Saturday, March 31, 2012

March 30, 2012

Gentle spring rain came just as I had finished planting. Today it was poppy and moonflower, but also red onion and cabbage, thinking with the eggplant to try vegetables again this year. I have surrounded them with a zone of slug poison. The lilacs are a purple cloud and a white cloud. Some which I thought I’d lost to the drought last summer– bluebells and ginger–come back full strength-- like a child from the womb, like a ghost from the tomb.

The cleaners came just as I arrived home for my nap.
“You’re usually not her.”
“You’re supposed to come in the morning.”
“Somebody quit this morning, so our schedules are all off.”
The people you read about in magazines would say, “That’s just too bad; I can’t be disturbed just now. Come back when I’m not here.” But I gathered my things and left Bethany Sykes, whose mother I worked with in the theater long ago, was one of the cleaners. She still has the glass mushroom I gave her, and when she mentioned it, I remembered it. That was pleasant. I felt I couldn’t bitch too bitterly in front of her.

Excellent poetry class afterward, as responsive as the one I’d complained about had been stony. I had been weeping in my office just before class; maybe it had not been completely wiped away. Maybe they thought it was because of them.

The stock hell did not stop, and when I got round two in email last night. . . well, it’s hard to choose between fury and despair. But I think it’s worked out. Several times in your life you say “I do not do that. I will not do that. I shall not do that,” and that’s the very thing presented to you to do. Note to God: most of life’s challenges are unnecessary.

Theater last night. The play was long and bad, but since I had to write a review I stayed with it the whole time. With resources so short, why choose mediocrity? Needless to say, the theater did not take my mind off a bad week. The UNCA theater crowd was gathered at Avenue M, and they gladdened my heart. There was even a cheer for me, for reasons it is not necessary to understand. DJ said “They adore you,” and I think I said “I adore them right back,” for that’s what I meant.

Zach tried to work out my wrenched shoulder. I think it did some good, I gardened all day without a twinge, but gardening seldom demands that you raise your arm perpendicular to your body. Putting on shirts and closing car doors, however, are agony.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

March 29, 2012

Cannot lift my left arm. If I want to type, I have to lift it with my right hand and set it on the desk before the keyboard. Wrenched it while loading the new city recycling bins onto my truck. The delivery guy refused to bring them around back, where the recycling is actually picked up, because “I have to see the house number for each bin. Are the house numbers visible from the back?” I observed that they were all identical and it was difficult to see why it was important to be so precise, but, orders are orders. So I loaded ours and our immediate neighbors’, and while I was pushing on them to make them fit in the truck bed, the arm went south. Luckily, it doesn’t hurt unless I try to use it.

Reading Strack in NC Stage’s Amadeus at Malaprop’s. I don’t remember who Strack is, so it will all be an adventure.

Cherished yesterday for gardening and painting, but instead spent most of it ferreting out information about stock trades for my tax lady, information which the trading companies could effortlessly have included, but did not because “we are not required to do so.” The fact is they ARE required to do so after a certain point, but were punctilious in observing that requirement and not one instant more. The actual research was interesting, and tamped down the fury which would otherwise have been debilitating.

Lilies shooting up from the bottom of the water gardens.

Smiley i-mails from BH. Guess new York is really on.

Monday, March 26, 2012

March 26, 2012

Leaving the house at dawn I startled a young raccoon in Zach’s yard. I took that for a beneficent omen.

I was wondering why I had abandoned Dinosaur Movie, because the first act was dynamite. It was because the second act was crap.

JD’s car battery died so there was no interview on Sunday. I did discover the Battle Cat café on Haywood Road, which I liked, but in which I didn’t feel completely comfortable. I have too many edges just to walk into a place like that. Homey, though, and I’ll go back. Disturbing art on the wall, rhythmic, obsessive, the rough images (often of slices of cake, ice cream cones, alien children, smashed pumpkins) arranged in horizontal lines. I thought they were by a child before whom a sad future was opening up. They were actually, the wall revealed, by “an adult on the autism continuum.”

Email from JB saying they have a Manhattan theater for Memorial Day (cheap on holidays, I suppose) and they want to do a staged reading of The Loves of Mister Lincoln. I do not say “Your option runs out in April.” I do not say, “Hell, you were supposed to do it two years back, but instead slipped in a string of 4th rate musicals.” I do not say anything but “Wonderful! What can I do to help?” It IS wonderful, actually, and though the process has been far more gradual and agonizing than it needed to be, it is still a process, and the part of me that wanted so badly for this to happen is resurrected.

Mother has been dead for thirty-eight years.
March 25, 2012

Dream last night. I was in Malta. I had become a Maltese, and they taught me a tradition they almost never shared with strangers. The tradition is that you carry around with you a little box–usually a long, thin oval, almost like a pencil box, and in that box you have two or three items which remind you of your life. They might be photographs, or a photo and a rock from your childhood garden, or a piece of sheet music and a corner of cloth, anything. I had just been given mine, and was in some confusion as to what to put in it. I kept asking other people to see theirs, so I would know the parameters. Of course, what is most secretly meaningful to one is probably incomprehensible to another.

Sang Palestrina’s “Sicut Cervus” to inaugurate the new choir risers.

Moments until I do JD’s radio poetry show. I have no idea what I’m meant to do or say. Does anybody listen? It’s time to pray that they do not.

Electric and swift revisions of Dinosaur Movie.

Adder’s tongue in bloom, lilac on the verge.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

March 23, 2012

I don’t know my father’s favorite song.

I don’t know my mother’s favorite song.

I don’t know my sister’s favorite song.

I don’t know my nephews’ favorite songs.

I don’t know MY favorite song.

Is this any way to live?

Wagner on the radio, harmonious with the deep, half-rainy, half-misty night.

Went to MF to see Lucia’s new play. Blast of sinus sent me home at intermission. I didn’t know a single person in the audience, which was depressing, somehow.

