This Little Piggy and Other Superstitions

pig

Fontana del Porcellino pavilion with projections on the cement

In Florence, there is a bronze boar.

Rumor has it, if you rub the piggy’s proboscis, you are certain to return to the fair city.

Another superstition particular to this porcine effigy involves putting a coin into the piglet’s mouth; as it falls into the grate, you can make a wish.

Some believe that rubbing the hog’s snout will bring a male son.

Because of the threat of fertility, I was uncertain whether I should rub for the promise of a return. In fact, I waited until the last day of our visit to finally approach the swine statue.

I am intrigued by superstitions. Here are five ways of looking at Florence through superstition:

  1. A neighbor will warn you not to bother knocking on wood. Instead, touch iron (or one’s own testicles, or one’s own breasts, if female).
  2. The wild taxi driver will ardently suggest you watch out for black cats. Even while driving, pull over and wait, however long it takes, for another driver to cross these felines’ paths.
  3. An intoxicated man at a bar might insist that posing the pinkie and index finger like devil horns can: 1. Defend against the evil eye. 2. Curse an enemy. 3. Signify infidelity. (You will not know how to translate his meaning when he uses this sign minutes later.)
  4. In a tall building, you are likely to learn the Italian seventeen is like the American thirteen: unlucky.
  5. A waiter is certain to inform you in certain terms that thirteen is lucky, unless you sit down to a table with twelve other people (as in the Last Supper); then one of the diners is certain to betray you. (The Real Housewives of Anywhere should take this into consideration.

Consider the following lines from the beginning of Malcolm Glass’s poem “Superstitions:”

I write these words on the twenty-seventh

page of my notebook, ensuring my words

safe passage and ready readers. In my lapel

I wear bloodroot to ward away broken

mirrors and my image splintered on tile.

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Fire by Heather Hutcheson

Background photo: Url Duke /Pixabay, CC0.Manipulation and design layout: Elizabeth Stark A professor of English at Cosumnes River College, in Sacramento, Heather Hutcheson is the founding editor of the Cosumnes River Journal (crc-ljsubmit@crc.losrios.edu). She organizes an annual senior and student memoir conference, “Our Life Stories.” During…

Ekphrasis

art-1

In Florence, we invested in the Firenze Card, a pass that allowed us into more than 72 museums in 72 hours, and M is serious about getting his money’s worth. He has a plan, and when I start to flag at the fast four we visit the first morning, he cheers: “Only 68 more!”

Nearly 60 hours into the adventure, I have seen more than a dozen statues of Dionysus, a handful of Davids, a couple of Goliaths, The Birth of Venus and her wind gods, The Baptism of Christ, lots of busts of the wealthy (many of them lazily named: Bust of a Man, and at least, it seems, 10,000 versions of Madonna with Bambino. I have read this title so many times I am almost certain it is synonymous with: “untitled.”

 I walk into a room and think I have been there before. I am on sensory overload. (I recognize this makes me both giddy and a little mean.) I learn that when a large room is sparingly appointed with adequate signage, I am delighted. When the display appears to be a sink of dishes or a closet of clothes (parts of the Pitti Palace offerings) or a haphazard shrine (Dante House), I am not so pleased.

Space and structure allow small pieces to speak to me; Sandro Botticelli’s St. Augustine in His Study (Uffizi Gallery) has a sign to explain, among other things,  that “This picture shows the saint writing in the privacy of his study…The sheets of paper strewn across the floor at the saint’s feet are intended to convey the difficulty implicit in translating divine inspiration into words.”

art2

Yes, I think. Yes, this is what it is to try to write, and this is why most days it is near impossible to teach creative writing. Sometimes it seems like an endeavor designed to torment writers—and words. I can only open doors for people to walk in; upon entering, some will discover a museum; others will observe a Spartan cell. What I can offer is that no one can teach us how to make art. It’s easier to cure disease, win the lottery, or find true love. I want to hand over the secret, the recipe, the key, but that’s the secret. We each need to learn to distinguish one Madonna and Bambino from another. So we study the masters, nature, and the divine magic of the world to learn to see the way to transform our lives.

