Monday, March 31, 2014

A Blazon to Quinn-Doggy

What, exactly, you may ask, is a blazon?

A blazon is a poetic form, first appearing by the French poet Clement Marot during the 16th century.

It started out as a poetic catalogue, which lists or analyzes the virtues or attributes of a woman by defining her admirable features, and comparing her body parts (from the hair down) to something beautiful or precious.

You know, the cheesy stuff like "there is a garden in her face, where roses and white lilies grow...she has lips like coral, teeth like pearls, and hair like spun gold."

The poet deftly uses simile and hyperbole to describe a woman's physical features; regardless of how deft and romantic , it still sounds cheesy to me.

Why, even Shakespeare had it in his right mind to turn blazons into this: "wouldn't she be ugly, monstrous even, if her breasts were really "globes", her lips "cherries"? And "my mistress eyes are nothing like the sun, if snow be white, why then her breasts are dun." 

But the blazon form has changed over the centuries. Now it is a line-by-line use of words to describe, in obvious and even obtuse ways, not only a person but inanimate items, like a mountain, a doorstep, a rock. 

Here is a blazon by Miriam Sagan, from her book, The Widow's Coat, about her husband who died too soon:

My husband in stubble, zen priest in a nicotine patch
My husband by the open grave with a handful of dirt
My husband the Jew, bleeding from uclers
My husband in ivory beads carved into skulls
A man with designer sunglasses, speeding tickets, the collected works of Han Shan
Of weight loss, skinny Auschwitz, whose new name is colitis
Whose other name means water course in Japanese
Whose name was taken from the western sycamore tree
Whose original name was changed on Ellis Island
Who began to vomit the day I kissed him
My husband who buys one pair of boots per lifetime
Who loses forty pounds, whose wrists make me hysterical, who molts, 
parakeet or polar bear
My husband who swam without his glasses towards a horizon marked by a red tanker
Who stood up and hemorrhaged rust, who wrote his initials in blood
Who coached me in childbirth, who owed me fifty dollars, who gave me a mushroom
Who moved the sprinklers, who cut up the counter with a carving knife
Who crossed his legs and sat down
Whose name was raven and anemia and something else secret
An internal organ shaped like Minnesota
Shadow, skeleton, moth owl
Sitting on a cache of eggs in the dark, city sitting on its own skyline
Empire State Building, Arc de Triomphe, Coit Tower
This curve of the world lit up by expensive 
Electricity I call husband.

The following is a blazon I wrote about my dog, Quinn:

Quinn, the Eskimo dog
who jumps for joy, drags voles from under snow
nibbles innocently on counter food, then looks up and says, "What?"
Quinn who noses plastic bags
thunder pads on ice who hates moving water
who never learned to walk or stay in one place
who sprints from wall to wall, dirtball 
an eagle eye, who roams neighborhoods chases coyotes
and if he could, would Tweet every known dog on earth
to cop a smell to chase and mount and strut his ware
Quinn alpha Quinn rabbit hops in mid air, who
chose the colors gray and sable, black
who won't be leashed, won't give slack
Quinn, the champion were he to race, ten years
going on two, he howls like wolves do, true to 
husky culture, lore
Obsessed with motion, his altar miles of space
feathers, bones, and stones he'll dig a hole to China

pull like a John Deere plow

help me skate, and even contemplate, Quinn
a curled ball within cabin walls

man's best friend and woman's too
who pokes his nose in thin fish and smoke
rarely reposed ready to go

whose scent is never hidden roving 
crashing through willow
frosted ears paws nose down under snow
                                                           yellow-eyed the root in canine-speak of
                                                           all that rises up, a squall
                                                           Quinn the silver bullet
                                                           Quinn, the mighty Eskimo
                                                           Quinn-doggy, the outlaw.

Monday, March 24, 2014


The snow kept falling and ice seized as

winter pressed dark and hard 

Exhaustion mounted 

layered high as the banks of a deep river

draining your strength, dry.

Though no consolation, some say there is beauty in the breakdown

and that great movement is gained the deeper you go.

I know. 

you didn't ask to go.  had

no desire to carry the world on the slate of your back

begging for slack.

would suffering slough off, peel away, shift into freedom


I will not say that your shattered world will make you stronger

I will not impose meaning where there may be none

I will just say that structure will return

that all possibilities are fleeting

that the water will become clear again, though leave a heavy trace.

