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
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,
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.
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
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 linkto see a slideshow of Petit's astonishing stroll, with Leon Russell singing "Tightrope" as soundtrack.
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...
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.
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).
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.
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.
Anne Welch is guest hosting this week’s Monday One Stop Poetry Form at One Stop Poetry. There she is discussing a poetic form know as shadorma, basically, a six-line poem with no fixed rhyme scheme and a 3/5/3/3/7/5. syllable structure. I had never heard of this form before and the poem above is thus my respectful first offering. To read more about the shadorma form and see what other One Stop Poetry participants have done with it, click here.
The image is from photographer Vlad Dumitrescu of Romania, who has a lovely blog.
This piece was written for this week's magpie tales prompt, the hyped and hyper arch-famous image of the Mona Lisa (La Gioconda). To see what other participants in Tess Kincaid's writing group are offering, and perhaps give it a try yourself, go see Mag 59. This is also my first attempt at the new genre started by Ruth at synch-ro-ni-zing: Nouvelle 55, "flash fiction, based on a piece of art, in 55 words".
The above quote from Nietzsche is what my oldest daughter uses as her wall slogan on facebook. An accomplished cellist, Isabel, now 20, has been a music lover all her life. Perhaps a bit longer even. I remember going to a jazz club in Madrid one night with my wife María when she was seven months pregnant with Isabel. The swirling sound of Frank Lacy’s rollicking trombone seemed to touch off an especially vigorous round of kicking and dancing from our soon to be firstborn.
As a newborn, hearing music would almost always arrest her attention instantly. Lullabies soothed her to sleep, although at times not without some poignant whimpering and gurgling that we eagerly took to be attempts to hum along. A few months shy of her second birthday, she had already learned to use the sound system in the living room, pushing Play on the CD player and adjusting the volume. It is an abiding image I have of her, standing on her doughy baby legs in front of the amplifier and CD unit, concentrating as she poked her finger at the button, waiting in rapt attention as if for an oracle to speak, and then raising her faint eyebrows and waving her arms to spin into a triumphant dance as El Señor Don Gato would come on for the umpteenth time that day.
When she turned three we signed her up for a music academy. The system followed there was that a parent had to go to the classes with the child in order to be able to guide their playing at home. So once a week for three years I had the pleasure of attending piano lessons with my daughter and a small group of other toddlers. The goal for the first year was for the child to learn how to pick out middle C on the piano (do in the do-re-me-fa-sol-la-si musical nomenclature used here in Spain) with her right thumb and play the four keys to the right of it, each key with it is own finger. They were to recognize those five notes on the pentagram, sing and play them on the piano; five notes, C-D-E-F-G (do re mi fa sol sounds so much nicer) on the G clef — the treble clef, up there where Langston Hughes heard “the tingle of a tear”.
At first this struck me as quite ambitious for three year olds, but the kids were up to it and more. After a few months they could read, sing and play simple tunes with their right hands using those notes. The second year expanded the musical palette of the child musicians to a full octave and to the left hand as well, one octave lower, the F (bass) clef. Down there it was the left pinkie that played do, ring finger re and so on.
I tell you this as background for an anecdote I have always cherished. One day at home, when she was four years old, a red-faced Isabel marched up to me with a mournful pout, a few big tears straggling down her cheeks, holding her left hand out for me to examine and dote on a swollen finger while she bawled out her mortified lament: ¡Papá! Mi hermanica me ha mordido en Re de la clave de Fa — “Daddy, my baby sister bit me on D of the bass clef!”. Needless to say, she did not know how to say “the ring finger of my left hand”.
So from the tender youngest age, music was already part of her life and body. Her hands as staves, each finger a line of music. Ah, the grace notes I still hear when she points one of those lines at me in my memories.
The Church in Cassone (Landscape with Cypress)
dawn finds the graveyard
skylarks bathe in puddled tombs
sipping lost refrains
there stands the silent cypress
rooted and rising the song
The above is a tanka. For more on this Japanese poem form I recommend this introduction from the AHA Poetry site. I am linking this post at the current One Stop Poetry Form post, where you can read more haiku and tanka poems by other participants by clicking here.
