HOMAGE TO GEORGE HERBERT

Throughout his life, George Herbert wrote religious poems characterized by a precision of language, a metrical versatility, and an ingenious use of imagery or conceits that was favoured by the metaphysical school of poets. Charles Cotton described him as a “soul composed of harmonies.”(Michael Schmidt, Poets on Poets essay on George Herbert)

HOMAGE TO GEORGE HERBERT (1593-1633)

“Listen sweet Dove to my song,
And spread your golden wings in me;
Hatching my tender heart so long,
Till it get wing and fly away with thee.”
— George Herbert

[Click to read in larger print]
Doves-1

Doves 2

HOMELESS IN SAN FRANCISCO

Homeless in San Franciso

1

.. . . this young man has the darkest circles under his eyes
of anyone I’ve ever seen . . . he appears to be in
his 20’s or 30’s,
apparently bewildered
as he stands at the intersection of Bush and Van Ness in
San Francisco on this mild Sunday morning;
his pants frayed at the cuffs,
his shirt worn-down,
his backpack dirty . . . I’m watching him while I sit by
the large window of Peet’s, enjoying jasmine tea,
a slice of BBQ chicken pizza
from nearby Whole Foods,
where my car is parked at California and Franklin; suddenly,
he has disappeared, likely having crossed Van Ness,
heading west
towards the plush
public park, around Bush, Gough and Larkin, where the paths
lead to a summit featuring million dollar views
surrounded by multi-million
dollar Pacific Heights homes.
And along eastern side of the park, on Gough is the Jung Institute,
where I used to attend lectures, but can no longer afford the fee.
Do they offer counseling
for the homeless?
Angel Island and Alcatraz visible in the Bay, further north of
the Golden Gate: Mount Tamalpais gleaming above the fog.
If I were homeless,
several secluded places
in the park for a nap . . . where would I go afterwards for a meal
on a Sunday? The Episcopal church on Gough may offer
hot meals during
weekdays, not weekends.
Who knows if this young man’s familiar with the city’s resources?
Should I have stopped sipping tea, put away Donne’s poems,
rushed outside to offer
cash to the young man, or
suggest he check out the Christian Science church on Van Ness,
though unlikely they run a soup kitchen on Sunday, but
I didn’t do anything,
didn’t come to him before
he vanished; though earlier, I gave a dollar to a guy at the 101 exit
to 9th Street and Larkin;
and yesterday a dollar
to a man at the Saratoga-Sunnyvale 280 exit in Cupertino, walking
distance to Apple headquarters near Stevens Creek Boulevard,
where, before groceries at
nearbyWhole Foods, I enjoy
reading poetry in a café, where IT guys gather to discuss projects.
Isn’t a dollar for a homeless person, similar to a drop of water
during a terrible drought
as now in California . . .
Is writing about this homeless young man a balm to assuage
my guilt for doing nothing, while several friends work tirelessly
for social-justice causes . . .
Can poetry raise
consciousness of homeless men, women and children . . .
2.
. . . once or twice a year, when I was a child, Dad drove
from the Bronx Zoo through NYC’s Bowery back to Brooklyn,
inevitably a homeless man
would knock on our car window,
and I’d wonder if he was my great-grandfather, John Ball,
who, having lost his wealth in the stock market crash,
disappeared in despair . . .
though years later,
another legend surfaced in our family: that after his financial
loss, great-grandfather ran off with his wife’s best friend.
Was my mother the one
who told this version?
Whichever story is true, as a child I thought any homeless man
might be my great-grandpa. His sons, grandpa Reginald
and grand-uncle Howard
inherited some of their
father’s “baggage,” both held steady jobs at New York’s Home
Insurance company, yet grandpa liked gambling at cards,
maybe wanting to win back
money his father lost
in the stock market; while Howard, devoted to his mother,
converted to Catholicism, perhaps an attempt at atoning
for his father’s
abandoning the family.
Howard purchased a home in Brooklyn, offering it to his brother
Reginald and family,
on condition the children,
(my mother and her brother) attend Catholic schools, since
Howard’s hope: their conversion, a possible penance
“for the sins of the father,”
thus Howard’s will providing
$100,000 for the church’s missionary wing, the Propagation
of the Faith; unfortunately not donated to the Catholic Worker,
providing meals and shelter,
for the homeless in the Bowery.
3.
. . . my brothers and I grew up in a poor section of Flatbush,
a mixed neighborhood of recently arrived southern Blacks
and immigrant Irish,
Lott Street by Tilden Avenue,
three blocks from Sears and Macy’s; we all shopped at the local
Woolworth’s, A&P, Merkel’s meat market, Hunt’s Fish Store,
Tom McAnn’s, Fanny Farmers,
movies at Lowe’s King’s theater,
