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Tom Healy
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It so happened: a group of us were having dinner in Miami last night, sitting on a dock on one of the islands in the shallows of Biscayne Bay. We had wine and a cool breeze and we were doing nothing more than sighing about the glories of potatoes served a certain way when the poet and musician Alicia Jo Rabins came down and joined us and told us the story of Hannah. Rabins has a new band called “Girls in Trouble” and they have a stunning debut album just out this week called, hey, guess what?—“Girls in Trouble.” The girls Alicia sings about are women from the Bible—most are lesser-known and even obscure—and their desert world is harsh, gruesome, mysterious, out of control. These are strong, fascinating women, unremembered and struggling in the desert for survival, family, for some understanding of the capricious ways of God, for a way to live with grace amidst the impossible. We know these women. The voices of our mothers and sisters and friends echo in these experiences of love and suffering, sacrifice and anger, jealousy, hunger, danger, doubt. Kith and kin depend on the wisdom, love and wile of these women. “Girls in Trouble” is musical midrash—Rabins interprets the texts these women have somewhat disappeared within—and a necessary effort of feminist respect and recovery. But it’s also really cool music: ten haunting songs with vocals and fiddles and strings of all kinds and drums and vibraphone and city urgency mixed up with the mood of Appalachia. Okay, so back to our Miami mood—on the dock, under the stars, with wine and Hannah. Or “Chana” if I step out of my own familiarities with the King James Bible and go Torah—which is definitely what you do if you’re listening to a nice Jewish girl named Alicia Jo Rabins sing songs and tell stories of biblical girls in trouble. Make that: nice Jewish girl who’s also a brilliant and gorgeous artist, intellectual, storyteller and songwriting macher-ette. And, remember, “girl” is her word, not mine. Chana was the mother of Samuel. For many years in her marriage to Elkanah, Chana was barren. But she was still Elkanah’s favorite, his spiritual soul mate. Big surprise, this did not endear Chana to Elkanah’s other wife, Peninnah. So Chana lived life taunted and abused by wife number two, who bore and raised the kids. Finally, Chana prayed and asked Hashem (God) for a child of her own. But, to sweeten the deal, she vowed, if her prayer were answered, to give her son to Hashem and send him away from her to live as a priest for life. There are many moving parts to this story. Okay, that’s a bad, but I hope, multivalent pun, because Rabins was retelling the Song of Hannah, which became for Jews the model of how to pray, and became, for Christians, the basis of the Magnifcat, the Song of Mary in the Gospel of Luke when Mary visits Elizabeth, mother of John the... Continue reading
Posted Nov 14, 2009 at The Best American Poetry
It's 76 degrees in Miami and the sun is in that last burst of brightness going down. I got off the plane in sunglasses listening to my new obsession, the great blind sax man Roland Kirk, master of circular breathing who could play two, three, four wind instruments at once and breathe a note as long as twenty minutes. He hummed into his flute, he switched on alarm clocks and sirens and he swung around the "black mystery pipes" on stage -- a long piece of garden hose. As a teaser, here's Roland Kirk in the zoo in a rare clip from a film he did with John Cage, called "Sound?" I got off the plane and hurried home to parrots in the trees, the dog hysterical and happy to be home and a giant, prehistoric manatee floating off the dock that I needed to go stare at for a while. I'm hosting a dinner soon with several writers in town for the Miami Book Fair. So with all this brightness and sensory stimulus, I need to make this penultimate post in a hurry. I took off my headset, I even took off my sunglasses. And I thought it's one of those achingly lovely nights when jazz will be the right music and wine the right drink. Roland Kirk had a gorgeous riff on just this sense of rightness that he called "Bright Moments" in an album from 1973. Just two years later he would have a stroke that would paralyze half his body. But he would miraculously continue to play until two years later still another stroke finally killed him. Bright Moments seems, in this setting-sun moment, the sentiment on which to dwell. Here are the words. The music--and Roland Kirk all bright and yellow--follow in the clip from Montreux 1975. "Now we would like to think of some very beautiful Bright Moments. You know what I mean? Bright Moments. Bright Moments is like eating your last pork chop in London, England, because you ain't gonna get no more . . . cooked from home. Bright Moments is like being with your favorite love and you're sharing the same ice cream dish. And you get mad when she gets the last drop. And you have to take her in your arms and get it the other way. Bright Moments. That's too heavy for most of you all because you all don't know nothing about that kind of love. The love you all have been taught about is the love in those magazines. And I am fortunate that I didn't have to look at magazines. Bright Moments. Bright Moments is like seeing something that you ain't ever seen in your life and you don't have to see it but you know how it looks. Bright Moments is like hearing some music that ain't nobody else heard, and if they heard it they wouldn't even recognize that they heard it because they been hearing it all their life but they nutted... Continue reading