Gave Marco $ so he could buy welding equipment for his business. My own father was so grudging, I vowed I would never be, nor am I, with those who allow me, for an hour or so, to play the part.

Excellent pale Portuguese wine. I know I should not put ice in it, but a single cube makes it sparkle like a winter morning. Nobody need know.

Tiny pink anemones. Sacred hyacinth. Actual hyacinth, the deepest blue in the world. One hellebore like translucent brown paper.

Frantic, frantic with duties, grasping for every spare moment.

Shopped for furniture, liking nothing except for those pieces almost exactly like the ones I gave away. Bought nothing. Relief.

Friday, March 23, 2012

March 22, 2012

Evening, marking time before the Theater. Almost lost control in poetry class, gushing out enthusiastic illuminations about Romantic poets to a room full of upturned faces no more responsive than photos in an album. Discovery after discovery–I was having a good time, anyway–sown like the bad seed onto stone. When I made a joke, they laughed, so I knew there was some level of consciousness. “Shelley worships the spirit of what? . . . of what?. . . what is it? Of BEAUTY,” I finally answer myself, afraid of my response should the vacancy linger a second longer. We had just read the lines. I had just explained the lines. There was no ambiguity in the question whatever. “Now, do you have any questions about Shelley or his poetry after this one hour introduction?” Silence. No questions. Everything understood. The class is predominantly women, and men are typically more responsive to Romantic poetry, but still, without any disagreeableness or detectable bad attitude, this is the stoniest, least responsive class I’ve had in semesters, and my tolerance is gone. Disengagement is not an option in a learning environment. Be present or go do something else. Should I put that on the syllabus? Their last exam was disastrous, so maybe the NEXT class session will be different. One young lady who never takes her headphones off her head and texts all through class, asked me what I had written on the top of her failing exam. “You have not turned in your term paper. Why is that?” I read in my handwriting. She whispers, “Well. . . I didn’t know what to write. . . so I just didn’t hand it in. . . “ I inquire, “Why didn’t you ask for guidance?” but that too, elicits no response. She looks at the floor. Her lips fall into a pout. Her phone vibrates and she longs to answer it.

Tartuffe at theater UNCA tonight was brilliant, Orgone, Marianne, Dorine, Pernelle, at least were at professional level (all these are my students), and Orgone could have played proudly on any stage in the world. The difficult language was delivered clearly, wittily, almost effortlessly. Marianne re-conceived the roll as broadly physical comedy, an inspiration. The set was perfection. All in all, an uplifting evening of theater, far and away the best I’ve seen at the university in many years. It could be the turning of a new leaf. Everyone connected must be, now, proud as the peacocks they, for two hours, were.

Worked hard not to let the fact that a mere tithe of my students (it was obligatory; I labored mildly to wrangle the tickets) were in attendance mar my pleasure. In the end I was successful.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

March 21, 2012

Spring, finally, officially as well as in truth. A break in the rain decreed that I would spend the day gardening. Leveled the land and set up three water gardens, the two old ones moved and replanted, and the new, colossal one set into place. I dumped last year’s water from the two old ones, and the smell was quite amazing. I was going to dive directly to “bad,” but it wasn’t. It wasn’t bad, just richly, overwhelmingly organic. Planted or replanted the water lilies and a water iris that looks promising–though if I had just looked at the picture rather than reading the label I would have called it pickerel weed. Planted eggplant, bluebells, primrose, may apple, bloodroot. But more than that I cleared out vast swathes of ground free of weeds and grass, ready for the gardener’s touch. Now, of course, I can scarcely move. It took the water striders one hour to find the water. How does that happen?

Revising Abbott’s Dance, I could hear the voices of the kids who did it at Siena and New York. It was a pleasure, a comfort. It was sad that we all lost touch. I wonder if they think of me as I do of them?

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

March 19, 2012

Dream. I had gotten a job as a waiter in a happy– and quite sprawling-- restaurant, something on the order of The Usual when Kathy and Les had it. I was being shown the ropes, how to handle the cash register and all. Some friends came in and ordered complicated frozen green drinks, and I had brought them on a tray that not only carried the drinks but told you how to make them.

Slimmest sliver of moon rose in the east just before dawn, the great fogs moving under it like waves of a sea.

Set out the hummingbird feeders.

Hellebore in mounds scattered about the yard, like volcanoes of white, purple, dull scarlet. This is their best year.

Monday, March 19, 2012

March 18, 2012

Bloodroot beaten to white ruin by rains, replaced by the scarlet trillium. The back yard is as I’d dreamed it, a rough blanket of wildflowers like the floor of a forest. The mockingbird is fooled by moonrise into singing in the dead of night.

Gave a former student $600–a cut rate, as it was his first time-- for proofreading and editing The One with the Beautiful Necklaces. I’d never thought of contracting such a service before, and it was half an experiment to see if it would be useful to me, half to get him started in a career which appeals to him. I DID learn the difference between “that” and “which,” which has been a dark spot all my life.

Finished my application for the professorship. It will at least allow the illusion of full participation.

Sang Howells and Bernstein to a packed house at Central Methodist. The boy soprano barked on his high note. It was OK; it was sweet; we got to hear the onset of puberty.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

March 16, 2012

Dream. Back in Akron. Mother had hired a yard guy who shot grass clippings through the windows while he was mowing, and came into the house with muddy shoes and the weed-whacker dropping clods of grass everywhere. I guess it was a racist dream, for the man was black, and I wrestled with the question of whether to correct him or to let it go “because he is doing his best.”

All Pets sent me a condolence card for Titus, signed by everybody there. Sweet.