RKO Kenmore, Chinese take-out on Church Avenue, Brooklyn
buses, the IRT, BMT subways, public high school pools,
Easter outfits at Gimbel’s
bargain basement,
4th of July fireworks at Coney Island, summer camps sponsored by
the Herald Tribune Fresh Air Fund for disadvantaged city kids;
I loved Camp Oh-Neh-Tah,
mostly African-American
and Puerto Rican girls, everyone, everything equal, integrated
in cabins, games, hiking, swimming, camping; yet the counselors
predominantly white Protestants,
only two Black Baptists:
Miss Shirley, Miss Gwen, one Jewish counselor: Miss Colette,
and a single Catholic: a Miss Mary from NYC’s Hell’s Kitchen.
4.
. . . . at age eighteen, I entered the Maryknoll community,
for work among the poor in developing countries,
Latin America, Africa,
Asia, the Pacific Islands . . .
a focus fostering activism, “the corporal works of mercy,” relegating
“the arts” to the periphery, linked only to the liturgy, otherwise
an incidental pursuit
unlike the renaissance’s
intimacy of art and religion; modern times divorcing artistic
pursuit from political activism. How do poets flourish in
the midst of social-justice
activism. Why not rap?
Is it an age-old cliché: the writer as “outsider” no longer relevant?
Consider Facebook spreading the word about your work.
What every writer wishes,
even the famed Shelley
nearly lost hope, since his publisher put off publishing him, yet,
born to write, he rallied into the Light at the end . . .
5.
. . . my father longed to pursue art; yet left school to support
Nana and the family; afterall, she cared for him and his siblings
after their mother died,
. . . fortunately he found
clerical work at Equitable Life Insurance, where he met his future
wife, my mother, who had to leave high school, so help support
her family during
the Depression;
I never heard either Mom or Dad complain about their sacrifices;
never preaching to my brothers or me about what we “should do”
to help those in need;
uncomplaining, they
pursued simple things, like public beaches and parks, family
gatherings, visiting Nana, Aunt Muriel, grandma and grandpa,
faithful without fanfare,
their heroic unsung deeds . . .
6.
. . . when the current pope Francis reaches out in a crowd to
touch a needy person, I remember my father and mother’s
challenges, limitations,
devotions, legends
of our family history; who knows if the man knocking
on the window of our car in the Bowery was
great-grandfather?
. . . what we did,
or did not know, or do, is unknown. Francis calls Catholics to
practice the spiritual and corporal works of mercy; meanwhile
I stayed seated in
a Peet’s Café, watching
an apparently homeless young man walk away . . . who can say
what good or bad deeds we’ve done in our lifetime;
I don’t believe in a ledger
kept in heaven, though
I am moved by Dante’s view of an after-life, based on Thomas
Aquinas’s Summa Theologica, whom Uncle Howard credited
for his conversion,
since his best friend Al
courted Howard as a convert, via a shared reading of The Summa,
thus a cascade of our family’s conversions . .
7.
Does the vocation of writing have an impact on changing
anything socially? Certainly activists do more to make
a difference in the life
of the poor, the homeless,
than most poets do, speaking for myself that is . . . Was
my father’s life less significant than famed folks, for being
hidden, unknown
by the world outside
our family? Francis’s commentary how “Life is messy.
The church should be a field hospital for healing.”
What of our lives
at home, sites
for sheltering those in need, relatives or not, men, women and
children needing shelter, lacking a refuge, unseen in suburbs,
where strangers are banished
to cities, no panhandling allowed
in Palo Alto, though obvious homeless people linger near
the glitzy Apple Store on University Avenue within walking
distance of Stanford.
Is sacramental confession
obsolete? Do we long for absolution, a penance for failing
to reach out to those in need; should we shake up
complacency, stand in
the shoes of the homeless,
feel the pain of having your home taken by a bank due to
fraudulent mortgages, experience eviction as a possibility,
imagine being
a veteran mother or
father traumatized by war, unable to find a job, how it is living
in a poor neighborhood overtaken by drugs, attend
schools denied sufficient funds,
while rich folks raise
money for their kids’ education in music, art, sports, science;
what if a widow unable to survive on social security, or being
a boy, a girl running away,
seeking safety,
roaming our city streets, sleeping wherever, eating whenever . . .
barely surviving on handouts; shadowed by tragedy
early on, my Dad’s
mother dying when
he was five years old, saved by Margarent Drury, named “Nana,”
his mother’s best friend, who devoted her life to raising him,
his brother and sister,
an unsung hidden heroine . . .