Heraclitus. Detail from School of Athens - Raphael
'Tis holy sport to be a little vain,
When the sweet breath of flattery conquers strife.
(William Shakespeare, The Comedy of Errors)
A couple of weeks ago I learned that this blog had been included on a list of the “Top 50 Art History Blogs”. What’s that you say? You are startled? You should be, I certainly was. I received an unexpected email kindly informing me of this distinction, with a link to the site and inviting me to put the link and badge for the list on my blog. On visiting the web page, I found that, sure enough, my humble pillow was listed there with this blurb:
“Alchemist’s Pillow: This lovely blog is intended as a respite for readers who at times find the world a bit jarring. We like the blogger’s refreshing perspective on familiar works. Featured artists include Ansel Adams, Rafael, Escher, and Goya.”
How nice, I thought, although quietly trying to remember when I had ever done anything on the painter Raphael (clue: never, but I did post a poem by Rafael Alberti). Even nicer, though, was the fine company I was in, as some of the other art sites on the list are long-time favorites of mine, like Margaret’s The Earthly Paradise, Bob’s Art Blog by Bob and a few others (though I was a bit puzzled and disappointed over some of the ones that were missing, like Linnea West’s Art Ravels and Jane Librizzi’s The Blue Lantern).
Although this little ego massage was not unappreciated, I decided not to insert a link/badge, mainly because the list is featured on a commercial site that seems otherwise unconcerned with art history. Although they have done at least some research, and the list is helpful in finding art history sites, it had all the makings of a marketing wiz’s ploy to build up traffic to a decidedly non-art commercial site. And, after all, how reliable can a top 50 art history blogs list be that includes a little lapis lazuli elephant whose most prized self-proclaimed talent is an ability to talk to fax machines? It had to be a gimmick.
And so it was… and it is not the only one. Apparently this is becoming a fairly common tactic, not just in art history but in many other appealing fields as well. The site I am cited on also carries lists of the Best 50 Buddhist Blogs, 50 Awesome Atheistic/Agnostic Blogs, Top 50 Insect Blogs, Top 50 European Travel Blogs, Top 30 Civil War Blogs... Isn’t it reassuring, at least, to see that we get fewer (only 30) civil wars than dragonflies, awesome atheists, presumably awed Buddhists and leaning-tower-of-Pisa-holder-uppers? And isn't it fun imagining a blog that could somehow manage to make it onto all of these lists (Jeffscape, and 10th Daughter of Memory, are you out there)? This weekend I found an excellent description and discussion of this trend, Top lists and award badges: art history bloggers beware, at H Niyazi’s superb art blog three pipe problem (3pp). I encourage you to read the article and treat yourself to a rewarding stroll through his blog.
Which brings me to the real point of this post: 3pp has just announced a new project, the art and history site database (AHDB). It is in part a response to the success toplisters are achieving in having their less than reliable lists and rankings of websites claim the choicest turf of the google-search hits list real estate.
In 3pp’s own words:
"The Art and History site Database (AHDB) has been created to serve a specific purpose. Searching online for quality sites dedicated to art and history has become a time consuming process. The Wiki entry for a particular topic or artist is usually the top result in many instances, followed by a slew of image gallery or painting reproduction sites. With particular regard to blogs on the topics of art and history, there is presently no detailed resource that attempts to catalogue these sites and create a search engine that searches only these sites. (…)
This project was commenced in November 2010 and has been tested by a closed group of students and art historians. The basic aim is to create a useful tool to make finding art and history sites easier. There are many resources for art and history online but one that aims to include blogs simply does not exist. An increasing amount of art historians, classicists and authors are now blogging, and there should be a resource to find them that is as easy to use as Google."
To be included on the list of sites that AHDB will search, a blog must be previously submitted to and approved by the AHDB administrator. I have the impression that the list is growing quickly and will soon become a very valuable resource for art history enthusiasts and researchers. I encourage all of you to check out the site, spread the word to bloggers who may be interested in using its search engine and/or being included on the site list. It is not a commercially driven project and will therefore be much harder to manipulate for toplisters and all those clever people out there who devote their time and talent to such things.
