Sunday, July 26, 2015

Two People reading Ghazals in Homage to Ghalib

    I am home recuperating from thyroid surgery,  and that means even more silence than usual because it is  painful to speak.  Not to complain too much, but my husband  is an introverted silent person and I have always been willing to take up the slack.  But with that option gone, the hours of quiet became oppressive.   I cast about for something to  unleash  some words from  Yash and I  was thinking of his love the poetry of Ghalib and especially his  old delight in reciting Urdu  couplets. But  his memory loss is so complete that he cannot recall  them.  I  felt stymied by the fact that  most of my books have either been boxed up and stored  in the garage or  dispersed to various  book sales and libraries and the Salvation Army.

I decided to bite the bullet and re-buy them at the trusty Amazon and Alibris, and sure enough in two days  volumes of ghazals in Urdu and English  were at  our door.  I did not urge the books  on Yash--that is deadly. I just started   reading them and nodding and  smiling. Sure enough  within minutes  Yash picked up the volumes and started reading the Urdu aloud to just hear those wonderful sounds.

Then he started reading the  English versions aloud--and  that  seemed like a happy out come.
We both tried to memorize  couplets and have spent several happy evenings  exchanging ideas about such  lines as these:

When I describe my condition, you say "What's your point?"
When you talk to me that  way what am I to say?

 Your lover may not be faithful, but she is your lover.
We could mention the  sensuous rolling way she walks.

Spring doesn't last that long but  at least it is Spring.
It would be  good to mention the scented winds that move through the garden.

Ghalib, once the boat has arrived at the other shore,
Why go on and on about the wickedness of the boatman?

This is Robert Bly's translation and according to Yash he has gotten close to the  ironic and puzzling and puzzled tone of voice in the original.  There is something so direct and  funny about that voice that I love it.

How I wish I could find that tone of insouciance, idiomatic speech,  hidden depth  and surface charm for my own  poems.  Wish me good luck  with that dream.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015


My personal geography maps a Pawtucket childhood in the 1950s, and in that geography the places where I played are happy, but the places where they -- the grown-ups-- worked are legendary. I never visited the Corning Glass Works where my Aunt Anna Coleman worked, or the Coats Mills cloth room where my mother started when she was only 14 years old. Or the Saylesville Bleachery where my father worked, or Collyer Wire where my Aunt Grace and my father worked. I never saw them, but I knew them. I knew them from the effects they had on their bodies and spirits; how the hours they spent there left them wearied and worried. For example, my Aunt Anna, who worked at Corning Glass on Broad Street in Central Falls, would sit out on the porch of our second floor tenement at 130 Englewood Avenue through a hot, breathless summer dusk combing her hair with a fine tooth comb. I heard the sprinkles of glass fall to the newspaper she spread to catch them. She showed them to me glistening in the light, –“Imagine if these are in my hair, what the inside of my lungs must look like?” She urged. And I could only imagine -- her time spent working beside furnaces on sweltering July days, inspecting hot tumblers that passed her on the line, and after eight hours of that she came home with her long black hair glistening with glass particles. I marveled that they could bear such things. 

My Aunt Anna Coleman died this past year -- September 18--  and in the last year of her life she had acute respiratory problems  that  eventually led to her admission to Memorial Hospital and the Respiratory Intensive Care.  Her  lungs were so badly damaged she could not breathe  deeply enough to supply oxygen for her brain.  After that and for the first time in her 95 years she showed confusion and   some loss of cognitive function.  Her doctors questioned me about her  smoking  habits and I had to tell them that she was a  person who never smoked in her life.  My mother, her sister, smoked and like all of us in those years she was exposed to the constant  secondary smoke of co-workers and friends. The doctor asked if she had  worked in a  place where she had exposure to  some  contaminants and suddenly those hot nights on the porch in Pawtucket came back to me..  And I understood that  her  refusal to smoke  or drink  was her way to stay as  healthy as possible in an environment that was  harmful.  Those glistening pieces of glass had come back to haunt us both.

Pawtucket at its Best

Maybe because I am a grandmother trying to help  and advise and  comfort a teenage grand daughter  who lives far away and I rarely see,  I find that I am thinking a lot about my grandmothers. Jane Conlon and Ida Mowry-- neither of whom I ever met.

Around 1906 when Jane Conlon first came from Ardboe, County Tyrone, Ireland to Cumberland to live in the Ann& Hope Mill Village, she worked in the Ann& Hope Mill as did so many of the new Irish immigrants. One of the experienced workers, from a local Yankee farming family also worked in the mill, helped her and instructed her in her new job and her new life. That teacher was Ida Mowry-- and I sometimes think of the two young women forming a friendship across the divides of origin, and religion and ethnicity. I am grateful for that meeting for reasons that they could not know: for they would share more in the unfolding of time. They would share grand-daughters: me and my sisters, when Jane’s daughter Margaret married Ida’s son Norman. I did not meet either of my grandmothers; for Ida Mowry Jenckes died in the terrible flu epidemic of 1919 and Jane Conlon Coleman died in 1942, but I celebrate those two women and their friendship.

They show  Pawtucket at its best.

Let me leave you with that image of what is possible in Pawtucket. More than  100 years ago in 1906 an experienced and kind American worker turned to a younger and frightened Irish immigrant girl –as they used to say–just off the boat. That woman from the old RI family that had founded Pawtucket befriended and helped the Irish girl, a girl raised on the Banks of Lough Neagh in County Tyrone, whose daily routine, until she left, was lived to the rhythms of fishing and nets and boats and eels, a girl that was frightened by the screeching mill whistle. That girl stood now for the first time in a noisy textile mill with rows of deafening whirling machines, and Ida Mowry reached out to her the hand of friendship and helped her to understand her new world . And 100 years later their grand daughter celebrates them today.

In these troubled and troubling times, where there loom so many causes to despair, I draw hope from that history: the hope that perhaps, this very day in some work place in Pawtucket or the Blackstone Valley a worker turns with compassion and friendship to a scared immigrant and guides her to a new and better life. Who knows--perhaps a century from now in 2106, their grandchild will bless them for it.


Pawtucket has always been the gateway to a new life; this small, important city on the banks of the Blackstone where people come to find places to work and play. When we welcome newcomers and make room for their children and grand children to grow in body, mind and soul, when we safeguard and improve places of work and play, we are building a rich, creative life of work and play– a vision of human possibility much too large to be written on the back of a dollar bill.