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Vin Ordinaire

The Cafe  by Tsuguharu Foujita

The Cafe by Tsuguharu Foujita

She came often to the same café, the somewhat plump middle-aged white woman in the good suits and sensible shoes, and though she varied what she’d order for dinner she always had one glass of the mild yet robust vin ordinaire, which she drained. The food was mediocre. The music on the radio was of the dentist chair variety and too loud. The tables were too close together. The flowers in the vases were simple, daisies and pompoms, and oddly were often wilted by evening. The atmosphere was mock French-Alpine, the waitresses were really French and spoke English well, and the food was prepared in an open kitchen designed to resemble the hearth in a country tavern of the late middle ages. The plants trailing from pots placed along the fake brick walls were plastic. But she came often to this same café, the somewhat plump middle-aged woman in the good suits and sensible shoes, to eat dinner, drink her one glass of vin ordinaire, and dream about the cook.

The cook was Mexican, in her early twenties, with an Indian face and perfectly round arms. She wore a white uniform, the kind that clings to breasts and hips and buttocks, the kind waitresses in cafés and attendants in the hair cutting salon the somewhat plump middle-aged woman in good suits and sensible shoes frequented. Her black braids were pinned into two rolls on either side of her face, kept in place by black netting. When she worked, folding an omelet in a pan, reaching across a counter for a far away item, her breasts moved as if they were stirred by a slight breeze, as if they were alive, like kittens, separate from the body. Her teeth were even and white, and she wore a dark cinnamon lipstick and cheek blush. She moved often, laughed often, talked often, mostly in Spanish to the kitchen staff, and didn’t seem to know that she was beautiful beyond compare and that she was being watched and adored.

The middle-aged woman contemplated the Mexican cook, whom she gave the name Alma, with a longing which she recognized had little to do with sexual passion. Yes, Alma was beautiful, and yes, Willa Revere was falling in love with her, but the falling of love was merely wistful, meditative. For when Willa tried to imagine striking up a conversation with her beloved Alma, she could not do so. She could not imagine being within five feet of the younger woman, feeling the other’s radiant body heat, the aura of living process which surrounded her. Of what would they speak? How would they look upon each other? What would they do next, what other places would they visit? What interchange was possible between them?

Willa could imagine the warm dry Mexican gaze turned upon her, the minimal curiosity, the gentle courtesy, the impersonal smile, and the moment was meaningless. She could not imagine that Alma could even see her. For what would she see? A somewhat plump middle-aged white woman in a good suit with sensible shoes, a creased face, faded hair, intelligent eyes. What was there of interest about this older woman? The cook would look upon her, and answer her timid question, and already her spirit would be turning away, back to her work, the next order to be prepared, back to her fantasies, her boyfriend, perhaps, her dream of a new winter coat with this or that faddish detail, or her worry over a brother’s misdeeds or a mother’s illness.

Willa could not imagine the two women together, two bodies, two voices, two people ready to penetrate each other’s lives. What have I to do with such a woman, Willa thought, or she with me? We are no one together, we both disappear into awkwardness. How could two such bodies make love? How could those perfectly round arms interlace around Willa’s broad back? How could Willa place her sad kisses against such smooth skin? Her knobby hands would burn in the smoky darkness of Alma’s hair. The two bodies contradicted each other, refused to meet, were repelled within the imagination and stayed apart. Willa could imagine only Alma’s lack of comprehension. They might well have been living in two different universes, where they interpenetrated each other’s time experience, but whose molecules could not mingle. Each was a ghost in each other’s world. Willa stayed silent, a woman who dined alone and did not draw attention to herself.

And she continued to gaze with modest adoration upon the working woman, the woman with glowing eyes and quick hands. And though she did not dare to dream, her thoughts wandered of themselves. What if she really were in a French café, Willa thought without noticing she was thinking, and Alma were the cook there, or better still, a waitress, so that she would be forced by circumstance to come right up to the tables. What if she came by me, brushed against my leg, for the tables would be close together, and I would feel her heat as the blood pulsed through her veins, enriching her flesh. What if she came by me several times in an evening?

