April 29, 2010

Robert Hass: Meaning and Form

Dear Readers,

While I continue working on permissions for the memoir (Re)Making Love: A Sex After Sixty Story, and with a few exceptions that I will highlight here, the process has been torturous and in some cases horribly expensive. It has been a frightening alert about quoting that I will talk more about soon.

But in contrast to those difficulties, there have also been great kindnesses. Robert Hass, whom I quote ever so briefly in my new memoir, is one such gift.

So, here I would like to pay tribute to him with my analysis of his book Human Wishes. I do this not as a critic but as a lover of poetry.

Blogspot doesn't let me place superscript for the footnotes I have written, so please forgive the clunky way I must insert them here. As always, on this analysis, your comments are welcome. I hope to hear from you.

Here is: Robert Hass: Meaning and Form

“. . . as if language were a kind of moral cloud chamber
through which the world passed and from which
it emerged charged with desire.” (1)

To read Robert Hass’s book of poems Human Wishes as a whole—not as separate poems, but rather as a group of poems inextricably connected in their meaning to the poet’s search—is to be confronted with human desire in the concrete acts of domesticity, the monumental tragedies of the world, the pain and losses of individuals in the midst of beauty and joy and often the other way around. In other words, Hass’s achievement is a study in contrast, expressed in both the meaning and the forms of the poems. As Hass says in the book’s last poem “On Squaw Peak,” “. . . It meant to me/ that beauty and terror were intertwined so powerfully/ and went so deep that any kind of love/ can fail. . . . It was the abundance/ the world gives, the more-than-you-bargained-for/ surprise of it . . . .” (p. 83)

Cleanth Brooks in Modern Poetry and the Tradition quotes I. A. Richards on the importance of contrast to effective poems:

In the all-important chapter of his Principles of Literary Criticism, that which treats “The Imagination,” Richards distinguishes between two general types of poetry: first, poetry which leaves out the opposite and discordant qualities of an experience, excluding them from the poem; and second, poetry in which the imagination includes them, resolving the apparent discords, and thus gaining a larger unity. . . . In a poem of the second group the most obvious feature is the extraordinary heterogeneity of the distinguishable impulses.” (2)

Brooks also notes that Dr. Johnson who disapproved of “heterogeneous ideas yoked by violence together”(3) nonetheless gives us the method when “Johnson likens a successful comparison to the intersection of two lines, pointing out that the comparison is better in proportion as the lines converge from greater distances.”(4)

Brooks’ context is metaphysical poetry, but the points he is making seems to me to apply to Robert Hass’s work in Human Wishes and to raise these questions: How does Hass achieve that “larger unity” to which I. A. Richards refers and how do meaning and form work to this end in his poems? It is my view that Robert Hass is in search of the unity to which I. A. Richards refers and that he indeed achieves it, though not in every poem. The unity of Hass’s work is most striking when the contrast he presents works to illuminate the human dilemma of desire and joy in the face of life’s torments.

The book is divided into four parts, with part two using prose as its form and ending with the poem “January,” which combines both poetry and prose. Parts 1, 3, and 4 are free verse poems. These choices in themselves reinforce the study in contrast that I believe Hass achieves. In the first poem “Spring Drawing” (p. 3) he establishes the longing that pervades the rest of the work:

