Category Archives: Poetry

Starring Gertrude Stein

“If you enjoy my work you understand it… if you don’t enjoy it, why do you make a fuss about it?

These were Gertrude Stein’s slightly sharp-elbowed words pronounced sixty-nine years ago to an interviewer at at New York’s Algonquin Hotel upon her arrival in America to record The Making of Americans and some of her other works. The lecture tour had bestseller wind beneath its sails, as The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas had been published to raves in 1933. The opera she created with Virgil Thomson, Four Saints in Three Acts, was opening on Broadway. Suddenly Stein had become rich, a condition she’d never before known.

stein:toklas plane

On October 24, 1934, Stein and Toklas arrived in New York aboard the S.S. Champlain. The crowds and the press went wild. One newspaper headline read: Gerty Gerty Stein is Back Home Home Back. Tickertape lights flashed across The New York Times building announced her arrival.

Stein had not been in the United States in nearly thirty years. Now, for seven months, with Toklas at her side, she crisscrossed America, speaking to campuses, arts groups and museum audiences about her writing and love of modern painting.

lecture route

Early in 1935 she published Lectures in America, with a patriotic picture tucked inside the front cover.


Seventy appearances later, her celebrityhood held strong. An observer described the two travelers: “a large lady firmly dressed in a shirt-waist and skirt and jacket, and a smaller lady in something dark with a gray astrakhan toque…slightly suggestive of a battleship and a cruiser.” A headline in the New York Sun read: Miss Stein a Wow; Her Lectures a Sellout She’s Such a Hit.

Francis Picabia did her in oils in 1933. Stein was a star!

picabia 33

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An Evening of Stand-Up Tragedy

The art of complaint never sounded so un-peevish. Almost noble, actually. We went to hear Tony Drazan perform his variety of standup, a part scripted, part improvised monologue, at Nuyorican Poets Café on East 3rd Street. Known for its poetry slams, the institution has been there since buying the rundown building for $10,000 multiple decades ago. It can accommodate all kinds of talents, and Tony is one of them. No matter that it was the coldest night yet this fall – that wouldn’t hold back New Yorkers. A motorcycle roared past us down Avenue B, and a guy walked by with a surfboard perched on his shoulder. Comedy should be easy. Or would this be comedy? Time would tell.

We started out at a ramen joint around the corner, Minca, on East 5th Street. A waitress named Kyoko in a Hello Kitty sweatshirt served us steaming bowls of pork broth with all the fixings.


What makes me happy in this world? A bowl of soup with charshu. Slow-roasted pork, to you. I am a hungry simpleton when confronted with ramen, and I also like hot plain tea.

minca ramen

Tony sat down for a pre-show cup and laid out some of his strategy for these stand-up routines. He performs once a month. It’s not his “real” job, he’s a screenwriter and film director with lots of credits. He’s a hockey dad, with a nine-year-old son, Leo.

He told us some of the things that had happened at past gigs.

“I used to stop and apologize and say I don’t know what I’m doing here. It would relax me.”

tony tea

Around us, the young men have van dyke beards and deep black eyes, the girls have long black hair, and it looks as though everyone’s related. Above us on the wall, some intriguing artwork. We’re looked down upon by kings.

minca kings

At Nuyorican Café, people started showing up. A cognitive scientist named Amol Sarba fixed a black contraption called a halo around Tony’s head. Its low-level electrical charge is supposed to boost brain function, and the process recently had a write up in The New York Times. Sarba told us he himself wasn’t convinced until he tried a video game he’d never played before after wearing the device and “absolutely crushed it.” Tony got interested when he heard that traffic controllers and jet jocks were trying out the device. “Don’t let this discourage you,” he offered to audience members as they settled themselves.


Bare bones, this was, ancient brick and a graphite-colored curtain, with a mike stand in the center of a faded oval rug. That was the space. Two dozen people trickled in, some all the way from L.A. Many of them knew the performer. It was intimate. You could almost forget Tony was  wearing jumper cables.

He commenced. Talking about good intentions gone bad. He wandered. Circled around to the point. To another point. “This is about survivor envy,” he said. Not survivor guilt. A friend, a music composer, got sick with cancer, fell into a coma from November to March. Woke! Rapidly regained his strength. And as strange as it sounds, “I was envious that my friend had survived brain cancer.”

tony piece

Sarba stepped up to remove the headgear. “I’m trying to be more game in my life,” Tony deadpanned. Lenny Bruce was brave, but Lenny Bruce never wore a rig like that on his head during a performance.

More meandering. Probing. Tony’s father, before he died, “had primary progressive aphasia – he couldn’t find the word. It wasn’t Alzheimer’s – he could always recognize me as his asshole eldest son up until the end.” Back to the recovered friend: “He woke up and started pulling out the tubes. He felt renewal in his life and that’s when I began to feel jealous. Somehow he was the better for it. He came out stronger than me.”

In the audience, there was a shift. I was thinking of a phenomenon from a number of years back called the Apology Line, open for business 24-7, which allowed callers to leave a message in which they detailed all they were sorry for. You could also call and listen to other peoples’ woes.

Tony spoke, a stand-up, sit-down tragedian, about having always believed that bad experiences shape you. He lost his mother when he was ten, he said, and that loss always gave him the sense  that “any special achievement I had was because I had survived her death, was honoring her death.” He picked up women by confessing his tragedy.

tony standing

“Does this make any sense?” he asked us. The anecdotes twined around, curled, unfurled, from Long Island to Beverly Hills to Manhattan. Dark. Funny. To now, when he admitted to feeling paralysis and sadness even as he was performing. He stood, moved the chairs around from place to place, sat in one, sat in another one. He picked up an enormous piece of paper with scribbled notes, folded and refolded it and consulted it now and then – part performance, part origami. Told us about a Barney’s Warehouse Sale in Santa Monica where he had his first of many panic attacks. The thread… it was so loose, so elastic, but might it not break? The audience roots for the performer to tell his story as he needs to tell it.

Looking for answers, he visited a sikh internist, a cardio guy, a homeopath, an autoimmune specialist. Most recently came Tai Chi, the horse stance, internal energy training. More loss. More venting. Not everyone can make a complaint emerge this fresh. Make it not just a run of the mill kvetch. And, at the end, something new:

“We’re all vulnerable. It occurred to me that my old way of being was misplaced. I didn’t need to be a champion for any of it.”

Silence. In the end there was only the sound the heat made in the metal ducts.


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Squeezing the Juice From the Season

There is nothing like a Saturday morning in November to make you stand up straight and take clear-eyed notice of the world. Of the crisp air and fresh colors, the sweetly rotten smell of leaves being pulverized underfoot.

leaves underfoot

Both Gil and I could easily stay home and work all day, bent over our books, leaning into our computer screens. But we were drawn out into the Saturday sunshine. drive, he sd, as poet Robert Creeley wrote.

