Tuesday, March 31, 2009

dizzy memories of crisis and defeat


Most vivid memories are not
of victories, but crisis and defeat,
It’s harder to remember what
caused you to feel elated and upbeat
that to recall the moments when
you felt your life had spun out of control,
so that you would never reach again
the top of life’s egregious, greasy pole.

Inspired by an article by Elisabeth Bumiller (“Gates Securing a Role Under Another President,” NYT, March 31, 2009) in which she writes about Robert Gates, whom Obama appointed to continue acting as Secretary of Defense, a position he also held in the George W. Bush Administration. The title and last lines are inspired by Benjamin Disraeli’s statement when he took over from Lord Derby as Prime Minister of England in 1868, becoming in his own words, the most important Jew since St. Paul: “Yes, I have reached the top of the greasy pole.” Bumiller writes:

Friends say they expect that Mr. Gates, 65, will stay on as Mr. Obama’s defense secretary beyond a single year, his expected tenure when Mr. Obama appointed him. Still, Mr. Gates’s wife continues to spend six months of the year at their home near Seattle. Mr. Gates has made no secret of his distaste for Washington, where in 1991 confirmation hearings for intelligence chief he was accused of politicizing Reagan-era intelligence and exaggerating the Soviet threat. These days he lives a life of take-out food and briefing books in a home at a small military compound near the State Department. Mr. Gates has been careful about comparing his two most recent bosses, although on a recent appearance on the NBC program “Meet the Press” he called Mr. Obama “somewhat more analytical” than Mr. Bush. Still, Mr. Gates’s advisers say he has no illusions of how difficult Afghanistan will be. “The White House is a poignant place,” Mr. Gates wrote in his 1996 memoir, “From the Shadows.” He added: “It seems to me that for those who live and work there, if they are completely honest with themselves, with rare exception the most vivid memories are not of victory but of crisis and defeat — and, for a fortunate few, of one or two occasions of historical importance.”

© 2009 Gershon Hepner 3/31/09

Monday, March 30, 2009

good book


Bizarre, hilarious and amusing,
though it’s supposed to be inspiring,
is the Bible. Thus, accusing,
David Plotz, quite unadmiring
of the irony that lies
behind each story we may sample,
God cut down to human size,
the size of Plotz, as an example.
The tragic stories that disturb
such squeamish readers contain lots
of insights that are quite superb,
misunderstood by David Plotz
perhaps because he reads them just
as titillating TV tales
which, drenched with lots of blood and lust,
remind him of the Bible’s males
and females with their sitcom lives,
he seems to think. Near Santa Monica
I live near desperate housebound wives,
but Bible ones are far ironicer,
some practicing Big Love while others
like Sopranos in New Jersey,
cheat the rednecks who’re their brothers,
killing many without mercy,
all like characters within
the Good Book David Plotz derides.
But since derision is no sin,
praise him at least for bona fides
and verve and great vivacity,
which link him to the Bible’s blighters,
as well as the audacity
of all the Bible’s brilliant writers,
than him, I think, more perspicacious,
aware that life is more than odd.
controlled––why not?––by an audacious
and ironic Guy called God.
Inspired by Rich Cohen’s review of David Plotz’s book, “The Bizarre, Hilarious, Disturbing, Marvelous and Inspiring Things I Learned When I Read Every Single Word of the Bible,” in the NYT Book Review, March 29, 2009:
What’s the deal with Yahweh? Is the guy crazy or what? First he’s schmoozing, walking in the garden and whatnot, then he’s so angry he turns into a column of smoke, and here comes the scary voice, and here come the waterworks, the smiting and rivers of blood, and don’t get me started on his weird DeMille-like obsession with the firstborn. This is a God who loves the camper but hates the counselor — see all the little brothers who prosper (David, Joseph, et al.), and all the big brothers who get smoked. And yes, I know, I was supposed to put lamb’s blood on the doorjamb so the angel of death would pass over, but I am human, I was tired, I forgot. Does that mean the kid had to die? And what the heck does Yahweh even mean, anyway? Forty years to cross 120 miles of desert? They shouldn’t call him Yahweh, they should call him Wrong Way. This is me as Seinfeld doing the Bible, and I can go on like this forever, but won’t — partly because there might actually be a Yahweh and this is exactly the kind of stuff he’ll punish first, and partly because it’s been done better and more thoroughly than can ever be done by me in “Good Book,” in which David Plotz, the editor of Slate, reads the Hebrew Bible book by book, chapter by chapter, riffing as he goes. It’s CliffsNotes for Scripture — screenplay by Plotz, story by God — which is by turns entertaining, serious, shallow, profound, literal-minded, cute, ingratiating, hilarious…. In the end, though, the book is made by the spirit of the writer, who on page after page struggles with the divine, or the Bible’s picture of the divine, even if it leaves him “brokenhearted about God.” “After reading about the genocides, the plagues, the murders, the mass enslavements, the ruthless vengeance for minor sins (or no sin at all) and all that smiting . . . I can only conclude that the God of the Hebrew Bible, if he existed, was awful, cruel and capricious,” he writes. “He gives moments of beauty — sublime beauty and grace! — but taken as a whole, he is no God I want to obey, and no God I can love.”

© 2009 Gershon Hepner 3/29/09

Sunday, March 29, 2009

perpetual loss


Being Jewish means to sense
perpetually the loss
of a utopia in past tense
that, like an albatross,
hangs round Jews’ necks like dreams
of future futile gains,
imaginary as the schemes
to break all present chains.

Inspired by a line in the play “Photograph 51” by Anna Ziegler, currently showing at the Fountain Theater in LA, starring Aria Alpert as Rosalind Franklin, who at King’s College, London was the first person to demonstrate by means of Xray crystallography the double helix structure of DNA, inspiring the paper of James Watson and Francis Crick that on them the Nobel Prize together with Maurice Wilkins, Franklin’s colleague. Franklin has a Jewish friend, Caspar, who works at Yale and in the play declares: “Being Jewish means perpetual loss.”

© 2009 Gershon Hepner 3/27/09

Thursday, March 26, 2009

we need witches


We need witches more than seers,
and wizards more than wise men,
as we are aging, in arrears,
unable to reject the icemen
who come to freeze our sagging rears.

In old age some of us are Lears,
and those who think they are Falstaff
and hope to hide their primal fears
with levity and a false laugh,
can’t find the charity that cheers.

While we decline and sunset nears,
we know, because the iceman cometh
as surely as a dog has ears,
that we’re becoming like behemoth
that cannot be repaired at Sears.

Inspired by an e-mail Linda sent to Jane Liddell-King in response to her suggestion that isn't Lear was “like Adonai talking to Moses just before M. dies”. Linda wrote:

I'll have to think about Lear. Fascinating. Yes, I think Sh read the bible, the version - forgotten which - around then, and to be found in the library of the Earl of Oxford who G believes was Sh himself, due to background and notations on his books. Some people write Lear or Prospero in their old age and some Falstaff operas or sublime string quartets. I'd rather be Verdi than Shakespeare as far as that's concerned. But G writes the Lear stuff, though I can't believe it as he acts more like a spring chicken….Your flaring imagination however is valuable in a different way; I think it's transgressive and that's why it's not acceptable to normative Jews. We like order, we like science, we like cause and effect, we can't abide female passions and seeming illogicality. That's what men say and why they've seized Judaism from us. But we need seers and witches like yourself. Even if to compare it with what we've suppressed it with.Go to bed, Jane!

© 2009 Gershon Hepner 2/16/09

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

ants and grasshoppers


“Should we all be hyperopic?”
now appears to be the topic
everybody is debating.
Saving money is frustrating
for grasshoppers, but for ants,
who look on saving most askance,
it is a pleasure that you can’t
deny them, thinking like an ant.
“Saving,” ants say, “cannot hurt you,”
obsessed as they all are by virtue.

Savers, though, may have, of course,
the same affliction of remorse
that buyers have, when hyperopia
prevents them reaching the utopia
that buyers aim for when they shop,
and, locust-like, in stores grasshop,
and buyers, once they’ve had their fling,
remember food and wine and bling
that they acquired, being rash
with their credit cards and cash,
while savers are deprived of mem-
ories of joys that they condemn.

Guilt for every happy hedon
starts when they’re expelled from Eden,
but at least they can remember,
when it’s freezing in December,
the pleasures that in spring and summer
they paid for, maybe being dumber
than all their friends whose paradigm
was antlike in the balmy clime.
Hey, Primal Sin was not so bad
when you consider just how glad
the apple Eve and Adam plucked
made both of them. It’s usufruct
has helped us reproduce like mad,
which isn’t really very bad,
so long as we do not become
a plague of locusts, or succumb
to criticism from the ants
who do not understand bacchantes,
and talk about economy
and laws of Deuteronomy,
the sort of things no grasshoppers
would think of when they’re busy shoppers,
because they know the world will end
quite soon, and till then, they must spend,
while being bailed out by the Fed
though broke, and destined to be dead.

