On a recent writing retreat in the Donegal village of Gelncolumbkille I wrote this short poem in response to the sound of the waves I saw and heard every day. You can listen at this LINK

The Waves Know My name

On some sunny morning

Windless, almost

The sounds of the restless ocean

Reach up to me

Calling

The waves know my name

And call me

Unceasing, relentless

And I do not understand

Or will not

But the waves persist

Whatever message they carry

Never fading

One sunny morning

I may awake

And listen

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The Yellow Pole Theater

March 2, 2018

Orange Line MAXRecently I have been using the TriMet MAX (light rail) to take me downtown and elsewhere. Public mass transit brings you face to face with the public you so long avoided by driving everywhere. MAX Interior (2)On the MAX there are yellow bars and poles on which to cling and hang. They make an interesting proscenium for an ever changing theater. Here is is a poem I wrote using some images from recent journeys. I may add more episodes. Listen at this LINK or read below…

Yellow Pole Theater 

Episode One

I smiled at them
And their small child in his stroller
Only the man smiled back
Climbing aboard the southbound MAX
Clinging to the yellow poles
Framed by the yellow poles
In a transit theater.
She did not smile
Wearing the basic scarf of her faith
A blue hijab
She would not smile
And my smile
Meant to acknowledge
Our short common journey,
And something warmer
Appears a threat.
She could not smile
At a stranger.
Only a fixed grimace
Anxiety or fear
Lay on her face
Eyes flicking left and right
And to her child
Obliviously squirming.
Our cultures lay between us
Surely not an impervious barrier

Episode Two

I did not smile at them
Climbing aboard the southbound MAX
Clinging to the yellow poles
Framed by the yellow poles
In a transit theater.
They did not smile at me.
Scruffy, disheveled
Hauling a loaded four-wheel trailer
Presumably their lives
And for ten minutes
I guessed the content of those lives
The sad decline
The erosion of resources
The flight of friends
The flight of hope
But when she
Bulky, purple hair, pushed in face
Pulled out an IPad
And then he
A scarecrow in near rags
Pulled out an IPhone
I had to guess again.
Modern poverty
No less humiliating.
Our economies lay between us
Surely not an impervious barrier.

The Yellow Pole Theater
Never fails to play
Never fails to jolt me out of
My assumptions and my complacency.

When you are a child both the physical appearance of adults and their behavior towards you leave lasting impressions. And the appearance and behavior of several men who lived in the village where I spent ten years as a child and teenager did just that. So deep were these particular impressions that I can recall them without difficulty, even now, decades later. Indeed, more than half a century later, though doubtless some details may have faded without my knowing.Kent, Riverhead, The Square

While these memories are mostly pleasant, there was one that was distinctly unpleasant, and two that I shall call ghosts and who presented more enigmatic examples.

My village in Southern England lay under the flight path of Luftwaffe bombers on their way to destroy London in the Second War. They were escorted there and back by fighter planes. Messerschmitt Bf109s and Focke Wulf 190s. The RAF sent its Supermarine Spitfires and Hawker Hurricanes to shoot down both the bombers and their escorts. The RAF succeeded in halting the immediate threat to England in what came to be known as the Battle of Britain. In those years the countryside was littered with the wreckage of that fight. Planes, ordnance live and spent, and bodies of both sides had fallen to earth near my home. One estimate claimed that nearly three thousand Luftwaffe aircraft had been shot down in this short but critical fight. The government actually established an aircraft metal recovery depot a few miles to the west.

I did not witness any of this. I moved there in 1955 aged nine, when England was still attempting to put itself back together again, and much of the debris of war had been cleaned up. But a piece of it, a man, remained very close to my home. My first ghost.

He always wore a tan raincoat, gloves, a brown felt hat, and sunglasses no matter the season. One could only see part of his face. The skin was almost white and stretched tight in a grimace, the lips a strange unnatural shade. It was the reconstructed face of an airman burned in a crash. Reconstructed by Sir Archibald McIndoe, the pioneering plastic surgeon. The story told by ever imaginative village boys was that he was part of the crew of a Luftwaffe bomber that crashed into a local lake, and after being treated for burns chose not to be repatriated at the end of the war, but live out his life in the very place where he had come down. It seems more likely he was RAF Pilot Officer Noble who had parachuted into the lake when his Hurricane was shot down on September 1, 1940, but the Luftwaffe story stuck. I never heard his name then, or knew where he lived, or heard him speak, and seemed always to be far away. But I can always recall the fear his infrequent appearances around a corner would cause me; a small boy. This harmless and sad ghost.riverhead-the-beehive-inn-c1950_r319001