Autumn Leaves 2

We remarked as we spun along the little roads on every jolt of red.

red tree

Some unexpected graffiti on the side of a concrete shed oddly did the opposite of marring the rural scene. It underscored fall’s beauty with its blast of a message.


Down the road from the Cabin we passed an arch of shrubbery above a stone gate that opens into a mysterious vacant pasture. I never get tired of looking at it.

Shrub in Stone Door

And I never get tired of visiting Thompson’s Cider Mill, where Geoff Thompson combines up to twenty varieties of fresh apples into a juice that is pure nectar. He makes his cider every weekend, and every weekend it is a different brew.


When you buy apples at Thompson’s, you get to see each one’s heritage marked above the bin. The history of apples is vast and rich, and here you can taste history–when you bite into an heirloom Newtown Pippin, say, first grown from a chance seedling in the mid-18th century.

Apples 1

Out of the wealth of choices we’ve taken most of all to the Jonathans, which are grown right in this orchard and are sweet and tart, firm and compact.


If you come on a Saturday morning you can watch the thoroughly up-to-date press do its business, mashing the fruit into not only a liquid but also a paste that will later be tossed to the pigs at a local organic farm. Keats talked in Ode to Autumn about how by a cider-press, with patient look,/Thou watchest the last oozings, hours by hours. This is where those oozings happen. Geoff handed around small plastic cups to catch some of the new cider as it ran out of the press.

cider press

We sipped. “Perfect blend,” said Geoff. I agreed. “Wish I could figure out how to do that every time,” he said with pleasant self deprecation. This mill does make the best cider in the land, and that’s not opinion but fact. They also have on hand my namesake fruit.

lady jean

Next stop, the Hastings Farmer’s Market, overlooking the Hudson River. A produce stand at the end of the season has its own distinctive merits. No sweet, fuzzy peaches, perhaps, but turban squashes and sugar pumpkins and the dark leafy kale your doctor wants you to eat more of. The singer Milton was performing his song In the City when we arrived.


I like the song. It does capture the effervescence of New York. Though it seemed less relevant today with the trees aflame in the cool, cool, quiet air.

The woman who worked the booth for Cowberry Crossing was off on a coffee run, so Reese and I together worked out the numbers for a pair of pork chops and a bag of chicken feet. Inaccurately, it turned out when mom returned.


He was a great little salesman anyway. I am devoted to using chicken feet to make stock – you need a soup foul first, then throw in the feet in addition – and I used to have a chicken farm down the road where I could buy them in five-pound freezer bags. I’ve gotten a little squeamish about how the toes resemble an old lady monster’s, with manicure-worthy nails. But they make such a velvety broth, it’s worth the psychic discomfort.

chix ft

Over at Do Re Me Farms, they still had some green beans, zucchini and cranberry beans.

cranberry beans

It was wicked cold behind the cash register, and everyone was shivering.

mushrooms guy

Mushrooms, a variety, were my choice. To add to a risotto or simply.saute and devour.


There was less produce than usual, more maple syrup, cider, pickles. Here they make a big thing out of offering pickles on sticks to children, like sour lollipops.


Painted Goat Farm is an artisan cheese producer located upstate in Garrattsville (now that is a true New York name). They offer goat cheese both fresh and aged, along with goat meat and what they call goat confections. They were out of the aged and I didn’t care for any goat confections, so I took home the fresh with garlic and chives.

goat cheese

The farm’s herd now stands at 85 – the females are “drying up” at the moment, I was told, and will give birth in February, when the babies will drive the count up to over 100. I’d like to pay them a visit then. If I had any kind of farm it’d be a goat farm. I love goats, both how satanic their eyes look, and their pure and total determination.

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Chocolate Poems

“Where are the reptiles?” the adolescent boy asked the guard at the door of the convention center.

“The what?”

Both heads swivelled to look inside at the crowded arena.

“The reptiles – are they here?”

No. The reptile show was last weekend. Here at Chocolate Expo there were only the chocolate fiends.

At two minutes to eleven, the lines stretched down the steps and around the sidewalk. “My friends are at the Marathon and here I am at chocolate world,” the girl behind me said wryly. “Stupid chocolate,” said a husband. “It’s gonna be fun, honey,” insisted his wife.

It was the annual gathering of people intent on buying and selling cacao-based products in all shapes, sizes and flavors – the more novel the better. I thought I’d see what the fuss was about.

I love chocolate, of course. Gil says my three major food groups are chocolate, coffee and milk. (That puts mocha at the top of the pyramid, I guess.)

In the convention center, people jostled to get free tastes. It seemed to actually be about half chocolate and half every other kind of artisenal food product, from honey to wine to dill pickles to maple syrup. I was surprised to find Cap’n Crunch gelato.

cap'n crunch

But there was also every kind of truffle under the sun.


Alicia at Two Chicks with Chocolate fed me a taste of rosemary lemon truffle, handpainted with colored cocoa butter, one of 60 different flavors, and I was on my way.

Pumpkin was big in everything. I saw chocolate-dipped waffles.


Chocolate-dipped fruits of all kinds.

choc dip

Kids and adults alike with sticky hands, sticky faces. There was an awful amount of plastic wrapping, it seemed to me.


Chocolate culture is very high–low. I saw the most exquisite Indian truffles, created for the New Year, Dawali, by Aarti at Le Rouge in the shape of a “diya,” or lamp.  Truffles with ganache came in exotic flavors with amazing “mouthfeel,” as the technical term goes. I tried the Kiser Pista Ganache, made with saffron.


Ethereal, I thought. So I couldn’t resist making off with a single specimen, the Paan Bahar truffle, made with betel leaves and rose petals.

More spirituality lay around the corner, where half-pound, solid chocolate Buddhas were cheerfully peddled at Oliver Kita Fine Confections, by a salesperson who told me, “Most people break them up to share when they chant with friends.” Okay.


Chocolate has only been the recognizable treat that we go crazy over for a relatively short chapter of human history. The Aztecs downed it as a cold, bitter, spicy brew – Montezuma alone was said to drink 50 cups a day. It became a sweetened beverage in the 17th century, flowing from the cacao plantations of South America to France by way of Louis XIV’s Spanish bride, Princess Maria Theresa.


She gave the Sun King a chest of chocolate in 1643 for an engagement present, and his avid consumption of the beverage was said to fuel his ability to pleasure his wife twice a day even into his seventies.

Chocolate then emigrated to London, where chocolate houses became the fashion. Sir Hans Sloane, an esteemed physician, declared that milk afforded the delicacy special creaminess. New York philanthropist and bibliophile James Wadsworth, in the nineteenth century:

Twill make Old women Young and Fresh

Create New Motions of the Flesh,

And cause them long for you know what…

If they but taste of chocolate.

