comes to mind is an etheree, a poem form unknown to me until just a few days ago, when I saw it mentioned by a blog friend. Basically an etheree is a 10 line poem, the first line of one syllable, the second with two, third with three, and so on until the 10-syllable last line. No rhyme or set meter. Here is mine ...

Caught always

eyes would
always catch
on the knot in
his mother’s rosary,
in much the way her voice
always caught on father’s name
ever since the fire at the inn
where he always stopped on the way home
to catch some beers and worry-polished songs.
                                                                   © Lorenzo — Alchemist's Pillow

Of course, for purposes of the form I have counted the syllables as they are pronounced, not as they are written ('polished' as two, 'stopped' as one), and chosen to say 'rosary' as two instead of three syllables, and 'fire' as one. Which brings to mind an observation the poet Robert Pinsky makes in his excellent book, The Sounds of Poetry: A Brief Guide, that fire can be pronounced as one or two syllables and, if you are from the South, as three or even four.

And leaving form aside and looking at content, on seeing rosary, inn, beers and songs, I realize that this week's visit to Dublin has seeped into my blog. One of the many highlights of my three days in the wonderful city of James Joyce, Yeats, Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, Johnathan Swift and so many others was the last night at The Brazen Head, the oldest pub in Ireland, dating back to 1198. That's right, no typo — 1198. Over eight centuries. In fact, they have posted signs advertising their New Year's Eve Party, inviting guests to "join us as we celebrate the 813th year of our existence". That does give one pause.

Musicians in one corner of the packed Brazen Head pub this past Monday.

Sunday, November 14

Gather this voice ...

This is part of a series of posts commemorating Spanish poet Miguel Hernández on the occasion of his centenary (30 October 2010). For more background and previous posts on the man about whom Pablo Neruda said "his was the face of Spain", click on the sketch of him by Benjamín Palencia on the sidebar to the right.

Miguel's poetry and struggle still alive in Spain.
A poster of Miguel Hernández at a Madrid protest against
political, media and judicial persecution of crusading
magistrate Baltasar Garzón, a judge who has vigorously
worked for recovering the memory and rights of victims
of the Franco-era repression (April 2010, photo LLL).
After having mentioned Pablo Neruda's recollections of his friend Miguel Hernández in a previous post in this series, today I want to feature a tribute to Hernández penned by the Mexican writer Octavio Paz, Nobel Laureate for Literature (1990, see his bio at the Nobel Prize website). Octavio Paz first met Miguel Hernández in 1937 when visiting Spain to participate in the International Congress of Anti-Fascist Writers in the midst of the Spanish Civil War. This piece was written in November 1942, just a few months after Hernández had succumbed to tuberculosis in woeful conditions in a Spanish penitentiary, while serving out a 30 year prison term, which had been commuted from a death sentence. His 'crime' was none other than his active support for the democratically elected Spanish Republic against the military uprising led by Franco that brought on the Spanish Civil War from 1936 to 1939.

It is titled Recoged esa Voz (Gather this Voice):

In a prison in the village of his birth, Orihuela, Miguel Hernández has died. He died alone, in a hostile Spain that has become enemy of the Spain where he lived out his youth, adversary of the Spain that rang with his generosity. Let others curse his torturers; let others analyze and study his poetry. I want to remember him.

I first encountered him singing songs of the Spanish people, in 1937. He spoke in a low voice, a bit untrained, a bit like an innocent animal: sounding like the countryside, like a deep echo repeating through the valleys, like a stone falling from a cliff. He had dark eyes, hazel and clear, not twisted or intellectual; his mouth, like his hands and his heart, was large and, like them, simple and fleshy, made of mud by pure and clumsy hands; of average height, sort of robust, he was agile, with agility born of the blood and the muscles, with the agile gravity of the earthly; one could see he was more akin to the somber colts and the melancholy bullocks than to his tormented intellectual companions; he kept his head almost shaved and wore corduroy pants and espadrilles; he looked like a soldier or a farmer. In the lobby of that hotel in Valencia, full of smoke, of vanity and, also, of rightful passion. Miguel Hernández sang with his deep voice and his singing was as if all the trees were singing. It was as if one tree, the tree of a nascent and millenary Spain, were beginning to sing its song anew. Not the poplar, not the olive tree, nor the oak, not the apple, nor the orange, but all of those together, fusing their saps, their smells and their leaves in this tree of flesh and voice. It is impossible to remember him in words; more than in memory, “in the flavor of time he is written”.