My second ghost was very different, but in measure equally sad. He was a deaf mute. Short and with a twist in his body. He was badly dressed and walked with a stumbling gait. I knew where he lived, and back then may have even known his name. He was often in the village, sent there on errands by his family or caregivers, with a list and cash, to the grocer and the butcher. But I think he wandered and was often lost or gave that appearance. He could not speak but made loud guttural noises. These almost animal sounds frightened me, but on occasion I overcame that fear to hold his arm and lead him across the not so busy street after he had stood waiting for help at the pedestrian crossing in the middle of the village. The noise he made as we reached the other side was I suppose a thank you, but as a nervous child I made my getaway quickly. Now, years later, I wonder what kind of intellect may have been trapped inside that body. Was he another sort of Christie Brown (My Left Foot) or an accident of procreation?

I lived in that village from 1955 to 1965 when I left for my first job and College. Not once in those ten years did I ever see these two ghosts, these sad humans, in the village at the same time. An unconscious partition of haunting duties perhaps. Plainly they are still haunting me but on a more relaxed and distant schedule.

 

 

Breast cancer is the most common form of diagnosed cancer in America, followed by Prostate, Lung, Colo-rectal, Uterine, Bladder, Skin, Thyroid, Kidney and non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. While all of them can kill you breast cancer also has the double edge of attacking a woman’s femininity. In recent years, say forty or so, there has been an up swell of resources and support for women, and some men, who are fighting breast cancer. Nevertheless cancer remains a terrifying prospect.

A few days after my wife, Anne-Louise, was diagnosed with the disease, she began to write a song that reflected her own response to the news. She called it ‘No Matter What’. She asked a good friend, composer and cancer survivor, Barbara Bridge to help her with the song. At the end of this week Anne-Louise will also become a survivor after finishing her radiotherapy.

This LINK will play the song for you.

Gold MoonA little while ago, in mid November, I was watching the Pacific Ocean lit by the moon. As often happens in the Pacific NW a bank of rain clouds swept in and obscured our lovely satellite for the rest of the night. “The Moon is leaving”, I commented to my wife, for lack of a more accurate phrase. In a second or two this poem came into my head; not quite complete but certainly on the way. It did not take more than a half hour to edit, and a few days ago I went into my studio to record it. You can listen at this LINK  or read it below…

The Moon is leaving…

She’s had enough of us.

She won’t illuminate our love scenes any more

No more moon in June

A singer to croon

To a saccharine tune

While we fools spoon

We mad apes.

Not so suddenly

She saw our hate

Our lust for power

The scarcity of our compassion

The famine of our love

The gross abundance of our falsity

And will leave us dark, and tide less

For more rewarding and gentler orbits.

Asked to stay

She softly reminds us

Of the millennia in which we failed

Failed over and over

To hear her soft song

Were deaf to love

So deaf, and

Chose the songs of Mars.

Asked to stay

With tears and anguish at our loss

With loudest promises of change

With the loudest promises of change

She softly reminds us of earlier compacts

Broken, over and again,

And sings of her patience

He long soft patience

Now exhausted.

The moon is leaving

She’s had enough of us

She’s had enough

Enough…

Of the mad ape.

 

 

My first memory of streetlights was in a street that had very few. And the few that were there were gas lamps. The street was new in 1948. There were twenty or so brand new pre-fabs. Emergency housing designed to last a maximum of ten to fifteen years for people who had lost homes to the Luftwaffe during the Blitz and the later V1 and V2 rocket attacks. This included my parents who survived both of the latter. Many prefabs were still in use at the turn of century.

When we moved in 1955 to another not so svelte neighborhood close to a satellite village of Sevenoaks in Kent the streetlights were much the same. A few spaced far apart and as before gas powered. One of the lamps illuminated the telephone box at the top of the street where my Mother would go to enjoy every Wednesday or Thursday evening, after we had eaten, a five minute or less conversation with her sister Grace who lived twenty miles away. Often she had to wait while one or two other people had made their calls and would stand in the cold with her precious coins in her hands.

The gas lamps eventually were replaced by electric standards. But whether gas or electric they all were extinguished at midnight, and plunged the village and town into blackness. I loved it. It was a signal. As a teenager coming home from some adventure or other on foot, walking or running up the narrow lane toward home, trying to beat your curfew, and being suddenly without a shadow told you that you were in trouble. I had no wristwatch until I was nearly eighteen and depended on church and other public clocks to tell the time. Hearing those twelve chimes and knowing that upon the last the streetlight would extinguish was a powerful signal.