Posted Nov 13, 2009 at The Best American Poetry
Before I pushed the pause button on this blog yesterday—to share a Veterans Day sign of peace—you may remember I was fantasizing about hustling Johannes Vermeer, the Sphinx of Delft, into the small elevator at the back of the Metropolitan Museum and up to the third floor to meet Robert Frank. People have imagined odder, even more hostile jostling of Vermeer. There’s Dali and the rhinoceros and the morphology of Vermeer’s “The Lacemaker.” In some sense, the fantasy simply mirrors the swing in our emotions between contemplation and engagement, between the source of light and what the light falls on, between the brushstroke and the personality. Or, to put it in a way that seemed bizarre, but ravishingly obvious only when I stood in front of “The Milkmaid,” Vermeer was interested in manna, not the maid. Yes, the light. Yes, the wall as intimate as skin, as gorgeously flawed as a lover’s body. Yes, the inky apron of a rare blue pigment Vermeer coveted and had to special-order from the apothecary when he could afford it. Yes, the subtle code of eroticism in the floor tiles with Cupid. Yes, the triangles and the sculptural solidity of color and the way shading pushes shapes forward. Okay, okay, it’s rapture. But … manna, not the maid. In the foreground, under the window, under the apron, under the gaze of the maid, is a slight-thread waterfall of milk from a ceramic pitcher and a little stone ridge of bread broken across the table glowing gold. The bread in particular looks as if it has just been brought into focus by a camera obscura: intense clarity at the center of the loaf, a slight, curious fuzz and blur on the left as the surface curves away from view. Otherworldly. Food for and from the gods. But, here’s a painting called “The Milkmaid,” dominated by the full-figured shape and colors of a woman at work—and she, whoever she is or might ever possibly be, doesn’t matter in the least to the painting or its beauty or its power. The whole time I was standing there studying the painting, marveling at its effects, being pulled in by paint, shrewdly, gently tugged and pushed here and there by Vermeer's control of light and reflection, I couldn’t help fidgeting and thinking oh where oh where are people and passion? I felt chastised and annoyed, not by Vermeer's virtuosity, but by the thin moral air. The curators seem to know this might be a problem for contemporary audiences because they surround Vermeer’s milkmaid with images of more lascivious playmates from the iconography of Dutch domestic desire. Lots of overcompensation going on as the show tries hard to convince us that Vermeer is doing a lot of his own winking and nodding. Peter Schjeldahl would have none of it in “The New Yorker”: “The sturdy dignity of the maid forfends even a notion of prurience. The majesty of her presentation—with sculptural mass in a monumentally composed and compressed, wide-angle view—would... Continue reading
Posted Nov 12, 2009 at The Best American Poetry
Armistice Day. The day the fighting ended. The day the weapons were put down. The day people turned, again, toward imagining what peace would be. Eisenhower warned us how hard it would be. Imagine any President—even this President—sounding the alarm about a permanent culture of war and the dangers of the military-industrial complex. Counting back November on five hands, I remember a letter from an old, decorated World War II veteran who was the father of a college friend of mine. He had written to me after some Reagan mischief and Hollywood tears. It was November 11th and he wrote that he was always unhappy the name had been changed to Veterans Day. “Sure, we live in a culture of narcissism,” he wrote. “But however great the sacrifices soldiers and their families make, this day is not about honoring people. It’s about holding on, for dear life, to peace.” "I many times thought Peace had come When Peace was far away—" Emily Dickinson I thought about holding on to peace this morning when I read that the President’s advisors are advocating escalating the war in Afghanistan. I thought about peace this morning when I read that the private military contractor Blackwater bribed Iraqi officials to silence them from investigating Blackwater’s murders of Iraqi civilians. Congress and the tv talking heads shouted and pounded the table for days about Acorn’s supposed corruption until its witch hunts were begun and funding was cut for the census, for community organizing, for housing and health care, for neighborhood safety. Funding slashed, not held onto, for peace. And, of course, the tables of power are not being pounded tonight over Blackwater—though their illegalities directly besmirch and dishonor the