Sunday, January 27, 2013


They didn’t bring me a letter today:
He forgot to write, or he went away;
Spring is like a trill of silver laughter,
Boats are rocking on the bay.
They didn’t bring me a letter today . . .

He was still with me just recently,
So much in love, affectionate and mine,
But that was white wintertime.
Now it is spring, and spring’s sadness is poisonous.
He was with me just recently . . .

I listen: the light, trembling bow of a violin,
Like the pain before death, beats, beats,
How terrible that my heart will break
Before these tender lines are complete.

~ Anna Akhmatova, translated by Judith Hemschemeyer

(By the way, a wonderful selection of Akhmatova’s poems in Hemschmeyer’s translation has been published by Shambala books -- that small-size jewels that fit in a purse or a pocket.)

First, let me clarify that I think Akhmatova was a great poet, and the “slave of love” in the title is not meant to disparage her in the slightest. Akhmatova was also one of those lucky individuals who found their vocation early in life. She certainly wasn’t going to stop writing to please a man, though she duly records how some men thought that for a woman to be a poet was “ridiculous.” All the famous poets of her time were men. Eventually Marina Tzvetayeva was to gain recognition, though never the kind of popular acclaim won by Akhmatova.

While Tzvetayeva presents herself as a very unusual woman with whom it may be difficult for other women to identify, Akhmatova speaks in a way that any young woman can identify with. Feminism notwithstanding, and speaking from observation as well as personal experience, it’s hard for a young woman to concentrate on matters such as career choice. Typically, the center of her life is romantic love. Can we blame her? A lot of it is biological: a woman’s brain is wired for empathy and love since her great task is to be a mother. She doesn’t need to apologize for that.

Yes, you may say, but what about the obsessiveness: “They didn’t bring me a letter today” -- and it’s the end of the world. In modern terms: he forgot to call this morning! No email for two days! The technology has changed, but a great need for loving contact remains.

(Something in me says, “Really now!” -- especially when reading the last stanza, which I don’t believe for a minute. But that’s the posthumous self interrupting. Let’s ignore it.)

Byron made the famous observation:

Man’s love is of man’s life a thing apart,
‘Tis woman’s whole existence.

Times have changed, but have they totally changed? Since I don’t want to be accused of making broad statements, let me stay with personal experience. Much had to happen before I could call myself

a woman with two hearts,
one of which doesn’t 

need love.

That poem (“Baba Yaga”) was not written until my late thirties. My first poems were mostly poems of obsessive love. Women poets used to joke about the “to be burned” pile to which such efforts should be consigned. We are embarrassed to have sounded so crazy about a man who now strikes us as hopelessly boring, disappointing, and not half as talented as we were. But let’s forgive ourselves: we were young. Romantic love was the most exciting thing in our lives, the most radiant, the last ruined refuge of the sacred and the ideal. Was it possible to live without it? No. We truly believed it, and, at the time, we were probably right.

I wasn’t “really me” until my mid-thirties. That makes me a lost soul until then, and a late bloomer, I know. But I can’t help noticing that I have plenty of company among the women I know. Again, I know I need to beware of broad statements. My story is my own: my early writing efforts came to an end when I heard the verdict, “Maybe the talent just isn’t there.” I didn’t hear the “maybe.” I heard: “The talent is not there,” and my barely awakening desire to be a writer withered.

I tried other fields, and nothing really worked. I couldn’t “find myself.” Then I fell madly in love. Pardon the cliché, but “madly” says it best. And I began writing again. And he who was god said, “You have talent.” And my life changed.

It changed again when I took a class on modern German poetry, and encountered Rilke. Rilke showed me what poetry was. He taught me seriousness. I could say that Rilke changed my life, and conceal the embarrassing idolatry that preceded my falling in love with Rilke’s work, and with poetry in general. But for the sake of honesty I admit: I started out as a “slave of love” and did not get serious about writing until Rilke,
Stevens, Dickinson, lots of suffering, and enough serious work got me to the point where I could say that writing was my vocation and the most important thing in my life.


I remember the time when I first refused to meet my lover because I would rather spend the time by myself, reading and writing. It was a revelation to both of us. Eventually, and for reasons that had nothing to do with me, that young man committed suicide. For me, part of the shock was realizing that all men were ultimately going to let me down -- or rather, they were not going to achieve anything for me; I had to walk my own path. That’s when I realized that I wasn’t as dependent on romantic love as I used to be; now I had something else to live for. I barely hint at it in this poem:


When it’s green after winter rains,

I imagine you straining away

from roots that seek to pierce

your chest, nail down your hands.
You shape yourself back,
Adam from the earth;

the skin stitches itself,
regathers loose fibers.
And I, on the other shore

of the river of breath,

read the bronze plaque
as if I couldn’t understand 

that you are now a dash
between two dates.
The hills shimmer so green,

I almost reach to pull you up –
and for a minute the sky stops.
Then the wind brings the sharp

tang of eucalyptus leaves,
the traffic’s hum and drone,
its prayer to move on, move on.

I straighten and walk away,
down the mowed slopes
toward the cold city.

~ Oriana © 2013


The setting here is Los Angeles, the Holy Cross Cemetery where walkways between gravestones have names such as Lane of the Most Precious Blood. And it was at this cemetery that I stumbled on a stone that said: Bela Lugosi. It was startling. First, I was beginning to realize that someone with a lot of pathology was an energy vampire, and I was no longer willing to waste my time and energy on the wrong man, dead or alive. Second, even though I was no particular fan of Lugosi’s, he was a real artist who did what he did at the level of excellence.

