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Archive for September, 2010

The Music Room

My ex-partner was a classical pianist and guitarist. Her mother was a violinist who played in the city Philharmonic and taught violin for many years. One sister played the harp, another the guitar, and her brother was also a classical pianist.

Below are three pieces she played often. I found recordings of her playing these recently, and it reminded me of nights I’d lay on the couch listening.

One room in our house was called the music room. It was a small room in the center of the house that held shelves of piano, guitar and voice music (we each had our own shelves) and all the instruments she’d collected in her travels: guitars, wooden flutes, recorders, bagpipes, an Irish bodhran. There were also small wooden cuckoo clocks, racks and racks of cds and all her recording equipment. The room had the most wonderful acoustics. When I was last there, it had been converted into storage space, but this painting I’d done of her was hanging on the wall among all the instruments.

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Natasha Trethewey won the
Pulitzer Prize in Poetry in 2007.

Vespertina Cognito

Overhead, pelicans glide in threes —
     their shadows across the sand
          dark thoughts crossing the mind.

Beyond the fringe of coast, shrimpers
     hoist their nets, weighing the harvest
          against the day’s losses. Light waning,

concentration is a lone gull
     circling what’s thrown back. Debris
          weights the trawl like stones.

All day, this dredging — beneath the tug
     of waves — rhythm of what goes out,
           comes back, comes back, comes back.
…………………………………………….
by Natasha Trethewey (born 1966)

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Theresa Haberkorn is a woodblock print artist who lives in Boulder, Colo.
Winter Shadow, 143 x 200
Apricot Blossom, 141 x 200
Bear Creek, 144 x 200
Cultivation, 143 x 200

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Cricket

In the light I finally see it,
I stand among them,
my hands drawing their hands,

my fingers, thicker and heavier,
but bending in the same places
as my mother’s graceful fingers.

She leans a little to the left
as this one light in my living room
shines on the stripes of her dress.

I wonder when she chose it
if the mildest feeling passed through her,
if she sensed for a moment

how carefully each stripe
would be sketched one day —
my floor littered with pencil shavings

and peanut butter sandwiches,
jugs of orange juice and apple cores,
one carrot stub hanging out of my mouth like the butt of a cigar.

Grandmother, mother and aunt,
ghost figures in gesso
all dead now,

sixty years later,
connected to each other
by lines in a window and wall.

My grandmother impatiently checks her watch
waiting for my father
to take another photo of my mother,

not realizing perhaps
she’s in the shot.
It all becomes blacks and whites

in a drawing,
empty space
and filled space.

You wait to draw an eye
until it’s no more important
than a purse.

No one can draw a mother’s eye
knowing it’s their mother’s eye.
At last, your hand works away from your body

hatching and crosshatching
automatically, like the robotic arm
of a computerized etch-a-sketch.

I step outside for fresh air
and notice a large, green cricket
in the middle of my front door.

As I wake the next morning
it is then I remember
my mother’s nickname,

given the night she was born
when a cricket chirped all night
in the bottom of the fireplace.

I think now of her thin bones,
the edge of her shoulder blades
accented by all those stripes

as the wings are help up and open.
She looks out of the canvas.
as if she were waiting for me.

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We Walk Down the Mountain

It has been three years
since we walked down the mountain together,

long enough for us to be simpler
than the feelings we had words for then.

These are the petals,
generation after generation

reaching down to touch them.
We stop for a moment

and look beneath the bridge
where fish are stirring in the darkest part of the water,

pooling together
like leaves

leftover
we can see between the cracks.

In front of us on the path
branches are scattered,

limb by limb
working their way toward the center —

small trees
that once edged the sides neatly,

abandoned now
to stretch their arms on the earth.

We walk down the mountain together,
the question is finally answered.

Why is it we only understand someone
when we know they won’t betray us.

This is dusk inside the darkness —
we have not trampled the deep secret in each other

we had learned to feel
in fingertips

of subtle vibration
one quiet petal at a time.

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I heard Bach regularly in the Lutheran church I was raised in. Whenever Bach’s Cantata No. 208 Sheep May Safely Graze, No. 140 Sleepers Wake, or No. 147 Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring were played, my mother stood and looked for me.

She bought me a piano when I was 12 years old, a white upright sneaked in the house one afternoon I was away. That evening, my parents waited to see my expression as I walked through the front door.

