Thursday, December 20, 2007

Watteau (After the Chinese)

20 December 2007. Winter light, sun, long shadows, streets wet with last night's rain.

Ahn Dong Ni, hermit painter of the Lijiang. Perhaps you know him? Osmanthus blossoms in late fall, water buffalo and phoenix-tail bamboo. The cormorant dipping for fish in silver green-gray waters and the mountains of Guilin hovering in the mist. Fields with remnants of the harvest--wandering rows of rice on browned earth, the stalks tended and tied, each by hand. A child's braids. Effie just ahead, on her bicycle, turns suddenly and smiles, as she shows me her home. Do you know the poems of Po Chü-i? His small house with pond alongside--just as it is here, perhaps. Hint of winter in the still-warm air, farmer's smoke at dusk...

Thank you, Mao-Yun, for the name--which can mean everything... And David: "For water clarifies the spirit, no less than a perfect friend..."

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Cosumnes Reserve

Gnarly oak on autumn hill, run of land to water's edge. Interwoven branches, Xs and Ys, now seen for what they are--a cork tree without its Ferdinand. Peaceful, that is--in the absence of the maker. At the same time: a kind of defiance. Long-term maintenance man. And Chinese Song--the dynasty, that is. Paintings from childhood, awkward and sincere--the obligation to represent--with every doubt about perfection. But wait--who was the judge? A wandering mallard? The cattails? The wind?

Monday, October 15, 2007

Yang Kuei-fei

Eucalypyus leaves just outside the window, touches of blue, sky and cloud....Yang Kuei-fei. Her eternal absence--a great beauty, brought to ruin. Fine and solemn profile, eyes turned down, even as her serving-maids help her mount the gray mare. Farther off, to the right--and separate--the figure of the emperor, Huan Tsung, devoted in his love...but (caught in) the exigencies of time: "This is necessary." Someone else's story, as with my father--quoting Lenin--"When the train of history goes around a curve..."


Gray branches on a gray field. Dark winter birds--grackles and crows--resting now, just out of sight. Valley land, furrowed and plowed. Gray skies, gray wind.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Weeping Child

Began with Milosz in his essay on Lev Shestov. His discussion of Ivan Karamazov--"Imagine that it is you yourself who are erecting the edifice of human destiny with the aim of making men happy in the end, of giving them peace and contentment at last..." Would this indeed be worth more than the tears of a single child?

But here there's something more of the Caribbean--or even Africa--as the subject of those tears. And a history that was anything but hypothetical. Edward P. Jones, in his novel, The Known World. An invented county in Virginia, from just before the Civil War, slaves and slave-holders both of African descent. Scene at the end--the madwoman, who reappears as author of a mural wall in far-off Washington--a perfect rendition in great detail of the very estate she's managed to escape...

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Vienna (Leopoldstadt)

Leopoldstadt, Alt-Wien. A man playing the violin, figure of a young girl alongside, her right arm outstretched, offering a coin. The old world--a certain formality, born of time--the overcoat, the hat, the leaning pose--gestures containing the past. As in a painting of two horses, by Gericault--beginnings of the modern world. In an alleyway or stall, seen from behind, their nobility played against an inevitable dailiness. Bulk and weight...

Nothing like it since the age of Rome: walls of Pompeii, figure of a man offering loaves of bread from a window, his arms reaching down... The people below. Gesture of plenty, all that can be known. Panadero...

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Rosh Hashanah

Early Soviet version, perhaps--vision of the future, a time of hope. Roman Vishniac: young people, seated together at long benches, bandanas and scarves, plans for farming, olive groves, fields of wheat. Instead, a rocky landscape, water sparse, someone else's home. Sentries and stockades--another future, but still the hope...

Dark waters of the Moldau, Czechoslovakia. The old names... A sweet new year...

Friday, September 14, 2007

Munkacs (Rosh Hashanah)

Munkacs, a town in the Carpathians, once part of Hungary (hence the name), today in the Western Ukraine. Photographs in Roman Vishniac--the shul of the Mukachevo Rebbe. Described there, room awash with seforim, the books every which way on old wooden shelves. The year was 1938, R. Baruch Rabinowitz, "seated between candles...," his chassidim gathered round...