Later I heard him recite poems of love and war. Through verses —and I cannot say now how they were or what those verses said— as if through a curtain of luxurious light, one could hear a moaning or lowing, one could hear the death throes of a tender and powerful animal, a bull perhaps, dying in the afternoon, raising its eyes astonished toward the passive, ghost-like spectators. And now I don’t want to remember him anymore, now that I remember him so well. I know that we were friends; that we walked amid the ruins of Madrid and of Valencia, at night, near the sea, or the intricate side streets; I know that he liked to climb trees and eat watermelon, in taverns frequented by soldiers; I know that later I saw him in Paris and that his presence was like a ray of sunlight, a shock of wheat, in the black city. I remember everything, but I don’t want to remember … I don’t want to remember you, Miguel, great friend of so few days, miraculous and outside of time, days of passion, when I discovered you, as I discovered Spain, and I discovered a part of myself, a rough and tender root, that made me both larger and more ancient. Let others remember you. Let me forget you, because forgetting is pure and true, forgetting our good times gives us the strength to continue living in this world of compromises and reverences, of salutes and ceremonies, fetid and rotting. Let me forget you, so that in this forgetting your voice can continue to grow, stolen now from your body and in the memory of those of us who knew you, free and tall on the wind, unchained from time and from your misery.

Mexico, 1942 (translated by Ted Genoways)
As noted by the translator, Ted Genoways, to understand Paz's statement above that "...I cannot say now how they were or what those verses said", it is important to know that Miguel Hernández's war poems had been banned in Spain and were largely unavailable.

Octavia Paz & Elena Garro, Spain, 1937.
Accompanying Octavia Paz on the 1937 trip to Spain was his 17-year old wife, Elena Garro. In fact, the trip was part of their honeymoon. Sadly, Garro is a rather obscure writer, even though some critics and historians consider her novel Los recuerdos del porvenir (Recollections of Things to Come) as one of the very first works of 'magical realism'. She wrote it in the 1950s and published it in 1963, four years before Gabriel García Marquez's seminal Cien Años de Soledad (One Hundred Years of Solitude). In 1992, she published a memoir of her time in Spain, Memorias de España 1937, in which she discussed meeting Miguel Hernández, Pablo Neruda, Pablo Casals, Alejo Carpentier and others.

Friday, November 12

Museum shutterbugging

I recently returned from a very rewarding visit with family and friends in New Jersey, the first time in three years that I have been back home (yes the term still applies, more than 25 years after leaving for Spain). One of the highlights was a trip with my mother to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, a first for me. My great pleasure in strolling through the magnificent "European Art 1850-1900" section of their permanent collection was very much enhanced by being able to take photographs there. You see, in Spain, and in most of Europe as far as I have been able to find, taking photos inside museums is strictly prohibido. While I agree that flash photography of works of art should be prohibited, the only reason I can see for not allowing non-flash non-professional photographs of anything, even the text signs that accompany and describe paintings and exhibits, is commercial, namely, to boost the museum's sales of catalogues and reproductions of the art works.

So on this visit to the museum, my usual slow dawdling amble through the galleries and rooms was reduced to a snail-paced crawl with camera in hand. But I was one happy snail. More than head-on individual photos of the paintings, what particularly captured my optic fancy was being able to snap the paintings and sculptures in context, from different angles to frame them in the company of their illustrious art siblings and neighbours.

Despite her fame for fearlessness, Marcello's bronze Pythian Sibyl seems frightened of the larkspurs in Henri Fantin-Latour's 1891 oil panting. Here's a question for you: what might dolphins have to do with both of these works of art? For a fascinating essay on this work and the sculptress who produced it, Marcello (Duchesse de Castiglione-Colonna, born Adele d'Affry), see this article in the journal Nineteenth-Century Art Worldwide.

This room featured a curious triptych composed of Adriano Cecioni's 1868 bronze Boy With a Rooster and Auguste Rodin's The Thinker framing Thomas Eakins' Crucifixion ...

Startled and afraid, the crying child closes his eyes and holds on for dear life to his crowing dawns. No one had yet told him that paradise had been lost, that the true paradises are the paradises we have lost (Proust).

Meanwhile, naked with his thoughts, the thinker is pondering what the difference might be, if any, between Christ dying on the cross to save humanity and humanity crucifying Christ to save itself (in the words of Antonio Machado).

Rodin, Renoir, mom.

I love this photograph, although I may be opening myself to the critique that I have harnessed here the classic female triumvirate of the male imagination: voluptuous nude, washerwoman, mother. Oh well, so be it...

Sunday, November 7

A salt-wizened truth between blue and singing

This is part of a series of posts commemorating Spanish poet Miguel Hernández on the occasion of his centenary (30 October 2010). For more background and previous posts on the man of whom his friend Pablo Neruda proclaimed "his was the face of Spain", click on the sketch of him by Benjamín Palencia on the sidebar to the right.

Prison portrait of Miguel Hernández
by Antonio Buero Vallejo
 The portrait to the left is probably the 'classic' image of the man known in his lifetime as the goatherd poet, the poet of the people, the poet of the revolution. It was drawn while he was in prison, by one of his cellmates, the playwright Antonio Buero Vallejo, who, like Miguel, was sentenced to death for his support for the Spanish Republic before and during the Civil War. Unlike Miguel Hernández, Buero Vallejo did manage to make it out of prison alive, after spending six years behind bars. It is signed and dated (January 25, 1940). Click here for more on Buero Vallejo.

In 1933, Miguel Hernández wrote a short piece entitled Mi concepto del poema ('My Idea of a Poem').