Fast forward to the early seventies. My Mother finally could afford her own phone and sit on the stairs in our hallway and talk to sister Grace almost at will, but definitely according to budget. There were no ‘free’ calls. The streets were now lit by new sodium lamps. They did not go off at midnight and there was no real night anywhere anymore, and our village became an orange raceway for twenty-four-hour traffic. No longer could I stand in the middle of the road at the foot of the narrow lane, glance up at the church clock trying to make out the time in the comforting quiet and darkness. No longer could a young man experience that frisson of delight and horror at midnight. We now lived in continuous light. Lux Eterna of an unheavenly sort.

Which brings me to burglary.

When one asks why we have to illuminate our neighborhood streets with enough light that a jetliner could easily land on one, or one could easily read the very fine print in an insurance policy, the usual answer is “security!”. There is this idea that thieves find illuminated premises unattractive targets for their work. As the President of the Bob Sterry School of Burglary, I say “Bollocks”. Certainly, I could agree that a thief attempting to break into a well-lit house would find it embarrassing should he or she be discovered doing so by a passerby or a policeman. Ad so the obvious question becomes, at the usual hour when nocturnal break ins occur where are these passersby and these lawmen? The odds against your being spotted as you pick a lock or force a doorway in a sodium light drenched street at 3.30 AM are large. The risks of not being able to find a lock to pick, a door to force, of tripping over a garden hose, a child’s toy in the dark however are much higher. What better environment for a would-be thief than to work on a well-lit target, knowing that the police are unlikely to patrol your location for hours and that the neighborhood are all busy sleeping or glued to a screen behind the shades and unconcerned with the exterior.

And this is why, at the Bob Sterry School of Burglary, we focus our instruction on encountering both well and poorly lit targets and in general favor the well-lit variety. In fact, most of our graduates prefer to do their work in broad daylight so as not to interfere with their family life and sleep patterns. Night work is usually practiced by our more experienced and daring alumni who understand the value of light and the absence of urban, suburban and even rural surveillance.

And now I think back with wonder and amusement to those shadowed evenings when my heart would almost stop as the church clock struck the midnight hour and darkness enveloped me. If it is midnight as you read this please remember to extinguish your porch, deck, garage, and yard lights. After all, my graduates are about and seek the challenge of unlit booty.

Anglo-American Flag (2)As an immigrant who came to America over forty years ago, and who became an American citizen for reasons about which you may quiz me some time, I too celebrate July 4th as a national holiday. I celebrate all the great things that America has done for the world. I celebrate the leaps that democracy took in the 18th century thanks to the revolutionaries. I celebrate the scientific and medical progress made in our institutions that have led to better lives. I celebrate the burgeoning and continued growth of music and art and literature in America. As an erstwhile European I am grateful for the Americans who fought to destroy 20th Century fascism.

But I am not a nationalist. Like my Father I believe extreme nationalism to be one of the roots of much of the misery the world has endured for a very long time. Having twice lost his home to Nazi rocket bombs he spoke from direct experience.

But I don’t celebrate a past that includes the ethnic cleansing and genocide of the original inhabitants of the continent. Over three or more hundred years estimates of Native American deaths caused by European ‘colonists’ in various programs and campaigns vary between nine and eighteen million. Whatever the number it is a stain. And I don’t celebrate the commercial brilliance of a past that depended upon; and still does to a large degree; the enslavement of millions of Africans, Chinese and other minorities in its fields, its mines, railways and roads. Another stain.

On this day, July Fourth 2017, let us focus on celebrating things of which we can justifiably be proud, have the honesty to accept the truth about the past, and work on making America genuinely the Land of the Free; for everyone.

 

 

Politicians, are forever talking; and you know which ones talk loudest; about local businesses and how they are the engine of American prosperity, and how they will not survive without reductions in taxes. Many of the same pols are also much keener on enabling larger corporations to avoid tax or even pay none at all. How this makes those corps. the engines of American prosperity is a mystery to me. But I do support local businesses (Sterry and Sterry is one!) and intend to give them a shout out from time to time. Here is the first.

Home Guardian NW. Claudio Pernisco is a master builder and craftsman. He and his crew built the house I moved into last year and his skill and care is apparent in every detail. Together with his partner and wife, Angela, son Anthony, they have been growing a solid reputation and business. And, as builders do, they are always hiring other local businesses. Plumbers, Electricians, Dry Wall, Painters, Roofers and others. I also know that should I need to make an alteration, move a wall, add a feature here and there that Claudio and Angela will give me an honest appraisal and a polite warning should my idea be just nuts.