The address for the new search tool is http://www.ahdb.org/. I will probably put a link to it on my sidebar in the near feature. The alchemist’s pillow has been included there, and that is a distinction I am pleased to have been given and just as pleased to publicize. So, spread the word.
I know I have inserted many links here; if you only have time or patience or clicking stamina for one, it is this one for 3pp, a wonderful, rewarding and very enjoyable site.
I am still mulling and musing the followup to my previous post on olvidium ... In the meantime I thought I would post something different, although perhaps not completely unrelated to that term that I offered as the opposite of memory. We tend to think of remembrance and forgetting as individual processes in our minds, but there is, of course, also collective memory and amnesia. Today I wanted to float up something that has been nearly lost in my family memory, specifically, on my father's side.
As I have mentioned elsewhere, my dad was born over 84 years ago in Brooklyn, NY, to Lebanese-Syrian immigrant parents. Unfortunately, I am completely ignorant of my Arab ancestry and heritage, do not speak the language, never been in the Middle East, did not really know my paternal grandparents (my father's father died before I was born and my grandmother when I was still a toddler in Venezuela), and know next to nothing about the family tree. All I consciously carry of this heritage is a love for Lebanese food of the kind that accompanied all holiday gatherings at the Brooklyn home of my uncle Floyd and aunt Beatrice 'Beattie' Holway. The contrast with the centrality in my life of my Spanish family and heritage is striking. Although I never gave this more than a passing thought when younger, in recent years I have come to rue this silence and absence, the roots and trunk of a family tree sunk in a mysterious, almost exotic darkness.
Sometimes a distant flash of lightning has briefly pierced that darkness. I recall a night 20 years ago, when my aunt Beattie was visiting us in Spain from Brooklyn just a few months after our daughter Isabel was born. One quiet stay-at-home night in our small apartment in downtown Madrid, my aunt gathered Isabel up in her arms from her crib and began cooing her to sleep with a Lebanese lullaby sung in Arabic. I felt spellbound by the unknown music, as if witnessing the arc of time pass above me from lost generations of the past to the daughter child who in those days seemed nothing less than the gurgling, diapered concentration of my life's hopes and dreams. The moment still glows warmly in my memory, which searches itself futilely for the hushed hum of a tune I never learned and words I could not understand. That quiet night, the cooing arc, the way Beattie cradled my daughter in her arms, Isabel gurgling off to sleep are all so vivid in my mind — how is it that the music and words are nowhere to be found?
Some years later, at a surprise 80th birthday party for my aunt Beattie, I met George Selim, a scholar, researcher and translator of Arab-American poetry. He explained to me that his connection with the family was that he had done extensive research into a Syrian poet in my family's past who had lived in New York as a member of what he termed the Syrian-Lebanese diaspora in New York. The story piqued my interest but I pursued it no further and even forgot the name of the poet.
Then last October, on a visit to my parents back home in New Jersey, I had lunch with a cousin who is much better versed than I am in Arabic and our Lebanese-Syrian ancestry. I asked about the poet and she told me about Jamil B. Holway, a distant relative of mine as it turns out (a great uncle, once or twice removed). Jamil Holway was born in Damascus, Syria in 1883 and studied at the American University in Beirut before emigrating to the US, where he practiced law, served as an interpreter and examiner for the Immigration Service, and worked for the US Office of War Information during World War II. A contemporary and acquaintance of Khalil Gibran (famous for The Prophet and other works), Elia Abu Madi and other Arab-American poets, he was himself a published and respected poet.
A bit of google research has allowed me to find the following poem by Jamil B. Holway, translated by George Dimitri Selim, the family friend I met at my aunt's birthday. It is called Throbbings (note that 'Zaynab' is a popular name for women in Arabic).
Throbbings Zaynab complained against me to the judge of love. "He has sly eyes," she told him, "which roam around me to devour my beauty. Judge of love! I am not safe anymore.
"I think his eyes are two bees raiding the honey which sweetens my lips. I see them as two eagles hovering in space, descending to snatch me. I think, and from my fear, I think strange things. God knows how much I suffer from my thoughts.
"He invaded me with his eyes and, as if this were not enough, he tried to lower my standing among people. Hypocritically, he said that I have stolen my beauty from the universe, and that it was not created naturally in me. That I have plundered the morning for a face, the dusk for hair, uniting both in me. That from the gardens I have stolen the flowers for cheeks —my cheeks are rosy. That I have covered my neck with pure snow, and that my eyes are tinted with narcissus.