What is a poem? A beautiful affected lie. An insinuated truth. Only by insinuating it will a truth not appear a lie. A truth as precious and hidden as anything from a mine. One needs to be a miner of poems to see in its Ethiopias of darkness its Indias of light. A salt-wizened truth situated between blue and singing. Who sees that the sea in truth is white? Nobody. Nevertheless it exists, it flutters, it alludes in its sculpted spume to the color of the crescent moon. The clear sea — would it be as beautiful as its secret if it were suddenly clarified? Its greater beauty lies in its secrecy. The poem cannot present itself to us as either Venus or naked. Naked poems have only the anatomy of poems. And who could make something more horrible than a bare skeleton? Guard, poets, the secret of the poem: a sphinx. Let them learn to tear it away like bark from a tree. Oh, like the orange: what a delicious secret under its planetary circumference! Except in the case of prophetic poetry for which clarity is essential [...] guard yourselves, poets, against fruits without skins, seas without salt. The poem has to work as with the Holy Sacrament .... When will the poet come with a poem in his fingers, like a priest with the host, saying "Here is GOD" and we will believe it? (translated by Ted Genoways)

Saturday, November 6

Conversation Piece

Rex Stewart, photo by
David Redfern/Redferns, Gettyimages
Cornetist Rex Stewart was a mainstay of the Duke Ellington orchestra in the 1930s and 40s and much loved in the jazz world for the half-valve effects and the playful and plaintive muted wah-wah blowing he brought to his wonderful soloing. Much less known or heralded was his skill as a screenwriter. This neglect has now been righted by the BBC-produced video vignette I am embedding below, featuring dialogue written by Rex Stewart. Though only a few minutes long, the piece manages to combine intrigue and suspense, humor and tension in a domestic drama, which I am sure many of us can relate to: a bit of bathos, a peck of pathos, more than a touch of tension, a lot of fun and some riveting husband and wife dialogue.

I suggest you turn up the volume on your speakers and watch the short clip in the full screen version (by clicking on the rectangular icon all the way on the right near the bottom of the video) ...

Imagine Ingmar Bergman's Scenes from a Marriage if the Swedish master had signed Rex Stewart up to do the screenplay. As I scan my eyes over my prized collection of hundreds and thousands of jazz records and CDs, I am thrilled by the possibilities this brilliant little film opens up. Indeed, I don't think that María and I will ever have another spat again without first putting one of those records on the turntable.

There is an interesting website on the film, including the script, director's notes and more. Click here to see it.
I first saw this film on Donna's Elements of Jazz website which I learned of through National Public Radio's A Blog Supreme / NPR Jazz (highly recommended).

Tuesday, November 2

Eternity is in love with the productions of time ...

If the author of this quote, William Blake, was right, eternity must be building up a great fondness for Esperanza Spalding. The young bassist, vocalist and composer has certainly been making quite a splash in the jazz world in the last couple of years. She has a fresh and soulful command of the acoustic bass, impeccable time, a beautiful voice and singing style, and is a compelling performer, seemingly wise much beyond her years (just turned 26).

The PBS art blog that I follow and am always eager to recommend recently featured the young artist from Portland, Oregon. I am embedding a clip below of her performance of a piece called 'Little Fly', in which she sets William Blake's poem 'The Fly' to music.

So, what do you think: how cool is Esperanza (whose name means "hope" in Spanish)? Here is the Blake poem.

I was particularly taken by her explanation of how she came to compose this piece, a poem that she pasted up on her desk and then macerated in her imagination for years. You can hear for yourselves in the video below ...

I'll close with a well-known and always timely scrap of verse from William Blake ...

To see a world in a grain of sand
and heaven in a wild flower
Hold infinity in the palms of your hand
and eternity in an hour.

Monday, November 1

Milking a goat and a dream ...

Yesterday was the 100th birthday of Spanish poet, Miguel Hernández, born October 30, 1910. I discussed this much loved goatherd-cum-poet in an earlier post featuring one of his poems. For more background, the Poetry Foundation has an excellent biographical essay, including links to English translations of several of his poems.

Hernández is not as widely known outside of Spain as his contemporaries and fellow poets Federico García Lorca, Antonio Machado, Rafael Alberti, who like him, were supporters of the Spanish Republic in the 1930s and victims, in one way or another, of the Franco-led military coup that overthrew the Republic and imposed a 40 year dictatorship. It is no accident that Miguel Hernández is not well known outside Spain. It was meant that way. His life was taken away cruelly soon in 1942 and many of his works were routinely censored until after the dictator’s death in 1975.

The triumphant Franco forces initially condemned him to death for his open and active support for the Republic ('adhesion a la rebelión' read the death sentence), but then commuted his sentence to 30 years imprisonment. The poet did not last more than three, however, and died of tuberculosis in hideous conditions in 1942 at the age of 31. The harrowing tale of his three years in jail, malicious neglect, lack of medicine and adequate medical care is one of the most heartbreaking and infuriating stories in the history of Spanish letters, woefully emblematic of the tragedy of the Spanish Civil War and its long miserable aftermath.

