All About My Mother (Unabashedly So)

The Annual Qasida*
The house is almost
without personality

A box without memories
a campsite that could be anywhere

Memories of a lover
that have no where to attach

Nothing to attach
to like a starfish in search of a wharf

I survey the ocean
that my mother so loved

From the cliff on which
she so often walked or sat

Rabbits scurry
into the brush

Two white seagulls
perch on two posts along the road

It begins to rain
probably the first time in a year

But not enough to release
the scent of sage

What if I had left Paul Klee
on the walls

Or your diplomas
sloppily hung

Would the house be more you
thus providing me with the excuse to stay

But actually you are gone
except for the cemetery

And the places you have been
which still hold some energy

Yet and yet
This is your world

Not mine really
though I love many of the same things

Playing music on your radios
listening to your news programs

Sitting on your toilets
showering in your showers

Using your washer and dryer
dishwasher, fridge, and all the rest

Something is missing this time
your strong presence

The embers glow but faintly
in the campfire

Perhaps it is time
to return to the mountains

Where I belong and leave the ocean
to which you belonged and continue to belong
__________
*A qasida is a pre-Islamic form of poetry created by nomadic tribes in North Africa. The poet comes to an abandoned campground, falls into a reverie, thinks of his true love, and praises both his patron and his camel. The genre was popular with both Muslim and Jewish poets.

Conference of the Birds
What was the conference of the birds?
1A sufi allegory by Attar?
Yes and no.
2Maybe a reference to the twelve apostles of the Bible?
Uh-uh: There were way more than twelve.
3Something about a meeting of the Shiite imams?
Definitely not.
4A conclave to elect the next pope?
Getting even colder.
5Poets at a slam?
No way, Jose.
6Politicians in Washington?
That’s birdbrains, dummy.
5Qawwali singers practicing for eternity?
Now you’re on the right track.
4A powwow of mothers against war?
Getting warm.
3Peacemakers at a middle school?
Very warm.
2Grandmothers on the march against guns?
Turn up the heat.
1Pelicans, gulls, herons, and kestrels leading the way to heaven?
Almost there.
0Songbirds, seabirds, and raptors celebrating the life of my mother?
Yes—that’s it!

Hiroshige: Thirty-Six Views of Mt Fuji–click here to visit poems inspired by my trip to Japan in Fall 2013 and by the remarkable woodblock prints of Ando Hiroshige (1797-1859).

Hokusai: Forty-Six Views of Mt Fuji–click here to read poems inspired by my remarkable trip to Japan in the fall of 2013, during which I spent much time in cemeteries, visiting museums with the woodblock art of Japan’s most celebrated artist, Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849), and of other artists; encountering museums and memorials to haiku poets; and of course drinking a fair amount of sake.

I Do Not Understand Death
I do not understand death
Do you?

I am not crying for my mother
Are you crying for yours?

It is not that I am numb or in denial
Or don’t care

Or only care about
The things

I always thought I would live
In your house after you were gone
Returning to California
In a blaze of color

What will I do?
Where will I live?
What should I do
What could I do?

I do not understand death
Do you?

I Have Sought You (a Jewish liturgical poem)
Boy have I sought you
All the days of my life with an intensity
To outmatch the sun’s
Yet till now have never found you

Even though I have studied the desert sands,
The ocean’s waves and high mountain trails,
Although I thought I saw you
Among the prairie flowers and swampy rushes

And then one morning
Searching the airy atoms
That permeate the early-morning breeze
Flowing through the window and across my nostrils—

There I swear I found you
At long last in the very breath
Going in and out of my body
There at last I found you

Really, whom I have sought all my life
In earth’s every faraway corner,
Near and far
In the heavens and beyond

I now watch you
Watching me in a simple
Artless way, propelled by something beyond,
Rising and falling on our own

Clouds high above
Lined with
Celestial visions
And lost music

Early, before the sun rises, I listen
To the robins and jays,
You, my soul, you
My breath, just You. . . .

Kinah: You Sit Alone on Tishah b’Av 5773–a Jewish liturgical poem with not-so-subtle references to my mother.