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Warszawa (Pool)

Zampano, umber wash, whites painted back in. Akademia Sztuk Pieknych... Photographs of Warszawa during the war--single figure with heavy bundle, carried on his shoulder, one arm reaching over. Street of blasted buildings, rubble. Other smaller figures in the distance. One carrying a pail? Grainy black and white--000653 the only title.

By contrast, Hotel Polonia, on Jerozolimskie. Still there. Where Soviet-era businessmen would gather in a dingy lobby, old-time waiters, shadowy Polish girls... Now gleaming with sconces, off-white walls, irises in vases, a brilliant orange--and shining table settings. Next image: view out plate-glass window towards the Palac Kultury, indigo sky, while in the foreground, on a linen-covered table, two drinks, and a lighted cigar. Alongside, framed photograph, leaning back--Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra...

No one else about...

Wednesday, June 20, 2007


Two clumsy completions. "You've always been a formalist," this from Steve, yesterday, visiting here for the afternoon, en route north to Laytonville, with Zoe. Two shapes--lanterns,maybe--one light, the other dark. La Vida es Sueño--Calderon de la Barca. Two ships, in the night--or a dark lane in Tai-O, Lantau. Guangdong water town... Something austere--as in the film--starkness of the shapes in an otherwise empty courtyard--voluptuous and severe--all their contradictions intact...

Monday, June 18, 2007

Jerusalem, Evening

The Hotel Palatin, Jersusalem, 1991. Such a homely association, each time, perhaps becuase we arrived there in the very middle of the night. Up Bab il Wad from Tel Aviv, leaning out the window of the cab, into the springtime air, balmy and fragrant--the orange blossoms, just as Avram Unger described. From a different time. But it's always a different time--that's how things work. Touchstones of gold, mineral earth, lasting forever--or so it seems. What is a stone? Refashioned, sometimes--the Hyksos, Tel Amarna, David... Hezekiah, Sennacherib, Nebuchadnezzar. Ezra and the Persians... Rome, Godfrey de Bouillon. Mamaluks, Seljuks, Ottomans... Allenby and the Brits... But aways the same stone, a terrace, a wall--what else can one build?--planting olive trees as well--a thousand years old, gaunt, dry, enduring...


Mako or minnow? Sharks and sardines. Who would know for sure. You put your foot in the water and see what happens. Water, fire, fire and and water, fire in the abend, abend, evening, evening fire... Paul Feyerabend, making his way across the Berkeley campus--on crutches, one finger in the air. Eyes sharpened--challenging. But playful, too. Then, in a small kitchen, standing at the sink, somewhere in Europe--his ruddy face, small yellow light off to the side, golden-orange fruit in a basket. He's wearing an apron, holding a small cooking pot, at an angle, washing up. "Against Method," that was the idea. No one path to truth. A smile, perhaps...

Thursday, June 14, 2007


A willow walk in Pimlico. Gray ale house dawn, bending for that last nibble of grass. Seabicuit, the Preakness, Baltimore of old. Checkered pants and jockey's cap...standing by the machine. Ancient mores, carried across the sea--creaky wooden, staves carved in oak, rolling through the storm... But today--all fog and mist, canal banks lost in gray. Church bells tolling, bells, for whom, tolling, bells...


These things happen...b'yvaet, as the Russians have it. Loping herd, seen from above--across the face of the Sudan. Mothers, fathers, children, all that same packy form, loose folds of skin, floppy ears, but lithe as well, in some ancient unnamable way. History of the race--unacceptable speech, to so characterize the past. "Something Korean..." They didn't like it when I'd say that. Wanted me to be Mr. Neutral--like a 7-eleven, or Miramax. But there WAS something Korean--like Hojin, yesterday--on her first visit--bowing at the threshhold of my studio. I asked her about it later--"My mother taught me..." A recognition.

Words following seeing following feeling...