Pablo Neruda

Pablo Neruda was a close friend of Hernandez’s and worked to ensure the man and his poetry would not be forever swallowed up in the dark pit of Francoism. In his words, “Miguel Hernández disappeared in darkness; to remember him and to do so in the full light of day is Spain’s duty, it is a duty of love”.

So in that spirit of dutiful love, I will do a series of posts on Miguel Hernández, largely based on the current centenary exhibition at the National Library of Spain in Madrid. It is the most complete such collection of materials on the poet ever, with scores of manuscripts of his poems, including some of the very earliest, many other documents (from his school report cards to his arrest record, death sentence, death certificate, censorship orders decades after his death), photographs, paintings, testimonials from Neruda and others, and much more. Many of the images in the series are taken from the catalogue for the show, Miguel Hernández: La Sombra Vencida (The Defeated Shadow), published by the Spanish Ministry of Culture.

I am inserting here a photo of what may be the earliest poem for which a manuscript survives, written in 1924 at the age of 13 or 14. It is hard to describe the knotted-throat silence with which most people react to seeing this scrawled manuscript on one of the first walls in the exhibition. I had certainly never seen it before and cannot imagine any one short verse that could tell more about who Miguel Hernández was, his life and his poetry than that very first line written as a schoolchild:

En cuclillas, ordeño
una cabrita y un sueño
(Crouching, I milk
a goat and a dream)

And here is a photo of the boy poet taken in the same year as he milked those lines and dreams from his chores as goatherd.

I will close with some more quotes from Pablo Neruda on Miguel (you will please excuse the intimacy here, but that is how he is known in Spain, by his first name, just as his friend Lorca is known simply as Federico). In his Memoirs, Confieso Que He Vivido (I Confess that I Have Lived), Neruda recalls his first impression of the poet from Orihuela. “The young poet Miguel Hernández was one of Federico and Alberti’s friends. I met him when he came up, in espadrilles and the typical corduroy trousers peasants wear, from his native Orihuela”. He describes Miguel as having an “aura of earthiness” with “a face like a clod of earth or a potato that has just been pulled from among the roots and still has its subterranean freshness”.

In a 1966 interview with poet Robert Bly, Neruda recalled a telling incident from a night in 1934 when taking a walk with Miguel in Madrid:
I said to him that I had never heard a nightingale, because no nightingales exist in my country. You see, it is too cold for nightingales in my country; and then he said, “Oh, you’ve never heard …” and he climbed up a tree and he whistled like a nightingale from very high up. Then he climbed down and ran to another tree and climbed up and made another whistle like a nightingale, a different one.
This seemingly visceral and spiritual connection to the earth, nightingales, trees and goats projected by Hernández was memorably and movingly recalled by Neruda in another anecdote from his memoirs about this newfound friend:
He would tell me how exciting it was to put your ear against the belly of a sleeping she-goat. You could hear the milk coursing down to the udders, a secret sound no one but the poet of goats has been able to listen to.
I’ll close with Estrella Morente singing this beautiful 'Tangos del Chavico' about a certain little goat (un cabrito):

The Neruda quotes are taken from The Selected Poems of Miguel Hernández, Bilingual Edition, edited by Ted Genoways and published by The University of Chicago Press in 2001.

Wednesday, October 20

Summer snippets — Cádiz

Sanlúcar de Barrameda, Augusto 2010, sandcombers, horses and jockeys.

hooves churning foamed sand
the sea pulls away from shore
gulls cry songs of salt

The photo is from a horse race I saw this August on the beach in Sanlúcar de Barrameda, where the Guadalquivir river flows into the Atlantic. Sanlúcar is a delightful town in the Andalusian province of Cádiz, in southern Spain. In addition to these waterfront competitions that it has been hosting for nearly 180 years, the town is famed for its wonderful manzanilla (the delicate local variety of the pale dry fino sherry), stately mansions and great cuisine, highlighted by perhaps the best prawns your teeth and taste buds could ever tuck into. I was able to sample generous helpings of all of these on a brief but rewarding visit this summer while getting acquainted with the ancient city of Cádiz and its surrounds.

A few more photos ...

Both of these photos are from last year's races and are taken from the website (Spanish).

The races must be held at low tide, so the starting times vary.

Where horses race, gamblers follow. One tradition associated with these races is to have children organize and run betting stands for other children. Yes, that is how we encourage the entrepreneurial spirit amongst the young here in Spain. These two sisters are taking bets on the next race. When is the last time you saw a bookie with a lollipop?

There is a love of horses and horsemanship in this part of Spain. Even the merry-go-rounds are low-tech and labor intensive. Why use plastic horsies when the real things are so abundantly available?

