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Sharon Dolin
Barcelona
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Yes, of course I've been to a mikveh, more than one. Often there's a separate mikveh for women and for men, though sometimes they use the same one at different hours. I'm no expert, of course. It was just deeply sad to me that it took so long for anyone In Catalunya to figure out that the structure was a mikveh. The Catholic analogy would be like finding a small font and not realizing it was for baptism.
It sounds like a popular song. Sorry I can't be of more help.
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Drawings by Jabes on the manuscript of The Book of Questions The place that felt to me just as holy as all the churches I visited (the Dourade with its Black Madonna that I described in my last post) is a large bookstore called Librairie Ombres Blanches (white shade/shadows). When I entered there was the same holy hush of a multifarious array of people. And poetry (unlike in the States, where it is banished to some obscure corner, usually downstairs) is right there at the entrance. Poetry with newly released editions by Classic authors such as Baudelaire. Then an extensive poetry section in a prominent part of the Literature section of the bookstore. There was an article in The New York Times about this phenomenon—about the French people's undying love for the physical book and physical bookstore—and I found it to be completely true. And there were so many altars at which to worship and I made my contribution at the cash register. Jabes in 1952 while still living in Egypt I write this on an electronic device and admit that the majority of my reading matter is saved on various devices: from the IPad, to the Kindle, to the IPhone. But what I miss is the sensuous pleasure of the book: the feel of paper in my hands, be it toothy, card-stock cover or smooth, glossy paper. The smell of a new book when I open it. These are primal pleasures that began for me in childhood and they continue. (I'm sure one day there'll be an app for that—the feel of paper and the smell of it—but God help us, I hope not.) fragment from The Book of Questions scrawled on a Paris metro ticket As I have written before, I have an obsession with the Egyptian/French Jewish writer Edmond Jabes, that had gotten submerged for many years but the obsession breached once I knew I was going to France, one more exilic Jew. He's filed under poetry in France. I went to have a look and there were many of the books in French that I already owned—mine, of course, translated into English by the brilliant translator Rosemary Waldrop. Then, a surprise: a brand new compendium on Jabes, just published to coincide with an exhibit to commemorate Jabes's centenary, which had taken place in Paris through June. [I can't tell you the editors nor the publisher because my "Blogsy" app swallowed the first two completed drafts of this post and I'm now on a train without the book having to completely rewrite!!!] This is the kind of book I adore when I am passionate about a writer (Kafka and Pessoa being two other examples). There are old photos, manuscript pages, letters he wrote and received, broadsides, an interview, essays by others, drawings. Three aphorisms by Jabes and illustration by Eduard Chilliada (1975), which hung in Jabes's study Three Aphorisms by Jabes: The line is desire granted by one point for another. The shortest way. & The first... Continue reading
Posted Aug 3, 2012 at The Best American Poetry
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I spent the day in Toulouse, which meant there was only so much I could see. Kind of like life. After talking briefly to a couple in Auvillar, Gerhard, originally from Germany, and Marie-Josef, from France, about their project of creating a memorial to the 4 families who were deported to Auschwitz from Auvillar, I had a bit of an edge—more so than usual—when Gerhard described to me that even during the first crusade, in 1095, the French made a decision to lengthen their route to Jerusalem by first going through the area where I am to kill whatever Jews they could find. Saint Sernin So here I was setting out and though I always intend to do otherwise, the churches do have a way of drawing me in. First was Saint Sernin, where I stumbled upon a funeral in progress, which meant I got to hear the mournful strains of the organ and to see the priest in his royal purple robe in procession with the mourners. Then a brief visit to the archaeological museum next door. Once there were figures of pagan gods and heroes, I felt a lot more at home. Hercules and the Erymanthian Boar (4th Labor) Venus & child (not unlike Madonna & child) The highlight of the day was the Black Madonna in the Eglise Dourade: a church built