Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Waverly Street: New Home, New Start, 2012

Seashell Roses, yard, 2012
My Morning Walk Greeter
Waverly Street is wrens in my yard eating seed and a tuxedoed cat that slinks like a slick of ink, down the fire escape toward them. It’s the yard in April,

which was a spoil of vines, poison ivy, muddy holes, and foot-tall weeds. Large shards of broken plate glass was embedded everywhere in the dirt. Now the yard is flowering with dahlias, coneflowers, cosmos, tomatoes, snapdragons, and coreopsis. Mud wasps come each day and pulse their thoraxes in the wet earth. Honeybees huddle on the coneflowers and dive into the hosta’s pale purple blooms. Rosie runs on the dirt path I've left open for her--chasing sticks, balls and that inky cat slinking in the alleyway. Even a hummingbird has visited my red geraniums.

Waverly Street is a big scary dude bellowing across the street at me and Rosie, “I got $500 in my pocket right now, and I want your damn dog,”  (I assume for a dog fight ring) and me foolishly trying to explain to him why I can’t sell this dog I love. (Shut up, Sharon. Just keep walking!”) Waverly Street is my eight-year old neighbor, Helena, who put a “friendship” magnet on the chain link fence between us “so you’ll always know that I’m your friend.” Waverly Street is also her puppy, Biscuit, who gallops over each morning and sticks his blonde head through the hole in the fence to greet me.

Biscuit, 2012
Across the street is the Wilkinsburg Church of the Nazarene, and on these hot summer Sundays, as I water and weed my garden, I hear the deep river rise and fall of the preacher’s voice, the call and response: Amen! Amen!  Soon enough, there’s the jangle of tambourines, percussion of clapped hands, and voices praising the Lord! in song. (Sometimes, I catch their fervor and do a little dance on my yard’s gravely dirt.) 

Garden in Progress
Waverly Street is my neighbor’s, Andy and Julia’s brand new fence, a dazzle of perfectly milled pine and a swing-in gate at the front walk. Andy, a remarkable carpenter, is rebuilding their house, floorboard by newel post. The fence is his latest addition to the property. Julia showed me photos of the original house, which they bought for $10,000, five years ago. It looked like something that the city should have condemned and razed to the ground. Since then, Andy’s sweat equity has already turned it into something from “House Beautiful.”
Rosie by the neighbor's new fence

But just doors away, there’s the decrepit three-story apartment building with broken beer bottles in lieu of a front lawn and dank balconies from which the tenants toss down their dead plants and trash. What grabbed my attention—and has kept my daily attention living on Waverly Street—is how one neighborhood can so gracefully (and with humor) hold such contradictions.

Joni and her purple larkspur live near Waverly Street. Each week, she places new plants—sedums, hostas, Black-eyed Susan, larkspur seeds—in her “Free! Take Them!” boxes in front of her urban “farm,” which she’s tilled since 1973.  And Bonfire Man and Boxer Dog live down her street. Bonfire Man’s out on his patio again, warming his hands by his nightly wood fire, no matter that it’s 99 degrees out, or that his boxer is wailing blues through chain-link to my beautiful dog walking by. 

All Aboard!
A few blocks from Waverly Street is one of Mike’s Amusements—a ride-able shiny black steam engine and set of crayon-colored (Red! Orange! Blue! Yellow!)  “box” cars—heaped in “Mike’s” backyard, awaiting the next weekend’s carnival.  And there’s Sue pulling weeds in her side garden, which takes up half a city block. It is chock full of tomatoes and pepper plants, cucumber and pumpkin vines—and is bordered by a variety of carved wood and metal headboards. (Get it, she grins, get it?  It’s a garden bed!) 

Waverly Street is also the beautiful young man who staggers down the street, his eyes, drug-glazed. He flutters his hands like a fledgling trying out wings. He looks bewildered. Stops. Stares at his right shoe as if he’s forgotten how to lift his foot.

