Monthly Archives: April 2010

Back from India and Today is poem in Your Pocket Day

I know I have not written here for weeks. And this is no excuse, but tough to find computer time sailing on a house boat,  or between swigs of champagne in Jodhpur palace, from the back of a camel, in a mud hut in the Thar Desert, in between slurps of the opium tea taken from the giant hands of a Bishnois tribesman or even  at India’s largest Mosque.

Yes India is internet savvy, but I brought only an IPOD touch and eking out an email was a deep lesson in frustration, so no I have not blogging. But I am ready to regale and unfold all.

At first learning the beautiful Indian poem I had taken with me seemed as if it would be simple and easy, given the travel time, planes, buses, vans and the rest, but I was seduced to the point of numbness by the surfeit of imagery and living poetry.

The women are swathed in shocking techno colors in silk and cotton and look for all the world as if the biggest gala of year were around the next sand dune or over by the cow munching at the temple. Jewels, silver and beguiling children whose eyes are ringed with kohl to ward off the evil eye all captivated me. The smells, yes some horrible, the tanneries, the waster, the sewage, but the good aromas of masalas and jasmine took up residence in the front of my brain and I cared about nothing else.

My taste buds were won over by giant prawns grabbed from the river and tossed in garlic and chilies, the rice was different at every meal. The lentils, Dahl was green, black, yellow, red and sumptuous. The breads were hot, crunchy, spicy with seeds or dusted with onions.

I was rubbed with hot oil and many hands unknotted my modern shoulders and made them ready to sit in private yoga classes where I rolled my eyes up into my shining skull to see the future where colors played, bounced and danced.

In short, my senses were so engaged that I fell asleep at night not thinking about the words of my poems, but rocked by the sensual roil of India from North to South, from Jain temple to red draped mosque. In my notes, scrawled in the bumpy van as we traversed the back roads I see things like

“Red dust filling the van, villages blur by.” Or “Flame of the forest trees  bright against the dirt road, first ones after the desert.” And at the Umaid Bhawan Palace hotel, ” Tonight there is a moon, fireworks and a sand storm, who needs written poetry.”

After my opium tea I thought the poem would just leap into my head instead all I could do was look at the horizon and plunge into the spring fed pool and ogle the bubbles emanating from my nose.

But as ever the poem finally made its way into my connective tissue and  today as I walked in laser bright sunshine along my Hudson River I saw this poem float before me.

The jewel of stars.
by Subramanian Bharati, 1900

Moonlight, the stars and the wind,
By placing them in front
And drinking the honey thereof-
A poetic frenzy seizes us;
That atomic thing called Mind-
We shall let it roam free.
Should one wonder at the bee that sings
While imbedded in a tasty fruit?
Oh, Mind! Go hence to join
The jewel of stars.

The Indian Poem Beforing Winging Off

I am off to the airport in two hours and took a walk with my daughter earlier along the Hudson. I was holding her small grown-up girl, 25 year-old hand, but seeing her many ages and sweetness sewn inside her. But those hands are always so chilled, always so small.

It is intensely sunny today and again chilly. The spring lunacy continues with flowers up and open, then sweltered and now a crispness usually relegated to fall. Again to stress how I love the abject severe flip from cool, to hot, to grey to pouring rain and then blaring sun. It is a season reflecting my own extremes.

And so since the weather is crazy I can wait in calmness.  I await the taxi and an impromptu visit from my goddaughters just returned themselves from an Easter trip to their Scottish homeland. I am packed, yes thanks to all who have asked and hounded me and told me to bring hand sanitizer and extra everything and sent me Indian friends to call and visit. Soon it will be me and other voyagers and Air India and hours of waiting, reading and oh I hope sleeping and learning poems.

Will it count to march the aisles memorizing poems? I hope so. I found a beautiful Indian poem and I will begin to carefully store it in my memory as we fly clear across the world. I have copies of the first three poems, in theory not to be lost to the heat and wildness of India but kept to drag out when John Donne might be of use, or a NYC winter sound-scape might cool me.

The jewel of Stars by Subramania Bharati, 1900

Moonlight, the stars and the wind,

By placing them in front

And drinking the honey thereof-

A poetic frenzy seizes us;

That atomic thing called Mind-

We shall let it roam free.

