Sunday, June 26, 2011

Summer Blues in Indigo and Gold

You should never believe a poet. They make stuff up. They create worlds of words and twine. They always lie. Do they? Is a poem made of personal experience distilled into its essence that transcends the individual origins and speaks to millions? Is a poem a lesson in verbal pyrotechnics, exploding with fireworks of erudition, allusion and sophistication? Is a poem just a page from an intimate journal left to be read and pondered long after the thinker and the pen are gone?

The pen could outlive the thinker - we see the golden pens in museums. Would the computer do it, too? If the technology shifts as fast as it does, what could we put in our museums along with the clothes and plates and pillows of dead poets? Maybe their Kindles, laptops and smart phones that they use to read their work, scrolling down the screen with miraculously agile thumbs while holding the tiny device up in the air and squinting, because the font is too small in the feeble light on the stage...

Maybe nothing. Maybe there will not be any museums built for poets living today. Too many poets lived and died and clamored for fame already. There's no more space for museums, no space for new words to be added to the universe of language that surrounds us, that makes us who we are, fully human. Does it? Is language, fit for naming things and limiting them with a label, the answer? The only answer? Too many questions just give you a headache.

Mister Cogito wrote Zbigniew Herbert, taking his cue from the famous saying Cogito ergo sum... In her intensely intelligent essay, Oriana Ivy wrote an ode to non-thinking as a key to bliss. I followed another lead - into doubt (Dubito ergo sum , instead of Dubito, ergo cogito, ergo sum as Rene Descartes's dictum is sometimes rendered), but I will save it for another day. Could the poets say: Scribo, ergo sum? - "I write, therefore I am?" Sounds unusually boring. How about: Lego, ergo sum... or Recito, ergo sum... (I read, recite...) This does not work either. Amo, ergo sum - now, that's something altogether lovely, but we cannot be mono-thematic, can we.

I started public readings at Poets on Site various events around Pasadena and decided to start the summer with a reprint of one poem first heard in Torrance in the summer of 2008, the first reading that surprised me by the hushed attention of the audience. Everyone was silent, listening to my voice. An eerie feeling, even for a former college professor, used to inspiring silence in the classroom. The difference was that the poets were listening to my own words, not regurgitated thoughts of others. I start from this poem to welcome back our founder and leader, Kathabela Wilson and her wonderful musician-mathematician husband. They just returned from a long tour of China. The picture, by Milford Zornes is depicted in the lower left corner of the photograph. Susan Rogers, who later took my portrait above and called it "Maja Starlet" is standing and reading behind me.

Point San Vincente

~ inspired by a painting by Milford Zornes

Wincenty, my Orthodox great grandpa,
was a cipher I'll never unravel
except that the name bore a whiff
of old-fashioned stiffness.
Prim and proper, St. Vincent
was the patron of lovers in Poland
before the wave of Valentine's red hearts
swept aside such quaint traditions.
In France, old beggars crowded
to St. Vincent de Paul, the giver of bread
to the hungry, love to the afflicted.
In California, one young Vince was proud
of his middle name, shared with the saint.

A lone lantern shines in Vincent's name
onto deep ocean waters from the cliff
of last hope for those who lost
their most cherished treasure –
their life, drowned in the foam
of temptations, slowly strangled
by the fecund seaweed of desire.
Dangers lurk beneath the surface,
tentacled monsters wait
to pull weary swimmers under the waves.

Lasciate omni speranza say the gates
to Dante's Inferno. In the ocean,
Symbolophorus barnardi, the lanternfish
lures its victims with a false light
shining in the murky depths. The golden
sands announce the safety of shore. There is hope.
The light keeps calling: "Come to me,
come to Point San Vincente, come home."


This occasional poem brings together various Vincents from my life in a free play of associations, centered on the image of the light shining over the ocean. Since the inspiration was the painting of Point San Vincente, I skipped the obvious reference to paintings by Vincent van Gogh.

Three years later, on the way to work, I saw horses wondering around their enclosure and the image wrote itself into a poem of sorts. Still fresh and unfinished (too wordy), it brings together disparate thoughts and images in another play of associations.