Samuel Pepys noted in 1657 that it was available.


“In Bishopsgate Street in Queen’s Head Alley, at a Frenchman’s house, is an excellent West India drink called chocolate, to be sold, where you may have it ready at any time, and also unmade at reasonable rates.”

Michael Pollan writes in his book In Defense of Food about a group of Americans being shown the words “chocolate cake” to discover their word associations. “Guilt” was the top response. The response of French eaters to the same prompt: “celebration.”

Everyone, no matter how-guilt-ridden, knows that chocolate is the love food. Someone should write a love poem to it.


I did feel love in the air today, at least love of chocolate, so it’s sort of a closed loop.

A company calling itself Rescue Chocolate offered vegan, organic, fair-trade, kosher chocolates, with all profits to be donated to animal rescue groups.

rescue choc

I thought I’d purchase one but the line was too long.

Masks, with a chocolate base, from The Chocolate Box NYC. Everything about their decoration was edible.

mask 1

The proprietor, Sabrina, looked more like a ballet dancer than a candy maker.

mask lady

Less artistic but just as tempting, hand-dipped Twinkies from a booth that won an award from Hudson Valley Magazine for its pies last year.


The Twinkies are one of their best sellers — since the confection was off the market for a while it drove up the demand. “We ran out last year, Gina Solari told me. “Anything Nutella is also a best seller,” she added.

Sick of chocolate, finally, incredibly, I retired to the stage area with two non-cocoa nourishments, strong coffee and a lemon-and-sugar crepe.

In the distance, convention-goers slurped up Cap’n Crunch gelato and sugar-dipped waffles. I recalled one of the most striking film food scenes in recent memory, in Hayao Miyazaki’s animated Spirited Away, when the 10-year-old Chihiro’s careless parents sit down at a counter restaurant for a snack and get turned into munching, slobbering, devouring giant pigs.


A chef-lecturer delivered informational nuggets about the subject at hand. Chocolate falls to the ground in South America, she said, after the monkeys have eaten the fruit around it. It’s a seed. She confided in the people whose sweet tooth had driven them to the convention center even before lunch on a beautiful Sunday in fall. “I know I’m probably wrecking your world, but white chocolate is not chocolate. It’s fat and sugar. You could call it fat-sugar!”

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Children’s Books That Make Us Us

Most of the elegant exhibition vitrines at the New York Public Library’s show The ABC of It: Why Children’s Books Matter stand at a height conducive to adult viewing. And wonderful as the show is, it’s really not a place for children – with the exception of a few nooks along the way offering copies of Goodnight Moon for young ones to handle – but a place for us well above knee height to get sucked back into our literary pasts.

The winding display was chock full of books and objects from the Library’s massive collection, and it ranged over the history of juvenile literature. There were picture books from China. There were vintage, quirky numbers, like The Cries of New-York, detailing children selling “various kinds of cherries” on Manhattan in 1816.


Another book, from 1727, represented the oldest known copy of the most important English-language primer, with an array of four-syllable words, fornication surprisingly found alongside exhortation.


I was interested in Instructions on Needlework and Knitting, from 1847, published in London, whose valuable pages had an actual doll’s dress sewn into the book.

doll clothes

But I found myself gravitating to my tried and true, the darling books of my own important and valuable childhood, when caring people made sure my library was stocked with the perfect pages to make my imagination fly.

All my old favorites were here in some form or another. I saw sketches by Hilary Knight as he worked up to a published Eloise, with the scamp lying on her stomach facing  her turtle Skipperdee or making an island in the “bawth”. The collaboration between Knight and Kay Thompson was “intense, exhilarating,” I learned.


Harriet the Spy, 11-year-old brilliant tomboy, was represented along one wall with a pleasantly tattered copy of the book that could have been my own. That book taught me a lot about what it would take to grow up smart and sly in the world of adults.


The Phantom Tollbooth depicted a land I felt transported to when I was about ten, and going back farther, the Dick and Jane readers drew me in and gave me the creeps simulaneously.

I had forgotten about Ruth Krauss and Maurice Sendak’s A Hole Is to Dig, and the pages on display at the Library touched my heart.


Harold and the Purple Crayon. Timeless. Ferdinand. Charlotte’s Web: “Some pig.” “Terrific.” E.B. White wrote it while reporting on the founding of the U.N. for Harper’s Magazine, and it was no doubt shaped by a concern about who would save the world. The world he created was of course much more real than a big room full of serious old men.


I walked about adrift in nostalgia for my books, my bookcases, my bed where I read my books, my family’s club chair where I slouched with my summer pile from the library. “Libraries raised me,” said Ray Bradbury. I remember poring over tales of the creepy Loch Ness monster and the equally terrifying but also funny abominable snowman. I can  relate to Eudora Welty’s memory:

I read library books as fast as I could go, rushing them home in the basket of my bicycle. From the minute I reached our house, I started to read. Every book I seized on, from “Bunny Brown and His Sister Sue at Camp Rest-a-While” to “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea,” stood for the devouring wish to read being instantly granted. I knew this was bliss, knew it at the time. Taste isn’t nearly so important; it comes in its own time.

I think that when reading I imagined myself to be Mary Poppins in another life (not the children who were her charges) and so I was fascinated to see P.L. Travers’s very Mary-like green-cloth umbrella with a parrot-head handle, and the Dutch wooden doll that served as the model for the magical nanny, which her American editor gave the library in 1972. “My favorite of all!” exclaimed the mom of two girls, who commenced to sing A Spoonful of Sugar.

Mary doll

I turned the corner and bumped into another historical nugget, the Tweedledum and Tweedledee parasol handle that Lewis Carroll bequeathed upon the former Alice Liddell, now “Mrs. Hargreaves,” in 1891. The original Alice. She held that ivory in her hand.


More heirlooms, including all the original Pooh dolls from the Milne family, which have resided at NYPL since 1987.

I was invited to craft an original story in a Mad Libs vein, with a digital setup on the wall. After I plugged in words, the narration involved a witchy persimmon and an oak turned into a sorrowful seed, reinvented from Hans Christian Anderson’s The Snow Queen. Anderson said, “Life itself is the most wonderful fairy tale.” All fun, but where are the fairy tales? Where are MY fairy tales? The ones I read and reread until the paper book jackets tore.

Oh, there, finally. The Blue Fairy Book. A first edition of the Andrew Lang collection, which had something like a dozen volumes.

blue fairy

Mom, Dad, Grandma—and I think it might have been Grandma—thank you for giving me The Blue Fairy Book, the Red, the Green, and the others, volumes I would crack open to release their dreams, their mystery and passion. Beauty and the Beast, which I read in The Blue Fairy Book, still gives me a shiver.