“. . . then the interval created by if, to which mind and breath attend, nervous/ as the grazing animals the first brushes painted,/ has become habitable space, lived in beyond wishing.” In the last poem of this section he makes a return to this first poem in “Spring Drawing 2” (p. 13), which repeats with changes the first line of the previous poem. But in this poem he expands the world of desire by adding a political context: “In order to be respectable, Thorstein Veblen said, desperate in Palo/ Alto, a thing must be wasteful, i.e., ‘a selective adaptation of forms to/ the end of conspicuous waste.”/ So we try to throw nothing away . . . .” But desire is here too: “The first temptation of Sakyamuni was desire, but he saw that it led to/ fulfillment and then to desire, so that one was easy.” Thus the contrasts, not only within each poem, but among them, are laid in place as the first part of the book closes with the extraordinary and effective unity of two poems that reflect on one another in title, first lines and the continuing thread of desire. In Part two the switch to prose poems seems a fitting contrast that highlights the difficulties of form in the sense of that word literally—as the form of the poem—and figuratively—as our search for form through the meaning of things, meaning which seems to evade the poet despite the beauty he encounters. And desire, longing close this section, as well, in the poem of mixed forms “January” (p. 35): “. . . they are laughing. At the comedy in the business of trying to sort through mutually exclusive alternatives in which figures some tacit imagination of contentment, some invisible symbolizing need from which life wants to flower.” Parts 3 and 4 further the thematic unity. In “Misery and Splendor” (Part 3, p. 41), the poet describes the difficulty of perfect joining in the sexual act: ‘They are trying to become one creature,/ and something will not have it.’ This poem seems to me to be a predecessor of “The Privilege of Being” (p. 69) in Part 4, where this idea of the desire/the wish for and the difficulty of joining is more fully and I think more beautifully expressed and worth a longer quotation:

All of creation is offended by this distress,
It is like the keening sound the moon makes sometimes,
rising. The lovers especially cannot bear it,
it fills them with unspeakable sadness, so that
they close their eyes again and hold each other, each
feeling the mortal singularity of the body
they have enchanted out of death for an hour or so,
and one day, running at sunset, the woman says to the man,
I woke up feeling so sad this morning because I realized
that you could not, as much as I love you,
dear heart, cure my loneliness
wherewith she touched his cheek to reassure him
that she did not mean to hurt him with this truth.
And the man is not hurt exactly,
he understands that life has limits, that people
die young, fail at love,
fail of their ambitions.

Having, I hope, illustrated both the unity and use of contrast among the poems, I would like now to look more closely at “The Privilege of Being” and the prose poem “The Museum” (p. 18) to more fully examine the use of contrasts within each of these poems and to show that Robert Hass succeeds at creating the “extraordinary heterogeneity of the distinguishable impulses” to which I. A. Richards has referred. I consider these two poems to be among the most successful in the book because here the poet is most in control of his form. And for this reason I will examine more closely the prosody of these two poems as it relates to meaning.

“The Privilege of Being” begins: “‘Many are making love. Up above, the angels/ in the unshaken ether and crystal of human longing . . . .” The poem has 44 lines that range in syllable count from 5 to 18 with no discernible pattern, to my eye at least; only eight of the lines use a syllable count under 10. Thus it is possible to say that Hass has purposefully chosen the longer line and is avoiding the traditional pentameters, hexameters, etc. The long line seems to me appropriate to the expansive, even lush meaning of the poem, with the angels above who “are braiding one another’s hair, which is strawberry blond/ and the texture of cold rivers.” That last line, “and the texture of cold rivers,” scans to my mind with two anapests and a trochee—a pattern that slows the line and emphasizes the startling contrast of the phrase “the texture of cold rivers.” I find this quite rhythmically affecting, pleasurable. The shortest line in the poem—five syllables and which I have quoted above in context—is “die young, fail at love.” This line scans with a spondee foot, followed by a trochee and perhaps a trochee truncation (?). Again, the meter, though not regular, seems perfect to the meaning: the spondees emphasizing the sadness of “die young”; the truncation, working with failure in life. So clearly, the poet is aware of the meter even if he chooses not to use it in a regular fashion. And certainly one could argue that regularity is not germane to the meaning of the poem for it is about the human inability to create perfect form. In terms of imagery, Hass contrasts the angels, the lovemaking, the philosophical musings of the poem with the mundane: The man in the poem runs beside his lover, “ready to be alone again . . . or merely companionable like the couples on the summer beach/ reading magazine articles about intimacy between the sexes”—a sobering, ironic reflection of the longing in the poem and the impossibility of complete connection. This poem exemplifies Hass’s gifts for meter, for contrast, indeed, for “an extraordinary heterogeneity.”