Should one wonder at the bee that sings

While imbedded in a tasty fruit?

Oh, Mind! Go hence to join

The jewel of stars.

A Remedy for Insomnia

One day until I leave for India and I am in full worry mode: the laundry, bills, children, work undone, calls left unreturned. It amazes me that I love to voyage as much as I do because the dither leading up to such a trip seems to augment with age. Perhaps it is, as my daughter mentioned to me today, “Life has so much to do, bills and work and laundry that have nothing to do, it seems, with life.”

And yet in the end it is this quotidian which binds us to our lives. What I adore about a trip to a far way, never before seen, by me, land is that I know everything will be different. Every scent and taste, each bed, coverlet, all the thank yous and good byes will assume enormous power and for the duration of my trip these details will gloriously eclipse my daily life so entirely that I will be someone else. Yes I will still be a mother and wife, and a forever friend, but I will be seeing in the haze of a Mumbai sunset, and watching others wash, all colors and gauze. I will walk where my feet have never trod, instead of plodding furrows along the Hudson or knowing the time of day by the clip clop, frisky or downtrodden of the police horses who mark time as I write. All will be different, and so the cells I make, the poems I memorize, the food that will fuel me to think and remember will all change me in a remarkable way.

In truth no one may notice but me. And that is another marvel because I am on a secret mission to transmigrate my soul through all my senses.

Tomorrow I will walk the Hudson to recall that light. I will hold the kitten tightly until he purrs, so in case I have troubled dreams I can recreate his sound and his heft and his dusky, garden dirt scented paws and fall asleep in a known world. I will kiss my children and my husband and then when the door closes and the taxi takes me away, I may cry. Because transitions large or small, joyful or laden with sorrow bring me to tears. I am built that way.

But at the airport I will be ready to construct my nest for a daylong flight. I am primed to pretend that I will love to read every untouched New Yorker story and cram poems into my head as I wing. And then a day later, at midnight I will walk out of the trashed airplane and touch down in India.

And in case I can not fall asleep thinking of coco the kitten I may try the remedy of poet Vera Pavlova.  Here is her poem A Remedy for Insomnia

Not sheep coming down the hills,

Not cracks on the ceiling –

Count the ones you loved, the former tenants of dreams

Who would keep you awake,

Once meant the world to you

Rocked you in their arms

Those who loved you . . .

You will fall asleep, by dawn, in tears.

Out Today in the Downtown Express

Volume 22, Number 48 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | April 9 – 15, 2010

Downtown Notebook: Feeling poetry’s call along the Hudson
By Wickham Boyle

T.S. Elliot’s oft quoted stanza regarding April, National Poetry month is this:

APRIL is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.

Many times we come to poetry through snippets or discarded hanks of words, or simple skeins knitted together, but it is rare in modern times, for any of us to know poems by heart. Back in the day the nuns, or school marms, or assiduous English teachers would make wee students stand and deliver the line “By the shores of Gitche Gumee” from Longfellow’s “Hiawatha”” or Hopkins’ “Glory be to God for dappled things” or Dickinson’s “I’m nobody ! Who are you?”

These lines come to me now thanks to what is left of my gigabytes of memory from elementary school, but I wanted, I longed for the ability to unleash a spray of poetry in its entirety that would sooth my own savage beast, yes perhaps impress a dinner guest or two, or just calm me on a weigh-laid flight. And so I began a project I call Memory& Movement.

On Jan. 1, I began to learn poems by heart. At the same time I began to walk along the Hudson River in earnest. It was a duel purposing: pushing myself to move more while assuaging what I felt was the boredom of walking by — tricking my brain to be active and learn poems. The undertaking has been incredible and more wide reaching than expected. And so as a homage to April, our country’s poetry month, I want to unfold the plan and invite others to join me.

One of the stunning things that stuck me as I wandered up and down the Hudson River in the cold winter air learning John Donne’s “The Good Morrow” was that the richness of language could be a balm to a frazzled modern soul. In attempting to capture the pace and rhythm and word order of for instance:

I wonder, by my troth, what thou and I
Did till we loved? were we not weaned til then?
But sucked on country pleasures childishly?
Or snorted we in the Seven-Sleepers’ Den?
‘Twas so: but this, all pleasures fancies be.
If ever any beauty I did see,
Which I desired and got,’twas but a dream of thee.