Brickwork across the street
I’m living on a “Historic Corridor” at an intersection of two city streets. My friend told me once that some cultures believe that spirits dwell in the intersections. If so, are these the spirits of the French and Indians, who battled here long ago? And what would past inhabitants make of this half-ruined, half-resurrected neighborhood?

Each morning, a young mom walks by with her two pre-school aged boys and their dog, also named Rosie. The older boy is learning to whistle and his breathy tunes carry through the front screen windows. Yesterday afternoon, a woman, who made me think of William Carlos Williams’ “poor old woman/eating" a "solace of ripe plums," called me over.

“I’ve just been released from Western Psych.” She’s holding a bag of
food from Wendy’s and an extra large soda.

“I was in there 3 ½ months. I’m not ashamed of it, you know?”

She says the hardest part was that she had to give up her 3 elderly cats. “Can’t take care of them, till I can take care of me, right?”

I nod, feel sad for her.  She sets her food down in the street, kneels and buries her face in Rosie’s soft fur.  For a couple of minutes, I’m worried she’s crying. But then she beams up at me and says, “This is a God moment.”  

Tiger Lily 2012
4th of July night, Waverly Street. ½ of my new neighborhood seems to be setting off fireworks. I mean real KABOOM-fountains-and-rockets-exploding-chrysanthemum-in-the-sky-fireworks.  Andy and Julia’s yard is crowded with assorted relatives. Young cousins lob water balloons at each other, while the family’s three dogs alternate between play fighting and yowling at the rat-a-tat volley of firecrackers. Henry, the old bachelor across the street from them, normally a very quiet, staid guy who manicures his lawn and sweeps his sidewalks daily, fires bottle rockets into the air from the bottom step of his porch. They explode in red and blue and tangerine starbursts over my apartment building. The noise is deafening, but the falling red and silver stars are beautiful.  It’s awfully hot this 4th of July. In my kitchen, I flip burgers, stir baked beans, and pull corn on the cob from a boiling pot on the stove to feed my love, David, a chef who is exhausted from his own 12 hours of cooking that day for others. Waverly Street is also this song of food coming to the table and David’s easy grin at me.
Alleyway Near Waverly Street

Surprises around every corner
Since spring, a bunch of new, young families with infants have moved in and started renovating the old dilapidated homes. I see their window boxes go up, with marigolds and petunias brightening the brick facades. Tricycles and Big Wheels sprout on the lawns and surrounding sidewalks. A new couple walks back from the local East End Food Co-op, holding hands and murmuring to each other.  And Rosie, the neighborhood ambassador, and I introduce ourselves to them.

Dahlia Opening, Yard
Morning Glories, Rusty Garage
Waverly Street and its neighborhood is a study in diversity and contrasts, much like the startling blue morning glories that climb and twine against the corroded metal door of an ancient garage.  I’ve learned that my writing self emerges in these spaces between intersections. The daily surprise of these streets—and the tension of  its opposites—keeps my curiosity alive. Back in April, I had not wanted to leave my long-familiar neighborhood of Squirrel Hill.  I’d raised my son in Squirrel Hill, and its streets hold many memories. But, once again, my life has led me to a fertile new ground. From my first day here, my imagination has flared again. My new neighborhood has grit and grandeur, edge and earth, ruins and beauty. What more could a writer want?

Monday, July 23, 2012

In Praise of Artists: Why I Buy Art

"Amsterdam Spring," Denise Ann Saldutti Egielski

After losing my job two years ago, I purged, getting rid of ¾ of my belongings. My remaining possessions: boxes, a few lamps, and a little bit of furniture, are still scattered in a variety of locations in Pittsburgh and New Jersey. Over these past 24 months and throughout my moves to 4 different locations, the only objects I have deeply missed (and continue to miss) are my books and my paintings.

I own a lot of artwork—mostly paintings, some photographs, and some pottery made by living artists. (As opposed to reproductions/plastic replicas/posters by dead artists.) Almost all but two of the artists worked at some point in their lives in my beloved adopted city of Pittsburgh.  As a woman who never made a lot of money—mostly, I have lived paycheck-to-paycheck with little to no disposable income—over the years, I’ve found myself defending my need to buy art. 