The Lilacs
every day i listen to the lilacs
singing to me from a nostalgic past
reminding me of my mother
and what will never again bea

i water them with my tears
and watch them expand and explode
into a wreath of scent, coloring
the whole atmosphere with bittersweet fragrance

i lapse into remembrance of things past
though not details, only sadness
to overwhelm the beginning of my day
or the end, whenever i listen

to the lilacs opening their hearts
to what was and will never again bea
a romantic age of innocence
that of course never was the way it is imagined

i listen to the lilacs by beketova and rachmaninoff
played on piano and sung
by a hundred famous pianists and musicians
and read the translations

nothing however can capture the stinging
of the tears pouring out the corners of my eyes
whose only fragrance is the fading scent
of memories of bygone, better days

memories of a beautiful mother
singing to me when i was a child
rubbing my back when i was sick
comforting me when i was hurt

as her mother did
bringing her oysters from the store
in philadelphia on the way home
from the sweatshop

mine baked me mandelbrot
even when i was an adult
and analyzed the texture, the taste,
the moisture content as only a mother will do

searching for the perfect oyster
or mandelbrot
for her only son as only a Jewish mother
even a liberated one ahead of her time will do

Mother Is a Bird
Everywhere I look are birds
Mother’s everywhere

A cemetery stirs up thoughts of mother
Look! A pretty bird

Every bird I see
I think of mother

Every bird I see
It is my mother

How can she be so many
In so many places?

Will I always think of her
When I see a bird?

Mother loved birds
I really love my mother
Therefore I love birds

Mother has returned as a bird
As all birds

My mother is reborn
As all birds, everywhere

Everywhere I see birds
I see mother

Look over there
A flock of white herons

Mother has multiplied
In the Kyoto river

In the sky, a flock of ravens
I mother’s body flying free

Kites–birds of prey overhead
Now, mother: Leave the songbirds alone

Mother is now a bird.
Mother is every bird I see.

See that bird. See it run.
See my mother run.

Crow in painting. You are not real.
Crow in real tree. You are my mother.

I dare not go to India again.
Each temple, each mosque, each tomb

Each has a conference of birds
Thousands of birds.

That would be too much.
But I am going anyway

All day it has been raining.
No birds in sight.

Mother is waiting
For the sun to come out.

Two ducks swim quietly–
My mother and stepfather.

Are you happy, my mother?
What will you teach me today?

I dream flocks of birds darken the sky. Today
Is a dark day thinking of those flocks of mother.

Pairs of birds that mate for life
Squabble and ruffle their feathers,

Then swim away
As if nothing happened.

I know I will see at least one bird
Today, reminding me of mother.

What do you do when every time you see a bird
You think of your mother and cry?

I walked through the Japanese cemetery by day and by night
Five times in four days. I saw no birds.

Protective Healing Prayer
Precious mother, may God bless and heal you, spare you your worst fears, give you courage, and lead you gracefully through your years of wisdom. Evil spirits, ifrits, pebble charms, howlers, and other malevolent forces (you know who you are!)—stay away! Self-doubt, rage, terror, fear, infirmity, foolishness, isolation, madness, indecision, confusion, isolation, stubbornness—unless for the sake of growth or illumination—flee, keep your distance, be banished. Break the power of the wicked and let these enemies be shamed and confounded. To you, love, acceptance, praise, sacrifice, strength, compassion, beauty, grace, peace, and safety. Be these on your head and in your heart. God will make you live securely in your solitude. Let God deal kindly with you and give you courage. change your grief into dancing.