veterans our country honors today. We’re shocked but not surprised. So I looked for some peace to hold onto. It’s amazing the poets who are there to point the way. In a few hours, I’m going to be reading with one of them, Carolyn Forché, here in New York. And for the last few hours, I turned to others. I have the excellent website open for Sam Hamill’s “Poets Against the War” and his essential anthology right next to me. Sam Hamill is experiencing some serious financial hardship at present—medical treatments not covered by insurance, an inability to teach, a very modest pension. The poets Marilyn Hacker and Alfred Corn have been raising funds to help. Donations of all sizes will be appreciated. They can be sent care of Alfred Corn to: P.O. Box 214, Hopkinton, RI 02833 U.S.A. I’ve also been reading an eloquent, rigorous and wise anthology that came out last year from Bottom Dog Press, “Come Together, Imagine Peace.” The title may sound a little too feel-good and aesthetically soft, but the poems are strong and brilliantly-chosen. And there is an excellent introduction by Philip Metres. I opened to Robert Creeley’s brief, lovely “paean of patience”: For No Clear Reason I dreamt last night the fright was over, that the dust came, and then... Continue reading
Posted Nov 11, 2009 at The Best American Poetry
The protagonist in David Markson’s staggeringly brilliant novel, “Wittgenstein’s Mistress” believes she is the last person on Earth. Fortunately for us, that gives her plenty of time to ruminate on art and philosophy. She spends much of it rattling around in abandoned museums, sometimes burning paintings for heat. And she shares: anecdotes, supposed encounters, verbal swatches of art history, religion and the history of philosophy. In one extraordinarily funny passage, our anonymous heroine--this intellectual post-Apocalypse Survivor™--imagines an encounter between Rembrandt and Spinoza in Amsterdam, circa 1656. “…it is probably safe to assume that Rembrandt and Spinoza surely would have at least passed one the street now and again. Or even run into each other quite frequently, if only at some neighborhood shop or other. And certainly they would have exchanged amenities as well, after a time. Good morning, Rembrandt. Good morning to you, Spinoza. I was extremely sorry to hear about your bankruptcy, Rembrandt. I was extremely sorry to hear about your excommunication, Spinoza. Do have a good day, Rembrandt. Do have the same, Spinoza. All of this would have been said in Dutch, incidentally. I mention that simply because it is known that Rembrandt did not speak any other language except Dutch. Even if Spinoza may have preferred Latin. Or Jewish.” There is so much wry learnedness and—to me at least—laugh-out-loud understatement packed in here. But what I love most about what Markson makes of this imagined encounter is the sudden, heightened sense we get of absurdity: Amsterdam was a pretty small town in the 17th century. Two giants of Western civilization happened to live—each in a moment of striking adversity—within a few blocks of one another in the Jewish Quarter of a very N.J. city. This is the best they can do? This is how great the distance would be for these great men to travel over the landscape stretched out between their different moral imaginations—even if they really almost lived next door? That we would have to imagine Rembrandt and Spinoza bumping into one another—that no one really has ever reconstructed such a scene before, that there’s no document of them ever meeting—shows just how little evidence ever remains of anyone’s living, breathing, thinking and feeling. So much of who we are disappears as we’re living it. Forget what people centuries later might want to reconstruct of the lives of historical figures, people we think we might actually know quite well, perhaps through the ubiquity of reproduction of their art or the ready availability of their correspondence or biographies and portraits and other evidence from the fossil record of personality. And, yet, the paradox: we turn to fictions to flesh all this out, and even then, we have so little to rely on to construct anything like believability out of our narrative plastic surgeries on the vague images of the past. Markson’s comic, almost slapstick episode of ineptitude in the awkwardness of Rembrandt meeting Spinoza is a perfect-pitch acknowledgment of the problem. He employs a hyper-intellectual, deeply-learned... Continue reading
Posted Nov 10, 2009 at The Best American Poetry