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Mums the Word

The kiku were fragrant, lovely to look at, cool to the touch.


I had been in a mood. My foot was slower to heal than I’d like. I had a cold. I didn’t feel like working.


So I got myself to The New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx. It was offering its annual chrysanthemum show.

delicate white

As soon as the door swung shut behind me – the exhibit is indoors, in the haute-Victorian 1902 glass expanse of the Enid Haupt Conservatory – a feeling of bonhomie settled over me.

BG, Bronx

A feeling of chrysanthemum-induced ecstasy, a tranquil happiness enhanced by the Japanese flute music piped in to the gallery.

spangle 2

You could call on your phone for information on these amazing flowers, which had been trained for a year to be massed in geometric shapes by horticulturalists. They start with one stem, and pinch it off again and again until they wind up with a hundred flowers in rows, held in place by metal frames.


That’s the back of one display. “You tell the plant how many flowers it’s going to have,” said the disembodied voice on the phone when I called for info. Called ozukuri, the practice somehow appealed to me. The human hand so obviously taming nature.

flower in frame

year by year passes

thinking of being thought of by


So mused the nineteenth century poet Masaoka Shiki in one of the poems displayed along the garden’s walkways.

I couldn’t help but be contemplative. Chrysanthemum-contemplative. Consider the Ogiku, diagonal rows of pink, yellow and white, like, they used to say, the bridle of the Japanese emperor’s horse.


China introduced Japan to the flower in the fourth century, and the emperor soon made it his personal crest. In 1878 he opened an exclusive park to show off the plants grown in his garden. Since the 1920s that viewing opportunity has taken place in the Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden in Tokyo.

Chrysanthemums are members of the aster family. There are 13 species, some fat and regular, others ragged, others spider-like, others spoon shaped, the anenome with a disk for an eye. Here they all were.

Everyone was snapping pictures, as they always are, everyplace you go nowadays.


I like the big’uns.

vivid yellow 2

I have to control myself not to publish all the pictures of them that I took.

white pink yellow

Some were big as a grapefruit.


Some almost the size of a newborn’s head.

Like circus animals, they could be trained to do anything, even climb up a tree, an enormous flowery bonsai.


I love their peppery, spicy scent and the cool, slightly rubbery feel of their petals. I was ready to pitch my tent and lie down to sleep beside the smooth-stone-bottomed pool that so glamorously reflected the mums’ enormous heads.

A woman crowed to her friend, “This is the color you wore to my wedding thirty years ago!” Well, yes, that butter yellow was the color of my bouquet, as it happened.

vivid yellow



in the garden,

the worn-out sole of a shoe

Kiku plants need 14 hours of darkness every day as they develop into glamour pusses like the ones in this exhibit. They spent a lot of time with a black cloth thrown over their heads.

Now that they’re out the bees want a piece of them.


I left the gallery, walked to the exit door and stopped in my tracks. You know the way you finish a book you loved and you turn to the beginning, to the first chapter, to start again? I proceeded back into the kiku gardens and took another look at everything as if for the first time.


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What’s the Story Morning Glory?

As some things in the garden wither, others go full tilt.

purple berries cu

A friend of mine came over with a shovel and a Beautyberry plant earlier in the summer. I didn’t know how Callicarpa Americana would take to the Cabin. Now its purple berries are practically fluorescent, a perfect complement to the orange leaves that have begun to carpet the grass around the bush.


I hauled out the brown tomato plants in the sun today, the wind whoosing through the tops of the phragmites. Sorted out the tall stakes for next year. One lone green tomato dangled from a shriveled branch.

last tomato

Yet the purple cosmos are raging. And the bees are storming them.

cosmos bee

I’m cutting them by the armful and bringing them into the living room, a bit of summer still in front of a roaring fall woodfire.

The rosemary in the garden stands tall, waiting for its time in the stew pot with a leg of lamb.


My celery is insane, a veritable hedge of the stuff. It never headed up but it still would be a great bed for a whole sea bass. I’ll have to go out and get me a fish.


Most impressive, though, are the morning glories. Dozens of blossoms open every day, their petals scrunched until they unfurl in the morning sun.

morning glory opening

They don’t seem to understand that it’s fall, the time to fold up their tents. Well, they do fold up their tents, every day, since it’s the of the flower to bloom for a single day. “A morning-glory at my window satisfies me more than the metaphysics of books,” said Whitman. The Japanese have led the world historically in cultivating varieties of the morning glory, and as of this count there are 1,000 odd species.

morning glory openThe ones going crazy in my garden are Heavenly Blue. As for their hallucinogenic properties, Aztec priests started that practice, though we’re perhaps more familiar with love generation baby boomers who ingested the seeds to open themselves to new experiences, as the blossom does the bee.

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On Tiptoe

It’s a pleasant thing to be young, and have ten toes, quoth Robert Louis Stevenson.

Well, it’s good to have ten working toes at any age, I would say, as someone who is coming down the home stretch from foot surgery with a big toe that is being extremely uncooperative. It’s stiff, sore, and doesn’t want to help my foot walk smoothly. You will recognize me if you see me limping awkwardly toward you, my pins distinctly out of whack.


A physical therapist has been assigned to fiddle with, manipulate and macerate my hallux to get it where it has to go. Heat is being applied. Cold has been furnished. Exercises, ones that would bore to death a soul with healthy feet – a repeated ballet releve, rocking, wiggling—now earn my intensest interest. I have learned to pick up a marble with my toes and deposit it in a plastic bowl. A great achievement, don’t you know.

I looked to the Poetry Foundation for inspiration. A great poem called An Exchange between the Fingers and the Toes by the English wordsmith John Fuller describes a comical oneupsmanship between the sets of digits. In an interview, Fuller once explained that “a good poem takes some irresolvable complication, worries it to death like a dog with a bone, and leaves it still unresolved. The pleasure of the poem lies entirely in the worrying, the verbal growling and play. Life itself stubbornly remains entirely like a bone.”


In this verse, which speaks eloquently to my current state, the crafty fingers accuse the klutzy hallux at one point of being a “futile pig,” but the toes come back with eventual triumph:

Despite your fabrications and your cunning,   

The deepest instinct is expressed in running.


Filed under Dance, Home, Jean Zimmerman, Nature, Poetry, Writers, Writing

A Catskill Idyll

I really ought to get out more. Even if out means going from a cabin to a cottage with an adjacent bungalow as I did this weekend.

It was the gray, cool weather of late summer, more like fall. The Catskill Mountains. The cottage had a quaint disposition, the pet decorating project of antiquarian friends of friends. Charm bloomed in corners. On side tables, one of which held a seal enraptured with a ball.

seal lamp

Windowsills offered various small collections.

small nest

Dramatically tarnished old mirrors lined the walls.

tarnished mirrors

We brought zinnias, butterscotch bars.


