Thursday, January 16, 2020

For SFMoMA's Open Space: A Paper Person

New post up at SFMoMA's Open Space, first of four as columnist-in-residence. The old world meets the same old, same old; American history, etc. You can also find here a piece I wrote for Open Space's "Interwoven" last spring, "Liberty and Luxury." 

Though this new piece isn't an excerpt from Wite Out, my forthcoming book, it does address some things explored in that book and its prequel, The Public Gardens: Poems and History (2011). #Dorchester Days, #EmmettTill, #JamesBaldwin, #FannyHowe, #BernadetteDevlin, #RoevWade, #BrownvBoard, #TheSoilingofOldGlory, #ToniMorrison, #archives, #notebooks, #collages, #IrishAmericans, #ItalianAmericans, #racism . . .

From Old Notebooks

Sunday, July 7, 2019

New chapbook, DARK WHITE, published this week


Does the rain have a mother?
Who made the drops of dew?
Out of whose womb came the ice?
She is hardened against her young ones
As though they were not hers.
The face of the deep is frozen.

Cover photo: Anonymous photographer, Palermo, 1924. 

     Friends who do not fail us
     Mary in our hour of
     despair. Take not
     away from me the small fires
     I burn in the memory of love.
           -JOHN WIENERS
     The maiden language all over.

My chapbook, DARK WHITE, will be published by Omertà this month. This little book includes the title piece, "Dark White," "Small Square" (ars poetica), "Feminine," "My Mystic," "My Mary,"  "Begin in Blue," "Words Looking for a Street," and "In My Girlish Days" (all of which have been published in little magazines, some of which can be found elsewhere on this blog). "My Mary" is an erasure+ of pages from The Book of Job (from a wet Bible I found in the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans, two years after Hurricane Katrina). 

I doubt that Omertà ("Omertà, as practiced by the Mafia: A Code of silence about criminal activity and a refusal to give evidence to the authorities") has ever published a book more relevant to its name. Thanks to Les Gottesman for adding my work to a list that includes chapbooks by Joanne Kyger, Diane di Prima, Donna De La Perriere, Denise Newman, and many other writers I admire. 

DARK WHITE is a small sampler of work from the full-length memoir with poems, WITE OUT, that Hanging Loose Press will publish in the spring of 2020. I’m extremely grateful to Robert Hershon, Mark Pawlak, Dick Lourie, and Donna Brook for making a home for a manuscript that was orphaned after the death of our friend and my first publisher, Bill Corbett.

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

"Liberty and Luxury" essay at SFMoMA's Open Space

Last week SFMoMA's Open Space published my essay, 
Liberty and Luxury, in their Interwoven special issue.

You can read it here

Thanks to Gordon Faylor and Claudia La Rocco 
for brilliant collaboration, editing, and design.

 "She tells me what happens to fabric when you put it in your mouth (saliva dissolves rayon, but strengthens linen). Says that if you’re cutting and sewing sequined fabric, be sure to wear goggles to protect your eyes. And never set polyester on fire. Once, she says, a customer came into the store and asked for silk orgasma. You can see how that would happen here — this place inspires lust."

Sunday, April 7, 2019



Holy Week

      A song of degrees, of pilgrimage, as in the Psalms of David

My brothers all have died,
the boys I held when they were small,
when I was small,
the boys I fed and shoved.

Should I lie down with them and keep them warm
or step over them to live?

Or should I crawl across their bodies in pilgrimage
the way my grandmother climbed the concrete steps to the shrine
on her knees, with me one step behind her at her elbow,
her pocketbook swinging at my face
every time she took a step—

In the parlor of her apartment she had a tapestry of the Roman Colosseum
and a crucifix and a picture of Pope John the 23rd
and houseplants in coffee cans on the windowsills—
marvetta, coleus, basilico.

One year after her death at 92, I went to Rome for the first time.
It was Holy Week and all the stores were closed—chiuso, chiuso, chiuso.
I was six weeks pregnant.
At the Colosseum I kept stumbling over imaginary statuary,
petrified feet and hands in the grass.
Who died here?
I kneeled to vomit in the weeds. 
Fata da forta, my grandmother used to say. Make yourself strong.

I walk around the bodies of my brothers,
arranging their limbs, tracing the contours of their faces
I will remember the clean smell of the grass that grew at the Colosseum
and in the cracks in the steps to the shrine
and I will write about it in a book.


Today, April 7th, is my brother Joseph Norton's birthday. He died of AIDS in New York City on October 2, 1986. He was twenty-four. He would have been 57 if he had lived. It's also Billie Holiday's birthday. 

This poem is from my 2011 book, The Public Gardens: Poems and History. In Lent I always think of my grandmother and the crosses she'd weave from palms every year on the Sunday before Easter. And I think of my brother. 

@AIDSMemorial kindly reposted my tribute to Joseph today. You may read it here. And you may visit his memorial at the National AIDS Memorial Grove in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, a beautiful place. 