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

The Tiki Room (Remnant)

Brown wood, long-bladed knife, the one with the pearl-yellow handle. Dad's own, from the produce market, San Diego, maybe 1925. "Do you have a picture of your parents?" Nathaniel, yesterday, in youthful innocence--no more than a trip to Santa Cruz... Years ago: Peter's room--the mahagony desk, small and compact, three drawers on the right--each with a layer of the past. The letter from Count Basie, for instance--in his own hand, on tan stationary, with risqué printed drawings. Dave Brubeck, too--typed out, single spaced, on three sheets of onionskin... Answers to questions--even the questions unasked. Then the tiki, just below--an image of a god? More a childhood dream--that carved shape--like an image of the rest of one's life. "The downwind ama...", under sail, across the wide Pacific...

Monday, June 11, 2007

Loon (for Leonard Nathan)

Dear Carol--

This painting is, again, as so often this past year, with Leonard in mind. I know I've told you this before, but it's even more true now. I'm remembering the last time he and I took one of the walks through Tilden--over the bridge near the pond just below Lake Anza, with Leonard hearing all the birds call, so quickly that I'd notice him hearing before I even knew to listen. We didn't see a loon that day, but this one has appeared, and it seems only right. The most ancient of birds.

Art is not a solace precisely--but it is what we turn to. Painting has kept me going, through much.

Leonard asked me, several years ago, when you were having trouble, about prayer. I remember thinking about his question very carefully. The easy answer would have been to recommend the siddur--and all the Jewish prayers that were not really a part of his life. Instead, I told him that in my mother's last month, when I was down in Oceanside, it was in the middle of the night I'd find myself reading the old Chinese poems. Po Chu-i, Tu Fu, Li Po...Wang Wei...

This loon is for Leonard, watching...

Monday, May 28, 2007

Painted Bird

Gray sky at a gray dawn. Hint of sun through screen door to the east, narrow strip of yard, dark brown fence, white vine blossoms trailing over from the other side. A fig tree, too, but later in the year, branches heavy... Full of starlings, their squawk and chatter--appearing suddenly, ready for lunch. Thinking of Su Tung-Po, alone on the river at night, everything still, he considers the spider, the lonely mud worm... Man's fate, Leonard's as well, also alone...

Eternity and a Day

Bruno Ganz, on a quayside, somewhere in Europe. Photo in the NY Times, a decade back. Saved, the figure in the long coat, alone, walking with his ship, somewhere in the distance. Transposed here, more the sound of foghorns out on the bay, the Golden Gate, hidden, in the mist... Walking along the docks, that would have been 1955--a working port, freighters and longshoremen, cargo nets, cranes...the sailors' joints tucked away under the Bay Bridge, more by reputation... Staying somewhere downtown, awake at dawn, first cable car to Fisherman's Wharf... Crab pots, Monterey hulls, the life of the sea...

(for Nathan Kernan)


White swan on gray-green waters. The Zwanenburgwal, Amsterdam--old city, built on land reclaimed from the sea. Down in a basement, you lift a wooden trap door, and there, just a few feet below, the waters again, dark and disconcerting, and very very close. But then you become accustomed to the idea...the dam, the wall, the river itself...

Where these names come from...where they carry us...

Monday, April 16, 2007

Bucharesti (Winter)

A dry drab Warsaw-pact sky, Roumania as evolution--the year is 1945. A single suitcase, Gara de Nord. The only ticket available. Basarab--no--more Beregovsky's Khasene, the one with the newlyweds, their serious faces, veiled smiles, from sometime before the war. Now just a suitcase--quality luggage, on Lars' recommendation. But also, painting as a kind of reliving...first Portbou, the Hotel de Francia, steep cliffs to the sea, early autumn light. The Angel of History, looking back. But no, this is Bucharest, the Gara de Nord, a maze of tracks swerving urgently to the left, power stanchions, muted sky. Just the lights of one monstruous hotel parked far in the distance, poplar trees, even, almost green...

Monday, April 09, 2007

De Mi Abuela

No hay quien pueda, no hay quien pueda,con la gente marinera.
Marinera, pescadora, no hay quien pueda,por ahora.
Si te quieres casar con las chicas de aquí, tienes que ir a buscar capital a Madrid, capital a Madrid, capital a Madrid,
si te quieres casar con las chicas de aquí.

