Sunday, November 1, 2020

At Last


image: Big Basin Fire  © ABC7 San Francisco

Ashes flutter like moths on a building

inner layers protected by bark

rows of redwoods like witches hats

hoses cannot douse crisp written flames

sparrows rise to become black specks

waterfall stuffed with logs like a coffin.


Once shattering black rocks now a coffin

the waterfall with ashes swiftly building

a temporary death, a room of specks

humans who remain, skin stripped bark

camped, hiked, spoken in flames

all that remains, boots and hats.


Firehoses can’t enter this room of hats

entire ridge to ocean now flies in a coffin

park founded by a league now in flames

built foundation’s permanent wood building

not iron, not lead, just the song of a lark

first in California, first in its stead.


Tail feathers, red rump, eye circles, and specks

even the towhee doesn’t wear a little hat

no douse of seeds will save its art

can’t move, can’t offer a single note

ridges of brown and tan a secret murmur

rows uprooted, a vernacular in flames.


Upper crowns of marbled murlettes

canopy umbrella a wardrobe in flames

ashes fumigate the trunk’s knife building

turning moss and lace directly into matts

most likely victims rotating into orphans

no squirrels or crows remain to bark.


Scars and old burns now embark

on a vessel off pier tamed and maimed

no warehouse rickety, in a false coffin

moths fairies with winged ashes

a mirror of perfume, but what really matters

thousands of years destroyed in an instant.


Time to bury the coffin, specks included

bark imparted within honest flames

deep hats and buildings put to rest.

Monday, October 26, 2020

Ode to My Skirt

--After Pablo Neruda’s “Ode to My Sox”


Skirt of fabric that becomes 

more than a skirt

more than worthy of a crown

in winter in summer

fabric that breathes

and keeps warm

has all aspirations

of a living breathing forest of kelp

which sustains an ocean of feeders—

woven through octopus and eel

silver schools of small fish

sort through the fibers

extended green bobbles

ever gigantic




Skirt which has no code

no moral fiber of its own

would survive in fire

could serve as a table cloth

could be cut into pants

worn on a trail in the Tibetan Himalayas

ever narrowing

explorer’s dream

customs like a Frank Capra film

before the illusion vanishes.


Skirt that could go to school

and teach the teachers a thing or two

about origin and design

fertile grasses cut low by the sun

steps to the gods

a city on a hill

that did not belong to any one person

but a village, dwelling in stone.

Nuns come to Machu Pichu to take photos

habits mirror soul

empirical black, the unseen

and white, the pure.

What can they ascertain—

like blackbirds they can only

peck through the fiber’s tiny holes

the sacred hidden.


Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Yellow Trees


Emily Carr painting, Art Gallery of Greater Victoria

Trees are never that yellow

edge of forest descending

to mineral runoff

red brown stench undulating

like a roller coaster,


trees vertical swirls

and horizontal discs, movement

essential. It could be


the wind

a place of worship


the way they readjust

skirts in preparation

and below, tiny figures,


undershoots stage their appearance

rolling within, soon adults


who will finally understand

when elders get topped off

inward torment.


In Christina Rossetti’s “silent land”

she does not see shadows


nor the rain

abundant in death—

even the moon when it rises


is not sterile

curtain of trees half drawn


and the bay, always near,

with a million inlets beyond.

Does death turn us immune?


What does it means to be a daughter

unable to see closely sculpted bushes


amid unconditional love

and merciless criticism—

my mother saying after her stroke,


“I have no skills”

falling from a height of abundance,


green turning to fall 

early that year—

six months later


preparing the memorial

I would know her better.


I hear a cry of endless sorrow 

wet faces

search for the part of myself


lost without my mother

dissolving into sheer color and shape


with nothing to hold

down ribbons of

chartreuse, orange, purple.


Friday, October 16, 2020

Perry Mason in 2020



Della Street and Perry Mason

“Della, get Paul Drake. I’m going to send him to Mexico to follow up on this.”