Neil, the host, grilled chicken over wood. There was sweet aged bourbon for some. For me,  mango lemonade. A funny kind of tea, milky oat tops. Was it restorative in some way or just cut up grass in bags? Hard to say but worth gently debating. What music should we listen to? Everything sounded good.

milky oat

A fire glowing in the stove, a healthy stack of wood.


Conversation about our kids growing up, finding their feet. About ourselves,  still finding our feet. Will we ever find them? Monopoly and pet play.

dog play

The shaggy, gloomy, romantic Catskills offered up their forests and creeks.


Girdled, Neil the arborist says is the term for roots that entwine themselves like this. What about those trees, though, that entwine themselves as though in love? No special name, they just are.

entwined trees

Mushrooms gleamed against the mulch.

white mushroom cu

When the woods were so delightful we couldn’t stand any more, we took a drive through the weathered local community, Livingston Manor. An ancient graveyard, simply marked, appeared on Creamery Road.

st aloysius

Plain, as was the cemetery’s groundskeeping shed.


Something else simple appeared out of nowhere — a staunch old wood covered bridge dating to the late 1800s.

covered bridge

Sometime in the long afternoon I saw my friend Suzanne sitting by the fire, taking a pensive break from all the charm, the activity, the pets and children. The yap of conversation.

suzanne pensive

I thought of one of my favorite poems, perfect any day but especially for this place, the person, the moment: When You Are Old, by W.B. Yeats.

When you are old and grey and full of sleep,

And nodding by the fire, take down this book,

And slowly read, and dream of the soft look

Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;


How many loved your moments of glad grace,

And loved your beauty with love false or true,

But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,

And loved the sorrows of your changing face;


And bending down beside the glowing bars,

Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled

And paced upon the mountains overhead

And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.


Filed under Art, Cooking, Culture, Dogs, Music, Nature, Poetry, Writers, Writing

Art for Art’s Sake

When was the last time you thought about Art Garfunkel? His angelic tenor, his sensitive beak, his fallouts/reunions with Paul Simon, his blond ‘fro?


Probably, like me, not recently.

Which is why I jumped at the chance to see him solo in a tiny venue in the middle of New Jersey, in a performance that was being billed as an “open rehearsal” – for what, somewhat unclear. Anyway it would just be Art and a guitar up on the stage, with a group of several hundred devotees.

Three hundred fifty, to be exact, because that was the seating capacity of a hall called the Tabernacle in a magical, historical community called Mount Tabor that originated as a Methodist summer camp meeting ground in the late nineteenth century.


People live there now, in houses, not tents. Our friends Eric and Mary Ann have been Mount Tabor-ites for decades.

eric and maryann's home

Walking to the Tabernacle for the show has an element of the mystical, along the small, civilized paths.

magical tabor

When the place originated, tent properties (leased from the Camp Meeting Association of the Newark Conference of the United Methodist Church, never bought outright) stretched back from the central building and its green, with the more prominent families closest to the preaching. People came here for a month in the summer to get their evangelical fix much the way they did at Ocean Grove, Tabor’s Methodist sister town on the Jersey shore. It all depended on whether you wanted the mountains or the sea, both were equally soul-restoring. The movement faded at the turn of the twentieth century, with houses  eventually built to replace tents, and 212 of the ornate gingerbread-decorated originals remain. National landmark status for the district is imminent. Quiet streets wind throughout this other-timely locale.

tabor homes

Eric and Mary Ann, who raised three kids here, have a property of “six to eight tent plots.” They are “the landed gentry,” Mary Ann wisecracks. She tells me that unlike other towns, here you actually tell your kids to go out and play in the street – because yards are postage stamps if they exist at all. It used to be canvas abutting canvas. “You sneeze in your house,” Mary Ann tells me, “and they say bless you in the next house.”

Mary Ann 2

There’s history here, multiple generations living on in one house. A descendent of the original farmer-landowner named Dickerson still runs the supermarket down the hill. Mary Ann orchestrates a longstanding local holiday (like, a hundred-forty years long) called Children’s Day. “You could be a benevolent dictator,” suggests Gil. “There are certain people you must dictate to,” says Mary Ann archly.

We wait in line for Art Garfunkel. Hydrangeas glow in the dusk.


Time expands. The line stretches, people who have journeyed to this little enclave to see a great singer.

There are perks of being a Mount Tabor resident, and since Mary Ann and Eric know George, the organizer of the event, we go back to the green room half an hour before the performance. It’s located in an adjacent historic building that is usually bare, filled only with folding chairs, where various committees hold their meetings.


“This is why they come,” says George, referring to the other big-name acts that have appeared in small-town Mount Tabor, Hot Tuna, Arlo Guthrie and Donovan among them. The green room features low, romantic lights and rich burgundy tableclothes and a line-up of chafing dishes in this quaint building that transports you to another time. They had to peel Donovan out of here to get him to the airport after a post-show Buddy Holly singalong.

“Art is sleeping on the ground floor beneath us,” George tells us. I think about that.

art garf

Ssshh. Outside, we inhale the late summer air, cool and warm breezes intermixed, the scent of late roses from people’s tiny garden plots.


We’re standing next to what everyone likes to call the 1873 condo, a building of connected homes where three tent sites originally stood. Slate and gingerbread! Some of that detail might enhance the Cabin.


The Tabernacle, built in 1885, is a wooden octagon topped by a cupola. It has no heat, just hardbacked benches with plenty of leg room.


The interior paint is original. No joke.

inside tab

Giant poles hold the roof up.

tab inside

It’s time. George, at the mike, gives fair warning: Art detests gadgets. Phones and cameras throw him off his game. Turn everything off. Everything. Now. A big change for those of us accustomed to concerts with everybody waving their units around in the air, with everything instantly You Tubed. What kind of curmudgeon makes these rules?

And Art does turn out to be a bit curmudgeonly,  approaching the front of the stage to lecture someone rude enough to attempt a picture. He looks the curmudgeon too, his nose sharpened by time, his height perhaps decreased, his pate and his frizz, a plain checked shirt and jeans, a man in his later years.


He begs our forbearance. He has been struggling with his “damaged voice” for three years, he says. (He cancelled a tour last year, I heard.) He just now feels he can bring it out in front of a crowd, but he is self conscious. Between songs, he thanks listeners graciously for their support. He reads to us from writings on the backs of white envelopes, poems, he says, he wants to test out on us, from a collection will be published next year by Knopf.

He recites a poem he originally read for Paul Simon on his 70th birthday:

For 70 years his arm has been around my shoulder,

He’s dazzled me with gifts.

I nurtured him in his youth.

He brought me into prominence.

I taught him to sing.

He connected my voice to the world.

I made him tall.

All of our personal belongings are intertwined.

We say it’s exhausting to compete,

But we shine for each other.