Let's leave Sanlúcar and head off to the provincial capital, Cádiz, founded by the Phoenicians around 3000 years ago, making it the oldest continuously lived in city on the Iberian peninsula and probably all of southwestern Europe. The old quarters stand on a narrow peninsula jutting out into the sea, so there are fabulous views of the ocean and the bay from all over the city. The sky, sea and sun-ripened horizon seemingly permeate everything in and about the city, its whitewashed homes, art, music, food, the laughter of its residents. The light and the air it inhabits seem different in Cádiz than anywhere else, tinged gold and silver, depending on the time of day and slant of eyes and mood, scented with sea salt or jasmine, depending on the season and direction of the wind. I can think of no better place to become schooled and wise in the ways and nuances of sea breezes. Sailing is key to the city’s history and sails and zephyrs waft constantly through the popular imagination, speech and songs of its people. Indeed, Columbus set out for the New World just around 60 miles northwest from here, and the city had its golden age in the 18th century when the Guadalquivir river passage to Sevilla silted up and Cádiz inherited the Andalusian capital’s place as main port for trade with the Americas.

A zen master of Cádiz sea breezes ...

One of the best known gaditanos, as the people of Cádiz are known, is the poet Rafael Alberti, born just across the bay in El Puerto de Santa María in 1902. At the time of his death on 28 October 1999, Alberti had become the last surviving member of the group of poets known as the “Generation of ‘27”, which included Federico García Lorca, Jorge Guillén, Vicente Aleixandre, Luis Cernuda, along with fellow travelers painter Salvador Dalí, filmmaker Luis Buñuel, poet Miguel Hernandéz and, farther afield, Chile’s Pablo Neruda and Argentina´s Jorge Luis Borges. Rafael Alberti fled the country in 1939, driven out by Franco’s victory in the Civil War, and spent nearly four decades in exile in Argentina, Paris and Rome before returning to Spain in 1977 after the dictator’s death.

Below you will find an Alberti poem about a wayward dove, Se equivocó la paloma, side-by-side with an English translation. As you will see, it is one of his simpler poems; but simple does not mean easily translatable, as you will also find. Its gentle musicality is nearly impossible to render in English.

The translation is largely based on the one published by José A. Elgorriaga & Martin Paul in the book: The Other Shore: 100 Poems by Rafael Alberti, Kosmos. I have made some changes to the translation, not with the pretence of improving it, but with the desire to personalize it, to make the poem 'mine' so to speak. I think all poems that touch us call on us to make them 'ours', to read them as if we wrote them, as if we are writing them with each reading and hearing. Perhaps it is just a matter of being open to having the poems write themselves into us. I have gotten helpful input on the translation from a friend whom I will leave unnamed here but not unthanked.
As an added treat, you get to hear Rafael Alberti himself reciting it. The poem has been set to music by Carlos Guastavino and the singer Rosa León chimes in movingly at the end. I encourage you to reread the poem, while listening to Alberti’s warm burnished recital.

And for an even more musical treatment, I am embedding below a version of the song by the much loved singer and songwriter Mercédes Sosa, la Negra, the "voice of the voiceless", whose own voice sadly left us just over a year ago now.

In closing, I will post links to two other moving versions of the poem-song, which I would embed here but do not wish to abuse your patience. For a more ‘classical’ treatment click here for a stirring rendition by tenor Martias Mariani, with Valerie MacPhail on piano, accompanied by a sumptuous slideshow. And for my personal favorite, you can find here the audio of a powerful rendering of Alberti’s serendipitous dove by one of the great flamenco voices of our time, Carmen Linares. I suggest you open Carmen's audio in a separate page by pressing the Ctrl key while clicking on the link, starting the audio and then reading the poem again.

Tuesday, October 5

Pondering a lamp New Englandly ...

This week, willow of Life at Willow Manor has used the photo to the left as visual prompt for her creative writing blog, 'magpie tales'. For some reason, in my mind the lamp has conjured up the image of Emily Dickinson, perhaps because she is said to have written so many of her poems by lamplight. So, although I do not have anything in the way of my own ‘creative writing’ to offer for the lamp, I am embedding a beautiful video excerpt from a very promising new documentary on Emily Dickinson called Seeing New Englandly. Written and narrated by the poet Susan Sinvely and produced by Ernest Urvater, under the auspices of the Emily Dickinson Museum, the film had its first public showing just last week.

I learned of this film from Maureen E. Doallas’s bountiful blog Writing Without Paper, which I enthusiastically recommend to everyone. In addition to being a fine poet herself, Maureen is a treasure trove of information and links to the worlds of painting, dance, theatre, art, poetry, photography and much, much more. Her daily posts overflow with such treats. A case in point is her recent post on Emily Dickinson, where in addition to the video embedded below you can find a wealth of resources on the beloved poetess from Amherst, Massachusetts. Thanks so much, Maureen.

Seeing New Englandly (opening) from Ernest Urvater on Vimeo.

To see what other ‘magpie tales’ participants have seen by the light of this lamp, click here.

* * *

I am honored to have been named Blogger of Note at the Words of Wisdom blog (WOW) for October 6th. I would like to thank Sandy and Pam, the kind and energetic souls behind that excellent meeting place dedicated to allowing bloggers who "enjoy reading and writing great content to find each other", and extend a warm welcome to new readers visiting my blog for the first time from WOW.