And that was precisely what I was now interested in: excellence. Art.

I was changed. Love was no longer my “whole existence.” What happened to the romantic fantasies that used to sweep over me every night as soon as I lay down? “He” no longer appeared to play the piano for me, dance with me, sweep me away with tender whispers. Instead -- I know this will sound funny -- I was pondering the right title for the poem I was still working on. I was obsessing over a line that didn’t work, or even a single word.

“I’m no longer waiting for my ‘Twin Flame’,” I confided in a friend. “So what kind of man are you interested in?” she inquired. I wasn’t sure. “A PUBLISHER!” she triumphantly exclaimed. I didn’t deny it.

Not long after “Cold City,” I wrote this poem:


on raw concrete past an iridescent
veil of morpho butterflies,
wings not trembling nor folded

in prayer, but spread like a cape,
black silk, two yellow eyes –
the Bela Lugosi moth.

Bela, whose tombstone
I found in Los Angeles,
at the Cemetery of the Holy Cross.

Engraved in strict granite,
only name and dates –
slow syllables welling up,

in black flight swooping down,
in a crimson hush:
a shadow, a shudder, a hiss –

I mean kiss –


Bela, perhaps this moth
is your true memorial.
Something of you, with black wings –

Fear too has its rituals, dresses
in capes and fastens fangs.
But when they taunt, “You never

loved. You cannot love” –
the vampire confesses,
I too can love –

a crucifixion, even as I linger
in the Hummingbird Pavilion,
happier than all the children

whose memory is daylight
and will self-destruct –
while I watch the Bela Lugosi

head-down on the false stone.
Taste is caution. Style is
daring. On black wings

the false eyes warn
art is love and will uncloak
hidden self you didn’t know,

waiting in the vivid dark,
the Great Undead
watching from the wall.

~ Oriana © 2013

Not quite the right species . . .

This is a poem I like to read around Halloween. But it’s not meant to be frivolous. At a deeper level the “Great Undead” are all the immortals who inspired me: not really Bela Lugosi but the likes of Rilke and Dickinson.

I realize I could end the post right here: the triumph of art. A woman “finds herself,” becomes a poet and a writer, and is no longer so much at the mercy of romantic love. Alas, a worse vampire emerged: what is commonly known as “po-biz.”

Ideally, an artist should be pure of heart and not desire recognition. Alas, and poetry is said to be the worst this way, there are plenty of poets and writers who start by falling in love with books and writing, but end up bitter and disillusioned after dealing with, ahem, “the market.”

I was no exception. I had published and won some awards, but seemed to hit the same kind of ceiling that so many others were to storm in vain. We’d get together and lament how it’s “all about who you know.” There were times when I felt nothing short of despair. The overcoming of that despair led me to a much happier stage: what I call “being posthumous.” 

still not the right species . . .


“Post-humous” -- “after the dirt” (thank you, Phil Boiarski, for this enlightening translation). After the toil and soil of youth (and beyond), after the lost illusions and shattered ambitions.

“Posthumous”: the stage of life and the state of mind where you no longer feel you “should” do anything. Been there, done that. It’s an incredible relief to realize that I’ve been published in over one hundred magazines, so I don’t need to strive for more magazine publications for my resumé. I’ve published, I’ve won awards, it’s enough. I no longer feel that I need to accomplish anything -- what relief! Done with striving, straining, cracking a whip over yourself. Done with the desperate need to prove myself -- to whom? My mother, even after her death? To the woman who said I had no talent? To the man who said I did? To the shaking seventeen-year-old I was, boarding a Russian-made jet that would take me to the first airport in the West?

Dead, all dead.

Posthumous: a Buddhist and Taoist ideal that always sounded like a deep truth to me, but I despaired of ever being able to relax into it. 

Who knew aging could be so wonderful? For one thing, it’s no longer possible to have a child, so the torment caused by the idea that I “should” have at least one child is history. Now I know that I don’t need a child anymore than I need to climb Mt. Everest. Admirable, yes, but the “need” and “should” are history.

I don’t even need to die with honor. 

Let it be, let it be . . .

In the posthumous state of mind, it’s not just that finally you know you can’t have everything; it’s that you no longer want to have everything. And this is the gift of growing older: torment and anxiety fall away because possibilities close, the options are behind you -- and that’s fantastic. Some doors have closed for good -- hurray! How wonderful not to have the burden of choice. Now I understand what people mean when they praise the wisdom of closing your options as early as possible. Keeping the doors open creates the constant draft of anxiety.

Basically, this is the “heaven of no desire.” I’ve had glimpses of it earlier. It was wonderful to roam around Saks Fifth Avenue looking at this or that luxury item and feel no desire whatsoever to buy it. I left the store feeling buoyant, floating: there was nothing in that storehouse of vanities that I needed or wanted: not the $250 moisturizing creams nor the $1,000+ dresses. In fact the place struck me as ridiculous: there were much better ways to spend money (hint: “buy experiences, not things”).

Being a poet and writer also gave me many wonderful glimpses of what it’s like to write with hardly any effort, trusting that the best things will well up from my cognitive-creative unconscious -- those neural circuits that are the “back burner” of the brain. Actually all cognitive function is unconscious -- note how thoughts simple rise up like foggy blossoms. But one can mess it up by obsessing and getting anxious, as if the perfect title or the perfect ending had to be coined instantly. Every writer eventually learns that the greatest mistake is trying too hard.