The moral of this poem’s topic
is: ants who’re always hyperopic
are far less fun than those myopic
grasshoppers, although both Aesopic.

Inspired by an article by John Tierney (“Oversaving, a Burden for Our Times,” NYT, March 24, 2009):

We interrupt this recession to bring you news of another crisis that is much more pleasant to deal with. Now that shoppers have sworn off credit cards, we’re risking an epidemic of a hitherto neglected affliction: saver’s remorse. The victims won’t evoke much sympathy — don’t expect any telethons — but their condition is real enough to merit a new label. Consumer psychologists call it hyperopia, the medical term for farsightedness and the opposite of myopia, nearsightedness, because it’s the result of people looking too far ahead. They’re so obsessed with preparing for the future that they can’t enjoy the present, and they end up looking back sadly on all their lost opportunities for fun. It’s hard to imagine this excessive foresight being much of a burden for, say, Bernard L. Madoff. Nor for the optimists who took out balloon mortgages (and the A.I.G. executives who insured them). But hyperopia does seem to affect a wide range of people in some circumstances, to judge from clever experiments with people shopping for bargains and redeeming prizes. Splurging on a vacation or a pair of shoes or a plasma television can produce an immediate case of buyer’s remorse, but that feeling isn’t permanent, according to Ran Kivetz of Columbia University and Anat Keinan of Harvard. In one study, these consumer psychologists asked college students how they felt about the balance of work and play on their winter breaks.
Immediately after the break, the students’ chief regrets were over not doing enough studying, working and saving money. But when they contemplated their winter break a year afterward, they were more likely to regret not having enough fun, not traveling and not spending money. And when alumni returned for their 40th reunion, they had even stronger regrets about too much work and not enough play on their collegiate breaks. “People feel guilty about hedonism right afterwards, but as time passes the guilt dissipates,” said Dr. Kivetz, a professor of marketing at the Columbia Business School. “At some point there’s a reversal, and what builds up is this wistful feeling of missing out on life’s pleasures.” He and Dr. Keinan managed to change consumers’ behavior simply by asking a few questions to bus riders going to outlet stores and to other shoppers shortly before Black Friday. The people who were asked to imagine how they would feel the following week about their purchases proceeded to shop thriftily for basic necessities, like underwear and socks. But people who were asked to imagine how they’d feel about their purchases in the distant future responded by spending more money and concentrating on indulgences like jewelry and designer jeans. “When I look back at my life,” one of these high rollers explained, “I like remembering myself happy. So if it makes me happy, it’s worth it.” Aesop told a fable of two types of people: the virtuous Ant who saves for the winter and the improvident Grasshopper who’s punished with starvation. But even the most conscientious Ants sometimes recognize the need to lighten up — and, with typical Ant discipline, will find ways to “precommit to indulgence,” as Dr. Kivetz discovered in a lottery experiment he conducted with Itamar Simonson of Stanford University.

© 2009 Gershon Hepner 3/24/09

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

mathematics of farce


Taking our resentments from the attics
of our brains to understand the farce
we make of life depends on mathematics
that causes us to fall upon our arse
unless we can not only understand the math,
but solve equations that have no solutions,
transforming vinegar and grapes of wrath
by means of comedy and convolutions
that make, if you are rational, little sense.
Instead of intellect we have to turn
to laughter sitting on a funny fence,
as objective as a Grecian urn,
making some additions that amuse,
and subtracting parts that seem recessive,
not multiplying problems to accuse
your friends who seem divided and regressive.

Inspired by Ben Brantley’s review of Yazmina Reza’s “God of Carnage” (“Rumble in the Living Room,” NYT, March 23, 2009):

Never underestimate the pleasure of watching really good actors behaving terribly. Of course you can experience such a spectacle every year around Oscar time. But there is a more sophisticated version of this spectator sport, in which highly skilled stage performers take on roles that allow them to rip the stuffing out of one another, tear up the scenery, stomp on their own vanity and have the time of their lives. That’s what Jeff Daniels, Hope Davis, James Gandolfini and Marcia Gay Harden are up to at the Bernard Jacobs Theater, where Yasmina Reza’s “God of Carnage” opened Sunday night under the extremely savvy direction of Matthew Warchus. And their performances in Ms. Reza’s streamlined anatomy of the human animal incite the kind of laughter that comes from the gut, as involuntary as hiccups or belching. Examined coldly, this 90-minute play about two couples who meet to discuss a playground fight between two of their children isn’t much more than a sustained Punch and Judy show, dressed to impress with sociological accessories. But there’s a reason that Punch and Judy’s avatars have fascinated audiences for so many centuries in cultural forms low (“The Honeymooners” of 1950s television) and high (Edward Albee’s 1962 drama “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”). “God of Carnage,” which is poised somewhere in between, definitely delivers the cathartic release of watching other people’s marriages go boom. A study in the tension between civilized surface and savage instinct, this play (which recently won the Olivier Award in London for best new comedy) is itself a satisfyingly primitive entertainment with an intellectual veneer….
But give full credit to Mr. Warchus, who staged Ms. Reza’s “Art” and “Life x 3” on Broadway and knows that words are to physical comedy what step-by-step drawings of footprints are to dancing. It’s the bodies in motion that count. Mr. Warchus is the man who transformed the sniggering 1960s sex comedy “Boeing-Boeing” into one of last season’s great delights on Broadway, and I can’t think of another working director who better understands the higher mathematics of farce. Working with the designers Mark Thompson (set and costumes) and Hugh Vanstone (lighting), Mr. Warchus has created an eloquent blend of the chthonic (blood-red background, cracked-mud walls) and the civilized (minimalist furniture, exquisite vases of tulips). The show’s very look predicts what’s going to happen, and you can imagine where those tulips will wind up. What you can’t imagine is the artful course that Mr. Warchus and his performers take. “God of Carnage” may be a familiar comic journey from A to B, but it travels first class.

© 2009 Gershon Hepner 3/23/09

Sunday, March 22, 2009

what ludwig used to whistle


What Ludwig used to whistle should amaze
all people who can’t do this. He would whistle
all parts of string quartets, and paraphrase
their notes, an intercontinental missile
who flew to Cambridge from the woods of Wien,
crash-landing in a place called Trinity.
“Whereof one cannot whistle,” was the paen
he pouted, thinking of infinity,
but while all that of which one cannot speak
requires silence, string quartets did not
evoke this from him, since his great technique
brought him within his great namesake’s earshot.

In the NYT, March 22, 2009, Philip W. Bennett writes:
With reference to the musical talents of the Wittgensteins, your reviewer did not mention the prodigious whistling talents of Ludwig, the philosopher. It is reported that Ludwig could whistle the entire parts of string quartets along with those playing instruments. When he visited the United States in 1949 as a guest of Norman Malcolm of Cornell, Malcolm reports, Wittgenstein whistled whole symphonies on the drive from New York City to Ithaca.
Hamden, Conn.
Béla Szabadosz writes about Ludwig Wittgenstein:
Paul Engelmann, whom Wittgenstein met during the Great War and who became a good friend, provides a few more details. He tells us that when they first met during the war, Wittgenstein "played no instrument; later he learned to play the clarinet, and played it very well; I once heard him in Schubert's 'Shepherd on the Rock'. Instruments apart, he whistled beautifully. On one occasion, when the conversation turned to the viola part in the third movement of a Beethoven string quartet, he whistled the part from beginning to end, with a tone as pure and as strong as that of an instrument. I have repeatedly heard him perform such feats." [19] How appropriate whistling the air is for a philosopher who has regard for, and builds on, the everyday! Engelmann also notes that Wittgenstein had a detailed knowledge of the whole Western European musical repertoire, and this was so before he learned an instrument. Running in the family then, music was, and though Ludwig was not actively engaged in music making until later, he had a participant's understanding of it through the natural practice of whistling.

© 2009 Gershon Hepner 3/22/09

Saturday, March 21, 2009



We live in an unlikelihood,
dehubrissed by humility,
beyond the middle-aging wood,
defying probability.
Let us continue to defy
the probing of offensive forms
and questionnaires that ask us why
we do not corresponds to norms,
for in unlikelihood we dwell;
that is the answer to their questions,
nor do we wish to break the spell
by listening to their suggestions.
The place we live in is not free
for statisticians to discover;
its boundaries are by decree
off-limits, if not to a lover,
for only lovers have the right
to know us bad, as well as good,
throughout the year, both day and night,
accepting our unlikelyhood.

