Saturday, February 15, 2014


"Sleep, my joy, fall asleep..."....this was the closing song of the evening program, "Good Night, Children" in Russia for several years. I learned it to sing to my eldest--she might giggle if I reminded her of this.

The animation for this clip is quite unusual. Is that really Mother Night, her eyes hidden under a hat, revealing the sliver-moon and stars, releasing them, and then granting us a tender smile, while she holds a house in her hands, where the sun will sleep until daybreak?

Mrs.Yang Paints a Rainbow.

We lived so near the Sacramento River, we could skip out the door, clip up the steps to the levee, and skin our knees on the rough tumblesome path to the water before you could finish humming, "Morning is broken." We knew where the turtles came to sun themselves on a large fallen tree, where the egrets hid, the lizards scurried, and the hideout of the ferile cats. But the river kept many of its secrets to itself. Penned in by huge dirt dikes, it was a muddy shadow of its once mighty self. Where is the river spirit, I wondered. I tried to discover it in museums, in Old Town Sacramento, where I knew the buildings  were made of bricks fired from the clay-pits of Greenhaven. The Delta King stubbornly, silently bobbed up and down near the gaudy golden bridge facing the Capitol. I sensed voices in the railway museum--and even more so--heard groans from the sun-baked ruins of the old rail yards, and in the stink and squeal of the steam train engine that puffed back and forth, up and down, a relic for tourists to sneeze at. Train-less tracks ran through our neighborhood and divided it just as decisively, and unfairly, as ever.

It seemed nearly impossible to discover any evidence of the original river-dwellers, but every once in a while I'd hear a rumor of how they used to grind acorns into flour--or a haunting of how the neighborhood might be resting on their bones. Sinking her fingers into the slick river clay one afternoon, my youngest discovered a stockpile of  fake artifacts: tiny red clay pots, with scorch-marks from being fired right on the river-bank, we guessed. A leap of thought: maybe these came from the first peoples. But they were all wrong for this: one of them was even heart-shaped. Who buried this strange cache in the river, we wondered. An unsolved mystery. We fingered them and brought a few home as treasures.

Our morning school driving route almost always passed by a park--one of the former clay pits that invariably became a pond after each rain--where a group of elders practiced Tai Chi, supervised by a colorful umbrella hanging from a wire fence. An odd morning, while strolling to the river, I thought I might have discovered the river spirit, and lurked behind a tree while I observed her. Later, I scribbled this:

She moves away from the manicured lawns

and plants her penny-loafers in the fox-tails.

She fills her palms with pineapple grass.

All along the river-wall
bicycle bells dingle-dangle,
sport-suited joggers jiggle salt-and-pepper heads,
lanky legs flash in leather sandals--
they are dark and they are comely--
lavish pony-tails bob 
behind squeaky strollers.

Some of them walking, all of them talking;
maybe a few would-be philosophers,
debating the funding of schools versus wars.

Or perhaps not, 
but she performs her part.

She pushes up her broad-brimmed hat,
straightens the collar on a white button-
down cotton blouse, vestments of a
high priestess of morning.

Raising her hands above her head,
Mrs. Yang paints a rainbow.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Ice Angel (for C)

Little girl didn't catch many breaks.
Except when she was hiding
under the house.

There, she could smell the cobwebs 
speaking to the dust 
in her dolly tea-cups.

She hid a while behind a man.
Until she learned
what she now preaches:
Don't drink the Kool-Aid.

She took children no one else wanted,
and spun worlds around them.
When they grew up, she didn't stop
spinning and twirling.
She took the ones that couldn't walk
that couldn't talk
that wouldn't sleep.

She makes mint tea
from candy-canes,
but plays hard-ball
with bureaucrats.

She opened up a shop,
where half the town 
met to chew the breeze.

Wish I could wave a wand
to sort out all of her 
serendipitous thingamabobs,
antique plates and jiggety-jogs.

No can do.

But I would give her a suggestion:
put up your feet, you stubborn Cherokee,
close your eyes, and rest a bit.

If all your children
holding hands
around your chair--

we'd form a 
medicine wheel,
of many colors.



Elégie in E flat minor by Sergei Rachmaninoff

A user comment indicates this was a performance of Rachmaninoff's originally recorded on a piano roll.

Ah, not to be cut off,
not through the slightest partition
shut out from the law of the stars.
The inner -- what is it?
if not the intensified sky,
hurled through with birds and deep
with the winds of homecoming.

– Rainer Maria Rilke

(Simeon Ushakov, Tretyakov)

I syng of a mayden
þat is makeles,
kyng of alle kynges
to here sone che ches.

He came also stylle
þer his moder was
as dew in aprylle,
þat fallyt on þe gras.

He cam also stylle
to his moderes bowr
as dew in aprille,
þat fallyt on þe flour.