“Perry, remember, the wall was just completed. We didn’t vote for the guy, but we have to live with this. We can’t just go over unless we don’t care about returning.”

“Oh, right, Della. Then let’s do it this way. We’ll drive up to Bakersville and see a man about a pawn ticket.”

“I don’t know. Won’t Trag be alerted?”

“Trag’s in the hospital with Covid. It’s Berger I’m worried about. He’d have a field day if he knew we had the mink coat. Send Trag’s replacement the ticket.”

“Perry, that’s so sad about Trag. But I just thought of one other thing. Should we be concerned about Dixie Dayton not wearing a face mask? What’ll we do when we find her?”

“Right, Della. The way she flew out of the restaurant. Though I’m thinking of that hard looking man—his eyes sharp as razors. You don’t miss anything with his mouth covered. Remember how he didn’t turn around when the police came in to talk with Maurie?”

“Perry, not to change the subject, but I think we should get new masks ourselves. These are a little—”

“Shabby is what you’re going to say. I’m not a mind reader, but I know you. This isn’t a fashion show, Della. How would it look coming into court with anything fancy? Not that we have any onlookers. Just us, Berger’s people, and the witnesses and judge. I just heard they are pushing trials back even further. Too dangerous after that the San Francisco incident. Thankfully, Los Angeles is taking the right measures. Yes, yes, I know. Okay. You’re wondering if I’m done.”

“Well, yes. Are we heading to Morrie’s? I could use some dinner.”

“Della. Here’s your coat. Let’s do that, shall we.”

“Wait, Perry, I hear Paul next door.”

“Hi beautiful.”

“Hi, Paul. You know I love it, but you should be careful. Did you hear the secretary down the hall sued her employer for harassment? Oh, don’t worry. I’m just kidding.”

“Paul, I hope you were able to get some information. Yes, get out your notebook.”

“Perry, you just won’t believe it. I found Dixie, and—”

“What? Do you find Dixie’s behavior inconsistent?”

“Perry. She’s a woman.”

“That’s no excuse.”

“I’m just wondering what’s next, Perry.”

“Paul, funny that you should ask that. I want you to get the next flight to Washington. There’s some dark money in Supreme Court nominations I want you to look at. Not our usual line, I know, but we have to do it. You know who I want to investigate.”

“I have a hunch. Okay. I’ll get on my horse.”

“Come on, Della. Let’s go to dinner. Paul, call me the minute you arrive.”

Thursday, October 15, 2020



My mother at the Erecheum, Athens, Greece, 1957.

The Erechtheion is an ancient Greek temple 

constructed on the acropolis of Athens 

between 421 and 406 BCE.


You did not inherit the throne

dear daughter—

no map-like memory

or language ability

no attributes of the Gods.

You are fallible, human,

whereas I don the grey gleaming

olive crown of Athens.


Modern thought? Wisdom? 

I embody them both.

I did not spring from my father’s head—

the birth was typical.


My family was marked by peculiar happenings

the ancient half dragon, half human creature

really an ordinary man,

and another forced into a pretend marriage.


My father drove an electric milk truck

on Brooklyn streets

so we did not want for anything.

My mother was plumber, cook, 

sewer of clothing until

she fell down on the sidewalk

cancer riddled.


I was already in college at age 16

when they tried to split us up

but I prevailed—my brother did not

go to cousins in Florida.


I’m called the goddess of war,

contested Poseidon for Attica.

I know how to battle

intimidation of a daughter a sacred art

shame in money issues a boon for my glory.


I taught you to read and showed

what I could of life

by example. 

I have worn armor, helmet,

and a shield showing two lions devouring a bull.


I did not abuse my power.

There, in Erechtheum—

you will find my statue

glorifying the city’s influence.


You will find me in the theater of Dionysius,

at the Parthenon,

or in my temple in Delphi.

Look in the marketplace of Athens for me—

I like handicrafts, weaving.

