Saturday, December 15, 2012

Three Poems: December 15, 2012


The Swan

On the first night my baby was not in my body
she lay in a plastic basinet next to me in my room.
Bundled, she looked like a sweet date. I lay in
the pale lit room and I traced her features with my
eyes, sketching her in my memory, recognizing
that this is what it means to make a person; it will
be someone you’ve never seen before and would
change into anything to protect. I reached my hand to
the plastic’s rim and lay it gently on her chest, through
the blanket, through the hours that would complete
her first rotation of the sun. I understood from now
on I would be in direct competition with every harm
that lives in the world. I would grow great wings
invisible to any but her and me, and I would cover
her when something terrible neared and I would hiss.
The clock on the wall also became something more
real to me. Until then, I had been waiting for her to
come. Now every second was another of her movements
away from my body, away from my blood which I
could control what fed her, what reached her.
Nine, now. Different from me in ways I never would have
expected. A scientist to my artist. As well, a keeper
of her own worlds, always delighted when someone
accepts her for who she is. And every day I drop her
off at school, I watch her confidence, her knowing of
which bell means what class or order, a familiarity with
a classmate who opens her door. Her asymmetrical
haircut, which she wanted, is an expression of who
she is. Everything has been more real she arrived,
every danger, every joy, which is why when you see her
you will also see the single white feather I have tucked
into the back pocket of her fashion jeans, why, when you
speak to her, you always feel something fierce nearby,
great wings, a shadow, a spell I re-hiss every damn day.

Four, Five

When she was four months, one day,
I could sit her up, and she would stay that way
a few seconds. Then by the end of the day
she could stay that way and just stay. On her face: a smile
that defied gravity.

The developments of her life
have become less defined now. She long-
divides and works multiples of fourteen.
She asks a boy to a dance that's four months away.
When he rebuffs, she holds the pain until she sees me
and asks me what to do with it.
Her lower lip moves backward between her teeth
when she’s being brave. Her emotions
have merged with the moon and she has tides.

I think back to when she was four, five,
I could still pick her up so easily
and swung her over my shoulders when we danced. Mornings, 
she would ask me to carry her from her bed to the playroom
not because she was lazy she said but because
she loved to be held.
She would still ask this if she wasn’t so tall
and has learned to help me in this world we share,
we make together, to pull
something that I suppose is her "own weight" that was
even when I could hold all of her in one arm,
something incalculable to me,
something great enough to knock me over.


When She Isn’t In This House

She’s on a playdate or at her father’s house.
She’s still at school or at a piano lesson.
She’s sitting between Ceci and Gracie at after-school
watching a movie involving chipmunks in shirts
but no pants, which bothers me, and we joke.
She’s at her grandmother’s, my mother’s, loving
being there as I loved being at my grandmother's.
She's eating food she won’t eat when I make it.
She’s decorating the Tree.
She’s spending the night at Angelina’s house where older 
siblings teach her about being cool.
She is at a soccer game I had to miss because I have
work to do and will regret choosing when she’s grown.
She’s in the garden discovering something about
She's telling a story to the trees.
She’s on a hike with Poppy.
She's at daycamp playing in a waterfall.

The wall by the kitchen
bears the marks of every inch she’s grown since
she could stand, including the time
she cheated and just reached and made a mark.
She'll reach that height by Spring.

There's a Hello Kitty! washcloth sits by her sink 
with a Spongebob tube of toothpaste she dislikes the taste of. 
There are mermaids in the bathtub.
There's a seven-foot high giraffe she’s cut the eyelashes of in her bedroom.
It's there because I wanted something enormous in her life,
something bigger than the two of us,
something that quiet and able to see things far off coming.

She’s on the schoolbus being brave against a boy who says 
mean things to her but insists she can handle.
She’s at the mall with a friend and friend’s mother
building teddy bears out of fluff and red silk heart.
Soon she’ll bring it home and add it
to the collection of non-living living things,
all with eyes wide, unclosing, in her room.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Some History of the Basilica

(photos by Michael Oppenheim)

Some history of the Basilica:

Paul Roebling Jr,  grandson of the designer of the Brooklyn Bridge, (Yes!)  first started development of Haywood Street exactly one century ago with The Haywood Building. At that time, Haywood Street was little more than a ravine running along the base of the resplendent Battery Park Hotel property. This is not the same Battery Park Hotel as the one standing at the north end of the city today. It was a Queen Anne-style green-painted wood and was owned by the Coxe family. Thomas Wolfe spent hours in the lobby watching the guests as they arrived, and he lamented its loss heavily when E.W. Grove purchased the land, razed the hotel and destroyed the mountain it stood on. Both Vanderbilt and Grove first espied their respective mountain real estate legacies from windows of that original hotel.

