Carvings

Woodcuts

At twilight, sand, sea, and driftwood open
like a workshop for carpenters. Wind and rain
have chiseled snake hair on logs thrown

against a dune. Near ocean’s edge are birds
carved–beaks broken, bright eyes whipped
and polished. Forever, they gaze seaward,

heads cocked (one to the left, the other to the right)
waiting, (bristled feathers wood-wet)
for mother tide to teach them how to fly.

Like Durer, I will cut my own Apocalypse
from wood drifting, shifting here and shape
horsemen (armor swirled, meticulous),

or whittle something simple: perhaps a cup
for tea. I warm my hands, prepare, and
feel a pulse in the heart of my palm.

Salt air and starlight sting. I find the lap
of a log, silken, grooved for rest and
my bench of block, knife and rasp—

tools required to take a piece of driftwood,
whittle it, fragile as a wishbone. I close my eyes
and whisper one desire beneath the moon.

Visions

Years ago I worked at Wyoming’s St. Stephens Indian Mission. One of my favorite places to be was at the home of blind Matilda, an old Native American whose face truly was lined in all the right places. So often she would look out on the dry hills as if a vision were there, calling to her, and she would tilt her head and listen.

During a week at home with my artist mother, I came across an Arizona Highways photograph of an Indian woman who looked just like Matilda. “I want to paint her.”

“In what medium?” my mother asked.

“Pen and ink.”

So began my two day lesson on the strokes needed to be a week-end artist. And then? I was on my own.

My lady took shape first with my pencil–so many hesitant marks, so many erasures. The eyes vexed me for days, but gradually, her features took shape beneath my hand. Stroke by stroke her wonderful face, weathered with age and lined with wisdom, began to emerge. And then the miracle of pen and ink. How often did I return to look at her, to touch her cheek, feel the texture of her scarf and the coarseness of her hair?

One week later I sat at the easel, marveling at my finished work, amazed that she seemed so alive. My mother came in and stood next to me. She leaned in close to the artwork and asked that question I had never voiced with Matilda. “I wonder what she sees.”

Birthday Morning

Before dawn, Carrie slipped out of bed. She dressed quickly, tucking the red ribbon into her jean pocket. Outside, the stars flecked silver over the cherry tree. She pulled herself up, curled around the branch, and crawled into the tree’s lap. Shimmying up and up, all alone while wet leaves dripped water on her face and neck. For a second she wished she were still under warm covers.

But Carrie remembered last night on the porch when her twin brother Cameron bragged. “See where Jupiter hits that branch? That’s how far I climbed today.” He was always first—to ride a bike, swim. Even first in the alphabet. “I marked it, too,” he said. Right then, Carrie made up her mind to climb the tree. Tomorrow, on their tenth birthday, she would be Number One. She’d show him. She’d bring back cherries from the top branch and dump them on his head.

Daylight came. Carrie spied Cameron’s marker. She pushed on. Her arms burned. Bark scraped her cheek. But she climbed past his string. Stopping to catch her breath, she sat on crisscrossed branches. Cherries glinted. She nibbled a few, down to their tart, red-black center. She let the juice swish in her mouth. Higher up, a glossy limb aimed at the sky. She felt for her red ribbon. I’ll put it where Cam can’t miss it. Today, I’m Queen of the Cherry Tree.

A small wind blew the leaves apart and there, in secret, was a tiny, empty nest. All at once an idea, quiet as a bird’s feather, came to her. “Today’s my birthday, and I can do anything I want.” She tied the ribbon into a bow and tucked it into the nest. A hiding place, way above Cam’s marker. Only the chickadees know.

Carrie climbed down, down, until tree roots bulged under her feet. Her sleepy-eyed brother sat on the porch steps.

“How far did you get?” he asked.
“Pretty far—for me.”
“Not like the King, though.”
“Nope.”
“All by yourself.”
“Yep.”
“Happy Birthday, Carrie.”
“You, too, Cam.”

The tree leaves winked at her. Only the chickadees know.

Captive

If I am looking for a lull or a reprieve from the world, Tretheway’s poetry is not the place to go. Her poems find expression not only because of her own mixed-race family roots, but because of her scholarly research into colonial art works depicting the mulattos and mestizos and those whom history has forgotten. From these sources she creates poetry that is unflinching in its depiction of slavery. In one poem I imagine the medieval artist’s representation of Cosmas and Damian as they graft the black leg onto the white patient. Tretheway reflects that “The Ethiop is merely a body, featureless in a coffin, so black he has no face.” In another poem I see in my mind’s eye Juan Rodriguez Juarez painting of the woman and the “red beads/yoked at her throat like a necklace of blood/her face so black she nearly disappears.”

