Rose of my heart

jersey roses

Best e-mail I’ve received all day had this photo, with a note saying simply “Roses still in bloom!” I’ve had a great time during my residency at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and I’m going to hate leaving — it’s a beautiful place, and I’ve made great progress on a new novel — but I’m also looking forward to returning to New Jersey and my gardening correspondent.

Years before Bill Haley became a mediocre and unlikely rock-and-roll pioneer he billed himself as Yodelin’ Bill Haley, performing country swing with his band The Saddlemen. Here’s Yodelin’ Bill singin’ “Rose of My Heart” –

Even better, here’s the late, lamented Eva Cassidy doing a beautiful rendition of a song based on Robert Burns’ “My Love Is Like a Red, Red Rose” –

The culture of sculpture

The photo above? I call it “Large Head of Woman Appears to Float in the Mist in Replica of Japanese Garden Near Lovely But Expensive Restaurant.” The location? I took it yesterday at the Grounds for Sculpture located in Hamilton Township, N.J.

Don’t get me wrong. The Grounds for Sculpture is a stunning place, with hundreds of striking and creative outdoor sculptures, beautiful landscaping and pathways that beckon with a mantra hum …like the one in this photo, also taken yesterday:

It’s a place filled with wit and wisdom and wonder, with the beauty of spirit and the spirit of beauty. I intend to go back some glorious morning in spring and I want to walk there in silent winter snow and I want to hear the soft crackle of leaves beneath my feet as I get lost in autmn on the perfectly unpredictable paths.

Yesterday was a hot day, with thunderstorms rumbling and dark clouds looking so biblical that the experience was nearly humbling…but not enough to resist the temptation to say “Visit the Grounds for Sculpture. But don’t bother sitting through the introductory film  in which someone rambles very seriously about experiencing the wonder of art and making it one’s own and other very pretentious prattle that the narrator with her very British accent manages to read without even one little proper giggle.

Here’s the link to the Grounds for Sculpture.

Get past the fact that these folks take themselves just a little too seriously and definitely need a new scriptwriter — and you’ll find it to be a place you’ll want to visit again and again.

P.S. At the entrance to one of the indoor exhibits I found a plaque bearing the best poem I’ve ever read or heard about the horrors of Sept. 11, 2001. It was written by my friend BJ Ward just days after the tragedy. BJ read this powerful poem just a few weeks later at one of the readings in the Delaware Valley Poetry Festival series I’d started just a few years before. I remember saying to people at the time that the poets and I had discussed whether it was right to hold the reading series that awful autumn. BJ’s stunning poem made it clear that proceeding with the event wasn’t just right – it was necessary:

For the Children of the World Trade Center Victims

Nothing could have prepared you—

Note: Every poem I have ever written

is not as important as this one.

Note: This poem says nothing important.

Clarification of last note:

This poem cannot save 3,000 lives.

Note: This poem is attempting to pull your father

out of the rubble, still living and glowing

and enjoying football on Sunday.

Note: This poem is trying to reach your mother

in her business skirt, and get her home

to Ridgewood where she can change

to her robe and sip Chamomile tea

as she looks through the bay window at the old,

untouched New York City skyline.

Note: This poem is aiming its guns at the sky

to shoot down the terrorists and might

hit God if He let this happen.

Note: This poem is trying to turn

that blooming of orange and black

of the impact into nothing

more than a sudden tiger-lily

whose petals your mother and father

could use as parachutes, float down

to the streets below, a million

dandelion seeds drifting off

to the untrafficked sky above them.

Note: This poem is still doing nothing.

Note: Somewhere in this poem there may be people alive,

and I’m trying like mad to reach them.

Note: I need to get back to writing the poem to reach them

instead of dwelling on these matters, but how

can any of us get back to writing poems?

Note: The sound of this poem: the sound

of a scream in 200 different languages

that outshouts the sounds of sirens and

airliners and glass shattering and

concrete crumbling as steel is bending and

the orchestral tympani of our American hearts

when the second plane hit.

Note: The sound of a scream in 200 languages

is the same sound.

It is the sound of a scream.

Note: In New Jersey over the next four days,

over thirty people asked me

if I knew anyone in the catastrophe.

Yes, I said.

I knew every single one of them.

BJ Ward

from Gravedigger’s Birthday(North Atlantic Books)

Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled…

William Butler Yeats

Happy birthday to one of  our world’s greatest poets, William Butler Yeats, who was born on this day in 1865 and died in 1939. So many of his works have stuck in my mind and moved my spirit: “The Second Coming,” “Easter 1916,” “Sailing to Byzantium,” “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death,” “Leda and the Swan,” and others.