Inspired by a poem by W. S. Merwin, “To the Unlikely Event,” read on Roger Rosenblatt’s weekly program on books on KCRW on August 31, 2006. Angela Mercedes Becerra writes:

One of my favorite poems from Present Company is “To the Unlikely Event.” Merwin shared with the UTHSC audience that he wrote this poem to that line we always hear when we get on an airplane—“in the unlikely event that we…” It is amazing where a true poet can find inspiration: “how can we ever address you/in your unlikelihood boundless/indifference abroad in your/uncharted self to which only/random syllables find the way/and to what words can we entrust/our groundless hope saying there there/to them how unlikely you sound.”
I am also reminded of Dylan Thomas:
A tiny dingle is Milk Wood
By golden Grove 'neath Grongar,
But let me choose and oh!
I should Love all my life and longer

To stroll among our trees and stray
In Goosegog Lane, on Donkey Down,
And hear the Dewi sing all day,
And never, never leave the town.

© 2006 Gershon Hepner 8/31/06, 3/21/09

Thursday, March 19, 2009

in the heartless suburbs


In the heartless suburbs all intrigues are bound-
less, and the wives and wounded children of divorces
are made by therapists and counselors more sound,
disasters generally attributed to sources
that emanate from God or from the stars, but never
to dysfunction of the structure of society,
for which analysis like this is far too clever,
as well as being labeled as an impropriety.
Restless hopeful couplings may degrade
the ennui and the boredom for a while,
but since these themes are endlessly replayed ,
the people artificially can’t smile
as easily as they when they first moved in-
to suburbs that they thought weren’t zoned for sin.

Inspired by a statement by Ian McEwan concerning John Updike in an article in TNR, March 12, 2009 (“On John Updike”):

The three Bech books, which Updike wrote listed with his short stories, have alliterative titles, like the tetralogy of a distinctive comic genius. Henry Bech is a Jewish-American writer whose career rises, fades horribly, and rises again to embrace the Nobel Prize, denied his creator. In one of the final episodes, Bech Noir, Henry takes, rather implausibly, to murdering the critics who have offended him over a lifetime. A poisoned self-addressed envelope and a discreet shove on a crowded subway platform dispose of two with little bother. To reach another, Bech done up in cape and mask, armed with gun and silencer, climbs a fire escape with an accomplice, his current lover in a catsuit, to take the life of Orlando Cohen, an old man with emphysema, whose chaste ambition was to be “the ultimate adjudicator” of American literature and who had “refused to grant Bech a place, even a minor place, in the canon.” They find an emaciated, enfeebled Cohen breathing oxygen through a mask with a volume of Walter Benjamin’s Selected Writings on his lap. This is comedy, high and dark, but it does not prevent the critic, minutes before his death, delivering a sharp dismissal of Bech’s work for its failure to understand America. Its core, Bech had failed to grasp, was essentially Protestant. The first settlers thought that the Holy Ghost had led them to a Promised Land. Fighting for air, Cohen pronounces:

The Holy Ghost….who the hell is that? Some pigeon, that’s all…but that God-awful faith…Bech…when it burns out…it leaves a dead spot. Love it or leave it….a dead spot. That’s where America is…in that dead spot.

Bech had failed to find that spot, but his creator had long made it his subject. The dead spot was the ruined inner city of Roger’s Version, a spoiled landscape through which a divinity professor takes a thirty-page stroll––one of the great set pieces of the entire body of work: the dead spot was the shadowy center of scores of novels and stories, in the freeways, malls, TV-addicted children, junk food, the boundless suburbs and their heartless intrigues and pursuit of ecstasy in restless hopeful couplings, the messy divorces and their wounded children, the racial divide, the rackety politics filtered through TV screens, the national bafflement as manufacturing industries declined and the Japanese moved in with their cheaper cars.

© 2009 Gershon Hepner 2/25/09

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

baseball star


Material man, like asteroids,
falls with a blast. Can’t last. Steroids
made sure he’d end up as a goner,
sans reputation. Will Madonna
help her rod of steroid valor
recover in the eyes of fans,
by legalizing through Kabbalah
what the baseball bible bans?
A man who once was like a god,
has fallen sharply like a star,
stopped by steroids, like a rod
chastising those it won’t disbar.

Lynn Zinser writes about an article on Alex Rodriguez in Details magazine by Jason Gay, with an eye-opening photo shoot by Steven Klein, “Confessions of a Damned Yankee” (“Rodriguez’s Last Exposure,” NYT, March 17, 2009):

For Yankees’ third baseman Alex Rodriguez, the timing of a cover story (“Confessions of a Damned Yankee” by Jason Gay) and eye-opening photo shoot by Steven Klein for Details magazine could hardly have come at a less opportune time. He had agreed to it in late December, when it seemed like a good, mainstream way to raise his fashionable profile. Instead, he sat for the interview on the day he found out Sports Illustrated reporter Selena Roberts would write he had tested positive for steroids in 2003. For Details, of course, the timing felt altogether serendipitous. An athlete profile turned out to be a window into the biggest, messiest sports story of the year. “You look at the pictures and you have to wonder what he is thinking,” said Alex Bhattacharji, the editor in charge of the story and photos. “He was totally at ease. It led us to believe he was either relieved it was coming out or he didn’t realize it would come out so soon. We either lucked into or fell into the time period that adds a head-scratching element to the whole question of who Alex is.” Gay’s story describes Rodriguez’s relaxed state of mind as he knew the Sports Illustrated story was imminent. He was taking no frantic phone calls and did not hint at the turmoil that was about to hit. Gay detailed how Rodriguez drank shots of Patrón and posed without complaint for photos that would set off alarm bells in the minds of many image-conscious athletes. The interview, Gay said, was classic guarded A-Rod, but the photos were altogether different. Klein and creative director Rockwell Harwood chose the setting, a bare-bones gym in Tampa with mattresses strewn on a concrete floor, and suggested the poses. Bhattacharji said Rodriguez had every opportunity to decline any of the shots, but did not. He did not take his shirt off, but chose a sleeveless one. “We thought he was getting to a different level of comfort with himself,” Bhattacharji said. “The picture of him kissing his reflection is very revealing. Is he in love with himself or is he kissing something goodbye?” A day later, Rodriguez was text-messaging Gay and nervously asking that he not write that Rodriguez had revealed his favorite Madonna song. He still said nothing about the steroid allegations. A few days later, Rodriguez looked markedly less comfortable as he admitted his performance enhancing drug use, which instantly became the backdrop for Gay’s story. The magazine is set to hit the newsstands soon, as baseball season approaches and Rodriguez searches for a way to manage in an even harsher spotlight.When Details first approached Rodriguez’ representatives and public relations handlers, including Guy Oseary, the manager he shares with Madonna, Rodriguez saw posing for a magazine aimed at fashion-conscious young men as a way to improve his image, said Bhattacharji. But Gay describes Rodriguez as decidedly un-hip. “Style-wise, he’s a little Fred Rogers, a little Jerry Seinfeld,” Gay writes.Now, in the eyes of the public, Rodriguez is a little Barry Bonds and a little, perhaps, Madonna.

© 2009 Gershon Hepner 3/17/09

Tuesday, March 17, 2009



My body’s Braille, but far less famous
than that attributed to Seamus.
I mean the body of my work,
that like a confidential clerk
I daily feel I must produce,
in order not just to seduce
the reader, but to clarify
ideas that otherwise would die
if left to wither in the mind,
invisible like words the blind
cannot perceive until they touch
their elevated forms. I try
to elevate my thoughts when I
put them into a poem. That
is why my body’s Braille, not flat,
although deflated somewhat when
it’s read by semiliterate men
who are not used to reading Braille
written by a Jew or Gael.

The poem has a final quatrain that Linda has advised me to omit, claiming that the poem is stronger without it. I have therefore removed it, cutting the birth-cords.

synthesized in synagogue
or cut like birth-cords in a bog,
rising from the dark like gleams
that shine upon undrafted dreams.

Inspired by Seamus Heaney’s poem “Bog Queen”:

I lay waiting between turf-face and demesne wall, between heathery levels and glass-toothed stone. My body was braille For the creeping influence: dawn suns groped over my head and cooled at my feet, through my fabrics and skins the seeps of winter digested me, the illiterate roots pondered and died in the cavings of stomach and socket. I lay waiting on the gravel bottom, my brain darkening, a jar of spawn fermenting underground dreams of Baltic amber. Bruised berries under my nails, the vital hoard reducing in the crock of the pelvis. My diadem grew carious, gemstones dropped in the peat floe like the bearings of history. My sash was a black glacier wrinkling, dyed weaves and phoenician stitchwork retted on my breasts’ soft moraines. I knew winter cold like the muzzle of fjords at my thighs— the soaked fledge, the heavy swaddle of hides. My skull hibernated in the wet nest of my hair. Which they robbed. I was barbered and stripped by a turfcutter’s spade who veiled me again and packed coomb softly between the stone jambs at my head and my feet. Till a peer’s wife bribed him. The plait of my hair, a slimy birth-cord of bog, had been cut and I rose from the dark, hacked bone, skull-ware, frayed stitches, tufts, small gleams on the bank.