Archaic Torso of Apollo

We cannot know his legendary head
with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso
is still suffused with brilliance from inside,
like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,

gleams in all its power. Otherwise
the curved breast could not dazzle I so, nor could
a smile run through the placid hips and thighs
to that dark center where procreation flared.

Otherwise this stone would seem defaced
beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
and would not glisten like a wild beast’s fur:

would not, from all the borders of itself,
burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. I must change my life.

Rainer Maria Rilkehttps://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/archaic-torso-apollo

  • Write an ekphrastic piece of writing. Ekphrasis is art inspired by art. Don’t just describe it; let it transform the speaker as Rilke has in his “Archaic Torso of Apollo.”

Florentine Violin Maker

violin-maker

My father was a woodworker. He could make cabinets, furniture, and fine designs with his hands. He would sand and stain and sand some more long into midnight.

He would deliberately discover a piece of art in the trunk of a tamarisk tree or a common two-by-four.

On a side street in Florence, M and I watch a craftswoman producing a violin. Peering through her workshop window. Though I often joke that my hands are made only for typing and should not be counted on to sew, to whittle, or even to cook, I can’t help thinking about how her work is similar to drafting a piece of creative writing, how the end product requires the effort to shape a piece into a beautiful sound as well as story.

Speaking of beautiful sounds and stories, spring semester means students are collaborating on blogs again:

Daily Bread 400: https://dailybread400.wordpress.com/

Blissful Binge: https://blissfulbinge.wordpress.com/

Passions of 8: https://passionsof8.wordpress.com/

World of Actions & Reactions: https://creativeblogforclass.wordpress.com/

All Things Dreamy: https://allthingsdreamyblog.wordpress.com/

Please follow them, like them, and tell your friends about these diligent and creative writers.

“Time as Memory as Story”

sheep

On the drive from Dublin to Belfast, from the passenger’s seat, I drift into a deep sleep; I fail to distinguish this landscape from California’s rolling hills. I could be nearly anywhere.  The rain, the radio, my jet lag, and the driving monotony of kilometers of sheep fill me, drag me to dreams of lands radiant with sunshine and warmth.

I do not discern that I have arrived in Belfast until the car abruptly stops. Instantly I understand why people suggest counting sheep to summon sleep. In fact, I do not know where I am or that I am on a pilgrimage to learn where M’s father grew up, where his gran used to live, until M brings me into the cold afternoon to pose with him before a narrow door with the number 193.

It is as if I’ve been snoozing in a time machine; M’s eight again, visiting Ireland on summer break, heading to the candy store around the corner, searching for the spot in the alley where his father carved his name. Though I’m shivering and disoriented in his immense ocean of memories, I want to dive deeper with him into this past and startling tales he has hauled within him his whole life.

However, we must drive, because as Simon J. Ortiz reminds, in his poem “Time as Memory as Story,” “Time has no mercy. It’s there. It stays still or it moves./And you’re there with it. Staying still or moving with it./I think it moves. And we move with it. And keep moving.” We also keep moving because it is Christmas Eve and we are expected in Newry, the countryside, to meet M’s cousins for supper, to settle with them in their cozy home surrounded by a Mary Kay convention of sheep.

At breakfast Christmas morning, I am nearly lulled back to bed by a window full of livestock until I realize one of the conventioneers is stuck in dense brambles. I’m captivated by her efforts to break free, how another gets caught, and then how the others (sheep and people) join me in counting sheep.

What This Year Will Be Like

Photos from March in Sacramento, January 21, 2017

I have a poem-a-day book; it is named 365 Poems for Every Occasion. When I am looking for a fortune or a horoscope—some forecast—I search for meaning in the poem for the day. Yesterday’s poem was William Stafford’s “Once in the 40s.” Before reading the piece, I wonder whether 40s refers to temperature, the 1940s, or middle age. After reading, I know it aptly fits all of these possibilities.