Guastavino came to Asheville on a commission from Richard Morris Hunt, the first Fine Art architect in the U.S. and designer of the Biltmore Estate. The Spaniard, from Valencia, had devised a method of tiling for which he had secured a patent, a method that revolutionized the making of domes.

Rafael Guastavino, Richard Sharp Smith and James Vester Miller all worked on Basilica of St. Lawrence. This makes it a monument to multicultural and creative collaboration. News of this collaboration has only recently come to light, as is the case with much of Asheville's architectural and social history. The city is still waking from its economic sleep and much needs to be remembered before dashing forward. While Executive Director of the Preservation Society of Asheville and Buncombe County, Martha Fullington spotted Sharp Smith's signature on the blueprints. Other Sharp Smith/ Miller collaborations include YMI, St. Matthias, Hopkins Chapel and many more. Miller was born into slavery and became arguably the most prolific builder in the city during the real estate boom. Each of these men is a legend unto himself. The Basilica is the only structure on which all three worked.

Guastavino died prior to the Basilica's completion and is buried within. His son completed his work. Recently in Manhattan, one of the designer's bridges in lower Manhattan was converted into a restaurant; this means New York traffic was re-directed to preserve his work. Manhattan now features Guastavino's work in tours, including one of the abandoned City Hall subway station. In 1904 NYC Mayor McClennon specifically demanded Guastavino's craftsmanship saying ""My station under City Hall will be more beautiful than the rest." In the Basilica we have the last work of a man to whose work MIT devotes an entire department. The school brought together engineers from Britain and Spain to design a sustainable conference center, Pines Calyx, based entirely on his work.

The Basilica of St. Lawrence was deemed a basilica in 1993 by Pope John Paul II, based on the criteria comprised of liturgical norms, exemplary performance of ritual and compliance with the General Statutes of the Roman Missal. The honor was bestowed, in part, because this is Rafael Guastavino’s only church. By the time he came to Asheville, Guastavino’s American projects included Grant's Tomb, the Great Hall at Ellis Island, Grand Central Station, Carnegie Hall, and the chapel at West Point, the Duke Chapel in Durham, the Jefferson Standard Building in Greensboro, the Motley Memorial in Chapel Hill and St. Mary's Catholic Church in Wilmington, among more than six hundred remaining works around the world and in U.S.

Here is a video celebrating New York's love of its Guastavino legacies

Thursday, September 06, 2012

Emailing Mother Theresa: On Losing the Art of Gazing

I sent my first email in 1996. My boyfriend at the time had a computer, and the computer had internet. He sent emails all the time. When I was working on a project with PATH (Program for Appropriate Technology in Health) to develop a salivary ferning microscope that was cost-efficient enough to be distributed to impoverished women in India and Africa, I was asked for my email address. My boyfriend said I could use his. 

One afternoon, my colleague at PATH forwarded an email from Mother Theresa. She was giving PATH her approval of the device. Once you get an email from Mother Theresa, there isn't much else to anticipate (Note to the 20000 senders of emails I've received since: you understand). The project got tanked along the way, despite my patchwork re-design that involved a cardboard kaleidescope from a child's birthday party and a 50x magnifying glass. I waited another two years to get my own email address, and another two passed before I started to actually "use" the internet, which I did because I was a teacher and had to teach my students how to use it. Now I always use it.

Nicholas Carr is coming to Asheville to speak about his book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains on September 28 at 7 p.m. at AB-Tech. It is part of my job as Program Co-ordinator of the Master of Arts in Writing Program at Lenoir-Rhyne University Center for Graduate Studies of Asheville to promote the event. As often happens in tasks relating to writing, it is now a meditation.

I am reflecting on how the internet has changed my brain. I don't like how my brain feels when it has to look at itself and ask this question. It feels wrong. It feels like the first twenty minutes of a therapy session when I don't think I have anything to talk about but sit in the chair anyway. And then it all comes out.

But after that year of emailing with Mother Theresa (which only happened once), I lived (sans boyfriend) in a small cabin on the shores of Sequim Bay, off the Strait of Juan de Fuca. While I suppose I could have had internet since I did have a telephone, I did not. When someone wanted to talk with me, they called me, on a land line, without caller ID. I spent my time sitting on the rocks gazing out at the water, waiting for a seal to break the surface from below or an eagle to break the surface from above. Those were pretty much my choices. Those and the herons and loons and skoters who held the surface, dipping above and below it at will. I learned to gaze.

Gazing was a practice. The longer I gazed, the more I saw. The hours moved slowly, tremendously so. All of nature was my computer screen.