Sandy and Pam have asked me to provide links to three posts here that I think might interest new visitors to the alchemist’s pillow. So here goes …

For readers interested in my poetry you can read Dream shavings  or Making a rainstick. For writing on Spanish society and culture, I would suggest my post of this past Saturday, Tertuliante por excelencia. And if you are interested in humor, try My braggadocio screeches louder than your braggadocio.

Also, if you would like to know a little bit more about the blogger behind the lapis lazuli elephant, I recommend the interview I did just a few days ago with by my much esteemed blog friend Bonnie at her Original Art Studio.

But that’s enough about me; if you like, leave a comment and I will try to return the visit to your blog.

I would like to thank Joanny of the blog Live, Dream, Love for having nominated me as a WOW Blogger of Note. In addition to being an inspired blogger herself, Joanny has been a kind and supportive friend for nearly as long as I have been writing here on the alchemist’s pillow. Thanks Joanny.

So to one and all, welcome to the alchemist’s pillow, please make yourself at home, look around and enjoy your visit here …

Saturday, October 2

Tertuliante por excelencia ...

Literary tertulia

Tertuliante por excelencia. Those of who do not know Spanish may nevertheless surmise that the last two words mean what in English is called ‘par excellence’ (from the French). And tertuliante? Well, simply, a person who engages in tertulias.

So, what then, Lorenzo, is a tertulia?

Ah, so glad you asked. It is a term that encapsulates one of the most attractive features of Spanish culture and a favorite pastime of my own. Though impossible to capture its meaning in a single English word, you can basically think of it as a cross between a literary salon and a coffee klatch, with some of the lofty focus of the former and the relaxed friendly informality of the latter; not as fusty as the salon, a bit less gossipy than the chat circle. No dissertations, no bellyaching about mothers-in-law. Neither overly high-brow nor too low-brow, but just-right-brow, themed chitchat amongst friends.

The history of Spanish poetry, literature, painting, philosophy and cultural movements and currents in general would be unrecognizable without tertulias. Madrid is dotted with the wonderful cafes, taverns, bars and restaurants that hosted such gatherings in the 19th century and much of the 20th (although the term and practice dates back centuries earlier). Sadly, some of those locales have disappeared, and others have become pricey tourist watering holes, but something abides nonetheless. How could it not, when we are talking about tables and bars frequented nearly everyday over decades by some of the country’s greatest playwrights, poets, composers, painters, philosophers, actors, journalists…?

Café del espejo 1845 — Museo de Historia de Madrid
But more than give a tour and history of those delightful spots (I’ll do that in person if you come out here), what I wanted to briefly discuss here is how this pastime of leading lights of Spanish culture spread to the rest of the society. For one did not have to write poems like Lorca or novels like Valle-Inclán to participate in a tertulia. All it takes is a bit of free time and the desire to while it away on a regular basis in a café in the warm company of like-minded friends to discuss a subject of common interest, be it literature, art, bullfighting, music, dance…

And the term has come to host what for me is a luxurious mainstay of Spanish culture, the habit of following all good meals with relaxed conversation, where no clocks tick, and our attention is wholly trained on the voices and banter of our fellow tertuliantes. It is still considered somewhat uncouth for a waiter to pressure diners to wind down the talk, pay and clear the table. I have never seen a “Don’t loiter” sign in Spain, and would have trouble translating the term and explaining the concept behind it for my Spanish friends. I have seen, however, and even been embarrassed by my role in, the almost heroic patience of tired waiters and cooks, holding their growing exasperation on a short stoic leash while standing by and waiting for after-dinner tertulias that just refuse to wind down and stretch well beyond any reasonable work hours. Just try that in a New York City restaurant.

Spain has always struck me as a very conversational culture. There is a love of words, especially the spoken word. After all, most of the people here do adhere to a faith whose sacred text begins “In the beginning was the Word”. Words are important, talk matters. Although when taken to the extreme of all-talk, no-action, it can feel hollow, or when spilled over into the terrain of gossip, it may grate, the notion of the art of conversation still has an important place. More than a can-do society, this is a let’s-talk culture. Since, traditionally, in towns and cities, homes were smaller than families, this need and love for conversation is largely indulged in semi-private nooks of public places, in bars, cafés, taverns, restaurants.

Bar Viva Madrid
Alas, Spain and the rest of the world are changing, Spain perhaps faster than most places. The busy-busy of everyday life is chipping away at the institution of the tertulia. Youngsters SMS text more than converse. Wrds r luzn letrs n chrm. Living always on the run and instant messaging are hustling wordy banter from the table. Many restaurants now want to slot in two or even three dinner parties one right after another at every table. The previously unthinkable ‘no loitering’ signs at cafés may not be far behind.

But blogging strikes me as a seat at a cyber-tertulia. And that is what this whole post is actually about, an introduction to a tertuliante por excelencia. I am referring to Bonnie of Original Art Studio, one of the coziest and most spiritually nourishing café tertulias out there. Whether taking us for a walk in her garden, or a look at her art work and photography, on incursions into the world of psychology and philosophy, or along on her spirited and spiritual forays, Bonnie’s blog always makes for rewarding reading. Hers is a restive and questing mind and she has much to say and teach and show, yet never preaches, proselytizes or pontificates.