Take no ownership of this trial

put your head on my shoulder and cry, knowing 

when things fall apart

they fall back together, again, and we are left

to ask nothing, but why.

Monday, March 17, 2014


          They say when you come to the end of your life
          your memory reaches back to those practices 
          and traditions you learned in childhood.

          I do not know if this is true. There were only three of us aboard.

          the pilot…a woman
          flying the double prop Caravan, a bush plane.

          behind my seat: a case of fuel oil, bales of straw
          for sled dog teams, Pampers for the village babies,

          squeezed in next to me: a Native man wearing a cowboy hat
          his hatband a string of ivory beads

          carved into the head of a raven or bear.

          I twiddle a pen between my fingers
          watch the land and sea-caps drop away.

          Did I remember to bring my bathing suit, so I can
          take a steam at night with the women?

          they are modest in New Stuyhawk, though
          I don’t mind being naked.

          slow roll, pitch and dive.
          grip my pen, swallow
          hard, hard into the belly.

          a big hand is pushing
          down on us

          we can’t climb, can’t
          find calm air

          long slow breathing helps, with the

          I am not a religious person, but
          it is time to pray now

          the air is angry.

          open my book. look.
          an orchid is pressed there

         lean down and smell it
         one last time.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Be Good and You Will be Lonesome

On a visit to my brother's home in North Carolina, I came across this photo of my mom and a couple of her sisters; I don't know who took the photo or when it was taken (perhaps early 1940's); so much of my mom's Polish immigrant story has been buried deep in the memories of her now-deceased relatives. But I'm guessing this is sometime after the second World War, and my mom (second from left) is being teased by her friends (one is pulling up her skirt) and the girls are being silly, laughing and having a great time together. There is a beautiful spontaneity and joi de vivre in their expressions. I imagine a very tight bond was formed among the neighborhood girls at a time when brothers and fathers were coming back home to their families from the hellfire of war. 

I was so focused on my mom that I missed the young girl in the top right hand corner of the photo; my first thought went to Mark Twain's quote: Be good and you will be lonesome

But then I wondered beyond that simplification. The girl appears sad and introspective; maybe she was too frightened to join in on the exuberant fun the other girls exhibited. The more I looked, the more I wondered about her; how did her life develop over the years; did she live an ordinary, pedestrian life marked by the usual joys and tragedies of simply being human? 

Black and white photos like this one are at once provocative and vividly memorable. I love seeing my mother as a young girl, before the concerns for her family and children took center stage. There is a story here, told in the absence of color, that is deeply affecting. 

A story that parallels my own in a way: growing up in a Michigan suburb with tight neighborhood friends; spending most of our time outdoors exploring streets beyond our own, climbing trees, riding bikes, playing games. Growing into self-awareness, and expanding that self-awareness beyond those in our circle of friends, to others on the sidelines who may have been too frightened or too shy to take part.

                                "Baltic Sea" (Sutkus)

I became fascinated with the work of Antanas Sutkus, a renowned Lithuanian black and white darkroom photographer born in 1939 (he still eschews digital). His series People of Lithuania is a continuing body of work started in 1976 to document the changing life and people of Lithuania. 

"I know the ordinary man; he is close to me," Sutkus is quoted as saying.

The excitement of seeing in the darkroom, for the first time, a white sheet of paper turn into an image was unforgettable and drove Sutkus to claim photography as his life's work. For him, taking pictures of conventional informality was "warming"; after working a short time as a photojournalist, he intuited a style of his own, leaving much open to the viewer's interpretation, though strongly anchored in historical time.


Sukus reports he discovered himself through the art of photography. He accumulated a large personal library, following the expressions of Andre Kertesz, Diane Arbus, Robert Frank and others. He collected many photographic books found in antique book stores in Moscow as well as in Germany and Poland. 

Perhaps this photo of the girl and a goat's head best exemplifies his work in the rural areas of Lithuania, where living day to day meant the raising and killing of animals for sustenance. 

We are looking inside this young girl's life as she looks out the window, revealing a cold reality and perhaps dire set of circumstances, but again, Sukus leaves it up to the viewer to develop her own interpretation. What is compelling are the two sets of eyes looking straight at the viewer, unifying the idea that living a life gives way to taking a life.

