Category Archives: history

The Rosenbergs & Me, a reflection

ethel and julius rosenberg
The Rosenbergs & Me

Ethel arrived for court that day in a wool elf hat, beaming.  Her chin had grown double; her skin was flawless and glowing.  She wore a bit of lipstick.  Julius didn’t smile or frown — he looked like a man who had just woken up from a long, dreamless sleep.  Ethel draped her gloved hand over her belly as if to shield herself from unseen bullets.

Ethel & Julius grew up poor in New York, and came of age during the Great Depression.  They grew up going to rallies for the WPA, listening to radio broadcasts by FDR.  I grew up watching the rich debauch themselves in South Florida, and came of age during the Disco Years, the anything-goes Seventies.  John Travolta, spinning like a dervish in his white polyester three-piece suit.

Ethel and Julius and I were all politically inflamed at an early age — I wrote to Nixon at age 11 to protest lax emission control standards, and got a personal letter back, signed by Rosemary Woods, Queen of the Accidental Erasure.  Julius was contacted by the KGB and asked to spy for the U.S.S.R.  He found it flattering — was he really that important? — an offer he couldn’t refuse.  There were no KGB agents contacting me, but if they had… how would I have answered?

Unfortunately, in addition to the political, I also got inflamed past all reason by my mother’s drinking — I used to fling her gallon jug bottles of wine into the canal in the backyard.  My reaction was a type of revolution:  I wanted to throw off the chains of her alcoholism and be free at last.  I wanted to throw off the chains of her drunken love just as much, if not more, than Julius wanted working men and women to throw off the chains of their capitalist oppressors.

I had an ongoing fantasy:  a mother who could be confided in, a mother who wouldn’t judge, become angry, or load me up with confessions of her own, far greater problems than mine would ever be.  Once, I dreamed Ethel was my mother and it was a relief; I knew she’d fight for me; have my best interests at heart.  She looked to be a normal mother, cooking meatloaf and mashed potatoes in her tiny apartment kitchen, smoothing her boys’ foreheads after bad dreams, murmuring soothing words in the darkness.

My father and his left-wing ardor neatly complemented the Rosenbergs.  He once ran for Santa Monica, California city council on the Communist Party ticket.  It was only a few years after Kent State, the simultaneous apex & abyss of the “age of Aquarius.”  My father and I never discussed the Rosenbergs; we were in agreement on most things.

Ethel, Julius and I all studied Marxist doctrine, and I toyed with the idea of joining the American Communist Party.  I read the Party’s official platform (from the 60s), and decided, after considering Ethel & Julius’ fate, that joining wasn’t such a great idea.  To think was private, to act, public.  Plus?  I wanted to be a lawyer someday.

The Rosenbergs had a larger purpose — to transform society from what they viewed as unfair to something more egalitarian.  This is what most political rebels have wanted.  But who defines fair?  Those in power?  The USSR  hardly turned out to be an entity worth dying for.  Are Julius & Ethel content in their graves?  Maybe I should have been sent to the electric chair.

All of us spin out of control in some fashion; Ethel & Julius got caught committing actual crimes.  The main evidence against them was the testimony of Ethel’s brother, a man who turned State’s Evidence to protect his OWN WIFE.  He didn’t actually believe Ethel & Julius would ever be executed.  The government only wanted the Rosenbergs to name names.  They, however, remained silent.

After their deaths, Julius & Ethel were laid out in religious garb.  They didn’t look dead, just asleep.  The embalmer did an excellent job.  Three hundred people came to look at them.  The dead Rosenbergs left behind two young sons — I left behind my mother, slowly dying.  She was a child who wouldn’t grow up.  I couldn’t be her mother — her own mother couldn’t even be her mother anymore.  She had worn everyone out!  Julius, Ethel, don’t ask for God’s forgiveness — I can’t bring myself to.  God should be asking us for ours.  Our enemies have already forgotten us.

