“Shirt” by Robert Pinsky

The back, the yoke, the yardage. Lapped seams,
The nearly invisible stitches along the collar
Turned in a sweatshop by Koreans or Malaysians
Gossiping over tea and noodles on their break
Or talking money or politics while one fitted
This armpiece with its overseam to the band
Of cuff I button at my wrist. The presser, the cutter,
The wringer, the mangle. The needle, the union,
The treadle, the bobbin. The code. The infamous blaze
At the Triangle Factory in nineteen-eleven.
One hundred and forty-six died in the flames
On the ninth floor, no hydrants, no fire escapes—
The witness in a building across the street
Who watched how a young man helped a girl to step
Up to the windowsill, then held her out
Away from the masonry wall and let her drop.
And then another. As if he were helping them up
To enter a streetcar, and not eternity.
A third before he dropped her put her arms
Around his neck and kissed him. Then he held
Her into space, and dropped her. Almost at once
He stepped to the sill himself, his jacket flared
And fluttered up from his shirt as he came down,
Air filling up the legs of his gray trousers—
Like Hart Crane’s Bedlamite, “shrill shirt ballooning.”
Wonderful how the pattern matches perfectly
Across the placket and over the twin bar-tacked
Corners of both pockets, like a strict rhyme
Or a major chord.   Prints, plaids, checks,
Houndstooth, Tattersall, Madras. The clan tartans
Invented by mill-owners inspired by the hoax of Ossian,
To control their savage Scottish workers, tamed
By a fabricated heraldry: MacGregor,
Bailey, MacMartin. The kilt, devised for workers
To wear among the dusty clattering looms.
Weavers, carders, spinners. The loader,
The docker, the navvy. The planter, the picker, the sorter
Sweating at her machine in a litter of cotton
As slaves in calico headrags sweated in fields:
George Herbert, your descendant is a Black
Lady in South Carolina, her name is Irma
And she inspected my shirt. Its color and fit
And feel and its clean smell have satisfied
Both her and me. We have culled its cost and quality
Down to the buttons of simulated bone,
The buttonholes, the sizing, the facing, the characters
Printed in black on neckband and tail. The shape,
The label, the labor, the color, the shade. The shirt.

Robert Pinsky, “Shirt” from The Want Bone. Copyright © 1990 by Robert Pinsky.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire occurred 104 years ago today on March 25, 1911.

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Doris Salcedo

We saw an incredible exhibit today at the MCA in Chicago—Doris Salcedo, a sculptor from Bogota Colombia, whose work layers discarded, dismembered, and broken products and materials and recombines these objects signifying lost humanity. The once fully functional objects she uses (chairs, armoires, tables, clothing) have become functionless, robbed of their utilitarian nature, substituting for and representing the humans who once used them. Her work is powerful, political, unsettling, poetic. Living in Colombia where as she says, people have become “anesthetized to violence,” her work strives to rekindle, to reawaken feelings and passions for the victims of violence.

The video above documents her public works. The link to this video focuses more on her sculptures and installations. In the words of the Pritzker Director at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, Madeleine Grynsztejn, in the foreword of the catalogue for the show, “Her work gives form to pain, trauma, and loss, creating spaces for individual and collective mourning, with a great sensitivity to aesthetics and a dedication to making visible that (and those) which often remains invisible.”

In Salcedo’s words, ““I don’t work based on imagination, on fiction.” Collecting testimonies of the victims of violence as the research for her sculptures, she claims her role as an artist is as a “secondary witness” to those crimes against humanity. She also claims as an artist she has no answers. She only provides the questions.

The exhibition is on view until May 24, 2015.


Doris Salcedo. Plegaria Muda (detail), 2008-10; mixed media. Photo: Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago.

Image 2

Doris Salcedo. Atrabiliarios, 1992-2004 (detail); shoes in shadow boxes inset in wall covered with translucent cow bladder, MCA Chicago. Photo: JB

Image 5

Doris Salcedo, installation view, MCA Chicago, Photo: JB

Image 3

Doris Salcedo, metal chair installation, MCA Chicago, Photo: JB



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The joy of this game

DSC_0005My dear friend Michael is turning 70. It’s hard to believe that all this time has passed. I think we were both in our early thirties when we first met. Over 10 years ago his partner Gregory was first diagnosed with early onset of Alzheimer’s and a year ago last December, Gregory needed to be moved into a care facility. Michael visits him nearly every day.