Friday, August 10, 2018

For Bill Corbett, friend, publisher, poet, critic, memoirist, and teacher

                                           October 11, 1942-August 10, 2018

"We love to be with us."
      -- Bill Corbett, "Columbus Square Journal"

Begin in Blue

The blue of her robe . . . reads above all as a flat silhouetted shape—a deep infinite midnight blue, large enough to lose ourselves in . . . this very dark blue creates unparalleled effects . . . almost of hypnotic trance; it is as though we are being invited to worship not so much the Madonna as the Blue. - Timothy Hyman, Sienese Painting

I’m reading John Wieners' chapbook, Pressed Wafer, upstairs at one of the giant tables in the Bancroft when a visiting scholar asks for help with research in the archives where I work. And that’s how I learn that, in 1882, landscape architects at the University of California designed a eucalyptus grove for the Berkeley campus (a grove through which I walk once a week). Tasmanian blue gum trees were planted as a windbreak for the cinder running track. They grew and grew, non-natives making themselves at home. To those who’d never seen a eucalyptus tree, the grove smelled like cough drops.

Wieners was a Boston boy. Later, in San Francisco he wore blue eye shadow and sold heroin packed in matchboxes the size of a palette of eye shadow—false eyelashes, glued one above the other on his forehead—cockeyed Caucasian—eyelids the color and shape of the leaves of the blue eucalyptus near the track where the beautiful athlete, also a Joseph, also a John, breathing hard after a sprint, does not look up at the plane from Boston passing over the track.
Boys in California know nothing of priests in long skirts shoveling snow, winters invented by Emily Dickinson.
The Blacks and the blues,
the grove as artifice
In Berkeley, Robert Creeley recorded a version of “A Poem for Painters”:
            “With want of it”—
            “despair is on my face”—
            “showered by the scent of the finish line”—
The golden boys protected by tall trees
blue blood—blue eucalyptus—blue-lined paper
“beginning with violet. I begin in blue”
“My middle name is Joseph”
Sanskrit “vaka”
“wat” (temple)
“grove” (copse, thicket)
A coppice—spinney—brake—for the broken

A grove: a stand of trees with little or no undergrowth—So here’s the floor, all clear and still, a thicket—“cold hell”
  Grave   Love   Leaves
Torn tickets in the eucalyptus leaves, pants in the trees
Who walks through the grove in winter rain? Pants decomposing in the decomposing leaves— pants and a dog
This was after the picturesque era, before Free Speech— “Books in the running brooks,” books in the trees
Strawberry Creek roars with the snowmelt coming down from Truckee. The train back to Boston leaves at 3:00.
Across the “enormous” country—passing a car filled with Beats, ascending, going where Beats don’t go.
Climbing into the mountains he leans out the window, his ears pasted back like a dog’s—like a dog, submissively free— submission is different when there’s no force.
In the Rockies they close the windows now because so many travelers have been decapitated leaning out to see the trees—but the windows were open then, so he looked—looked—looked—

For more about Bill and his work, check out Patrick Pritchett's essay, and listen to Jackson Braider's PRX interview with Bill. 

August 17, 2018: Here's Fanny Howe's portrait of Bill (and Bill's Paris Review interview with her); and here Jim Behrle and other writers remember Bill (at WBUR).

August 19, 2018: "There's no one I learned more from, not only about poetry, but also about how to live and how to be a good person,' said Fred Moten, a poet and critic who teaches at NYU."  Boston Globe obituary

Here you can read Thomas Devaney's Rain Taxi interview with Bill. 

And: "'Every day is poetry day': Remembering Bill Corbett," Sean Cole / pretty radio / WBUR

You can find books that Bill wrote and published at Small Press Distribution and at Pressed Wafer.

"Already fall's harsher / light cuts blown / leaf shadows into / sharp patterns. / There are fewer mornings / attending to the all / important loss column." - William Corbett, "September Song"

"Begin in Blue" was published in Ambush, a literary magazine, in 2014. 

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

For my poet (from Wite-Out; originally published in Hanging Loose magazine)

My Mystic

My mystic isn't old enough to be my mother.
She yells “No!” when she laughs at my jokes.
She can’t keep anything down and doesn’t drink, except for whiskey, wine, and water.
My mystic is her father’s daughter.
My mystic has her own monk, a hermit who had his own monk.
Out on a boat on the Atlantic with a friend, tossed around, my mystic screams with laughter when they don’t drown.
My mystic has an early edition of Proust in a closet with her sheets and towels. Any house sitter could steal it, but no one does.
My mystic picks at her croissant in the dark, Swann’s Way in her lap.
My mystic wants to know all about my men, so I tell her. She groans, and then we talk about the new Pope. She thinks he has a humble face.
From her apartment we can see an orange neon sign across the Cambridge green. At dusk it tints the dirty snow. My mystic used to run in and out of that hotel lobby with her best friend, stealing candy.
Now children crawl all over my mystic. In the pockets of her vest (the color of their red toboggan) they find hard candy.
My mystic is a sister. Is lilacs. Is toast.
My mystic has already bought her plot.
My mystic is both the crone and the infant in the fairy tale.
My mystic is a fairy. She flies everywhere but leaves no carbon footprint.
My mystic has a device. Children text my mystic from L. A., Dubai, Oxford, Paris.
My mystic might have been named Affliction or Delight if born at sea in 1620.
Or, two centuries later, out of Cobh and mad in steerage: perhaps Theresa.
My mystic has lips the color of a rose named for the Cathars, who had but one sacrament: consolation.

Friday, July 6, 2018

The temple bell stops

but the sound keeps coming

out of the flowers. 

                                Basho, 1644-1694 (tr. Robert Bly)