"When my voice enchanted him he denied it, and said: 'It's a nightingale singing in the garden.' With sword-like glances I struck him, he said, and in his deep-red blood I dyed my finger tips and in his poems he chanted alluding to me. So people said: 'His meanings are necklaces of pearls.' Lord of verdicts! Administer your justice between us. Enough of his straying in love. I've had enough!"
When the time of complaint was over, the judge asked me: "What is your answer, you who are so passionately in love?" I said: "I find ... that I am a criminal. My insanity may not be deferred. She has dispossessed me of mind and heart." From the book Grape Leaves: A Century of Arab-American Poetry Published by Interlink Books, 2000; edited by Gregory Orfalea and Sharif Elmusa
I offer these 'throbbings' from the accused heart of an Arab-American poet in hopeful solidarity with the dramatic and inspiring stirrings we have been seeing these days on the Arab street.
As a soundtrack for these musings, I will leave you with the quartet led by percussion great Chico Hamilton, with a very young Larry Coryell playing his original composition "Larry of Arabia", from the 1966 album The Dealer:
English, like all major languages, is hugely rich beyond our capacity to exhaust its possibilities. Not even Shakespeare would entertain the notion that he did or ever could plumb its full depths, float up all its sunken treasures. Language is as bottomlessly deep as mythic oceans, as our collective unconscious. But it does have boundaries, porous ones, but boundaries nonetheless. And it is sometimes when one straddles or crosses the borders with other languages that one can find our language does have some gaps, some missing pieces. I feel we have the duty and the pleasure of pondering and filling in those blanks.
A case in point: we do not have a word for … for … hmmmm … How can I say this? A word for …
Well, that’s just the problem, isn’t it? When your language does not have a word for something, it can be vexingly difficult to pinpoint that something or even be aware that it exists ... or that it doesn’t; like trying to imagine and describe an unknown color or spot a shadow in the dark. Not just any candlestick will do.
Let me take another tack… What is the opposite of memory? When we remember something, it is in our memory, but when we do not remember, where is it? Where do forgotten memories go? I know we have the term ‘oblivion’, but it is too dire and absolute for what I am grasping at here, its connotations too apocalyptic. Oblivion is where lost time gets irretrievably lost; I am looking for something lighter, less dire.
As you may have already noticed, I love wordplay and like to invent words. I have even coined a term for this, “woiding”, inventing a word to fill a void, whether real, perceived or imagined. Recently I devoted a post to one — hydrochromology: the search for a unified field theory of the water and color cycles. And today I need a term for the opposite of memory, for the graveyard of vanished recollections, the repository of things that we have forgotten.
Spanish, like other languages, has a word for it: olvido, from the verb olvidar, to forget, with the same Latin root obliv- as 'oblivion'. In Spanish, when things slip out of my memory, they slide into el olvido. Memory can be personal, mi recuerdo, mi memoria, my recollection, my memory, or universal/impersonal/collective, el recuerdo or la memoria. But olvido is seemingly never personal, no one ever says mi olvido; when something leaves mi memoria, it goes into el olvido.
In English we tend to use the gerund “forgetting”, as when translating Neruda’s es tan corto el amor y tan largo el olvido — “so short is love, so long forgetting”. But still, forgetting is the act, whereas olvido is a place … the place where misplaced memories get shelved … memories lost, stolen or strayed. Where are you?
I have toyed with different possible word corks to plug this gap, words like oblivium (an actual Latin word), oblitium, … Or a Greek morph: letheum, from the river Lethe of forgetfulness in the underworld of Hades, where it curls around the cave of Hypnos (the personification of sleep, twin brother of Thanatos, death, both born to the goddess Nyx, night, and Erebus, darkness — what a family!). Nice, but, again, these are so absolute sounding as to border on the cataclysmic. A less melodramatic and more English and Germanic-rooted stab in the dark would be forgotdom. Maybe dismemory or unmemory, dismemberdom, … no, none of these will do.