This glorious first stanza took me weeks to stick into my brain. I paced back and forth on the river carrying words with me in my pocket, or I folded the poems into my wallet to take out and peruse in lines, or before the lights went down in theaters, or to glance at while cooking. And what I discovered would certainly come as no surprise to Stanley Kunitz, one of the founders of Poets House, also located Downtown on the Hudson River and himself a great poet. Kunitz said that poetry and by extension Poets House is “ an active expression of imagination.” And we all know that the more we imagine the richer our lives are.

And so I continued picking a poem each month and committing it to deep memory. I recited the poems to cranky god-daughters who couldn’t find the arms of Morpheus for sleep, or to my pottery class, or best gift of all, to my often fearful, fitful brain which has trouble shutting off for sleep. And lo and behold, I saw my fraught, frayed nerves quickly near anesthetized by the glorious, gorgeous words of poets like Donne, Anne Winters, Elizabeth Macklin or Eliott. I was besotted by the words, and pictures they made and adored their sounds in my head.

Here is the second stanza from Anne Winters’ “100 Riverside Drive”:

I let go, as passiviest listeners listen, to sift
the city, naming sounds, for named sounds near
or distant make a depth where my too deft
attention – deep and troubled, city too endeared— can lose itself.

When I feel lost, if I recite loudly in my head “Passivest listeners listen to sift,” and it is as if I am ensorcelled by the sounds and I too let go. The effect is transformative.

After many walks zooming by Poets House, I finally meandered in and found a modern cathedral built to honor the spell under which I had recently fallen sway. Here other writers, parents, thinkers, searchers and listeners, passive or active are finding ways to wedge, insert or slide poetry into their lives.

Watch Poets House as the spring unfolds, as there will be more and more poetry and motion. It will pour out along the Hudson River, in parks and I imagine it will be buzzing out of pedestrians zooming along the streets of Downtown. Stay tuned as the month and season of poetry unfurls itself and again in the words of the bard Kuntz, “Some things cannot be possessed but must be shared.” Here’s to poems filling the air.

Wickham Boyle is a freelance writer living in Tribeca.

The Lunatic Quality of Spring

I am lost today to tasks and meetings. A litany of lists and that longing feeling I surrender to whenever I am about to embark on a big journey. I see myself literarily straddling two worlds, like the Colossus of my own life. One-foot firmly planted in home life and the other reaching clear across the world to my endless wanderlust. This time, I prepare to venture to India for the first time and to leave behind my beloved spring in the Hudson Valley and downtown New York City.

I adore spring because it has a lunatic quality to, and I very much identify with that capricious changeability. Last week when I rode to meetings I carried mittens, a hat, scarf and extra jeans to ward off the cold and wet. Between trips,  I festooned my radiator with layers of sopping outer garments. I would then quickly switch to new dry clothes and head out again. Sort of a pit stop in the race of the last days of winter, and now it is 92 degrees, the hottest April 7 on record. Hot to cold, wet to scorching, a sort of menopause of mad April.

And so I thought it was appropriate that today the wonderful folks at Knopf sent the Edna St. Vincent Millay’s Spring as part of their Poem of the Day.

Spring

To what purpose, April, do you return again?

Beauty is not enough.

You can no longer quiet me with the redness

Of little leaves opening stickily

I know what I now.

The sun is hot on my neck as I observe

The spikes of the crocus.

The smell of the earth is good.

It is apparent that there is no death

But what does that signify?

Not only under the ground are the brains of men

Eaten by maggots,

Life in itself

Is nothing,

An empty cup, a flight of uncarpeted stairs,

It is not enough that yearly, down the hill,

April

Comes like an idiot, babbling and strewing flowers.

After Easter Weekend

I am a little overwhelmed by an Easter weekend of family, food and friends. An amazing time to connect and fall in love with life in the face of glorious springtime. There was little walking, a smatter of poetry but this was sent to me by a friend and I thought I would put it up as readers are asking for more poems and to suggest work.

So perhaps we can have poetry lovers send in odes, or sonnets or snippets they think would inspire or make us laugh. Here is a very short one from the wicked and wonderful Dorothy Parker.

Life is a glorious cycle of song

A medley of extemporania.