over a pagan church. No one can give a good answer as to why there are black madonnas, but there was a level of devoutness that I witnessed in the women (the black madonna protects pregnant women and mothers in particular) praying to her. She had an aura of mystery and serenity. And when I glanced across at the chapel on the other side, a strange ray of light coming through the stained glass fell on the afternoon wall, making an impressionist painting far superior to anything I had seen in the Capitol buidling earlier that day. I failed miserably at getting a look inside a synagogue. I was told by phone that everyone was going on vacation. So as I ran to the train station, I snapped a quick picture of the facade of this newish-looking, nondescript synagogue. Synagogue Palaprat (near the train station) The hour grows late. I'll save for tomorrow the place that inspired hushed resonance to rival that of any house of worship. (Hint: Think literature.) Continue reading
Posted Jul 30, 2012 at The Best American Poetry
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one of the painters in the painting competition whose muse (a grey parrot) is sitting in a tree nearby Village life has its advantages. You stroll around on market days and everyone knows your favorite chevre, your passion for lemon cookies. And then there are events that seem to capture the attention of the entire village (try that in New York!). As I write this, there are painters spread out all over the town of Auvillar, painting landscapes. This annual event, "Paint My Village," which apparently happens in different places in France, is a competition, in which painters at 3 levels: amateur, professional, and children, compete for a prize over the course of a 3-day weekend of painting. With my fellow artist Aurelien and Yona, we strolled around yesterday to see what the painters were up to. another painter in a small public garden Tonight, we all signed up for the paella dinner, which will be served in the town square around the famous Halle aux Graines. 19th century hall where grain was sold My favorite artist (the one who stole my heart) is this five-year-old below: What may be hard to see is that he has used the grains themselves in his painting. I'm betting on him to win a prize. We find out tomorrow at 5 who the winners are. Continue reading
Posted Jul 28, 2012 at The Best American Poetry
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Birthday Macarons from Le Varens de Gens, neighboring town This was my birthday present from Cheryl and John, who hosted a fabulous birthday dinner party for me in the garden here. It's a feast of colors and flavors, as is my stay here. Cheryl Fortier is the Director of Moulin a Nef, the artist colony where I'm staying. artisanal soap shop in town One of the four artists staying here left today, so it was a little bit sad. In the morning, I walked into town with Yona Harvey, the other American poet in residence here, and we stopped in the soap shop, where the proprietor makes all the soaps as well as eau de toilette, with every possible scent. I bought the violet one because it smelled just like the candies of my youth that my son now also likes. Here are the four of us: Aurelien Morrisse (French painter), Michelle Acuff (sculptor, visual artist, who left today), Yona Harvey (American poet), and moi (NY poet who would rather use color than words). I am hoping, perhaps, in a later post to talk about their work. It's also the 56th anniversary of the day Nasser took control of the Suez Canal, which began the Suez Canal Crisis, which led to the expulsion of the Jews from Egypt, not least of whom was Edmond Jabes, beloved poet/philosopher, who moved to Paris. Would he have become the writer he became had he remained in Egypt? Would the taste of exile be so palpable in his work? Color, eau de toilette, and exile. These are the three moods of the day. I suppose I came here because even these brief sojourns elsewhere are the way I, like many artists, can, in a self-imposed exile, receive the word in the desert. For Jabes, the Jew was the quintessential outsider, the "foreigner of foreigners." at the base of the clock tower in Auvillar, in homage to Marcabrun Auvillar is the birthplace of Marcabrun, a troubadour poet born around 1100, who is famous for writing a song that was used as inspiration during the Crusades, in which Jews as well as Moslems were massacred. So my stay here continues to be rife with contradiction. As it turns out, the Garonne may be off-limits for swimming because of all the pesticide run-off. To be continued . . . Continue reading
Posted Jul 26, 2012 at The Best American Poetry
Thanks, Stacey! Sharon sdolin@earthlink.net