He cam also stylle
þer his moder lay
as dew in Aprille,
þat fallyt on þe spray.

Moder & mayden
was neuer non but che –
wel may swych a lady
Godes moder be.


As a child, I discovered my own tune for these lyrics--Benjamin Britten's score was too fast for me. Composed is too strong a word. It was a song to sing in the dark, accompanied by comforting shadows. And so I did just that. 

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Volja - Romany - Aleko & Zamfira

The subway car swayed and creaked. With one hand gripping a metal pole, I took stock of my fellow passengers, a group of bristle-browed women, busy chatting. Tattered, gaudy clothing, bulging canvas sacks, babies tied with rags to their backs, and gaudy head scarves proclaimed: we are Romany.

Glancing up at me and seeing only a young girl, they shifted in their seats and resumed their conversation. I listened intently, wondering if they were en route to some encampment outside the city--where did they live? I'd seen Gypsies before, dancing, begging, acting as professional caricatures of themselves, but these women had put down their masks, were gossiping and laughing. My ears strained towards the curious sounds--with my entire body I desired to discern more than even an understanding of the Romany language could have conveyed.

A short, plump woman with a red and gold-striped scarf tied around her head, turned towards me and peppered me with words I could not comprehend.

"I'm sorry," I stammered in Russian, "I don't know your language." The Roma leaned over me and switched languages. "But I thought you could understand us!" She frowned in disappointment. For a moment, I thought she wanted to grab and shake me.

We stared at each other in silence, drinking in one another's presence. I felt a wave of warmth: fierce, alien, proud, hungry, calculating. When it was time for me to leave, I smiled at the Roma, and she nodded briefly in recognition, then turned back to her friends while the subway doors slid shut before my face.

Rachmaninoff's opera, Aleko, is based on Pushkin's poem, The Gypsies.
Here is a translation of the opening lines of The Gypsies:

A noisy multitudinous throng 
The crowd of gypsies streams along 
The plains of Bessarabia.  
Their camp by the riverside today
Is pitched and set for their nighttime stay.
In ragged tents spread far and wide
Like freedom is their sojourn there, 
Under the skies in the midnight air.  
Between the wheels of the drawn up carts, 
Half covered with carpets thrown across  
The bonfire glimmers.  The family starts 
To prepare a meal.  On the steppe nearby 
The horses pasture; behind the tents  
The tame bear sleeps with an open eye.  
In the vaste steppes all is noisy and lively: 
The gypsy family's anxiety 
Since the early morn on their short planned journey, 
The children's cries and the women's singing, 
And the sound of the travelling anvil's ringing.  
But now upon their nomadic camp 
Descends a sleepy silent hush 
And the only sounds in the steppe's quietness 
Are the barking of dogs and the horses' neighs.  
The fires everywhere are all put out, 
All is at peace,  the solitary moon 
Shines from the summit of the skies 
And brightens the encampment with its rays.

In one of the tents an old man is awake, 
He sits in front of the dying fire 
Warmed by the heat that the ashes make 
And in the distant fields he looks afar
Where the nighttime mists have strewed them over.  
He awaits the return of his young daughter 
Who in the empty steppes has gone to wander, 
She is used to having her freedom there, 
And she will return, but it's already dark 
And from  the distant clouds the moon 
Its station will abandon soon, - 
But of Zemfira no trace, no sound, 
And the old man's supper is growing cold.

--A.S. Pushkin

Aleko and Zamfira, Marc Chagall.

Fans of Bizet's Carmen may not realize that its story-line was also based on Pushkin's poem, The Gypsies, as an article in The New Yorker explains.

Both operas, Aleko and Carmen, end in a tragedy--the death (and demonization) of a Gypsy girl. That irks me.

A source indicates Pushkin's poem was based on his time of exile to Moldova, where he fell in love with the real Zamfira, the daughter of a Gypsy chief. Zamfira's fate after Pushkin left was, apparently, not a happy one. Devalued after her contact with Pushkin, she was given away to a more restrictive tribe, where she would have, literally, been forced to walk two steps behind her mate--in his shadow. Pushkin, through his poem, was able to conveniently kill off/forget Zamfira, while he shared the joy he had in her with generations to come. A thought: if Pushkin had known in his own skin what it was to be Zamfira, how might it have affected his writing?

I have often wondered: where or how does one encounter Volja/Воля -- the mystery of wild freedom?

Could we seek and find it through music, dance, art, or in poetry, or might all of these serve to sing to us of a space unnamed and untamed?

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Speak Softly - Adam Zagajewski

Speak Softly ...

Speak softly; you're older than the one
you were so long; you're older
than yourself--and yet you still don't know
what absence, poetry, and gold are.