Wine Bottle, Terrance Hayes
I surround myself with art. My life feels more abundant, happier, and substantial when I am surrounded by art. I have never viewed artwork as a “frivolous extra,” but as essential for my equilibrium and my quality of life. Yet, I’ve often been astounded by how few people actually buy art and by how many administrators actually want to immediately cut art programs, when our economy begins to tank. (Personally, I’d rather cut the salaries of the bankers and financiers who tanked the economy in half, and take away their gluttonous bonuses, but that’s just me…) Art making and artists of all kinds are essential to the world and have been since the beginning of humankind.  

Years ago, John Berger's "Ways of Seeing" played a role in how I started to view reproductions of art. Although I've certainly bought and hung many posters and reproductions of Van Gogh's, Picasso's, Chagall's and Miro's work over the years, I just don't want to surround myself with them anymore.

Now, I want the texture and brushstrokes of someone’s painting. I want the scent of paint, the signature of the living artist, the flaws (if there are any), the palpable sense of the human hand at work in the art.  I like the knowledge that the person who dreamt up and executed this new creation is still at work painting or printmaking or etching something new. And I learn so much from so many of my friends who are visual artists, who are generous, vibrant, quirky, sometimes neurotic, creative souls, who deserve to make a living at what they do. God help us if our whole lives became about the merely “useful” and practical! 

"Tranquility," Martha Brouwer
And so, I am happy to pay for artists’ inspiration, creativity, time, and labor in making this object that makes me so happy as I drink my morning tea or come in from walking the dog or sit and comment on a pile of student compositions, while snow falls outside. These works of art evoke intimacy and mystery and inspire me to keep writing my own poems. They remind me that there are so many extraordinary ways to see the world we live in!

Simply stated: art makes my soul sing.  My home is buoyant with the creations of people, whose work I admire so much. I select pieces that resonate with me. I can tell, at this point, when I find a work that I can happily live with for years to come. I’m not a trendy gal, never have been, so I don't buy "trendy" art. Then, I find a way to purchase it. Working at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts certainly helped me begin to buy art—getting to know so many artists there, like the printmaker Francis Crisafio, from whom I bought my first etching.  I realized that most artists were more than happy to let me pay a work off in installments. One of my favorite paintings, which I acquired when I worked at the Center, was a work that my friend, the artist, Sigrid Shafagh, was going to toss in the trash. She had painted it the night before as a “demonstration” piece for her students. Luckily, I was walking out to the parking lot with her that day, when she dangled it over the trash can. I asked her if I could have it. Sure, she grinned, why not? It now graces my kitchen wall wherever I live and adds so much warmth, with its vibrant colors, to any winter day. 
"Ovation," Linda Breem

When people walked into my last “real” apartment in Pittsburgh, on Mount Royal Road, they would say they loved how alive the place “felt.”  Karl Mullen’s huge, whimsical PigDogDonkey painting on my living room wall  contributed to that energy (I smile every time I look at that work!), along with Seattle-based artist Martha Brouwer’s stunningly colored and textured painting “Tranquility,” which speaks to hers (and my) belief in the interconnectedness of all living things. John Sokol’s  amazing portrait of e.e.cummings created by using all the words from his Collected Works of poetry (my mother, on a visit with me, once, thought it was a portrait of Yul Brynner from The King and I!) added a note of wonder. Terrance Hayes' gift to me in graduate school, a painting of a wine bottle with graffiti scribbled in the background was part of that vibrancy. And Bill DeBernardi’s “The Ascension,” an earlier painting of  his, of a street at night—with a lone streetlight and one cloud lit and mysterious, moonbeam edging it—as the only points of light. Scott Smith’s photograph—of his old friend, the singer, Tom Waits, all of 19, half smoking, half laughing, his head a mop of curls—has become a favorite touchstone of mine. It’s not just that it’s a picture of Tom Waits; it’s also that Scott has an incredible eye for composition and an incredible talent for invoking place, time and mood in a photograph. My latest purchase: a print called “Amsterdam Spring,” which fairly bursts with new life—tulips, daffodils, pink blooms on the large black-limbed tree above—by Denise Saldutti, a dear friend and incredible artist from New Jersey,  is already a favorite. 
Portrait of E. E. Cummings, John Sokol