And, above all, and this is what makes her such a tertuliante extraordinaire, she has the art of conversation. Often, blog comments are little more than appreciative admiring quips, or brief references to some point made on the blog post. But Bonnie always seems to want to make it a conversation, not a quipfest. She has a knack for drawing people out (she is a psychotherapist, after all) on her own blog and participates actively on the blogs of others, with exchanges that can grow into two, three or several more ‘comments’ by each tertuliante. Seeing the fascinating conversations that result between her and George of Transit Notes, Ruth of synch-ro-ni-zing, Robert of Solitary Walker and others, always makes for stimulating talk, enlightening conversation and, yes, just plain fun.

In recent days, Bonnie has put a lot of admirable effort into conducting interviews with some bloggers of her choosing. The results have been beautiful. The series has allowed me to meet new bloggers for our virtual tertulias, like Kent of Expat from Hell, Meri of Meri’s Musings and Friko of Friko’s Musings (I will not give links to their individual blogs, you can click through to them from Bonnie’s). Other interviews have helped me get a fuller view of the individuals behind blogs I so enjoy: the ever poetic Ruth of synch-ro-ni-zing, who has lately gotten into the alarming habit of making me fall in love with her every time she posts something new; George of Transit Notes, whose posts seem like one new tour de force of art and words after another; Brian of Waystation One, who seems to grow as a person, blogger, writer, poet and friend every day right before our eyes.

Bodegas Ángel Sierra

And today, Bonnie has posted an interview with yours truly, prefaced by some very kind words about this blog and me. You can read it by clicking here and will understand how touched I am by her thoughtfulness and generosity. I really enjoyed doing this with Bonnie. I know I have been fairly anonymous behind my blog and lapis lazuli elephant, and sort of like it that way. But it has been nice to let her brush aside a veil or two. If you have any questions you would like to put to me, I would be very happy to answer them there in the tertulia over at Bonnie’s Original Art Studio.

So go visit Bonnie and see the interview. Enjoy the other ones. And then stay around after the meal for the conversations that Bonnie, our tertuliante por excelencia, generously hosts, guides and energizes. There’s a seat for you at the tertulia. Pull up a chair. Loitering is allowed and welcomed.

El Parnasillo
The photos of various presentday Madrid cafés and bars associated with famous tertulias are taken from the blog Siete Leguas (in Spanish) with neither the knowledge nor the permission of the photographer/blogger, my friend Vicente. After all, what is he going to do; denounce me at the next gathering of our tertulia?

Monday, September 27

The annual willow bash is almost here ...

Click here for all the fun
I am afraid the rendezvous with all of you have been rather sporadic of late. Please bear with me, but work has been hectic and, more pressingly and enjoyably, I have been busy preparing for The Third Annual Willow Manor Ball organised by our dear friend, willow of life at willow manor. The big affair is scheduled for this Thursday, September 30th, and willow is planning lots of fun for all who attend. For more info, click on the caption of the poster to the left.

A cursory look at my short list of talents and skills will reveal what anyone who knows me will readily tell you: ballroom dancing is not one of my, eerrrhhh, strengths. Indeed, I was thinking of sitting this one out. But how could I resist? The big fling, after all, is put together by the very best blog friend anyone could ever have. Indeed, 10 months ago, when I first began blogging, willow was the very first person to visit, first to comment on my blog and first to sign up as a follower after my bashful pitch for blog friends. Indeed, I think I started most of those first blog posts "Dear willow...", but sheepishly dropped the introduction just before hitting the 'publish post' button. She has been a kind and supportive blog friend ever since. And, more to the point, her own blog is consistently engaging, enriching and stimulating. Willow is one of the finest poets to be found in the blogosphere, as you can see by clicking here. And most beautifully, there are so many other bloggers who will eagerly voice these same sentiments, who make a stop at the willow manor a part of every blog day. The first toast of the night will most certainly be for you, dear willow. "You're the best", to use a favorite and generous expression of yours!

As far as I know, I will be the lone guest from Spain, which strikes me as a bit of a responsibility. So rather than polishing off my foxtrotting or lindyhopping steps, I will try to bring some flamenco flair and fire to the festivities. For the occasion, I have asked the incredible Eva Yerbabuena to be my dance partner. Watch and enjoy the video below, and see that I will certainly have my work cut out for me. So wish me luck and wish willow all the best, today, on the 30th and always. See you there ...

I hope you get as much from this video as I do, although I know it is impossible for this medium, as wonderful as it is, to convey the raw power of such performances. Back in the 1980s and early 90s, before my daughters arrived on stage, I was a regular at various flamenco bars, venues, cellar caverns and hovels in Madrid, much as I had haunted jazz clubs in New York for so many years. I became friends with some of these artists and others kindly tolerated my grateful, fascinated presence. It is beyond me to describe the impact some of those all-night sessions had on me as I watched and listened to some of the finest singers, guitarists and dancers perform for each other, after hours, sometimes until 8 or 9 in the morning or whenever.