This shots shows Juan (muscle), Claudio and Anthony, sitting on the steps of my newly finished deck.

 

 

 

 

 

 

..and at the front doorBusiness is not always conducted in suits or casual wear!

You can check their other work at this LINK

At Artichoke Music on Hawthorne Avenue in Portland, my adopted city, there is every other Thursday a songwriters roundup. A simple open mic. where local and visiting musicians can get up and try out a new song. It is a lovely, warm and welcoming place. The sound system is good, the lights flattering and the beer and wine are reasonable. It is a listening room, not a bar with music. People actually sit still and listen to the players. And on some evenings there is extraordinary music when the muse strikes one of the regulars or an out of town wiz takes the stage and lets it go. For the $5 entrance it is a bargain.

Sadly, the lease is up for the ‘Choke. The whole of Hawthorne Ave is being slowly redeveloped, boutiqued, in that hideous boxy, sterile style that local architects are foisting on us. In the same building as the ‘Choke is Crossroads Music, a funky vinyl emporium. And the ‘Choke shares the parking lot with Cubo, a sweet little Cuban food joint. So, the ‘Choke is moving to another part of town and will never be the same.

I started to go because my wife and musical partner became part of the scene there, and one songwriter’s roundup I got up and read one of my poems. I loved it. And after all, what is a songwriter but a poet with music. At least twice I have read poems that I actually wrote while sitting there listening. The deal at the ‘Choke is this. You pay your $5 and if you want to play you write your name on a slip of paper and leave it in a basket on the bar. The MC shuffles the slips, plays an opening song, and reads off the first three players. It can be a long wait and folk often leave at the break and the last player thanks everyone for opening the gig for him and sings to the holdouts.

I write my poems from prompts or ideas I have written in my notebook or fingered into my cell phone. And so it was last week that I had placed my slip in the basket and realized I had nothing to read. Nada. Zip. Zero. I had not even brought my notebook with me! On the table in front of me there was an announcement for one of the ‘Choke’s workshops. Its reverse side was blank. Perfect. On my cell phone some weeks ago I had entered the words ‘yellow cords’, remembering how much I had lusted after a pair long ago in unaffordable, trendy, hip, mod, Carnaby Street, London. The epicenter of cool clothes for the swinging sixties. Like all clothes in London, way out of reach for students like me. While the first three players were doing their thing on stage I wrote this poem and after the break read it to a bemused audience who had no idea where Carnaby Street is or what it was in those far distant days.

I always wanted yellow cords 

Since I saw them in a movie in 1965

Yellow cords

With a purple shirt

And a white man’s afro.

I had the ‘fro…then

Really…

Not now.

And I am truly over purple.

But yellow cords, man!

Deep creamy dreamy yellow cords.

Blue shirt

Sky blue linen shirt.

And red shoes, red shoes, yeah!

Fifty years ago in Carnaby Street

Trendy spendy hip clothing London street

Fifty years ago in Carnaby Street.

But…

Forty years in the corporate suit

Can do a number on you,

And yellow cords had to wait

For no GOOD reason

And for no GOOD reason I remain

Cordless, yellow-wise.

But I did get the red shoes

Oh yeah, dammit, I got the red shoes

Red-Suede-Chukka-Boots.

On line, ninety bucks,

Carnaby Street, eat your f*****g heart out!

 

It could use a little editing, which I will get to. I have to admit on reading it to the crowd I felt a sort of relief. As if I had been bottling up resentment against that street and its pretentiousness for all those years. Well, I wonder who or what is next?

“Once in Royal David’s city, stood a lowly cattle shed” are the opening lines of a well known Anglican Christmas carol. One which I knew by heart by the time was eight or nine. I had little idea who this David was. My youngest brother, David, had just been born, and I knew the song was not about him. This other David, apart from having a royal city was chiefly famous for having killed (slain, actually) a very large man with an exceedingly lucky hit from a slingshot. Amongst my urban savage friends there was a lively discussion of how he could have pulled this off. We doubted it could be done. We thought slingshots a very inaccurate and slow loading weapon. We all had our own hand made catapults, and argued that if this David had had any sense he would have had one and used it. Later on in our English Anglican education we learned that Jesus was distantly related to this giant killer, and this was supposed to be a good thing. We could not figure out why this was so and our teachers were superbly vague on the subject. Knowing what ultimately happened to Jesus we young cynics became ever more doubtful that being related to improperly armed minor royalty of any age could possibly be a good thing.