I left Washington for New York in a cinematic 3-D dust storm this morning. Actually, the storm is pretty much confined to one dark room just off the escalator on the third floor of the Hirrshorn Museum. It’s a huge, vertiginous wall projection in a disturbingly beautiful small show by the Irish artist, John Gerrard. Using gaming software, satellite imaging and a Depression-era photograph he found of an actual Texas dust storm, Gerrard has pulled off a stunning, uncanny 360-video weave of fact and fakery that makes you feel as if you’re moving around and along an on-coming storm. Through some complicated cinematic artistry way beyond my ability to explain, you find yourself being stared down by a gorgeous, billowing, dirt-in-air menace that seems crouched on the horizon for miles, but is also right in front of you, like a giant brown beast panting beneath the widening gyre. And even more frighteningly (but perfectly), there’s nothing to hear: there is no soundtrack, just deliberate, mechanical muteness. None of the roar and rage one might too easily imagine from such a huge wall of danger scooped up from the dried-out Texas plains. The animated suspension of churning dust is as stilled and reticent as the jagged flashes of light in the Clyfford Still color fields and Bierstadt landscapes in the Hirrshorn's adjoining galleries. The silence of Gerrard’s storm film is frightening, in part, because of the disconnect (think sound and fury); in part, because it’s so awkward nowadays, even in museums, to be alone with one another without voice or noise; and, in part, because this storm—this high-tech manufacture by a subtle artist—is actually a storm warning:The storm's sources, as Gerrard makes clear, are the native tribes and buffalo dead, the great plains grazed to stubble by cattle, and then oil derricks, like malarial insects, barbed to the bare skin of the West. Al Gore has been telling that the great beast is coming again, but leave it to another Irishman to make the Apocalypse seem beautiful. Mr. Gerrard, I believe Mr. Yeats would be proud. Eighteen months ago, my partner, Fred, and I were caught in another dust and sand storm in another land of Apocalypse. We were hiking in Syria. One moment was late-day heat and haze, the next, a sudden, scary, magnificent and mercifully-brief blizzard of grit at sunset. Just as we were getting a little skill at howling on the heath, our guide told us to relax, this was pretty much going to be a shoulder-shrug squall. Among the places we were exploring in the gorgeous barrens of the Syrian desert were the religious sites of the 4th Century Coptics, who shrugged at a lot more demons than air-born sand. Consider the most famous Coptic: Simeon Stylites, crazy holy man who couldn't find enough ways to abase himself. He tried tightening a rope around his waist for months until his flesh rotted and maggots crawled out of him; he tried burying himself in sand up to his... Continue reading
Posted Nov 9, 2009 at The Best American Poetry
“Uncle Tommy, What’s the difference between asking a question and wondering?” Hmm. How about a cookie? When you don’t have children of your own, you can forget that kids can be philosophy on-demand. A friend of mine was late for coffee. I had been watching her ten year-old daughter and finally, the doorbell rang. With pseudo wide eyes and a salt bucket of sarcasm, I looked at my lovely ward of the morning and said, “Well, well, I wonder who that could be!” My friend rushed in the door, flushed and caffeine-deprived. We sat down, laughed, caught up and gossiped. And a few minutes later her lovely daughter came back in the room as grim as Wittgenstein. I was about to be punished into thinking about meaning what we say. “Uncle Tommy, What’s the difference between asking a question and wondering?” Of course, if the dynamics of discipline only go this far, with cookies and coffee and questions of considering our words on Sunday afternoon, then, Foucault fans out there, I readily submit. (But here’s what I wonder if you’ll wonder about as I begin a week at your feet: is the internet our new panopticon?) So: asking and wondering. The all too obvious way to go here is first things first: something gets wondered and then if there’s courage, opportunity, another person—or enough despair—wonder might condense, with breath and sound, into the cloud of a question or even a storm of them: “And all these questions I ask myself,” says the narrator of Beckett’s “The Unnamable.” “It is not in a spirit of curiosity. I cannot be silent. About myself I need know nothing. Here all is clear. No, all is not clear. But the discourse must go on. So one invents obscurities. Rhetoric.” Rhetoric and obscurities. We know them well. When questions come without any wonder. In other words, the anxiety, the talk, talk, talk of our every day. But today, huzzah!, is not every day. It’s my first day of blogging ... ever. And it’s Sunday. And where I am (Washington, lots of rhetoric and obscurity, no silence, no seaside), it really is a sun day with intense autumn color breaking the glass of the slow Potomac. It's Gypsy summer, Indian summer, St. Martin's summer. So I’m allowing myself a cookie, an evasion of answers and an indulgent day of wondering while I go outside. Oh, and don't forget John Milton died today. True, that was back in 1674, but since I was reading him this morning, it seems very recent. So, let me let Milton have the last word. (Theologically, would he consider that blasphemy? Something more to ponder.) It seems appropriate to close with Milton wondering the beauty of the day with a question. “What wonder then if fields and regions here Breathe forth Elixir pure, and rivers run Potable gold, when with one virtuous touch The arch-chimic sun, so far from us remote, Produces, with terrestrial humor mixed, Here in the dark so many... Continue reading
Posted Nov 8, 2009 at The Best American Poetry