The Poet and the City

December 25, 2012

Fez, Morocco, June 2013

Poet panelist interviewed at break in Forum

As part of the sacred music festival, a forum
is dedicated to “the Poet and the City,”
discussions by a panel of distinguished poets from many countries
on the poet’s responsibility to society,
the place of poetry within the world.

My poet sister, Riantee, and I enter the courtyard
and settle into folding chairs under a thin awning
that blocks most but not all of the heat.
Riantee translates from French, whispering into my ear
the gist of the phrases.

The relationship between poetry and politics,
the polity and the poesie, the polis and the poeia…

Some of the poets have prepared speeches
tying the subject of the forum to the theme of this year’s festival,
“Re-enchanting the World,” and its homage to the great Persian poet,
Omar Khayam.

Think of something vital, says one.
Then take a step back and think with marvel, with enchantment.
As an example, my life was a two-way street and around a corner
was a car coming straight at me. The marvel was to be alive afterward.

My second life was not just to say, but to do,
to confront the lie that had been my life before.
Entering all the religions,
encountering the fact that each one believes it has the truth
Le dieux or le dieux…
Enchantment is the consciousness of death,
it is the experiencing, the experience.
Poetry is essentially experimental.

Poetry should always be spoken and not read.
The poet is the shepherd of the word.
The spirituality of poetry, that’s its power,
to be a witness.

There is an ambiguity between poetry
and spirituality because the poet is in the pay
of the powerful of this world—the kings.
They censor, shut his mouth.

I taste salt
on my lips without being aware of sweating.

Many poets are banned from their own century,
from their country, especially here.
The freedom of expression of the poet
nowadays is controlled by the market and the economy.

Because of the crisis we are living now, we look at the past
at what the poets had to say in order to
discover what is breaking his voice. There are factors
that change the reality of the truth, influence
it in a certain direction that is no longer true.

An announcement from the moderator:
one of the poets who was going to speak is lost somewhere in the medina.
As soon as we have news, we will give it to you.
Laughter ripples through the audience.

This is my gift, says another, poetry is verbal, vocal,
a catching in the throat, a sign, a place in the shade,
a burning at the base of the spine. What other people
call wonder we find as we fall, a sense of the ground giving way
always, with each next step.

An audience member expresses amazement
to hear what he has been hearing, wonders if by enchantment,
the panel is suggesting that it is the poet’s job to justify
atrocities, in this world that has come to a place of no return.

We call on a more ancient world, still an enchanted world
and stumble into the urban world filled with torture and the films
in which Orwell asks, “What is the use of
art and literature in our time?”

Salvador Dali, in relation to the civil war in Spain, had only one arm
and his moral sense didn’t go any further than the elbow.
Orwell said abundantly that disenchantment
is part of the discourse of the poet.
He took that from Shakespeare.

Is it the poet’s responsibility to be merely a witness, then,
a reporter of horrors?
Stop looking at the world to find marvelous things;
if you look too long, eventually, you find amazement and horror.
After a while you begin to feel something called suicide,
you look and you feel murdered.

You have to genuinely be alive.
Poetry is stronger than these things.
In any conflict that involves oppression,
poets are one of the first voices censored
Poet as agitator, poet as reconcilor, poet as articulator.
Poet as thief, poet as romancer, necromancer.
Poetry delivers paradoxical feelings.

In Nigeria, the first person is the compassionate
and the last is the people. It is a daily poetry,
the voice of the multi-rhythm
is considered a poetry.

A young Nigerian produced the first movie in our country.
He suffered very well separated from his father.
He traveled with a poet in order to enchant his father and find his father.

There is the Gulf War and the cemetery cities;
they create indifference.
An accelerator of history is the Gulf War,
so many things happen,
improbabilities. The people in the countryside,
they are not even thinking about food. They are thinking
about water.


So Far

November 22, 2012

Wednesday, June 13, 2012
Fez, Morocco

What I’ve learned so far: that rinsing your clothes in fresh cool water and wringing them out and putting them on damp is lovely, and that placing my hand on the top of the door jamb as I am entering the little bathroom reminds me to duck so I don’t bang my forehead, and how to crawl up the stairs: each step being anywhere from ten to twelve to fourteen inches, randomly changing height due to some nuance of need at the time of construction. I use all four appendages, bare feet, bare hands, slap slap slap up the stairs in a hunkered position. When carrying something, it becomes a three-point operation (cup of coffee, basket of writings, clothes), making each move methodically because to slip and fall would have disastrous consequences, the least of which would be broken bones. “Sobriety check!” Maggie promptly declares.

