Poet’s notebook: The invisible servants of Baba Yaga (finding new meaning in an old story)

The invisible servants of Baba Yaga: finding meaning for our times in an old story
In the classic Russian folk tale of Baba Yaga, “Vasilisa the beautiful”, Vasilisa’s hateful stepmother sends her into the primal forest to ask the powerful witch, Baba Yaga, for fire. Baba Yaga is a fearsome mythic hag whose house stands on chicken legs, surrounded by a fence surmounted by skulls with eye sockets that glow at night. Sending Vasilisa to Baba Yaga is the jealous stepmother’s way of destroying the gentle Vasilisa once and for all. Vasilisa winds up serving the witch, by accomplishing all of the impossible tasks she is assigned thanks to the intervention of a magical doll that Vasilisa’s dying mother gave to her for her protection. The whole time Vasilisa is working for Baba Yaga, she is observing the hag to try to learn what makes her tick. When her service is completed, Baba Yaga has to give her the fire she came for but, in an attempt to trick her into damning herself, she allows her to ask three questions, but only three. Vasilisa has noticed that Baba Yaga is waited on by a pair of bodiless hands that faithfully execute her bidding. Vasilisa yearns to ask Baba Yaga about the hands, but her doll warns her not to go there, so she reigns in her curiosity when it comes to the hands. After she has asked her three questions, the furious witch, informs her that if she had asked about, or even mentioned, the hands she would have been reduced to a cinder!
I would like to suggest that we, many of us, American citizens, are like Vasilisa at the point when she is asking her three questions. Intelligent as Vasilisa is, and bent on sticking with the original plan, she doesn’t ask the one thing that will change the power-structure, the one question that will pull the rug out from under the witch. The privileged class of our society, which includes a vast majority of us, like the tyrannical witch, has been served by the magical hands for decades. Those hands have cleaned our homes and buildings, taxied us to the airport, picked our fruits and vegetables, served us coffee and even watched over our children. The disembodied hands are our “illegal” or undocumented immigrants. So, receiving the fire from Baba Yaga and being sent on our way, is one way of not rocking the boat. Asking the taboo question of power – “Who serves you? Who does your bidding, but has no face, no life and no identity?”. . . asking that question of power stirs up the witch’s wrath, and puts us at risk in that it messes with the status quo, but it also utterly changes the balance of power.
That’s where we are at. In a sense we have asked about the hands! And those in power are furious. How dare we ask what our wealth is based on, what magical relationship sustains this delicate one-sided power over a class of human beings who subsist by hiding in our midst? So, are we going to be reduced to a cinder? Or are we going to challenge the old witch’s authority and restore an identity and a face to those hands, which, in the times this old story was being told around a fire, would have been the hands of the landless serfs.

Poet’s Notebook: Disappearing streets, disappearing soul and soul-retrieval

Disappearing places, disappearing soul

My son forwarded a 1990s-vintage video of a street in NYC that is no more, gobbled up by gentrification. He sent me the link with the email:

“This is why I long for how cities used to be back in the day. I don’t even know how to process this kind of grief! Check out how Lower East Side used to be.”


I watched the video, and then I knew what I wanted to say. I wrote back to him:

I’ve been dealing with something similar on many levels all my life. It’s called soul-loss. For you, you experience it in the sterilization of these neighborhoods in cities where streets have been raped by money. People’s livelihoods, that they have built up over years, that reflect their passions and gifts and hard-work and soul, have been bought out from under them. But it happens in other ways that are just as painful and poignant. The loss of hometowns in the Midwest, and in coastal communities that grew up around fishing with little bakeries and family run restaurants, taxi-services, hardware stores, grocery stores . . . And mountain communities that used to be about the mountain environment; these communities were living a kind of poetry just by subsisting in the shadow of the mountain . . . City streets on the harbor that used to be about the harbor, depot towns that used to be about the depot, with trains coming and going. But, there is something else to say here: When you talk about grief and loss and processing, you should remember that even though you are talking about actual places and environments, there is a corresponding soulfulness in you that is connected to your heart. Your heart feels the loss and grieves the loss of these one-of-a-kind places, but it’s important not to lose the part of you that is capable of longing, and knows when it finds soul in the world, because the world is still full of soul and soulful places to find and love and protect. That’s why I bring up soul-retrieval all the time, and why I bring up dream work. We poets, artists, dancers, musicians and music-lovers, dreamers and dream-workers have to work hard to keep our hearts open and vital and responsive to life. Continue reading

Poet’s Notebook: My poem, “Mr. Heron” followed by comments


It’s really very simple,
How things are going to change.

We learn what you need to know by watching
How Mr. heron stands in the marsh.

