Thursday, January 19, 2017

Wednesday, January 18, 2017


I brew and drink the genmaicha I bought in Santa Cruz inside the rain in the tea and rug shop that made me think of Santa Fe, a low-roofed shop with wooden floors and rough woven kilims in earthen colors and the saturated reds of plant or mineral dyes.  Green tea with roasted brown rice, a few of the grains popped like popcorn.  A tea that offers great comfort, that holds sagacity and love in it.

The flavor takes me back to where we first drank it, the rustic old Manago Hotel on the road through the village of Captain Cook on the Big Island of Hawai'i.  The one-room restaurant with its big screened windows open to the ocean breezes where we went often over twenty-some years, which my father knew first during the war.  It was always a favorite spot for pork chops and for local fish, served family-style with bowls of sticky rice, potato or macaroni salad, tofu, marinated seaweed.  And a sacramental pot of genmaicha.

The old family hotel would make me think in turn of pensioni on the shores of one of the Italian lakes I fell in love with in my late twenties after a failed marriage, maybe because it smelled of cooking meat and fish and had that dazzling view of sun-struck water, or because it was wound together all along with that nostalgic yearning memory of leisurely meals shared at a simple tables midday with a group of family and friends. 

Between Keauhou Bay and Honaunau Bay, along the highway south through coffee country, past the coffee mills and sausage trees, between the place we stayed and the place where we left my father, in the end,
it was exactly the right place to find ourselves again after we'd scattered his ashes.  Homey and comforting.  All of us starved, feeling the call to life, we ate large helpings of pork chops and rice.  Besides "Mama," "Daughter," and "Auntie," Mom's Hawaiian singer friend who painted houses when his music didn't pay enough, and told me about swimming with an 80-pound pet eel; the English gardener whose father was a seacaptain and who brought little pecan tarts and bags of papayas to my mother; and the wise and funny Honolulu-born elder, kupuna, who made jewelry from coral, seed pearls, seed pods, and sharks' teeth.

Honaunau Bay is just outside the City of Refuge, sacred ground to the ancient Hawaiians, and an important place to us—closed just then, ironically, because of a political standoff in Washington (something my father would have had some pithy words to cover).  So near to sacred ground (appropriate for a much vaunted agnostic) we gathered between the historical site and a tiny native fishing village with tin roofs at the boat harbor, where locals park in big old beat-up vans to talk-story and drink beer.

The captain of the outrigger canoe which took out the ashes was a fisherwoman too and a breeder of terriers, and had a house on the mountain besides one on the bay there in that fishing village, with five lava steps leading right down into the water.  Water the color of sapphires, my father's September birthstone.  She'd made an altar, with a square of bright cloth, a pareo, laid out over a stone wall at the boat harbor, and flowers in a ceremonial pattern on it—leis, white and butter yellow plumeria, dusty lavender crown flowers.  She had us put the container of ashes ("Temporary Container") in the center, within the circle of the middlemost lei, and any snapshots we had of "Papa."  The picture by the cottonwood in Santa Fe, when I was in eighth grade; and one up to his shins, pantlegs tidily rolled, in the river in Yellowstone, where my parents had met.  Circled around it, we listened to "Amazing Grace" in Hawaiian, and "Aloha Oe"; to a passage from Colette my mother had found; to a tribute I'd written.

And later we would eat pork chops and rice with chopsticks at a big square table in an airy room with wooden walls and floors and big screened windows and the sea below.  We would drink genmaicha, spilling a spontaneous offering from the lip of the ceramic teapot to the local gods, who'd come and joined us as we sat and talked.

Reading the tea leaves tells of the long skein of life past as well as the future.  Fortune goes both ways.  Backwards and on, ahead, glimpsed only in a cup or glass, darkly.  The earthy fragrance and flavor of toasted rice, cupped in both hands, coaxes the necessary stories out.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

So Beautiful and Lost

In a small moment of huge significance this week, whether intended as such or not, the 45-year conductor of the Metropolitan Opera, James Levine, humane and full of love for music and for life, gave a signal to the orchestra and chorus to begin an unprecedented encore of "Va Pensiero," the Chorus of Hebrew Slaves in Verdi's opera Nabucco, during the broadcast to listeners in some two thousand theatres in seventy countries.  "Oh my country, so beautiful and lost . . ."  The song of the exiles on the banks of the Euphrates in conquering Babylon, lamenting the loss of their homeland.