FROM YOUR HEART & SOUL—GIVE A GIFT FOR THE HOLIDAYS

Xmas Basket

How soon the anniversary of my publication, Heart and Soul, will be coming up—just in time for Christmas. Consider this to be an excellent opportunity to get multiple copies of my book for your family and friends at a special discounted price: $10.00 a copy. They are available at Patmos Press, P.O. Box 27570, San Francisco, CA 94127. Just make your checks out to Carolyn Grassi, for $10.00 a copy, and you can expect your books to arrive before the Christmas tree makes it to your front door!

Here is a sample poem from my book, one of my favorites, if I might say so myself.

THE SUN-DIAL, SANTA CLARA, CALIFORNIA

Your gentle voice as you lead me round the sun-
dial in the Mission cemetery across the street,
where you perform the ritual of tracing the sun’s
slim dark line circling the dial’s center, while
joyful as a child, you announce the hour and
minutes of the day, though I knew, without
saying so, your time was running out, as I was
trying to discern how you wanted things at
the end . . . I trimmed your hair on the last day
of your conscious life, grey-black strands
falling gently on the kitchen floor, as I was adoring
your high forehead, sensitive mouth, intelligent
brown eyes, Roman nose, large listening ears. Wisps
of silky hair held in my fingers. Your strong hands
resting patiently in your lap . . . months later, I’m
numb with loss, seeking for traces of your presence
wherever we have been, as when I finger the line
of light turning round the sun-dial’s center . . .