Darkened rooms in late summer, heavy wooden blinds to hold out the light. Los Porteños buscan...buscan...pero buscan a qué? Romancero. Quiet tree-lined streets, cobble stones and gray walls...balcony above. Figure half-hidden behind white curtains. Si te quieres casar...

Sunday, April 08, 2007


White doves, just under the eaves, on Miramar. Yerushalayim, also just this time. Small window in a tiny room, opening to courtyard below. Calling before dawn, hilltop to hilltop, morning to come. Of that place--embedded, if a song could be so. Awakening, rather. Sound of muezzin, from somewhere far off, a tower on another hill...also of the place. And a lion's roar, in the darkness as well--from the old British fort, on yet another hill... All together, morning light...

Rock Dove

Rock Dove--early morning shadows outside a New York window, 9th or 10th floor, Zette's, in the garment district, not far from Port Authority Terminal. Winter light--that particular cold sun-filled brilliance. Moving along a ledge, just outside the frosted glass, no thoughts at first--only an awareness of other living beings. Everything alive. On a street corner in Oakland, a few years later, 14th and Broadway, in the shadow of the Pelli tower, late afternoon, veiled California sun... Life of the pigeon--life of anyone. Wet feathers in wet evening rain. Sound of cars and cabs, whoosh of water on glossed pavement. Annonymous accomodation. What would it be like to be gone?

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Red Sparrow

Da zdrastvouye sotzialisticheskaya revolyutziya...or something about like that... All those case endings, armored trains. Trotsky in the snow--Siberia, sometime in winter, maybe 1919. At the end of a long season, just before, that is, a possibility, again, this becoming. To Tom, esta manana: Clifford Still, the new museum in Denver, to be devoted solely to his work. "Like Robinson Jeffers, but without the poems..."

That's not the right note. Wander rather into sweetness--touch and accomodation. The bird is on the branch--his eyes are on the sparrow...


Sunday, April 01, 2007

Pajaro de Noche

Lone bird on a lone branch. Evening of dark clouds coming in off the bay, light of the first few stars...

Pajaro de Noche. La golondrina. A swallow (have to check), appearing again on the same afternoon in a tango as sung by Charlo. From Buenos Aires, in 1935--after the passing of Carlos Gardel. Recuerdos de la Pampa, su barrio propio--Avellaneda, San Telmo, Constitución. With trenches and foxholes carved by nineteen-year-old recruits...los Rojos y los Azules--1961--two sides of the same force, marching on parallel streets until someome screws up, and they meet...test of manhood, perhaps. Violent, unbelieveable, absurd. Always so. The town of Berisso--close to the river, rickety shacks, open fields. Gray-brown expanse away to Uruguay. In clay: the figure of a Russian woman--that's how she's described. An immigrant, like all the rest (Italia, Grecia, Cabo Verde). Kneeling, with a basket of fruit. The strength in that pose, also ancient...

Espero sin Esperanza

Espero pero sin esperanza. When I told Mauricio the title, I had to add an immediate disclaimer. Was that for myself, or for him? Of course, sin esperanza...where to wait becomes to hope. A cloud--white against blue, ruffled edges, they mill about, constantly changing. Imagined beings, at least from below: a figure on horseback, a dragon, a knowing cat. Nicola, yesterday morning, for example--I lean down, put my face close to hers, at the very end of the bed. A meow of acknowledgment--and disregard. She jumps to the floor, and with four quick steps to the bedroom door, pauses for a long long stretch...then disappears suddenly down the stairs...

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Ojos Tristes

Tienen tus ojos un raro encanto,
tus ojos tristes como de niño
que no ha sentido ningún cariño;
tus ojos dulces como de santo.

¡Ay!, Si no fuera pedirte tanto,
yo te pidiera vivir de hinojos,
mirando siempre tus tristes ojos:
ojos que tienen,
ojos que tienen sabor de llanto.
¡Ay!, Si no fuera pedirte tanto...