I’m also graced by the art work of some of my family members:  a painting of two terriers tunneling under a picket fence, given to me by my Grandma Fagan, when I was about 7; my mother’s delicate pen and ink drawing of a grove of trees, from one of her first art classes (as an adult); my son, Brian’s powerful photographs (he is a professional photographer) of a gospel singer down in Tennessee and of the old mental institution that was being torn down to make way for a Walmart on the highway out toward Sewickley; and his wife, Zoe’s lovely painting of my dog Rosie (the first Christmas gift she gave to me.) These are treasures that speak volumes to me, when I’m missing my family back on the East coast.

So, why don’t more people purchase art? You'll have to explain that to me. I honestly don't understand it, but I'm told all the time by Pittsburgh artists and Pittsburgh gallery owners that art doesn't sell in this city. 

William DeBernardi, Southern Allegheny Museum, 2012
I recently spent a wonderful day with the painter Bill DeBernardi, out in Ligonier, taking in his two art shows out there, one in the Southern Allegheny Museum (he has filled the whole museum with his wonderful work) and one at the G-Squared Gallery on the main street of Ligonier. His works are remarkable studies of light and shadow and discovering the threads (sometimes geometric/angles/lines) that connect a work together.  I have learned so much from him over the years. But, he said to me that day (I'm paraphrasing), "I'm aware that, in the grand scheme of things, art is more like a form of "entertainment." If I needed to be with people, who could help rebuild the world, for instance, I'd want to be with carpenters, masons--people who can build useful things." I love Bill, but I disagree with his statement (though I understand it.) Artists are necessary to this brave new world he imagines-- only their contribution cannot be measured out in rulers and graphs.

Karl Mullen, American Folk Art Museum, NY
Ultimately, it comes down to this: we invest in what we value.  I would rather own a new painting than a new cell phone or a new food processor or a new dress.  I don't need more "stuff" in my life, but more substance. I know how wonderful it is to live surrounded by such colors, such ideas and such life force.  

I love knowing the artists, who are talented and hardworking enough to keep producing such work.  I envy them their skills and tenacity and dedication and oftentimes sigh, thinking that words pale in comparison to being able to visually evoke the illusions of space, light, color, life.  In a world with all its ugly divisive rhetoric, shootings, and endless wars, we would do well to nourish our spirits, paying less attention to the screeds of the destructive energies, and paying MORE attention to our artists, surrounding ourselves with the energy of their joy and creativity. Start a personal insurrection: buy more art.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Summer 2012: The Unquenchable Light