It’s still our favourite game.

tall art:simon

He tells us a story of living on Amsterdam Avenue when he was in architecture school at Columbia, living among roaches. Simon came over saying he thought he had a song that might be worth something and it was Sounds of Silence. Garfunkel sings Sounds of Silence for us. Haunting.

He shares an anecdote about Jack Nicholson’s acting chops when they did time together in Hollywood on Carnal Knowledge.


A story about the “bird in his throat,” and singing Ol’ Man River for a herd of cows as he hiked in the country one day.

As for the singing… the angelic tenor… well, the instrument is indeed broke, in part. Still ravishing, sometimes. It is an amazing performance, though, just because it is so raw, because his voice is imperfect, because of the notes he can not hit and the notes he snags, better in the lower registers. Bookends, a capella. Cathy’s Song. The Boxer. Parsley, Sage, eliding over the rosemary, but bringing the song home, ultimately.

There in Mount Tabor’s intimate, historic Tabernacle, all is forgiven.

tab night


Filed under Culture, Film, History, Home, Jean Zimmerman, Music, Nature, Photography, Poetry, Publishing


I made a list. The things I’d do if I were going out and about this weekend. The free-of-leg-cast things.

There’s the NYC Unicycle Festival, which kicks off with a 13-mile single-wheeled parade across the Brooklyn Bridge to Coney Island and which includes a bout of unicycle sumo wrestling.

UniFest2012 photo creditKeithNelsoniphone_1654

Then, the art installlation by Olaf Eliasson, called “Your Waste of Time,” in Long Island City, at MOMA PS1, with chunks of Icelandic ice in a refrigerated room.


I could visit the Wolf Conservation Center north of the Cabin. Sit behind protective glass and watch a pack howl. They even offer overnights in a tent. The Center has babies, like Zephyr, born April 20th.


There’s a tug boat armada on the Hudson, more accurately the Great North River Tugboat Race & Competition, complete with a Popeye-themed contest for spinach eaters.

Jones Beach, its tawny sands burning hot in August, its crashing waves filled with quarter-size quivering jellyfish. We don’t care about jellyfish, though. It’s the last swim before fall. But no room on that crowded strand for a fiberglass leg cast.


The Breaking Bad exhibit at Museum of the Moving Image in Queens that displays the costumes, props and other accoutrements of everyone’s latest streamed addiction, one that has smoothed the way through these mellow weeks post-foot-surgery. The arc of the show was contrived as carefully as Walt crafts his blue rocks, not surprisingly, and “From Mr. Chips to Scarface: Walter White’s Transformation in Breaking Bad.” will show you how. The stuffed animal that splashes down into the Whites’ swimming pool was specially commissioned, it turns out.


Do you care to see the tighty-whities that Walt wore in season one, episode one? For some reason I do, but I don’t know if the terrain is maneuverable for me and my scooter.

I missed the Battle of Brooklyn last weekend – reenactors assembled in what later becamethe famous Green-Wood Cemetery – out of a dread of uneven grass and pebbly stretches.


There was supposed to be cannon fire and I know people were boiling pots over smoky campfires.

I must eschew places that wouldn’t easily accommodate what Gil calls “Jean’s crutches, sons of butches, or the Bloke, no joke.” What the ladies at the nail salon called my “motorcycle.” One was so nice she gave me an upper arm massage. I never knew that crutches kill your triceps.

Jean on crutches

But it’s all in the name of pampering that tiny metatarsal in my right foot, the one that needs some extra help to mend so that I can go on ever greater adventures. Who knows, next year a pair of hiking boots that actually fit. Kilimanjaro.

I am most definitely emerging today for a time to “help” cart Maud’s things for the year to her new dorm. She makes up in leggy activity, just back from sunny Spain, what I currently lack. Out catching drinks with friends, seeing music, buying notebooks, all new things, looking to the future.

maud spain

I am also looking to the future, though a ripple of boredom is creeping through me like a sweet rot. Day to day, I dive down into the Revolutionary New York research for my next novel and come up with gorgeous crumbs. And you need crumbs to make the rich loaf that is a historical novel. But that’s just a start.

I’m going to need a new couch after this recuperation, the indentation in the current one might not plump back up.

A walk down to the garden to dig potatoes would be great. Fingers — toes! — in the dirt. I remember the loam of mid-summer fondly.

potatoes soil copy

Oh, forking over potatoes today… would be amazing. The just-deceased Nobel-winning poet Seamus Heaney’s poem on the subject, “Digging,” is one of the great works of modern literature. Have a seat on my couch. Take a listen.

Between my finger and my thumb   

The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.


Under my window, a clean rasping sound   

When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:   

My father, digging. I look down


Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds   

Bends low, comes up twenty years away   

Stooping in rhythm through potato drills   

Where he was digging.


The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft   

Against the inside knee was levered firmly.

He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep

To scatter new potatoes that we picked,

Loving their cool hardness in our hands.


By God, the old man could handle a spade.   

Just like his old man.


My grandfather cut more turf in a day

Than any other man on Toner’s bog.

Once I carried him milk in a bottle

Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up

To drink it, then fell to right away

Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods

Over his shoulder, going down and down

For the good turf. Digging.


The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap

Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge

Through living roots awaken in my head.

But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.


Between my finger and my thumb

The squat pen rests.

I’ll dig with it.


Filed under Culture, Fashion, Film, History, Home, Jean Zimmerman, Nature, Poetry, Publishing, Writers, Writing

Portals Into Other Worlds

I’m thinking about how you can visit other times and places on the web, peeking through portals the way you peer through a cutout in the plywood surrounding a construction site. Here are fifteen visits I’ve made lately that I’d recommend.

It was a mistake for Rolling Stone to make a rock star out of a creep.


That doesn’t mean the article that goes with the picture is not good journalism. And don’t we want to know, don’t we have to know, what makes terrorists tick, in order to know how to combat the evil they do? If you don’t feel like patronizing Rolling Stone at the moment to read the piece, if you’re interested in long-form reportage on all kinds of subjects, from a history of the famous indie rock club Maxwell’s to a star 16-year-old pitcher in Japan, go to, which reprints new and classic nonfiction from around the web.


Admit it, you want to know the inside story of the Kindle. What brainiacs came up with this gizmo that might mean the end of books as we know and love them? (I actually have a Kindle Fire and don’t find it hasn’t stifled my desire to read print on paper, just saying.)

It sounds almost banal, but I guarantee that when you hook into The Evolution of Love Songs (1904-2007) you will not be able to quit. I’m waiting for part 2, 2008-2013.

Up my alley, and I hope yours, a view of how the lives of American women changed over the 19th century through the art of the time.  In particular, life on the farm, complete with Winslow Homerian milkmaids.