Letra: Alfredo Aguilar Alfaro / Música: Guty Cárdenas

On Return

Wash of light, on return. Simply the possibility of beginning again--that phrase, each time, a wonder. Make it new. Pound in London, Venice, New Jersey--St. Elizabeth's, yes. Always the return, as if our roots would grow into an impenetrable forest, thick from the inside (dense hedgery just behind 801 Michigan--1954 or so, pathway and burrow). The child's mind--everything possible, bewilderingly so? Reading Steinbeck, a few years later, other times, other places. Cannery Row--Monterey, an edge of the sea, opening onto gray-green swells...

Tuesday, March 20, 2007


Sister Rosetta Tharpe--I Hear Music in the Air. This morning, early, two doves--before the rain. Voices aligned, overlapping. Where one stops the other begins. Then a single voice. The sound distinct. Should there be two? A harmony of sorts--or a meaningfulness, in any case. Look into her face--the answer mirrored. Under eaves, tucked away--nest of sparrow, perhaps--small, dark bird with glittering eye--just behind the metal downspout outside Hearst. Precarious existence, no higher tha the hand. And yet we trust...


The one white spot--an after thought, perhaps--but understood. Bringing indecision to a conclusion. Humorous? Jaunty, rather--to the degree that a small whitish square can be jaunty. Like the stone that Baucis (or was it Philemon) tucked away under a wobbly table leg--unsteady before--to make her home acceptable to the gods. Divine guests, that is. Did they know them? Two travelers, a bit tired from the journey, in need of refreshment and a place to rest. Wine unending... The only one in the valley... Their roots entwined forever...woven...


Sound of the fado--Lisboa, a sleepy port, as if on the Mediterranean. But no, it's the open sea--L'Atalante. A kind of vision--the immediacy. Her hair, even before I might have known. Frizzy sometimes, in rain. Not so frequent, down there. In the twenties--mysterious sound. An unknown decade--prehistoric, even. The stories all seem to come later--Bert Gronberg and the bookshop, a gatherings of poets, someone sitting high up on a ladder--or was that the Gotham--from a photograph--Auden, I think--also up high, his perch, overlooking the rest. I'm looking at it now...Dame Edith Sitwell, Elizabeth Bishop, Randall Jarrell. Horace Gregory, Stephen Spender. Tennessee Williams too.

She always preferred Tolstoy. We never quite got to the bottom of it. Something about the breadth--a social vision. An ongoing conversation. Or was that me?

Sea legs...

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Early Spring

Possibilities of meaning--just that. A hope, a glimmer. Leaving out so much--or is it simply finding the right place to stop. Reticent--an appealing word. Makes sense, even in the ongoing rush of images and words. Not the route of apocalypse--rearing its head like some god of war--but more the gazelle, the earthworm, the butterfly...

Gentleness and accomodation--the LiJiang. Figures alongside a stream. Pale plum blossoms. Resilience, too...

Friday, March 02, 2007

Little Omie Wise

By the edge of the water, Adams Springs... Adamantly herself--and yet at the same time vulnerable. Anna Domino's reconstruction--a letter from Omie Wise to her aunt, morning of that day. Compelling, even with (or maybe because of) all the layers of the social history. That a girl expecting had to name the father--or risk losing her child to the state... A dangerous choice. But the form of the song itself is darker--not with this motivation on John Lewis' part. His act--more out of nowhere--and much more chilling.

Water spirit, descending. Harshness of the unknown land...a vast continent, faintly seen, even more faintly imagined. And yet, the local mountain air... Adams Springs, name itself, a coming forth, a beginning...

Tuesday, February 20, 2007


White shoulders against a gray-tan world. Figure in the mist, but all is clear. As to language--Bello Horizonte--the sound of it. From the Latin--where form supercedes feeling... How is that now not possible? Catullus, Horace...Ovid. Too much of a track record. And yet, the Mediterranean light--with fewer middle tones, shadings. Where are those northern shadows...the long, slow dusk in Amsterdam, fading into evening...