What if she came by me several times in an evening? And I would be a young student, Willa dreamed, without noticing she was dreaming, I would be a student at the university, or a young art student, a young man recently come to Paris from the provinces. I would be very poor, and very shy. My shirt would be greyed from over-washing, and my jacket threadbare and too thin for the cold weather. My hands would be red and wind-roughened, paint-stained, and I would be ashamed of them, and hide them in my lap when Alma brushed by me. But I would yearn to paint her, to invite her up to my studio, where she would sit by the north window with her olive skin warmed by the indirect light, and my hands, red and coarse, would hold the brushes with great surety.

I would only yearn, for I would be tongue-tied and ashamed of my poverty, the barrenness of my room, and I never would be bold enough to speak to her. I would dream of holding her against my body, my body too thin and gaunt for its big peasant bones; I would dream of pressing her to me, and her flesh would be exuberant, sausage-tight, yet soft, soft, and her laughter would be sweet and warm and dry like the Mexican winds. This I would dream and I would grow red at the thought that she might divine my dreams and laugh at me, or accuse me, and then I would grow pale and my heart would ache.

How could I get to know her, to speak to her, I would agonize. I would observe other young men in the café, the careless, jaunty way they would address her, flirt with her, and the calm, un-self-conscious way she would laugh and brush off their flattery, their insinuations. She would respond to me, I would dream, for she is sensitive, I could win her, if only I could talk to her. I would never have the courage, though, and I would hide behind my glass of wine and my books. She would not be interested in my books, would not try to catch a glimpse of the title, because she would be only a simple woman, interested in the present, wanting to laugh, to dance, to walk in a light rain and be kissed in moonlight.

If only the young student would fall in love with me, Willa mused, I would discuss his books with him, his art, his notions about life and meaning and beauty and truth, we would share cold nights in his garret and the last stale heels of bread for breakfast, and we would live in the present, laughing, dancing, and we would walk in a light rain and would kiss in moonlight.

What more could Alma want? A woman like that, with softly rounded arms and laughter that is warm and dry and perfect? Of whom does she dream? A young woman must want a kind lover, healthy happy children, pretty dresses. Perhaps she too wants to encounter mystery, be delighted by a soul that inhabits an alternate universe. Perhaps she loves a movie actor with tumbled golden hair and a wicked glint in his eye. Perhaps she would steal her grandmother’s jewelry to buy him a solid gold cigarette lighter with his initials.

Willa considered the young cook with a longing that was so hopeless it had become detached, critical, analytic. She saw Alma clearly, as if the younger woman had begun to glow so from the inside that she now was set off from the rest of the world by a trembling halo of light. No, Alma would never become obsessed with another. She was too happy, too busy, so concerned with each moment as it came that she was locked eternally into youth. Her arms always would be round and silken, her manner always would be carefree, she would be gay, sweet-voiced, graceful forever.

In Paris a young artist went mad in his garret. A teacher, remembering the young boy some years later, mentioned casually to a colleague that the boy probably died of loneliness.

A young Mexican cook delighted in reading the poetry of Octavio Paz after work, even if only for ten minutes before she fell asleep. She hated that her clothes always were permeated with the stench of fried food.

Alma will grow old, like me, Willa decided. She will become like me, a dreamer, a story-spinner, thick at the waist, sag-fleshed, tired, obsessed with a story.

Nothing is ever simple. A middle-aged woman sits in a moment forever, falling in love with a young woman who cooks in a café and who never will know or recount any of this. She knows a different story, and perhaps will recount another story in another moment….

* * * * *

Merle Molofsky is a poet, playwright, fiction writer, and psychoanalyst. She also publishes articles in psychoanalytic journals. Her play, “Koolaid,” was produced at the Forum Theater of Lincoln Center in 1971.