Verdi wrote the supremely moving piece when Italy was struggling for its own freedom in the late 1800s, and it quickly became a popular anthem for the Italian people, expressing their longing for political freedom from Austria, for unification of their country.  It was surely not by accident that we were given this shared gift of solidarity and spiritual comfort just when we in America are heading into the dark night of exile. 

So many echoing cries of the heart, for loss both personal and national—and far beyond.  Verdi composed Nabucco at a difficult moment in his life, when his wife and small children had all just died.  When Verdi's coffin was carried to its final resting place a month after his death in 1901, the crowd of a quarter of a million people along the route spontaneously began singing the stirring chorus.  A month later, when he was reinterred alongside his wife at the "Casa di Riposo," a young Arturo Toscanini conducted a choir of eight hundred in the famous hymn (once proposed as the Italian national anthem).

"But the reason the Italians took to the streets that wintry day at the dawn of the last century was about much more than just music. Verdi’s operas had provided the soundtrack to the politically tempestuous half-century that preceded his death, and his most famous arias had become quasi-anthems for a nation recently unified. When Nabucco had its premiere at La Scala in 1842, ‘Italy’ was  simply a cluster of geographically contiguous kingdoms and principalities with little more to unite them than a common language.
     So when Italians sang the Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves at Verdi’s funeral procession, it wasn’t just because it was a catchy tune they knew the words to. Its subject—the Israelites giving poignant voice to their longing for the promised land—had become a powerful analogue for the long-frustrated desires of the Italian people.  When they cried  'Viva Verdi!' during the funeral procession, they were still acutely conscious of the slogan’s double meaning and its clandestine resonance for the agitators of ‘the Risorgimento,’ as the cause of Italian nationalism was known. The letters VERDI also spelled out the name of the King of Sardinia who, in 1861, finally took the throne of a unified nation for the first time since the 6th Century—Victor Emmanuele Re D’Italia."

In 2011, after playing 'Va, pensiero' at a performance of Nabucco at the Teatro dell'Opera in Rome, conductor Riccardo Muti made a short speech protesting cuts in Italy's arts budget, then asked the audience to sing along in support of culture and patriotism.  In the same spirit, I think, conductor James Levine was through the repetition of the famous music asking our support of both.

Music will perhaps save us, when nothing else can.  Or at least memorialize our dear lost land.

Va, pensiero, sull'ali dorate;

va, ti posa sui clivi, sui colli,

ove olezzano tepide e molli

l'aure dolci del suolo natal!

Del Giordano le rive saluta,

di Sionne le torri atterrate...

O, mia patria, sì bella e perduta!

O, membranza, sì cara e fatal!

Arpa d'or dei fatidici vati,

perché muta dal salice pendi?

Le memorie nel petto raccendi,

ci favella del tempo che fu!

O simile di Sòlima ai fati

traggi un suono di crudo lamento,

o t'ispiri il Signore un concento

che ne infonda al patire virtù.

Go, thought, on wings of gold;
go settle upon the slopes and the hills,
where, soft and mild, the sweet airs
of our native land smell fragrant!

Greet the banks of the Jordan
and Zion's toppled towers...
Oh, my country, so beautiful and lost!
Oh, remembrance, so dear and so fatal!

Golden harp of the prophetic seers,
why dost thou hang mute upon the willow?
Rekindle our bosom's memories,
and speak to us of times gone by!

Oh you akin to the fate of Jerusalem,
give forth a sound of crude lamentation,
oh may the Lord inspire you a harmony of voices
which may instill virtue to suffering.

(libretto, Temistocle Solera, inspired by Psalm 137)

image:  Nabucco, Assembly Hall Theatre

Tuesday, January 3, 2017


To lift, to fetch, to drive, to shed, to pen,
Are acts I recognize, with all they mean
Of shepherding the unruly, for a kind of
Controlled woolgathering is my work too.
—Cecil Day Lewis

Writing poetry requires a lot of wool-gathering,
and in twelve hours there's only so much wool.
—Kay Ryan, then Poet Laureate, during a colloquium at Stanford