Thinking about it now, I wonder where she bought it and how she managed to have it moved. I may never know, but I do understand more clearly why she bought it. She wanted me to play those Bach cantatas we loved so much.

Even at that age, music meant voice to me and not piano. I rarely practiced. The piano was loud and could be heard all over the house. It embarrassed me to make mistakes in front of my parents. Today I can pick through those pieces, but that’s all.

Tonight I heard Sheep May Safely Graze in the background music of a movie and remembered so clearly my mom rising from her seat to look for me. Even tonight, I wanted to stand so she could see me.

Earlier this semester, I paperclipped pages in The Practice of Poetry to use as writing exercises in my English Comp class. Each night I’m curious to open the book and see where the next paperclip falls. Tonight it was clipped to the chapter Black Sheep:

“Write a poem about or from the voice of someone who has been cast out or has voluntarily left the family: the drunkard, the thief, or the perpetrator of the otherwise unforgivable. The poem should confront the unforgivable deed and its mystery, as well as confront the judgment of those who determined to say no more and to turn their backs, which may be mysterious too. Our deepest feelings draw on our childhood expectations of unqualified love and acceptance, our terror of rejection and abandonment, intellectually incomprehensible but emotionally all too familiar.”

As I flip through the student papers, I see familiar stories: the drunken uncle, the homosexual friend, the stepson with autism, the daughter who left home and became a street person, the son who was better in drama class than in football or the football player who wouldn’t get drunk with his buddies because he didn’t want to be benched for the season. 

One woman wrote, “People with disabilities tend to remove themselves from other people. They pass up events to remain in a safe, cocooned environment. It’s safe both emotionally and physically. Emotionally, it saves them from answering the how are you doing questions. Often those questions remind them of their limitations. They don’t need a reminder. They live with it every day.”

I suppose we all feel like black sheep at some point in life, but for some that reality goes far beyond teenage angst or family rivalries. No place feels safe for them.

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Essays of E.B. White

The following excerpt is from E.B. White’s Essays, published in 1977:

Good-bye to Forty-eighth Street

Turtle Bay, November 12, 1957  For some weeks now I have been engaged in dispersing the contents of this apartment, trying to persuade hundreds of inanimate objects to scatter and leave me alone. It is not a simple matter. I am impressed by the reluctance of one’s worldly goods to go out again into the world. During September I kept hoping that some morning, as by magic, all books, pictures, records, chair, beds, curtains, lamps, china, glass, utensils, keepsakes would drain away from around my feet, like the outgoing tide, leaving me standing silence on a bare beach. But this did not happen. My wife and I diligently sorted and discarded things from day to day, and packed other objects for movers, but a six-room apartment holds as much paraphernalia as an aircraft carrier. You can whittle away at it, but to empty the place completely takes real ingenuity and great staying power. On one of the mornings of disposal, a man from a second-hand bookstore visited us, bought several hundred books, and told us of the death of his brother, the word cancer exploding in the living room like a time bomb detonated by his grief. Even after he had departed with his heavy load, there seemed to be almost as many books as before, and twice as much sorrow.

Elwyn Brooks White (1899-1985) is best known
for his book Charlotte’s Web.
He received an honorary Pulitzer
in 1978 for his work as a whole.

Every morning, when I left for work, I would take something in my hand and walk off with it, deposit in the big municipal wire trash basket at the corner of Third, on the theory that the physical act of disposal was the real key to the problem. My wife, a strategist, knew better and began quietly mobilizing the forces that would eventually put our goods to rout. A man could walk away for a thousand mornings carrying something with him to the corner and there would still be a home full of stuff. It is not possible to keep abreast of the normal tides of acquisition. A home is like a reservoir equipped with a check valve: the valve permits influx but prevents outflow. Acquisition goes on night and day — smoothly, subtly, imperceptibly. I have no sharp taste for acquiring things, but it is not necessary to desire things in order to acquire them. Goods and chattels seek a man out; they find him even though his guard is up. Books and oddities arrive in the mail. Gifts arrive on anniversaries and fete days. Veterans send ballpoint pens. Banks send memo books. If you happen to be a writer, readers send whatever may be cluttering up their own lives; I had a man once send me a chip of wood that showed the marks of a beaver’s teeth. Someone dies, and a little trickle of indestructible keepsakes appears, to swell the floor. This steady influx is not counterbalanced by any comparable outgo. Under ordinary circumstances, the only stuff that leaves a home is paper trash and garbage; everything else stays on and digs in.