Look in the orchards

for fruits under my protection.


Olympus trembles terribly

under my bright eyes—

the earth groans sorely

the sea heaves in purple waves.

Monday, August 17, 2020

The Gong

We called our father’s camera “The Gong” because of the motion we’d make. Grab the object around his neck and watch it swing back to his chest. Make the sound “gong.” Like many games, this was one my brother invented, yet we were both annoying our father, complicit in the deed.

The picture taker in our family, he came to photography early on, before my brother and I knew him. Small square black and whites show Mom and Dad’s travels in England, where they lived from 1955-1957, and on travels through a Europe still emerging from World War II. Also documented were their thick long coats with many buttons, Mom’s plaid wool slacks, her flair skirt. In one Oxford picture, he photographs Mom as she faces him, sitting in a punt (row boat) while visiting there, her face widened by the shot so it looks completely round, accented by her bangs and short dark brown hair. In another, their London friends whom they knew from Mom’s Holborn library job and Dad’s work at the Surry mental hospital, peer unexpectedly at the camera, posed on a couch and chair. Later, one of the women, June, would respond to my letter apprising her of Mom’s death, that she and her husband had known Mom and Dad so many years ago when they were young, and communicated only by holiday cards.

For my parents, however, their time in England informed their lives. It was much more than still keeping in touch by holidays cards and about being young at the time. They were the ones on VISAS, they were the ones, as my father said in a letter to friends in the States, getting an education in the experience. Mom stood in front of Rome’s St. Peter’s cathedral, at the fountain. She sat in front of the Parthenon. Stood on a street in Yugoslavia during Tito’s rein. Dad occasionally posed in these photos when Mom took the picture. He has his hands in his pockets beside their car, the Austin Mini, surrounded by so much snow I wonder how they drove through Cheddar Gorge. They bought the car not only for their three month continental journey in 1956 and the two month trip in 1957, but also for their trips in England, and then sold it back.

Our father kept photography magazines in a special drawer in our Richmond house. Not a private place, the square wood telephone table stood in the hallways, available to anyone. To a child discovering a cover photo of a woman wearing a top but no bottom, what was I supposed to think? Her backside mostly faced the camera, her face turned around towards us. She had on a white blouse and a half apron, tied at the waist with cherries printed on it. Each of her butt cheeks was small, round, firm looking. Her expression, a partial smile, as if she knew something we didn’t. As I leafed through, I saw articles on photography, as promised by the name of the magazine, on how to get better pictures, and ads for equipment. Yet none of Dad’s photos looked that way, like the photo of the woman.

My father had a square jaw, and as he got older, his bottom lips became square in shape. He had a full shock of hair, brown turning white early, busy but not too thick eyebrows. He walked in a side-to-side manner, shuffling. His joints were operated on in his 50s and 60s—every finger by Dr. Pachietti, then two knee replacements later on. His handwriting, unreadable to everyone but Mom, his hands shaky, required Mom’s typing out letters for him despite her busy work life. She worked full time as a librarian and then as a medical records trauma coder. He had no secretary, either in private practice as an LCSW counseling couples and families, or as a contractor alternately with the Catholic Diocese of Oakland or the Jewish Family Service in Berkeley. I wonder if his shaky hands were the reason he took so long to take a picture.

His photography of family must have felt different than counseling nuns and priests or couples like the Bushbergs, who owned the Happy Cooker, a cookware store. Sitting or standing in a stationary position was key for both activities, counseling and photography; however, Dad could disappear behind the lense, while with counseling he had to steer and involve himself. None of us witnessed the client sessions, of course, but the fact that these people showed appreciation through gifts—a hand made glass lamp, a painting (both ending up in the family room/garage), and a sandwich named after Dad at one couple’s Los Gatos eatery, showed their appreciation. Further, clients shouted their neediness, calling our house, asking to talk to “Sam,” Dad’s work name. Mom called him Sol. In one case I talked down a suicidal woman. This evidence contrasted his closeness with clients as opposed to his family’s experience of him.