Summer Blues

The bay colt learns
how to shake his tail
properly from left to right
looking at his mom’s smooth bronze coat,
swift movements. Three-times his size,
she does not mind the attention.
They trot around the enclosure
in locked step, their manes waving.

“You look like a tomato” –
my son notices my skin
burned by the first rays of summer.
“Sunscreen, Mom, it’s called sunscreen”
– scolds the girl, as cautious
as ever.

I wish I lived in Spain
danced the flamenco every night,
an outpouring of passion
distilled into gestures.
I wish I had a horse ranch
in Nevada – a big Stetson hat
and cowboy boots to shield me
from rattlesnakes, made of their skin.

I was a ballerina,
played in an orchestra,
baked Canadian muffins
I hated, with bran and molasses.
Choral singing, knitting
and embroidery - two perfect napkins
still await the half-finished
tablecloth with Art Nouveau flowers
entwined along the edges
in purple and gold.

Shape-shifting, I move
from place to place, life to life,
like a petal carried by the gale
above the ocean.

The colt will grow into a horse.
The children will find their paths
to make and follow. I’ll keep dancing
my solitary flamenco – black, twirling skirts,
fluid gestures cutting the air
that shimmers with the strumming of guitars.
Throaty voices tear the hearts
with nostalgia
for life that could not be.


The heartbreaking beauty of flamenco used to be spontaneous, but is so strictly choreographed these days, there's no room for invention. The flamenco "I" would have danced - in my poem - does not, could not, exist.

In contrast, it is very pleasant to write about things that are.
Solid, physical, gold-plated, able to withstand the assault of time.
Things outlive us. The pianist's suit laughs in its glass case,
in a museum room filled with things that make the absence, the loss of the owner even more vivid. His body already turned into dust.

The solidity of a Japanese screen calls for a celebration in a "mock-haiku" sequence. The golden glow is made to last, it is created to fix a moment into perpetuity, transform the afternoon minute into timelessness.

Six Variations on a Screen

Rich golden sunset
blooms with intensity
ignored by the birds

Camellia blossoms
with innocence unnoticed
In the dazzle of sunlight

Pine branches shine
stars in the gold sky
happily oblivious

The rocks sigh, resting
aged by mineral stardom
tired into existence

The mossy slope spreads
between glistening stones
sleepy with contentment

Green grass awakens
the veil lifts before you enter
serene gold kingdom

This poem also came from an inspiration by Kathabela, who organized a Japanese-themed Poets on Site reading at the Pacific Asia Museum in 2010. The golden beauty of the screen fills the room with tranquility. No wonder, billionaires spend such fortunes on collecting artwork! Could someone spare a fortune for collecting words?



Portrait by Susan Rogers (2009, Pasadena)
Photo from Poets on Site reading at APC Gallery in Torrance by Kathabela Wilson(2008)
Photo of a matilla poppy by Maja Trochimczyk (2011)
Photo from Poets on Site reading at Pacific Asia Museum, Pasadena by Kathabela Wilson (2010)
"Point San Vincente" was first published in a chapbook edited by Kathabela Wilson for Poets on Site (2008) - Three Generations: Milford Zornes, Bill Anderson and Ron Liebbrecht
"Six Variations on a Screen" was first published in a chapbook edited by Kathabela Wilson for Poets on Site (2010) - Gifts to the Japanese Collection at the Pacific Asia Museum



Kathabela Wilson wrote:

"So, so sweet and beautiful Maja, you know how I love your poetry and love our collaborations. That is the most beautiful welcome I can imagine. And this is such amazing timing as we begin a NEW adventure together as Poets on Site for the Pacific Asia Museum's 40th anniversary exhibition, 2011! I love your tapestry of words here, and hear them ring. As some of the countries of Pacific Asia still resonate with immediacy in my mind I am up late weaving words too. You would have loved to see me writing in the dark on the way to Yellow Mountain, the words tumble over one another for 20 my journal for the trip... I know I can decipher them but there is something so amazing about the wildness of that first writing... maybe tomorrow I will untangle them and let them sing... our words will turn to gold... words on white like sunset coloring clouds, and seeping into the dark pen of night..."