Qasida for My Mother*
Each time I see you
A little less of you is there

Sure the bulbs I planted thirty years ago
Still blossom every spring

Sure the squirrels and mockingbirds wait patiently
For the unsalted peanuts

And you—are you still there?
I see your body sitting or lying mostly in sleep

Your eyes sometimes open
Sometimes you make a sound

Try to speak
Appear to hear

But mostly you do not
Recognize me or let on

Just as I really do not
Recognize you or let on

The space you occupy is still warm
Like my campsite the day after

Other visitors
Have camped there

The stars still shine overhead
Clear as when I was young

In the distance ocean waves
Permeate the late-night stillness surrounding you

I come near you, watching, waiting,
Your breathing familiarly regular

I come on foot for my visits
Bringing only myself

Later, after I fall asleep
You sometimes talk in my dreams

As you once did recounting
When I ask how you’re feeling

What you did for example
Searching for elusive cactus wrens

Or spotting an American kestrel
Hovering above the cliffs

Coming across a fossil shell
In one of the canyons

Counting whales
With your friends at Point Vicente

In the middle of the night I awaken
Suddenly check on you

Nothing has changed
From evening

So I return to bed
Close my eyes in a reverie

In which I see you
Again as you were

All everything has come from you
In whatever form earthly godly saintly sinfully

I cannot help feeling this way
Even alone under the stars

Finding myself
In a place strange yet not unfamiliar

Poking the embers of a faint
Fire that still glows

But day by day
Grows ever fainter
________________
*A qasida is a pre-Islamic form of poetry created by nomadic tribes in North Africa. The poet comes to an abandoned campground, falls into a reverie, thinks of his true love, and praises both his patron and his camel. The genre was popular with both Muslim and Jewish poets.

Qasida Para Madre*
I visit you in your garden frequently
On my journeys across the desert

Each time I see you
A little less of you is there

Sure the bulbs I planted thirty years ago
Still blossom every spring

Sure the squirrels and mockingbirds wait patiently in the backyard
For a handout of unsalted peanuts

Sure the junk mail, greeting cards, announcements of psychology seminars,
And statements from Kaiser Health Plan continue to pile up

But in truth the neighborhood feels increasingly
Like an extension of the vast Mojave desert I have to cross when I visit

And you—Are you still there?
Yes, I see your body sitting or lying mostly in sleep

Sometimes your eyes are open
Sometimes you make a sound or two

You do not seem to recognize me
Just as I really do not recognize you either

Though sometimes I am not sure
Of either

The space you occupy is still warm
Like a campsite the day after visitors have built a fire

The stars still shine overhead
With the same clarity with which they shone when I was young

In the distance the sounds of the ocean
Still permeate the late-night stillness surrounding you

I come near you, watching, waiting,
Your breathing as regular as always

Later, after I fall asleep
The dreams that emerge sometimes have you talking

As you once did, your face animated, your eyes twinkling,
As you recount your adventures searching out the elusive cactus wren

Spotting an American kestrel hovering above the Palos Verdes cliffs
Coming upon a fossil shell in one of the canyons

Or counting whales with your friends at the Point Vicente nature center
In the middle of the night I awaken suddenly

Check on you in the other room: Nothing there
Has changed from the evening before.

And so I close my eyes in a reverie
In which I see you as you were in the past

Intact, speaking, singing, dancing, walking, bending over your meal
With your face almost in the food so you could see what you were eating

All, everything, has come from you
In whatever form, earthly, godly, saintly, sinfully

I cannot help feeling this way
Even when I am alone under the stars

Finding myself in a place that is strange yet not unfamiliar
Poking the embers of a faint fire that still glows but by day

Growing fainter and fainter
__________
*A qasida is a pre-Islamic form of poetry created by nomadic tribes in North Africa. The poet comes to an abandoned campground, falls into a reverie, thinks of his true love, and praises both his patron and his camel. The genre was popular with both Muslim and Jewish poets.

Qasida to the Poet’s Mother*
wherever i travel in medieval jewish spain
i see ruins.

in back streets, behind the restored facades
piles of old bricks, crumbling walls

vacant lots near the art museums in barcelona
crumbling lintels on houses

graffiti on the train stations in the countryside

ruins of roman buildings on the hillsides
piles of rotten fish and vegetables grace the back of the markets

i have roamed a whole month and now,
weary from the adventure, lie down in front of charcoal

from a pilgrim’s old campfire
and begin to drift to asleep

hundreds, thousands, have passed here before
and stoked the flames, added to the charcoal

you can imagine their weary bones,
hungry stomachs, their spent horses if they were lucky enough to have horses

the sky is immeasurably clear
a planet and a star dominate the heavens

along with the crescent waning moon
feebly lighting the barren landscape by the side of the Rio Ebro

through my mind i run the thousands of pilgrims
who made the camino de samtiago their home for a summer

who were these people? aside from clothing, boots, bicycles,
and guidebooks were they that different from today’s pilgrims?

now, there, escaping into my hypnogic imagination
is one whom i have loved all my life

i cannot see her face clearly, but i know
who it is, instinctually. she is supine

on the other side of the fire, out of its glow,
and speechless. is she asleep too? in a coma?