In our family, Dad was absentee. Even when he wasn’t on his regular schedule of late morning wake up and afternoon and evening clients appointments, he’d find ways to slip out. He had to drive further into Richmond to get a replacement part for his shaver. Al Lasher on University had electronics. We’d find McDonald’s napkins tucked in the glove compartment or see peaking out under the driver’s seat a crisp red and white stripe bag from McFarland’s over near the El Cerrito Place, the dry roasted and salted mixed nuts broadcasting his wanderings. But his wanderings took their toll. When Mom almost left the family due to Dad’s absenteeism, the concession was Dad taking us on Sunday drives. This didn’t necessarily provide more camera opportunities. The point of these family times were being together. We’d venture to the cheese company in Sonoma or another place within a two hour range and come back I the waning light, so even drifting off, I’d keep my eye on the blinking road dividers.

The “gong” was a Konika SLR film camera of the 1960s, solid metal, sometimes with a long lense attached, even better for the gong effect. The single-lense reflex camera, before the digital boom, used a mirror and prism system. When light was allowed to pass through the image could be captured. The Konika used a “roof pentaprism,” a system developed for the 1948 Duflex, patented in 1943 Hungary. The Japanese pentaprism SLR was born in 1955 with the Miranda T, followed by Pentax, Minolta, Zunow, Nikon, and Yashica. The Konica “Autoreflex” of 1965 used an external light meter. 

The action on a camera is deceptively simple, yet precise. However, the camera’s “holder,” the human taking the picture, needs to be still. The holder turns the focus ring, turns the film speed dial to set the ISO, then turns the shutter knob to the desired speech. Then he turns the aperture ring—this decides how far open the mirror will go. The hands move gently. With my father, the act of taking a photo prolonged minutes into what felt like hours. Not uncommon for SLRs, holders will stand (or sit) in one place until the shot is right—lighting, speed, everyone standing stock still. My brother was often a blur in family shots, unable to make himself into a temporary statue. Hyperactive they called it. Often my brother and I would conspire to make a face and hold our left arms up, curve the hand a bit. We called that the “Hah,” which came from a song we made up and sang on long car trips to a campground in summer. As much as our father tried to capture us looking normal, at the last minute we’d open our mouths, flash our upper teeth, and do “The Hah.” This would only cause our father to take another picture, messing it up for everyone. I never saw our father use a tripod, even when capturing a moose at the Snake River on our trip through Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons.

One picture taken which documents my father with the Gong around his neck was taken by a third party. The shot must have been sent to my parents by the taker. The background of the San Francisco Bay and cypress trees marks this as the Coit Tower viewing area, meaning a family or friend visit, showing visitors around the city. Judging from my mother’s red plush blazer, the visitors are Andre and Odilie from France. My mother’s big round sunglasses, wide shirt lapels, my father with his usual tan sport jacket, the camera strap thin black leather. The camera looks smaller than I remember it as a child. His gaze is set at some distant point, as is my mother’s. 

My father got control over his life the only way he knew how—errands and work were two. But with the camera, he also had control—over focus, light, settings. He got control in this way, while he couldn’t control what was happening with the family at home. My brother’s acting out, the loudness, yelling in the living room, and how one result was my father breaking my brother’s bedroom door with his foot because the door was locked. He also smashed some of my brother’s record albums. I played my part, teasing my brother until he beat my legs to bruises, and on long car trips our father reached around with one arm and grabbed my brother’s knee. “Stop, Mark,” he said, his Brooklyn accent treating the “A” vowel like “Mock” and without the “R” to soften the sound. With our father behind the camera, how much control did he have really? What do his pictures show? My brother and I do not comply. Others are more willing subjects. Not as many people used cameras in those days, and in many gatherings he was uniquely prepared to document. 

