The other day, I was walking with a friend and our dogs on the far fringes of West Oakland and came upon the lively mural pictured here. My friend, who has long been busily restoring buildings in the neighborhood, brick by brick, board by board, told me that these murals shield what remains of a lively museum that was once on this site -- the dream of his friend Marcel who has since relocated to New Orleans. The only actual building on-site, an ancient little one-story one-room house slipped between two panels of the imagined street of bustling shops, he tells me, was moved from the opposite side of the street when it was threatened with oblivion. This building, perhaps the oldest building in West Oakland, was once abandoned but now survives as we all survive . . . protected by memory and dreams, grounded but ready to fly.
On that morning of the long walk through recent West Oakland history, I returned home and then sat very still for quite some time, elbows on my drawing table, fingers stretched across eyes, thinking of what is created and left behind, what crumbles, what remains . . . the through-lines describing the limits of birth and death . . . and all that expands between. I thought about the great generosity of these paintings -- and all street art -- offered so freely to those who pass. I thought about all the hope that breathes in West Oakland -- the gardens, the art, the cheerful hellos -- in spite of struggle.
What we give, what we keep, what we leave behind.
Once upon a time, I came close to abandoning a decade's worth of my own paintings stashed for an even longer time in a tin-roofed desert warehouse, but then rallied and retrieved them, damaged but more or less intact. Decades earlier, I did abandon all my sculptures. Too much weight. Maybe some survive -- who knows -- those I gave away might still be available to eyes and hearts. Often that which we give to others, lives; that which we stash away and hide, dies.
As I sat at my drawing table, listening to John Coltrane with my thumbs pressed to my eyes, I thought of all the stories and poems of my own that remain trapped in files, uncollected and unpublished . . . and what that means . . . if anything. I recalled a small number of poems written during a rather difficult time in my life when I had been forced to deal with some intense internet 'bullying' that both affected my ability to work, to earn money, to be in the world. Even as that cowardly bullying cut my 'worldly' ties, I held fast to my creative heart and wrote.
I decided to paste a few of those poems into this blog -- as odd as they might be. When I wrote them, the very foundation of my world had cracked, and I was feeling quite alone, no longer sure whom I might trust. Nonetheless, I determined to remain close to beauty, to grace, to kindness. I didn't want to descend into the dark howling desperation clawing at the fringes of my life and did my best to ignore the miserable virtual nastiness of behind-the-scenes bullies. I set out instead to find an affordable home, putting one foot in front of the other, listening to the city, talking to trees, watching the sky. And while I searched, I wrote down words pushed through the open windows in my heart.
I have include these poems here not as commentary on the remarkable murals discovered on my recent walk and pictured here and not because I think they are 'gems,' but because of their obstinacy, a reminder to myself that that art creates life and that art can be made even in the worst of times . . . we all need to breathe . . . and breathe and breathe. Just breathe.
The poems stand, I hope, quietly respectfully to the side of the images as separate rhythms -- drums, strings or piccolo.
You decide. Or not.
Afternoon Tea with Bees and Bombs
Downstairs, an old woman, gray haired green eyed,
speaks of pastimes, carrots grown in backyards.
The boy nearby smokes clove cigarettes, breathes
symphonies, hardwired to LED lights
taped to his chest. A legless woman, blond,
complains of mud and frogs while clematis
bloom blue and wide on vines attached to drains –
two orange cats curl against an iron pot
awash with moss and forest ferns. Beauty –
soon smoked out by evening fog. I can’t stop
grinding down my teeth. Yesterday, driving
north through thirty-five miles of acrid smoke,
heat eclipsed dry hills, screaming traffic noise.
I melted faster than the grasses burned.
Now, I’m hammered steel, pollen etched, extreme.
Tomorrow, rockets explode stars to clouds –
White gold – what it is to be disbelieved.
. . . . Ballantine, 2008
A stray dog runs the stairs near waterfalls
with a stride so wide, I hear his hoof beats –
see him shake his mane.
A Buddhist monk comes down at slower speed –
a six-foot scroll painted under redwood trees
rolled beneath her arm.
Below neatly pruned roses bloom, and here
on this waterless slope, dry weeds tango –
red spikes and white rounds.
I’m hanging tight to god’s rope, trapped inside
falling water, rolled flat out to circles,
chained inside the heart.
This absence of doves, such a lack of bees
can’t matter. Living behind barbed wire
is not an option.
. . . Ballantine, 2008
An End to War
Morning glories at dawn, cobalt circles
on a flat pink wall. Commotion below.
An ex-Navy seal talks loudly of dolphins
blinking as light curves across sonar screens.
He drinks gin at 10 a.m., toasts the girl
with neon pink hair slashed above her eyes –
She answers with tales of roller-blading
on Ecstasy, snorting lines in Home Depot.
The plastic drainpipes (she says) in Plumbing
sang songs as fine as fishnet catching light.
When she tells him a mermaid sat astride
her bass fiddle, mouth agape to sea sounds,
he laughs and clouds of dragonflies rise up.
. . . . Ballantine, 2008
Yesterday, the washing machine caught fire.
The smoke alarm didn’t sound.
We put the fire out.
Now, a small bird builds a nest
of twigs and dryer lint, tucked
into the morning glory vine –
and at last – a silver-spangled
maple leaf, chemical orange.
Moths singing soprano through the night.
This missile could reach targets
as far away as Jupiter.
. . . . Ballantine, 2008