Evening rain. Heavy. I was downtown today and was sprinkled on a couple of times, but it was never heavy. Painted and framed in the studio. My furniture looks great in the studio library. The scale for once is right; the pieces were too big for my room. Walked down to Marco’s shop and we went to MF for a drink. He has taken to cutting himself, not randomly but in three evenly spaced slashes here and there on his body. I was about to beleaguer him for that, but he said he is seeing a therapist. He looks good and bad at once– handsome and stylish, but also tired and afraid. There is a convention of tattoo artists at the Renaissance, and we crashed as much of it as we could without paying. We both knew a surprising number of people there, though it was never the same person. I lost my Malta cap. I hope it is in Marco’s truck.

Not one beggar in Valletta. I had to thread past SIX between Ananda and Short Coxe Avenue. One was quite aggressive, demanding why it was I would not help a veteran.

My ring finally came today from Wildfish Gems. My excitement drained away instantly, for the star sapphire, though sizeable, is grayish and lifeless.

When thunder rolls, Maud runs for cover and Circe opens her eyes wide as saucers. The lightning is pretty far away, but the thunder rolling from it is very strong. Heard a strange tapping, and my heart froze. The roof leaks. It is three years old. It leaks in the same place it did before. A few drops. Enough to break the spirit.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

March 15, 2012

My day “off” quickly disintegrated into a series of chores, and not all of them accomplished. Finally got my tax material to Carol, certain that an important document will arrive today and I’ll have to make the trip again. The day was so brilliant that I worked in the garden, quite brilliantly, weeding, and readying the water gardens for re-installation. My body aches with that good ache. A new resident mockingbird scolded and shadowed me all day, insuring that I was not going to go astray or impinge on his prerogatives. There was so little winter that we’re not ready for full spring, but here it is, blue, gold, aching red. I planted, evidently, rows and rows of deep blue hyacinth, and then forgot about them, for here they come in phallic glory. Jolene had mentioned she wanted new furniture for the studio library, and I had said, off-handedly, “have mine. I’m sick of it.” I didn’t quite expect her to take me up on the offer, but she did, and in the end I didn’t care. Jinx brought his truck and we loaded it all up and now my living room is an echoing open space– which I rather like, all things being considered. I promised her the piano, too, and that goes when she finds proper movers. What do I think about that? I am not anxious at all to get new. I think I will live in the space for a while. It will make an exit easer, if it comes to that. Spent part of the time preparing an application for a new endowed professorship at the university. From the first keystroke on paper I knew– understanding academic politics by now–that the recipient is already decided and known, and yet I continued, trying to convince myself that what is realism is actually cynicism, and I should forge ahead in the face of it. I’m the one whose enthusiasm makes the sham look real to those who are not watching too closely. Whatever stooge line begins to form, I get into it. Will I allow my inner voice to stop the futile effort? Of course not. The deeper inner voice I have listened to since boyhood will urge me stupidly forward. Rehearsal at Central Methodist for the Chichester Psalms. Their director, Russell, is precise, balanced and personable, and had drinks with us at Avenue M afterwards. I thought he was beautiful close-up, though he had struck me as a little–shiny–from a distance. Must be the lights.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

March 13, 2012

Old moon in his dome of mist.

Light-hearted dreams last night, I think, though they involved remembering every more complicated combinations for locks and cell phones, and the building of large sculptures out of stacked coins.

Father’s 93rd birthday.

Planted J R-E’s hyacinth in the ground, it having spent its first life on my mantel.

Spring. Weeded when I came home from school, in the fresh hour of twilight. I don’t remember planting blue hyacinth, but there they are, bursting indecently from the dirt, in bloom before they emerge. Uncovered the bloodroot patch, now fully, coolly aflame.

This is the aria the boy was singing at moonrise on Republic Street in Valletta:

Lascia la spina
cogli la rosa
tu vai cercando
il tuo dolor

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Home: and why United Airlines is Satan

March 11, 2012

When DJ dropped me off last night, what I saw in my backyard was the gleam, by moonlight, of a crowd of daffodils.

Despite the airline’s best efforts, I did not actually miss a flight, though making them was a grueling–and wholly unnecessary–ordeal. The details are so stupidly intricate that I’m not sure I’ve figured them out yet. . . but, at the Valletta airport I’m told–ominously–that they can’t give me boarding passes for all the flights, that I must pick them up in Munich. We get to Munich 20 minutes before the flight to Chicago takes off, and I make it to the counter at a dead run, to discover that I am not on the manifest–though I really am; there’s some sort of mysterious distinction between my ticket and those of the other passengers-- and they can’t print me a boarding pass. I show them my paperwork, and they type in numbers, slowly, meticulously, while the German voice whispers “final boarding call for Chicago. . . all passengers” etc. . . etc. Finally I blow up and thunder jetzt bitte! This gives the molasses typist an excuse to pause and lecture me on how they can’t print a boarding pass unless I’m on the list and, yes, I AM on the list, but something is preventing the issuing of a boarding pass nevertheless. . . Well, we get past that one, and I sit down in the seat I knew I had from the beginning. The flight was endless, but otherwise not bad, and I drank myself into a state of sentimental euphoria. I’m glad it was dark in the cabin.