But this poem, most of all, resides deep in my heart…it resonates and aches and echoes and whispers…

When you are old and grey and full of sleep,

And nodding by the fire, take down this book,

And slowly read, and dream of the soft look

Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

How many loved your moments of glad grace,

And loved your beauty with love false or true,

But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,

And loved the sorrows of your changing face;

And bending down beside the glowing bars,

Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled

And paced upon the mountains overhead

And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.

On the lighter side…

Here’s the great satirist Tom Lehrer (apparently still alive and kicking, at age 84) with his less-serious take on Yeats:

How Ray Bradbury helped me earn an “A” in English

Ray Bradbury

I’ve got a personal memory of the late, great Ray Bradbury that’s bittersweet — but sweeter and way less bitter than it was at that time. It’s about when the author of “Fahrenheit 451,” “The Martian Chronicles,” “Dandelion Wine” and “The Illustrated Man” helped me earn an “A” in an independent study English course I took during my senior year at a college in western New York.

The course required a mini-thesis, no classes, and periodic meetings with the department chairman, a wonderful and wise old gentleman (as in probably in his early 60s —  I mean, afterall, I was just 20 years old) named Leo Maloney.

I’d been reading a lot of Nathaniel Hawthorne — specifically, I was captivated by the short story “Young Goodman Brown” and the novels “The House of the Seven Gables” and “The Scarlet Letter.”

And I loved everything I’d read by Ray Bradbury — especially “The Martian Chronicles,” which I still think is one of the greatest books I’ve ever read — and had just read (and really liked) his novel “Something Wicked This Way Comes.”

I got it in my head that there were parallels between those works by Hawthorne and Bradbury.

I’d also been reading a lot of literary history, criticism and theory and had been struck by what I’d read somewhere about something referred to as the “numinous,” which I understood and explained as a sense of mystery and foreboding and impending disaster, an unnamed fear, an uneasiness that can’t quite be explained, a dark presence that you can’t quite put your finger on  but the sense of it keeps you awake at night.

I detected and felt that in the works of both men, especially in Bradbury’s “Something Wicked This Way Comes,” which combines gothic elements with sweet nostalgia for childhood innocence in a story revolving around the appearance in a small midwestern town of a mysterious traveling carnival headlined by the strange Mr. Dark,  and  Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown,” the story of young man who sets off at sunset into the dark woods around Salem, Massachusetts, leaving behind his wife Faith as he embarks on a mysterious mission.

That became my thesis, which was titled something like “Things That Go Bump in the Night: Examples of the Numinous in Works by Ray Bradbury and Nathaniel Hawthorne.”

Here’s the sweet part of the memory: Somehow I came upon a mailing address for Bradbury,, somewhere in California, I think in Los Angeles. With all the cockiness and gumption I could muster (which was a lot of cockiness and gumption), I wrote to Bradbury and explained my thesis.

And, about a week later, the great man wrote back!I’ve lost — or at least can’t find — the letter. But in it, I remember, he talked about how others had cited such influences as Herman Melville and Edgar Rice Burroughs on hiswork. But, he said, no one had really ever mentioned the influence of Hawthorne — and, Bradbury said, as a youngster he had loved and devoured the writings of Nathaniel Hawthorne. So, yes, he said, I was right on target in detecting the dark and mysterious presence of Hawthorne in his work.

I incorporated most of Bradbury’s letter into my thesis paper. I got an “A” for the paper and the course. How could I not?

The bitter part? I was 20. I wrote poetry. I had made a connection with a great, famous writer. So I wrote back to him, sending him a copy of my thesis — and well as a sampling of two or three of my poems.

A few weeks later, another envelope arrived from Ray Bradbury. In it were copies of my two poems — marked up and edited heavily with red pen. To put it mildly, Bradbury ripped my poems to shreds. OK, fine. But what really got my goat was that he’d also enclosed one of his own poems — “When Elephants Last in the Dooryard Bloomed,” I think it was called, and cited it as an example of a well-crafted poem, a poem I could learn from and use as a model.

Sorry, I still think Bradbury was a great fiction writer in his early years but that he was never anything more than mediocre as a poet.

So…20-year-old me took up my own red pen, marked up my copy of “When Elephants Last…,” and mailed it back to Bradbury.

I never heard from Ray Bradbury again.

Now, of course, that exchange of poems doesn’t mean nearly as much as the great works of fiction the man left behind. I was bitter about his comments about my poems. Now I think it’s funny — even though I still don’t think he was right.

