Nine women in a gallery: Kathe Kollwitz

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As I walked through the wilderness of this world I lighted on a certain place where there were the images of nine women and I laid me down in that place to sleep, and as I slept I dreamed a dream of woman’s greatness … *

Käthe Kollwitz made the etching above in 1899. It’s called Aufruhr (Uprising) and it’s characteristic of her work in its power and subject matter.

What caught my eye is the source of this power: the enormous tenderness she generates. Below, the crowd, sickle in hand, darkness all around, struggles mightily; above, the woman, symbol of renewal and creation, of the crowd’s hopes and dreams, flies free, one hand to her breast in comradeship.

Look how she does it. It’s all in the hands.

An unimpeachable commitment

Käthe Kollwitz is the second of my Ballarat women.

She was born in 1867 in Prussia and became one of the world’s most admired printmakers and sculptors. When she was 12, her father organised drawing lessons for her, and at 16, she began making drawings of the sailors and peasants she saw in his office. Soon after, with no colleges open to women in her local area, she moved to Berlin to enrol in an art school for women.

Käthe had a special feeling for war, revolution and the struggles of the poor. She rose to fame virtually as soon as she took up the subject in the series called The Weavers about a failed weavers’ revolt in German history.  The series was exhibited to wide acclaim and nominated for a gold medal, but Kaiser Wilhelm II withheld his approval. Nevertheless, in a pattern that repeated throughout her career, the power of her work and the depth of her commitment could not be gainsaid, even by a king, and The Weavers went on to be regarded as a masterpiece.

The Nazis couldn’t touch the power of her work either.

When they forced her to resign from the faculty of the Berlin Academy of Arts in 1933 and banned her from exhibiting, they held back one of her sculptures to use for their own propaganda. And when the Gestapo came to call on her and her husband in 1936 and threatened them with arrest and deportation to the camps, the respect she commanded kept them safe. As Wikipedia says,

She received over one hundred and fifty telegrams from leading personalities in the art world, as well as offers to house her in the US, which she declined for fear of provoking reprisals against her family.

She lost her youngest son, Peter, on the battlefield in World War I in October 1914. Her husband died of illness in 1940, and two years later, her grandson, Peter, was killed in World War II.

She was evacuated from Berlin in 1943. Later that year, her house was bombed and many drawings, prints and documents were lost. She died shortly before the end of the war in April 1945, aged 77.

Sculpting the woman

Käthe was a committed pacifist and socialist, and it’s clear she inherited her commitment from her father, a radical Social democrat and her grandfather, a Lutheran pastor who established an independent congregation. It’s also clear she shaped herself and there are two great tidbits in Wikipedia.

When she was a young girl, she and her brother, Konrad, used to pretend they were fighting on the barricades in a revolution, after being inspired by the story of the German Peasants’ War beginning in 1525. Käthe used to imagine herself as Black Anna, a woman who was a protagonist in the uprising. It doesn’t say how old she was, but if she was playing with her brother I’m going to assume she was less than 10 years old. Notice that at this age, the die is cast; that which would preoccupy her for the rest of her life is already in place.

What is beautiful

The second anecdote comes from the early years of her marriage. She married Karl Kollwitz, a doctor, in 1891. Karl tended to the poor from their apartment in Berlin and Käthe got to see the workers’ lives up close. She says this wonderful thing about the experience:

The motifs I was able to select from [the workers' lives] offered me, in a simple and forthright way, what I discovered to be beautiful … People from the bourgeois sphere were altogether without appeal or interest. All middle-class life seemed pedantic to me. On the other hand, I felt the proletariat had guts. It was not until much later … when I got to know the women who would come to my husband for help, and incidentally also to me, that I was powerfully moved by the fate of the proletariat and everything connected with its way of life … But what I would like to emphasise once more is that compassion and commiseration were at first of very little importance in attracting me to the representation of proletarian life; what mattered was simply that I found it beautiful.

I love the woman she was to say this. There’s so much rigour here, so much that’s alive to the dignity and grace of possibility and the absence of complacency.