Toti O’Brian wrote:

"Marvelous good morning I got, with these thoughts, poems and images of beauty. Thank you Maja! The words of poets are just like dreams, as you well demonstrate all the time: not only true, but quintessentially true. Yes, the story has been told already an uncountable number of times, but, as papa stork says to mama stork (they're are two amazing philosophers, after all) in Hans Christian's tale... . we will say it again, and again, and again. Trust the stork."

Lois P. Jones wrote:

"Awash and awakened in this golden outpouring Maja, weaving the thread of wonder between memory and imagination. Your rich history, mingled with the ecstatic bounty of nature makes for such a pleasure ride. How fortunate for those who know you that the scholar turned to poetry. When poetry calls to is like the siren we cannot resist, no matter how we might try :)"

Rina Rose wrote:

"Maja, every word of prose and poetry is beautiful and magical. If I haven't thought so before, I think so now that you are one of my favorite poets. You are still a teacher, at whose feet so many (or at least this one) poet(s) would love to sit and learn. And I do learn from your words here."

Scott Kaestner wrote:

Wonderfully elegant per usual Maja, may you continue to dance with your muse and make music with language and I shall sing along to praise your poesy...

Oriana Ivy wrote:

"A lovely post. Marvelous opening photo. I am also taken with “nostalgia for what never was, could not be” – one of the main themes of my poems.

Yes, it takes a intelligence to argue against thinking – or introverted overthinking, to be exact. Interesting that the “think less” portion of this post is getting the most attention. I am certainly aware that some situations require us to think more. But productive thinking is “task-oriented thinking.” By “think less” I meant introverted overthinking that in my case invariably led to the conclusion: “I am a failure.” Maybe the word “thinking” should not be even applied to this phenomenon. It’s an automatic delusional train of thought that is not to be confused with functional thinking or the creative process.

I am also thinking of Dante’s warning against the misuse of the intellect. To Dante, misuse of reason was the source of all sin. But what truly haunts me is Jack Gilbert’s dementia. He used to be brilliant, and his best poems are indeed very good. His earlier photos showed a craggy, gloomy face, all sharp features and no smile. His recent ones show him with a roundish, cherubic face, and a happy smile at last. I am tempted to say he (involuntarily, to be sure) traded intelligence for bliss (in some cases, dementia disables mostly the left hemisphere, leaving the victim cheerful and sweet and childlike, delighted by the smallest things). Would I ever trade my intelligence for this kind of bliss? Never.

For all this brave talk about bliss, I put intelligence first. Nothing comes ahead of intelligence. If I had a choice between more intelligence or more bliss, I’d take more intelligence, in spite of the biblical warning that “in much wisdom is much grief, and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow” (Eccl 1:18). Intelligence can be either a source of deep pleasure – when I read a challenging book, for instance, one that makes me think – or a tool of torture when it turns against me, trying to find answer to questions such as “What is the greatest mistake I made in my life?”

It’s thanks to my intelligence that I know there can be no reliable answer. I also know that it doesn’t matter what the mistake was, since the process of healing remains the same: I have to forgive myself, acknowledge the huge role of circumstances I couldn't control, and move on (what Milosz called “escaping forward into work”). It’s thanks to my intelligence that I decided not to be depressed, and defined my “no-think zones” – my former portals to depression, which I could enter at will as a refuge against the hardship of engaging with the world. It’s thanks to my intelligence that I can read, re-read, and analyze – and write. I’d still choose to be intelligent rather than happy, assuming such a choice existed. But since the proper use of intelligence – going into a subject in depth, for instance, or “gazing at the world” – gives me great pleasure, it’s not an either/or. My new ideal is “intelligent AND happy.”

There is the kind of bliss which gives the brain a rest from thinking, or else the thinking is effortless: the surprising discovery and insight, the right ending for a poem. For me, these are watery phenomena that occur while I am in the shower. But there is also intellectual bliss, the bliss of making a huge, dedicated effort – the bliss of studying and learning, the bliss of writing a complex piece of prose (I typed “peace,” since writing prose is so beautifully peaceful in contrast to writing poetry, which easily slides into the hell of obsession). Of course I enjoy and welcome the watery bliss of non-thinking. But I am not giving up the bliss of complex thinking, of using my conscious mind to the utmost."