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La Garonne Water Before, there is water. After, there is water. during, always during. —Lake water? —River water? —Sea water? Never water over water Never water for water; but water where there is no longer water; water in the dead memory of water. —Edmond Jabes Twenty years ago, in a Paris bookshop, I picked up a little book by Edmond Jabes called La Memoire et La Main and proceeded to translate it on small pieces of tracing paper I interleaved in the book. Then, nothing. Before coming to France, I thought to have a look through my book shelves at the few French books I owned and came upon this book once more and thought to bring it to France to work on. But the book struck me as too fragile, so I scanned it in to my computer and left the physical copy home. Twice. Now those scanned copies hover somewhere in iCloud, or iTunes, unreachable by me. Sounds very Jabesian. The Book, the absence of the book, its silence. The translation above, is taken from the one I did 20 years ago. Cleaned up as I could, with no access to the original French and given the still very limited French I have acquired. I wanted this poem here on this day, because today is my birthday and, like Jabes, I am of the desert always in search of water. The photo above is of the Garonne River, right down the street from me, supposedly very dangerous and therefore unswimmable. Every time I asked someone, I heard a different story. Oh, a family of 4 drowned several years ago, pulled down by the algae. Algae?!!!! Oh, the currents can suddenly become very swift and drag you off. . . Oh. So for several days I was frightened off and biked to the local pool of screaming kids and no real lap lane. But yesterday, along with 2 other artists, I braved the river. It was like a mucky pond, lots of large weeds, but swimmable (supposedly upstream from the nuke plant) and, if not delightful, certainly far more satisfying than the French pool. So, as is my birthday custom, I intend to dip myself (a mikveh, ritual immersion of sorts) in the Garonne this afternoon at precisely 3:13pm, the moment of my birth, despite the time zone difference . . . Let's assume I'll survive to tell the tale tomorrow of the birthday dinner tonight. Continue reading
Posted Jul 25, 2012 at The Best American Poetry
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view through the poplars "Machinery will have so much Americanized us, progress will have so much atrophied our spiritual element, that nothing in the sanguinary, blasphemous or or unnatural dreams of the Utopists can be compared to what will actually happen." That statement was written 150 years ago by Charles Baudelaire in an unfinished work published posthumously in 1887, 20 years after his death, and translated by Richard Howard in a little book called Intimate Journals. Merely change the word "machinery" to "technology" and it sounds fairly accurate. Compare it to this contemporary aphorism by Nassim Nicholas Taleb (Lebanese, educated in French schools in Lebanon and at the University of Paris as well as in the U.S.) from his recent aphorism collection The Bed of Procrustes: "The book is the only thing left that hasn't been corrupted by the profane: everything else on your eyelids manipulates you with an ad." I only realized how strong the pull of the marketplace is when even I was tempted to allow ads on my personal blog Whirlwind in order to make some money. Thus far, I have resisted the call. I came to France (and the Basque Country) to continue my work on aphorisms. And, of course, I felt I should read some collections by the French, especially since it seems, according to Alfred Corn, that the French were the ones who began to treat aphorisms as witty, pithy statements. The problem I have with some of Baudelaire is that he is so often interested in shocking us out of our bourgeois propriety. And that is the most dated and least shocking thing about him. As when he starts off on the first page, declaring: "Love is a liking for prostitution. There are no pleasures, not even noble ones, whose origin cannot be traced to prostitution. . . . What is art? Prostitution." Are you beginning to yawn? "Commerce is essentially satanic." Only a deeply religious man could seek to offend the pious by talking of Satan. (moi) [Though, now, since I have had a night without internet service and thus time to ponder, I wonder if Baudelaire wasn't right after all: that even my contemplation of allowing ads on my site wouldn't be a kind of prostitution. . .] In a future post, I'll talk about one of my favorite French aphorists, Edmond Jabes, an Egyptian Jew by birth. I'll leave you with one sketch for an aphorism (an aphorism for me encompassing the personal "horizon," which is part of the etymology of aphorism, as in setting boundaries [see my little essay ]) Today on my bike, I rode by Avenue Monplaisir, but I knew if I stopped, I would not find it. Is that my fate: to knowingly (or, perhaps, unknowingly) be passing my pleasure by? Continue reading