© 2009 Gershon Hepner 3/16/09

Monday, March 16, 2009

my favorite cocktail


Like few flowers, you’ve the juice
to be my favorite cocktail, Lin-
da. Playing love with you it’s deuce
until I drink you up and win.

Take bright flowers from your garden,
lay them freshly-cut upon
our bed, a tennis-court in Arden
when we’ll play a marathon.

Before the sunrise, we’ll ignore
the rules because there’ll be no um-
pire, or a need to keep the score
each time that we together come.
Inspired by Eric Felten’s article (“He Was a Cocktail Artist,” WSJ, March 14, 2009) on cocktails created in Antibes by Gerald Murphy and his wife Sara for “the socialites who served as the thinly veiled source material for the novel's central characters, Dick and Nicole Diver.

The Murphys' seaside salon at Antibes hosted a circle of friends who defined art and literature in the 1920s -- regular guests included not only Fitzgerald and his wife, Zelda, but Hemingway, Picasso, Cole Porter, Dorothy Parker, Archibald MacLeish and Robert Benchley. This pantheon sunned the days away at the beach and enjoyed impeccable dinners under the grand silver linden tree that framed the garden at the Murphys' Villa America.” Felten writes:
Murphy was fastidious in the preparation of drinks. But also a bit coy: When asked what he put in this concoction or that, he would invariably reply, "Just the juice of a few flowers." If that phrase sounds familiar, you might recall the denouement of "The Philadelphia Story," when a woozy Tracy Lord, played by Katharine Hepburn, awakens to realize an overindulgence in champagne the night before has knocked her off her pedestal. Tracy's ex-husband, played by Cary Grant, makes a Stinger for her as a hangover remedy. Hepburn asks what's in it, and Grant replies: "The juice of a few flowers." Philip Barry, the author of "The Philadelphia Story," was one of Murphy's closest friends and had taken particular note of Gerald's way with a cocktail shaker, which Barry described as being "like a priest preparing Mass."…
But perhaps it was there on the terrace of the Villa America, tossing back Bailey cocktails, that Hemingway acquired his taste for tart, unsugared drinks. Decades later in Cuba, Hemingway famously preferred his Daiquiris without sugar, and the special Papa Doble version he favored bears a telling resemblance to the Bailey. Not that Hemingway would have acknowledged it. His eagerness to defend the Murphys would later be replaced with a vicious contempt for them. Round about his fourth marriage, Hemingway started thinking that it might have been best if he had stuck with his first wife, Hadley. He came to blame the Murphys for introducing him to the homewrecker for whom he left her. He particularly berated himself for once having read aloud to the couple the yet-unpublished manuscript for "The Sun Also Rises." That, Hemingway wrote in "A Moveable Feast," "is about as low as a writer can get and much more dangerous for him as a writer than glacier skiing unroped before the full winter snowfall has set over the crevices." Such was the thanks Murphy got for making Hemingway a first-rate drink.

© 2009 Gershon Hepner 3/14/09

Sunday, March 15, 2009



Yet Jews kept faith with crabbed rites,
wrote Updike, close to death, recalling
the words the poet David writes,
which are to dying men enthralling.
Surely–how he loved this word!–
goodness and mercy both will follow
me all my life. Although absurd,
the crabbed rites that seemed as hollow
as prayers expressed without belief,
sustained all Jews like me throughout
the ages when they sought relief
from travails that included doubt,
which they like John, believing not
what he’d been taught, must also surely
have felt. Although the Psalmist’s words were what,
when they were troubled insecurely,
brought light to them when in their darkest moments,
it was, and is, their rites–though crabbed,
arousing mockery and comments
distasteful always, sometimes rabid–
that kept them going as a nation.
The Psalm without the rites could never
have helped a people to survive
as Jews have done, and will forever,
with God’s help, sitting at a table
at which they still are cruelly mocked.
This understanding, John was able
to share not rites, but chagrin, shocked
to learn that, dying, and in need
for consolation and support,
there can’t be “surely” in the creed,
for death “forever” will abort.

Inspired by a poem by John Updike published in The New Yorker, March 16, 2009, and written on December 22, 2008:

FINE POINTWhy go to Sunday school, though surlily,
and not believe a bit of what one’s taught?The desert shepherds in their scratchy robes
undoubtedly existed, and Israel’s defeats–
the Temple in its sacredness destroyed
by Babylon and Rome. Yet Jews kept faith
and passed the prayers, the crabbed rites,
from table to table as Christians mocked.

We mocked, but took. The timbrel creed of praise
gives spirit to the daily; blood tinges lips.
The tongue reposes in papyrus pleas,
Saying, Surely–magnificent, that “surely” –
Goodness and mercy shall follow me
The days of my life, my life, forever.

© 2009 Gershon Hepner 3/14/09

Saturday, March 14, 2009



Dependence leads to emulation,
but sadly creativity
demands thereafter separation,
with hypersensitivity
the reason often for defection
of emulator, who betrays
his master by his rude rejection.
Disengaged like divorcés,
regretting the dependence that
had once inspired them both, they lose
their symbiosis, and combat
each other with conflicting views,
and claim they always had suspected
the other was far less inspired
than they, and ought to be rejected,
the sell-by date now long expired.

Inspired by an article Holland Cotter on an exhibition of the art of Titian, Tintoreeto and Verones at the Boston Museum of Fine Art (Passion of the Moment: A Triptych of Masters, NYT, March 12, 2009):

The show is about three such personalities: Tiziano Vecellio, or Titian; Jacopo Robusti, known as Tintoretto; and Paolo Caliari, called Veronese. All three shot off sparks as they reforged painting as a medium. And all three had feverishly competitive overlapping careers. These masters of 16th-century Venetian painting were no Holy Trinity. They were a discordant ménage-a-trois bound together by envy, talent, circumstances and some strange version of love. This is the story the exhibition tells through 56 grand to celestial paintings — no filler here, not an ounce of fat — sorted into broad categories (religious images, portraits, belle donne) and arranged in compare-and-contrast couplings and triplings to indicate who was looking at whom, and why, and when. And that story is set against a larger historical narrative that goes something like this. Before the 16th century Italian art was dominated by two cities, Florence and Rome, and by two kinds of painting: fresco and egg tempera — water-based, fast-drying, smooth-surfaced — on wood. Venice lay outside this mainstream. Fresco wasn’t viable in the city’s humid atmosphere; tempera had problems too. Then, at the end of the 15th century, oil painting, still little known in the rest of Italy, was introduced, and Venetian art caught fire….Finally into the arena strode a third giant, and a somewhat gentler one, Veronese (1528-88). Named for his native city and still in his teens when he hit Venice, he was quickly acknowledged to be a prodigy, fully formed. Titian became the artist he was through long growth, Tintoretto by sifting and synthesizing influences. Veronese was Veronese from Day 1. Ingratiating in manner, he was a painter of fine texture, sweet color and courtly reserve. Patrons who found Tintoretto too outlandish gave Veronese their business; the elderly Titian took him under his wing. And from the 1540s to the 1580s Venetian painting became a three-way dance among these three men, a tricky choreography of emulation and rejection, dependence and separation. You can follow the moves in a cluster of steamy paintings of nudes at the center of the show, installed in a gallery with crimson walls and tasseled curtains. The Titians — the “Danae” from the Capodimonte Museum in Naples, “Venus with an Organist and Dog” from the Prado, “Venus With a Mirror” from the National Gallery of Art in Washington — are stop-and-stare fantastic.

© 2009 Gershon Hepner 3/13/09

Friday, March 13, 2009



Good food and wine produce a synergy
ideal especially for dinner ge-
niality, for I have got a hunch
the synergy is not ideal for lunch,
unless you take at least some forty winks
following the food and vinous drinks.

Good wine should make you think of what to eat,
and be regarded as a special treat,
like food that goes with it, like your best friends
but unlike them it never condescends,
implying it’s superior to you—
it asks for drinking, not a point of view.