More of my Ballarat Women to come …

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* In gratitude to John Bunyan for one of world literature’s finest opening lines.

Image: Aufruhr (Uprising), 1899, etching by Käthe Kollwitz from the exhibition, Radicals, slayers and villains: Prints from the Bailleau Library, currently showing at the Art Gallery of Ballarat.

Nine women in a gallery: Charlotte Corday

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The prints of the nine women intrigue me. I found them on the walls of the Ballarat Art Gallery. Some are well-known in name: Cleopatra, Salome; others are new to me. I thought they might interest you too. Here’s the first one, French woman, Charlotte Corday.

Charlotte Corday

Charlotte Corday is the woman in the print above. What intrigues me about the print is the contrast between the sweetness of the image and the reason this young woman appears in a regional art gallery in a country on the other side of the world 220 years after her death, namely, that she is one of history’s few female assassins.

In July 1793, at the height of the French Revolution, Charlotte, aged just 24, travelled to Paris from the provinces, booked into the Hôtel de Providence (just name!), bought a six-inch carving knife, then visited the home of the prominent journalist and politician, Jean-Paul Marat, and stabbed him to death while he was in the bath.

Charlotte killed Marat because she feared he and his political faction, the Jacobins, were leading France into all-out civil war. The Jacobins were seen as being responsible for the worst violence of the Revolution including the execution of King Louis XVI by guillotine, and they had begun terrorising and executing those who were opposed to their actions and philosophy. Charlotte was a sympathiser of the more moderate Girondists who thought the violence was getting out of hand and who feared for the fate of the new Republic.

At her trial, Charlotte declared she had “killed one man to save 100,000″. Four days after the assassination, she was executed by guillotine.

These meagre details of Charlotte’s story only intrigue me further. What drove her to take things into her own hands? Whence did the courage and audacity to commit this act spring? Where else had it shown up in her life? There’s little in Wikipedia on her history except that which reinforces the dismal stereotypes of women:

  • she grew up in an abbey where she had access to a library containing the works of Plutarch, Rousseau and Voltaire (better keep those women away from books)
  • Jacobin leaders exhumed her body and arranged an autopsy to see if she was a virgin (she must have had direction from a man); to their dismay, “she was found to be virgo intacta.”

I heard an echo of this dismay just a few weeks ago in an interview between a BBC journalist and a Pakistani newspaper editor on the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Malala Yousafzai. The editor insisted to the journalist over and over again that Malala’s shooting had been a hoax, a sham, cooked up by Malala’s father in order to garner attention. Of course, Malala was the victim of an act of violence, not the perpetrator as Charlotte was, but in each case, the evidence of female agency was troubling and confronting.

More of the Ballarat Women to come …

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Images: Charlotte Corday, lithograph by Henri Grevedon (French, 1776-1860) (top); The Death of Marat by Jacques-Louis David, 1793 (bottom). All prints and lithographs from the exhibition, Radicals, slayers and villains: Prints from the Bailleau Library, currently showing at the Art Gallery of Ballarat.

 

 

Woman as goddess: Jean Paul Gaultier at Melbourne NGV

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That’s Kylie Minogue behind the lace mask, one of several Australian muses of the French designer, Jean Paul Gaultier. A far cry from the “singing budgie”, no?

The JPG exhibition opened here on Friday and I’m still getting over what I saw. There are wonders everywhere. There’s an outfit made of paillettes of brown crocodile skin jointed together by crochet. He’s made brown stockings to match with an invisible zipper up the back of each leg and the stockings are encrusted with rows of nodules of crocodile skin that peter out as they descend to the foot, turning the wearer’s leg into a perfect crocodile tail. The man’s inventiveness and attention to detail is mind-boggling and it cheers me up tremendously.

So much is passed off today as being extraordinary, exceptional, innovative. In every field, not just fashion, and mostly it turns out to be boring and unremarkable. Then one is face-to-face with the real thing and I’m in awe. No adjectives, no explanations needed. It speaks itself and everyone understands the language.