The poem I want to hold in memory is her exquisite meditation on Velazquez’s Kitchen Maid with Supper at Emmaus. It is not Jesus, but the mulatta who is the centerpiece. She is the copper bowl and the jars in front of her; she is “the stain on the wall the size of her shadow–the color of blood. . .” Tretheway gently dares me to share the lot of the ones held in thrall. Kitchen Maid calls me into captivity, into my own complicity, my own prejudice and bias:”How not to see/in this gesture/the mind/of the colony?” Thrall is the perfect title for her stunning, troubling collection of poems.

Crossings

Two years ago I was in New York, strolling along the Brooklyn Bridge, snapping photos, trying to capture this historic, marvelous structure. Not once, though, did I think of the Bridge as integral to immigrants. I relegated that honor to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge forced me to look anew. He added another twist to his play about undocumented Italian dock workers: no matter whether “legal” or not, we carry our own skewed sense of what it means to feel safe. Eddie’s fixation on Catherine becomes greater than any responsibility to offer sanctuary. What shapes a view from a crossing point? If only the bridges could talk.

Footprints

Primo Levi’s words remind me of why we need one another. This need goes beyond the idealistic and ephemeral. We need one another for survival. Levi writes, “We, too, are so dazzled by power and prestige as to forget our essential fragility. Willingly or unwillingly we come to terms with power, forgetting that we are all in the ghetto, that the ghetto is walled in, that outside the ghetto reign the lords of death, and that close by, the train is waiting” (The Drowned and the Saved, “The Gray Zone,” p. 69). So, I will stretch from footprint to footprint, from one moon to another.

Testament

A 2012 European trip let me touch the Baltic, revel in Peter and Catherine’s glorious St. Petersburg, and walk at midnight in Moscow’s Red Square, but it was Warsaw that made me weep—not just the city’s history of the Ghetto and the sewers, but Europe’s horror of six (seven, ten?) million dead Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, dissidents, mentally and physically disabled. Warsaw believed that the elm tree outside Pawiak Prison witnessed Nazi brutality. They attached metal boards with victims’ names. When the tree died, the city of Warsaw replaced the tree with a monument cast in bronze. A testament to scars and sorrows, generosity and integrity.

It was so easy to choose If You Give a Mouse a Cookie for my first book to re-read in 2017. It was not as easy to read again Primo Levi’s The Drowned and the Saved. What remained consistent was my wish that I had known him, that I could have called him a friend. A young survivor of Auschwitz, a writer, a humanist, and for me, a hero of the 20th century. “A Man of Quality”. Levi’s definition of the intellectual describes, for me, a quality human being: “a person whose culture is alive inasmuch as it makes an effort to renew itself, increase itself.”

If You Give a Mouse a Cookie

In 1995, our community in N.E. Portland welcomed a Tutsi family who had escaped the Rwandan genocide. For six months, the mother, three-year-old boy, and one-week old daughter became part of our family of adults, dogs, and books. A favorite story was If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, by Laura Numeroff and illustrated by Felicia Bond. We all knew—even the baby—that if a pink-nosed mouse appeared in blue overalls, we’d offer him a cookie and invite him inside for a glass of milk. When he asked for a mirror to check his looks and a broom and mop for cleaning and a blanket and storybook for a nap and crayons for his artwork, we’d run to get them. He’d need to hang his picture on the refrigerator and the refrigerator would remind him how thirsty he was. We’d pour him a glass of milk. What is milk without a cookie? And, if we really liked the story, we could spend a very long and busy time inside that book.

Memory

In Copenhagen, I stand next to the bronze statue of Hans Christian Andersen whose fairy tales remain key childhood memories. My list of books to re-read in 2017 deal with memory.

  • A View from the Bridge, Arthur Miller. I recall a deep empathy; cannot remember why.
  • Dandelion Wine, Ray Bradbury. A simple memory of summer and beautiful language.
  • David Copperfield, Charles Dickens. Will David stay a favorite Dickens’ character?
  • Enemy Women, Paulette Jiles. I loved this novel of women POWs during the Civil War.
  • If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, Laura Numeroff. Hope I still smile page after page.
  • King Lear, Shakespeare. The manipulative old man, stripped clean, fascinates me.
  • Kristin Lavrandatter, Sigrid Undset. For years I’ve said “Someday I’ll read this again.”
  • The Drowned and the Saved, Primo Levi. The camp’s water pipe remains unforgettable.
  • The Lemon Tree, Sandy Tolan. I missed too much of the Palestinian-Israeli history the first time around.
  • Thrall, Natasha Tretheway. I’ll make sure I have the art piece next to each poem.

Returning

Over the holidays I read Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, beautifully illustrated by Robert Ingpen. I read the story aloud from the beginning “Bah, humbug!” to the ending, “It was always said of him that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge.” How often have I savored this book, finding new surprises hidden in the language? Looks as though I have my 2017 New Year’s Resolution ready. On January 1st, I will list ten familiar writings to read again. Perhaps de Maupassant’s “The Necklace” or Faulkner’s Light in August, Freeman’s Corduroy or some of Grimm’s Fairytales. Will my memory of “being hooked” prove true even now? I plan to find out.