The usual customs crap in Chicago. The helpful luggage person tell me to go to Terminal 2, where my next flight originates.
“I don’t have a boarding pass.”
“They’ll give you one at the gate.”
I get to Terminal 2 and am going through security and they ask for my boarding pass. I say I haven’t got one, that I’ll get one at the gate. They affirm that I can’t get to the gate without a boarding pass, and point to a United kiosk where they can help me. The woman at the United kiosk waves me away without looking at me. When I begin to speak to her she runs through a door and disappears. I try the machine. I type in my information and it says. “This reservation requires special attention.” I go back to the security guy and he says that I have to go to the main UA desk, then, in terminal 1. I get on the train going the wrong way (this is the one and only thing that is not the airline’s fault) and after passing through terminals 3,4,5, and remote parking, 5, 4, 3, 2, I’m finally at 1. I stand in a long line to get to the counter.
“Do you have baggage to check?”
“No, my baggage is already checked.”
“Then you’ll have to use the machine.”
I type in the info as I had before, and it says, “This reservation requires special attention.” The lady says she can’t help me, but I can talk to the man in the sweater vest. I wait in line to talk to the man in the sweater vest. I tell him the problem and he, sure that I had made some mistake, types in exactly the information had typed twice before. “This reservation requires special attention.”
He says, “I don’t know what the matter is. You’ll have to talk to an agent.”
“An agent sent me to you.”
“Try a different agent. How about her?”
“There’s a line. . . I’ve already waited–“
”It looks to me like the line is going pretty fast.”
I wait in that line. The lady says, “Just type in your information on the machine and–“
I explain that will not avail. She tries it. It does not avail. She says, “May I see some ID?”
Assuming she’s stalling before moving me on, I say, “May I see my boarding pass?”
She gets this flare in her eyes and lectures me on how she can’t even THINK of addressing the problem until there is definite ID and my name plastered all over the information in her hand does not count and it is a MATTER OF LAW. . . and I think how she’d probably feel ill-served if I knocked her jaw into the back of her skull. But, when she has her say, she begins typing. She says, “Lufthansa has control of your ticket.”
“Ominous,” I say. She types some more.
“There are no seats left.”
I know by this that she means no seats except those that are kept open for airline employees who may want a free ride to Asheville, and I say, with a tone which I congratulate myself on being deathly calm “I will be on that flight.”
She types some more. She hands me the boarding pass. I get back on the train and go to Terminal 2. At security they are out of tubs to put your stuff in. The security people are mad at us for that, which I can’t quite figure out. By now I’m in a state of advanced hysteria, and laugh at everything. This turns out to be a good thing, and lightens everybody’s mood. The tubs come. I’m drawn aside and extra searched because the lymphadema in my legs has convinced the man I’m wearing fake braces concealing some deadly device. He pokes my swollen legs several times, trying to convince himself they’re organic.
He says, “I don’t know–“
I say, “Call your supervisor, now.”
He waves me through.
Got drunk at a terminal bar with some gladsome people from Appleton, Wisconsin, and then they called my flight. I expected some snafu at the door, but the evening was over.

Except one final twist: Daylight Savings Time, which meant DJ was driving me home down I-26 at midnight.

Quiet homecoming. It was Titus who made a big deal of missing me, and rubbed against my legs the first few hours I came home, refusing to be parted.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Malta 6

March 9, 2012

Rain on the roof pools. I shall go slogging about come what may on this my last day.

Picked up a novel called The Sisters Brothers in the Asheville Airport. By Patrick DeWitt. Excellently well written, excellent characterization, but, curiously, I have no particular need to see how it ends. Squalidly, if the lives of the characters are an indication.

I left at dusk last night for the waterfront. Toured the long, thin gardens, then crossed over the many big streets to a well-lit tent surrounded by a crowd. Turns out it was a rally for the Labor Party. There was literature in Maltese, and people in TV monitors with solemn expressions on their faces. No security–well, there were cops, but they let me waltz in anywhere I wanted. Nothing was happening, so I moved on. The descent to the waterfront was fascinating on its own, but the loci of delight that people spoke of were either clearly derelict or probably closed until tourist season, so I found myself walking a long way solitary with mammoth battlements to one side and brightly lit ships to the other. The cats of the Maltese night were all around. It was weirdly wonderful. Though the fortifications are not medieval, they certainly have that aspect. It was like being in a movie. Climbed finally, endlessly, back onto the streets I knew, and found more downtown nightlife than I had acknowledged before. One of the cafes before St. John’s was open, and I had Mdina wine, and widow’s soup, which is vegetable soup featuring cauliflower prominently, and egg white. I will leave the eggs out when I make it myself.

The drizzle was never an outright downpour, so I took a couple more rounds of Valletta to cement it into my head. I blundered into the National Museum of Fine Art, housed in a palace which is itself a work of art. The collection is good, and often interesting where it is not good, but the paintings are badly in need of cleaning and conservation, and the lighting in the galleries is atrocious. Surely someone has noted this before. Preti and Favray are especially well represented. Wandering about, I eased at last toward the attraction called The Great Siege of 1565. The date is significant– the Maltese knights and their allies may well have save Christendom from Suleiman the Magnificent–but the attraction is several score department store manikins arranged to represent Turks and Knights and the wounded and Gallant Citizens, and a dramatic narration played from a handheld device. It’s pretty tawdry, but awakens the mind to the event itself, which seems to have been a great moment in history, like the London Blitz or the Siege of Stalingrad, or, now that I think of it, the bombing of Malta in the 40's.. Ate a terrible lunch made better by being in the midst of locals, who spoke as if no one strange were present, and I was happy. Bought a few gifts. I’m indifferent to souvenirs, and that fact worries me a little. Cruised a little, but the man whose eye I caught was so open and enthusiastic that I assumed he must have misinterpreted the event. I’m probably wrong about that, and missed an excellent chance. The Maltese are comfortable with themselves, proud without haughtiness, and on the streets I have never encountered a beggar or panhandler.
The Pigeons of the Saluting Battery

One is tempted to overlook
the structural perfection of the pigeons
as they scrap for scraps
wind blown from the café tables.
A good design has struck too many copies.
Their abundance militates against
the majesty of their making.
Present circumstance suggests
they were created to be chased by schoolchildren,
fat and stupid enough (the birds, that is)
to convey the illusion of catchability,
while escaping every time.
(In this, I suppose, they are a kind of happiness,
approachable, and yet never, somehow, quite obtained)
The children stalk, or sally at a full run,
and the pigeons, in their reedy voices cry “Oh, dear.”
They flutter stupidly, land stupidly, flutter and land,
worrying for the 40th time the abandoned wrapper.
In the face of this there’s small inspiration
to notice each gray miracle of wing,
each feather in its infinite if gray-based iridescence,
the band of flight muscle connected to the indestructible
weightless bones, their ease into the element of gods:
such as now,
this instant,
as if on signal, their arising
into the crystal tunnel of the air,
twisting, spiraled,
carving their sublime geometries
between the sapphire firmaments.
One or two children watch the tumultuous ascent.
The others spy a red cat.
Qattus! Qattus! cry they upon their altered course.
He too will be history before they arrive

