Monthly Archives: December 2011

flat

Driving thru Town

She’d forgotten the flatness–
how this former forest,
former prairie, stretches
under cold blue skies

that thud in horizontality
onto the flat roofs of ranch
houses and box stores,
the architecture of tornado alley.

This land, plowed
millions of years ago
by the Glacier’s Great Retreat,
is the opposite of “vertical.”

These suburban homes
especially the newer ones,
fold out—wide— like a creased
sheet of origami paper
before the edges are pulled up
and joined together,
into some tiny animal.

On a right-angle street corner,
at a stoplight in the dark,
she sees a naked, wiry shrub
hung with giant red candy canes,
glowing in chaotic, asymmetric bliss.

They hover there, red hooks
suspended  in a quilt of gloom
like floating question marks.

She drives straight on,
across the intersection
along the glacier’s path;
her smile, like the candy canes,
a curve that bends the night.

12.28.11

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honey on hanukkah

“These candles look like
the house of a bee,”
he says as I light one.

They are soft, faceted,
not nearly as aromatic
as the box claims:

“Genuine Hanukkah
candles. Made in China.
Distributed in Brooklyn, NY.”

Blue, green, yellow, purple
the wax unravels like
a spiral staircase.  Little

pockets of melting,
burning so fast it’s a miracle
we see fire at all.

I light them anyway.
Sometimes I play a Jewish
song on my computer.

I never say the prayers aloud
–or inside, either– but
I light them anyway.

And I let the bees’ houses
melt all the way down.

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Up in the Air on Christmas Eve, 2011

The Hudson, from the air, looks like quicksilver painted on thick.  It doesn’t flow but simply expands, osmoses into the sea. Pardon me, the Harbor.

New York is so small on the tip of the not-quite-island of Manhattan compared to the emptiness of water.  The cluster of city stares like a blind romantic into the still mirror of ocean.

The Tappan Zee Bridge is under us now, snaking, so long, towards Nyack.  From up here, its relationship to the other bridges crossing the Hudson becomes clear.  A federation of steel and sky, they hold New York and New Jersey together like safety pins patching the arm to the body of a very old dress.

Over 200 years ago tonight, Christmas Eve, George Washington sneaked across the Delaware.  The river was still, I imagine, but colder than this global-warming-dry December day.  Did his boats look to an airborn night-bird soaring above as the cars crossing the Tappan Zee look to me?  Did the birds know they were in New Jersey?

Low white clouds cover New York City.  From up here, the skyscrapers melt together, a cluster of grey holding forth, catching sunlight, against the mists of endless ocean on one side, endless land and highways on the other.  It’s just a city like any other from here.  Beautiful as any human creation is against the void. It holds no power over me.

The Hudson, the progression of bridges, the blue shadows of civilization…from the air, I can hold them all in my eyes at once.  I am no longer fooled by the noise, the money, and the lying subway maps.  Be gone, New York! You have no power here!  I have escaped you and in so doing, I can finally love you. I love New York as a dense protrusion in the clouds, as a myth-stripped sentry of human persistence, as an alternative to the soulless open waters of the past.

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breaking up with the world

Breaking Up With The World

There are rules, Rapunzel told me, to estrangement.
Only one rule, really, and this is that you must
let the estranged party know you are estranging them.
You may or may not disclose the reason,
but the estrangement is as clear as Michael kissing Fredo
on the lips in Havana , saying “Fredo, you broke my heart.”

How does one estrange a planet? Is it as simple
as stepping off the ramparts into another life,
like the falling man who walked away from
burning towers into a new timeline?
Rapunzel thinks she is learning the rules as she goes
but she is just braiding a life-raft with her words.

Her miles of schemes cannot untell the lie she told herself.
She only has to pull one hair—the right one—
for her world to unravel like a wig made of yarn.
She can fortify herself within the stone of her illusions;
She can break up with the world, and yet
she cannot say: “My love, you broke my heart.”

12.19.11

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the real winnie

PREAMBLE: A few years ago, the New York Public Library had an exhibition of all the most famous and unusual collectibles in their archives–which was much more than “just” books.  Many of these, including the original Winnie the Pooh and friends), can be seen on a rotating basis at the 5th Avenue flagship library near Bryant Park (the one with the lions).  I always tell people visiting New York to stop by the NYPL Swartzman building because a) it’s free and b) you never know what you might see. You might run into an old friend…

Pooh Bear and Friends

Taken at the New York Public Library. Copyright D.I. Gervasio 2011

As fascinated as I was by Malcolm X’s Koran, Charlotte Brontë’s travel writing desk, an early draft of the Declaration of Independence, and Charles Dickens’ letter opener, and Virginia Woolf’s cane, one curiosity–or family of curiosities– caught me by surprise and left me unexpectedly amazed and aglow.