In the prose poem “Museum,” he achieves an equal success in my view. This poem in 19 lines of prose, sets forth the contrast of desire for living, for joy and pleasure in the midst of the world’s suffering by painting a scene in a museum restaurant. A man and a woman eat fresh fruit and rolls, drink “coffee in white cups” while their baby sleeps. They sit midst the K├Ąthe Kollwitz exhibit of “faces carved in wood of people with no talent or capacity for suffering who are suffering the numbest kinds of pain: hunger, helpless terror. But this young couple is reading the Sunday paper in the sun, the baby is sleeping, the green has begun to emerge from the rind of the cantaloupe, and everything seems possible.” That last word ‘possible’ stands alone on the last line; clearly an intentional move and a powerful statement set in contrast.

I am an avid reader of poetry and venture to assert that poetry ought to give pleasure through both form and meaning. Robert Pinsky eloquently expresses a view I share in Poetry and the World: “. . . I want to say—as humbly as possible—that despite all the complexities of literary theory, for all the ingenuities of ambition or expectation, the trouble with most poems that fail . . . may be described simply: they are not interesting enough to impart conviction.”(5)

It is Robert Hass’s conviction to form and meaning in Human Wishes that moves me, that makes me want to take the poems apart to understand his technique and then to read them again just for the pleasure they provide.

1. Robert Hass, “Human Wishes,” Human Wishes (New York: The Ecco Press, 1989), p. 23.

2. Cleanth Brooks, Modern Poetry & the Tradition (New York: Oxford University Press, 1965), p.41.

3. Ibid., p. 40.

4. Ibid., p. 43.

5. Robert Pinsky, Poetry and the World (New York: The Ecco Press, 1988), p. 31.

April 22, 2010

Books that changed my life

I am reading galleys now for the book: new title! (Re)Making Love: A Sex After Sixty Story that will be published by 3ones, Inc., as soon as the permissions process is over. I suggest you read David Shields on this torturous process. I will write an essay soon about it all. But in the meantime, Shields has written a controversial, well-reviewed and challenging book that takes on much more than this issue. His book is titled Reality Hunger.

Today I add Human Wishes by Robert Hass, 1989. I will post an analysis soon of the book itself—not as a critic but as a lay reader who adores this poet's work. My favorite of all his poems is "Privilege of Being." In this poem I would argue that Hass is aware of the meter even if he chooses not to use it in a regular fashion. And certainly one could argue that regularity is not germane to the meaning of the poem for it is about the human inability to create perfect form. In terms of imagery, Hass contrasts the angels, the lovemaking, the philosophical musings of the poem with the mundane: The man in the poem runs beside his lover, “ready to be alone again . . . or merely companionable like the couples on the summer beach/ reading magazine articles about intimacy between the sexes”—a sobering, ironic reflection of the longing in the poem and the impossibility of complete connection. This book Human Wishes is well-worth owning and if you buy it, I will assure you that you will read these poems again and again and that they will hold you. They have held me in the palm of this poet's broad hand and wise heart.

Here's a new book for the list below. I quote in the memoir James Hollis: The Middle Passage: From Misery to Meaning in Midlife, Inner City Books, copyright 1993. Reprinted in my memoir with permission of Daryl Sharp, publisher, Inner City Books. I'd like to take a moment here to thank the publisher Daryl Sharp, a Jungian analyst, who swiftly responded to my request. We need more good souls like Daryl Sharp in the world. I had permission within three hours of asking. Here's the James Hollis quote that I use in my book. I reread it often for its wisdom:

In a slim little book entitled The Middle Passage the Jungian analyst James Hollis advises: “What is not conscious from our past will infiltrate our present and determine our future. The degree to which we felt nurtured directly affects our ability to nurture others. The degree to which we feel empowered directly affects our ability to lead our own lives. The degree to which we can risk relationship . . . ” depends.

