In my words, February 18 – 24

I met my friend Bill Kushner on Friday at 9th Avenue and 23rd Street. It was high noon. I jumped off the bus and there was Bill, hood of his parka up over his head carrying his bag with his pen and notebook in it. We were going to see the Basquiat paintings at the Gagosian Gallery at 555 West 24th Street, but as it turned out, Bill wanted to eat lunch first and suggested a Chinese restaurant at the corner of 24th; if we ate there he reasoned we’d already be on our way to the Basquiats. I had General Tso’s Chicken, Bill Broccoli and Tofu. The sauce was dark and sweet and sour just like I like; perhaps the carrots were a bit too raw but chewing them was all right. We both ate every bite.

I liked my fortune cookie and showed it to Bill: “You’ll accomplish more if you start now.” I’ve had three weeks off from teaching. About half way through the break, I began to work on my sonnets (which I’d been thinking and thinking about but not doing) and when I began to do it, Ta Da! I worked on them from morning till night, and the work gave me insights, thinking as I was doing. It is important to have the time.

The Basquiat show is amazing in every sense of the word. It is there until April 6th, Monday through Saturday from 10 AM to 6 PM. Anyone who has any interest ought to go. I saw the Basquiat Show at the Brooklyn Museum of Art in 2005, but the Gargosian Gallery is better. I really enjoyed standing in front of the paintings. There is a lot of space. On this early Friday afternoon there weren’t many people. I didn’t have to fight my way to see a painting. I could take my time to look and move from this spot to that and look again.

Eyes and Eggs

Every painting is strong, organic, spontaneous, living because it has come out of a lot of thinking, Basquiat’s, thinking that is now doing, suddenly there, and not just suddenly, but perfectly, a surprise, like seeing a snake (if you’re not afraid of snakes), or a waterfall as it comes into view: there it is, splashing, and taking your breath: Basquiat does that: he takes your breath. I took out the sonnets that I’m working on and scribbled “possible impossibility” on them. Basquiat, like any miracle, shouldn’t be, but there he is, taking up the space that justly belongs to him. Bill looked closely at a painting and said, “He paints the yellow first and then he paints the objects over it. He uses a lot of words.” Obnoxious Liberals. The Irony of Negro Policeman. Peso Neto is the title of one painting. Neto means the same as peso, a coin or a weight, and could mean just that: money money. Neto’s an adjective that can mean clear, simple, clean: clear money, clean money clearly seen, a peso outlined. I don’t know the word neto well, and if “peso neto” is an idiom, I don’t know it, but the word keeps me thinking, looking at it like any abstraction from different angles. Bill writes, “I thinkle a lot,” and chuckles. “That will keep them jumping. What did Bill have in his mind? Maybe it will start a poem. You have to start with something.”

Peso Neto

Later, out in the hallway of a building around the corner that is full of art galleries on 11th Avenue, I filmed Bill reading his poem Moon from his book Walking After Midnight, which I’d brought along, for that purpose. People kept interrupting us, but it was fun. Then I decided to read a poem too.

Riding with Death

Last Monday my liver doctor (my liver is fine, just a check up we Hep C survivors get) asked me if I’d quit drinking and I said, “Yes,” then I said, “well, I don’t like to say never: I drink if there’s an occasion. Six o’clock in the evening is no longer an occasion.” “So you’re still an alcoholic,” the smart ass doctor said making a note of it. I’ve just heard that our hunter gatherer ancestors drank only at those times of year when the grains or berries were available to ferment. It might be nice if we could go back and drink seasonably (rhymes with reasonably) like our ancestors did. Nature’s way. When is what’s good too much? A Zapotec Indian in Mexico said to me once, “You gringos don’t know how to smoke. When you smoke, you kill yourselves.” A Zapotec might offer you a cigarette if you met and were going to talk for a minute; he might smoke one in the evening with a hot chocolate looking at the mountains; and I was at a funeral and saw some Zapotecs smoked while they prayed. Many years ago, the sister of a friend quit smoking and coffee for Lent. Easter morning she drank a pot of espresso, chain-smoked a pack of Camels, and died of a heart attack walking up the steps to church. All things in moderation seems to be an answer. The first two glasses of wine are good and inspirational; but then the sky’s the limit. I’ve been inspired drinking, but as I get older other things come into play: am I able to do my best the next day? If you aren’t doing your best, it is time to quit or do some negotiating with your muse anyway (if your goal is to do your best that is).

I am tired right now as I write. From a full day. It is already after midnight. Who won the Oscars? Midnight is the deadline and soon I must sleep. Work in the morning. I’ll end with a few sonnets that I worked on this week that I hope are approaching the truth of that Spanish adjective neto. Sonetos netos.

Over the ferns and the treacherous rocks
popping out of the steep ground like the heads
of dinosaurs I come watching my steps
so I won’t fall or slip or have to stop
till I’m drinking at the falls where the stream
comes splashing down the mountain. In these woods
I remember when I was three and looked
around on a bright winter’s day. Daddy’d
carried me on the way. I wasn’t sick
just cold from the deep snow. Fish were swimming.
How could that be, the world frozen but in
the stream minnows still moved? It was magic.
Life was no different than a fairy
tale I understood immediately.

The sun is going down in New York Town
The tugboat tugs the barge with all its might
The young boy does a wheelie on his bike
The currents of the river swell with sound
It’s really getting dark, but there is light
on the water and the sky reflected
in bright ripples along the west, not red
in this sunset but a radiant white
glowing among the topless spires that spreads
and gives all of southern Manhattan life
going where it goes without any strife.
How easy it does seem to die. That said
Mustn’t cry. Happiness makes us fearless.
We’re light and go with light no more no less.

Lovely old tree plagued now with moss and vines
your leaves have fallen and the driving rain’s
soaked you from top to bottom. I remain
here with you glistening too straight and fine
writing a poem under your naked limbs
immovable and resolute as you
who can be made into a house or flute.
Even my pencil’s made of wood and in
my hand, old tree with me both near and far
we move, your written leaves along the ground
the earthworms too below us digging down
happy I’m sure to be just who they are
there in your clutching roots shunning the light
I need so much to see the words I write.


  1. O'Matsu-Hana Ramsoondar

    Excellent !!! Thanks for posting in – your poetry inspires me to keep going 🙂

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