And on each step, a pattern of tiles that imitates no notion in nature except the rhythm of the heart, a diamond becoming a square as it flies on to another tile that is winking its eye at the fountain’s splash of water from the beard of the moss and the saint who lies under the archway, whose heart is immured in the wall, invites and descends, welcomes and turns his back, delights and absconds.

Here I am trying to undo language and find that I am undone instead.

I transit between places known and unknown: the sky with my name written in it, the water in the gutter with its mysterious chemical transience, the doll that peeks out of a window with a glass eye shut.

I come here with burdens, with sorrows, with fears and with fingers, with a throat and an arched foot and a wristwatch. I come here with a fragile paper ticket, something made out of the pulp of endangered trees, and stand in the fragrance of the perfumerie knowing I will not be able to invent this. This is why I am here. Because I cannot invent this and because I dreamed this.

From the outdoor roof terrace is a steep ladder to a higher terrace that gives a view over the rooftops to the Middle Atlas mountains. To the north, I often see tiny robed figures moving among the ruined arches that lead to the tombs, just shy of the luxury hotel where alcohol is served at enormous price—and that alone after you pay the taxi driver and mark your way home in the medina with strips of paper embedded with signals identifying monuments that will look the same whether seen under moonlight or shadow of noon.

Already at eight in the morning the railing of the terrace steps is too hot to invite the touch of the hand and the cat that looks like a chihuahua hunkers on a nearby rooftop and waits for some signal like food or stone, wary. The tombs on the hill represent north. It begins to make sense—the roofline, the satellite dishes pointing mostly in the same direction, away from the minaret’s bold creation of the story of the universe. Each day and several times the muezzin calls out to remind you where the sun rises is to be holding the gold coin purse of the dawn. Each night and before bathing cross yourself to gently uncover your nightmares and make for them a bed in which you will lie down and comfort your twenty reasons until they twin themselves and unmask the eroded bones of your own story, the one you lost interest in long ago but which now you see everyone is pinning on you with eyes of marble and lemon and shoe.

Already at eight, the day.

The Hotel des Merindes turns out to be rundown, vainglorious, an anachronism, complete with defunct glass elevator with the shaft full of weeds and the glass cloudy with dust, shabby window dressings. We went up there by taxi one day and did not stay for the requisite drink on the terrace. There was a clever, if faded, map bolted to the balcony with silhouettes of the prominent architectural and land features, keyed so you could identify the mosques, the peaks. We left after wandering through the lobby a bit, and walked partway back down the mountain road, and eventually caught a taxi driven by a nearly toothless man who kept up a hilarious conversation in French with Riantee about his time in Lyon and how he lost his teeth, nearly a point of pride if all you could read was his body language.

I borrow a book from the library of our host, Fez: City of Islam (by Titus Burckhardt, translated from the German to English by William Stoddart, published by The Islamic Texts Society, Cambridge 1992), noting details in my journal so that I may find it again and again, as needed. I read of the birth of Sufism in Morocco, of the arrival of the Merinides to Fez, one of a series of rival conquerors, either Berber or Arab Bedouin, who are always sweeping, as in “they swept down out of the Atlas Mountains,” or, “They swept across the north of Africa.” One imagines great brooms swabbing the milky way. This story leads to the pluralism of Sufism, but even so there is a drive toward purity that can at times leave not much room for the respect of other beings.

The festival we are attending is in large part a result of the original tenets of Sufism—a cultural event created from a desire on the part of the festival founders to promote tolerance as an antidote within a violently intolerant time, to underscore and revivify differences, and accomplishing this through the agency of music, bringing master musicians from all different cultures, speaking myriad language, to Fez, site of a university older than any in Europe, the largest living Medieval city. I read that Sufism and its approach to the divine through ecstasy is mistrusted by fundamentalist Muslims, and some of its practices (singing and dancing oneself into ecstatic union with god) are taboo in parts of the Muslim world. This endears me to Fez, and the Moorish culture that flowered in Spain, the great respect shown toward scholarship and literature. I note for Maggie that the word for “lawyer” in Arabic also means “scholar.”


Cafe Clock

Little Cat Shit Alley

for Maggie and Riantee

Once I had a dream

and now it’s always beginning
all over again: it is either dawn or dusk; the stairs that lead to the roof terrace, the narrowing alley, the medina pulsing outwards and inwards. In the hazy distance—olive groves and tombs. Dust dust a reddened barrenness from which all living things erode, and once the moon has opened the sky: three women slip inside the breeze and relieve their feet of their shoes, their sweaty socks, their miseries, practicing a habitual sequence of thoughts strung on this necklace of dust.