Sun Dial

Transfiguration

PALMYRA, SYRIA

Palymra

. . . at a great distance, via TV, we witnessed the erasing
    of a people’s past, as ISIS’s destroyed Palmyra’s
        Temple of Baalshamin, obliterating
        ancient artifacts, blasting this beloved
sacred site, where people worshipped for
    over 2,000 years . . . incense, flowers,
        holy oils, candles, food—
        bearing the sick for healing,
bringing ashes of deceased loved ones,
    building alcoves of refuge, believing in
        Baalshamin’s saving powers,
        rituals evoking ancestral spirits,
history embodied in earth, sand, stone—
    having faced harsh weather, earthquakes,
        conflicts, challenges over
        the centuries, partially falling
pieces on the temple floor, yet surviving,
    facing fiercely dried desert weather, decade by
        decade, yet, as if miraculously,
        enduring, until now, 2015,
Palmyra, a casualty of a 5 year civil war, while
    western powers fight through proxies in Syria
        for hegemony (against Russia
        and Iran), as ancient figures
plummet into shards, busted, smashed, stepped on,
    crushed under foot, strafed by machine-guns,
        bombed to smithereens,
        defaced, defamed,
a fury set loose surrounding defenseless people,
    shelters crumbling to dust, while the director
        of Palmyra’s ancient antiquities,
        Khaled al-Asaad, is tortured by ISIS,
since he refuses to disclose where other precious
   artifacts are hidden . . . his silence costs him his life;
        the evening news reports his beheading,
        his body hung on a public site,
his head placed on a pillar of the crumbling temple;
    vicious lesson meant to instill fear in any who refuse
        to do what ISIS demands—
        what is the U.S. and our Allies
doing to safeguard such sacred sites, to end the bloodshed
  of innocent civilians; apparently ignoring the consequences
        of continuously funding
        a mixed insurgency, arming
a nebulous coalition of fighters against the Assad regime,
    turning a blind eye to Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the UAE
        funding any and all who fight
        the present Syrian government,
including ISIS, while our American rhetoric of caring for
    refugees sounds hollow . . . they pour out of Syria into
        Turkey, they risk their lives leaving
        Turkish shores . . . were these refugees
denied citizenship in Turkey . . . thousands paying
    smugglers for passage in fragile boats across the sea
        to Greece, Serbia . . . breaking-loose
        into Hungary, where denied refuge—
pressing on for miles and miles, carrying their children to
    Germany, thanks to Angela Merkel, who publicly
        pledges a welcome for 800,000 Syrian
        refugees, a haven from harm,
who arrive via Austria; England pledges to take in
    20,000 over four years (though they turn away fleeing
        migrants at Calais, who secretly
        board English bound trucks),
France pledges a refuge for 24,000—what is our
    United States doing to welcome these refugees—
        1,500 over a 4 year period,
        no public pledge for more—
isn’t America a major player in this civil war, spending
    4 billion dollars in military equipment, plus training
        coalition forces opposing Bashar Assad,
        awful as he is, neglecting a negotiated
settlement, so ignoring the refugees fleeing, dying, seeking
    a home . . . where is our pressure on Saudi
        Arabia, Qatar, UAR to stop funding
        any rebel links to ISIS and, where is
our influence on Turkey to grant citizenship
    to the Syrians . . . no hope there so far,
        since thousands continue fleeing
        for Europe; not enough for the U.S.
to mourn the destruction of Palmyra, why not welcome
    more Syrian refugees (and Iraqis too), while working
        seriously for a political settlement
        to this crisis, since, after all, isn’t
the past U.S. war with Iraq and, our subsequent
    occupation of that country what began unraveling
        the Middle East, to say nothing
        of our supplying Saddam Hussein
with armaments, including nerve gas, our proxy to fight Iran
    a petition’s circulating in America to President Obama
        to take in Syrian refugees—
        “all we are saying is give peace a chance”*

*Lyrics by John Lennon

NEW PUBLICATION: HEART AND SOUL

HEART AND SOUL : Poems by Carolyn Grassi

—A Review by Pushpa MacFarlane


Published by Patmos Press, CA Heart and Soul
, poems by Carolyn Grassi, Foreword by Ron Hansen, Patmos Press, San Francisco, CA, 2014, 142 pages, paperback $15.

The poems in Carolyn Grassi’s new collection, Heart and Soul, present themselves like little windows, their shades drawn aside inviting us to peek in, step inside for a tête-à-tête, and share evocative happenings from her family album, only to carry back with us, reminisces of our own experiences, now buzzing and stirring up memories of our childhood and landscapes, longing for travel and yearning for love.

The suede-like book cover with an illustration in deep red and green is incredibly inviting. The excellent painting by Johanna Baruch, titled Wisdom and Innocence, almost sums up the gradual transformation from innocence to wisdom presented in the poems—a youth’s progression to adulthood. Conversely, the poems in this collection also represent what the cover art depicts to me—some kind of heaven, where an assemblage of conflicting elements all come together to create harmony.

Heart and Soul, contains poems of the heart—of love for the family, friends, and beloved, and poems about the soul—about religious belief, the convent, prayer, and a loving bond created between a young woman of the order and a young priest. Moreover, these poems appear like flags on a sprawling map pinpointing specific locations where the poet’s memories were created and relived. The stories not only take us across the geographic landscape from Brooklyn and Massachusetts to San Francisco and Santa Clara in California, but also abroad—to Rome, Paris, Strasbourg, Versailles—places one might only dream about or hope to visit.

The anecdotes in the poems about the family, of children growing up, or taking family trips, might remind you of your own experiences or make you wish they were your own. For Grassi, these were not just scenic trips she took as a tourist. This was where her life played out, where every joy, remorse, ecstasy, or euphoria was experienced, and where her memories were created. With the warmth of her words and passion she displays in her writing, she has demonstrated to us how these past experiences are now her legacy for her immediate family and inspiration for future poems she might craft.