As Leonard Kress observed, all this sounds like moving away from the Path of Desire to the Path of Renunciation. If so, long live renunciation! It feels more like the path of finally doing what I want to do most, without wasting time and money on trivia.

Could I have found this path sooner, say at twenty-five? No, I had to waste a lot of time and some money on trivia before figuring out what was important. Youth was a terrible struggle precisely because I didn’t know what was important. Maybe wisdom could have come earlier -- but maybe not, and so what? It takes what it takes: making lots of mistakes and learning through suffering. The doors of perception are cleansed with tears.

The Joy of Harvesting

One reason that makes it relatively easy for me to forgive my younger self her endless mistakes is the fact that somehow, between migraines and heartbreaks and rejection slips, or rather increasingly after the heartbreaks,  after the dirt, miraculously or merely inevitably, I did manage to write a lot. The one bit of wisdom I obeyed was trying to get a lot of writing done while I could; I realized that later on I might not be able to keep on writing. Except for rare instances of white-heat inspiration, writing from scratch is never easy. But it’s almost always possible to revise a bit, to polish. Sometimes it’s even possible to deepen and to add insight. And that daily work is a joy.

I always wanted an unfailing, reliable source of joy. Thanks to my tormented younger self, I have this joy. I like to think of it as “harvesting.”

As Mary Oliver puts it in this passage from “At the Lake” (White Pine):

Inside every mind
there's a hermit’s cave
full of light,

full of snow,
full of concentration.
I’ve knelt there,
and so have you,

hanging on
to what you love.


I am not saying that “post-youth”/“post-dirt” is a carefree paradise. That’s not how life works. “Shit happens” is still the First Noble Truth (thanks, Dave Bonta!) But now you know what’s important, and you have more resources. “It’s only money” gains reality, as you realize that time and not being stressed (health!) are vastly more important than trying to avoid paying for valet parking. And, knowing what is important, you can go to that hermit’s cave in your mind and stay close to what you love.

And yes, you realize you are moving toward the no-self, toward being literally post-humous . . .  And there is a purity about writing from the place of that knowing.


The wonder of waking up to white wet mist. The air clean after rain, and the sharp smell of autumn -- the closest, in California, that we get to winter.

Sunday: deep mist:
trees floating above the trees

Sunday: deep ash

a willingness to be words
fading from the page

~ Sutton Breiding


I am a fan of Akmatova. Her lines are alive like electricity . . . “spring a trill of silver laughter” (I typed “trickle  of laughter”!!)
and "light, trembling bow of a violin"

I admire Tsvetayeva too. I read her biography and it made me want to cry --disbelief about all that happened to her and her children. I knew she was an admirer of Rilke and that endears her to me even more. She wrote to him: "You are not my favorite poet. You are poetry."

In your “Cold City,” I especially like the line "now (you are) a dash between two dates.”

I think when we are young, we are in love with being in love rather than with a person. We are into romance.

I was able to call my self a poet for the first time at Squaw Valley poetry conference. I was 70.

I think poetry is meant to be shared even if not published.

Sutton's “Sunday" is as always touchingly beautiful.


Akhmatova has a great sense of music. Her poems are exquisite in Russian. They are formal, but her content is modern. She is very personal and intimate.

Tzvetayeva and Rilke: perhaps the only time when Rilke was corresponding with another great poet. Alas, he was already ill with leukemia, and Marina didn’t know it.

The thrill of infatuation is certainly a factor in itself; I think that’s what you mean by “being in love with love.” As to the love object, the young aren’t usually that fussy. They don’t yet know that there is a huge difference between just being in love and being in love with the right person -- when you know that it is the right person, and you want to make it last.

Of course in a way you have been a poet since childhood, but in terms of a steady output of serious work -- that always takes maturity, though you certainly outdo everyone else in your late blooming. But when you started blooming, wow! You keep astonishing us.

Poetry is definitely to be shared. I was never happy with publication in magazines, because there is no response. Readings give me a greater sense of sharing, and now of course the blog. I love having readers not just in the US, but also in Poland, Russia, India, Australia, Japan . . . 


This is so encouraging to young poets.

Then the blog becomes inspiring to every aging person.

Favorite line: "The doors of perception are cleansed with tears."


Alas, no substitute for living and learning through mistakes. No self-help books can do it for us, no gurus. But some suffering is needless, self-imposed.  As I keep saying, I’m so thrilled and amazed to see that older really means happier!

For one thing, you do close the door on a lot of trivia and concentrate on what you can do best, and that which brings the most happiness. As for health, avoid fructose and, when a problem strikes, seek out the best specialists. Family practitioners are pretty useless, in my opinion, and can even be dangerous.


Great post and a nice addition to your last one on aging. It is indeed a blessing to know that either age, or talent or ability has taken so much off the table by 50; at least it has for me. A great Clint Eastwood line states 'A man has to know his limitations.' I would add to that it's a very wise man who learns that, and the younger the better.

I know now there will be many things I can't do anymore; many goals are just not attainable. But there is enough left to do, to enjoy, and the pleasant memories of the past to reflect on. That it's enough, it truly is. The love of wife and child, my friends, the 'warm river of books and black coffee' and of course my Nantucku project. Of course it's frivolous and lighthearted but at the same time the most serious thing I have ever done and will be the greatest of Quioxtic quests as it will never be completed. Oh how true Melville was when he said “God keep me from ever completing anything.”
To have work to do -- and I mean 'pleasurable' work -- is truly a gift.