Sunday, February 18, 2007


Spring like days, mid-February, tiny white blossoms on narrow plum branches, shower of yellow on the mimosa. Playing by the edge of Thousand Oaks field--ring of old brickwork around an even older oak, tangle of alder and willow down to the stream... Seated there, with guitar, looking out at figures in the sun--the young Asian woman who tosses a ball for her three young children, squatting now on her haunches, in what must be the old country way, so that even her three-year old is taller as she stands wobbily alongside... Approaching, on the other side of the fence, and smiling as she hears the music--Roll on Columbia, in a low voice, blending in with the leaves... This Land Is Your Land, slow as well, thinking of the way Dylan handles it--a kind of recognition, a homage...times remembered, times known...

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Hazel and Blue

Began with a tape of June Carter, maybe fifty years ago, appearing on a Pete Seeger television show, a lanky and expressively nervous Johnny Cash seated right alongside. Her steadfast voice--beautiful, and like a rock. The song--"I'm Thinking Tonight of My Blue Eyes," written by A.P. Carter, and maybe too true. Always so, in one like this--where the meaning of music carries even against woe. Frank O'Hara, The Day Lady Died. A world at hand--what we know best...

Monday, January 08, 2007


A rustic hare--or rusty, maybe. Winter burrows, darkened fields. Digging for scraps of root and seed. Seamus Heaney--the grain scoop, its heft and swing. Loaded words--something like work itself. A train of hares, bearing torches--from Teutonic myth. Or Andraste, goddess of the moon--sacred to her as well. Shape shifter--Easter, estrus--carrying an egg, fertility brought down in nighttime light. Cerridwen, too. Both tough and vulnerable--the two combined. "Hop little rabbit..."

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Tujague's Bayou

Tujague's--the old Creole place on Decatur Street. Two-Jacks, is how they said it, no hesitation. But that was twenty years ago--New Orleans as she was, family-style, impossibly ample, all one menu, prix fix... Not far beyond, the mighty river, 300 feet deep here at the widest bend, with blunt-nosed tugs pushing up and down stream... The season was winter, an icy wind through Jackson Square, inviting lights of Lafitte's Blacksmith Shop--the ancient dame at her piano, visitors and friends gathered around, atmosphere of old songs... Beyond, the still brown gray waters, motionless, cypress swamps with limbs exposed, raw boards outside some shack--nutria hides stretched over the gray wood, nailed around the edges to cure and dry... Jack Smith includes them--Saut Crapaud by Columbus Fruge, The Acadian One-Step by Joseph Falcon, Home Sweet Home by Breaux Freres... Taste of something locale, something pungent, something old...

Thursday, January 04, 2007

River Gray

Also from the Li Jiang, with two of the Guilin peaks, very faint. At first go, felt like the boat should be golden-sienna, but this proved too strong. Reworking it today, painting back that area, then drawing in a mueuzy boat with wobbly lines—faint wash of raw umber, with touch of blue and green, just enough to make it present, in the Chinese way. As if almost not there…a kind of quiet, disappearing. A world apart from Scilla and Charybdis, the source of so much melodrama…sounds of clashing stone. Here more an unending stream—whose mountains made it possible. Also, from somewhere, Calderon de la Barca: La Vida es Sueño. River Gray.


A brown field, reworked many times, different levels of detail. The wash both hides and reveals--a bit of texture in the pigment itself, mixed with white, the way it dries down. In part by accident--directed, though--a kind of intuition as to just what can happen. Nevertheless, almost always a surprise, when the color becomes light. Bonnard's idea--if he could keep a motif clearly in mind, he could work on the painting for twenty years. Morandi, though--immediacy, all in the touch. One pass, sometimes, and it was complete...

Wednesday, January 03, 2007


Wayside pool, touches of white, but it was her hair, finally, that took hold--the shape widening inexplicably, old style, as if gathered, and pulled in at the back--like someone from Ireland, recently arrived--Brooklyn, maybe, or Corlear's Hook--Pearl Street, St. James Place, Gouveneur Lane... As in Sebald, that specific sense of the past, carried by place names, scraps of print, a landscape happened on by chance... There's no knowing, really, only a rose-colored dress, from years before, now worn again, a kind of remembering...