Synergy is what good wine’s about,
not just with food, but those with whom you lout
around, enjoying them while you are able
to demonstrate your wit around the table,
before you take your favorite one to bed,
discussing maybe Chateau Maidenhead,

or else a Chateau that’s associated
with a widow. Divorcees aren’t rated
on labels of the bottles I have drunk,
but if there is one, I would not debunk
the wine. The synergy a divorcee
creates with wine is greater than with tea.
Eric Asimov writes about the Pinot Noirs that Sonoma County is producing “Finessed and Light: California Pinot NoirsWith a Manifesto,” NYT, March 11, 2009):
AS the rain slanted down onto the vineyard around Copain Wine Cellars, just outside this town in northern Sonoma County, Wells Guthrie, the proprietor, poured a glass of one of his 2006 pinot noirs. The wine was fresh and light with aromas of flowers and red fruit. Even in the gray dimness of his tasting room I could see my fingers on the other side of the glass through the pale ruby wine. It was vibrant and refreshing, nothing like the dark, plush, opulent wines that have made California pinot noir so popular. Mr. Guthrie used to make wines more along those heavier lines, but not anymore. After the vinous equivalent of a conversion experience, with his 2006 vintage he renounced the fruit-bomb style in favor of wines that emphasize freshness and delicacy. “It got to the point where I didn’t want the wine to be fatter than the food,” he said. “Wine should make you think of what you want to eat.” From Mendocino and Sonoma through the Santa Cruz Mountains and Arroyo Grande south to the rolling hills of Santa Barbara County, a rebellion is brewing. The dominant style of California pinot noir remains round, ripe and extravagant, with sweet flavors of dark fruit and alcohol levels approaching and sometimes surpassing 15 percent. But on a recent trip through these leading pinot noir areas I was thrilled to find a small but growing number of producers pulling in the opposite direction. Instead of power, they strive for finesse. Instead of a rich, mouth-coating impression of sweetness, they seek a dry vitality meant to whet the appetite rather than squelch it. Instead of weight, they prize lightness and an almost transparent intensity. Some of these producers are fairly new to the pinot noir game, like Anthill Farms in Healdsburg, a partnership of three young men who share a taste for balanced, elegant wines, or Peay Vineyards on the northern Sonoma Coast, which makes spicy yet polished pinot noirs, or Rhys Vineyards in the Santa Cruz Mountains, which after just five vintages is already producing brilliantly distinctive wines…
“I wish somebody could explain to me how picking grapes when they’re precisely in balance and making a wine in balance became unfashionable,” Mr. Clendenen said as we stood in the middle of his utilitarian winery, in the middle of the Bien Nacido Vineyard in the Santa Maria Valley. On a big industrial stove Mr. Clendenen was preparing lunch, as he often does, for the winery staff and the occasional visitor. When it’s ready, work at Au Bon Climat stops as everybody sits at a long, indoor picnic table to eat and drink a glass or two of wine, a reminder to all of the place and intent for their beverage. “The ultimate use for wine is pairing with food,” said Rick Longoria, who makes intense yet balanced pinot noirs in Santa Barbara County. “There is no greater experience than the beautiful synergy between wine and food that elevates both.”

© 2009 Gershon Hepner 3/11/09

Thursday, March 12, 2009



Eternity bores Sylvia Plath: she never
wants to get there. All the gods know, she
declares, is destinations. Very clever,
but hearing about being bored bores me,
and I believe the gods know far more than
the destinations that we cannot see,
remaining hidden not to them, but man.

It’s their omniscience, contrasting with our ig-
norance that causes us to view gods with
resentment, thinking that it’s infra dig
to treat them as if not part of a myth,
but real, and living for eternity,
which we consider also as de trop,
preferring transience of modernity
of which the gods don’t seem to know.

Immortality is particles
of clouds and leaves, said Sylvia, which is true,
but poems, books and even articles
may sometimes also be immortal. Do
you think there’s any point in what Ms. Plath
opined about eternity and des-
tinations? Immortality’s weird math
says almost nothing to me, more or less.

We drink acetic acid from a tin,
yes, even while we drink fine Chardonnay,
and though we think that we’ve abolished sin,
we lose hope in the middle of the way
that leads us through the dark wood to old age,
because we think there’s nothing more to say
to anybody, and don’t hear the voices
of the gods, who go their own sweet way
while we are left alone to make our choices.

Inspired by Rosanna Warren’s contribution to “A Symposium of Foresaken Favorites” in The Threepenny Review. S[ring 2009. She describes coming back to the poems of Sylvia Plath which she discovered when a teenager, at a time when her teacher could make no sense of lines from “The Couriers” like “Acetic acid in a sealed tin.” criticizes Plath for overuse of the word “terrible,” but cites some lines with approval, including “All the god know is destinations,” “Eternity bores me. I never wanted it,” “Only they (burnt letters, which she calls “carbon birds” and “coal angels”) have nothing to say to anybody. / I have seen to that,” and, “Telling the particles of the clouds, the leaves, the water/ What immortality is. That is immortal.”

© 2009 Gershon Hepner 3/11/09

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

banks that fail in yonkers


It isn’t banks that fail in Yonkers
that drive me nowadays quite bonkers;
I live too far away from there
about these banks to really care.
It’s my own bank that drives me crazy.
about the reasons I am hazy.
They tell me that I have exceeded
their limit, but I’ve always needed
to go beyond it. Why do they
now tell me that I have to pay
what I am owing them? They should
be patient. In my neighborhood
there’s lots of people they allow
to go beyond the limit. How
should I, I ask, behave myself
when I’ve not got their kind of wealth,
without a house that you can call
a mansion, or a garden with a wall
and pool, of course a tennis court.
Since I am of possessions short,
why don’t the banks forgive my debts
as I’d forgive their own? Their threats
are tiresome. I feel quite hale
and hearty, meaning if I fail
because I haven’t got much money,
not even that sort they call funny,
the fault will be my bank’s, I tell you.
Till then, I have a bridge to sell you.

Inspired by an article by Stephen Holden “If Banks Fail in Yonkers: Songs for the Meltdown,” NYT, March 9, 2009, writing about a jazz program “Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams” at the Metropolitan Room, 34 West 22nd Street, Flatiron district:

The show reminds you that there is a song to suit any situation, even a financial meltdown. If Ira Gershwin’s lyrics for “Who Cares?” don’t offer expert accounting advice, they suggest that a cheerful attitude toward looming bankruptcy can help dissipate panic: “Who cares what banks fail in Yonkers/Long as you’ve got a kiss that conquers?” That giddy, optimistic love song is joined to Stephen Sondheim’s hyperbolic romantic pitch “You’re Gonna Love Tomorrow,” a song to which Mr. Comstock imparts a faintly ominous undertone — the narrator is a little too eager to make the sale. Conceptually this smart and amusing show follows an arc that begins with fantasy and denial (“Use Your Imagination,” “Not a Care in the World”), slips momentarily into despair (“Brother, Where Are You?,” “Remember My Forgotten Man”), then after several tangents including a trip to Brazil (“You Don’t Have to Know the Language,” “A Rainy Night in Rio”) returns to face grim reality with renewed determination and a restored sense of values. As the jaunty, winking ’30s jazz song “A Hundred Years From Today” puts it:
And why crave a penthouse that’s fit for a queenYou’re nearer heaven on Mamma Earth’s greenIf you had millions what would they all meanOne hundred years from today.
“Nowadays,” a Kander and Ebb song from “Chicago,” gives the same live-in-the-moment message an edge of desperation: “men everywhere, jazz everywhere, booze everywhere, life everywhere, joy everywhere, nowadays.” This show, in which Mr. Comstock and Ms. Fasano are accompanied by Sean Smith on bass, ends with “Ain’t We Got Fun,” an early ’20s salute to domestic canoodling as the ultimate panacea: “Not much money, oh but honey, ain’t we got fun?” Along with that other swinging cabaret couple, John Pizzarelli and Jessica Molaskey, who live just down the block, Mr. Comstock and Ms. Fasano are turning the neighborhood into a hotbed of pleasure. Is this the new Peyton Place?

© 2009 Gershon Hepner 3/9/09

Monday, March 9, 2009

laws that cannot be amended


The laws of kings can’t be amended.
This was the rule in Persia when
Queen Vashti foolishly offended
the king, and would not show to men
her beauty. Thought to be most cute,
she came a cropper when the king
declared that he must execute
her. From a tree that queen would swing,
because a king’s law can’t be flouted,
unless the ruler is persuaded
by someone who has not been outed,
that laws he does not like are dated,
and have to be revised. The her-
meneutics of revision aren’t
the same in every case, but were
what saved the Jews. The Queen, a plant,
for Mr. Mordecai a mole,
made sure that genocide was halted
by finding in the law a hole
felonious Farsees never faulted.