Love is a thing that never goes wrong

and I am Marie of Rumania.

April Fool’s Day This was my Times Modern love column

Two-Wheeled Love

I love my bike. I love my bike and I am not five years old; I am sixty this fall. I have ridden a bike since kindergarten and it is still my conveyance of choice.

My first bike was too tall and mint green. It was a gift from my grandfather, who doted on me calling me peach cake. I rode it all over our suburban, Westchester neighborhood; a development called “Poet’s Corner”. I chased boys on Keats, smashed the curbs on Longfellow and lurched into the Lytton woods. My brave unflinching kitten rode with me, and pretended we were pioneers. It was my first taste of freedom.

I eagerly traded those two-wheels for a series of jalopies, and yet I returned to my first love when I moved, in 1972, to Greenwich Village to work in experimental theater. I was poor, really, does that even need to be pointed out. Even today the phrase experimental theater conjures only long hours, dank spaces and minimal remuneration. The bike was a miracle.

I would ride home from LaMama, the renowned home of experimentalism on East Fourth Street, in inky darkness, after endless rehearsals. Time spent in theaters is akin to gambling halls: low light, no clocks and alternating moments of exuberance followed by screams of despair. After such work, the time alone, gliding home for free, without having to descend into the subway or splurge on a cab, seemed like a gift.

And it still does. I love leaving an uptown theater date where my middle-aged friends jostle for cabs, or slog through slush to the subway, while I mount my 1968 green Raleigh and power myself home. There are fantasies aplenty astride my bike. I am young; I am always young on my bike. I am free and full of energy and proud that I am still powering myself through the streets of my much-endeared city.

Isn’t love the ability to find wonder, joy and appreciation in a partner even after decades. Yes I adore my husband, our two children, our old loft and the panoply of kittens parading through our lives. But I also love my bike for all it gives me.

I can only imagine the money saved in 38 years of dedicated riding. I worked for years producing festivals and parades, among them New Years Eve in Central Park and Bicentennial events. I ride my bike everywhere, snow, sun, sleet and black tie. It gives me a calm feeling of separation after fraught meetings. I can peddle on to the next location while others gnash their teeth over slights or mistakes. I rode back and forth to help launch the Big Apple Circus, often feeling that I too, had tiny private acrobatic moments as I peddled from TriBeCa to the Church of Saint John the Divine where we shared start-up space.

I repatriated to LaMama after graduate school, intent on bringing MBA management practices to the wild world I cherished.I was working there when I went into labor with both my children (who, destined to grow into well-behaved theater kids, had the good sense to be born on Saturday nights when the office was closed”). This is not as crazy as it seems. It calmed me and my midwives were supportive, shoring me up with the notion that a woman should, and can do anything to which she is accustomed. And so slowly I plodded homeward on my bike, horrified at the notion of getting into a cab with a stranger in my delicate condition.

I’ve had bad bike moments; the course of true love never does run smooth. Bikes stolen, or missing seats or a wheel. There were accidents, yes. I was clipped by a cab on Sixth Avenue, tipped over by a German Shepard on Varick Street and both times I limped home pushing my broken bike. I got too drunk to ride home from a party at the French Consulate on upper Fifth Avenue and left my trusty steed locked to a pole. The next day I walked the length of Fifth searching, as I had no idea where I had abandoned it. Remarkably it was still there.

My bike sits in the corner now as I write. It is at the ready. It will carry a full rasher of groceries in its capacious metal basket. It has carted children to and from PS 234 and around town to playdates, ice skating and of course theater. For a time I rode both my kids to elementary school; my son in a kid’s seat and my daughter with her bottom in the basket and feet slung over the handlebars facing me. She screamed, “ We are not a circus family!” and begged to be let off a block before school.

They grew, found their own bikes, metro cards, and abilities to both hail and pay for taxis. But one evening, after a show at the Public Theater in the East Village, my daughter and I emerged and decided to have dinner at our loft. I began to ride away and she called after me. “Hey can I ride home with you? Can you still do that?”

I paused, circled back and she hopped on the seat and I stood to peddle. As we headed south I was hollering, “ We are not a circus family.”  But I think in some way the bike provided a loving through-line uniting a family forced to juggle, balance and keep riding forward through any conditions. That’s love, isn’t it?