The work we love doing for me comes ahead of romantic love because work is a reliable source of life-sustaining pleasure and meaning. Romantic love always ends -- it’s simply too intense. The brain can produce its own amphetamines and other pleasure-related chemicals only for so long --maybe it’s protection against getting too exhausted from being on “speed,” i.e. the infatuation stage. Long-term love is another matter. Mutual emotional support is a great treasure.

At the same time, the ability to fall in love does not seem to decrease with age. The same neural circuits are ready to be activated even at eighty and beyond. The problem is finding someone to fall in love with. But then you read of nursing-home romance.

Still, for me work is where the meaning is. I hope never to run out. But I’ve already started taking it easy, without striving, without pressuring myself with deadlines. How sweet it is. 

Tuesday, January 15, 2013


A few days ago the clouds looked so wonderful, so 3-D -- ordinary tumbled white clouds with grayish underbellies -- that I thought, “I don’t need to ask for anything more of life.”

The next instant, however, I thought that I’d ask not to be parted from this beauty. But scientists still seem a long way from defeating the built-in aging clock of the body, if they ever get there at all (the first “death switch” is puberty; theoretically, we could be immortal if we gave up reproduction).

Many people say that it’s not dying that bothers them; it’s watching and experiencing the process of aging. “Don’t you just hate aging!” is what I hear from women, and no one even remembers the consolation of “inner beauty.” Old is not beautiful, but the only thing we can do is “age gracefully” (or perhaps disgracefully, why not), with acceptance.

The huge popularity of plastic surgery testifies to our growing rejection of “looking our age.” So a poem about welcoming and even celebrating the changes that aging brings to the woman’s body is a true surprise. Sharon Olds, arguably the most famous American woman poet and the most recent recipient of the T.S. Eliot Prize, has written such a poem.

The Older

The older I get, the more I feel

almost beautiful -- not my face, plain

puritan face, but my body. And I will be
fifty, soon, my body getting

withery and scrawny, and I like its silvery

witheriness, the skin thinning,

surface of a lake crumped by wind, ruched 

wraith, a wrinkle of smoke. Yet when
I look down, I can see, sometimes,
things that if a young woman saw she would
scream, as if at a horror movie
 turned to crone in an instant -- if I lean

far enough forward, I can see the fine
birth skin of my stomach pucker
and hang, in tiny peaks, like wet stucco.
And yet I can imagine being eighty, made
entirely, on the outside, of that,  
and making love with the same animal
dignity, the tunnel remaining
the inside of a raspberry 
bract. Suddenly I look young to myself
next to that eighty-year-old, I look
like her child, my flesh in its loosening drape
showing the long angles of these strange
bones like cooking-utensil handles in heaven.
When I was younger, I looked, to myself,
sometimes, like a crude drawing of a female --
the breasts, the 1940s flare of the hips --
but this greyish, dented being is cozy as 
a favorite piece of clothing, she is almost
lovable, now, to me. Of course, it is 
his love I am seeing, the working of his thumb
over this lucky nickel -- five times
five years in his pocket. Maybe
even if I died, I would not look ugly
to him. Sometimes, now, I dance
like shirred smoke above a chimney.
Sometimes, now, I think I live
in the place where the solemn, wild drinking
of coming is done, I am not all day coming
but living in that place where it is done.

~ Sharon Olds, The Unswept Room, 2003 

“Sometimes, now, I dance / like shirred smoke above a chimney.” What an amazing ending from that point on! At first reading, I understood “coming” as “arriving,” in terms of the metaphoric “journey of life”; only after a while I recalled the sexual meaning. Of course it’s richer with both meanings present. And I am not surprised at the “posthumous” feeling; there is something posthumous about the very act of writing, which seems the opposite of living. 

As someone said, you can’t write about making love while making love. 

This is an extraordinary poem, with an astonishing counter-culture beginning, coming from a woman:

The older I get, the more I feel
almost beautiful -- not my face, plain
puritan face, but my body.

We take it for granted that the older a woman gets, the worse she looks, and consequently feels less beautiful. “The older I get, the more I feel/ I look like a fright” -- would be something that a woman reader would nod her head to. Then, another surprise: Olds is not talking about her face -- and to a typical woman, but especially the kind of woman who was praised for her beauty when she was young, her face is what his penis is to a man: a secret foundation of her self-esteem. Not the entire foundation, no: but a more significant part than most women would like to admit.

Olds dismisses the importance of the face. She’s interested in the body. But for all her bravado about the beauty of an older body, she does admit to moments of dread:

       . . . Yet when

I look down, I can see, sometimes,
things that if a young woman saw she would
scream, as if at a horror movie,
turned crone in an instant -- if I lean 
far enough forwad, I can see the fine
birth skin of my stomach pucker 
and hang, in tiny peaks, like wet stucco.

But what follows another amazing passage, when she places herself next to the eighty-year-old she imagines becoming: 

Suddenly, I look young to myself
next to that eighty-year-old, I look
like her child, my flesh in its loosening drape
showing the long angles of these strange
bones like cooking-utensil handles in heaven.

