Sunday, October 17, 2010

Lisa Alvarado and a poem

One of the odd things about writing is that when you wish to talk about certain topics you first have to talk about yourself – what you know or don't know, the shape and extent of your sensibility, why you might be worth listening to. Context must be conveyed.

I know when a poem comes from a place of magic and beauty. I don't know how that could possibly happen. The shape of my sensibility is spiral, its extent is mapped in irrational space. I am worth listening to because I am inviting you to a celebration – to an appreciation of Lisa Alvarado's poem “Garden, dark.”

Lisa is a rare one. She seems fiercely ethical, compassionate, and honest. Lisa is a paradoxical one. She seems as gentle as a hovering tear, as a sigh of wind through leaves or across a landscape of symbolic longing. But it's not really a paradox at all. I think the word “passionate” holds all aspects quite nicely.

Lisa is Chicana and Jewish. Both of those worlds (or that manifold one world) are fairly unknown to me. Of course, like many people who read a lot of stuff, I have some touchstones. And my imagination steps spryly across them. To bridge many cultural gaps.

When I think of the word “Chicana,” images flow: zoot suits, Steinbeck characters and settings, the United Farm Worker movement, American border paranoia, Los Lobos. I think of colors and rhythms and struggles. When I think of the word “Jewish,” in its Sephardi connection, the picture emerges of a Spain draped in roses, romance, and religion. A Spain both enjoying the aesthetic contributions of Jews while also looking arrogantly askance at that ethnic minority...and then expulsion to far-flung places...even to Mexico.

The cool thing about poetry is that it reveals implicitly how the human spirit is kindred, across cultural, even language barriers. Hearts push blood similarly colored in feelings, desires, visions. We are one vast and crazy tribe of beings. Love binds us together. Consider Lisa's poem:

Garden, dark

At midnight, wildflower,

(Yes, that is your true name)
before that blank page of sleep overtook me,
I saw you clearly --a free spirit
blossoming outside what I call garden,
rare, color-ripe,
but destined to be forever and irretrievably another's.

Because the wild flowers inside you,
I dream your eyes bloom at the shabbos tish,
and I feel awe washing over me --
the breath of lost angels and lost family.
A prayer flowering inside you, despite you.
In the place where winds brawl, rain shatters,
and driven wild, flowers fly in all directions.

The world is dark, and time crashes down.
Covered by the flexed hands of night,
bathed in spilled moonlight,
do you sense me near?
I want those wildflowers to appear once more
to dance you to me in another dream.

There, far away from chaos within and without,
a Beit Shemesh wind whispers faint clues
to weave us with life's essential and aching joy.
Searching for warm breath and salvation,
I hope you find some with me, where the wild flowers.

Copyright 2010, Lisa Alvarado

This poem is a non-didactic demonstration of the power of language. Of how lines might move with a Euclidean perfection, yet are not measured with a conscious ruler. The prosody is an innate possession of the poet. Or maybe it expresses the pulse of experience and the pace of deep feeling through life. Such is the first magic.

Then come the images. For me, the best poetry subsumes abstraction and confession beneath the sufficiency of images. Pictures bloom in the mind, and they are alive with connotation and allusion. Just like in this poem.

blossoming outside what I call garden,
rare, color-ripe,

Everything depends on “what I call garden”. With that phrase, the poem expands into a sphere, like a snow-globe. Instead of snowflakes cascading, this garden-sphere is filled with atoms of suspense, pieces of dream. An unseen profusion of roots, stalks, blooms, and aromas of desiring. And “rare, color-ripe,” lets us know this “garden” is in a very serious stage of growth.

and I feel awe washing over me --
the breath of lost angels and lost family.

This love is not cheap, lascivious, neurotic. Lisa's words convey that special mood of being when the beloved fills the soul's sphere. Yes, “awe.” One has glimpsed behind the mask of nature. One has peered into the sublimity of a beloved. Into an eternal moment of blessedness. Even if the emotion is unrequited, even if one might never reach into the curving surface of the sphere, one loves unconditionally. Then, “the breath of lost angels and lost family”. That's exactly it. That just how deep one goes into such an ideal love. The ennui is not inertial. A pendulum of regard traces out a continuous pattern, mapping a zone both transcendent and rooted.

In the place where winds brawl, rain shatters,
and driven wild, flowers fly in all directions.

Unconditional love does not necessarily mean calm love. The sphere – the garden zone of regard – is occasionally roiled with raw passion at the edge of chaos. In the wonderful agony, one wails unheard beneath the storm of tears and colors.

“The world is dark....”

What fool would attempt to say anything about this stanza? Any touching of it with cloying words would be a sacrilege. Except to say, indeed, the sphere is dark.

to weave us with life's essential and aching joy.
Searching for warm breath and salvation,
I hope you find some with me, where the wild flowers.

One is left with a vague hope. One hopes that all forms, processes, and energies of being will resolve themselves eventually into a blending of souls. Eternity is in those lines -- a long-sustained sadness ripening toward some far glory. Of being truly known by another.

An informed person would know what “shabbos tish” and “Beit Shemesh” mean. An uninformed person who is sensible would look them up. Not me. I'm neither informed nor sensible. I am irrational. Hence, those terms are springboards for my imagination, for a delicious floating off into ambiguity. They work for me as the exotic haze surrounding some possible but unseen planet. They have an undiagnosed resonance of mystery, of old history for me. Of a cultural penumbra that stimulates me because it is unknown. conclude, I'll simply say that I hope this poem finds its way into an anthology of quality work. That it will succor and beautifully perplex readers one hundred years from now.

Lisa's web page

Friday, October 1, 2010

Isaac Stern almost drove me crazy

Seventeen years ago, I bought a cassette tape of Brahms's Violin Concerto. Isaac Stern on violin, with Ormandy conducting the Philadelphia.

It nearly drove me nuts. Stern's scratchy, desperate playing sounded like something issuing from the depths of an insane asylum. I was mesmerized. Could not stop listening. Maybe it was the beauty of the orchestra around the soloist, or maybe it was the innate marvelousness of Brahms's creation -- something kept me listening to this over and over and over.

Mr. Stern was not a bad violinist. I knew that. I had heard wonderful stuff from him in chamber pieces. This was such a puzzle. Had Brahms actually written such impossible notes for the soloist? Stern's playing did not seem to me an artistic expression. It struck me as the string-shrieking, ear-wincing output of someone who had picked up the violin for the first time. And struggling through the score as best they could.

What the hell?

So imagine my epiphany a couple years later. When I heard Heifetz's recording with the Chicago Symphony under Reiner! Heifetz, the master tonalist, does not saw the score into note-shreds. Each difficult double-stop and transition is handled with such aplomb that the concerto seems almost a different composition.

Looking back, I am grateful to Mr Stern. His playing in that work riveted me to the spot. I could not let it go. I had to figure out some way of making sense of what I was hearing. Through those long wincing sessions, the latent spirit of Brahms's miraculous concerto worked its way deep into the cracks of my brain.