Some of the dancers, like Eva Yerbabuena in the video, completely knocked me out. Flamenco music is rhythmically very rich and complex and the rhythms that define the various palos (styles) can be highly sophisticated. Yet that artistry is put at the service of something that at moments seems primal, almost atavistic, the stylized outpouring of a savagery and wildness that can really shake one. I hope you feel a bit of that ferocious artistry in the clip.

Through my friendship with some flamenco guitarists, I was fortunate to be able to sit in, literally, on dance classes at the famous Amor de Dios flamenco dance school in Madrid. Since the dancing is so bound up with the guitar playing and singing, they would actually have guitarists and singers there. These were classes, not rehearsals for a show; yet, they would have two guitarists (teacher and advanced student) and a singer participate in all of the classes. Sitting on the floor while all of this was going on, with the dance instructor and as many as 20 students working on their moves, whirling, pounding, clattering steps, with the thrumming guitars and the singer's plaintive call, all in front of a room-length floor-to-ceiling mirror was a privileged experience I will never forget. I can still feel wave upon wave of those driving rhythms surging up my spine from the spot on the wooden floor where I sat in rapt witness two decades ago.

But, I never did learn to dance … and what all of this has to do with willow’s dance this Thursday, I do not know. Oh well, blame it on Eva Yerbabuena. Check her out.

Saturday, September 18

No milk, no poem

Although the morning program was to write
the great poem, there is no milk in the fridge
and coffee is the mother of all metaphors.

Black coffee is fine for the ostinato
in my veins, but too bitter on the tongue
today for the merlot roots of rose taste buds,

so off to the store for milk and sidewalk
negotiations with apparitions
not written into my grand scheme of things.

A dog harasses his bored tail and barks barks
at his echo in the empty lot lot.
As I step carefully over his shadow

there comes a woman, child in hand, her eyes
meet mine at the corner of glance and pine
as her perfumed hair sails past my silence.

The low sun burns a maple silhouette
onto the bleary screens of my pained eyes;
bleated voices, hidden, call a blurred name.

At the store, a drowsy car coughs and farts.
I discover the shop is locked behind bars,
jailed for some holiday by gleaming grating.

No milk, no morning program, no grand scheme
in the dream of things, just a short walk home
stepping through the yapping shadows of a poem.
   © Lorenzo — Alchemist's Pillow

Photo: Leaf — © BogdanBoev at

Sunday, September 12

Graphite drool

Dream shavings
I read myself to sleep
in the hope of dreaming
myself to life.

I lay in bed with the nightly tome
perched on my chest,
pencil clenched in my teeth,
or clasped between murmuring lips,
always at the ready
to scribble my life’s story
in the margins.

Last night, while I was somewhere
on the swaying gangplank
between nod and slumber,
the tombstone toppled over
onto my brow and startled me
awake and back to life,
the round pencil point
jabbing to within a mere thin lash
of my unbelieving eye.

Thank the gods,
for the dullness of pencils!
For overpopulated margins
of graphite drool!
For the blunt forgiveness of sleep …

This morning, I stand
face to face with the mirror,
hold the razor blade
to my throat
and celebrate
with a smile.

Life is such a close shave.
     © Lorenzo — Alchemist's Pillow

Friday, September 10

Morning ...

Mary Oliver and Percy — photo by Rachel Giese Brown
Today is the birthday of the cherished poetess Mary Oliver (born September 10, 1935). More than a poet, she strikes me as a language of her own, a way of being in this world, a type of Rosetta Stone that can help us see and translate the hieroglyphics nature writes in us and grasp the endless flow of bountiful gifts we receive from her. We need only look and feel and be open to being perpetually amazed. Below I am posting her Morning Poem.

For this birthday banquet, I have teamed her up with Yusef Lateef, the 'gentle giant', and his soulful rendering of his composition Morning. Click on play to listen while reading Morning Poem below.

Enjoy and happy birthday, Mary...

Morning Poem

Every morning
the world
is created.
Under the orange

sticks of the sun
the heaped
ashes of the night
turn into leaves again

and fasten themselves to the high branches ---
and the ponds appear
like black cloth
on which are painted islands

of summer lilies.
If it is your nature
to be happy
you will swim away along the soft trails

for hours, your imagination
alighting everywhere.
And if your spirit
carries within it

the thorn
that is heavier than lead ---
if it's all you can do
to keep on trudging ---

there is still
somewhere deep within you
a beast shouting that the earth
is exactly what it wanted ---

each pond with its blazing lilies
is a prayer heard and answered
every morning,

whether or not
you have ever dared to be happy,
whether or not
you have ever dared to pray.

      from Dream Work (1986) by Mary Oliver
      © Mary Oliver
I also recommend a New York Times article from July of last year titled "The Land and Words of Mary Oliver, the Bard of Provincetown".

A special added treat in that article is the slideshow of beautiful photos of Mary Oliver's beloved Cape Cod with the audio of Mary reading two of her own poems: At Blackwater Pond and The Sun. What could be finer? I suggest you view the full screen version to luxuriate in the images as you listen to her guide us by the hand into the lake and the setting and rising sun.