The bones as "cooking-utensil handles in heaven" is just wonderful. And, needless to say if you know all the poems Olds wrote about sex, she imagines herself as “sexually active” at eighty -- how unpuritan can you get, how opposite of “prim and proper.” And even in that PR photo of hers at seventy, note the long hair and the somewhat daring (by East Coast standards) hair clips, and that defiant posture of a sex diva. I guess her PR photos are closer to her poems than her everyday persona. At eighty, she’ll be photographed in the nude, so we can compare that with the poem :)

Toward the end, the “shirred smoke above a chimney” (in another poem Olds states that she wants to be cremated) brings us back to the first mention of smoke at the beginning: 

The older I get, the more I feel
almost beautiful -- not my face, plain

puritan face, but my body. And I will be
fifty, soon, my body getting

withery and scrawny, and I like its silvery

witheriness, the skin thinning,

surface of a lake crumped by wind, ruched 

wraith, a wrinkle of smoke.

Smoke is an image of something airy, insubstantial. The skin keeps on thinning, getting closer and closer to becoming crematorium smoke. (“ruched / wraith, a wrinkle of smoke” -- this is brilliant writing). Olds does not treat the body as a metaphor for the mind or personality. The body is literally thinning out, as if preparing to be smoke. 

Sharon Olds at 70

But the greatness of this poem lies partly in the fact that Olds does not end simply on dying. As is typical of her, she finds an affirmation. Note that she is dancing like smoke, celebrating the richness of life. She can imagine her life as already over, and still feel joy at having been alive. 


Gloria Steinem wrote that when she was diagnosed with cancer, her first thought was, “I’ve had a fabulous life.” I think Sharon Olds, when she thinks of dying, would say the same. But we don’t need to famous to feel that way. Simply existing is transcendent.

It’s stunning that Olds can using even aging and dying to celebrate life. She finds beauty even in the aging body, and that dancing “wrinkle of smoke” above the crematorium chimney becomes a smile.


If I remember correctly, when someone brought up the “poet of the body” label, Olds replied, “I am surprised that every poet isn’t.” And she has a point: the body is so physical, so much a part of nature, a fascinating animal. Yet offhand I can’t think of any other famous poet who describes the human body as much and in as great a detail as Olds.

But great poems don’t come only from the famous poets. I’ve read marvelous pieces from poets whose reputation is local at best. The poem below is an example. In a way, I like it even better than “The Older” -- it has a gorgeous music, for one thing, making it irresistibly lyrical. 

Elderly Mother at the Hot Springs

The old woman, standing in the shower,
hums her tunes below falling water.
She recites all night in her sleep,

her lips whisper now and at the hour
of our death, amen, forgive us our sins,
fill drowsy rooms with flecks of spirit.

She stumbles, grasps the rails of her walking,
legs blue over dead toes. The agéd mermaid
slides into warm water

and in weightless breaststroke
begins her old ballet
leading dancers through pools of earth.

As long as her watery stories pour forth
I hold my mother in fluid we share,
lime green swim suit and blue desert day,

swimmer in her high eighties, me
in my mid fifties, my smooth roundness
near the flaps of her skin

like ruffles of ashen petticoat,
layers of her cascade to ground
netted in dark veins.

She ripples in sulfur moments, returns
to the pools of prayer, and I see for the first time,
mother, naked and happy.

~ Janet Baker © 2013

While this poem does not celebrate aging per se, it does celebrate a woman in her high eighties, not quite healthy (note the “dead toes”), who manages a weightless ballet as she swims. So what if her skin is flabby and she has broken veins --

near the flaps of her skin

like ruffles of ashen petticoat,
layers of her cascade to ground
netted in dark veins.

~ she still enjoys the “sulfur moments” in the hot springs.

Of course it wouldn’t do not to mention the importance of prayer for this elderly mother. Though I regard myself as a happy atheist, I can understand the comfort that the devout get from praying. I’ve discovered that I am happy when I concentrate on something outside of myself. A person busy praying is not brooding over past mistakes. That alone is part of the benefit. Another part is expecting paradise in the “great beyond.”

(Reading about the happy elderly mother, I almost wish I could pray. But emotional comfort is simply not the same as perceived truth.)

But this poem is not about prayer per se, or even about swimming. It’s about an elderly mother, “naked and happy.” Startling? Yes. Encouraging? Yes, since we do have a dread of aging, thinking we will be less happy as the body becomes increasingly dysfunctional. This doesn’t have to be. The brain constructs happiness, just as it constructs memory. If we relax and welcome whatever life brings, the brain will have us live in an “easy world.” And if an elderly woman is lucky enough to have a daughter who can take her to hot springs, all the more reason for joy.

And we are lucky to have these beautiful rhythms and slant rhymes, with a direct rhyme also present -- who’d think that “standing in the shower” could be paired with “now and at the hour” from Hail Mary? The dictum that poetry “must give pleasure” is amply fulfilled here -- even in the description of aging. 

This is not to say that it wouldn’t be wonderful to stay young and healthy forever -- or at least for a very long time. I’d want centuries. I don’t think I’d ever get bored of trees and clouds, or ever cease to be “in continual astonishment” at what life brings. But aside from “polite helplessness,” as Wallace Stevens puts it, I also want joy, regardless of age. Poems that present the possibility of happiness even in “advanced youth,” as an old friend used to call it, help us live on, swimming and dancing, or at least remembering swimming and dancing.
Why did I choose “Fire Bird” as the title of this post? No, we don’t rise again from a literal nest of flames. There is no return from the fire of the crematory. But before then, at any age, life throws challenges at us. And the point is to get through somehow -- “on a wing and a prayer,” as another friend has recently said -- and keep on dancing. There is no “fire bird” out there. The real fire bird is a human being who keeps on dancing.