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The following excerpt is from E.B. White’s Essays, published in 1977:

Good-bye to Forty-eighth Street

Turtle Bay, November 12, 1957  For some weeks now I have been engaged in dispersing the contents of this apartment, trying to persuade hundreds of inanimate objects to scatter and leave me alone. It is not a simple matter. I am impressed by the reluctance of one’s worldly goods to go out again into the world. During September I kept hoping that some morning, as by magic, all books, pictures, records, chair, beds, curtains, lamps, china, glass, utensils, keepsakes would drain away from around my feet, like the outgoing tide, leaving me standing silence on a bare beach. But this did not happen. My wife and I diligently sorted and discarded things from day to day, and packed other objects for movers, but a six-room apartment holds as much paraphernalia as an aircraft carrier. You can whittle away at it, but to empty the place completely takes real ingenuity and great staying power. On one of the mornings of disposal, a man from a second-hand bookstore visited us, bought several hundred books, and told us of the death of his brother, the word cancer exploding in the living room like a time bomb detonated by his grief. Even after he had departed with his heavy load, there seemed to be almost as many books as before, and twice as much sorrow.

Elwyn Brooks White (1899-1985) is best known
for his book Charlotte’s Web.
He received an honorary Pulitzer
in 1978 for his work as a whole.

Every morning, when I left for work, I would take something in my hand and walk off with it, deposit in the big municipal wire trash basket at the corner of Third, on the theory that the physical act of disposal was the real key to the problem. My wife, a strategist, knew better and began quietly mobilizing the forces that would eventually put our goods to rout. A man could walk away for a thousand mornings carrying something with him to the corner and there would still be a home full of stuff. It is not possible to keep abreast of the normal tides of acquisition. A home is like a reservoir equipped with a check valve: the valve permits influx but prevents outflow. Acquisition goes on night and day — smoothly, subtly, imperceptibly. I have no sharp taste for acquiring things, but it is not necessary to desire things in order to acquire them. Goods and chattels seek a man out; they find him even though his guard is up. books and oddities arrive in the mail. Gifts arrive on anniversaries and fete days. Veterans send ballpoint pens. Banks send memo books. If you happen to be a writer, readers send whatever may be cluttering up their own lives; I had a man once send me a chip of wood that showed the marks of a beaver’s teeth. Someone dies, and a little trickle of indestructible keepsakes appears, to swell the floor. This steady influx is not counterbalanced by any comparable outgo. Under ordinary circumstances, the only stuff that leaves a home is paper trash and garbage; everything else stays on and digs in.

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Last night my ex-partner received a reverse-911 call to evacuate. When she drove up the mountain, she could see a plume of smoke coming from the direction of her house. The police had blocked off her neighborhood but permitted her to retrieve her pets. By 10 p.m., the fire was extinguished and she was allowed to return home. She was lucky. Many people evacuated in neighborhoods near the Fourmile Canyon fire weren’t allowed to return home for nearly two weeks.

Today, we hiked to the site where the fire had been, a little more than 4,500 feet from her house. When we arrived, the firemen were still determining the cause. It had burned two acres in Roosevelt National Park. If the slurry planes and helicopters hadn’t been on call from the Fourmile Canyon fire, this one would have been worse. Eighty-five firefighters were on the scene immediately.

Stacked to the side of one of these trucks are cartons of Starbucks coffee and food boxes, which I’m sure were donated. Many businesses came to the aid of firefighters and victims these past two weeks, more than we could report on in the newspaper. Signs drape businesses all over Boulder thanking the firefighters.

Thanks is all we could think to say too. It didn’t seem enough. The firefighters were obviously tired, having been at the site for nearly 24 hours.

I miss living on that mountain and in that house. Driving there today, I was reminded of something I’d forgotten. On the two-lane dirt roads in that neighborhood, people wave when they pass in their car. If you don’t raise your hand in reply, they know you aren’t local. I lived there long enough my hand automatically lifts from the steering wheel when I see another car pass. But it must take others by surprise, wondering why complete strangers wave to them.

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