Following are my photos from the exhibition (click on an image to enlarge and watch as a slideshow). If your womanhood is weighing on you at present, go along to the exhibition. You’ll come out feeling goddess. It’s on at the NGV Melbourne until 8 February 2015.

 

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Ode to Friday

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There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under
conditions
That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.

~ T S Eliot (American, 1888-1965)

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Image: The inimitable Michael Leunig

My brilliant career (in travel): Part 2

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When we last left our heroine – my 25-year-old self – I’d just escaped, reasonably intact, from the grasp of US Immigration at Honolulu airport. I’d been branded for life “evasive” and had an urgent desire to buy some face scrubbing implements, but this was Hawaii! The names were entrancing – Honolulu! Waikiki! – the sun was out and I had some beach-going to do.

Waikiki and its surrounds had a charming air. Everything was slightly dowdy as if time had snagged on something. There are places today in Melbourne and Sydney of similar air, certain buildings of peach and colonial wood decor. I didn’t care, it only added to the feeling of being on a film set and the beach was satisfying beautiful. White sand and clear aqua water like Australian beaches.

I went for a swim, and when I came out a teenager was standing in the shallows with a giant parrot I discovered was called a macaw perched on his arm. The bird was huge, over two feet high, and dazzling in colour. Kids and adults were poking it or patting it, and talking to its keeper. Does it say something about my view of America, then or now, that I think the teenager was collecting money with his bird?

I stayed in Hawaii for a day and a half. I sat in the sun next to the pool on the hotel rooftop and wrote a self-dramatising letter to my boyfriend back in Australia. I walked around the hotel a few times and discovered you could hire a red Ferrari for the day. This seemed very sensible to me – if you’re going to hire a car for the day, why waste your time with a Toyota? – and I couldn’t believe how dumb we were in Australia to miss the opportunity. It was the era of Magnum PI, with Tom Selleck’s moustache and his car and manservant, so there was an obvious rationale to offering Ferraris to the plebs in Waikiki. All the same, it seemed sad no-one was catering to the motoring fantasies of suburban Australians too.  I watched the day start to close. The shadows cast by the buildings crept over the beach, the sand turned cool under foot, the restaurants lit their torches and the holiday couples headed home for evening drinks.

The next day I went back to the airport to get on a plane for New York.  I heard people talking about a “red eye”; I didn’t know it meant flying from LA to New York overnight.

I was wearing my blue and white Indian skirt and a white Bonds singlet with no bra, and was secretly wishing I could just abandon my heavily laden, soft-sided suitcase with the one, tiny, broken down wheel. I really shouldn’t have been let out alone. I couldn’t have been more conspicuous as I was suddenly seized with the bright idea of lightening my load by putting the $6,500 in travellers cheques I was carrying around my waist into said suitcase. Why not let the plane carry it all? I thought. I really really shouldn’t have been let out alone. Did I feel at all concerned seeing at least one male airport worker watching me do it? Not at all. I’d put the money inside the toiletries bag inside the suitcase, hadn’t I? Very cunning.

So, here I was, day 2 and a seasoned traveller at last. I was free of the suitcase for the next 8 hours or so and New York was the next stop! Look out world!

 … to be continued.

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Ode to Friday: Milosz

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Not soon, as late as the approach of my ninetieth year,
I felt a door opening in me and I entered
the clarity of early morning.

One after another my former lives were departing,
like ships, together with their sorrow.

And the countries, cities, gardens, the bays of seas
assigned to my brush came closer,
ready now to be described better than they were before.

I was not separated from people,
grief and pity joined us.
We forget – I kept saying – that we are all children of the King.

For where we come from there is no division
into Yes and No, into is, was, and will be.

We were miserable, we used no more than a hundredth part
of the gift we received for our long journey.

Moments from yesterday and from centuries ago –
a sword blow, the painting of eyelashes before a mirror
of polished metal, a lethal musket shot, a caravel
staving its hull against a reef – they dwell in us,
waiting for a fulfillment.

I knew, always, that I would be a worker in the vineyard,
as are all men and women living at the same time,
whether they are aware of it or not.