In The Shallows, Nicholas Carr examines how internet grazing has spoiled our appetite, and threatens altogether our literary digestive tract, for real reading. He also directs our attention toward these other implications of having our very plastic neural circuitry reconfigured through practice of computer gazing. I am reminded that I used to gaze at nature in my free time. This practice has now been replaced by cruising the internet for news and information.  Have I lost my patience with stillness and slowness? Do I really get antsy at the beach? Could I go back to that year I got the email from Mother Theresa and sit still on a rock for hours and not wonder if someone "liked" me?

For more information about Nicholas Carr's visit to Asheville on September 28 at 7 pm at Ferguson Auditorium, a free event, please visit And while this is my job to tell you about the event, I'd love to know if you still gaze?

Friday, June 08, 2012

The Dawn of the Face-Eaters: An Ontology of Terror

Well, the new fear today is getting your face eaten.
Yesterday, the fear was having your rights of partnership
dissolved, your gas price gone over the 4 or $5.00 mark.
And before that it was getting bombed by your neighbor

in the hijab, your other neighbor being shot in a hoodie.
Before this, there was the fear of the hijacker, of the office
building exploding, and before that there was the fear of
the things that happen in farther away places than the

mailbox that may or may not contain the letter laced with
anthrax. Remember when the Tylenol first was “tampered
with?” Remember the way we checked for razors in the
Halloween apples and the candy spilled out from the pillow

cases (because I grew up in a neighborhood where you
could acquire a pillowcase of candy in a night) and a worried
parent held each piece up to the desk lamp, searching for the 
torn wrapper, the steel eyes of death tucked inside the taffy,

and before this there was the terror of the too quiet room,
the blank stare of the darkness a Mickey Mouse nightlight
only seemed to deepen the eyes of, that solitude, that sense
you were prey to things you could not see and, worse, could

not yet think about because your mind was the size of an apple
then, and inside that apple, if you held it up to the light, if some
beast no one had told you about yet, sliced it open, you know
what you would find: that shining ridge, those unclosing eyes,

the thing with teeth that ran at you from nowhere and always
started with your mouth, unravelling your mind from the inside
in one long transparence, sweet and fresh, the juice of young
trees that ought not ever be tinged by blight or scuffed by storm,

much less unwielded by thoughts of such things as this that
now, much like a new string of a once curable disease, dawns
not once by four times in the papers, and tomorrow perhaps
another, making every day a halloween, and every night, at home

safe in your bed, all the other nights, your full, untouched face
pressed into the cool unbloodstained safety of your pillow,
your eyes, permitted to rest against the glaring, mouthless dark.

Sunday, March 04, 2012

Gin Bottle Cap Contraception

I am the grand-daughter of World War II prison camp survivors. My grandfather and grandmother met in Buckingham Palace where my grandmother was presented at Court at one of Princess Elizabeth's garden parties. They met later, again, in Hong Kong where my grandfather held a medical office in Kowloon. The attraction was undeniable. They married and enjoyed parties at Shing Moon, my grandmother wearing black burma silk evening gowns and hobnobbing with the British "dirty little foreigners" who enjoyed the high life of the Empire's global reach. She befriended the niece of Emperor Pu Yi and frequently joined her for tea within the labyrinthian compound of The Forbidden City. Theirs was a life of luxury.

After the Japanese seized Nanking, my grandparents ignored the warnings and invitations to evacuate sent from the British Crown and moved north. My uncle was born in Swatow, my father in Tongshan. In Tianjin, miles from the unrest and terror of Nanking and Shanghai, they continued their privileged lives. As the violence neared, my grandfather stood with the Chinese and built makeshift clinics for those wounded in the relentless shellings. He planned his move to join the resistance in the 8th Division Army. Hitler invaded Poland. Fellow passengers on the Trans-Siberian Railway learned of disappearances of Jewish friends and loved ones from reports gleaned at stations where men sipped vodka that evaporated in the space between flask and lip. The war did not touch my family directly until one afternoon, the day after Pearl Harbor was bombed. The Japanese commandante entered their home, pissed on the carpet and declared the family's home and everyone in it property of the Rising Sun. Three days later, they were marched 100 miles to a prison camp called The Courtyard of the Happy Way.

1200 prisoners lived for three years in the small compound. They devised jobs, schooling, sports programs and food rations in order to maintain civility and normalcy. There were councils and black markets. A group of Trappist monks formed alliances through the barbed wire electric fences with local farmers who appeared to pray with them while rolling fresh eggs under the fences into the monk's woolen robes. All aspects of "civilized life" continued even in the ever-present terror of captivity by bayonet and constant surveillance. For the women and the men, both married and un-married, other aspects of life continued, the private ones where love and desire found purchase in the quiet, unbayonetted spaces of the night. Of course people made love in the prison camp. It was solace. It was peace and comfort as well as hope that the human heart could transcend the nightmare of war.