Her website is: http://www.merlemolofsky.com

The Politics of Female Identity in the poetry of Anna Akhmatova and Gabriela Mistral

Comparative literature shows us the existence of counterpointing lines in a great composition in which difference is respected and understood without coercion. – Edward Said

Anna Akhmatova (1889-1967)  by Nathan Isaevich Altman

Anna Akhmatova (1889-1967) by Nathan Isaevich Altman


History, Antonio Gramsci suggests, leaves in us an infinity of traces through heredity, family, and collective and personal experiences, but it doesn’t provide us with an orderly guide or inventory. Our challenge then, says Gramsci, is to try to make sense of it. The most interesting of human experiences, he suggests, is the task of interpretation, the task of shaping and making sense of History in order to understand our own history in relation to other people’s, to move beyond our own experience, to transform into someone else, from a unitarian identity into an identity that includes the other, to understand oneself in relation to others and others as one understands oneself (Selections From the Prison Notebook 56).

Much groundbreaking criticism has been written on Gabriela Mistral and Anna Akhmatova. What can I tell you that you have not heard a thousand times? For a long time the poetry of these two women have been reread and reexamined independently from each other. However, there is no study that illustrates the remarkable similarities between the work and lives of these very complex and yet distinct poets. Therefore, a comparative study seems important to bring together the work of two figures, though quite different, were able to negotiate and construct through their poetry similar politics of female identity. Akhmatova and Mistral transform and transcend personal and private histories into universal themes. Their literary experimentation, the changes to the status quo their work profess, their individual experiences of history, their move away from Symbolism, their embrace of Realism, their straightforward narrative style, and their economy of language are all to compelling, and thus important objects of study. Indeed, I propose to study these elements in the light of the historical context, the philosophical and literary schools and movements that impacted both poets.
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Paul’s Night

Bosom Friends I  by Jettie Roseboom

Bosom Friends I by Jettie Roseboom

When Paul got home from college for a visit, he tossed his bag in the laundry room and joined his mother and two of her friends in the kitchen for a beer. The twelve-pack of beer was a six-pack by the time he came in, so he grabbed one for himself before it all disappeared.

“What’s Tina doing? Why didn’t she come home with you?” Paul’s mother, Janet, waved him into a seat.

“She has a huge project due and had to work on it all weekend with the group from her marketing class. She said to tell you she’ll be here next month.” Paul smiled at his mother, pleased that she liked his girlfriend so much. His father moved out when Paul was six years old, so his mother was the central person in his life throughout childhood. She taught him to ride a bike, make a perfect pie crust, drive a five speed, and appreciate the themes in Hamlet. Her insights and approval were important to him.

Paul was happy to get home and relax after a week of mid-terms. Leaning back in his chair, drinking beer, watching the smoke drift slowly by the air purifier, he listened to the women talk. As they bantered back and forth, he felt at once joined with their conversation, as well as completely apart.

“Maybe there’s a part on a man’s body that tells us if he’s okay or if he’s a jerk,” Paul’s mother said. Paul rolled his eyes.
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Writers on Freedom

“The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off.” ~ Gloria Steinem

“Lock up your libraries if you like, but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind.” ~ Virginia Woolf, “A Room Of One’s Own”

“The most important kind of freedom is to be what you really are. You trade in your reality for a role. You trade in your sense for an act. You give up your ability to feel, and in exchange, put on a mask. There can’t be any large-scale revolution until there’s a personal revolution, on an individual level. It’s got to happen inside first.”…“Expose yourself to your deepest fear; after that, fear has no power, and when the fear of freedom shrinks and vanishes. You are free.” ~ Jim Morrison
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Reality is Just a Tango with Time

Blue River by Georgia O'Keeffe

Blue River by Georgia O'Keeffe

In the fall, as the landscape withdraws into stark lines and the coming cold breathes brittle into my bones, I mourn time’s inevitable creep forward into darkness. In very ancient eras, time was endless, like a wheel, and therefore hopeful. Its circle of birth and death always led to rebirth as it marked the seasons, the years, and the generations. Then, as science ascended, time became a mathematical concept, merely a dimension, often depicted as an arrow unstoppably propelled into the future. Time was captured and stuffed into clocks to regulate our lives in factories and offices.