John Guzlowski wrote:

“In a world increasingly given to stark images of chaos and collapse, forgotten mothers and orphaned houses, it's important to celebrate the occasional moments of transient beauty that still somehow occur."

Oriana Ivy answered:

"I agree about the need to celebrate moments of beauty, but I wonder if the chaos and collapse are anything new. Possibly the Victorians' flight into the kind of sentimental beauty that we now reject was their reaction to the "dark satanic mills." Or think about the horrors of the Middle Ages -- yet some of medieval art is the most transcendent ever produced by humanity."

John Guzlowski responded:

"I'm sure people have always felt something of the chaos and collapse, but really when I think about how much violence there is now and how much violence there was in the last century, I feel that maybe there is more chaos and collapse."

Oriana Ivy ended the discussion:

"No question that the 20th century will be known as the age of mass annihilation, but what makes me slightly optimistic is the spread of education, the rising life expectancy, the economic surge in countries such as India and China, more communication, and much else. The progress is painfully slow, with backslides, but we are progressing. That's not to say we'll ever run out of pain, or that the beauty of nature can cease to inspire us to praise. Gee, maybe my optimism has something to do with my knee shots? And knowing that in the worst-case scenario, I won't be subject to the kind of crude knee replacement that was the only option 20 years ago? It is one of the ironies of my life that I, a poet, take comfort not in art (well, occasionally), but I am thrilled by leaps in science, technology and medicine. The genius of humanity, the collective psyche, does not fail to awe me -- in spite of religious wars and other monstrosities."

"To return to the gift of Maja's post, what comes to my mind is this statement by Joseph Campbell: "We cannot cure the world of sorrows, but we can choose to live in joy." My last blog post tries to say the same thing, and discusses various unexpected means achieving to more joy, e.g. limit choice (who knew?). "We must risk delight" -- Jack Gilbert"

Susan Dobay wrote:

"To my understanding those poets who lead us toward to higher awareness through imagination are giving us more TRUTH than those who giving facts and materialistic reality. Maja's poetry gives me beauty and food for my soul. The make up stuff could be closer to truth than the fact based lies."

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Father's Day on the Beach

Did you notice how children want you to admire them when they are doing something special? I used to sit in my garden and watch my son jumping on the trampoline. As it turned out, I had to watch him, I could not read my paper instead, because the moment I lowered my eyes he’s cry out from the air, “Mommy, Mommy, look at me, look how I jump. Did you see what I did? Oh, you are not looking…”

Their childhood passes so quickly: they grow up, graduate from high school, from college. Then, they move away. We are left alone, wishing that we looked at them when they asked. (I’m glad I did). In June we celebrate graduations and the Father’s Day. Here’s a poem I wrote about a father and his little daughter playing on the beach. That daughter might have been me, on the distant, cold shore of the Baltic Sea. My father did not like water, but I spent hours swimming. I even knew how to swim backwards…

On the Beach

Daddy, Daddy! Look at me!
Look how I jump! Higher than the waves!

Daddy, look! I caught a fish!
Oh, it got away…
Don’t worry, Daddy, it’s okay,
I can be a fish.

Look, I’m swimming.
I’m a fish now and you are a shark.
Try to catch and eat me!
Let’s play fish!

You can’t get me

You can’t get me

Wow! That was a big wave!
Salty! I swim backwards now.
Did you know I can swim
backwards like a crab?

Watch out! I got you!
The crab caught the shark
and ate him! I win! I win! I win!

Let’s walk along now,
Maybe we’ll find
pretty seashells for my room.
Maybe we’ll find a pearl.
Will you make me a crown with my pearl?
I’ll be a real pearl princess.

I love you, Daddy, I love you so much!
I’ll always be your princess!

Daddy, Daddy! Look!
I found a pearl!

© 2008 by Maja Trochimczyk

For a companion piece to this childish monologue of a five-year-old, I picked a “geometric” poem, structured in two parts with a “horizon” line in between, just like the paining it was inspired by. (“Linea in aurea” means “line in gold” – almost, it is not correct Latin, but sounds good. “On the Beach” also has this pivotal central point in the little girl’s song, so there’s a structural similarity in two vastly different poems.)