After music, after the medina, after the legless beggar with his nobility and nonchalance, we slither up the stairs to the terrace, cradling bottles of wine and bowls of fruit under our arms like monkeys. Sit at the table and face each other: a trio, a triangular mirror. Beside us, marmalade the color of dawn and flat breads made from the same wheat as the rooftops of the old city. The watermelon on the plate of blue turns into a blood peach in the mouth and then becomes fragrance. We relive our lives until now, we embellish them with retelling, we sigh and we laugh and we gossip and close our eyes briefly in order to further enjoy this decadence of pleasure in each other’s company.

Below the alley to our lodging outlined in cat shit that caused us to lift our suitcases extra high the first morning and touch our hands to the cool plaster of the alley wall and lean towards our bones.

When I came into the bedroom, she said, you were sleeping on your back and your book was—here—and she made a small arc with her hand.
Within hand’s reach the moon over the caramel rooftops.
At the foot of the mountain a packet of sugar, sweet dusk livened by swallows. Brief pleasure, these lives of ours, the first taste of the evening peach stewed in mint tea.

Madrugada the Dawn

September 2, 2012

Fez Medina Collapsed Rooms

Thursday, 14 June, 4 pm Batha Museum courtyard, Fez International Sacred Music Festival
Arabesques: From the poems of the Diván del Tamarit by Federico García Lorca
Interpreted by Rocio Màrquez, Melodies and piano by Christian Boissel
“Proud of the Arab past of his hometown, Granada, Federico García Lorca wrote a collection of poems in the 1930s known as a ‘diwan’, that paid tribute to the great Arab poets of the past.”

It was the afternoon I slipped away from the lodging minutes after we arrived back from an extensive and hot exploration of the metal smithing areas of the souk. Midway through our rambling walk I realized I would probably miss the one concert I had dearly hoped to see. And now there was time to catch the last half of it. Washed my armpits, brushed my hair, changed out of sweaty clothes quickly quickly. Lorca was calling me.

Rapidly up through the medina to the courtyard of the museum where the afternoon concerts played out. By now the route between lodging and music venue was a softly patted trail, weaving among vendors and street carts, the sights and smells and sounds. “You come see my paintings today? please…” “Tomorrow perhaps!” “Toujour tomorrow!” but all spoken with comfortable ease and laughter as I deftly turn to avoid small children, piles of slippers or cardboard pedestals for leather purses and bags. I never did go see his paintings, and he saluted me with his enormous laughter and smile the day we left, with our luggage in a donkey cart.

Out through the green gate and into the direct heat of the sun, through the open plazas around the city museum, in through security (I could hear her singing already, how much had I missed?) Sat on the carpet in front of the stage, the place where the devotees sit, where Riantee liked to sit for her beloved concerts of Indian music and dance. Most of the audience behind us in folding chairs fanning out under shade awnings that barely held back the heat. Shade of the venerable oak tree advancing over the carpet as the afternoon sun shifted in angle and intensity.

and Rocio. her voice and manner exactly the pin drop of understatement and passion, intensity in her uplifted hand with the slender elegant fingers barely touching, as if sifting fine silk or flour.

What was amazing about witnessing her performance, her presentation, was not that it was perfect, as if rehearsed and replicated. I was watching her reach for it, pull it out of the air. She was searching for the notes and concentrating on the developing line with the lyric and pulling it out of somewhere right in front of you, so that it had the miraculous feeling of birth, and its perfection was in how it seemed predestined. That I would be here, that I would have come here, that poetry was the theme of this year’s festival when I just happened to make the decision, after wanting to come to the festival for nearly ten years, that this one program of the 8 days and 40 or more concerts, was devoted to the poetry of Lorca, the Diván del Tamarit rendered with piano and voice.

And it answered my question, my curiosity about flamenco and cante jondo, Portugese fado, the amanades of Turkey and Greece—they all share something fundamentally un-European. There is the Arabic falling note, the “quarter-tones,” the melismatic element brought out of the music itself under pressure of emotion barely held in check. That’s what I found in Lorca who found it resonant in the Moorish literary traditions of Andalusia.

Not a Janis Joplin kind of passion like a runaway horse or a Van Morrison being swept along, “testifying” as someone aptly observed, fulvent thunderous incoming waves. This is an almost painful realization and admission of emotion that takes over the entire human organism and relieves it of its burden at the same time that it is devastating the audience. Something both controlled and allowed, and with both gift and technique, renewed.

It is only in the beginnings of retelling of this particular concert that I began to see a larger picture of my life. In this journey, at this particular concert, I experienced the completion of an enormous arc that took me back to when I was nineteen years old and went to Granada and came back to California a poet instead of a forest ranger. I dropped my studies of biology and chemistry and my dream of living in a remote cabin by the edge of a surging Sierra Nevada creek—mint over time over boulder and moss—and began the discipline, entering the traditions of poetry, gravitated to cities, to places of culture, and eventually to Mendocino County.