First and foremost I am a reader. Here is the list of books that changed my life and that I am updating as time goes by. I try here to suggest why you might want to own them. James Hollis belongs on this list:

D.H. Lawrence: The Complete Poems by D.H. Lawrence, edited by V. de Sola Pinto & F. W. Roberts, copyright (c) 1964, Viking Penguin, a division of Penguin Group (USA) Inc. This glorious book of ALL D.H. Lawrence’s poems is no longer in print. How sad. But you can find it used. Buy it before none are left. Lawrence, as he does in his best novel Women in Love though he is perhaps more well-known for Lady Chatterly’s Lover (a novel I did read and love but that does not compare with Women in Love), will leave you breathless. I read virtually everything he had written when I was seventeen. And then I grew up. Okay, I never actually grew up, but I got older and realized how much he had informed my womanhood. A man did that: Sure my father: more about that soon in something else I’ve written. But D.H. Lawrence put in words much of what my father knew but could not say about both eroticism and ethics and how the two for me are inextricably entwined. What is not so well-known about Lawrence is what a terrific poet he was. Be sure not to miss “Kisses in the Train.” It will spin your heart and is one of the greatest love letters ever written. Remind me to put it on Lovahs.com: a great place to find love letters by ordinary folk and great poets.

Dana Gioia: Interrogations at Noon, 2001 Graywolf Press. I heard Dana Gioia read from this book at the Martin Luther King Library—I live across the street from the library and a couple years ago taught a pro bono class there on writing fiction and memoir: it was a great experience because I learned so much from those who dropped in: the homeless, a bartender, and business folk of all ilk. I hope to teach and learn at the library again soon. Shortly after my class ended and while Dana Gioia was still head of the National Endowment for the Arts, he read there: Not enough people in the audience. But he did not bat an eye over that. He read with heart and soul, the way he writes. Be sure not to miss the poem “Voyeur”—it made me think about love and sex and marriage in ways that both ring true and astonish at the same time. Many years ago I read his book Can Poetry Matter? It has held me in my stead while I delayed writing for work and for reasons I have come through therapy to more deeply understand and that I discuss in a short essay that appears now on ShareWik.com. I expected to find critical revelation that I had been used to trudging through. Instead I found a totally readable book about poetry and life and work. And if you work and think there is no hope that you will write because you MUST work, read Dana Gioia and learn from him. He’s worth it.

Important note here: He is alive and well. Don’t ever buy a used book by an author who is alive: If you do, not only does he never earn a penny for his work but neither does the press that made him available to you and me.

Wendy Doniger: The Bedtrick, Tales of Sex & Masquerade, University of Chicago Press, 2000. The Bedtrick, I say, masquerades as a scholarly text—and indeed it is that: the notes and footnotes go from pages 493 to 598. But I didn’t let Doniger’s scholarship fool me. She writes with wry humor and perfect clarity—sentences that ring like bells and that I reread to learn how to write one—but more to understand the paradoxes of sex. While reading The Bedtrick, I watch movies (The Filmography alone on pages 567 to 576 startles with its range), read the Kamasutra and Shakespeare with her—and everything she (and now I) can get our hands on. She knows so much about sex that I keep this book near me the way I keep Joyce’s Ulysses near me, but for different reasons: Doniger is a helluva lot more fun. And she’s alive and well: don’t you dare buy her used.

John Updike: Self-Consciousness, First Ballantine Books Edition, NY, 1990—and all of his short stories. I wept when he died. Not to see him on a regular basis in The New Yorker, his home away from home where most of his short stories were published and where he regularly wrote enlightening essays on art and books hurts—and I mean that: I ache for him. In the chapter “Getting the Words Out” in Self-Consciousness, his candid memoir, he talks about the burden of his stammer and the psoriasis that plagued him in his youth. But what he does with this is tell us what he learned from both. And throughout this gem of a book, Updike lifts the curtain, as I like to say, on the autobiography inside his fictions. His book gives me courage.