For some reason, a beautiful, geometric painting by my favorite Hungarian painter, Susan Dobay, called “Sunset,” reminded me of pearls. Maybe it was the memory of the shining surface of water at dusk, an expanse of brilliance against the quickly graying sky. But the geometric transformation made this image a beach from an alien planet. Pearls are, according to one legend, made of a mother’s tears that fell into the water and became jewels, shining with sadness. There is something melancholy in their glossy sheen. They also lose their luster when not worn, for they have to be touched by warm human skin to stay shining and brilliant.

The subdued colors of Susan’s “Sunset” are quite melancholy, just like the pearls. I created a subdued mood by repeating the “sibilants” – shell, sunset, shelter, sun, sadness, sand, shore, silver… The word “shell” has another meaning in the last line: “shell-shocked” means “deeply traumatized.” One consequence of trauma is a tendency to escape from reality, another is compulsive control over one’s surroundings, continually organized in perfect order, just like the waves in Susan’s painting. That’s what makes this image so sorrowful and full of meaning for me, ten years after the death of my father from gunshot wounds. A home invasion robbery I wish I could forget. Or, maybe today I’ll wear another string of pearls…

Shelled Sunset

~ after a painting by Susan Dobay

In a parallel universe
umbrellas are made of seashells
and shelter suns from the glare
of the waves – daintily, stealthily
threading lines through more lines
ad infinitum. The air breathes
with golden contours of silence
after sadness danced away
on the sand, at the shore,
above silver waves – twirling,
circling towards the horizon.

Linea in aurea in linea
Line after line after line

You have to tread carefully here,
not to be snared by metallic vines
that multiply, moving into calm.
You have to be cautious – so close
to the heart of sorrow in this cosmos
of resignation, dignity and absence,
where waves petrify into shells,
the rhythm of their frozen crests
echoing the pearl-gray patterns
that blossom in the foreign,
distant, shell-shocked sky.

© 2009 by Maja Trochimczyk


Photos and poetry (c) 2008-2011 by Maja Trochimczyk
"Sunset" by Susan Dobay, used by permission

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The Golden Rule of Compassion

Compassion - co-suffering, shared feeling. This concept of Latin roots in two words, meaning "with" and "suffer" is the key to major religious traditions of the modern world. It may be found in Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism.

The Buddha said: "Compassion is that which makes the heart of the good move at the pain of others. It crushes and destroys the pain of others; thus, it is called compassion. It is called compassion because it shelters and embraces the distressed." Dalai Lama explained: "If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion."

Compassion is more active and engaged than mere empathy; it implies action based on altruistic, charitable motives. It means living connected to others: to their emotions, their distress, their pain. There is no human society that is truly and fully human without compassion.

In the Western ethical tradition, the beginnings of compassion are summarized in the Golden Rule: "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you..." Ancient Chinese knew it as: ""Never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself." (Confucius). Buddhist teachings phrase it as: "Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful." (Udanavarga 5:18). In 1993, the Parliament of the World's Religions, representing 143 faith organizations, passed a "Declaration Toward the Global Ethics" including the Golden Rule as the shared principle of all religions: ""We must treat others as we wish others to treat us."

How do we express it in contemporary world? How do we hear its voice in the incessant noise of the overwhelming barrage of information, mostly useless, and mostly ignored through the phenomenon of "partial attention." In order to feel connected and share the suffering of others, we need to focus on them, pay attention to other people in an intimate, personal way. Great spiritual traditions used "focal points" of stories or deities to make sure that the faithful paid attention.

A Buddhist monk lived a life "moved by mercy and, living compassionately, is kind to all creatures that have life." During the recent lecture of the Dalai Lama to students at USC, he talked about the difficulty he had with taking the life of a mosquito, he would not kill the first one that bit him, nor the second, third or fourth. Instead he would gently blow at them, trying to make them fly away. But by the fifth bite, his patience would being to run thin... Apparently, mosquitoes are the Dalai Lama's pet peeve and compassion for these pesky insects is extremely hard to practice.