Winslow Homer (American artist, 1836-1910) The Milk Maid


There are so many food blogs. I like npr’s the salt.

A view into a different world would include the minds of people who make Lego their personal idiom. They do things like make plastic sushi and other amazing Lego food creations. 

Lego sushi

I’m interested in the alternate lives of feral children, especially since my next novel Savage Girl  describes all the trouble one can get into in Gilded Age New York. Like how do you participate in a refined dinner party when you’re accustomed to tearing meat apart with your fingers? Every now and then a contemporary wild child surfaces with an interesting story. You can read about Marina Chapman, a British housewife who claims she was raised by monkeys in Colombia.

 marina chapman

Want to know about neolithic cooking? The Rambling Epicure tells you, and it starts with “one bucket wild spinach leaves.” The excellent food site gives you a recipe from Jane Le Besque’s cookbook, Un Soufflé de Pollen: Livre de Cuisine et de Peinture. A painter, Le Besque lives in the Pays de Gex in the foothills of the Jura mountains, and this is her “artistic vision” of primitive cuisine.

See how other people connect — passionately — with the past. Reenactors get their due with 36 photos from around the world.


Here, actors and actresses from Iere Theatre Productions play the roles of indentured East Indian laborers and British constabulary police during a reenactment of the first arrival of East Indians to Trinidad and Tobago, on Nelson Island in the Gulf of Paria off the west coast of Trinidad.

It’s not all about Gettsyburg, clearly.

reenactors 2

These children are taking part in a mock military parade at an amusement park in Pyongyang to mark International Children’s Day, in this photo taken on June 1, 2013.

Okay, the squeamish should not tune in to7 Bio-Artists Who Are Transforming the Fabric of Life Itself” at the site io9.


It’s about how some provocative artists today deal with biotechnology. Working with scientists and engineers, these geniuses transform living tissue and even their own bodies into works of art. For example, Brazilian-American “transgenic artist” Eduardo Kac took a rabbit and implanted it with a Green Fluorescent Protein (GFP) found in jellyfish. When placed under a blue light, the rabbit glows an otherworldly hue.

On the lighter side, see the longest domino chain in the world made of books: 2,131 of them.

 My dog is named a very modern Oliver. He looks exactly like his name.

oliver about to copy has a well-researched piece on ancient pet names, such as dogs called Sturdy, Whitefoot, Hardy, Jakke, Bo and Terri, and a cat in England named Gyb – the short form of of Gilbert –  or one named Mite, who prowled around Beaulieu Abbey in the 13th century, or Belaud, a grey cat belonging to Joachim du Bellay in the 16th century. Isabella d’Este owned a cat named Martino. I bet nobody died their animals green.

Buzzfeed has 16 noble photos of women writers at work, including a great one of Anne Sexton immersed in her craft.

anne sexton

From, the story of an artist whose work was discovered in the trash 50 years after his death.

Charles Dellschau

This grouchy butcher by trade, an immigrant named Charles Dellschau, had secretly been busy assembling thousands of intricate drawings of flying machines, sewn together in homemade notebooks with shoelaces.

And for anyone who didn’t catch this when it went big on the web, Dustin Hoffman showed us his softer side in reminiscing about Tootsie and what playing a woman meant to him. The interview is a window into the psyche of someone whose brilliant work opened a window into a psyche we were lucky to see.



Filed under Art, Cooking, Culture, Dogs, Fashion, Fiction, History, Home, Jean Zimmerman, Nature, Poetry, Savage Girl, Writers, Writing

A Crash, Then Silence

Last fall I created a trail.

path 1

It started at the curve of the Cabin’s driveway and led uphill to a ridge, winding and turning past trees along the way.

path 2

A beautiful mat of bark I’d step across on my way up suggested the drama of a tree’s life cycle. It was as if the bare, dead red pine had shaken the pieces off all at once in a kind of frenzy.

fallen bark

When I brought Oliver for walks in the clearing beyond the ridge, it always stuck me as a threshold to a fairytale world, parklike, denuded of underbrush, just a beautiful blanket of brown leaves amid tall old trees, with some tenacious raspberry canes. Oliver gives chase to deer here, animals invisible to our eyes.

red canes in clearing

Today my access to that fairytale world was denied.

Gil told me that while I was out this morning and he was sitting at his desk, he heard a crash “that went on for five minutes.” It was sequential, he said, an explosion, then a crack, then another explosion.

A tree fell in the forest, and he heard it.

gil uphill

When we went up to investigate – amid swarms of excited mosquitos – we found half a dozen downed trees, all in a tangle.

crashed trees

And all across my path.

Gil’s theory: “the cherry fell on top of the maple. Now the maple’s all bent over, strung like a bow.” I could see the fresh split in its bark.

cracked tree

Oliver was exuberant, racing around, using the fallen limbs as a steeplechase. “The poetical character…lives in gusto,” said Keats. The dog just wouldn’t stand still.

deer chaser

And then, coming home, at the bottom of the hill I find a phenomenon that is the opposite of loud and crashing. A painted turtle had come to lay her eggs, stretching out her strong hind legs and silently clawing up the mud beneath our grass. We saw her as we left for the trail.

All she left was a hole the size of a silver dollar. No white, jellybean eggs.

turtle hole

I wonder if she heard the trees?


Filed under Dogs, Home, Jean Zimmerman, Nature, Poetry, Writers

By Heart

Driving west on Route 6, towards the Catskills, a summer weekday morning, and that old Talking Heads song comes on the radio:

I’m writing ’bout the

Book I read

I have to sing about the

Book I read

I’m embarassed to admit it hit the soft spot in my heart

When I found out you wrote the

Book I read so


Take my shoulders as they touch your arms i’ve

Got little cold chills but I feel alright the

Book I read was in your eyes oh oh

Thinking about when the book you’re reading touches you so much, the words become a part of you. The extreme of that is memorization.

My friend Bethany Pray, the person we’re driving to visit today, commits poems to memory. She wouldn’t say so, but it’s a rather serious pursuit. Not just a limerick for party performances, not a haiku or two. Real poems.  A discipline. She once told me she knew 20 or 30 by heart.

happy bethany

I’ve seen Bethany and Gil have poetry duels around campfires.

Slams? They’re easy. You get up and read or recite your verse, people cheer or boo. With a duel you must remember all the lines of a Shakespeare or a Blake. Not so easy.

Bethany says her favorite to recite is John Berryman’s Sonnet #37

Sigh as it ends… I keep an eye on your

Amour with Scotch,—too cher to consummate;

Faster your disappearing beer than late-

ly mine; your naked passion for the floor;

Your hollow leg; your hanker for one more

Dark as the Sundam Trench; how you dilate

Upon psychotics of this class, collate

Stages, and… how long since you, well, forbore. 