Salman Akhtar: Broken Structures: Severe Personality Disorders and Their Treatment, 1992 by Jason Aronson, Inc. Available through Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group. Okay this one is a psychiatric text. But Salman Akhtar is a poet and a psychiatrist. I found this book enlightening on more levels than I can express. He reaffirmed that when I was broken, I could be whole and stronger for the struggle. He also is alive and well: Remember my dictum.

Maurice Blanchot: The Writing of the Disaster, translated by Ann Smock, the University of Nebraska Press, 1986. He was both a fiction writer and a critic and I suppose is now studied as a philosopher. But you don’t have to be a philosopher to read this thin book. I surely am not. Blanchot reads to me like poetry. I don’t always know what the sentences mean but the organic whole of his words invade me, invoke me, inspire me and hold me the way poetry does. Okay, he’s dead, but he’d never be available to us if the University of Nebraska had not published Ann Smock’s wonderful translation of him. So, let’s support the arts and buy the book.

John Hitchcock: At Home in the Universe: Re-envisioning the Cosmos with the Heart Chrysalis Books, 2001, the Swedenborg Foundation. Hitchcock has a doctorate in physics and became a Jungian analyst. This book is for some reason hard to find. But Hitchcock is alive. He made me see the physical world anew. My heart ached so when I first read him that I thought I was losing my mind. He taught me about the heart and its openness. He lives inside me. You can find his book here www.swedenborg.com This site appears to be a Christian spirituality site and maybe it is. But I am Jewish and Hitchcock’s book speaks deeply to my heart and in no way attempts to convert me. This is not a self-help book. Let me be clear: I hate the how-to books on fixing your life. This is a book about self-discovery and the world. It’s worth it.

Green Mansions: A Romance of the Tropical Forest by R.H. Hudson, Illustrated by McKnight Dauffer, Random House, New York, 1944. My father gave me my first book: Green Mansions by R.H. Hudson with its heroine the sylph, Rima, who he always said I was. This book that I still own is boxed in a black protective folder that sheds, crumbles in my hand when I remove the treasured gift, the book still perfect, that my father gave me when I was a child. I traveled without passport to the erotic and the primitive, to the wilderness and came back changed.

As time goes by, I will add to this list. Your comments are, as always, welcome. Please comment.

And I will keep you posted on my book, its hope.

With hope,


April 11, 2010

Time limits

I am reprinting here the memoir piece I call “Absent.” It appears in an earlier post, the beginning nugget of my next book. Here I’d like to share with you the ways this piece came to be.

I was working with the artist M.M. Panas, whose work I love. I’ve wanted to partner with her for a couple years and finally persuaded her to work with me. This means she shows me a piece and I ponder it while I write. I show her something I’ve written and she ponders it while she paints. We do this over a time-limited period: 10 days to be exact. The limit, like the limits of life, evoke a certain thrill in me. And by certain I don’t mean indefinite, I mean specific and particular to this experience: the process of creation.

Panas sent me the painting you see here and in her missive also sent a photograph taken by her husband John Panas after the massive snowstorm that hit D.C., making history.

I sent Panas a story from my book The Woman Who Never Cooked. Here is the excerpt of “Sine Die.” The full story is in my book.

Sine Die

I see the two women at the bar, yellow silk, split skirts, dark hair, beautiful long thin legs.

The two women were at the bar, thinking they were in Hong Kong, pretending. (Much of what they do is pretending—it is how they get on with one another.) Today they pretended that they were Asian, that their hair was long and straight, that they could smoke without harm, that they could drink and stay in control but still get high, that their skin was the beautiful mellow beige of Asian women, that they could lie in the sun without burning. They talked and laughed. They wore their hair pulled back against their heads, made smooth with gel so they had the look of straight hair. They went shopping and bought yellow silk blouses and skirts, went to a seamstress who cut the slits in their skirts, who tightened the silk against their hips.