I know you don’t believe in the soul, but I don’t care for all this body talk. Too much about the body.


I believe in brain function, possibly the most complex thing in the universe. We don’t yet know enough, don’t have the right way to talk about it. So we talk about the skin instead. About feet and hips and shoulders like some funny utensils. But can you imagine a hundred years from now? I can’t either.


But deep in your non-existent soul, don’t you think the body isn’t THAT important?


Just try to live without a body. The awful truth is that the brain doesn’t really care about the truth; its task is to make sure the body lives on. And if it takes a soothing hallucination to accomplish that purpose, the brain will produce just that.

This January has been particularly rich in fantasies about what my life might be if I had an undamaged left knee.  Never mind Prince Charming: these days my fantasies are all about the left knee.


Janet's aging mermaid is so touching, such a tender way of talking about her mother's aging and not at all sentimental. So many fine lines, and I relate not just as a daughter but as the mother going through this. I especially like "flaps of  her  skin like ruffles of ashen petticoats." 

To have lived at all is the miracle. Quoting Rilke:
" have been here this once, even if only once, to have been on this earth seems irrevocable..."

And speaking of age, it's good to see Sharon Olds winning a big prize. Her long grey hair and “plain Puritan face." She makes no excuses for aging. Another description of skin,"surface of a lake crumpled by wind...a wrinkle of smoke" was so accurate, too. Mine looks like very thin parchnent and is as thin.


Once I was in Whole Foods in La Jolla -- you can imagine how rich the customers are -- and I saw a woman who was in her late seventies, maybe, or already past eighty. She was badly stooped -- osteoporotic spinal compression and deformation. But she obviously just had her face laser-peeled, so she didn’t have a single wrinkle. Her skin looked shiny-white and very thin, almost ghostly. That kind of laser causes a third-degree burn, I was told -- imagine, at that age, to go through a procedure like that! With most women, vanity never ends; nor is Sharon Olds entirely free of it, with her “old and beautiful” stance. At least that’s empowering. Olds gives us the courage not to lament what we see in the mirror.

Of course I agree with you and Rilke: yes, to have lived at all is a miracle, and it is irrevocable, the order of things changed a tiny bit, but forever, just because we have been here. 


Incredible images and perfect for the blog.

When I read Sharon's poem I liked the line, “Sometimes, now, I dance / like shirred smoke above a chimney” as my favorite in the poem.

Sharon is beautiful in this picture. Something of a diva. Very well preserved. If she happened to be fat and ugly, I bet she wouldn’t have written this poem.

My favorite line in the entire blog is of course: “The real fire bird is a human being who keeps on dancing.” So beautiful.


That’s my favorite passage in Sharon’s poem, too. That’s greatness: not just the use of “shirred,” but the underlying concept of already being that posthumous smoke.

There are times, once we’ve lived long enough, when we are all ages at once, including no longer any age.


“The real fire bird is a human being who keeps on dancing” - the last line always matters the most and I like it!


Glad to hear you too like it. It’s usually only quite a bit of suffering that we learn to dance on. And it’s so inspiring to know someone like Hyacinth, 86, who in spite of poor health keeps on dancing, and finds life transcendent.



Your latest blog is as timely as ever, enjoyed it very much. I turn 50 this year and could not be happier. Am a bit slower perhaps in body but all in all this is a great time. Gone are the silliness of youth and it's vanities, I so appreciate my time to read and reflect. 4 years ago I was working 60 hour weeks with big paychecks, but the long hours and stress were not worth it. I hope to make another decade or so at work and then my wife and I can perhaps travel more and 'stress less.' Birds, books and coffee; simple (some may call dull) pleasures but I'm being as honest as I can, wouldn't trade them for a fancy car or mansion. My house has heat, the pantry is full and family are healthy. Sounds trite and cliché I know but these are good times. And now I have Robert Lax to discover!


It’s thrilled to find in you the confirmation of all the studies on happiness and aging: older is happier, as long as health holds out -- and for many, that’s into their eighties.

I remember when I didn’t know about these studies, and the thought of the later decades was simply terrifying. True, there is less future, but you gain the present. I used to live in the future so much that when I suddenly realized that “the future was stolen from me” (that’s how I thought about it), I was devastated. And then being pressed against the wall by mortality cured me of depression. It was one of the most amazing events in my life.

Thanks to you I’ve looked up Robert Lax, and he’s certainly one of the most eccentric poets ever. But note the vagaries of fame: Lax’s “Circus of the Sun,” once praised as “perhaps the greatest poem of the [twentieth] century,” is now utterly forgotten. And, who knows, maybe Ezra Pound will be the next one to go. And maybe we’ll rediscover Lax. It’s completely unpredictable.

But then who’d want it to be predictable. Like the "golden years" -- I used to think it was a myth. And look. And live.


Can’t put a price tag on mental clarity and the ability to enjoy simple things, 'rivers of books and black coffee.' I'm never happier than when I see my office in my rearview; I wish I could recall the exact quote but Melville wrote to his brother once the folly of people who were caught up in their work. Now to someone whose work is their passion that's totally different, it's not work at all. The work I'm referring to is the mind numbing drudgery of petty work with petty people, no glory or honor in that. Now whaling, that was a life! I might feel different had I actually had to kill and boil one down for it's oil but for those few minutes of excitement and terror those Quaker tars of yore probably never felt more alive. As a famed poem of theirs stated;

'Death to the living
Long life to the killers
And greasy luck to whalers'

A nasty, bloody business no doubt but again, the ports one would see, the islands, marine life and wonders of the stars at night must have been unreal.