I gave close consideration to olvimory, but that sounds a bit clunky, and I have provisionally opted for olvidium, as it seems to roll off the tongue more smoothly, just the way recollections can roll out of memory. Even so, it is, admittedly, a rather awkward way of expressing something that we all do so easily and naturally, something we are as comfortably familiar with as sleep and silence and darkness. A clumsy grafting of a familiar suffix onto an uprooted Spanish word; rather than truly ‘woiding’, what I am perhaps doing here is smuggling a term across linguistic borders, a little mangled after being snuck by the customs agents, but I hope it’s meaning is nonetheless clear. Olvidium: the opposite of memory, the capacity to forget experiences, impressions, recollections that were once in memory. And please, if you can do better or prefer another of the above, do let me know.
But why do I feel the need to press this strange invention olvidium into service here? There is a reason. While I will not be so bold as to claim there is method to my madness, I do have my reasons, which I will be happy to lay before you, my esteemed and patient readers, in a future post.
To be continued … (I hope, please remind me if I forget)
As we have seen in the previous parts of this series, Rodin was a towering artist in Rilke's life and writings. The young German poet had immense respect and admiration for the elder sculptor whose works he regarded as 'strange documents of the momentary and of the unnoticeably passing'. And he was convinced that Rodin's greatness sprang from his unstinting dedication to his craft more than from any grand ideas on sculpture or art. For Rilke, Rodin's genius was the product of 'the hard struggle with his tools', of his relentless work discipline and of his insistence on direct, intense and minute observation as the starting point on the path toward finding and creating beauty.
This approach greatly influenced Rilke's own, and helped shape his cardinal notion that the currency of art was not ideas, but things, the everyday things of our world, which are here to be observed tenderly, almost feverishly. That "our task is to impress this provisional, transient earth upon ourselves so deeply, so agonizingly, and so passionately that its essence rises up again “invisibly” within us. We are the bees of the invisible. We ceaselessly gather the honey of the visible to store it in the great golden hive of the Invisible".
The arrow of artistic genius arcs from the particular to the whole, from the visible to the invisible, the mundane to the eternal. And not the other way around. "The task of all tasks is to transform what is insignificant into greatness, what is inconspicuous into radiance; to present a speck of dust in a way that shows it to be part of the whole so that one cannot see it without also instantly seeing all of the stars and the heavens’ deep coherence to which it intimately belongs".
Eternal Spring — Rodin
For Rilke this was best exemplified by Rodin, whose "art was not built upon a great idea, but upon a minute, conscientious realization, upon the attainable, upon a craft. There was no haughtiness in him. He pledged himself to a humble and difficult beauty that he could oversee, summon and direct. The other beauty, the great beauty, had to come when everything was prepared as animals come to a drinking place in the forest in the late night when nothing foreign is there.”
This idea that the devoted eye was to be trusted more than the inventive imagination is beautifully expressed in this passage from Rilke's book on Rodin (which you can read and/or download here):
L’Home au Nez Cassé — Musée Rodin
“The mask of 'The Man with the Broken Nose' was the first portrait that Rodin modeled. In this work his individual manner of portraying a face is entirely formed. One feels his admitted devotion to reality, his reverence for every line that fate has drawn, his confidence in life that creates even when it disfigures. In a kind of blind faith, he sculptured L’Home au Nez Cassé without asking who the man was who lived again in his hands. He made this mask as God created the first man, without intention of presenting anything save Life itself — immeasurable Life. But he returned to the faces of men with an ever-growing, richer and greater knowledge. He could not look upon their features without thinking of the days that had left their impress upon them, without dwelling upon the army of thoughts that worked incessantly upon a face, as though it could never be finished. From a silent and conscientious observation of life, the mature man, at first groping and experimenting, became more and more sure and audacious in his understanding and interpretation of the script with which the faces were covered. He did not give rein to his imagination, he did not invent, he did not neglect for a moment the hard struggle with his tools. It would have been easy to surmount, as if with wings, these difficulties. He walked side by side with his work over the far and distant stretches that had to be covered, like the ploughman behind his plough. While he traced the furrows he meditated over this land, the depth of it, the sky above it, the flights of the winds and the fall of the rains; considered all that existed and passed by and returned and ceased not to be. He recognized in all this the eternal, and becoming less and less perplexed by the many things, he perceived the one great thing for which grief was good, and heaviness promised maternity, and pain became beautiful."