The only way to tell them apart is the younger sister’s small bones, tiny points, exposed; the older’s small round stomach. They bought high-heeled shoes and wore them even though both had inherited their mother’s feet—one with the hammer toe, both with the bone that widened at the ball, that had become a bunion as they grew older. One sister’s bunion was worse than the other’s. The bunions, hidden in the narrow vamps of their shoes, hurt. They did not care. They were pretending and they were good at it.

It had taken them a long time to learn. It began when they were children, when they pretended they could fly by riding on each other’s feet, when they pretended they were fine cooks like their mother, cooked mushrooms on toast and created a delightful meal for themselves without their mother’s help, when their parents were not home, when the older sister was babysitting the younger. It was when they were children—like other children—that the pretending became an integral part of their play. But unlike other children, the pretending became so essential to their relationship they could not, would not, outgrow it because, while they were children, one of them got sick. They didn’t talk about the sickness; they pretended, the way their parents pretended, that it did not exist, but the sickness was the source of all their pretending now, the unspoken source.

The two sisters left the bar and went down Baltimore street, the street where the strippers took off their clothes inside the bars. They didn’t go into any of these bars but they liked to walk down the street. So they walked, watched the eyes of the men on them, knowing this was dangerous. But the older sister was strong, a powerful, sick, fearless woman who told the younger sister not to be afraid. She said, “Pretend you belong, that you own the street. Anyone can go anywhere if she acts like she owns the place.”

This way of walking, of turning a street corner, of entering a room, is something you can learn by pretending. It’s the key to everything. That’s why we do it when we’re little—so we can learn.

I am not sure when I am pretending and when I am not. I had a sister, three years older than I, who died. I have trouble remembering her. To help with this I think of remembering and forgetting as two sides of a right triangle. I think of the third side, the hypotenuse, as pretending. It is this third side that helps me accept the not knowing, the intangibility of the truth.

Fig. I

sine curve

In Trigonometry, the graph of the equation y = sin x is called the sine curve, an elegant mathematical tool for defining the relationship of the sides of a right triangle. It is an infinite (sine die) pattern of undulating curves with an infinite number of points that plot changes in the triangle, including a point where no triangle exists—a flat line.

Figure II

On the right triangle, let us call the two sisters Sides A and B; A is the older sister; B, the younger; they are bound to one another in a right angle, an essential (sine qua non) element. Their relationship, the unknowns and knowns of each to the other, is defined by the sine curve. The unknowns reveal themselves as knowns, as points on the sine curve by calculating the relationships of A to B to C. Side C is the pretending. I think of the sisters (A and B) interchangeably as remembering and forgetting, for as I’ve said the two are hard to tell apart, the way the sisters looked alike that day on their walk down Baltimore Street.

The two women were not whores. They were not wild.

The only thing they had ever done together with abandon was the time they cut their long hair short and had it permed, which made their curly hair curlier—and them, ridiculous. Then, like now, they did not know exactly what they were doing, and their hair bloomed into unexpected Afros when it dried. Since puberty, each had rolled her hair and sat under dryers. Neither knew that she had naturally curly hair because both had straight hair as children. The curls came with puberty when all those rollers became essential to their pretense of appearance. In this sense, the truth about their hair was a secret neither had known—that they discovered with a silly mistake, the permanent solution on their hair. The tameness of the mistake and the resulting discovery contrasted with the seriousness of the pretending that defined their relationship and the current adventure.

For now they both knew there were other secrets. Neither knew what the other had done that could have been wild, that they had not done together. Both sisters, who were married, believed that the other had never had an affair. But on Baltimore Street each sister looked at the other wondering if this were true. Had neither actually had an affair?