At first Michael wanted to spend his birthday quietly but then decided to put on a carnival to celebrate his 70th year for the residents where Gregory now lives. He asked his friends to help man the booths (Ring Toss, Go Fish, Bowling, etc.). All the games would be set up so that each resident could easily accomplish the task. There would be popcorn and cotton candy, circus music and lots of balloons to make it as festive and stimulating as possible. And everyone would win a prize. The center had invited all the families of the residents as well. Yesterday was the celebration.

I have to admit that at first I wasn’t sure it was all going to work out and that the residents would truly enjoy themselves. But dream no small dreams. It was loud and high-spirited. The room was filled with lots of family members and the residents busy,  interacting, and for the most part engaged. The staff at the center were also busy helping each resident through the maze of games and face-painting and food. JB and I were in charge of the photo booth where residents could get their pictures taken with a four foot bear Michael had purchased. We introduced ourselves to each resident as they came by and asked their names, told them what we were going to do, and introduced them to the bear. Some residents had intimate conversations with the bear, held its hand, felt its soft fur. Some, of course, were not aware of what was going on but a few seemed to be able to bring up a smile when asked. And then families began to request to have their pictures taken with their family member who lives there. Families gathered around their loved one and the bear to document the day. They asked for copies. One son whispered me a thanks for being so animated.

Having been to the center on other occasions visiting Gregory, I have become somewhat familiar with some of the residents. This was the first time, however, I met members of their families, the people from a time in their lives when they were vibrant, aware– the shakers and movers in their communal circles.  Yesterday was a snapshot into the broader context of their lives and whom they must have been, into the apparent impact they have made on other relationships in their lives.

And perhaps that was the real gift of yesterday. All of Michael’s friends came to the Lieberman Center to bring some zest and energy into the lives of those who live there. We all came with preconceived notions of doing a good deed. Actually, I believe we all left loaded with gifts, and not the ones offered as door prizes. We left with some new understanding of how a life can be distilled to its essence, without ego and expectation. How joy can really feel so pure and simple. How connection, in whatever form it takes, can sometimes be enough.

When I saw Gregory, it took him a minute or two to look at me. He kept looking past me though he heard my voice. When his eyes finally settled on my face, his eyes widened and he said, “You are so pretty!” Trust me, I’m sure Gregory was responding to the energy coming from me, not to any external manifestation of beauty. I looked deeply into his eyes, rubbed his cheek, and thanked him for the compliment.

Near the end of the carnival, one resident, talking with me, looked at one of her daughters with an almost apologetic look on her face and said, “I am so dependent on her.”

“Well, once she was so dependent on you,” I responded.

“Yes,” she said, “that is true.” Smiling she added, “I guess that’s the joy of this game.”

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Equinox sunset through the crotch of our silver maple

IMG_9797This is the spring equinox sunset as seen from our back porch through the crotch of our 125+ year old silver maple— our personal Stonehenge. We actually have been marking the apparent sunsets (actually earth turns) for the past year from this vantage point, documenting where, on the buildings across the alley, the sun sets. The sun is now apparently traveling north where on the solstice in June it will work its way south, past the crotch of the tree, until the winter solstice when the sun will seem to move north again.

Above the garbage cans, discarded junk, and random (and intentional) detritus that litters our alley, at the edge of the rooflines of five urban buildings seen from behind, it is reassuring to observe these persistent and dramatic natural forces continually cycling and annually reminding me that there is always more than just the hope of renewal.

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“Grace Paley” by John Skoyles


At Sarah Lawrence, a student gripes
that each morning when she tries
to write, nothing happens.
She sits and sits, and files her nails.
Sips more coffee, types a bit,
gets up to spray her failing plants.
“Grace,” she asks in front of the class,
“Can you help?” Grace, her gray hair
in a bun, wearing a floral dress
and cracking gum, puts her hands
on her knees, leans toward the woman
and says, “Maybe you’re just not a writer.”
She looks around the room.
“Maybe she’s just not a writer,”
she repeats. “Nothing wrong with that.”

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100 days to reach enlightenment!



Today in Tai Chi class our teacher taught us “Swimming Dragon.”

“You do this nine times a day for 100 days in a row and you will reach enlightenment,” she said. “If you do this exercise for nine times a day for 99 days and then don’t do it on the hundredth, you have to start all over again from day one.”

We repeated this exercise nine times in class today. I’m on my way.

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Seeds planted!

IMG_9771The heating pads unburied from the depths of the garage. Seeds purchased and seeds collected. Tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, cucumbers, squashes, kale, arugula, and fava beans all planted. Let the spring begin!

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