Thursday, May 24, 2012

The New Land

         Our friend Mark emailed me old photos of Detroit.  I could figure out exactly what year it was in one of the photos by recognizing the model year of the cars in the parking lot, which I can do because I'm from Motor City. I'm slightly embarrassed to admit that the photo that most resonated with me was the menu of F.W Woolworth's soda fountain.  I think I ate everything on that menu that didn't have ham in or on it, at these low prices: 
BACON and TOMATO…………… 50c
  Toasted Three Decker Sandwich
(I had an agreement with God that bacon was OK outside the home if there was lettuce and tomato and toast with it. Alone it would be traif - unkosher).

That photo of the menu brought back this memory:
Deep winter, my friend Karen & I walk all the way from Greenlawn and Curtis to the State Fair Grounds on Eight Mile and Woodward to ice skate. Coming home at 4:30, it's getting dark, and even our layers of clothes won't protect us, it is so cold.  We are a little more than half-way, and there, finally,  is the Woolworth's on Seven Mile & Livernois.  We come in pulling off gloves, rubbing our hands, galoshes stomping the wooden floor.  

Renovated Woolworth Soda Fountain Asheville, N.C.
      We sit down on a red stool and take a little spin - just to make sure we have a good one. ( We will change if we don't.) We look out the window at snowflakes falling through the colored light from the neon sign. We watch the waitress make our order. And there it is in the photo of the menu

   It is remarkably strange to have grown up in a vital “city of the future”, characterized by dynamism and industry, and know it is now a post-industrial wasteland.   

William Livingstone house photo by Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre
   Have you seen the photos of the ruins of Detroit? Empty high- rises, the ghost of the  Beaux Arts Michigan Central Station, decaying mansions, and the population halved since I left. There is a general atmosphere of despair -
but a strange and rather wonderful thing has been  happening there.  

Let me tell you about it with a poem.
 The New Land

You’ve heard of that city
It had an affair
with concrete and steel 
the machine was their lovechild
they named it Advance
and how could it not
be the future?
That city was my first home

     Have you heard it’s in ruins?

Next to 40 stories of abandoned smashed-glass skyscraper
and the startled remains of a Beaux-Arts station where
the 20th Century Limited pulled in and men and women
in hats and suits hired porters in perfectly shined shoes
Next to that  
                     long blocks of empty lots   
I’ve been gone too long to know how the day-to-day goes  
But it’s a Black city now   no supermarkets settle in 
and nothing fresh comes from a liquor store
So the women go to the vacant spaces   clean up the shards  
the bullets    the needles
hoe   plow  weed  seed and feed the ground that belongs
to no one   put in tomatoes  corn   greens   potatoes   
And the earth knows they are listening
says “Barter”   says “Seed exchange”     says “Saturday market”

Outside of the churches   among the early sprouts
they say prayers for the crop   grandaddy’s hymn and Gaia hip-hop
arms reaching  not skyward
but down 
toward the rich  reconsecrated land
of Detroit




Wednesday, May 2, 2012

The Plane Tree & the Woman Born of a Doe

Plane Tree in Winter  Bill Fulton Photos
       Every year the Plane tree across the street re-leafs later. It's May and there is just a bare hint of that new early chartreuse. Every year I ask myself "What if there were no new leaves, if the tree couldn’t do the labor of creating buds any longer?" I love the Plane tree's canopy. It spreads across the street where I have lived for 20 years, and gives such an abundance of green. It reminds me of the street where I grew up in Detroit, the elms forming a long meet-in-the-middle tunnel the length of the block.  Here in California lush greenness is spring-brief, then the rains stop and the hills slowly turn brown.

       Yesterday a neighbor said Peter-the-Tree-Man wants to take the tree out, it’s sick, it’s old, it’s dying - and I am close to tears. The neighbor says “So things die, trees die, they’ll plant another one”, and I give him my try-smile, say “See you later” and walk away.  I’ve learned that trying to get this neighbor, who loves all art that tribes create, to care deeply for these plane trees, or take in what they mean to me, is a poor use of my time.  

     Bill & I have dealt with diseased plants. We were able to save our pear tree. When the blackened leaves that give the disease its name, ‘fire-blight’, appeared, we knew we would not give the tree up easily, and we treated and pruned and special-fed - and yes, talked to it (sang actually) and it lived. It seems to be hard for me to remember that plants, as living things, have life cycles and illness - they are not forever, as art can be, though even art is subject to decay.
A few years ago, at the temples of Angkor Wat I wrote:
Tree Growing out of  Temple  Bill Fulton Photos
 The silent struggle of rock and root.
Huge trees growing out of temple stones.
What doesn’t grow cannot free itself.
What cannot die will outlast roots.
     And speaking of art, I’ve been working on a poem based on Kiki Smith’s art. Again. I hadn’t looked at the book of her work for a while and felt that it still held another poem. Ah the bronze of those sculptures, the endurance of metal. One sculpture is a woman stepping out of the body of a wolf,  the other is a woman born of a doe, her feet still held in the deer's birth passage.
Kiki Smith, Rapture, property of the artist/Pace Wildenstein Gallery
Kiki Smith, 2002,  Born, Sarah Norton Goodyear Fund
They are preserved for as long as what-cannot-die doesn’t succomb to rust. Perhaps that is a part of my love of art - its endurance. The ability to conserve, to preserve, to restore, to renovate. Unlike the tree, there is no given limit to its time. But then I look again, and I see that the woman stepping out of the wolf is just on the brink, but can never be fully free, and a woman has been born of a doe, but that silent, fleet beauty will hold her feet forever.

      The visual arts are caught at the moment, in the metaphor, as a symbol. The beautiful butterfly Smith has created in one sculpture will remain - but the butterfly's power for us includes the stages it went through on the way to becoming. And of course all art is not beautiful. I am reading David Grossman’s novel To the End of the Land. It is an anguished tale that gathers you into itself and takes you on a journey that is fraught, and one doubts the possibility of redemption before the journey ends - and should the journey/book even be completed?

     I cannot abandon the natural world for art, though I know many have done it, and I taught alongside them.  I cannot abandon art, cannot stop reading what I need to know, because it may cause anguish. I must live in both worlds, and suffer the pain I will feel when Peter tears down that tree limb from limb. When I’m walking I will not see that canopy from a distance, not see the winter sunset between its bare branches, when the sky is stained glass and the tree is the black leading.

    Just as I must both suffer what is happening to the earth and still enjoy the beauty of the planet. I must hold the opposites.  Over and over life gives me more possibilities to learn that. To practice it. Who knows what the next challenge will be.

  Metamorph  ising

                           for the artist Kiki Smith

Metamorphosis means more than once
as it is with egg  larva  pupa  butterfly
as it is with some lives when larval stripes
and slow ripple are shed again and again
then comes the mimicry of dead leaf
till finally chrysalis splits  and out flutters
wet-winged splendor

I saw a woman born of a doe
I saw a woman step out of the body of a wolf
There is return

Gaia I know you are wounded
it is hard for you to breathe
I dreamed you shed your scarred
strip mined surface
and underneath was skin
the pink of healing

Now you must rest
and all of us   wolf  doe
woman  man  become pupa 
In our silk cocoons
we wait