The older one, the one who was sick, thought, My sickness is like an affair. It seduces me to live even though I know the doctor will cut off my leg soon (this, my sister doesn’t know). It repels me because I would rather die than live deformed. I am infatuated by my secret. When I am ready to tell, my horror will hold my sister near me. What has my sister kept secret? she wondered. To find out, she lied, “We tell each other everything. I would know if you had done something. I would see it in your face, hear it in your voice.”

The younger knew that was not true because she had had an affair with a married man, a lawyer, many years ago before she was married—and not told. She wondered, Would I sleep with the lawyer now? Now that I am married?

So she was not as innocent as she pretended. Did her sister know this? She was reminded of when they were both teenagers: The older had made her a costume like the yellow silk outfit she was wearing now. Her sister had called it “the gypsy costume.” Now the younger saw that the gypsy costume really was the outfit of a whore, with the low-cut blouse, the skirt with a slit up the side, on a fourteen-year-old girl. The skin-tight skirt, which the thin little girl wore well, pretending to be older. Her thin body suited the outfit, the scarf her sister put around her forehead, a larger scarf around her shoulders atop the off-the-shoulder blouse. Who was pretending? Was it the little girl? Her seventeen-year-old sister? Both, the woman now realized. They were dreaming the shared secret, desire.

The sisters’ most powerful secret was something each knew but would not, could not express—the power of the older over the younger. Both were aware of it. Neither knew how it would play out.

My sister is dead. She died three years after our mother died. My father is sick—but because I am left I am the only one who knows about this. My father doesn’t remember that my mother (his wife) and my sister (his daughter) have died. He has severe memory loss—Parkinson’s Disease. He is sine cure (without cure). The doctors simply say, to clarify, “Senility.” But I think he is mad with grief. I am forty years old, married to a man I love. Like my father, I am not sure what I know. I often pretend—now that my sister and mother have died and now that my father can’t remember those facts—I pretend that another man loves me, a man who has no connection to any of these losses. My husband, who I think no longer desires me, went through it all with me—all I’ve lost. I want to forget, to pretend. Perhaps the other man is real. Perhaps my husband desires me. My father sometimes says, out of the blue it seems—is he trying to remember or forget when he says this?—“The circumstances are extenuating.”

Here is what Panas painted in response to "Sine Die."

She startles: so much so that I bought the painting.

During the ten-day period while she was creating this painting and I was writing "Absent," I met with my cousin whose mother had died. We had not seen each other since the funeral and not much before that: the distancing that occurs in families as we live more broadly and perhaps more narrowly as a result has caught my imagination and my heart: This distancing I experience most particularly now with my son who lives a good part of the year in Australia. So absence was on my mind in the story and in my limited existence.

Here is what I wrote.


The camera was invented in 1839 by arguably Fox Talbot—some say it was Louis Daguerre, but whatever the controversy about its invention, its mark on our lives is indelible. The photograph defines for better or for worse: Think of family, think of presidents and kings, think of wars and holocausts, of earthquakes and broken houses, think of tidal waves and flooded land, think of volcanoes and moving bodies frozen in ash, think of slow-moving glaciers and grand canyons, or simply think of blizzards and great pines struck down by flakes of snow.

No photo of my father when he was a child exists. One family photo of his parents and his six brothers and sisters stands as proof of who they were. The photo belonged to Cecelia, my father’s niece who died this fall, whose life became entwined with his well after this photo was taken.

I ask, Can absence be defined?

The only photos that mark my father’s existence begin with his marriage to my mother. He came to her with one shopping bag with everything he owned, that included one small framed photo of his mother Hannah that sits now on one of my book-lined shelves in the condo where I write.