And so, time was also transformed in my own life. When I was a child, time was magic, a beloved friend who gave gifts at Christmas and birthdays and stretched out happy summer afternoons until I was too tired to play. Now, time has become simply the grid of each week’s over-burgeoning calendar page, keeping me up at night wondering how I will accomplish everything when morning comes too quickly. Continue reading →

River Stones

River Rocks II by Donna  Geissler

River Rocks II by Donna Geissler

My younger sisters and I used to walk in the shallow river by my childhood home. In secret.

Mother buzzed off to work, and again I was put in charge. At eleven, I had finger-wagging and maternal sighs down cold. Three and four years older than my sisters, not only was I taller, but here first: I held the court. I can’t remember whose idea it was to go down to the river that first time, but boredom often inspires mischief in children. Continue reading →

Entering the Compass of Your Life

Collage with Compass

Collage with Compass

Where are you going? In what direction are you facing at this very moment? Are you gazing into the eyes of the dawn as it crescendos in the east? Are you looking toward the North Star that guided your seafaring ancestors so many years ago? In this day of GPS and Mapquest, direction is less essential to survival than in past times.

Survival once depended on knowing that north lead to fresh water or that east was away from the tiger den. Many people are not consciously aware of their relationship to the Earth’s directions. Continue reading →

Sunday Biscuits

Woman Baking Loaves of Bread and Biscuits by Nina Leen

Woman Baking Loaves of Bread and Biscuits by Nina Leen

My grandmother taught me how to bake proper biscuits before my tenth birthday. She lived in our town, and I visited her regularly, often sleeping over at her house on my own. Cooking and cards were our pastimes.

Gummy, as I came to call her at the age of two, came from a time with butter churns and trains and hats and gloves. Her biscuit recipe was no different. An old recipe, it was written on an unlined card with fountain ink, complete with blots where the pen rested just a second too long. This card would prove to be one of my favorite parts of the baking process. She’d place it on the sill above her sink, and then put the simplest of ingredients on the counter. Gummy measured without spoons or cups while I stood in silent awe beside her on the kitchen stool. Continue reading →

Seasons: Ten Lessons in Transitions

Greetings from Brooklyn, New York

Greetings from Brooklyn, New York

One
Summer 2001, ten naval officers create an arch of sabers in the gray granite courtyard of our church. Buoyant and dressed in shades of white we step toward two facing rows of ten officers. Under the silver engraved blades, we bond our marriage to the life of the Navy. In a photo from this moment, mature cherry trees lend a flowery outline to our silhouette against a pastel summer evening sky. Just as the trees, we are rooted in our strength.

Two
I am a Navy wife for the first nine years of our marriage. My life draws strength from deep within my spirit and from the support of the other wives around me. With my pilot-husband away and up in the skies for more weeks a year than he is home, I define my motherhood solo. I parrot actions and words from external parts of my life, while doubting my internal voice daily. Our relationship bears famine of time, and interval bursts of life. Indeed, supervised paperwhites can bloom indoors in winter, but perhaps a grounded spring flowering better suits the curriculum of nature. Continue reading →

Chaos-To-Go: Life as a Holy Speck in an Infinite Messiness

Joshua Trees and Star Trails in a Twilight Sky over California by Tim Laman

Joshua Trees and Star Trails in a Twilight Sky over California by Tim Laman

When spring arrives in New England, every acre burgeons into chaos as millions of spores and microscopic one-celled wonders, plants, fungi, animals, and birds emerge from an icy sleep into manic activity. Every year I marvel at this emergence of boundless life for a week or two until precise patterns of rivers and fields take shape. I experienced very much the same joy and astonishment when I first felt my unborn son move, when I realized that another being had somehow come into existence in the midst of the everyday disorder of my ordinary life. Surely these miracles cannot be, but they are.

Over this winter, I read books about the latest mathematical and scientific discoveries. With the world in its uncertain state, I sought sure, simple, and unchangeable truths. Imagine my astonishment when I discovered that in the thirty years since I studied these subjects in college, the chaos of spring and rebirth has overtaken the orderly and mechanical perspectives of Euclid and Newton. Continue reading →