Rusty water swept the street: a brief storm
shook this supine, sleepy city.
Each storm is a valediction, scores of photographers
seem to swirl above us, catching in a flash
our moments of panic and fear.

You know what mourning is, despair so fierce
it chokes the heart's rhythm and the future.
You've cried among strangers, in a modern store,
where deft coins make the rounds.

You've seen Venice and Sienna and, in paintings, on the streets,
doleful young Madonnas, who wish they were
ordinary girls dancing at carnivals.

You've also seen small towns, not beautiful at all,
old people, worn by pain and time.
Eyes shone in medieval icons,
the eyes of swarthy saints, wild animals' bright eyes.

You picked dry pebbles from the beach at la Galere,
and suddenly you felt as fond of them
--of them and the slender pine,
and everyone else there, and the sea,
which is powerful indeed, but very lonely--

as if we were all orphans
from the same home, parted for good
and granted only momentary visits
in the chilly prisons of the present.

Speak softly: you're no longer young,
revelation must make peace with weeks of Lent,
you must choose, surrender, stall for time,

hold long talks with envoys from dry countries
and cracked lips, you must wait,
write letters, read books of five hundred pages.
Speak softly. Don't give up on poetry.


My poem-of-the-afternoon, from Without End, New and Selected Poems, Adam Zagajewski.

And a photo from one of those days when my purse was filled with pebbles by small hands.
A more valuable currency, one could not find.

Bella Italia

Adriano Celentano - per voi --
Fragments from a 1987 Moscow pre-concert interview with Celentano, regarding a film in which he participated:

" highlights something perhaps more dangerous than the atomic bomb or a rocket...the greatest sin...the sin of apathy, apathy which exists in many people, and this is very dangerous...and I wanted to add that I have wanted to come here for some time now....but was not able to overcome my fear of flying...until today..."

Viva Adriano Celentano--!

Monday, February 10, 2014

He Who Wanted to Do Good, But Did Not Have Time

One of the most serendipitous gifts I have ever received was a paperback containing the writing of Fazil Iskander. When it came into my hands, it dissuaded me from the idea of leaping off a balcony from the seventh floor. Such a thought, you see, would never have appeared in Uncle Sandro's head.

Fazil Iskander, through his whimsical characters, including Uncle Sandro, managed to elude not only generations of censors, but the entire blame game for the tragedies following in the wake of various personality cults associated with communism, in his magical-realistic satirical commentaries on 20th century realities.

Although Iskander wrote in Russian and lived in the most Soviet-Russian of cities, Moscow, he was born in Sukhumi, Abkhazia, and deferred to the traditions of a fictitious Abkhazian village (Chegem) as a vehicle for the expression of his own point of view, in classics including Sandro of Chegem, The Goatibex Constellation, or via such lofty concepts as "Mother-in-Law Isolation by Shock."

Poor Lenin, mused Iskander's Chegemians, for example. When will they finally bury him, and put him to rest, with the proper rituals, they wondered? Chegem's villagers, at one point in imaginary history, began to feel sorry for Lenin, and therefore bestowed on him the generous nickname, "He Who Wanted to Do Good, But Did Not Have Time."

Apparently, Lenin returned the Abkhazians' regard and wrote a lost testament before his departure that expressed his appreciation:

The first thing he wrote there, was drive the Big Mustache from power because he is a vampire. The second thing was: do not collect the peasants into kolkhozes. The third thing was, if you absolutely can't get along without the kolkhozes, don't touch the Abkhazians, because when an Abkhazian looks at a kolkhoz, he wants to lie down and die quietly.........

In this revision of history, when the Big Mustache (Stalin, of course) discovered the existence of the testament, he decided to begin purging Lenin's friends and relatives in revenge. The residents of Chegem saw through this, even if Khruschev subsequently did not:

"Good job, Khruschit! But he should have spoken out more strongly about the vampirism of the Big Mustache." And once again the inhabitants of Chegem were surprised by the Russians. "What's with the Russians," they said. "We here, in Chegem, knew about the testament Lenin wrote and all about the vampirism of the Big Mustache. How is it they didn't know about these things?"

Chegem's Uncle Sandro does admit to being fallible, in his encounter with Stalin in the tale, Belshazzar's Feast:

Performing his solo act as a dancer, Sandro slid on his knees all the way up to Stalin, his eyes covered by a turban. Then, as Stalin removed the turban and looked into his eyes, wondering where he could have seen him, Sandro, sensing danger, ventured a guess: perhaps in a documentary about the ensemble.  In fact, as he realized later, they had met some thirty years ago, when the little boy Sandro was a witness to Stalin’s murderous activity, but was scared by his withering gaze into not telling the police.