Cecelia’s mother Rose stands tallest in the family picture but she succumbed at thirty to tuberculosis when Cecelia was seven and my father, thirteen. And so their lives joined. She and Rose lived with my grandmother while Rose died and when she did, Nathan, Cecelia’s father said he couldn’t take her. Gerson and Cecelia ate fried matzo and gefilte fish, bought, when they could, corned beef sandwiches and split-grilled kosher hot dogs on Lombard Street. They cleared the china from the table. They translated the English Hannah, who spoke only Russian and Yiddish, needed for the blocks she’d walk where she felt safe. They became brother and sister.

My father never forgot the day that Cecelia was wrenched from his mother’s arms. Her father had remarried and came when she was just thirteen to take her away. My father never forgot her screams as she was shoved into the car to live with a woman she’d never met and would never find a way to love. They shared this memory that even her children don’t know—as if it didn’t happen.

No other photo of my grandfather exists.

Harry, a tailor in Russia, and Hannah escaped a pogrom through a sewer with Rose who lived because, when she cried and the guide said she must die, she suckled at Hannah’s breast. Harry couldn’t find work as a tailor in Baltimore. He died on the street where my father found him in the gutter he was cleaning, struck down by a heart attack, lying with his broom.

Gerson barely graduated high school. His geometry teacher was a drunk and Gerson wrote that on the board and got expelled. The truth is crooked and should not be chalked.

He couldn’t afford the photo or the yearbook from Eastern High School in East Baltimore where he did get that diploma, but didn’t walk across the stage: No one to come see him.

He played pool in a pool hall where he met a lab technician whose low-level job at Hopkins gave him time and money for pool and opera and books, who could see Gerson’s mind and where the gambling would land him. He lent him Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy. Gerson read that one and every other Hardy wrote. Gerson read The Forsyte Saga by John Galsworthy. He visited the lab technician’s flat on East Baltimore’s Broadway near the lab and not too far from Milton Avenue, the street and neighborhood Hannah dared not venture from, where she was putting briskets in the oven. He heard the notes of Wagner and Beethoven and Chopin, the voice of Enrico Caruso on a gramophone. Reading was his game now. Opera, his obsession.

He wanted to go to Towson State Teachers College and go back to Eastern High to teach literature, to show the drunk how you really chalk the board. He couldn’t afford the 15 cent trolley fare in 1924. He sold shoes, earned five bucks a week and gave two to his mother.

My father didn’t live to see my first book published.

He gave me my first book: Green Mansions by R.H. Hudson with its heroine the sylph, Rima, who he always said I was. This book that I still own is boxed in a black protective folder that sheds, crumbles in my hand when I remove the treasured gift, the book still perfect, that my father gave me when I was a child. I traveled without passport to the erotic and the primitive, to the wilderness and came back changed.

He took the home movie of me in my Davy Crockett buckskin jacket that I wore walking down the tiny stoop of our Grantley Road row house. He took the shot of me while I twirled and that my lover stilled from my father’s yellowed eight-millimeter film and placed inside a frame to give me when I left my corporate job to write.

He is the missing man in the photo of my erotic life. And here’s the proof: My lover has his wit—the circumstances are extenuating, said my father. My steed at the ready, ma'am, says my white knight with no armour. My lover plays Schubert on a baby grand, listens to Chopin and Greig, owns a woofer that he built for the stereo that resounds. My lover reads Saramago and McEwan and McGuane—and everything I write.

The philosophical chestnut asks, If a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it … ?

I ask this question, If my father is absent in the family photo, is he missing?

April 10, 2010

Update on the book and the publisher!

I am breathless at the moment as Kelly Abbott of 3ones, Inc. is now in the iPad bookstore and has sent me early galleys of what the book Sex After Sixty (New title for the paperback and e-book to be announced here soon!) will look like when bought from Steve Jobs' new and glorious gizmo. Kelly has already done an amazing job: the art work by Kittenchops looks gorgeous and the book turns its pages as if you are holding a hard copy in your hand. The full color e-book is a sight to behold.

Can't wait, here, dear readers. And will keep you posted on progress. Feel like a chip of spring about to flower.

Full of hope here,