Leaving Brooklyn by Ferry is a good choice of poem to start this collection. It describes the poet’s journey with her family, from Brooklyn to California, and indeed symbolizes the transference and shift of emotions the poet herself experiences in her life. The poem depicts a point-to-point tracing of waters—of life at sea—for three generations in the poet’s family, which culminates in the third generation leaving for California, the endpoint being, “the Bay Bridge, Alcatraz, San Francisco” with “sun peeking in Pacific fog”. But before the family leaves Brooklyn, there are several Von Trapp-like expeditions to the parks, with a train of children and Mrs. Hanley, enjoying a picnic, “…while singing
                      camp songs along the way, rounding the path
                      past the sprinklers’ pool, struggling up hill,
                      down a slope into a lush green meadow ringed
                      by maples and elms…Tura Lura Lura, Tura Lura Li…”

Those of us from the West, or anyone who hasn’t camped in the Catskills, will be lured to see the pictures painted by Grassi in her poems, the wonder of Silver Lake, Camp Oh-Neh-Tah, with “white birches, silvery aspens,
                      thick pine groves glistening along the shore.
                   …giant turtles winging through murky waters…
                   …Owls hooting. Bats zigzagging—,”

sleeping under the sky and a blanket of stars and planets, getting homesick and thinking of Christmas Eve, tinsel, and crushed pine needles. The narrative thread continues to weave patterns and references to the cloth—the clergy, the parish, the Novitiate, and the poet’s ambition of becoming a Maryknoll missioner in Massachusetts.
                     “A subtle divine presence I first
                      felt as a child at summer camp in the Catskills…”

The poet recalls daydreaming in the wild wheat fields of the Ipswich Bird Sanctuary in Massachusetts—or indulging in girl talk with friends, “sharing hopes for future missions to the Serengeti plain”, then rushing to not be late for Vespers—“veil flying, dogs chasing, scapular catching on brambles…”

It is during this spiritual phase that the poet meets her future partner in life.  Ironically, from this point onward, the poetic voice is almost indistinguishable from the voice in the memoirs or the voice narrating the poignant story about Teresa de Avila and Juan de la Cruz, or Claire and Francis of Assisi, or Magdalene, as if the voice has transformed into the voice of love itself.
                      “I see your eyes in the stars, feel your heart beating
                       in earth’s pulse, hear you whispering my name…”  And again,
                     “‘Practice detachment’ is what I preach,
                       yet longing flies as a bird through the windows
                       of my eyes…Forget-me-nots
                       proliferate in my memory, hearing his familiar 
                       footsteps in our garden.”

Like a travel brochure, the titles of the poems stand out as signposts to someplace exotic and exclusive—New York 42nd Street Library. Rio Del Mar, Aptos, California. The Lawrence Tree, Taos, New Mexico. Mont Saint-Michel. Reims. Germany, 1938. The most public place is rendered private by personal innuendo and romance in the air. They are bookmarks on the pages of the poet’s life, of her travels, of family jaunts, and of her happy days with her now, dear departed beloved.

The poems that reminisce about the couples’ many rituals and romping seem to stay with you, making you wonder about your own love life—the bursts and explosions of love and shooting stars. In that respect, you savor every brick and mortar of the places you’ve seen and every little detail of what you did with your lover, and not the little mess-ups or disappointments or spats that normally occur along the way.  For instance, in The Grand Canyon, you’ll find a couple’s wildest dream fulfilled. Just the rim is visible. What lies beneath must have been more gratifying—two souls straying towards each other and becoming one. Candid romances amid nature or hidden caves—pure and “enfolding each other’s blissfulness, a warm ‘us-ness’ quickly, slowly, gladly, flowing..”.

Some poems contain lines written as one long thought—one long sentence that sparks endless phrases like Christmas lights—one green wire that winds down the entire length of the tree. When you’re done reading you remember the images that showed in the light. In Smoldering Ashes, Inverness, California, the phrases sparkle in memory of Joseph Grassi:
                     “…how high our longing
                                        how deep our grief
                                                           gone you’ve gone
                        beyond the blue horizon
                                        wind and stars
                                                           memory’s returning
                         back to the beginning
                                        your discovering
                                                           a pair of mollusks
                         cleaving to burnt-sienna cliffs
                                        your up-close dearness…”

Poems that speak of love are most scintillating. Even though some poems have sprung from the poet’s imagination, they have the same ring as the morsels of memoirs carried throughout the river of words that flow from this book of poems. It is hard to tell what was real and what imagined. They’re made of the same fiber—of love and longing, of joy, reveling and rejoicing. Some are like torrents that pick up bits of something it comes across or pulls away, while others lie deep, without ruffling up the past—serene and full of reflection.