~ Late Ripeness by Czeslaw Milosz (1911-2004, Lithuanian)

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Image: The smile on the face of my morning coffee, courtesy of the man at Tivoli Road Bakery.

Dating adventures of a 50-something woman: The call to be authentic

For more than a decade, being in a relationship has sounded like a bad idea to me. Hard work, burden, millstone were the words that sprang to my mind when I thought about it. Occasionally, I’d pretend I was looking for love, mainly to reassure friends, but underneath I had no intention of finding a man. There was nothing possible for me when it came to romantic love.

Then about two months ago a few things came together to shift the context. Suddenly the prospect of a relationship seemed interesting and exciting in a way it didn’t before. Now I’m saying to myself, “Maybe something’s still possible”. I feel like I’ve woken up from a very long coma.

Raining men

Without doing anything different, going anywhere new or even (shock, horror) putting myself on an online dating site, men have been showing up all around me and I’ve been on dates with several. It’s been fun. No-one special has appeared yet and I’m confident he will.

Going on dates is very different to earlier. I’m learning so much about myself and who I’ve been in relation to men. I’m realising how much I previously relied on my appearance to win affection and approval, and also that I admired my beauty. This surprises me because there were many times when I thought I wasn’t beautiful or not beautiful enough (not beautiful enough to be deserving of love). Now I see that underneath I was confident of my physical appeal and, for whatever reason, I hid this. I see it now because I can’t rely on my appearance as I did before.

This is one example of my history in relation to men that has an overriding theme. The theme is not being authentic. I know I’m not alone in this so I want to share how it looked in a phone conversation I had this week.

Phoniness

B contacted me out of blue a few weeks ago. We met almost two years ago and shared some passionate kisses. We had planned to meet afterwards and it didn’t eventuate. I was surprised and pleased to get his message, and we had a phone conversation on Sunday.

During the call, I started to feel bored because he kept talking about himself. Instead of ending the call, however, I went into an old pattern of phoniness: wanting to please, wanting to make him feel better as if I was his mummy and could kiss it all better (he was going through some issues). By the end of the call I felt flat, unheard and sick with phoniness. What upset me was that I hadn’t stopped the pattern while I was on the call. I’d gone through the charade and even pretended I was excited about going on a date.

Fast forward to today, the appointed day of the date. I hadn’t heard from him about the arrangements and I was hoping he might just forget. I wouldn’t have been surprised; as a friend said, “If you weren’t being authentic, there was no space for him to be authentic either.” Then he sent a text and I realised I had to be straight. So I called him.

Perhaps

I told him I’m looking for a life partner in a really extraordinary relationship, and nothing else would do, and I wasn’t feeling it and so I was declining the invitation. The conversation was a bit messy and there were parts where I didn’t communicate and parts where he went into old patterns too, but he got the gist. By the end I could hear he was intrigued at being involved in an authentic conversation. He even asked to meet at another time so he can have another such conversation. I said perhaps and was totally free and at ease in voicing my ambivalence because now I wasn’t pretending.

This is the challenge for me in the area of love and romance: to have the courage to be authentic. I’ve ignored the call countless times, as we do; all the same, I’m equipped now.  And it’s not just the necessity of it. It’s the opportunity, the magic of it.

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A trip to Queensland

I’ve been away on a week’s holiday to Queensland, Australia’s most northern state. Queensland is also a state of mind, a place that’s very different to the southern states where I live.

It’s in the tropics, where the sun glares out of the sky day after perfect day on the distinctive Australian mix of the overkempt and the unkempt. Beds of Queen Elizabeth roses next to bleached paddocks, jacaranda tree roots piled up in footpaths, lizards in the art gallery cafe with the ladies who lunch.

I stayed in the capital city of Brisbane for part of the time, in a suburb called New Farm.  Below are photos of some of the houses in the suburb with its fusion of charming, wooden “Queenslander” homes built from the 1840s until today with Art Deco buildings from the 1920s and 1930s.

I also saw some stimulating art, in the gallery and out and about. Below is a sample.