My grandmother was near her death when she at last started to tell me the details of the internment. I sat with her for hours. Among the details she shared was the issue of contraception. She told me she used a gin bottle cap as a barrier method. Of all the stories of scorpions appearing on her children's arms and legs and how she'd stay up all night swatting the deadly creatures from their tender, jaundiced skin, of the stories of the guards lining the children up against a wall and aiming their weapons at them as ways of ensuring the adults would follow every rule, the imagined sensation of a metal circle pressing up against a cervix and possibly turning to injure the man during intercourse is a profound metaphor for what life in a prison camp reveals about how humans cope with restriction. I think of the power of love and its will to bring people together in sacred union, to heal us, and without proper methods, possibly injure us with toxicity and laceration.

My grandmother was Catholic. Being pregnant in a prison camp where healthcare was minimal was a deathly option. Bringing a baby into a confined and freezing world where electric barbed wire defined the perimeter and where rotten vegetables were the only food, and of this there was a criminally limited supply for the 1200 prisoners: these realities made contraception a necessary "sin." But she would insert the gin bottle cap. It was the only method available. This is a measure many people adopted when they were cut off from the usual supply of birth control. They would try anything.

In even the most dire situations, women will maintain control of their reproductive destinies. It is not something even the longest arm of the law, or the commandante in charge of any prison camp, can command. If the conversation surrounding employers' provision of hormonal maintenance medication now must include notions of aspirin-between-the-knees concupiscence, then it must also contain the real-life stories of the ends lovers will go to under even the most terrifying circumstances to engage in love. Love is not lust. And love-making is not prostitution or vile. It is a force of life, and in the pursuit of happiness it is a healthy, beautiful and sacred means of having a full life.

I only know how to respond to the current paradox regarding employers' rights to disinclude birth control pills from insurance coverage with a story. Stories provide truths deeper than political rhetoric. They ground the high-pitched voices in real-life. In the story of women and men, there is no realer story than that of balancing life, love and when to bring children into the world. It is a story that belongs to both women who bear the child and to men who make love to women knowing that a child could possibly result from such union. It is a story, perhaps the only story, that at its very core belongs to both men and women, and a story through which lives change remarkably.

It is understandable that in a prison camp where my five year old uncle was court-martialed and made to sit in a bamboo cage in the hot sun for a day for missing role call and where primitive means of cooking and healing wounds replaced modern conveniences, women and men had to resort to metal found objects as barrier methods during sex. It is not understandable that alternatives to this would not be made readily available in a civilized country where electric barbed wire does not define our place in the world.

sketch source:

Friday, January 20, 2012

The Font Poem I Wrote Live on Twitter Answering My Own Question

I want a Twilight font that drips blood and snaps in two when deleted.
I want a Romantic poetry font that has birds in it and damp chunks of moss.
I want an Art Deco font in which I will type in blue terra cotta tile.
I want a Lascaux Cave font comprised of berries, blood
and the sounds of wild animals outside the cave.
I want a Marcel Marceau font that says nothing and still makes the reader weep.
I want a Beethoven font that no one can hear and
a Chagall font that flies, painted red, above the page.
A Sartre font in which when I write I love you it doesn’t mean you are in a cage.
I want a zen font that vanishes in the wind.
I want a Camus font that carries no meaning.
I want a Malthus font with a bug in its mouth.
Design for me a Darwinian font. Let the words eat each other.
And then eat the page.
An Edith Piaf font that sings for the Resistance.
A Billie Holiday font that prints only in blue.
A Lao Tzu font. It is made of water, fire, some dirt and a soft breeze.
A Simone de Beauvoir font that men and women will forever read differently.
I want a Ghandi font that carries the salt from the ocean
so the people may have salt.
I want a Martin Luther King Jr. font. All the letters are different colors!
And a Vaclav Havel font that never makes any sense.
And still becomes the president of fonts.
A Marie Antoinette font! (the letters at first are decorative, then only partly there)
I want a Winnie-the-Pooh font that wanders off into the woods.
And I want a Van Gogh font that makes my words worth a million dollars
though they come from a poor place,
a small room with a chair and a broom
and a window filled with sun.
Who can make a Sartre font I can’t get out of?
A Kerouac font that breaks open a sentence like a firecracker?
A Picasso font that is cruel but people will love it anyway?
A Dali font that drips down the page?
A Duchamp font that looks like any other but it is by Duchamp.