Posted Jul 24, 2012 at The Best American Poetry
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I am residing next to a hunting club. Every day, since I arrived, groups of men go past my window early each morning, busy with preparations for a midday feast that took place today. How could I not attend. It was a barbeque feast of wild deer and wild boar. . . lots of wine . . lots of talk . . . and lots of hunting still going on. Suffice it to say that a male stag of a certain age saw me as American game and relentlessly hunted me. But he did not bank on my stubborn armor of silence and words and my intolerance for male machismo that acts as a narcissistic mirror: he desires her and only sees the reflection of his own desire in her—a fatal projection. Then the men (mostly, though there were one or two women) went on to play a kind of bocce ball that here they call petanque. The small ball, which they try to get as close to as possible without hitting it, is supposed to symbolize a small piece from the side of the wild boar. Today I resisted becoming the deer or the sow. Continue reading
Posted Jul 22, 2012 at The Best American Poetry
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photo by Michelle Acuff This is where I am living: where they grow sunflowers and are in love with nuclear power. This plant, Golfech Nuclear Power Plant in La Garonne, is so close that I could see it in the distance from my bicycle as I sped to the local pool. This photo is by one of the artists here, Michelle Acuff, a sculptor with an amazing eye. She went right up to the power plant, something I am not prepared to do, that actually makes me tremble with fear. The proximity of the plant almost stopped me from coming here. In this photo, the centers of the sunflowers look like unblinking eyes staring back at the viewer. Is this the price we must pay for beauty? John, the resident director's husband, says they have a view of them from their window. A different sort of twin towers than the ones I used to see from my apartment in Brooklyn. Why are the French so in love with nuclear energy, which supplies roughly 75% of their energy needs? Where are the solar panels? Wind turbines that I saw all over Spain? This is also the route for the pilgrims on their way to Santiago de Compostela. And in the town of Auvillar itself, I arrived just as a wedding was ending. . . The bride is in pastel blue (because she is remarrying). And all the wedding guests walked to see the view of the river before leaving in their cars. I couldn't bear to take a photo of what lay to my hard left: what my fellow/sister artist took in the first photo, she who road right up to the power plant. So here I am, living for a few weeks in the heart of contradiction. Now I understand why, to my ears, the words in French for Love (l'amour) and Death (La Mort) sound almost the same. In fact, over lunch with some locals, I was corrected, having said la mort when I meant l'amour. Continue reading
Posted Jul 21, 2012 at The Best American Poetry
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I just arrived in the southwest of France (in the Midi-Pyrenees) to begin an artist residency at Le Moulin a Nef in a tiny village called Auvillar. Quite a culture shock after pinxtos (tapas)-bar-hopping in San Sebastian, Spain till all hours of the night. On my first morning here, today, the Residency Director Cheryl Fortier and her husband John invited the artists (there are 4 of us) to come with them to watch the Tour de France cyclists go speeding by. Pourquois pas? So, of course, I went. There we were, with about 100 locals, on the side of the road, with sunflowers all around and an ancient abbey down the road, waiting. And the cavalcade of cars with passing floats throwing out hats, keychains (I got knocked in the head by a little cow keychain!), candies, madeleines.... And then we waited for another 45 minutes for the cyclists to whoosh by: frightening in their speed, like a herd of stampeding wildcats. It must have taken no more than 5 seconds for them to go by. One of Cheryl and John's friends was explaining that there is the tradition of the Lanterne Rouge (Red Lantern): the person who completes the Tour but comes in dead last. And he is celebrated. It's like being the caboose of the Tour. And I thought, What a poetic idea. Maybe we poets are the Red Lanterns of the Tour de Coeur (The Tour of the Heart). We take our time, peruse the landscape, and come in last, but at least we finish the race. Continue reading
Posted Jul 20, 2012 at The Best American Poetry
Alas. I didn't jot them down. It was a few lines from one of his sonnets. It was late at night. Mi disculpe. Sharon