There was a children’s area of the New York Public Library’s 100 Years exhibit that included large prints from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, playing cards and comic strips.  In the middle of this section was a display case with some very worn stuffed animals from the early 20th century.  I didn’t have to get too close before I recognized them.  It was Winnie the Pooh with his friends Tigger, Kanga, Piglet and Eeyore.  Not the Disney-fied Pooh Bear with his monstrous red tee-shirt or the retro-Pooh made in a softer tan and modeled after the illustrations in Milne’s classic.  The real Winnie the Pooh that belonged to Christopher Robin.

The Library acquired the stuffed animals in the 1940s after a wealthy New Yorker who’d bought them at auction donated them to the Library. Winnie looks like a Teddy Roosevelt teddy bear.  Piglet is impossibly small.  Kanga has a lovely pouch and a slightly crooked neck.  Tigger’s stripes are still plainly visible after all the years but he looks more like a cat than the blaze-orange, slinky-tailed buffoon of the Disney film.  Eeyore is patched with drooping head and–sure enough– a little nail holding his tail on.

I think one of the Pooh video cassettes we had when I was a kid had some footage of the original toys, because they looked familiar to me.  But it wasn’t just the video, which I must have watched over 20 years ago and, truth be told, was not one of my favorites.  I believe these particular stuffed animals felt so familiar to me because it was clear they had been loved and played with (this is the key to the existential merit of a toy, according to the philosophy of Toy Story 3), and in a way, anyone who has read the books has played with them. My mother would call this a “Proustian moment” but the petite madeleine I bit into did not open up a locked-away memory so much as kindle a childlike excitement, a sense of recognition, a kinship with these toys.

Children visiting the Library exhibit took interest in this display but with more puzzlement and curiosity than elation.  The stuffed animals are so old that some of the kids didn’t immediately understand that they were toys, let alone whose toys they were.  I’m sure the Disney images have altered kids’ vision of what Pooh looks like as well. But I was struck by the reverence that parents and older visitors passing by gave to Winnie the Pooh.  In this exhibition were manuscripts from the 1300s, published letters from Christopher Columbus, and a draft of the Declaration of Independence (in which Jefferson condemns slavery–but that part was stricken to appease the Southern Colonies).  There was a Gutenberg Bible and a handwritten Beethoven sonata.  But of all these amazing manuscripts and objects, Winnie the Pooh, little Piglet and the others seemed to be the most fascinating and evocative to people, provoking physical reactions of glee.

Nostalgia plays a part, I’m sure, but I don’t think the way Pooh was commercialized or the pop culture aspect of the Pooh stories (as opposed to classic literature like Brontë, Dickens, Woolf, Borges, etc) are responsible for the tenderness onlookers felt when seeing the inspiration for these fictional characters. I don’t think their appeal lies in pop art or nostalgia.  Rather, these stuffed animals embody the creative process and what literature can be more tangibly than a writer’s personal journal or scribbled notes.

A.A. Milne took inspiration from a bear that his son played with.  He gave that bear a personality, a name, and a story.  He gave the bear life in the imagination.  Now the bear has outlived the boy.  In “Bird by Bird” Anne Lamott describes writing fiction as ‘listening to the dolls talking.” I think that’s what Milne did.  He listened to what the bear had to say to the donkey. He let them talk.  If not for this process–for writing– Pooh would just be any other bear.  But now, he’s the most famous teddy bear in the world. So much so, in fact, that people visiting the New York Public Library of all ages recognize him and smile as if they’d just found something from their childhood in the attic.  So many of the pieces in the exhibit take the viewer back in time– decades and centuries ago–but Christopher Robin’s stuffed animals take us back further, to childhood and to the beginning of what it meant to read.

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“He corresponded as Monet”

From a letter from  M.P.G  dated 12/6/11

“You saw for example Dickens’s
letter opener in New York.
He corresponded as Monet

painted, letters in rows,
words chasing the changing
light.  On this wooden dagger,

the claw of his favorite cat.
That’s how he opened things up,
as if they were ghostly already.”