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Malta 5

March 8, 2012

The last thing Joseph showed me was the island Saint Paul was shipwrecked on. I kept thinking, “Why this one? Why not the one to the left or to the right? How did he live? Were there people there? How did he get to the big island?” But the Maltese are certain of the facts, and there is a monument to it all, and what here isn’t St John’s is St. Paul’s. Also did not mention the odd fact that all the streets of all the towns of Gozo were abandoned when we were there. Joseph said this is because everyone on Gozo works on Malta, and there’s no one there at all during the day.

Speaking of Saint John, I went to his co-cathedral today. You’re supposed to be amazed by the contrast between the martial exterior and the lavish–not to say extravagant– Baroque interior, and indeed I was. It was quite lovely, actually, with a couple of history-saturated Caravaggio’s as its centerpiece. He was a knight for a while, before being cruelly defrocked before his own Beheading of Saint John, the greatest work of art on the island. The Knights of Saint John were a fascinating organization, and I think the world is poorer for the lack of them, or something like them. Oddly, as a child I used to make up organizations like it, and outline their histories in my head and on sheets or paper I concealed and quickly destroyed, lest anyone ask what I was doing. Who knew such things existed in the natural world?

Sat in the upper gardens and wrote, surrounded by screaming children and clouds of pigeons which were being pursued by them. There were two calm, wise-looking cats.

Have slept well only one night since coming here, which is unlike me. Fat nap this afternoon, though, after which, if it is not too cold, I’ll launch out for a drink or two along the waterfront.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Malta 4

March 7, 2012

Rain dimpled the pools on the roof under my window at dawn, but the excursion to Gozo was on. For a while there was a simple endless drizzle, but through the afternoon it became one of the most spectacular downpours I’ve ever witnessed, spigot-thick water in the air, driven by gale force winds. We stopped for lunch at Marsalforn, and when it was time to leave we almost literally could not get out the door for the wind and the imminent danger of drowning in the open air. Huge waves were breaking over the wall that defended the town from the tossing blue bay. Joseph, my driver, said I could not leave without seeing the Azzure Window– more the Fenetra Grigio at that point-- and that I should go across the top of the cliffs so I could see the water as it entered the arch. I did this, in the fiercest downpour imaginable, aiming the umbrella just right to keep from being swept over the precipice. I was in the midst of the ordeal when the thunder and lightning came upon us, and me at the stop of a stone cliff with rain all around and the metal rod of an umbrella poking into the air. Didn’t know whether I wanted to survive it or to be put out of my misery. The roads of Gozo (maybe of the whole nation, I don’t know) are made in a way idiotic to American eyes. The curbs are raised up on the sides of the roads, and there are no drains or gaps in them, certainly no storm sewers, so water fills the roads to the very top almost instantly, makes them into troughs, into gutters, into aqueducts, and traffic sluiced along in floods easily over our hubcaps. The flooded towns were alarming. Water shot out of holes in walls and cascaded from roofs. It was as if it never rained in Malta, and nobody had thought what to do about it if it did. I was soaked and miserable and every second thought was at last of the ferry home. Joseph was panicked, though he didn’t admit this unbtil later. “Now I am sure I will see my baby again” he said when we hit dry pavement.

Joseph was an entirely different kind of guide, much easier in the role, much more informative and practiced. We were on back roads most of the time, whereby I knew there really is open land on Malta, and not just the endless necklaces of cream colored villages. He was friendly and personal-space-invading, the way one pictures Mediterraneans. He was solicitous of me without making it look like a drain on his time. On the ferry ride to Gozo he wanted to be by himself, and so I didn’t see him till it was time to depart, but on the ferry ride back to Malta, we sat together, and he talked intimately–about his life, about Maltese politics-- constantly touching my hand as he talked. He has three daughters, one born just four days ago, eleven years younger than his middle daughter. He showed me pictures of this daughter and of the dog he says is jealous whenever he gets near his wife, whom it loves. Elections are approaching, and he lamented the corruption of the Nationalist party, and observed that he got in trouble if he even brought a Labor newspaper into the hotel. He clucked and sighed over the important places my guide of the day before had left out, and indeed there was a notable difference between their levels of commitment, and, I assume, expertise.

We saw an immense church build by the townspeople in the 50's, Saint Lawrence, I think, and a windmill with all the accouterments appertaining. The Ggantia Temples, so called because only giants could have build them, are impressive, but a bit less so than those we saw the day before, perhaps because in less excellent repair. A Japanese kid kept wandering off the path asking me “More? Is there not more?” Even in the rain, though, their situation was glorious, big churches and hilltop citadels dotting the horizons. They were surrounded by a display of wild flowers which inspired me to but a Wild Flowers of Malta book at the gift shop. Joseph showed me all the ones his wife loves. We saw the salt pans where they make salt in the summer. Maybe my favorite was the path you take to a high cliff where there’s a platform built where you look over at Calypso’s Cave. Why a goddess would have chosen the most gale-infected, exposed and rugged spot on earth for her boudoir I don’t know, but there it supposedly is, and whatever the truth of the matter, it’s been venerated as the Homeric site long enough that the veneration alone has gathered to a richness. A group of Maltese school kids were at the top, and I took many pictures for them of their group holding hands and leaning out into the gigantic wind, with the sea and stone beyond. Maltese kids are loud and giggly and happy. I like being among them.