My work, like the poets', is a kind of woolgathering.  I gather impressions, inspiration, and iridescence from absolutely everywhere, forever after trying to herd them into some kind of coherence and order.  For instance, a list I made three years ago of the details my god is in (god being, as we're told, in the details):
the fossil fish
the flute player sitting crosslegged on a sandstone ledge up at the Ceremonial Cave (playing the interlude from Carmen)
the red quintessence on a blackbird’s wing
a mound of cloud seen from a plane (the little lights too, on the airplane wing, and footprints)
a hefty PG Wodehouse collection
Rilke in translation
graham crackers and milk
a Paris rooftop with a little children’s wading pool
the cat’s eye at the end of Tristes Tropiques
the Emperor Concerto
a spool of turquoise thread
a curl of lemon peel
goldfish swimming in silky circles
rain in the late afternoon
a rhubarb-red umbrella, furled
the frozen breath of lions in the January zoo
a minister in cowboy boots
Western ghost towns
the Rhine in early June, a boat running down it
the Taiko drummers through an open door one evening after class
sea turtles in slow caramelly motion
three red flowerpots
the big bowl of a pipe (Maigret or Sherlock Holmes)
light catching on a reeling cloud of sandpipers
the seeds in a dried chili pod
landing in Sicily after a night and half day’s flight
what grows on lava
burned pine trees nourishing new growth
the movements of a white knight on a chessboard
the efficient little legs of a dachsund
carved santos
inner-tubing in the snow at Hyde Park
mercury, spilling heavily from a broken thermometer
Chinon wine, cool and tasting of the earth
the taverna under the ancient aqueduct full of nesting ravens
a silver shaman
handprints in deep French caves
the tutu store, with satin toe shoes
an elevator repairman in the Algonquin
gingko leaves
Etruscan filigree
a wind-ruffled apple orchard
Zaatar spices
the old Chimera bookshop
library ladders
the old women fishing for shrimp with nets near Hilo Bay
oxbow rivers silvered with the last sunlight
picnics with Tanqueray martinis
pork loin stuffed with herbs
the shape of certain Js and Cs
Snoopy typing on his doghouse
the stripes of melons
a Keats tag on a carry-on bag
the Irish fishmonger on the high street
cutting out lacy paper snowflakes
deerskin moccasins
shadow boxes
sprouting pinto beans in milk cartons
growing alum crystals

So for this loopy work, what in the world—wherever in the world—is my workspace?  (In answer to a posting in a friend's Facebook forum.)  Where does all of that wool come from, and go, to be carded and spun and woven into even or unruly stripes?  Here's a partial answer, or the beginning of one.

Books, everywhere—on my writing room shelf; upstairs in a Canterbury shop; in Lewes near the W. Sussex Downs, where Sherlock Holmes retired to tend his beehives; or in the carved hands of a quiet reader with her child on Canyon Road, on my way to The Teahouse Santa Fe to sit under apricot trees and gather thoughts and a lifetime of memories in my open notebook.

A few of my muses.  A Zuni fetish horse, a luminescent stone, the juncos that come to my Zen stone and the basin of the St. Francis from Mission San Juan Bautista.   Kwan Yin, the Buddhist goddess of compassion, who has lived unrecognized in our patio first underneath the Greek flag then under a flight of cloth birds, confused with Shiva for reasons I don't remember.  A disarming old saint in Bath.  My lovely John, in the cloister of Canterbury Cathedral.

The stuff of poetry—what feeds my spiritual being, my work, my life.
Sensual and spiritual riches:  colors, etc.
. lilacs (these in Kew Gardens)
. peonies and sunstruck glass (left by a friend)
Travel, across the world.
. oranges (the artist's house in North Kohala where I once holed up to write)
. stolen days in Mallorca (a ruinous old finca borrowed for my ghazal-writing detective, and the green door his archaeologist partner comes across while walking each morning around Alcudia's medieval walls, planning her lecture on Carthaginian goddesses)
Letters and words.  A fascination of letters to choose among; languages to lure me in, to puzzle out.  These, in
. Treviso, on the way to Venice
. Pu'uhonua o Honaunau, the ancient Place of Refuge (nao = grain of wood or stone, a slight ripple on the water; pio = to die down, as a wave)

My writing and art.  Work in progress (the tea probably Happiness, but maybe Spring Cherry, lavender white; the page from "Whole Cloth," the second of my novellas set in Mallorca); pages from collage notebooks; a row of mailboxes in Santa Fe, waiting for letters that I alone in the world, it seems, still send.

The spaces themselves.
. My writing room, and some of its offerings.
. The patio behind our cottage, my well-loved outdoor writing space, and place of inspiration/restoration.  Skies that transport me; things that come from someplace else, and take me back, away, with them, like water rippling out from a still center.
. Borrowed spaces, across the world.  Santa Cruz, the hushed cathedral of redwoods, Keauhou Bay, Treviso.  Kew Gardens again, with John in the perfect reading and writing spot, an ideal place for woolgathering.

image:  Christie B. Cochrell, page from collage notebook