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Shitler’s Apologist-in-Chief

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Shitler’s Apologist-in-Chief

In 2009, when President Obama’s approval poll numbers were high, Kellyanne C. wrote an article for humanevents.com which dismissed approval polls. She said such polls were nothing more than a polite nod of the head. She said they didn’t mean much.

Kellyann C. in 2009: President Obama’s “adulation abroad and a perception of charm and charisma at home is not a mandate for the type of sweeping transformations to the domestic economy and foreign policy currently on the table. After all, Candidate Obama ran on ‘change we can believe in,’ not ‘revolution you must pay for.’”

And this morning, in 2017, on CNN? She utterly dismissed Shitler’s current critics because, “frankly, their approval ratings are half of his.”

Apparently, approval polls are either informative or meaningless depending on who’s writing Kellyanne C.’s paychecks. She is the calmest liar I have ever seen. She must load up on benzos before each interview. She can barely keep her eyes open.

If President Obama had no “mandate” for “sweeping transformations,” what, then, does Shitler have?

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Giant Redwoods, a poem

illustration muir woods 2

Giant Redwoods

(Statements in italics taken from Ethics, by Baruch de Spinoza)

Look farther and farther toward thin blue sky, until the green feathery tops of the trees are like the northern pole on some dream planet.  Put the anger back in its bottle. These trees are generous.  Hatred can never be good.

Your carsickness from the ride up the mountain begins to fade, leaving behind a breathless, weepy echo not unlike your first religious fervor.  Hatred is increased through return of hatred, but may be destroyed by love.

When have you not been afraid?  The random can be scrutinized for meaning, the puzzle solved, when surveyed long & carefully enough.  Anything may be accidentally the cause of either hope or fear.

These trees have plenty of time.  As a child, you stared at Jesus’ sad face for hours, wishing you could marry him  — wondering what it was that made him love you.  Could you sacrifice yourself for the sins of the world, if it was that simple & necessary? Cathedrals turn us small and vulnerable again, for reasons both blessed & cursed.  Devotion is love towards an object which astonishes us.

Vague, starry eyes like yours feel at home here; the air is weighty, burdensome & solemn. You’ve loved trees before; this is different.  These trees have plenty of time – more time than you.  If we love a thing which is like ourselves, we endeavor as much as possible to make it love us in return.

Your nerves are suddenly frozen, by the unaccustomed richness of perfect light.  Your guide is tall & slender, hesitant to speak.  Her mother has the tattooed forearm of a Polish Jew of a certain age.  The knowledge of good and evil is nothing but an idea of joy or sorrow.  Sorrow is [a hu]man’s passage from a greater to a less perfection.

These trees have plenty of time.  She touches your wrist, and for a moment, you, too, want to grow taller, leaving the surface of the earth behind forever.  Shyly, she picks up a tiny pinecone, smaller than a toy.  You both laugh when she tells you this is their seed.  Joy is [a hu]man’s passage from a less to a greater perfection.

These trees have plenty of time.  And all around, their wise, fallen, hollow bodies litter the ground like the bones of saints.  Childlike, you understand a wish to die here, never to leave this hush.  They’re only trees – your neck bent back as far as it will go; only trees, yet wondering if the giants can hear your thoughts.  Love is joy, with the accompanying idea of an external cause.  Love and desire may be excessive.  When the mind imagines its own weakness, it necessarily sorrows.

Is there anything we have less power over than our own tongues?  These trees have plenty of time, growing wise as the Buddha, in their silence.

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Tunneling Bivalves (Lithophaga palmerae), a poem

ilustration tunneling bivalves Shipworm Boring

Tunneling Bivalves (Lithophaga palmerae)

I have eaten stone. I have tunneled through the hardest
hearts. For ten years, I was in the hands of a wizard
who, little by little, made me forget everything I knew

before I met him. He fed me stones. I became a small
soft thing, covered with two hinged shells, digging
farther away from the world outside, the world I thought

would hurt me. I shrank smaller each day, tunneled
deeper. I wanted to disappear. While I was enslaved,
I learned to use silence as a weapon. My shells

closed tight, tried to protect my softness, but the wizard
jammed gravel in and devoured me. We used to swim
together, in dark water, his robes hanging over the pool

like a tent. His robes were warm, and sheltered me.
His robes were stifling, and smothered me. I was not
a good apprentice. I failed all the exams, I was held

back to repeat the same lessons over and over.
He wove elaborate spells to keep me in my place.
He was content for me to be his forever.

