The tortures of the damned

imagesThe New Yorker arrives with relentless regularity even though our subscription expired in July. This week, there are excerpts from a diary Flannery O’Connor kept in when she was in her twenties, recently accepted to the Iowa Workshop. My first reaction was indignation. Clearly these were the private struggles of a young, truly spiritual woman and NOT MEANT TO BE READ by anyone else. Why are they here? And why did they use such an unflattering photo? Poor Flannery. Continue reading “The tortures of the damned”

Poetry Monday

StrayDog-679x1024_optThis poem, untitled when written, has since been labeled “Stalin Epigram.” Osip Mandelstam wrote it at the height of the Stalin purges, in 1933, and recited it to a literary gathering at Pasternak’s house. Someone at that gathering reported him, and he was exiled to a remote village and later arrested. He died on the way to Siberia. So in a way, this poem cost him his life.

I will read this and other poems from my new book of translations, Poems from the Stray Dog Cafe: Akhmatova, Mandelstam, and Gumilev, at University Press Books in Berkeley on Thursday, September 26 at 6 pm.

Polina Barskova will read some of the Russian.

Мы живем, под собою не чуя страны,
Наши речи за десять шагов не слышны,

А где хватит на полразговорца,
Там припомнят кремлёвского горца.

Его толстые пальцы, как черви, жирны,
А слова, как пудовые гири, верны,

Тараканьи смеются усища,
И сияют его голенища.

А вокруг него сброд тонкошеих вождей,
Он играет услугами полулюдей.

Кто свистит, кто мяучит, кто хнычет,
Он один лишь бабачит и тычет,

Как подкову, кует за указом указ:
Кому в пах, кому в лоб, кому в бровь, кому в глаз.

Что ни казнь у него – то малина
И широкая грудь осетина.
May, 1933

Stalin Epigram

We live, but cannot feel the earth,
And if we speak, we can’t be heard.

But wherever you hear a half-conversation,
They talk of that backwoods lout in the Kremlin.

Ten fat fingers like greasy worms,
Each of his words weighs fifty pounds.

His moustache bristles in cockroach laughter,
And his polished jackboots glitter.

His gang surrounds him, a spineless crew,
Half-men who do what he tells them to.

Some growl, some whimper, some yowl and hiss,
But he alone rages and bangs his fists.

Decree on decree like horseshoes fly
At groin, forehead, eyebrow, eye.

Each execution—sweet as a berry,
To this broad-chested thug from Gori.

The full press release follows…. Continue reading “Poetry Monday”

Fall at the farm

Rabbi_MargaretI have been doing the hard work of promoting my little book of translations (more about that another day). In between doing this work of pure attachment to the world, of assiduously courting its recognition for this project that means so much to me, I’ve been mulling the idea of faith.

Margaret Holub, the inspiring Mendocino Coast Rabbi, talked about this on Rosh Hashonnah. She read a passage about “coming to God as children or as slaves…” and noted that most modern prayer books change this language, as it is too hierarchical, too patriarchal. We’re uncomfortable with it, uncomfortable with the very idea of a patriarchal God. But this year, she said, those words had been ringing in her ear because she felt that they addressed the recognition that we are not in control.

Labyrinth912None of us knows what will happen in the coming year, or even who will be here next year at this time. This acknowledgement that we have no control is the basis of faith, of acceptance not that “God will be good to us,” but that life will happen according to its mysterious, unknowable unfolding. A conscious acceptance of that can be a luminous thing. To have faith in the Divine Order, an order that contains suffering, terror, uncertainty, to be joyously open to that, is a definition of faith. She suggested we “act as if” we have such faith, and see how that colors our perception.

As a control freak myself, this is a challenge, but one that intrigues me, and I’ve been thinking about it as I go about the varied tasks of fall: clearing and redefining the labyrinth, culling the chicken flock, cutting old growth, preparing for planting once the rains begin.

IMG_1136_optThe chicken flock is now down to six hens, no rooster, and nine pullets (almost two months old). I’m planning to put them together tonight, as the pullets are outgrowing their coop, and I have faith(!) that they are old enough to endure a little hen-pecking.




Laying slows down as the light wanes, and I couldn’t see keeping 11 hens through the winter. They are voracious, and while I love giving away the extra eggs, the feed bill/egg ratio tips in fall.

Now on days when all the hens are laying, I get two white, two brown, and two green eggs.

AmericanaWhat did I do with the rooster and the rest of the hens?  I sold two of the good laying hens, and gave the rooster and the four older hens to my Ethiopian friend to eat. I’m willing to kill and pluck a young meat chicken, but not an older bird. And she’s very glad to get them.

How can I love them and name them and then have them killed? This is the reality of farming (well, not necessarily the loving and naming).

But what I’ll do when Houdini, my little Hamburg, and Selina my favorite banty are too old to lay, I’m not sure.

Hopefully, they’ll get broody this spring and raise some chicks for me. That would justify my keeping them another year.


Formatting error

5797756164_eca92b2e84_b_optThe weekly publication jWeekly published my poem, “The Afternoon Before the Day of Atonement,” which is great. Really, it’s a pleasure to be published there.  But there was a formatting mistake and the poem came out like prose.  I don’t think it works very well as prose. Here is the poem as I wrote it.

The Afternoon Before the Day of Atonement

I thought I would see seals asleep on the rocks,
but the cormorant was the real show,
wrestling a twisted length of eel,
persistently untwisting with its beak
to swallow it whole.
Then, as I watched, uncertain whether
I’d seen eel or kelp straighten and slide
down the long bird throat, it speared
into the surf and did it again:
unmistakably eel, writhing
for its life, no match for the skilled,
beak-tossing cormorant.

And the whole time, and afterward,
waves rake the shore,
and I wonder how to ask forgiveness
for being myself: merciless
like the cormorant, frantic
like the eel, thoughtless
like both, though I am designed to think,
a mindful tool, whose eyes engage the ocean
to sense the curve and crash of the infinite. Continue reading “Formatting error”

On the radio

images-1Here is a podcast from  J.P. Dancing Bear’s  radio show, FM91.5 KKUP’s “Out of Our Minds.”

Bear does a one-hour poetry radio show every Wednesday night at 8 pm. I was lucky to be his guest.

He’s a pro, and makes it flow so easily. He also has a great-looking cat.