Lastly, take a look at Sutkus' kinetic photograph of philosopher and novelist, Jean Paul Sartre, pushing into a headwind, perhaps, or deep in thought on the subject of existentialism and the human condition; just one of many subjects that captivated the mind of this most fascinating man.

Jean Paul Sartre

"It is shocking to see how easily snow falls outside the window..." 

...this uttered by Sutkus in reference to how long and hard he works, day and night, with an irritated brain that sometimes cannot find rest. 

In his later years, he writes how he would like to distance himself from unnecessary work and action and just rest in a simple state of being, without so much "doing." 

If there is any secret to Sutkus' long-standing success as a photographer, it would be in his easy, unadorned quote:

"You just have to love people."

Monday, March 3, 2014

On the Streets of Portland

    The Desert Room, 1950's Portland

There are many reasons to dig Portland; the first being it is only a 3.5 hour flight from Anchorage, so when you live in the middle of hicksville, PDX can brighten your weekend in a painless hop down the north Pacific coast. 

The reason we're here: to watch a live concert of our favorite band, Walk Off The Earth. It's amazing when a bunch of young people get together and just "click" with incredible talent (and they did it their own way, via the Internet, until Columbia Records figured they couldn't have orchestrated the same reach of 300 MILLION followers on U-Tube). 

I just love how technology is literally changing the face of the earth; democratizing the playing field of artists, musicians, and wannabes of all stripes and colors. Lucky for us. WOTE plays dozens of covers far better than the original artists, dare I say. And the only female band member, Sarah Blackwood, is an amazing singer/songwriters in her own right.

But back to Portland. Here is one (small) take on the "city of roses." 

We are staying at the McMenamins Crystal Hotel, a historic landmark built in 1911 that has seen many incarnations over the years, from a glove factory to an automobile tire store to a bath house and nightclub to a hotel. Lots of stories sprung from this place as everyone from jazz connoisseurs to Portland's so-called underworld stayed and played here. After the 1905 World's Fair, everybody wanted to be in Portland, including prominent businessmen, politicians and best of all, musicians. 

The walls of the hotel are covered with original artwork; each room inspired by a song or performance from the Crystal Ballroom's past 100 years. Colorfully painted murals and headboards anchor the rooms; deeply-hued walls and blue velvet drapery give it a "back in time" vibe when rock musicians, shady politicians and ladies-of-the-night roamed the halls. Over the years, the Crystal stage has been graced by the likes of Rudolph Valentino, the Grateful Dead, the Kingsmen, Black Eyed Peas, Lionel Hampton, and too many others to name. 

Plus right across the street from the Crystal Hotel is the infamous Powell's Books where you can peruse the shelves for an entire weekend and still not cover the enormity of its literary offerings.

             (Our room was Patti Smith-themed; notice the photos of "the boss" in the painting)

All the rooms have paintings of musicians, and the words from their songs written on the walls, even in the bathrooms.

And once you wrestle back the heavy velvet drapery, large windows afford views of the bustling city streets below. There's nothing quite like downtown Portland. It's iconic, kitschy, modern and a throw-back all rolled into one. 

And yes, it is sooo Portlandia. As I soaked in the 100 degree saltwater pool at the hotel, I noted 8 out of 10 people were touchingly tattooed; everyone stood out, and no one stood out in that there was plenty of body art to capture my immediate attention and hold it for a long while. 

Here are a few more paintings that graced the walls:

                                Neil Young; Buffalo Springfield

                                Lucinda Williams

And I thought you'd enjoy more of Portlandia...

                               Drag shows and...recycling, hahaha (I'm still laughing)

                                I guess you can find truth here...for real, but probably not for free.

And lastly, the reason we ventured to Portland in the first place. A great concert by Walk Off the Earth at the Crystal Ballroom. Because Husband just got a partial knee replacement and he was gimping along on crutches, they put us in the front row balcony of VIP! Wow, that was unexpected and turned out to be perfect. The band was fantastic...every single person in that ballroom sang along with "Little Boxes" and "Red Hands".  Dads had kids on their shoulders to get a better view; twenty-somethings drank their beers and cheered, 60-somethings drank their beers and cheered. We loved it. Every minute of WOTE and the downtown streets of Portland.