In August 1996, on the morning after my family buried my younger brother, Brendan, I drove, sick with grief, the eight hours from my parents’ New Jersey home, to the Fine Arts Work Center in Cape Cod to work for a week with the poet Yusef Komunyakaa. Only months earlier, in February of that year, after a long, anxious wait to hear whether or not I had been selected (on the basis of 10 poems) to be one of the fifteen poets chosen for Komunyakaa’s workshop, I had finally received the happy news. Now, having lived through the shocking prognosis and dizzyingly swift death of my sweet and funny brother, the workshop seemed insignificant to me.  It was only because of the loving insistence of my mother, brothers and sisters who printed out driving directions, packed my bag and quite literally pushed me out the door (“Brendan would want you to go”) that I found myself heading northeast that morning.
Larkspur, Joni's Yard, 2012
Most of that long drive through upstate New York, Connecticut and Massachusetts is a complete blank to me:  I don’t remember if it was sunny or rainy, whether the traffic was moving or bumper-to-bumper, or whether I ever stopped for lunch or a bathroom break during my journey. And how I followed the driving directions and map is a mystery to me. I assume I was in shock, navigating on autopilot.  When I think back on it now, I am grateful to whatever spirit guided me that day and helped me find my way, without injuring myself or someone else on those highways. Besotted with grief, my mind was erased for hours, until I finally began the drive up U.S. Route 6, the highway that wends its way up Cape Cod, ending in Provincetown—the furthest point east in the United States—and my destination. 
What penetrated the fog of my grief, as I “woke up” on that highway, was the brilliant, corporeal essence of light. It poured through my windshield and glittered on the banks of white sands along the road’s shoulder. It was a quality of light I’d never registered before, active as an echo, reverberating through the air in heightened, “louder” repetitions. As I progressed toward Truro, it cascaded off the dunes that banked the road. Maybe it was my state of grief, but it seemed a tactile presence, otherworldly. Sunlight as a living, breathing body. The dunes quivered with it, shimmering like hills of crushed, illuminated stars. Everything was hyper-clarified and outlined—more than itself--dune grass, car hood, my white hand on the steering wheel. It was a light that held you steady in its gaze. And I followed it like an answer to a long-held question, up to Provincetown. I thought of Edward Hopper’s painting, “Cape Cod Morning,” and how that early morning light in his work gilded everything it draped. There was something ineffable and lonely in that light, as there was on this highway. For the woman in Hopper’s painting, light was playing a Siren song. She stretches herself out the window toward its embrace, slightly dazed, but ready to face the mystery of the day.  I have never forgotten the substance of that Cape Cod light. It intertwines now in my remembrance of my brother, illuminates his memories within me.
Kitchen, Summer 2012
This summer, 2012, as sunlight pummels the parched yards of Pittsburgh, and leaves us walking in a stupor through the 90+ degree days, I find myself thinking a lot about light: how it’s affecting my newly dug gardens, how it overwhelms my apartment, which still lacks blinds and curtains, and how it shapes and colors all that I see. Coincidentally, I find myself reading many poems, mostly poems by women poets, which juggle the whole spectrum of shade and blaze. 
Inside my new apartment, still sparsely furnished, the light takes on a range of characteristics, as morning turns to early afternoon to late afternoon to dusk. Each afternoon, around 5:30 PM, the light pours in through elm branches, through screen and through my rotating fan, and projects a film, an exquisite geometric pattern of shadow and sun, which captures kinetic life unfolding. It’s a sort of documentary short. If I am home at the time, I often stop whatever I’m doing and sit for a few minutes in the 90-degree living room to watch it flickering on the far white wall.  It is mesmerizing, and sometimes leads me into meditation (or sometimes a nap because of the heat!) Breathing deep, my hair stuck to my damp neck, I watch the interplay of silhouettes on the wall: the leaves sway and dip behind the oscillating roundness of the fan. And overlaid on this, the screen’s orderly scrim of tiny squares. The light acts as white space in this dance of moveable shadows. And lately it’s inspired me to read and re-read poems about the light by Mary Oliver, Jane Hirschfield, and Susan Hutton. I want to share two of the poems here, now.
Coneflower, New Garden 2012
In Susan Hutton’s exquisite 10-line poem “Wujakari, Yartijumurra, Arawunga, Tokwampari” from her book On The Vanishing of Large Creatures (2007, Carnegie Mellon University Press), she talks of an incalculable loss, something that disappears from our world with little fanfare or grief:
            Before a language dies we record the last speaker
            to capture the sounds of the words. When he dies
            we go on living, and the world is not different. 

Hutton’s poetry may not be filled with images of a literal light, because her subjects are not nature-focused nor about paintings (though both may get referenced.) But there is something in the illuminating intelligence of the poems, which is echoed in the clean block typography of some of the poems (perched elegantly in a sea of white space) that fills her whole book with light for me. Unlike Mary Oliver, whose poetry plumbs the natural world of the Provincetown coastline where she’s lived most of her adult life, Hutton’s mix of beautiful, quirky facts and lyrical observations lights up the complicated world of our inner lives.
And in this poem, Hutton shows us the poignancy of what “the children of Bathurst Island,” the next generation, stand to lose when their culture’s original language dies out. Choosing the words of the title as an example, Hutton translates that they will lose both the idea of and the descriptions of light, in all its nuances and subtle changes. Here are the remaining 7 lines of the poem:

         There is always rain, whether it falls on the grass, on the roof,
            or far out to sea. There is wind, though it sounds bigger
            when it rattles the windows, whips the trees.     
            But the children of Bathurst Island, who now sleep inside,
            can no longer say when it is first light before sunrise
            or when it is the darkness before daylight, when it is
            early morning before dawn or early morning when birds sing.
David's Rooftop, 2012

In our ever-glutted world of new product, cheaper product, faster product, technology replacing itself at warp speed and trying to sell us the newly updated I-Pad, cell phone, whatever, this loss of language may seem trivial.  But, as I often tell my high school students, to lose language, to choose to only use the words we knew in third to seventh grade and refuse all new vocabulary, is to choose to narrow your ideas, and thus, to narrow your understanding of your world.  The beauty of this lost language of Bathurst Island becomes clear, because in naming the subtle differences “early light before dawn,” vs. “early morning when the birds sing” demonstrate such an act of attention to the natural world of the island that the original people settled. They knew the sky, the sun, the water, the whole of their environment so intimately that they put in language each shift and particularity.  And with this loss, it might be suggested, comes a loss of that intimacy and awareness of the natural world.

The light in Mary Oliver’s poem “The Terns” (House of Light) is a literal, witnessed light. Here, she describes the daily ritual of sea birds diving into the Atlantic searching for food:

                        The birds shrug off
                              the slant air,
                     they plunge into the sea
                              and vanish
                        under the glassy edges
                              of the water,
                        and then come back,
                        flying out of the waves,
                              as white as snow,
                           shaking themselves,
                      shaking the little silver fish,
                               crying out
                          in their own language,
                       voices like rough bells—

The light is everywhere in this poem: the air is “slant” with it, as the rays slice through and land in the sea beside the terns. The water has “glassy edges,” and the birds are transformed and illuminated by their journey and “come back…as white as snow.”  The hapless fish, taken from their lives and soon to be a quick meal forgotten, are caught in the sunlight’s net, also glimmering “silver” in their final moments.  There is something airy and elegant, slim and bejeweled in this scene, punctuated only by the cries of the successful scavengers, their “voices like rough bells,” another image that peals metallic and silver, Cape Cod’s amplified light playing a surface to corona.
Monumental, Painting by William DeBernardi, G-Square Gallery, Ligonier

The surprise in Oliver’s lit images is that it leads her, initially, to this observation:
                        This is a poem
                           about death,
                     about the heart blanching
                        in its fold of shadows
                              because it knows
                             someday it will be
                         the fish and the wave
                        and no longer itself—

She has introduced us to the rich darkness, the concept of “duende,” of which the Spanish poet, Gabriel Garcia Lorca wrote.  Oliver’s lines are duende in action, the shading that balances the stark light, adding dimension and depth to the scene. Here, the heart loses all color, and like the birds lifting from the waves, it becomes “blanched,” or bleached white “in its fold of shadows.” The fish is eaten. And by implication, Oliver is reminded that “someday” every living thing in the scene will be gone and “no longer” themselves. She might have stopped there with her textured “painting” of light and shadow interplay, but Oliver turns again, illuminating our own day with this finish:

This is a poem about loving
                       this world and everything in it:
                        the self, the perpetual muscle,
                        the passage in and out, the bristling
                                    swing of the sea.

And in her words, she has captured the mysterious nature of light. Like all ephemera, it is meant to be savored in the moment and loved for its palpable presence in our days. Light clarifies everything we gaze upon, coloring it, shaping the substance of our time indoors and out. And Oliver urges us to also love our “self, the perpetual muscle,” as we hopefully make our own days something lit and meaningful (though, at other times, something shadowed) as we navigate the “bristling/swing of the sea.”  We are out in it now, past wading, deep and shimmering, and trying our hardest to be the light we see.
Backyard Stoop, Garden, 2012

                                                                                                July 9, 2012