So rest in peace, Ray Bradbury, where gentle rains fall upon the red Martian hills, or perhaps someplace where three suns rise and three suns set, in all their glory, three times a day, over lush green hills, where you sit at your typewriter banging out beautiful fiction and not-to-great but heartfelt poems..

Black Angel’s initial flight

That's novelist Steven Hart (rear) during an event held at his Highland Park, N.J., store, Nighthawk Books, where a book-publication party will be held Thursday, July 14, marking the release of the first three books issued by Steve's Black Angel imprint.

Find your way to Highland Park, New Jersey, on Thursday, July 14, and you’ll find me at the publication party celebrating the publication of friend and colleague Steve Hart’s first novel, “We All Fall Down.”

Steve’s new small-press imprint is based at his used-book and films emproium Nighthawk Books on Raritan Avenue in Highland Park, where the publication party will be held from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. – with the added attraction (as if you needed more reason to attend than the opportunity to buy a signed copy of Steve’s novel) of music by the talented Matt DeBlass.

The new literary enterprise, called Black Angel Press (www.blackangelpress.com) is making its debut with three books: Steve’s novel “We All Fall Down” (which just got a thumb’s up in the book-review column of the New York Post); “Blips,” a collection of well-wrought poetry by John Marron; and “19th Nervous Breakdown: Making Human Connections in the Landscape of Commerce,” a provocative and entertaining book by Joseph Zitt, a work based on his experiences working for the Borders bookstore chain.

Take time to welcome this new literary enterprise — which, if all goes according to plan, will soon be publishing one (and maybe two )novellas by Nicholas DiGiovanni. It’s true! There’s even a very talented artist already working on ideas for the covers of planned editions of the novellas “Rip,” a modern-day tongue-in–cheek retelling of the Rip van Winkle story, and “The Dogs of Arroyo,” a spooky parable set in Puerto Rico complete with santeria gods who hold sway in the rain forest at night and are not happy that the island has become an economic colony of that big country to the north.

But that will be then and let’s get back to now: Thursday, July 14, from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m., at Nighthawk Books in Highland Park, N.J. a party celebrating the release of the first three books by Black Angel Press. I’ll be there and I hope you’ll all try to be there too.

The bridge

Here’s something I wrote last week, inspired by a span in the Massachusetts Berkshires called the French King Bridge. Somehow a couple of glasses of cheap merlot told my mind and memory that it was called the King Philip Bridge…Anyway…the poem’s not good…it may be awful…but I want to post it anyway…it’s sort of a historical document. N.B. One reader of the poem speculated that the narrator (and hence, perhaps, the writer) was contemplating “taking the plunge” and my answer was no, not literally, for both the speaker of the poem and its writer have a terrible fear of heights…so, not literally, but maybe symbolically and maybe figuratively…do not be afraid…

The Bridge
I believe
it might be called
King Philip Bridge
although the name
doesn’t matter
except it’s got a name
that’s regal
and she told me
she had stopped there once
when police were searching
for two people
who had jumped
to their future off
this majestic bridge
and now she had stopped
on her way here
and had taken such photos
such beautiful photos
that she cited Ansel Adams
and I thought not nearly so
but told her yes
I could see it
could see what she meant
and it was no lie
and I’m thinking amid the beauty
and the karma and the zen
where did those poor souls go
there was irony that day and night
that day I’d asked her to let me know
if she had arrived safely
and she’d said no
but then she did
she let me know
that she was alright
and more irony that night
on the night when night
became the darkest night
that young girl came with me
to Zen and to Karma
and one human being
was kept alive thereby
for at least one more day
and perhaps one night

or was this in my mind
i think it was in my mind
perhaps it’s only
in my mind

the bridge was named I believe
after an Native American chief
that sort of king
a redskinned king
not a paleface king
a king with no castle
defeated
without a home
a real king

such beauty yes I saw it
in her photographs
but also
as I drove two weekends past
to Boston on the pretence
of seeing old friends
but really to see her
and I thought of her as I drove
along the Mohawk trail
and over that bridge of beauty
that bridge of sorrow too
with its white granite towers

and i think that perhaps
her photos and the driving
and the talk of poor people
who took the plunge
to who knows where

the talk of how she stood
so high and on slippery walks
in order to snap and snare
such beauty that Ansel
would answer YES this is it
that somehow this YES
that this witnessed
beauty
helped
form these words

So today I’ll seek
that haunted span
and overcome my fear of heights
and plumb the depths of sorrow
and look way down
and look far up
because love gasps
and love grasps
and love drowns
in that place where current
runs deep
where current runs strong
and helicopters hover
and wait at the gate
for when the next knave
knocks upon love’s
topaz door
and seeks
guidance
from love’s
compass
needle