Survival of the Jews depends
on finding loopholes in such laws
when they are threatened. Jews’ best friends
are Jewish lawyers who, though whores,
know how to plead their case in courts
where laws can be amended when
the wiles of lovely young escorts
confuse the horny, hateful men.
This is what happened once in Shushan,
when Mordecai used Esther to
persuade a king upon a cushion
on which they both lay twice to sue
all antisemites in the realm,
and change the law the king had passed
against the Jews, to overwhelm
the antisemites. What a blast
they had in Shushan then, and soon
will have again, if God is willing!
Hey, if He’s not, who’ll play our tune,
and pay the lawyers, busy billing?

Inspired by Purim 5769 and an article by Roger Scruton of Institute for the Psychological Sciences in Arlington, Virginia, in Azure 35 (2009) (“Islam and the West: Lines of Demarcation”), contrasting the modifiability of Western secular law with that of its antithesis, shari’ah, whose laws, being divine, cannot be amended:

The consensus among Western nations is that the law is made legitimate by the consent of those who must obey it. This consent is given through a political process in which each citizen participates in the making and enacting of the law. The right and duty of participation is what we mean by “citizenship,” and the distinction between political and religious communities can be summed up by the view that the former are composed of citizens, whereas the latter are composed of subjects who have “submitted” (which is the primary meaning of the word islam). If we seek a simple definition of the West as it is today, it would be wise to take this concept of citizenship as our starting point. Indeed, it is what the millions of migrants roaming the world are in search of: an order that confers security and freedom in exchange for consent.
Traditional Islamic society, by contrast, sees law as a system of commands and recommendations laid down by God. These edicts cannot be amended, though their application in particular cases may involve jurisprudential argument. Law, as Islam understands it, is a demand for our obedience, and its author is God. This is the opposite of the concept of law that we in the West have inherited. Law for us is a guarantee of our freedoms. It is made not by God, but by man, following the instinct for justice that is inherent in the human condition. It is not a system of divine commands, but rather the residue of human agreements. This is particularly evident to British and American citizens, who have enjoyed the inestimable benefit of the common law—a system which has not been laid down by some sovereign power but, on the contrary, built up by the courts in their attempts to do justice in individual conflicts. Western law is therefore a “bottom-up” system that addresses the sovereign in the same tone of voice that it reserves for the citizen. It insists that justice, not power, will prevail. Hence, it has been evident since the Middle Ages that the law, even if it depends on the sovereign to impose it, can also depose the sovereign if he tries to defy it.
As our law has developed, it has permitted the privatization of religion and of large areas of morality. To us, for instance, a law punishing adultery is not just absurd, but oppressive. We disapprove of adultery, but we also think that it is none of the law’s business to punish sin just because it is sin. In the shari’ah, however, there is no distinction between morality and law. Both stem from God, and are to be imposed by the religious authorities in obedience to his revealed will. To some extent, the harshness of this is mitigated by a tradition which allows for recommendations as well as obligations in rulings of the holy law. Nevertheless, there is still no place in the shari’ah for the privatization of the moral, and still less of the religious, aspects of life.
Of course, most Muslims do not live under shari’ah law. Only here and there—in Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Afghanistan, for example—is the attempt made to impose it. Elsewhere, Western codes of civil and criminal law have been adopted, following a tradition begun in the early nineteenth century by the Ottomans. But this recognition accorded to Western civilization by the Islamic states has its dangers. It inevitably provokes the thought that the law of the secular powers is not really law; that, in truth, it has no real authority, and is even a kind of blasphemy. Sayyid Qutb, the former leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, argued precisely this in his seminal work Milestones. Indeed, rebellion against the secular powers is easy to justify when their law is seen as usurping the sovereign authority of God.
From its origins, then, Islam has found it difficult to accept that mankind stands in need of any other law, or any other sovereign, than those revealed in the Koran. Hence the great schism following the death of Muhammad, which divided Shi’ia from Sunni. From the point of view of secular government, questions of legitimate succession such as those that drove these two groups apart are settled by the very same constitution that governs the daily operation of the law. That is to say, ultimately they are a matter of human agreement. But a community that believes itself to be governed by God, on terms conveyed by his messenger, has a real problem when the messenger dies: who takes over, and how? The fact that rulers in Islamic communities have a greater-than-average tendency to end up assassinated is not unconnected with this question. The sultans of Istanbul, for instance, surrounded themselves with a household guard of Janissaries chosen from among their Christian subjects precisely because they did not trust any Muslim to miss the opportunity to rectify the insult to God represented in the person of a merely human ruler. The Koran itself speaks to this point, in sura 3, verse 64, commanding Jews and Christians to take no divinity besides the one God and no lords (ârbâbân) from among each other.
In short, citizenship and secular law go hand in hand. We are all participants in the process of law-making; hence we can view each other as free citizens, whose rights must be respected and whose private lives are our own concern. This has made possible the privatization of religion in Western societies and the development of political orders in which the duties of the citizen take precedence over religious scruples. How this is possible is a deep and difficult question of political theory; that it is possible is a fact to which Western civilization bears incontrovertible witness.

© 2009 Gershon Hepner 3/9/09

death of god and dollars


Near the human race are layers
of nonsense, Thornton Wilder said.
Worst of all are the naysayers
reminding us that God is dead
and that we, too, will pass away,
like God, and the prosperity
for which we never had to pay,
bequeathed to our posterity.
“Why bother, then?” they ask, but I
think such opinions should be dis-
regarded, since before we die,
we can convert it from a miss
into a hit by loving well,
and, fortified by loving, chase
away all nonsense, and dispel
dismay death causes to displace
our love of being still alive,
for we can with affection and
the will to love each other drive
away naysayers, and withstand
the pressure put on us by thoughts
of our mortality and God’s,
and dollars––all these death reports
premature, despite the odds.

Inspired by a statement by the Stage Manager in Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town,” cited by Frank Rich (“Some Things Don’t Change in Grover’s Corner,” NYT, March 8, 2009):

The true American faith endures in “Our Town.” The key word in its title is the collective “our,” just as “united” is the resonant note hit by the new president when saying the full name of the country. The notion that Americans must all rise and fall together is the ideal we still yearn to reclaim, and that a majority voted for in November. But how we get there from this economic graveyard is a challenge rapidly rivaling the one that faced Wilder’s audience in that dark late winter of 1938….
In his recent letter to shareholders, a chastened Warren Buffett likened our financial institutions’ recklessness to venereal disease. Even the innocent were infected because “it’s not just whom you sleep with” but also “whom they” — unnamed huge financial institutions — “are sleeping with,” he wrote. Indeed, our government is in the morally untenable position of rewarding the most promiscuous carrier of them all, A.I.G., with as much as $180 billion in taxpayers’ cash transfusions (so far) precisely because it can’t be disentangled from all the careless (and unidentified) trading partners sharing its infection. Buffett’s sermon coincided with the public soul searching of another national sage, Elie Wiesel, who joined a Portfolio magazine panel discussion on Bernie Madoff. Some $37 million of Wiesel’s charitable foundation and personal wealth vanished in Madoff’s Ponzi scheme. “We gave him everything,” Wiesel told the audience. “We thought he was God.” How did reality become so warped that Wiesel, let alone thousands of lesser mortals, could mistake Madoff for God? It was this crook’s ability to pass for a deity that allowed his fraud to escape scrutiny not just from his victims but from the S.E.C. and the “money managers” who pimped his wares. This aura of godliness also shielded the “legal” Madoffs at firms like Citibank and Goldman Sachs. They spread V.D. with esoteric derivatives, then hedged their wild gambles with A.I.G. “insurance” (credit-default swaps) that proved to be the most porous prophylactics in the history of finance.

© 2009 Gershon Hepner 3/8/09

Sunday, March 8, 2009

not sad or empty


I am not sad and empty now,
for I have got a song
for you, my darling, about how
I love you much, and long
for you to always go on filling
my life as you have done.
Say, birthday girl if you are willing
to let me have more fun
with you another fifty years,
till I am hundred twenty.
If you say yes, I’ll say three cheers,
and be not sad or empty.

Happy Birthday, darling ex-wife! This poem was written as an antidote to the previous poem, “Sad and Empty,” written in response to finishing my book and reading about David Foster Wallace’s reaction to finishing his books:

Sad and empty, having finished
something long, I now report
I don’t think I’ll feel diminished
if I now write something short.
If I add another line
to this poem it will be
too long, so I will now confine
myself by being kind to me
and you, and ending this brief verse
with this line and two others. Three
should be enough to end the curse
of being empty, sad but free.
You may choose not to listen, I
now in four more to go must add.
It’s longer than I hoped, but try
to bear with me, for I am sad.