Joseph accompanied me inside the basilica of Ta Pinu, an immense church in the Maltese style (Baroque, domes, two flanking towers in front), built after certain apparitions of the Virgin Mary. He loved this place and followed me around showing me things, bidding me appreciate (which I did) the buttery pale stone, the letters and gifts from those healed by the Virgin there, the photos of the visitation of two popes. Maybe he was just more comfortable with me then, or maybe the church changed him to an ebullient teenager, full of enthusiasm, and that enthusiasm possessed of a certain darkness. He hung on me like an overcoat, anxious to turn me everywhere important. He prayed audibly to the Virgin when the roads were the greatest peril. There was great red fort that, because of the rain, he chose not to see.

Monuments here need little effort of look spectacular, for it is all either high cliff top or a valley looking up to a high cliff top. There is no flat land whatsoever. Even farming is at a tilt.

The native stone is amazing, soft and easy to cut, it is nevertheless very heavy, and of the palest gold imaginable. If maintained it looks like new four hundred years after construction. In situ it is also amazing–it was that I was clamoring over to get to the Azzur (sic) Window, and even underwater it was not slippery and, if touched, warm. It is the reason Malta looks like a complex of unpopulated natural cliffs from a distance; everything is made of it and it is exactly the right color, being its own setting.

Joseph and I shared a meal of mixed fish at a restaurant looking over the storm-angered waves. The food and service were distinguished, and I think the owner was British. In any case he had red hair, which the Maltese do not, and a British accent.

J’s level of friendliness was charming, but also exhausting, because one wanted to accept in full the free offering of affection. This led to long conversations comparing the price of things in Malta to the price of things in the US. Shockingly, I really don’t know the price of a quart of milk or a loaf of bread, since I don’t buy those things, or apparently anything else, for at length I was ground down to murmuring, “Oh, it’s about the same in the US.” There was also the effort to insure my continuous pleasure, which resulted in my saying at least three times a minute something like, “Oh, yes, I thought that was just amazing. . . .Just BEAUTIFUL. . .Really? Is it that old?. . . .The Three Broken Stones Lying Together at Zumbex’kklefex? Oh, do let’s see that!” I mock in memory of being wet and cold and tired, but Gozo is an amazing place, and Joseph was the perfect person to show its wonders. I remember him better than some of them. Wish I’d had him for Malta, too. He and Michael unite in nostalgia for the old, scenic Maltese busses, now gone, though I saw one still in service.

In the evening, changed into dry clothes and went out. Bought tape, which doesn’t work, and nose spray, which does. I was going to cruise the waterfront, but I was tired and it was cold, so I had went to a showing of devotional art– altar pieces, images of saints, dioramas of the inside of churches or of heaven. I couldn’t read the labels, except to know that ordinary people had made them and entered them. It was like a devotional State Fair. Kind of shocking. The Roman Catholic–no, now that I think of it, the Christian–mind is surprisingly bloodthirsty, reveling in images of torture and death and ghastly martyrdoms. One had taken a Carravaggio severed head of John the Baptist and rendered it life sized and in ghoulish 3-D. Beautiful church music was playing, though, and I sang along, hoping the people there would think I was an angel. When I climbed back onto Republic Street, a handsome young man was playing an instrument that looked like a cross between a lute and an autoharp, and singing to it a Handel aria, in a voice half gypsy, half opera. It was one of those beautiful moments that hang upon memory as a bright jewel, and I stood a long time listening. I gave him money. I wanted to buy a CD, too, but he never stopped singing and playing, going from one to the next, and I was not going to be the one to interrupt. He was the angel on the night street, and people passed by as though he were an ordinary busker.

On my tombstone: He Was Not Going to Be the One To Interrupt.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Malta 3

March 6, 2012

The fact is that Valletta rolls up its sidewalks at 7. I was striding into town about then, while hundreds were striding the other way, toward their homes, presumably, and the streets that are so lively during the day were all but deserted. Previously I had wandered into Floriana, which was dark and creepy and devoid of amusements, though there was a great plaza in front of a church, with the butts of columns like a great ruin, and the fat moon had risen above it, with the two companion stars which have been with it for a month.

Turbulent night full of the strangest and most cleansing, dreams. It was as if I were freeing myself of a myriad issues, some of which I do not understand anymore, if I ever did. One involved an argument with my sister over how to keep baboons out of the house. I knew how to do it, and couldn’t get her to cooperate. In the end I walked off and left everything to her and the baboons, singing in French on the road, like Saint Francis. Then it was Ellen. I came home from a long journey (we apparently shared a home) and found her living with a girlfriend. I didn’t care, but they said I couldn’t stay there because I would interfere with their relationship. I insisted that I would not, and they cited instances where I had disrupted relationships, of all of which I was ignorant. I said they were making it up, and they had these smiles pasted on their faces that implied how lacking in self-knowledge I was. I opened my closet and found the new girlfriend’s scarf collection hanging there. I won that fight, and at the end of that portion of the dream we were dividing the space. In a third, I was at a performance of one of my plays. The audience was small, and the second half of the play was awful. Susan Stevenson suggested cutting the second half and I realized that the second half had been written by my students, which I kept including out of loyalty. My subconscious was active and quite specific, though I don’t understand it all. Give up bad arguments? Stand up for my rights (or believe, against present conviction, that I have the power to act upon others’ emotions)? Don’t be held back by sentiment? I don’t know. That these were messages was clear, the import, less so.