An action shot of my father with the camera was taken by me with my Instamatic camera during one of our family trips in the Monterey Bay Area. We had discovered the Asilomar conference grounds and State Park during the 1970s, on Dad’s first work conference there, where he brought us along. We frequented the place through the years aside on personal trips, struck by the natural beauty and historic, rustic buildings at the site, such as those by architects Julia Morgan and John Carl Warnecke. In this particular photo, he holds the Konika camera up to his right eye, hand on the front dial. His left eye is shut. You can see the left corner of his mouth in a grin. We must have been posing for him. The Instamatic camera had already been initiated at Girl Scout camp a few years earlier, when I accidentally dropped it down the “biffy,” or portable toilet, and somehow after fishing it out with the help of a counselor and a long pole rigged, it still worked. With this camera, I documented some of the same territory as my father, but from a different vantage point. 

This picture with him in his proverbial tan sport jacket, his full white head of hair, his square black framed glasses, is one of the few pictures of him with a camera, and the only one I have where he is in the act of using it. The object is not just a “gong” clanging against his chest—the action may be slow, like his car driving or walking, but it’s precise. He sees us through that lense. He watches, takes in the blur to focus, using the light to show who we are. 

Thursday, October 10, 2019

Each Time

The first time it happened 
I twisted my leg muscles
I rose from the chair
realized nothing
remembered nothing

Later I would say
I remember
I was reading Sylvia Plath’s poems
finished watching a movie about her
gazing at the cats on the sofa

The second time
I was reviewing the police report.
I did not need to see a doctor.
Gasps in logic
watching them carry the body
away like watching someone
you don’t know getting undressed.

At an age where I should be settled—
own a house, pay a mortgage,
though I wouldn’t have lived on a busy corner.

Worse than a 100 year old plant dying
worse than wondering if it would
ever bloom, hummingbirds pollinating it
on the small porch
white blooms.

Can one ever be satisfied?

Each time I tell people
eyes hungry, questions
“good detail” they burp
like trying on a girlfriend’s clothes
they run throiugh the scenario
and see if it fits.
I want to share
I don’t want to share

Each day clearing the bottom rooms—
kitchen, dining room, and how living room,
I hear the crash
how much easier it would be now
with nothing in those rooms
to slow it down.

I think of the burger place on Cutting and San Pablo
the Black woman with a white hair net
her son helping out.
Next door the barber with a bobbing bird
in his window—
buildings one
or re-used
then gone.
We would push against the counter
to stand up.
Such a bargain.

Even now, inquiries.
Like my mother’s stroke and six months later
her death, it keeps coming—
different seasons but the same
nausea and unanticipation
no way of pressing a blade
closer, shiny, fixated
alone, a wimpering animal
against the cut.

All at once I felt a snap
and a rush and as if it were
100 below I was shaking.
I could hear my mother’s voice,
“put a sweater on” but I didn’t.
I was crying to live in those
moments, as if a door had slammed
or someone had locked me out
of life. Chest heaving,
my neighbor called—
“stay with me” I said
until I realized I couldn’t hold
the phone anymore.
What would I take?
The cats wouldn’t come into the carriers.

I emerged into the outside
of my skin, the street,
the house like a reptile
regurgitating its meal.
Sirens without noise,
red engine,
white pickup, 
crowd across the street
everything ready to explode
“stand back,” he said, as I filmed
two trucks pulling the criminal truck out of the house.

It would be a week until they bandaged
the house, wound gaping
but not repair it yet
even after a month.
First the abatement
“rip it out” then stabilize.
In a world of dead languages
the same worn phrases used
pain described of a structure taken apart.

A few people were crying, or at least
hands on their faces.
Go away I wanted to shout
and to the man who stepped in front
videoing, blocking me,
it’s me you are taking a part. 

My mind completely mixed up
like a puzzle—what’s first
like an argument about my own identity.
What stability means, in one
moment having to leave, skip to the next
chapter because the reading has been interrupted.