He stands until the tide ebbs
To the point where a large fish

Leaps free
As if tossed up by the water

In a floppy arc.
And then Mr. Heron stirs

Like a business man
In a grey suit,

Lifting himself slowly on wings
That never hurry.

And then you turn to me and say
He looks sad.

Yes, it is much sadder than beautiful
To watch him fly away.


We are visiting Shirley’s father in West Palm Beach. We were on the long boardwalk that stretches from the nature center to the beach when we stopped to watch a heron standing in the tidal river. They are always so solitary when you see them fishing like this, I became aware that I felt bad for him. He looked so exposed and somewhat foolish. Then a fish jumped and it was as if this woke him from his trance. The fish was too big for him, so its leap from the water was more symbolic than anything. It was almost as if he was embarrassed, as if he was saying to himself, “What am I doing!” It was as if I was witnessing a Zen moment for the heron, and that he would now be free to find something better to do . . . shedding his grey suit, finding a better way to live, that makes more sense to him.

Poet’s Notebook: My poem, “The life expectancy of a homeless person is 50 years” followed by comments

The life expectancy of a homeless person is 50 years

A crow will never peck out the eyes of another crow.
Perhaps that is why they live longer than men.
(Paraphrase from a poem by Shukrulla.)

I am a crow.
Shukrulla is right,
I would never peck out the eyes of another.

We fight each other and sometimes we are rough
But mostly we stick to language.

“Hey, Garbage Wing, can’t you share?
You be the lookout for a change, I’ll work the field!”

Like that.

But we watch some of you combing the dumps
To feed your families
And we watch some of you living high above each other
In gleaming towers with blue water on every floor
That you rarely go in and never drink
But lounge beside in the sun
Covering your eyes with dark scales,
Blaring annoying sounds that seem to make you happy.

Like that.


What am I saying?

I am saying,
We know you
Better than you know yourselves.
We have watched you very closely
For a very long time!

You should watch us
And learn something.
I will never peck out the eye of my kin!
And that includes every crow everywhere.
We are one people, one nation.


What am I saying now?

You haven’t learned very much
With your big heads.
No, you haven’t learned a thing.
I am saying:
You should take turns
Being the lookout and working the field
And take care of each other.
Listen to each other,
And stop pecking out each other’s eyes!


Do crows live longer than us? Technically the answer is no, but I think Shukrulla is trying to get us to see something that transcends the literal. The bottom line is, crows do not trust us and they do not respect us, and there may be any number of reasons for that if we try to see ourselves through their eyes. We humans don’t seem to work well together and we don’t take care of each other. Some of us live high up and hoard food and water and shiny things, while others of us scrape and forage below in the shadows of towers, while no one stands look-out to warn of danger. If crows lived this way, they would not last long or live as long as they do. One more thing: One of the greatest poets of all time was Homer and he was technically blind. But if we don’t “see”, even though we have eyes, we might as well be blind. And if we don’t listen to our poets, for example, by judging what they say with a literal yardstick, that is a little like pecking out each other’s eyes. This may sound extreme but, if anyone is shocked (or blind-sided) by what the human race has been doing to the biosphere, it isn’t the poet. Poets have been reading the writing on the wall for at least the last 90 years, with their eyes wide open.

Poet’s Notebook: My poem “Choose your metaphor” followed by comments

Choose your metaphor

I spilled the beans and now I have egg on my shirt.
My beard is unintentional.
I’m long in the tooth
So nobody cares if my eye twitches
Or if I clear my throat a lot
But have nothing to say,
Or if I scratch my scalp
And dandruff falls on my black shirt.
I smile more for no reason,
I frown more for good reason.
I don’t drop as much stuff
Because I don’t like picking it up.
I’m careful not to break stuff
For a similar reason.
I like most animals more than people.
I don’t want to know what people say about me
Because I can’t change,
And if they say something nice about me
It probably isn’t true anyway.
My mother braided the rug in front of me.
Somewhere in the coils is an old shirt my father wore.
This is not a metaphor.
The edge is worn in front of my chair
Where I place my feet.
This is a metaphor.
I don’t always answer the phone.
I like yogurt, but not all yogurt.
I like Seven Stars and Butterworks.
I wish I could be 40 again
But, with that,
I wish the world could also be
26 years younger.
I would have done much more
To prevent what has happened to our world.
For one thing, if I could do it over,
I wouldn’t be so self-centered.