Lorca’s poetry has remained my touchstone in poetry. No other poet moved me as much for many years, to the extent that when someone at one point asked me to name the poets I read the most, I drew a blank, because I was trying to think of American poets. It took me years to find Denise Levertov and Whitman and Diane diPrima, and more years to realize there were people like Yusef Komunyakka, Joy Harjo, and Arthur Sze in the world.

1977 was the year of that fateful trip to Spain—I was born too late for the Summer of Love (I was only thirteen and living in Marin County), but coming of age in the decade following, with the environmental and womens’ movements developing. I apprenticed as a typesetter, eventually arriving at Mills in the early 1980s where I learned to set lead type in a stick, going back to the fifteenth century for my rendering of words. So many things in my life were established from this moment, when I stood in Granada and felt the dust and the cool caves of Lorca’s earth. Places he would have walked.

Why the unending power of the earth of things? That I may never know. And why the traveling that has always been my fundamental inspiration, and with it the music of the places I have visited: Spain, Greece, Egypt, Istanbul, Lisbon, Hawaii, Sevilla. The music that goes along with this and follows me home. Never quite as urgent the home music. More than anything, it has been the music of Spain that has haunted me, raised questions, some of which are now answered, beautifully, with further musical compositions and the variations and strategies of slack key guitar, bouzouki, Portuguese viola.

How would I know this trip to Fez would complete such a cycle? I dimly knew it, knew I needed to press on, make the trip happen in spite of inordinate pressure not to do so. Considerable guilt that I was going when many of my friends and especially my husband could not join me. During the entire festival, though my travel companions and I did not do any touring outside Fez, and indeed spent most of the time in the medina, the old walled city, I felt periodic washes of emotion—joy equally with grief—that something was turning over in my soul, in my being. A new touchstone, the metabolism of a “dream fulfilled,” an answer to a question asked thirty-five years ago.

At such moments, everything else goes smash. You see vividly the fundamental flaws, the imperfections. The flaw in Rocio’s voice, snagging on a heartbeat that lags behind or jumps ahead, and then the music cradles the flaw, lifts it up, lets it go like a dove.

What change this experience will bring in my life I don’t yet know, but the fact that it will engender change, this I do know. And change, being a frightening thing at any time, and change being an exciting thing at every time—I have woken up. I am its creature, not with the heart of the utterly impressionable nineteen-year-old without wordly experience. No, with the heart of experienced, disciplined, and utterly impressionable fifty-four years. It is the search, it is the asking.

Pero como el amor/los saeteros/están ciegos
But like love,/the archers/are blind
– Federico García Lorca, “Madrugada,” In Search of Duende

Fez Festival, the final night

September 1, 2012

Joan Baez at the Fez Festival 2012

I hadn’t expected to be moved by Joan Baez.

Heck, I could go hear Joan Baez in California; I don’t need to go all the way to Morocco to hear her. And the last night of the festival, too, after a week of hearing music from Pakistan, Iran, Spain, Syria, India, Morocco, Tunisia. I wanted more of this music I couldn’t reach at home in a live venue with the lights shining softly on the Moorish arches and the swifts wheeling in thousands at dusk before settling into the walls of the fortress and the storks that would come, singly, or in pairs, to sit motionless on the crenelated towers throughout the performances.

But during her entire performance I ended up standing, or poised on the metal railing to the side of the seats, alternately fascinated and weeping. She sang to this audience in Spanish, French, Arabic, and English. She spoke to them in a mixture of French and English. She presented her music from decades of civil rights marches (“my feet are tired from all the marches,” she said, and without even having to say it, implied, “and they’re not over yet.”). She was humble and straight-forward, sometimes performing utterly by herself with only her guitar, and her music filled the entire Bab Makina effortlessly, as if anyone could do that. Standing in her simple black outfit with a stunning red scarf that showed her professional performance experience – knowing how things look from a distance, what works what doesn’t work.

And I was crying because the festival was now over and how perfect an ending, this healing that she manifests. Two women in the seats beside me, traditional Muslim women in head scarves, who had nodded, somewhat baffled through much of the performance that had been so far in French and English (probably spoke only Arabic), were electrified when she called her drummer onto the stage and sang a song in Arabic. They joined the audience keeping time with their hands, and after that, every song, no matter what the language, they kept time with their hands, they sat up in their seats. Surely they had come because she is famous. She sang with Bob Dylan. She was part of the free speech movement, the anti-Vietnam war protests, the civil rights movement. That was all so long, long ago. They had come, thinking, why not see what this is all about, a celebrity.

And she won their hearts, and completely broke my reserve, my somewhat ironical expectation. Wonderful.