I took Victorian Literature with my favorite English professor in college.  We read the Brontës, Thackary and Dickens.  One thing I loved about Professor John Olmsted was how he told stories.  This was an “old fashioned” class. We sat in a room in a building shaped like a radiator, read poems or novels, and discussed them.  Our discussions could be fierce, timid, or eye-opening.  But they were usually prefaced or interrupted by snippets of history and literature that guided us in a more interesting if not necessarily more scholarly or more “correct” direction.  He knew perhaps that most students would be willing to wrestle with “Jane Eyre” or “David Copperfield” but probably not a full biography of Charles Dickens or Charlotte Brontë, and so he spent part of each class dispensing biographical stories.

In high school, we would have called these stories “tangents” and my classmates would have strategically attempted to delay a test or unpleasant assignment by saying a buzzword (for one of my history teachers it was “Ronald Reagan” but for a math teacher it was “Ireland”) that would derail the class from our programmed work.  Not so in college.  I was lucky enough to go to a college where tangents were neither irrelevant nor used as a tool for classroom insubordination.   Olmsted’s tangents were like those lengthy footnotes that you often are inclined to skip, but once you’ve read it have a hard time forgetting.  He would recount stories about Dickens not as if he knew the man well but as if he had visited with him for a while.  As a consequence, while humanizing the authors, he gave us enough context to keep us from sounding like complete anachronistic idiots when analyzing a particular chapter or theme.

I was always impressed with how much Professor Olmsted must have read to learn these things, and yet he respected and made use of an oral storytelling tradition to bring a past world to life.  We read literary criticism and other articles, but those authors and hypotheses don’t stick with me.  What I do remember is that Dickens had too many children, lived paycheck to paycheck and was in debt at times, was a celebrity in his lifetime, and had such a large amount of correspondence in addition to his serial- and novel-writing that he spent hours each morning answering letters.  He would have several going at a time, writing a line here, finishing a sentence there, just like Monet with a row of canvases.  In hindsight, I feel Professor Olmsted must have told us about Bob (“Never was there a finer cat”) and possibly even the letter opener.  But maybe that’s a conflated memory.

Dicken’s Cat Paw Letter Opener @ NYPL.  Image from Wired.com

I was so viscerally appalled and intrigued upon visiting the ivory letter opener with poor Bob’s paw on the handle at the New York Public Library’s centennial exhibit, that my reaction could not have been presaged.  And yet, now that I’ve accepted the existence of this improbable object, it seems like something I had heard of before.  Something just to the left of unbelievable.  I don’t know whether this letter opener– resembling an off-white machete — makes Charles Dickens seem more of a man or more of a monster to my 21st century eyes.  But I could see Dickens wielding the instrument in a creaky Victorian house with the soot and smoke of London coming in the morning-streaked windows.  I could see him slicing seals and envelops with relish, then heaving a little sigh for his poor dead Bob.  He would dip his quill and sign the first letter of the day.

I took Victorian Literature the semester before I went to study abroad in Europe.  When I visited London, I remember standing on the Millennium Bridge midway across the Thames, looking back at Saint Paul’s Cathedral and ahead towards the South Bank where the Globe Theater awaited us, decked out for Shakespeare’s birthday on April 24th.  I saw the soot marks winding up Saint Paul’s Cathedral  like rings on a sequoia, and I thought of sitting in class a couple months before and listening to Olmsted tell us how the smokestacks in London on the south bank of the Thames were dangerously low during Dickensian times because nothing was allowed to be built taller than Saint Paul’s.  As a consequence, black soot wafted over the river, coating the city in pollution and dirt, defacing the whiteness of the Cathedral.  The Tate Modern on the South Bank stood in for these Dickensian coal factories on the skyline in my mind. London had recently undergone a cleaning and restoration project.  They weren’t quite done with Saint Paul’s, whose columns looked like a graying, dirtied version of the Washington D.C. capitol building.

And standing there in the middle of the steel-colored river, it dawned on me that a lot of the soot still on that cathedral had been around since Charles Dickens was alive. It was a long bridge, and these were short thoughts, but now, as a librarian and a traveler, I am realizing that Olmsted’s stories came as much from his travel as from reading. There are many ways to cross a new bridge, and even more ways to cross an older one.

Millennium Bridge. London. 2005. By D.I.G

Millennium Bridge. London. By D.I. Gervasio April 2005

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