Even democracy has not failed to escape Chegem's perceptive gaze. Iskander, in a 2012 interview subtitled, “Illusions about democracy have vanished without a trace,” was quoted as saying:

"I reject evil. I understand that evil is embedded in the human soul; so, we can’t cast it out from social life, we just can’t do it.... man’s always an unfinished project. He always thinks that if he just has a strong enough desire, he can take on anything and change it for the better. However, this is the business of many generations. We must have patience..... To write… it’s editing life so that one could live. That’s what I’m doing."

Lenin, when contacted by Uncle Sandro, indicated he refuses to be depicted in this blog post, until such time as he has been properly interred.

"Quoting eyewitnesses, this is what history books say about this; but eyewitnesses also confirm this, in part quoting the history books." 

For anyone who would like to sample some Iskander in PDF online, I am providing a link to Forbidden Fruit and Other Stories, translated by Robert Daglish.

Rock Dove (for Miss J)

In bereft winter stirs an orchid wind:
Song sifting me, reciting her longings--
Beloved, join me in this madrigal--
Melt away proud logic's dusty glacier,
Shatter the velvet mirror of darkness,
Wonder, erode grief and all masks of mind.

Night listens to me wrestle with music.
A salt wave dashes plates of ice to silt.
A rock dove dives onto a frost-crusted twig,
Tapping on its buds. Rosa rugosa,
Dozing, dares not trust to words or to wine--
Giddy gray dove, your haven is silence,
Mother of veils, teach me this melody.

Sunday, February 09, 2014


Being born a chiral twin means that you have acted as a mirror for another human being since conception. If you are right-handed, she is left-handed. Even your crooked teeth mirror one another. It also means that if you creep up behind your mother as a toddler while she is looking in the mirror, she may likely mistake you for your sister.

When my sister and I were very tiny, we created our own unique dialect in which to babble and prattle away to one another, although I do not remember a syllable of it.

I do recall the day it was decided that she and I were too big to share a crib. A new white crib was purchased and assembled, and I was relegated to this cage. I stood up and grabbed the bars of the crib, hoping it would rattle as satisfyingly as the old brown crib. Nothing doing. The new crib held firm. My sister shook the bars of her crib, and they clattered as usual, while I fumed in vain.

We had our twin rules and rituals. When we went walking along a road, she chose the left side; I was relegated to the right side. Because she was the dominant twin, I labored for a long time under the impression that being left-handed was somehow superior to being a righty. Mr. Right and Mr. Left held debates on every subject under the sun. Lefty won most of the arm-wrestling matches.

So inseparable were we, that if one of us watched a cartoon or film at a neighbor's home that the other had missed, we would describe it in such detail, whispering away surreptitiously in the evenings, that to this day, I am not absolutely sure which of us watched The Robe, or a certain Batman episode.

Although we have audited many semesters of lessons in the school of disillusionment, my sister and I cannot quite comprehend why the rest of the planet does not follow this simple equation for the division of, say, a piece of chocolate, a cookie, or any other piece of real estate: either you cut, I pick--or--I cut, you pick.

My tendency has been tend to shrug and admit defeat: if you're going to take the whole pie, you might as well. In the meantime, I'll step into a mirror-world.

Hashem Shaabani - Cherish the Poets and Other Heretics

How can we honor the silence, the empty space left after the loss of the Iranian poet, Hashem Shaabani?

An article by David Newhoff in Illusion of More communicates this:

 "....the irony is that when it comes to establishing or maintaining autocratic rule, one must first kill all the poets...

"There’s a reason artists are invariably among the first to be killed or imprisoned by any authority predicated on orthodoxy; and it is the underlying reason why I will never stop writing or speaking about the rights and the value of artists.  Because their work is not just content.  And while we may take the absence of orthodoxy in our own governance for granted, we should not underestimate the social or economic force of artistic diversity for helping it stay that way."

" we debate the subtle and profound ways in which technology changes our world and  our notions of civil liberty, that we are privileged to have this dialogue in relative luxury, with the leisure of academics, and at a safe distance from people who still hang poets."

Shaabani's own words, quoted by several sources:

“I have tried to defend the legitimate right that every people in this world should have which is the right to live freely with full civil rights. With all these miseries and tragedies, I have never used a weapon to fight these atrocious crimes except the pen."

I found a poem attributed to Shaabani:

Seven Reasons Why I Should Die

For seven days they shouted at me:
You are waging war on Allah!
Saturday, because you are an Arab!
Sunday, well, you are from Ahvaz
Monday, remember you are Iranian
Tuesday: You mock the sacred Revolution
Wednesday, didn’t you raise your voice for others?
Thursday, you are a poet and a bard
Friday: You’re a man, isn’t that enough to die?

Breath, life are gifts tyrants seek to control--and cannot be taken for granted.

the song of a shell sapphire melting inside jade a color unnamed Ofra Haza's version of this song defies categoriz...

popular on this site