Fast forward many decades to a less cynical but very analytical man sitting in a recording booth narrating a book about King David into a microphone. ‘The Edge of Revolt’ by Uvi Posnanksy. One of a series of historical novels by her about this leader of Israel. Late in life I am learning a lot about King David and the history of an ancient land. I am also getting a geography lesson. The history and geography lessons are one of the pleasant parts of recording a book for Audible or any other audio-book service. The less easy challenges in this task are several if not multiple.

Imagine that you are reading the same book I am recording. As you read you will automatically construct an ambiance, an atmosphere of the locations in the book. You will create voices for each of the characters. Readers have no difficulty in returning to a book at any time and recreating these characters and feelings. For an audiobook narrator, he too must create that ambiance, those characters, in his mind, and then deliver them to you using only his voice. He has also to be utterly consistent in his delivery. He has to create a distinctive voice for each of the characters. He has to try and understand the authors intention as well or even better than they did when writing the book so as to be able to communicate every nuance of feeling, every subtle hint, every change of emotion the text contains, and then perhaps add some not foreseen or anticipated by the author. He is in fact a one-man theater. Playing all the characters, changing the scenery, the lighting, the mood, the pace, to an invisible and utterly silent audience. He is the theater. A virtual theater.

But narrator beware! Strongly emoting, acting, is not always appreciated by listeners. Many remain interested in populating the drama, the story, the scene, with their own interior voices and emotions. They are not always interested in your interpretation of the text, only needing the reading of the text as a prompt for their own imaginations. They don’t want much theatricality. It is a fine balance and the narrator needs to listen to the author and use his own experience before turning the microphone on.

What this means is that the selection of a narrator by an author has to be a carefully considered process. Morgan Freeman and Ben Kingsley, as talented as they are, are not suited for every book. Not to mention their cost! I myself have to think very carefully about what books I can genuinely and honestly produce and achieve that balance. However, this does not prevent me from accepting challenges that stretch my own perception of my strengths and skills. Authors may hear something in a narrators voice and style they themselves did not know or even suspect they possessed, and want it for their book.

In recording Uvi Posnanzky’s book ‘The Edge of Revolt’ about the mid-life and final moments of King David, I avoided none of these challenges, and faced a few additions. Uvi found my voice on the Amazon managed site, Audible Creative Exchange. Narrators can create a profile, including samples of their voice, and authors can post a summary of their book and the narrator they are looking for. It’s a literary dating site!

Male narrators are often called to produce recordings with both male and female voices. In ‘The Edge of Revolt’ there are more than a few female voices and they are of differing ages and temperament. For some of these voices I dip into my family history and find the voices of my aunts, with their London accents. And for others the comic genius of Monty Pythons Flying Circus is a rich source. The same was useful for the variety of male characters; my relatives, theatre and broadcast personalities. And in doing so I find a special challenge. If a narrator uses an immediately recognizable character voice he may run the risk of distracting the listener from the flow of the story. It has to be done with care. Using the voice of Richard Nixon for King David, whilst amusing, is just not going to work.

I had to find at least three voices for King David. The first is that of a proud and confident man. A man enjoying his power and status. The next is of the same man but humbled and frustrated by the unfolding of events he himself has caused. A man at the mercy of the complications of reconciling paternal love, succession, and national unity. And another is of the man breathily composing or reciting poetry and psalms he regards as his legacy. Finally, I have to make him into an older, tired man, waiting on death.

And of course, the names of all the characters in the book are pronounced not as I grew up thinking they should be! And there are Hebrew names I have never seen or heard before. This is when I am grateful for the patience and attention to detail that Uvi Posnansky shows. I can rely on her to send me guidance and corrections very quickly. This is important. It makes editing so much simpler when the context is still fresh in the mind, echoing. Editing sound tracks with edits sent much later one can easily lose the continuity of expression and pace needed for a good recording. For every hour of recording there is usually at least thirty minutes of editing to be done, and keeping it from encroaching on recording time is always on my mind.

And as I wrote earlier the balance to be found between over and under emoting was always present in recording this work. Again, I found Uvi Posnansky to be the kind of author a narrator needs, providing enough guidance to correct mistakes but not so much as to prevent creativity on my part. And now I must go and practice my seductive Bathsheba voice. All in a days work for a narrator of audio books.