Dead? stricken by some terrible disease?
she floats a little above the askes strewn around the dead fires.

there is no way of knowing what state she is in
or what goes on, if anything, in her mind or heart

she does not and cannot talk
and although her eyes are open does not appear to recognize me

possibly she cannot even see me, or if she does
does not let on that she does

i have not come on a horse
or a camel and do not have a patron

at least among the flesh and blood of this planet
now she fades into the smoke of a thousand other dreams

and memories, strange visions, swirling colorful images
some crystallizing as if seen through a powerful microscope

others as if seen through a kaleidoscope
still others hazy, occluded by too much distillate of the tempranillo

i salute you then, source
of inspiration, of imagination,

fountain of life, fons vitae, giver of dreams,
horseman of the poets, yoke

to which we attach our active imaginations
running like rivers through the wastelands of our ordinary minds
__________
*A qasida is a pre-Islamic form of poetry created by nomadic tribes in North Africa. The poet comes to an abandoned campground, falls into a reverie, thinks of his true love, and praises both his patron and his camel. The genre was popular with both Muslim and Jewish poets.

Suite for Mother–Poems based on my experiences in India before and after my mother died, and in Japan after she passed away.

The End of the World
That I will never see you again
Except in photographs
Is hard to accept

Just yet although I imagine
The day when I will have forgotten
To remember you

It was not as hard as I thought
To be on the other side of the earth
When you died or to return to bury you

Even now I am surprised
At a staid sort of sadness
That keeps me from sleep

And dreams about travel
In which you are never present
To which you never are witness

Once at the end of the “N” car
I heard a voice call to me
From where do you come, this strange sadness

And a melody I long ago forgot
In the dust bin of life-changing memories
Along with the cleansed-door perceptions

I cannot yet grasp that
I was not present when you died
And was not present much after

That everything I do is hard
And without purposeful direction
Like migrating birds that have drifted off course

From where do you come
You deep long sadness
Sung in a different time, remembered now?

My eyes twitch
My heart flutters
My guts do not digest

I cannot abide shallowness
Or callowness
Or people who cannot connect

Everywhere it is raining
Even when it is not supposed to
Or where it never does

I am stranded at the southernmost tip of India
Following the pilgrims dressed in black
Holding cloth bags of souvenir shells and oms

Two or three seas come together here
The sands are three colors
And the beggars lack legs

I try to reach the island
But each time am turned away
By rough seas

My mother just died
There, I said it
She will never return from her island

I want to rhyme but cannot
I want to close my eyes but cannot
I want to cry but cannot

Photographs face me but are unreal
I cannot reconcile before and after
Do not know whether your mind survived

This storm will pass, I suppose
So that one way I will reach the island
And greet the end of time

The way you did
When you simply stopped breathing
Something no one alive has ever been able to grasp.

The Hall of Lanterns
In Torodo Hall
In the famous Okunoin cemetery on Mt Koya in Japan
Ten thousand orange hanging lanterns
Are lit for the dead
Each a departed soul

All day a Buddhist monk chants sutras
To help them on their way
From individuality to totality
From being one special human being
To something for which

There is no word
Each day I think of you
As you grow more distant
I can still make out your face
And your voice

Sometimes addresses me
But you are far off
Your plaintive voice
Hard to separate from . . .
That word-forsaken something

In my grief
All ills are magnified
No one listens the way you did
Even now that you are
Gone, no one listens better

I enter the small temple in early morning
And am alone with the monk, the chanting,
And the hundred orange lanterns
One of which contains your soul
On its journey

At night the temple is closed
But outside a hundred more lanterns throw
Their orange light onto giant cedars
And the small tomb of the founder
Of the Buddhism practiced here

Who it is said is not dead
And so has been fed daily
For nine hundred years
Though no one has checked
To see if this is true

A few other people stick their heads
Through the temple doors
But do not stay, leaving
Me once again alone
With the priest and the hundred

Souls awaiting passage to wherever
They will be going
And meanwhile I converse
With my mother and the guardian
Deity who restrains her from reaching

Out to me disrupting her
Journey and me from reaching
Out to her thus
Disrupting her journey
After a while I leave

The way I came passing
The tombs of empresses, poets,
The founders of three
Other Buddhist sects, a stone that measures
Your sins, a water mirror that measures

Your life span, giant cedars that reach
Up almost into the heavens
Ancient, embracing
Me as I
Pass beneath their branches
7/26/14