I was his slave, though I hated him and made him pay
for my service in other ways. I thought the hardness
of his heart was a sign of God’s presence, of God’s wisdom.

I forgot to look for God’s grace, God’s joy. My tears
fell and anointed the floor. I was like a religious pilgrim
who brought palm fronds home, nailed them

to the wall of her room, slept with one eye open,
to see if dry leaves caught fire. I was a staple
for the wizard, I gave him everything I possessed,

willingly, and when he would not give me the knowledge
I sought, I betrayed him. His anger was mighty,
and destroyed much of my beauty. When I first fled

the wizard’s castle, I felt powerless, I felt alone.
The wizard was happy I was gone — I had learned
the lesson he had been trying so hard to illustrate

all those years. The one about peace, about power.
He was my teacher, for that I am grateful.
Injury comes from inside, I know that now.

I try to remember to feel God inside. Still, sometimes
I forget I am not eating stone anymore. Sometimes
the food I prepare for myself still tastes like stone.

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Surveyor in New England, a prose poem

Surveyor in New England, a prose poem

And so, since there were no detailed official maps, he named small lakes after himself, solitary hills, even shy, dusty lanes marked only by the great thumping hooves of his horse — a patient, taciturn beast, dun-colored, remarkable mainly for the seven white spots on its flank, arranged like the constellation Ursa Major.

Back then, a hundred years ago, electrical-survey men like him sweated gracefully during summer, their cheeks burnt into dark Scotch grain, their hairlines preserved white as milk under the dimpled felt of U.S.-issue hats. Though he was the youngest of the crew, his moustache grew enviably broad and full, waxed close at the tips, bowed under his classical nose like the extended wings of a pigeon.

Reining to a stop, as he slid down, he pulled from the saddle-bags yet another wooden stake flagged with a length of wrinkled red muslin, kneeling to pound it into the rocky Vermont ground, leaving it there for eternity.

As he rode on farther north — past the tall flowering weeds around Lovell Pond, the drunken bees bouncing off his boots — continuing along the route he’d laid out for the electric poles to follow, he thought of his mother: the way her fierce blue eyes glittered on foggy mornings, the way his father caressed her wrist at the dinner table, and, above all, how skillfully she ironed, gripping the rag-wrapped handle, fluttering the heavy, blunt-nosed tool over the damp white cotton of his shirts in rhythms as comforting and certain and lovely as the slow tick of a butterfly’s wings as it feeds from the bright center of a blossom.

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doctor’s report: patient a, a short story

Kimberly Townsend Palmer

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(originally published in Burning Word)

Doctor’s Report: Patient A, a short story

Patient A is a living museum of femininity, and serves as transitory evidence of extensive neo-geo-psycho-socio-eco-political movement. Designed and built in the second half of the twentieth century, she first gained philanthropic prominence with a cynical, witty, overeducated man eight years her senior, Charles F. She stayed faithful to Charles F. for six months, but the intriguing tales of his former romantic partners, then numbering in the several hundred, irretrievably seized her imagination. She left, and never looked back. She shops for new men the way other women shop for new shoes.

She invariably rejects both the too-easy conquest and the too-stubborn resistance. Every season countless men flock near to witness her fleeting, hormonally-induced states of passion, and observe for themselves her classic “XX” architecture.