I found a potpourri of poems and styles in Carolyn Grassi’s Heart and Soul. Some contain stray lines that weave a picture, leaving the imagination to view and create something memorable, a tapestry from lines commemorating remembrances like “flute music fading in the underbrush,” or painting a panoramic picture like “wine-stained lips, and cloven feet stamping the earth.” Then there are lists in poems, like mementos from surroundings or happenings of her life—remembering the things her beloved loved—“foxes, quails, humming birds, roses, olives, oaks, laurels, mountain tops”; or naming the stars for a whirlwind galaxy she has been traveling—“I crown you with laurel leaves     prince charming     Prince of peace    my darling dearest    dusty golden bees     hearts on fire     our imperfect beings    warts and all    northern lights    shooting starts…”   

Well known names pop up like knobs to drawers you want to open and see what they contain. Some are luminaries—poets who have inspired Grassi, some with interesting experiences or personal stories to reveal. Wordsworth, both William and Dorothy, make their presence felt, along with Coleridge, and a Homage to John Keats. Søren Kierkegaard, James Merrill, Iris Murdoch, and Rilke grace the pages. So is Dante’s presence made known,“within the shadows of a chestnut grove,
                      not far from the sanctuary of a Franciscan church…”

Donatello’s wonders fill “unfamiliar rooms in the Victoria and Albert Museum,” Caravaggio’s “weaving four tiny angels’ feathers within his fingers”; and Salvador Dali, is present with his “portrait of the naked man”.

Although,this collection of poems is titled Heart and Soul, the poem that bears this title was written in memory of a good friend. For the poet, it appears to me, the whole process of writing and putting this volume together has been driven by a personal and strong bond of love and dedication to a life-long companionship that was nurtured and strengthened with their travels together, their beliefs, their family, and the friends they shared. The poem, Do This in Memory of Me encapsulates Grassi’s personal world she created with her husband and children, until Easter lilies filled ‘alcoves of the Mission chapel, palm trees dancing Alleluias along San Jose’s Alameda’.

It is no surprise that the last poem in this collection is aptly, Adios, Vaya Con Dios where the poet confesses:

                        Sometimes I foolishly imagine a miracle bringing
                        you back to life, or I day-dream us back together…
                                                            … driving down
                        to Santa Clara, our garden home of hearts’ delight.

Dialing back to the months after her husband’s demise, the poet says: I’m numb with loss, seeking for traces of your presence
                        wherever we have been, as when I finger the line
                        of light turning around the sun-dial’s center…   

 With time passing, Carolyn Grassi has resigned to acknowledge and recall “the ordinary resurrections” and in a way, collected her writing from over the years allowing them to blossom and disperse as:

                       For Joe

PUSHPA MACFARLANE is a poet and a regular reader at The Willow Glen Poetry Project series in San Jose, CA. Her anthology, Remembering: Poems Read at Willow Glen Books published by Jacaranda Press, San Jose, CA in 2011 won acclaim in the local poetry community. Some of her own work has been published in Shared Light, and No Ordinary Language published by The Willow Glen Poetry Project. She is the lead editor of the upcoming Volume Three of this series.

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QUOTING RON HANSEN

"Carolyn Grassi's 'Heart and Soul' is fascinating in its fluent and affecting blend of memoir and poetry, reminiscence and sheer invention, loss, grief and homage. Adopting a persona at times, or imitating a seminal influence on her writing at other junctures, [Carolyn Grassi] has created a quilt of memories and reflections on a life's education—the journey we all hope to make from becoming to being, or from acting as disciples to representing ourselves and our art as apostles..."
Read the complete foreword by Ron Hansen in 'Heart and Soul' published by Patmos Press, San Francisco, CA.

Ron Hansen, author

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