I just read that “happiness is a choice”. If this is true, and I think it is, then so, I assume, is unhappiness. In this poem I seem to be looking at myself in a mirror that reflects my discontent. What has “happened to our world” has worn me out, or my response to it has worn me out, made me grow old and bitter before my time. I could say this poem is a caricature of the person I have become by taking everything that has gone wrong with the world too personally. But seeing it as a caricature would be to make light of it, having a laugh at my own expense. If I had ended it with line 19, it might have been just that, with nothing deeper going on. But after line 19 I mention that my father’s shirt is somewhere in the braided rug that my mother made. Now, the fact is,  my father was not happy in his old age. One time I was looking at him and I realized that he had let himself go beyond a point that was acceptable to me, who loved him dearly. I felt that I had to say something that would get through to him. I asked him when was the last time he looked in the mirror. He cast his eyes downward and shrugged. I said, “Well, you look like a street person.” I think in this poem I am acknowledging that, if I’m not careful, I could suffer my father’s fate.  Being happy or unhappy is a choice, but being unhappy takes a lot more energy than being happy. When you’re chronically unhappy, chances are you are perversely focused on your problems, and that requires sustained effort, whereas you can be happy just by forgetting yourself for a while and focusing on anything but . . . Hard work for a poet!

Poet’s notebook: Haiku, “Four elder White men”, followed by a reflection


Four elder White men
by a woodstove in Vermont
with an elephant.

At our men’s discussion group last night we talked about James Baldwin’s message about how we carry our history in us, we are our history and if we don’t know that, and know our history, we don’t know ourselves, and if we don’t know ourselves, it is easy to see how our shadow can run things and get away with it because we simply aren’t paying attention. Well, that isn’t exactly what Baldwin said but it’s close enough.

Four of us, white guys, sitting around the woodstove in a cozy, clean room outside the house. No chance of being surveilled by the NSA. We could have talked about anything we wanted. If we had been white supremicists we could have talked that talk. If we had been terrorists, we could have talked that talk, planned our next terrorist act in total secrecy. But we were just 4 educated middle-aged white guys with knitted brows trying to figure out how to live the rest of our lives in such a way that our descendants would be proud of us.

I just saw the documentary, “I’m not your Negro” narrated by Samuel Jackson in James Baldwins’s words: “People pay for what they do, and, still more for what they allowed themselves to become . . . And they pay for it very simply by the lives they lead. The crucial thing here, is that the sum of these individual abdications menace life all over the world. For, in the generality, as social and moral and political and sexual entities, white Americans are probably the sickest and certainly the most dangerous people, of any color, to be found in the world today.”

So, taking this in, let me say again: There we were, four of us, middle-aged white guys . . . with our history . . . the elephant in the room, and we saw it and it wasn’t pretty.


Poet’s notebook: Open letter to my brother who manages the brilliant site, http://thiscantbehappening.net

Open letter to my brother who manages thiscantbehappening.net:

If nothing else, I am intuitive, so read between the lines here. I think I’m saying something important!

We need, that is, people need, to be empowered by people like you who know what’s happening behind the scenes. I’m not saying not to write articles that expose all the worms and raise the red flags,  but, in case you haven’t noticed, people are on over-whelm these days but they are also primed for real action and reform, even revolution.

In the sixties, there was just as much shit happening, maybe not with climate, but on most other fronts, but there was a message of coming together. People were having real visions! It was really similar to the days when Rome was imploding, and out of that came the message that love was the answer. Sound familiar? It’s so simple. What was happening in the early centuries AD and what was happening in the 60s was about the birth of love and compassion after the ethos of power and greed had had its day. Only now it’s not just a generational thing, and it’s certainly not just a Christian thing, it’s ubiquitous!

As a poet, I have to sort this out and wrestle with which messages I am serving.

We are witnessing the end of history. . .maybe. We are witnessing the rebirth of the human spirit. . .maybe. Different realities are true. Many realities are simultaneously true. That is what shamanism teaches. So we have to decide which ones we serve. Which basket to place our eggs in. Some realities will dry up and some will flourish, and the point to remember is, we really don’t know what is going to happen, but most likely, the vision we serve is going to happen.

Going back to the 60s, there were just as many good trips as bad, and those who weren’t having visions were picking up on a shift in the collective vision through the music and literature (i.e., the Don Juan books for example, the Beatles)  that was mainlining the psychic shift toward a new Welltanschauung. I feel that you are somewhat wasting your talents by stoking the wrong fire.

Of course things are going to hell in a hand-basket, but there is also some really amazing stuff happening and we need that kind of coverage. How can I say this? I don’t mean to sugar coat. I mean, there really is a groundswell of hope and change happening like the proverbial sprout breaking through the sidewalk. The up-coming generations need our support of that fresh powerful vision so they can clean up the train wreck after we’re  our of the picture.     Lo entrendes?