Ah, but the high fire sings on to be fed

Whipping our darkness by the lifting sea

A while, O darling drinking like a clock.

The tide comes on: spare, Time, from what you spread

Her story,—tilting a frozen Daiquiri,

Blonde, barefoot, beautiful,

     flat on the bare floor rivetted to Bach.

I remember Bethany recited it on a long hike we took around the rustic Rockefeller Preserve in Tarrytown, New York, and how I thought it was a poem I would find hard to follow on paper, let alone in air. Berryman was a tough one.


Berryman’s a favorite of Gil’s, too. Gil is at a slight disadvantage in a duel, at least in terms of volume, since he has not applied himself to more than a dozen titles. “There’s a word in Arabic,” he says, “for someone who has memorized the whole of the Koran.” HBO did a show on it, called Koran by Heart. But it’s rare to get a prize for memorizing poetry today unless you’re in 8th grade honors English.


When I was in graduate school the Nobel Prize winning poet Joseph Brodsky loved the poetry of Thomas Hardy (and you thought Hardy only wrote novels) and made us memorize his poems and come in to class and write them out. Not a good assignment for me, as I barely can remember my own name sometimes.

“Pasternak was reading his poems in an auditorium in Russia and dropped his notes,” says Gil. “As he bent to get them the crowd picked up where he left off and finished the poem for him.”

Bethany calls herself a “poet without a portfolio,” but she is modest. Before earning a  law degree she collected an MFA from the Warren Wilson MFA program. She was already working as a paralegal, but “life was boring so I would put a poem in my desk drawer,” occasionally pulling it out. Not to read it – to memorize it.

Her coffee table groans politely under the weight of its poetry. “Kay Ryan is really great,” she says.

coffee table

The duel still in our future, we stop for a sweet moment at Woodstock’s 35-year-old book store The Golden Notebook, to find that they are sold out of The Orphanmaster, with five buyers in the past week alone.

happy Jean

“It’s actually on my bedside table right now,” says Desiree, at her perch behind the counter. “My husband just read your book. He doesn’t like anything, he doesn’t like puppies, and he loved it.”

“You got to feel very famous,” Bethany tells me after we’ve left, happy that she guided us into the shop.

Woodstock is full of bibliophiles and music lovers.

guitar 1

Guitar sculptures stud the sidewalks, each one groovier than the next.

guitar 2

A café has a quiet patio that seems perfect for the poetry throwdown, beneath garlands of honeysuckle and twittering birds, near a lovely puppy with a clubfoot. We get ready to wax poetic. Or rather, they do. I prepare to clap and faint.


Gil begins with Thomas Wyatt’s sonnet to Anne Boleyn, Whoso list to hunt, I know where is an hind… His brain only smokes a little bit as he gropes in his memory.

Gil searching

Bethany goes with Emily Dickinson: On a Columnar self–. “It’s hard to understand her language,” says Bethany. “It’s a kind of mental straitjacket on her passions.”

What do both the duellists have in their quiver? What passions do they share?

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.   
    They may not mean to, but they do.   
They fill you with the faults they had
    And add some extra, just for you…

That’s the opening of Philip Larkin’s dark, hilarious This Be the Verse, one that Bethany and Gil could reel off together, as if in a rock band or at an Irish pub. Gil tells Bethany about the time he recited it in a talent contest at a Universalist family retreat in woodsy Minnesota and got sent away with his knuckles rapped. It’s hardly family friendly, but so brilliant, and Larkin was Poet Laureate of Britain, after all..

Gil’s turn. Blake’s London. I wander through each charter’d street…

Bethany: Ode to Autumn by John Keats.

Beth reciting

She delivers the three long stanzas and we are properly floored.

Another poem for the two of them together –another Berryman, one of the Dreamsongs. Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so.

Coffee all around.

Bethany, another Dickinson. Gil, some Macbeth. Bethany, Spring by Larkin. And she finishes with Berryman’s wonderful I keep an eye on your/Amour.

“His wife learned he was having an affair by reading those poems,” says Gil. I think Gil was inspired to hit the books for his next contest with Bethany, whenever that might occur.

“People survived in the Gulag archipelago by reciting long stretches of poetry,” says Bethany. She knows a poem by Pushkin. She recited it to someone she met, a Russian mail-order bride, who burst into tears, she was so homesick.


Filed under Culture, Fiction, Jean Zimmerman, Poetry, Writers, Writing

The Incomplete Fetch

Gil and I have a conversation about Oliver, who has the entrenched habit of greeting whomever arrives at our front door with a shoe in his mouth.

Oliver fetching


Gil: We used to have a purebred dog who looked like a movie star. Whenever we took her out, her adoring public would gather around to ooh and ahhh. This was before a lot of people had shiba inus.



Me: She was beautiful, but she never brought us any shoes. In fact, everything had to be brought to her.

Gil: Our present beast, in contrast, has issues. Oliver is a mutt, an unlikely combination of a basset hound and a pit bull.



Me: He was a rescue puppy, which excuses some of his defects. Clown-face is the best name we ever had for him.

Gil: He looks stumpy and low to the ground. He has a slight harelip. His breath is atrocious. If his adoring public ever gathered around him, he’d growl and bark at them. Oliver is an example of a creature that is difficult to love.

oliver about to copy

But love him we do, with a passion. I sometimes think this is a gift he gives us, challenging us to love when loving is sometimes not that easy.

Me: The more I see of men, the more I like my dog. So said Pascal. I think that Oliver’s incomplete fetch at the door — incomplete both because you don’t start the action by throwing to him, and because he won’t drop the shoe at your feet — is perfection itself.

ollie shoe out the door


Gil: We have taken to wagering what kind of footwear he will greet us with: a sandal, a boot, a clog. His present-giving never fails to cheer us.

Me: You have to admire the spirit of a dog, no matter show stupid it may see sometimes. Oliver performs the same act over and over again just as eagerly.  Sometimes with a sock, if a shoe’s inconvenient.

Ollie nose sockIf we leave the house for half an hour he brings a shoe. If we then go out for fifteen minutes, when we return he will offer the same prize, dipping his head and smiling through the gift. Devoted, submissive, jiving and shucking.

ollie shoeWhat a good boy am I. An open heart. It’s as if he’s saying, Whatever else I am, I am this flawlessly faithful dog too.

Gil: Is loving more rewarding when it’s difficult? It puts me in mind of a line from a sad poem by John Engels. Precisely to the degree that you have loved something: a house, a woman, a bird, this tree, anything at all, you are punished by time.

Me: We humans should all bring the shoe to the door with the same fervor Oliver does. With the same open heart. What do we get in return? If we’re lucky, the privilege of rolling on our backs in the dewy grass, scratching that perpetual itch.

Oliver rolling




Filed under Culture, Dogs, Home, Jean Zimmerman, Nature, Poetry, Writers