© 2009 Gershon Hepner 3/7/09

Saturday, March 7, 2009

babies cannot walk


Babies cannot walk or talk or think
symbolically. When not asleep
they either wave their arms or drink
fresh milk––their mother’s is both cheap
and healthy, but they have no choice
of beverage, which may make them weep,
and draw with their loud baby voice
attention to themselves. Until
they smile they do not give
their visitors the greatest thrill,
but once they do we all forgive
the mess they make, and for the bliss
caused by the smiles, will often see
that they’re rewarded with a kiss.

What benefit can babies be
to people who look after them?
some cynics ask. The question’s fair.
They aren’t all born in Bethlehem,
attracting magi gifts. To care
for them is an enormous task.
What is the benefit to those
who care for babies who just bask
in beauty of their eyes and nose,
and hands and fingers and small toes?
Why do so many people whom
the parents never reimburse
help babies once they leave the womb?

This care we give has this result.
The way all people learn to share
in baby care makes them adult.
That’s why we all so love to care
for that young helpless being who
rewards us mainly with bowel movements,
quite undeterred when we say “Pooh!”
and never ask it for improvements
in toilet protocol till he
or she can turn the baby page
of smiling, walking and can think,
beyond the breast and anal stage,
symbolically, prepared to link
with other people to join in
the care of helpless babies who
attract us when they smile and grin,
and everything they do that’s new.

Inspired by an article by Natalie Angier in the NYT, March 3, 2009 (“In a Helpless Baby, the Roots of Our Social Glue”):

In seeking bipartisan support for his economic policies, President Obama has tried every tip on the standard hospitality crib sheet: beer and football, milk and cookies, Earth, Wind and Fire. Maybe the president needs to borrow a new crib sheet — the kind with a genuine baby wrapped inside. A baby may look helpless. It can’t walk, talk, think symbolically or overhaul the nation’s banking system. Yet as social emulsifiers go, nothing can beat a happily babbling baby. A baby is born knowing how to work the crowd. A toothless smile here, a musical squeal there, and even hard-nosed cynics grow soft in the head and weak in the knees. In the view of the primatologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, the extraordinary social skills of an infant are at the heart of what makes us human. Through its ability to solicit and secure the attentive care not just of its mother but of many others in its sensory purview, a baby promotes many of the behaviors and emotions that we prize in ourselves and that often distinguish us from other animals, including a willingness to share, to cooperate with strangers, to relax one’s guard, uncurl one’s lip and widen one’s pronoun circle beyond the stifling confines of me, myself and mine. As Dr. Hrdy argues in her latest book, “Mothers and Others: The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding,” which will be published by Harvard University Press in April, human babies are so outrageously dependent on their elders for such a long time that humanity would never have made it without a break from the great ape model of child-rearing. Chimpanzee and gorilla mothers are capable of rearing their offspring pretty much through their own powers, but human mothers are not…
However cooperative breeding got started, its impact on human evolution was profound. With helpers in the nest, women could give birth to offspring with ever longer childhoods — the better to build big brains and stout immune systems — and, paradoxically, at ever shrinking intervals. The average time between births for a chimpanzee mother is about six years; for a human mother, it’s two or three years. As a result of our combined braininess and fecundity, humans have managed to colonize the planet; exploit, marginalize or exterminate all competing forms of life; build a vast military-industrial complex all under the auspices of Bernard Madoff and with one yeti of a carbon footprint, and will somebody please hand me that baby before it’s too late.

© 2009 Gershon Hepner 3/5/09

Friday, March 6, 2009

not shovel-ready


The trouble with me is that I’m not shovel
ready, and don’t want to move
from my cottage mansion to a hovel
where I will be forced to prove
my usefulness by doing useful things,
instead of reading papers and
the tea leaves, because cabbages and kings
are all I really understand.
Will I have to banish bonhomie,
almost helpless in the world
established by the post-economy
in which I and my wife are hurled?

I don’t know anything about the way
some people manage without cash
to make the things they need, yet if they
will designate me as the trash
remover in the hovel where I’ll have
to live, I might just manage––I’ve
been trained to do that––and if I can laugh,
it’s likely that I will survive,
because that’s how I’ve done so until now,
in cottages and mansions, though
if I am forced to move into a hovel how
I’ll do that I don’t really know.

Inspired by an article, “The Post-Economy Life,” by Marc Porter-Zasada, the Urban Man, aired on KCRW on March 2, 2009:

I don’t know about you, but I’m working on a survival plan just in case everything really does go south. Like, what if they stop paying the people who deliver mozzarella to the pizza joints, or stop patching the aqueducts that carry water into L.A.? That’s not possible, right? Food riots? A midnight line of torches marching up Beverly Drive and looking for CFOs? I live just a block off Beverly, and they might mistake the house.
Or it wouldn’t have to go that far. In my day job I work as a marketing consultant, and what if no one wants to pay for words anymore? What if words cease to have currency, along with spreadsheets and Powerpoint shows? I picture myself heading up the street with a wheelbarrow of words and no one wanting to buy. What if they say, “Sorry we only want folks who are shovel-ready?” I can’t imagine anyone paying me to use a shovel. Would I have to head back to grad school and do another degree? Is that how it works?
I don’t know about you, but lately, when I awake at 3 a.m., I explore such possibilities in dark detail. I mean, already my stocks are gone; after that goes the house and cars, then the wife and kids. That’s when I’d turn to my very last-ditch Plan C…which at this point totally depends on John and Lily.
Just now, I figure everyone needs a John and Lily. Mine are friends from the Valley who I really have no right to know. You see, they actually make things…real things. John’s a carpenter—he built an addition to his house with his bare hands, ran the pipes, wired the plugs, cut the drywall. Lily bakes bread and actually sews. They homeschool their kids. They’re like, an independent economic unit.
I have plenty of friends who can draw up an affidavit or write a screenplay, upload a video, or construct a financial instrument…but what good will they be in a genuine crisis? John and Lily are the only friends I have who can fix a car or plant a garden—without, you know, using plastic. I bet Lily could make pizza from scratch. I bet John could dig a well.
At 3 a.m., when I picture the world tumbling down, I imagine myself moving into John and Lily’s garage, or following them to some compound in Humboldt County, where we’d raise cows. They’d let me muck out the stalls or carry firewood or perform some simple, but useful and honest task. Over time, I guess I would cease to be The Urban Man. My face would weather, my hands would grow calloused, and eventually I too would be shovel-ready.
It might not be so bad. And I wouldn’t give up words, I mean not entirely. Not after all these years. Maybe I’d entertain my hosts late summer evenings by composing an article about millet or a funny poem about the livestock sleeping on the back 40. Maybe, yes, now and then I’d even whip up a Powerpoint about the lost joys of leveraged finance or the echo of rolling thunder marketing campaigns. I’d set up a projector out on the screened porch, Lily would make hot chocolate, and my hosts would smile indulgently at my wry and charming lament for a giddy world gone by.
You think I’m being silly. The crash hasn’t gotten anywhere near that point, and probably never will. Still, I’m trying to stay on the good side of John and Lily—and no, those are not their real names. You see, I don’t want you horning in on my survival plan: you’ll have to find a John and Lily of your own.

© 2009 Gershon Hepner 3/5/09

Thursday, March 5, 2009

sick in fortune


Sick in fortune from the surfeit
of own behavior, we
are crashing now, as we deserve,
most excellent in foppery,
betrayed for trusting not the tameness
of wolves or horses’ hearty health,
but bankers whose illicit lameness
depleted nearly all the wealth
that we accumulated on
a fools’ stage formed by Bush and Reagan,
supported by a Pentagon,
that’s fighting terror like a pagan
would once have fought the ancient Romans.
No need to look at entrails now:
read Maureen Dowd, and all the omens
now presaged by the falling Dow.

We’ll pay our taxes and will have
to manage somehow, without doubt,
while on the stage of fools we laugh,
and learn what we must do without.
Because our fortune is so sick
we have no choice now, as the target
of downswings in which every tick
will bring us all like pigs to market.

Maureen Dowd (“Stage of Fools,” NYT, March 4, 2009) writes about the earmarks that inflate President Obama’s first budget, recalling King Lear:

If only Shakespeare had known how to Twitter. There was a bit of King Lear in the scene on the Senate floor, a stormy, solitary John McCain on “this great stage of fools,” as the Bard wrote, railing against both parties and the president in fiery speeches and rapid-fire tweets. “He’s mad that trusts in the tameness of a wolf, a horse’s health, a boy’s love, or a whore’s oath,” the Fool told Lear. And he’s truly mad that trusts in the promise of a presidential candidate to quell earmarks… Blame it on the stars, Rahm, or on old business. But as Shakespeare wrote in “Lear”: “This is the excellent foppery of the world, that, when we are sick in fortune — often the surfeits of our own behavior — we make guilty of our own disasters, the sun, the moon, and the stars.”