Let us leave mosquitoes to their vices, then, and turn to noble swans. The range of "swan" stories is quite fascinating. In the West, we are all familiar with the "Ugly duckling" story of a swan raised not to know his true, regal nature, expected to be a mere duck and live among the common fowl. The magnificent self-discovery is the tale's timeless attraction: don't we all want to be enchanting swans, rather than quacking and waddling ducks? Another "swan" story is that of the Swan Lake and the myths surrounding this dark story with evil sorcerers and tragic loss, all the way up to the cinematographic and haunting in its spiritual darkness, the Black Swan.

But who has heard of Buddha's swans? The story is as follows: When the Swan King was caught in a hunter's trap and his leg started bleeding, all the other swans flew away. All, but one, his closest friend who refused to abandoned the injured King. When the hunter came back for his prey, the faithful swan begged him to free the Swan King so they could both fly away. Moved by the altruistic behavior of the second bird, risking his own life for that of his friend, the hunter let both birds free. The King of Swans was Buddha himself, teaching a lesson of self-sacrifice and friendship. The core virtue of this story is compassion.

In my poem, describing a sculpture found in the permanent collection of the Pacific Asia Museum, "Usha" is a Vedic/Hindu goddess of dawn and "Ushnisha" means a three dimensional topknot or crown on Buddha's head - a sign of enlightenment. Both words are used more for the sound effect than meaning, though ascent and illumination at dawn is an old spiritual theme. "Numinous" refers to the power or presence of divinity - I look at the Buddha through my Christian eyes, seeking divine signs and lessons everywhere.

Buddha with Swans

Swans embrace
on Buddha’s breastplate,
below his heavy-lidded
eyes and a half-smile
by the massive crown.

Usha towers above
Ushnisha. Dawn rises
over spiky bronze prongs,
wings on the shoulders.

He is covered in glory,
his mind ascends already
into the lucid distance of yes.

The left hand gathers love
from the world as a gift
to the other universe,
where all is always well.
The right hand sternly points
down to the earth.

Straight fingers, simple laws –
stand upright, patiently wait
for the rain of blessings
to fall upon you with the weight
of Buddha's crown.

On his chest, the swans
embrace, faintly shining
in the numinous wreath
of the present.

In the second poem, called "Illuminata" (the enlightened one), I refer to another core Buddhist principle: the renunciation of all desire, as the foundation for wisdom and compassion. Except, in my Western zeal for self-betterment, I really, really, really "want that crown" - thus, paradoxically, giving in to the desire that makes it impossible to attain enlightenment. "Avalokiteshvara" - a strange, eight-armed figure that is portrayed either seated or dancing, is an embodiment of infinite compassion. This Buddhist saint (Bodhisattva) was an enlightened one who refused to enter the blissful state of Nirvana in order to stay among people and help them ascend spiritually.


I want that crown.

That one. In the middle,
right above the eight-armedjavascript:void(0)
Avalokiteshvara of gilded
bronze with blue paint.

I want that crown.

I want the divine light
to paint my thoughts
with the blue of wisdom,
with the gold of compassion.

I want my eyes to sparkle
with the jewel hues
of enlightenment.

I want to soar in the song
of the mountain peaks,
breathe their rarefied air.

I want that crown.

(C) 2009 by Maja Trochimczyk



Written in 2009 for the tour of the permanent collection of the Pacific Asia Museum, the first poem is a description of a Seated Buddha sculpture from Myanmar (Burma), wearing a high crown and body armor. The second poem refers to a crown worn in Buddhist processions in Nepal.

Both poems were first published in a chapbook edited by Kathabela Wilson for Poets on Site, Pasadena, 2009.

"Usha" is a Vedic/Hindu goddess of dawn and "Ushnisha" means a three dimensional topknot or crown on Buddha's head - a sign of enlightenment. Both words are used more for the sound effect than meaning, though ascent and illumination at dawn is an old spiritual trope.

The digital collages (c) 2009 by Maja Trochimczyk use the images of the crown and of the sculpture accompanied by an enlarged detail from the armor with the two swans embracing.

"All is always well" - paraphrased quote from T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets.