Portrait of the Artist as an Old Man

This is the last poem in my new book, Whispers in the Galleries.  I wrote it while in Antigua this past January.   It was originally published in Miller’s Pond Poetry.

Picasso on the Beach
“The purpose of art is washing the dust
of daily life off our souls.” — Pablo Picasso

Looking up from his sketch book,
the octogenarian sprawled on the chaise
sees the twenty-something couple
standing hip-deep in the quiet bay.
His right eye rocketed away hours ago,
docking quickly on her long limbs,
flat chest, exquisite Madonna face.
Now his left eye lifts off — she surrounds
her lover’s neck with her arms,
his mouth with hers. He hoists her up.
With lips still clamped, she scissors his waist.

Consumed by fire, the old man will not paint
yet another portrait of the artist in flames.
He burns too brightly, his brush too thick.
He extracts himself painfully from the chaise,
walks to the water, slowly, coolly wades in.
He’s retrieved his eyes from her body
even before he nears the two-into-one.
Passing them, he plunges into the deep,
swims forty strokes, emerges chastened.
Back on his lounge on the beach,
Picasso draws fertile conclusions.



Out with the Old, In with the Relatively New

Finished two novels this past week you should know about.

The old: E.L. Doctorow’s Andrew’s Brain.  It’s basically an interior monologue playing off the mind/brain relationship and relating the story of yet another brilliant protagonist who went to The Bronx High School of Science (Doctorow never seems to tire of flouting that).  The older hero falls in love with a student, they have a child, she dies, he leaves the child with his ex-wife.

This effort is way below classic Doctorow — The March, Homer & Langley, World’s Fair.  In my workshop at OLLI/Stony Brook on Modern Masters of the American Novel, we ranked City of God with the other superior Doctorow.

The relatively new: Helen Oyeyemi’s Boy, Snow, Bird.  I hadn’t read any of her previous novels.  This one has interesting twists and turns, but of course it is the characterization that counts. She takes a chance and has the novel narrated by two different women, mother and daughter.



One Leading Candidate

The other day as I was eating three-day-old pasta, I thought about my third reading of Philip Roth’s American Pastoral.  (This really didn’t happen, but I did think about the book and liked the pun.)

It’s not only Roth’s best (I prefer it to Sabbath’s Theater which seems to be his own favorite), but a leading candidate for “THE Great American Novel.”  It’s the story of a student athlete who becomes an effective, wealthy businessman… one who loves his country and is destroyed indirectly by the war in Vietnam.  It’s about entropy, the decay of cities and morality, the excesses of religion.  It is Roth with his sex obsession on hold, Roth whose prose renders an “American Tragedy” much more cogently than Dreiser ever could.

Not the Rockwell We Knew

Alice in Dread Land

Rockwell, that Boy Scout illustrator of kitsch,
apologist for white bread for almost fifty years?
It looks like one of his, but where’s Mom, apple pie,
the Chevy, the wry humor, heartwarming touch?

The Saturday Evening Post would have portrayed
this little girl in white dress in Wonderland.
Instead, we walk with Ruby her first day of school
in the pre-Katrina integrated-by-storm Big Easy.

Though Ruby is not in step with the giants,
her confidence and posture tell us
this is one smart girl who knows exactly
what white men look like without their hoods.

The marshals are faceless executors of justice
bent on carrying out the court order.
As they protect her, but also box her in,
their tension lies in clenched right hands.

If we could see their eyes, they would reflect
anger-mangled faces of upstanding housewives;
and if Ruby Bridges loaned us her ears,
we’d hear obscenities TV reports later masked.

We sense the irony of schoolbooks in her hand
and the N-word and KKK scrawled on the wall,
of her ruler measured against screaming rule breakers.
We feel the tomatoes have been thrown at us.

After Rockwell, The Problem We All Live With

To view the painting, click on the link above.  To learn more about Whispers in the Galleries, the book in which this poem appears, click here.


James Garner Breathes

We know James Garner best as Maverick and then as Rockford.  We watched him in The Americanization of Emily and with Steve McQueen in The Great Escape.   Hearing of his death, though, I was reminded of his marvelous performance in the 1994 made-for-TV movie Breathing Lessons.  Co-starring Joanne Woodward, it was fairly faithful to Anne Tyler’s fine novelist.

If Garner was underrated as an actor, Anne Tyler is as underrated as a novelist.  My personal favorite is Saint Maybe, but others like The Accidental Tourist (the William Hurt/Geena Davis movie was terrific) or Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant better.   I wasn’t crazy about Noah’s Compass when it was published five years ago; now I think it deserves another read.

Her strength is her ability to use the commonplace to get to universally important themes.  Her characters are somewhat odd, but never over the top.


Three Richards to Read

I lead a workshop at OLLI (Osher Lifelong Learning Institute) at Stony Brook University on “Modern Masters of the American Novel.”  This semester we’ll be doing books by three Richards —

  • Richard Powers latest – Orfeo.  I’m a big Powers fan.  My favorite is The Time of Our Singing, and the new book also has music as a subject.  Also high on my list are The Echo Makers, Gain and Generosity.
  • Richard Ford’s novel of a decade ago – Lay of the Land.   It really captures post-9/11 America and is a great character study of an older Frank Bascombe (now a real estate broker and not a sportswriter).  I liked Canada, but this one is better.
  • Richard Russo’s classic Nobody’s Fool.   Russo is best-known for this and Empire Falls, of course.  I liked That Old Cape Cod Magic too.  I think his very different Bridge of Sighs is terribly underrated by critics.

The semester’s reading will also include novels by A.M. Homes, Toni Morrison and Joyce Carole Oates.  More on those books later.


The First Twitter Account

The First Twitter Account

O, Klee, could you see
how much cacophony
there would be?

Your twittering birds, bandy-legged
deformations of nature shackled to
their perch, fight the machine as they
poise to proclaim the pink glow of dawn.

One bird exclaims the twitter’s full volume,
the arrow in another’s beak signifies shrillness,
the third sags with lolling tongue,
the fourth sighs the symphony has ended.

Twas brillig whimsy fights with
corporate monstrosity for our aye.
Lab sciences gets sent up in nano-seconds.
Absurdity could not be more simply drawn.

We see a portrait of the artist among philistines.
Or watch Chaplin, in the gears of Modern Times,
sidestep and (in Crane-speak) to the final smirk
dally the doom of that inevitable thumb.

What is your music box playing –
Berg, Webern, Schoenberg?
Guns N’ Roses, Megadeth, Judas Priest?
The laughable laments of Donald Trump?
Twittering birds fused with machine
flame our fears that when they tweet,
they don’t know what they tweet or why
they tweet, they only know they tweet!

After Paul Klee, The Twittering Machine

To view Klee’s watercolor, click on the link above.  To read about the book in which this poem appears, click here.