© 2009 Gershon Hepner 3/4/09

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

truth told in a slant


We can tell more by implying
than by being quite explicit.
Though it always is illicit
to elude the truth lying,
stronger point are made if you
withhold some information in
the hope that stories that you spin
tell facts that count and point of view
obliquely. Truth told in a slant,
as Emily once said, is far
more powerful than facts that are
like scattershot instead of scant.

Inspired by an interview by Tobias Wolff on KUSC this morning, in which he compared the panoramic writing of Tolstoy with the sharply focused glimpses of truth presented by Chekhov. Wolff prefers Chekhov’s approach, whose application, he claims, is fundamental in his own, and probably all successful, short stories.

© 2009 Gershon Hepner 3/4/09

Tuesday, March 3, 2009



The blossoms on the flowering cherry
will make the cruelest month more merry,
far fairer than an emerald,
although they are ephemeral.
Although? I should have said because!
Enjoy, and don’t regret their loss!

Large clusters are the best to pan
in Washington and in Japan,
but on the details you should linger;
your eyes should touch them like the finger
of God when He created, awesome,
first man, a human burst of blossom.
Go see the blossoms when they’re pristine,
it’s like Creation in the Sistine.

Returning yearly in their season
they rhyme with nature, without reason,
and freely thrill our jaded senses
with pleasure, sparing no expenses,
without a consciousness that death
extinguishes fast blossoms’ breath.

Soon cherry blossoms, every petal,
will fall from branches, softly settle
upon the ground, and then slide under,
no accident, no blossom blunder.
Recall the beauty, not the mulch,
when you are in the blossom gulch.

What contrast are the precious stones,
the colored ever-living bones
Ezekiel thought would come to life,
delivered by Death Angel’s knife.
How cold is their eternal beauty,
a stillborn loveliness called duty.
From heaven down to earth deep-sixed,
they never change, but are transfixed.
These stones will never cause hunami!
They have a chill that does not charm me;
the ruby wondrous is deep red,
unchanging, for these stones are dead.

But see the ruby in your wife!
The rubor rushes, giving life
as blood assumes its lively hue,
the day of making one from two.
Your wife has an amazing valor
because her ruby red shows pallor.
You must enjoy her, every season,
because she loves you without reason.

Respire with your woman’s breath:
hunami her with love to death.

Hunami is a Japanese word which means the appreciation of the ephemeral because it is ephemeral. I wrote this poem about February 1996, and was reminded of it 13 years later,on 3/2/09, more than 13 years after seeing a German movie, “Cherry Blossoms,” in which the evanescenced of cherry blossoms echoes the death of a beloved wife, to which the last line of my poem might mistakenly betaken to allude. The movie was praised by Kevin Thomas in the LA Times, but panned by A.O. Scott in the NYT. The best review I have seen of the movie was by Jennie Kermode (no relation of Sir Frank Kermode, as he told me with some disdain, the name being a common one in the Isle of Man, from which he comes), in Eye for Film:

How do we deal with the inevitability of death? There can be few more important subjects for a film to tackle, and yet this is a subject that is rarely discussed at all in western society. In Japan, things are quite different. Whereas Germans may sing an old song about a mayfly yet find it increasingly difficult to deal with the mortality of their loved ones, the Japanese celebrate Hanami each spring - the festival of the cherry blossom, symbol of ephemerality - and endeavour to maintain contact with the shadows of those who have passed away. Trudi (the ever-wonderful Hannelore Eisner) has always longed to go to Japan. As the film opens, she is told that her husband (Elmar Wepper) is terminally ill. It's agonisingly painful for her - they have spent their whole adult lives together and she can't imagine life without him - yet she chooses not to tell him, to preserve his enjoyment of life. She takes the burden entirely upon herself, sparing their children too, as she has sought to do throughout her life. Yet, whilst she acknowledges that the children - with their own lives and families and very different concerns - are increasingly strangers - there are things she fails to understand about her husband, too. Things that will lead him to undertake a strange journey and a path to understanding quite outside the bounds of his mundane Bavarian lifestyle. Through an unlikely friendship with a Japanese teenager (Aya Irizuki) his view of the world will be completely changed. Cherry Blossoms is a film about death and a film about grief, yet it is also a film about how easily we can fail to understand one another, and how love, if it is to prosper, must take that in its stride. The central couple are quietly rejected by their insecure, self-centered children, yet their daughter's girlfriend (beautifully played by Nadja Uhl) seems to see qualities in them that they are scarcely ready to see themselves, suggesting that sometimes we have to step outside the familiar in order to perceive the truth. Rather than being just another culture clash story, this is a story about how the meeting of different ways of life can enrich both. As our hero and his young Japanese friend struggle to communicate in English, a language foreign to both of them, they discover a new language of signs, gestures and dance which transcends national differences. Exquisitely made, this gentle, intelligent film is full of warm humour. It's a piece of work in which every detail counts, every shot beautifully framed and lit. A fly clinging to a windowpane, a handkerchief tied to a railing, a pair of slippers on a mat - all these little things are full of meaning. Cherry Blossoms invites us to slow down and discover the hidden layers of meaning in our own lives. It requires and solicits a certain generosity of spirit and an openness to experience, but what it offers in return is something remarkable.

There is an amazing connection that the movie “Cherry Blossoms” and this “Hunami” poem make with a concept that describes a major threat to Western civilization, data rot. All data stored in our computers is susceptible to rot, necessitating the transfer of the data to new copies and/or formats every ten years. The Talmud attributes to the prevention of data rot the preservation of the Jewish people. bMegillah 15b-16a why, when King Ahasuerus asked for the chronicles to be brought to him Esther 6:1–2 states that they were niqra’im, “read,” before him, and it was found katub, “written,” that Mordecai had uncovered a plot that had threatened his life. It should state who read these chronicles, and it should states that whoever read them read the ketab, “writing,” not what was katub, “written.” The Talmud explains that the text implies that a miracle occurred. The word niqra’im implies that the words were read automatically, by miraculous means. Why was a miracle necessary? Because Shimshai, the king’s scribe, used to erase parts of the chronicles he that he found to be politically incorrect, presumably including favorable references to Mordecai the Judean. This data rot was corrected, states the Talmud, by Gabriel. It follows that the survival of the Jewish people depended, in the case of the Purim miracle, on the miraculous prevention of data rot. Our sacred texts would be as evanescent as cherry blossoms, enjoyable only as a hunami experience, but for God’s intervention, and it is only because God prevents data rot in our texts that they are not as evanescent as cherry blossoms. It is because they are not evanescent that the Jewish people has also managed to defy the process of evanescence that has overtaken all other peoples, with the possible exception of the Chinese and Japanese.

© 2009 Gershon Hepner 3/2/09

Sunday, March 1, 2009

expressionistically we paint


When rawness is attenuated
by means of self-control and nuance,
truth, being unexaggerated,
is trusted by the troubled truants
from free expression of emotion,
who otherwise would run for cover
as they would from a poisoned potion.

Expressionistically we paint
our feelings in a foolish way
if we present each raw complaint
in catalogues not raisonnés.
The only certain way for healing
our feelings’ rawness is to show
we can to them be nuanced, dealing
with loudness pianissimo.

Inspired by Roberta Smith’s review of an exhibition at the Neue-Galerie, “Brücke: The Birth of Expressionism in Dresden and Berlin, 1905-1913,” (Guys Who Put Art in Party Animal,” NYT, February 27, 2009):

Kirchner is particularly economical in a full-length portrait of Milly, an African model, and his double portrait of Otto Mueller (who shared much of the Brücke style but only joined its ranks in 1911) and his wife, Maschka. But he’s a spendthrift in “Two Nudes” and “Portrait of a Man (Hans Frisch),” both large, mottled and from around 1907. Here he mixes up a pastiche of Seurat, van Gogh and Matisse and ladles it on with a palette knife. Luckily, this section also includes some of Kirchner’s sculpture: an expressive head and two nudes in carved wood. Here rawness coexists with nuance, distortion with a real sense of gesture and emotion. These works truly dance, and offer further proof that Kirchner’s phenomenal career is a mine of exhibition possibilities….The Brücke approach to art lacked Cubism’s structural clarity or maybe any structure at all. But the movement’s rowdy leaders compensated with attitude, abandon and an unrepentant faith in artworks that were as much events as objects, collisions of a certain personality in a certain mood with a certain kind of material and image. This volatile mixture has been the special pride of German artists ever since, among them Sigmar Polke, Martin Kippenberger and John Bock. But it guides artists everywhere, not just bad boys, in mediums the Brücke never dreamed of.

© 2009 Gershon Hepner 2/27/09