Evening. Bear Grylls is on the only English station that I can get that isn’t the news. He’s sleeping inside a gutted camel in the Sahara. After the night of psycho-social dreams, I met Michael for a tour of the island. It was his day off from being a bar-tender, so he was a guide and chauffeur. He was good about stopping at scenic spots and letting me use my camera. I asked about the plants–all with yellow flowers at this season, to give Malta a golden winter. He didn’t know them except for a sorrel-resembling little golden star called by the Maltese word meaning “bitter.” When they were kids they split the stems open to taste the citrus-y bitterness. He had me do the same. I feel I have a tiny particle of a Maltese childhood. Michael took me to a gorgeous church in Mosta through the domed ceiling of which a bomb fell in WWII, without exploding. A replica of the bomb is in a chapel. The gorgeousness of the churches and public buildings is surprising, Rome-rivaling. There must have been a whole lot of money here once. The place I wanted most to go was the Silent City, Mdina, a walled fortress founded by the Phoenicians three thousand years ago and fortified by the Knights of St. John. From a distance it was a city of dreams, lofty and ancient. Inside, though, it was hard to get a sense of things because of all the people like me, because of all the tourists. But it must have been silent and noble once, wind blowing through the narrow golden alleys, chanting from the necklaces of churches.

From there to the coast, with a little island sailing like the prow of a sunken ship. Through fields of golden flowers one approached Malta’s two great megalithic monuments: Hagar Qim and the Mnajdra Temples. They are wonderful and mysterious. They make Stonehenge look meager. Great roofs are built over them for protection now, which makes it impossible to see them against the sky they knew for five thousand years. But that too shall pass. When experts are looking for the reasons for buildings like this, I think they under-consider the possibility that they were built just for the hell of it, because people then, as now, wanted to do something remarkable. One wishes to see them in their own time. Malta has such a varied past one wants to see all of it– the time of the temple-builders, the Phoenicians, the Carthaginians, Romans, Byzantines, Knight of Saint John–all deeply exotic for an Ohio boy. We had lunch at Marsaxlokk (I’m not making these names up) at the edge of deep- blue boat-bobbing Mediterranean. I have paid for three more hours, but by then that’s all I could take. I am not the best tour-consumer in the world. Michael has three children, and wouldn’t eat lunch because his wife would be disappointed if he weren’t hungry when he came him. For the sake of conversation, I made up a son who is an actor in New York, and then told him about my real nephews. Michael was sort of boring, and not much better than I at local history, but he was kind and I had, for some reason, expected a monster who would make me regret every moment. So all was well there.

Walked in the town afterwards, to tire myself out as insurance against another night of over-vivid dreams.

MerHpah means “welcome,” and is printed on the sign for entering every little town. Malta is mostly urban, town after town joined together with different unpronounceable names, with here and there a ribbon of farm to remind us of what was. Each one of those town looks exactly the same, pale gray-yellow stone with graceful, distinctive vernacular architecture, overtopped by a spectacular church.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Malta 2

March 5, 2012

Tremendous thunderstorms last night. My window is in a decorative cave seven feet from the roof, and yet the driven rain rammed flat against it. Fire and thunder simultaneously, so the storm was right upon us.

Read in the lobby bar last night. The traffic seemed to be mostly leggy Irish blonds meeting (one would have thought) pretty ordinary men for drinks, then bishops and priests, and black-suited young men drenched in excellent cologne, speaking Italian. Read Tina Fey’s Bossypants, acquired in the airport.

I am east of Greenwich mean time. It seems impossible to coordinate with activities at home.

Afternoon: I wanted to make individual human contact today, and almost as soon as I hit the streets of Valletta, I met Eddie, who runs one of the surprisingly numerous art supply stores. His store is filled with fairly bad nautical paintings by his father and grandfather (one is notably worse than the other, I don’t know which) but he never took up the brush. He speaks like a Londoner but looks like an Arab. Eddie assumed I was from Canada, but when I told him where I am from, he wondered where there one could find megaladon teeth, I had not encountered that question before, so I did my best, suggesting Hatteras, maybe. Eddie seeks them out in Morocco, and wondered if I might want to join him there. He probably didn’t understand that my “yes” meant “yes.” He was bored and friendly, and I took advantage of that.

Walked the streets in the blazing light, washed clean by last night’s storm. My thighs ache from climbing up and down the long flights of stairs that lift almost every street up from the harbor. Took many photos, mostly to please people back home. I discover I’m every bit as indifferent to photo-taking as I assumed I would be. NCIS in Italian last night, and some movie about black people who were all speaking German. I speak Italian to the shopkeepers, assuming those conversations are unlikely to get out of my depth. Half of them answer me in English, anyway, so no matter.

The Cats of Valletta

The Cats of Valletta

The cats of Valletta are abundant,
handsome, fearless.
If spoken to, they answer with a mew
or with contemplative silence,
both signs of
courtly and antique respect.
The Phoenicians brought them
before there was a Europe,
and they are, therefore, attuned to the
songs of gods otherwise forgotten.
When the bombs fell
for three years
solid as a burning curtain,
it was they who threaded
their way between the blasts
and those who would, might follow,
with the odd grace of the two-legged,
to refuge by the cool and extinguishing sea.
The cats were waiting for the narrow ships
to come for them.
What the people were waiting for
they could not imagine: maybe
for the flames to fade that they might
return to their strange destinies
among the stones.

The Phoenician ships did not, that time, arrive.
No matter.
The Cat who is all cats
can afford to bide his time.

Flying Out

Flying Out

When I enter an airport waiting area
I always think I’m going to Ireland,
as often I am,
but not this time.
This time I’m off to someplace else,
someplace new to me
if ancient to itself,
with its gray stones gold with age
with its blood stains concealed by
rags of goatsbeard,
and the wind out of Africa
allowing a translucent haze
of pharonic dust
and the dander of lions.
I will be living for a week
on a rocky table
placed over a volcano.
This suits me:
the calm stone face
over potential turbulence,
the imminent, if not quite probable,
When I get there
I will stomp the gold dust and the gray stone
with my heel,
to let it know
I am up for anything.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Malta 1

March 4, 2012

Luminous gray sky over Valletta harbor. The flights were long but without much event. To Newark I sat across from a woman who had just won a ballroom dancing trophy, which she had with her as a carry on, and which seemed to be exempt from the completely-under-the-seat-in-front-of-you rule. To Frankfurt I sat beside two strapping Swedes who had been seeing to business (“energy distribution”) in Pittsburgh. To Malta I slept so violently I don’t know about the woman beside me, except as an elbow attached to an arm attached to a hand which was working Soduko puzzles. My remembering the German word for “airsickness” convinced the cute steward on Lufthansa that I was German, and we had conversations in Deutsch throughout the journey– which I mostly understood because of the narrowness of the context. Malta looks wondrous tiny from the air, and uninhabited, as its buildings are pale yellowish gray and look, until you’re quite close, like jumbles of stones.