I liked the ghostly columns made from mag tape (work by Zilvinas Kempinas, Lithuania, born 1969); the geometric star form carved into the gallery wall based on decorations in traditional Islamic and Persian architecture (work by Timo Nasseri, Germany, born 1972); and the little boy who stands so sturdily on his feet in the painting of the two women and children (work by George W. Lambert, Australia, 1873-1930). Lambert himself noted the little boy in the painting:

The happiest passage is the sturdy little chap on the left, who stands a faint echo of a little Infanta by Velasquez with his legs firmly planted on the ground, looking straight out of the canvas with something like roguish defiance.

I was disturbed by the painting, Mrs Fraser, by Sidney Nolan (Australia, 1917-1992), showing an anecdote from the story of Scottish woman, Eliza Fraser, who was captured by the Aboriginal people when her ship was wrecked off the Queensland coast in 1836. The story goes that her captors ridiculed her for having to bend down to pick up firewood instead of picking it up with her toes. And also by Bus stop by Ian Fairweather (Scotland/Australia, 1891-1974) showing people boarding the local bus, depicting them “morosely confined, perhaps even caged, behind strong vertical brushstrokes.”

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To the glory of God

Years ago I saw a movie made by an filmmaker from either Iraq or Afghanistan. I don’t remember its name, only that it was the story of a young boy who was blind, and there were scenes of mountains and fields of flowers. What I remember vividly is the prelude. The screen went black and then white Arabic script flashed across the blackness with its translation below: “To the glory of God.” There was silence and then the movie started.

The Australian poet, Les Murray, also opens his books of poetry with the same invocation: “To the glory of God.”

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Possibility and the hum of concerns

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Many of us experience, from the moment we wake up, a background hum of concern; for one thing, for many things. It’s almost as if life comes wrapped in some sort of concern. The hum has been with us for as long as we can remember and can come to us in various frequencies: a feverish pitch to the faintest of whispers. We might be concerned about being heard, or liked, or finding the right mate, or getting ahead.

Here’s a tale by Tim Connor of a child’s concern but one that is by no means exclusive to childhood. It goes like this …

I had always wanted to be in a club. The first one was founded by my older sister for the sole purpose of letting her friends in and keeping my friends and me out. The clubhouse was our parents’ bridge table with the bedsheet thrown over it but, no matter, the more exclusive and restricted the membership, the greater our desire to get in. And the more we sought ingress, the greater the power the club held over us. That’s what made a club a club.

And it wasn’t until I kicked and screamed and my parents intervened, that the sheet finally was lifted and we were admitted to the inner sanctum. Naturally, the moment we were there, the club’s exclusivity seemed to evaporate.

In fact, it was no longer even a club, just the space under the sheet covering the card table.

Not much has changed since then. As adults, more or less, we’re enthralled by closed doors and velvet ropes, held at bay by guest list checkers, gatekeepers and membership committees.

While Connor’s story may not be the story of our childhood, we probably relate to it at some level. When do these ever-present, never silent concerns begin?

With the very early awareness that something can, and most likely will, go wrong.

This awareness arrives early in life, long before we were able to sort out having concerns was even valid. When we first thought something might go wrong, whether whatever happened was truly threatening or just appeared to be so, the world of concerns was born.

This world of concerns find a welcoming host in us. It takes residence, sets up house, slowly begins to add mass to itself and becomes something to which we unwittingly pay heed. Over time, our concerns occur as if they are just part of who we are, an idiosyncratic part of ourselves but, for sure, something we act as if we’re stuck with, like a genetic or hard-wired trait.

Growing up, like any child, I had my share of concerns. Not about getting into a club under the card table, but about being better and doing things more perfectly than my sister. In the eyes of who was looking, I wanted to be seen as the best, at getting good grades, at baking cookies, at whatever I did. I studied books and my peers to learn what I could do in order to be perfect, better-than, recognised and loved. But how perfect I was or wasn’t didn’t occur for me as a concern I was responding to; it was just me being who I was.

Being perfect wasn’t easy. The landscape kept shifting. As life went on, it was harder and harder for me to be perfect. I realised I wasn’t the most loved sibling or the only smart girl at school. Eventually, the need to be better-than and perfect day after day was no longer as enchanting or compelling as it once was.