No Rilke or Rodin here today. Just a bit of autobiography, an outbreak of remembrance triggered a couple of weeks ago when I came across this delightful poem by Elliot Fried at Garrison Keillor’s The Writer’s Almanac blog (where amongst other treats you can hear Keillor recite it) ...
Daily I Fall In Love With Waitresses
by Elliot Fried
Daily I fall in love with waitresses
with their white bouncing name tags
KATHY MARGIE HONEY SUE
and white rubber shoes.
I love how they bend over tables
Their perky breasts hover above potatoes
like jets coming in to LAX
hang above the suburbs—
shards of broken stars.
I feel their fingers
roughened by cube steaks softened with grease
slide over me.
Their hands and lean long bodies
keep moving so...
fumbling and clattering so harmoniously
that I am left overwhelmed, quivering.
Daily I fall in love with waitresses
with their cream-cheese cool.
They tell secrets in the kitchen
and I want them.
I know them.
They press buttons creases burgers buns—
their legs are menu smooth.
They have boyfriends or husbands or children
They are french dressing worldly—
they know how ice cubes clink.
Their chipped teeth form chipped beef
and muffin syllabics.
Daily I fall in love with waitresses.
They are Thousand Island dreams
but they never stand still long enough
as they serve serve serve.
This piece touched a soft spot in the tummy of my memory, recalling for me the fondness I have long felt for diner restaurants. My first meal in the United States was at just such an establishment and though I had not yet turned five, I remember still …
My parents, brother Phil and I arrived at JFK airport in New York in the summer of 1961, back when it was still known as Idlewild. We had flown in from Caracas, Venezuela, where I was born and spent my toddlerhood, which I now suppose ended on that flight to America. Leaving the only home I had known, my toys, bed and room, saying goodbye to family and friends and adiós to español, were all farewells a bit too outsized for me to comfortably pack and carry. On arriving in New York, there was more wild than idle at the airport; I vaguely recall a sense of feeling lost and adrift in the bustling vastness of the airport, with so many complete strangers hustling by as fast as the words I couldn’t understand. Nothing made any sense… until one of those seeming strangers picked me up and wrapped me in a hug; my Uncle Floyd, a gentle bear with a pencil moustache that stretched out above a rich deep voice as he bellowed “Larry, my boy!”, a call that would forever after in my life announce and rhyme with Thanksgiving and giving thanks, with Christmas trees and Easter eggs and all family holy days.
I suddenly felt less lost and, though perhaps nothing made much sense yet, there was now a possibility that it would, that my parents may actually have been right when they reassured me that I would be happy in America. This possibility began to flesh out soon after leaving the airport when Uncle Floyd wheeled his huge car and my entire family and our belongings into the parking lot of a diner, a real diner, one of those converted railroad dining cars, somewhere in Brooklyn (“God’s country”, as my Brooklyn-born dad must always clarify). Inside the curved silver walls of the strange restaurant, I now imagine that I was christened into my new American life with maple syrup and pancakes. No more arepas for Lorenzo; pancakes for Larry.
I digress … I actually wanted to talk about diners that came later in my life, all-night diners that I frequented for many years over a quarter century ago now, the diners conjured up by the Elliot Fried poem above. But, as my good friend Bonnie observed recently in a comment, sometimes we can only reach out by first reaching within, so while blowing on those memories, the long lost ember memory of Brooklyn baptismal flapjacks flared up, and I offer it here as the first course of this long all-night meal.
Unlike the daily enamoring of Fried’s poem, for me it was nightly that I fell in love with waitresses — the ones at the 24-hour diners I visited several times a week after work during the years I worked nights loading and unloading trucks. Perhaps that first Brooklyn diner planted the seed, but my fondness for diners stems from those years when me and my work buddies would punch out from work at 3 or 4 am and head for the diner nearly every night.