If it seems that everything has already been said about Patient…

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Love Kills

love-kills 2

Love Kills

My adversary and his minions usually attacked me right after we all got off the school bus in our small neighborhood. I’d be walking home, trying to pretend it wasn’t happening, but still hearing the sweaty, red-faced boys from my small neighborhood draw together and trail at my heels like a pack of wolves, barking. I was a dog-girl, they taunted me in my own language. I’ve wasted too much time trying to figure out this cruelty; and at the same time I can’t stop myself wondering why – falling into the black chasm of shame. Ugliness. Who defines it?

I love the idea of a man, regardless.

One of this group of horrid bullies was the first boy I ever kissed. That was the result of a game of spin-the-bottle, behind the holly bushes at the end of the canal. The trashy, sandy space between the seawall and the bowling alley parking lot, where the branches of the mangroves trailed down into the murky water like the sad arms of ghosts. He kissed me there. His lips were wet, trembling, soft as a child’s, and softer than mine. Why’d he kiss me, then? That’s what I’ve asked a thousand times. How often are we tested, and found wanting, and given another chance to learn? As many times as it takes. Neither Heaven nor Hell throw souls away. Souls are the green energy of the cosmos. Protect yours from those who would use, abuse, and dispose of yours.

I love the idea of a man, regardless.

Did you ever kiss someone you wouldn’t be caught dead with in daily life? The answer is yes. You all did; everyone does. But, following your mistake, did you then gather up your friends and acquaintances and confront that (unfortunately) kissed person daily? Did you, and a gang of six to ten of your closest friends, pant and bark at that person as a pack of relentless, nipping wild dogs, depositing flecks of their own frothy spittle onto the back of that person’s fleeing, burning neck? Did you then taunt that ugly person with your ugly sounds of ugliness every single ugly day for an ugly year, or two? Each time it happened, it threatened to swamp my tiny little life, which already sucked for reasons I will not go into here and now.

I love the idea of a man, regardless.

I beat that ugliness which was thrust into my face like a chunk of petrified dogshit… back and back and back… with the mental & emotional equivalent of a baseball bat, a tennis racket, a golf club, a shield, a mirror, a fantasy. My job was to strap that ugly shit into a straightjacket and lock it in the asylum of the mind. On better days my adversary wasn’t cruel, but fast and solid, like when I bounced against him in a crowded game of flashlight tag. His immovable, sweaty arms encircled me that late spring twilight, and though I wriggled and strained to get away, I wondered what it was like; making love with a boy, how it would feel, our naked bodies pressed together, his aroused skin slipping into my aroused skin, male into female, a warm knife into butter. If organized bullying is the modern equivalent of hair pulling… count me out.

I love the idea of a man, regardless.

Counterpoint to my adversary’s cruelty were the sweet, funny, flirty boys seated on both sides of me at the back of the room in seventh-grade English class, a tall one and a tiny one just like Mutt & Jeff. These boys wore their clothes confidently, as if the cloth covering them wasn’t important, wasn’t doing them any favors. The way their smooth skin flowed out of their shirtsleeves made me crazy. It was as if women were a part of them, not something foreign. The taller of the boys once reached out and touched my ass, not sly or shy, just placing his open palm against my turned hip like it was a loaf of bread. He never, ever looked my way without smiling.

I love the idea of a man, regardless.

A few years later, I was almost raped. I made a mistake and went to this older guy’s apartment, as clean and tidy as a church. That guy climbed atop me again and again, rumpling his king-sized, black satin-sheeted bed. It seemed as though hours went by, my legs protecting me like twin automatic pistons, pushing his nude weight off and away. He didn’t become violent; finally he quit trying. But later, I let him teach me how to kiss. To leave off a man’s mouth slowly, gently, instead of rising away like a slap interrupted. The sweetest postlude I ever had? A male model who brought me a warm, wet washcloth, after. His whole body was as hard and smooth and glossy as a horse’s. He held my knees up and softly swabbed me like a baby. I never saw him again.             And, ladies and gentlemen, devotees of love… is there any other kind but the kind that kills? Love is not a lifetime, money-back guarantee.

I love the idea of a man, regardless.

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