Wrote a poem in the Asheville Airport snack bar. Wonder if that’s a first.

The Excelsior Grand is indeed very grand–my limo driver thought it the second best hotel on the island, after the Phoenicia–and all the personnel are kind and courtly. My room has a fairly crappy view– a broad expanse of roof over which buildings on a distant hill can be seen. My view karma is very bad indeed, or maybe I manage always to check the box asserting I want a room in the ventilation shaft. Walked twice through the town–once in the afternoon, where I ruined myself by consuming a full bottle of excellent Maltese Chardonnay, and once at night when I had slept that off. Valletta on a Saturday night is taken over by kids, as it should be, but what they were doing–unless it was just strolling about–I couldn’t figure. Entire streets were silent and empty. I found one establishment that was like a bar–a downscale English operation called the Pub. The Pub has a shrine in one corner to the actor Oliver Reed; it turns out that Reed died there one night after an extended drinking bout with wife and then with a bunch of sailors. Always stumbling into history!

In Italy I strained to understand what people around me were saying, but Maltese is so odd and off-the-beaten-track linguistically I don’t bother. “Grazzi” serves in both languages, so that is well. Everybody speaks English, with a vaguely Levantine accent. The people are distinctive looking, sort of Sicilian-Arab, though I say that without sure knowledge of what Sicilians or Arabs at home are really like.

Later. Attended Eucharist at Saint Paul’s, the Anglican Pro-Cathedral, founded by Queen Adelaide back when Malta was recently a colony. Never was there a more chirpily British place on earth. The greeter had just seen a TV show where North Carolina had been mentioned, so he felt we were kindred spirits. I sang harmony to the Schubert service music and thought myself very grand. The cathedral architecture is undistinguished, but it had made it through the Nazi bombings. When you look around Malta you know that most of it must have been flattened–the bombing here went on longer than on London-- and they must have taken care to put it back essentially the way it was. All through the morning I was in love with this town. It’s like the parts of Rome that tourists don’t go to. I was going to say “it’s like a redneck Rome,” though racism plays a part in that word back home as it cannot do here. The people seem as cheerfully mixed along those lines as it is possible to be. Actually did almost nothing but stroll and stroll, in the flat, overpowering winter light which one craved because the sea wind (which here is all wind) was dauntingly fresh. Lunched across from St. John’s co-cathedral beside people I eventually gathered were Bulgarians. What a fine time they were having! The words I recognized were “Bulgaria” and “telephone.” They said “hello” answering the phone and “All right, ciao, bye” turning it off again. Can recognize the Maltese words for “street” and “John.” Valletta itself is at once picturesque and liveable. I chose two streets down by the harbor where I would want to live. Laundry flapped at some of the windows. The many-storied narrow houses rise over the streets like waves, for the land is uneven and very sharply hilly. I have climbed more steps today than. . . than I would prefer. Eighty steps up just to get one out of the hotel compound onto the street.

Pigeons, weaver finches, crows seem to be the fauna here. Plus graceful brown fish in the sparkling blue-green water. The steep hills are beautifully yellowed by goatsbeard. Went to the archeology museum, where I learned that people began living permanently on Malta and Gozo around 5200 BC. The islands are too small for dependable hunting-and-gathering, so speculation is that’s the earliest there could have been permanent habitation. But the ruins and monuments (which I shall see in a few days) speak to a sophisticated culture, one I can’t remember having heard spoken of even in academic circles.

Friday, March 2, 2012

for Titus

On the Cremation of a Cat

I think of the fire touching you as a sister might with her warm
I think of the fire at the small bones and the lithe spine
and the simple heart where steadfast simple love is begun,
touching it into flame and burning air, what was mine
become a coruscation, and illumination, and then done.
In life you loved four walls against your midnight flanks,
a box, a cupboard, the angle between chairs.
I choke back embarrassing emotions to give thanks
in the patient ear of anyone who cares,
for the black paws in the velvet darkness, then,
for the crouch, the tremble, for the coal black flash,
for the purr and cuddle famous among men.
For this compact, well-made box of ash.
It’s not that I never said this to you flat furred face:
it was a laugh, a smile, an honor; it was twelve years of grace.
March 2, 2012

Dark morning, though the prescient birds sing in the darkness. I’ve got travel jitters, but it’s mostly excitement. The cats are all right. It was Titus who sensed when I was going, grieved when I was gone, and was weirdly clingy when I returned. The girls will be all right. Drinks last night with J R-E, when we discussed her senior projects and plainness in poetry. She likes it because it allows her to do all the emotional work; I suspect it because it makes me do all the emotional work. I’m going out in the backyard now to tell my flowers to go slow until I return.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

February 29, 2012

A free day. I’ll try to think of everything done today as a gift from the calendar.

The vet called and I brought home Titus’ ashes in a pretty wooden box. I’d always buried cats in the yard, but this is better, for I don’t feel bad when the snow falls and the rain penetrates and they not having time to get used to things underground. Plus, it is an inexplicable comfort to have him there on the mantel, present at least to the imagination.

Daffodils abloom, studding a purple carpet of crocus. I think it is late enough that I can stop worrying about the blossoms being premature. After a while you must simply suppose that the flowers know their business.