Scott, you have managed to bring Melville into this! 

Tuesday, January 1, 2013



Jasmine like blossoming moonlight
has taken captive the blue dusk.
I am fourteen, fifteen, sixteen,

the radio plays Malagueña.
Boats wait in that other twilight,
palm trees spread their black fans.

Years later at a wedding,
a middle-aged mariachio
sings Malagueña with such passion,

the guests fall silent as in a cathedral.
Few comprehend the lyrics,
but the meaning soars

in the arches of the vowels, held
so long they span constellations.
Maybe it never really ends –

life driven by desire
for a different life. You never
stop waiting, never,

a famous actress said in her old age –
she who we thought possessed
all we ever wanted to have.

The music cannot be undone.
It casts the human voice beyond
blue, into pure indigo –

not star jasmine, sparse
petals, but the full-moon
white narcotic flower –

as the lights on the pier
sink shimmering shafts
into the ocean’s dark love.

~ Oriana © 2012

Confused reader, I know that the title of the post is “the heaven of no desire,” while this poem speaks about the inevitability of desire. More shall be revealed.

I remember talking a friend about a woman we both knew -- let’s call her Betty -- and my growing frustration with Betty, who had admiringly promised to give me a poetry reading, but was ignoring my emails, or else wrote long, overly intimate ones detailing the storms of her messy love life, with not a word about the reading. I carried on about how I got no respect. My friend smiled: “You are suffering because you WANT something from her.”

The correctness of this shone like a million stars seething in the desert night sky. I decided to reach for the Buddhist cure: drop the desire. “There is nothing I want from Betty,” I began saying in my mind. After about a dozen repetitions, there was indeed nothing I wanted from Betty. Restored to calm, I carried on without resentment.

Within a day or two, I got an email from Betty -- still not about the reading. I waited a while, then answered it briefly. A longer email followed, with more love troubles. Again, I answered briefly and not right away. Then two more emails, still with no word about the reading -- obviously she never really intended to invite me -- but now the tone was respectful, ingratiating even. Again I kept aloof, she got the message, and that was the end of that “learning experience.”

I never forgot this miraculous cure, and the formula “There is nothing I want from X” became one of the best tool in my mental stress-management kit. “X” varied over the years. At one point it became “There is nothing I want from America.” At another, “There is nothing I want from po-biz.” Sometimes it took a lot of repetition, but it always worked. Well, almost always. (More shall be revealed.)


Primed by the my experience of the “heaven of no desire,” I fell in love with this part of Mark Doty’s poem called “Heaven”:

. . . I have a friend who sometimes sells
everything, scrapes together enough money
to get to the city, and lives on the streets here,

in the park. She says she likes waking
knowing she can be anyone she wants, keep any name
as long as it wears well. She stayed with one man
a few days; calling themselves whatever they liked

or nothing, they slept in the park
beneath a silver cloth, a “space blanket”
that mirrored the city lights, and the heat
of his dog coiled between them would warm them.

I knew, she says, I was in heaven.
Isn’t that where those beams washing
and disguising the stars have always called us:
the anonymous paradise, where there isn’t any telling

how many of these futures
will be ours? It was enough to be warmed
by steam blurring the café windows, to study
how grocers stacked the wet jewels

of produce and seem fed -- though the wine flush
would brighten everything, and dull the morning
of working a thankless block. She held out her hand
enough times to catch a torrent,

though little was offered but the sharpening chill
of the street lacquered by rain, perfected
and unyielding. It’s a little easier
for a woman to panhandle; that’s why

my friend needed the dog.
when the weather turned, she’d go back home,
at least till spring. Longer,
maybe. But not before arriving at afternoons

when she wanted nothing, whole nights
without desire,
since everything passing
was hers. Though she could not participate
in the mortal pretense of keeping anything;

that lie belonged to the privileged,
who hurried along the sidewalks
just outside the stone boundaries of the park.
And though they tried to warm themselves with it,

they still required those luxurious,
frost-tipped pelts, the skins ripped and tailored
out of their contexts. She knew she could lie there,
with her stranger, with the living animal between them.

~ Mark Doty, My Alexandria

One morning not long ago I woke up at perfect time to see, in my west window, the full moon about to set. Then, out of an east window, I watched the ice-blue of dawn sky enlarge its crevice in departing night clouds. I thought: not only am I posthumous; I am in heaven.

It was the heaven of no desire. The stranglehold of desire for fame (the true f word in the poetry world) was gone. I was gladly harvesting the poems I already had, using them mainly for my essays. As for the desire for great love, I have already had my share. I wanted my own life and not Prince Charming. And I had my own life, the quiet life that I loved. I didn’t want another life. I have indeed learned to count my blessings.

I proceeded to the computer and wrote these reckless words to a friend:

<< I've had this succession of insights:

1) I'm posthumous -- great love is behind me, poetry is behind me, writing jobs and teaching jobs are behind me -- basically all active life is behind me and all that was to happen has already happened; only writing the blog continues to have its surprises

 2) being posthumous, I realized I am in heaven, since, to my astonishment, I've managed to drop desires -- my remaining desire is to cultivate desirelessness

3) My first task is to love myself. Service to others will follow from that. >>

I should have known that the second “insight” -- “I am in heaven” -- would be an instant challenge to the gods, who’d quickly show me otherwise. And sure enough, within a few hours of my “heaven hubris,” an eruption of insanity followed -- more medical insurance craziness that I thought was behind me now. A new obstacle emerged! More phone calls to make, new bad options to choose from.