We were alone one night on a long road in Montana.

This was in winter, a big night, far to the stars.

We had hitched, my wife and I, and left our ride at

a crossing to go on. Tired and cold—but

brave—we trudged along. This, we said,

was our life, watched over, allowed to go

where we wanted. We said we’d come back some time

when we got rich. We’d leave the others and find

a night like this, whatever we had to give,

and no matter how far, to be so happy again.

https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/once-40s

I mosey through the book as if it is a bustling farmers’ market, noticing what is in season. I meet each page as a tourist rapt in her adventure. January’s themes center on new starts and cold and dreams and hard-won joy. I quietly wonder how the editors could have known what this month would be like.

When I receive a calendar, I look first for the emblem depicting July, my birth month. My 2017 calendar: Goats in Trees features three goats and the legs of two others in stick of a tree. The part of me craving prescience, some prediction for what to expect for the month makes me compare my month’s ungenerous number of goats to, for example, January’s single specimen or June’s ample display of a tree appointed with more than nine billies and nannies and a herd of nearly twenty (eighteen) below. But who’s counting? And does their color matter?

My jealous heart still weighing my fortunes, I note that the July chapter of my poem-a-day collection is equally relevant to this January’s presidential inauguration and the Women’s March (on Washington, on Sacramento, and more). Independence Day yields half dozen poems with America in their titles.

My travels in Europe over winter break, in the looming shadow of a Trump presidency, yielded more questions, comments, and criticism about America than other travels have. I have no answers. I look to tomorrow’s poem: Edgar Allan Poe’s “Dream within a Dream.”

There is little as unpredictable as being a tourist. Poe ends the poem with the relevant question: Is all that we see or seem/But a dream within a dream?

Rushing into the Music

belfast-castle

In Belfast, we took the Hop On and Hop Off sightseeing bus to get a cursory glimpse of the city still decorated for Christmas, on the verge of the New Year. From the Titanic museum, to the Belfast Peace Wall, to Belfast Castle (photo above), we were immersed in the setting of huge history lessons, including our own family’s history, including news of how one of the cousins was married in a ceremony at the sprawling Castle.

When I was a high school student, my history teacher once criticized me for reading history too fancifully, of thinking of castles as having dragons, of conflating fact and fiction. I don’t know how my teacher recognized it, but it was a keen assessment. He did not prescribe it at the time, but I have found travel to be an excellent antidote to irreverence and ignorance.

The tour guide was well-educated, thoughtful, and engaging. Even better, he brought a friend along for the ride. And the friend brought a guitar to entertain on stretches of motorway where there wasn’t much narration to be done.

One of the tunes, “Big Strong Man (My Brother Sylveste),” required audience participation.

Stanza two goes: That was my brother Sylvest’ (What’s he got?)
A row of forty medals on his chest (big chest!)
He killed fifty bad men in the west; he knows no rest.
Think of a man, hells’ fire, don’t push, just shove,
Plenty of room for you and me.
He’s got an arm like a leg (a ladies’ leg!)
And a punch that would sink a battleship (big ship!)
It takes all of the Army and the Navy to put the wind up Sylvest’.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d7yiUxCmqrI

The words in parenthesis, we quickly learned, needed to be hooted out when cued by the first part of the line. Each run-through of the song picked up speed; thus, by the end, a busload of strangers were breathlessly laughing, smiling, singing together.

Traveling always reminds me of what I am missing in my day-to-day life. More music is essential.

Speaking of music, I am sincerely grateful to have a poem, “Rushing into the Music, published by Postcard Poems and Prose: https://postcardpoemsandprose.wordpress.com/2017/01/20/rushing-into-the-music-by-heather-hutcheson/

  • Listen to a type of music you don’t usually listen to, like “Big Strong Man,” and see where it takes you.

(Photo from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Belfast_Castle)