I just wanted to relax and give up the push. Truthfully, I longed to enjoy my sister, watch her excel, be her buddy, but my need to come out ahead took precedence.

Why would we enact behaviours in order to get something we realise we don’t really want or need?

Most in-order-to’s are a strategy for dealing with some concern. And often, whatever initiated the concern was so long ago that we have no real memory of it. How we respond to what happened back then, worked back then.  So we carry it forward with no awareness of why, or that it’s even an it. It’s just how we are. As Charles Dickens put it, “The forces that affect our lives, the influences that mould and shape us, are often like whispers in a distant room, teasingly indistinct, apprehended only with difficulty.” Yet these whispers which we can barely apprehend still have the power to shape our lives today.

When much of what we do is a response in order to deal with some concern, that’s not great news. Because it’s as if we don’t know or do anything just for itself. And that keeps us from being present.

The ultimate kind of bad news, however, is to find out that we will never get enough of whatever it is – honest enough, genuine enough, contributing enough, savvy enough, wise enough – to quell our concerns. If that’s the case, the natural state of being whole and complete cannot happen. In order to deal with, adapt to, and accommodate to that, we put together various ways of being, and there you have it: that’s our life experience.  This dynamic occurs over and over and we keep being driven by it. It comes with the territory of being human.

Now, while we may not have been aware of this dynamic before, now we are. Being aware of what we weren’t aware of, and being responsible for it, leaves us free to choose and free to create possibility.

The power to choose and the power to create possibility reside in language. And language is far more than just a tool that describes or represents reality. To know the power of language other than mere words essentially requires a transformation from knowing ourselves as who we have considered ourselves to be – our identities – to knowing ourselves as our word. As what we say. With that transformation comes knowing ourselves in a new way, that of honouring our speaking, that of honouring our word as ourselves.

Being one’s word exists as a possibility. When we have created a possibility it’s not something we’re trying to do, nor is it a matter of in-order-to. Questions like “Will it happen or not?” or “Do we need to do x in order to get to y?” aren’t relevant to possibility.

When we create a new possibility for ourselves, it does exist. It’s present in the world, not as a physical phenomenon, but as a possibility.

~ “Unravelling in-order-to’s” by Nancy Zapolski, from Insights & Distinctions: Landmark Essays, Volume 1

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Image: Illustration from A Child’s Garden of Verses by Robert Louis Stevenson, illustrated by Hilda Boswell

My brilliant career (in travel): Part 1

Continental Airlines Boeing 747

When I was 25, I went to New York. It was the late 80s and my first trip overseas. The ultimate destination was Canada on account of a lifeguard I’d fallen in love with some years earlier. He’d once worked minding a beach in the brief Canadian summer in Nova Scotia and when he spoke fondly of the way Canadians talked of their “suit”, I decided then and there I must go. I think it was this fondness I was looking for, or maybe jealousy of the actress, Ann-Margret, whose picture he had on his wall.

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I Know The Way You Can Get by Hafiz

solidgoldcreativity:

Such charm, such wit: Hafiz’s words and Steven’s art.

Originally posted on poemimage:

coffee face on lid

I know the way you can get

When you have not had a drink of Love:

Evidence Bcoffee stain 1

Your face hardens,

Your sweet muscles cramp.

Children become concerned

About a strange look that appears in your eyes

Which even begins to worry your own mirror

And nose.

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Squirrels and birds sense your sadness

And call an important conference in a tall tree.

They decide which secret code to chant

To help your mind and soul.

touch of bluecoffee stain fragment againcoffee overlaid on black and white

Even angels fear that brand of madness

That arrays itself against the world

And throws sharp stones and spears into

The innocent

And into one’s self.

duotone deluxetwo types of ecstacy

O I know the way you can get

If you have not been drinking Love:

coffee face on lidlids lids lids

You might rip apart

Every sentence your friends and teachers say,

Looking for hidden clauses.

coffee mountain

You might weigh every word on a scale

Like a dead fish.

coffeeism

You might pull out a ruler to measure

From…

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