And it was impossible to say, “There is nothing I want from the insurance company.” Obviously, I wanted coverage.

Once this storm subsided and I resigned myself to the idea of “greed before health” -- the insurance company’s greed takes precedence over the patient’s health -- a new disturbance trespassed on my heaven. About twenty noisy teens gathered in the open garage across from my house to hold an advance New Year’s party. I knew this could go on into the wee hours. Again, it was impossible to say, “There is nothing I want from these young people.” Obviously, I wanted quiet.

My first happy surprise was that after I tremulously begged the teens to be more quiet and suggested they close the garage door, they did just that! And they dispersed before midnight.

The following day, the insurance problem was resolved in my favor. 

And my friend replied that she too was in heaven! She got there by remembering that she was loved -- and therefore was not suffering due to clinging attachment to any one person. This reminded me of a similar moment in a stormy on-off relationship with a certain man. During the second serious “off” period, I became involved with someone else, who was nourishing me with the loving attention and affection I was starved for. Then man #1 -- more handsome, more intelligent, better educated -- called. It was a tense conversation. Suddenly I remembered: “I am loved.” And instantly I calmed down. Softness entered my voice, and, in response, the voice on the other end. We ended the conversation in a relaxed and cordial way.

I think the secret is feeling secure when you remember you are loved -- or whatever else makes you feel emotionally secure. Then you don’t have any overwhelming needs. You don’t need anyone’s approval because you are already loved. And you don’t scare people away the way needy persons do. A needy person is likely to be perceived as a “hungry ghost” or even a vampire. It’s a vicious circle: the more intense your need to be loved, the less likely you are to be loved. This is the paradox of “Be happy, and the beloved comes.”

So yes, not having a grasping need is certainly the key to heaven, but there isn’t only one way to get beyond grasping.

Let me also tackle the obvious. I realize that the Buddha had a brilliant insight: drop the desire, and you no longer suffer because of it. I’ve experienced the wisdom of that psychological discovery on more than one plane. What I don’t know is whether the Buddha thought a young and anatomically correct person was actually capable of dropping desire, especially in the realm of Eros. I certainly would not dream of saying to anyone with youthful levels of sex hormones that happiness is easy: just drop desire; there is nothing you want from him/from her. Actually, you want everything, which is a dreadful mistake.

Let me clarify: certain kinds of desire are not especially age-dependent, but when it comes to eros (which means “yearning”), biology has the upper hand, and I mean the brain’s “here we go again” wiring for falling in love, madly, the amphetamine rush of mental mingling, and not just simple (?) lust. And even the most “pure” of those love circuits are still mixed up with hormones. Affection, no, but erotic love, yes, always, and in women maybe even more so. As I used to say, “You can’t separate soul from hormones.” On top of all the other crazy complications.

But even here there may be a solution, one my mother tried to teach me, and in vain. She said, If a man you desire is making you suffer, start repeating He’s not for me, he’s not for me. Someone better is coming. Likewise, if a job is not coming through, start repeating, It’s not for me, it’s not for me. Something better is coming. Now and then I remembered my mother’s wisdom when it came to jobs and “things in general.” But I never managed to remember it when it came to love objects. Hormone levels had to come down first.

Enough of that. Let me share a poem that commemorates the shattering of my early dreams, and the birth of the “greater dream”: to become a writer. And I have indeed become a writer! Not a famous writer, but once I managed to drop the desire for fame, I was filled with wonder at simply having a vocation and the ability to do what I love doing. It’s an unfailing source of joy.

December 29, 1999

A sunset rainbow like a door of fire
opened the eastern sky.
To the west, fiery clouds
and the ocean with its million mirrors.

But the rainbow was unfinished,
an ascending fragment.
Beyond it, like a faint echo,
another red-shifted arch.

It was California winter,
our season of rain and roses.
I remembered a double rainbow
in full splendor, a jeweled gate

when I was a young girl
about to leave my homeland.
Now I watched a rainbow of fire
divide the darkening millennium.

Was the promise of the first
rainbow fulfilled? No. But from the ruins
a greater dream had been kindled: 
unfinished, an ascending fragment.

And I understood
why people burn their diaries.
Who wants to read about yourself
as a victim of passion?

No, something greater — a sunset
rainbow, a covenant of fire
at the end of a thousand years!
My imagination would not let it go.

But the dusk deepened. The rainbow
faded. I looked toward
the fading ocean, and knew at last
what the surf was saying.

It said everything, but mainly 

amen, amen, amen.

~ Oriana © 2013


The poem ends with acceptance, which creates a relative security and freedom from overwhelming needs. With acceptance, even a nightmare becomes an interesting experience. Perhaps instead of dreaming of “heaven” we should give thanks for the “difficult ordinary happiness,” as Adrienne Rich puts it. For me that happiness involves continual astonishment at what happens next. Not a boring minute in Oriana’s life! Amazingly enough, it’s true. 


Need I say that the "greater dream" also got shattered? I had to settle for a more modest level of accomplishment — and for those flashes of great beauty that are perhaps the only grace amid the sorrows and disappointments. Seeing a sunset rainbow is one of those flashes. And that is enough.