From 1976 to 1985 I worked as a Teamster at a transportation company that has long made scientific harassment the core of its management ethos and practice. The job did pay the rent and put food on the table, two concerns shared by poets and non-poets alike, or so I have been led to believe. But there was more to it than that. Somewhere in my history studies, I had been so taken by the thesis of two venerable Germans who long ago observed that philosophers have only interpreted the world but that “the point is to change it”, that I decided to drop out of college and go change the world from inside 42-foot semi-trailer trucks and from deep within a corrupt union. Working nights allowed me time during the day for community organizing where I lived and union organizing at work. A few of us took part in the founding of a nationwide rank-and-file reform movement, Teamsters for a Democratic Union, and began a chapter of TDU in our own Local 177.
The pay was decent and we fought like hell to keep it that way. The work was physically exhausting, but we were young and grew strong in the punishment; mentally it was stultifying, our dreams were still unquenchable though. We got harassed and treated like trash by the supervisors, but some nights we gave as good as we got. Some nights. And our union was misrun by hacks; quietly we would swallow our pride and loudly we spit fire. Some nights.
Every night we would emerge from the trucks physically spent and covered with dust. Working the graveyard shift and the ever-present cardboard dust turned us all into a monoracial brotherhood of sorts; regardless of whether we were black, brown or beige when we punched into work, by the time we clocked out, we were all just different shades of grey. And ready for coffee and some eats.
There was a poem in here somewhere …. Oh yes, here it is, it begins in the diner washroom where we’d stalk in on arriving to try to remove our grey patinas of dust and sweat…
caked in dried sweat gotta hit the head a quick trip to the terlets we grimly smeared the grey grime across our faces patted down our uncooperative hair scrubbed our hands good yeah, got them real clean before we pissed
and then for some eats coffee boob banter chit chatter with the waitresses who for some reason my memory has now all named Josie
The menu had French omelets Spanish omelets German omelets Italian omelets English omelets yeah, we chowed down a lot of Old World worldliness right there in Edison, New Jersey had home fries too
Cheesecake could turn the talk sweet to what we would do when we won the big weekly lottery, that would get Johnny Paycheck singing on the mini-jukebox at the table Take this job and shove it
On those other nights when unbending lottery numbers only made the coffee extra bitter, there’d be elaborate plans for daring heists to knock over an Atlantic City casino maybe two
Or wolfman Chris might tell us about the poem he would write one day “chop down the Cadillac tree” what does it mean? I don’t know he would tell us but it’s a great first line and we would all agree a great first line
Or we would retell and celebrate the night that him and Sam drove into the City in Sam’s revved up GTO, common sense damped down and their courage souped up on some beers and bourbons, and drove the wrong way across the Brooklyn Bridge all the way to the other side all the wrong fucking way to fucking Brooklyn (God’s country) without killing anyone or themselves or landing their fool asses in jail a great line
With our gutwanderlustfulness sated or Dillinger derring-do depleted with our wrong-way one-line poems doing u-turns it’d be time to split we’d leave our Josie sisters of the night outlandish tips next to crumpled cigarette packs and a song still playing on the tabletop jukebox Don’t let the sun catch you crying
on the way out there were arcade machines with some jeopardy question and answer game but when we did not want to not be stumped again by who directed Cool Hand Luke (what we have here is a faaaailyour to communicate) we would play the great new thing Pacman wow how sophisticated better than Pong even or another game where my electronic blips and bloops had to break through the descending brick wall before your blips and bloops
and they did our late nights yawned with such howling triumphs
we were resigned prisoners though and tunneled our walls only halfheartedly while inviting the blips and bloops to do on our minds the same numbing number the trucks and night had done on our bodies
and we left dust trails in the prison yard parking lot on the way to our cars on the way home on the way to sleep
In affectionate memory of Wolfie, with whom so many of those all-night work and diner sessions were shared and who, 30 years ago today, mistook a sunrise for a sunset, the wrong end of a shotgun for a friend and quenched his thirst and his dreams with a cannonball instead of a bourbon. Oh, Chris, what you’ve been missing…
Brooklyn Bridge, A Tribute in Light
Well, not sure how I got from Fried's perky potato breasts landing at LAX airport to Chris going the wrong way over the Rubicon in his one-line Cadillac, but strange things can come down when one begins to shake that memory tree...
Ray Charles — Don't Let the Sun Catch You Crying ...