Welcome to where I am, where my kitchen's always messy, a pot's (or a poet) always about to boil over, a dog is always begging to be fed. Drafts of poems on the counter. Windows filled with leaves. Wind. Clouds moving over the mountains. If you like poetry, books, and music--especially dog howls when a siren unwinds down the hill-- you'll like it here.




Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Being Tourists: The Citadella

Like all good tourists in Budapest, we headed for the Citadella (Citadel) and Castle Hill, but unlike most touists, we walked up instead of taking a tour bus. The hike up to the old fortress was beautiful, a winding path through lush woods. A group of school children was ahead of us, obviously on a field trip, looking just like American kids, only chattering away in Hungarian. The teacher kept her eye on them, and a handful of mothers trailed behind as chaperones. Eventually they took the right-hand path up to the fortress and we took the left. We walked among trees and foliage we tried to identify, wishing we had a field guide to Hungarian flora and fauna.

(Along the path up to the Citadella. I think I made this photo because through the leaves you could see faintly the Budapest skyline, but.....)

The Austo-Hungarian Emperor and Hungarian King, Franz Joseph, had the stronghold built in 1851 following the suppression of the 1848-49 War of Independence to keep the rebellious city under the control of his cannons. Today the complex is a tourist destination where one can find gift stalls, beer gardens, and many, many tour buses.

To the side of the fortress stands the statue of the young woman I saw as I climbed up from the subway on the day of our arrival , her heroic and graceful form bearing the palm leaf above her head. She has been referred to as the Liberation Monument.

I photographed her numerous times while we were in the city, from all sorts of angles and distances.

To her side is this figure, lifting his torch against the Hungarian sky.

Along the stone wall of the battlements is a gallery of large photographs depicting scenes from recent Hungarian history. While we studied the images, we heard children's voices and realized that the school kids had caught up with us. They clustered around one photo, laughing and pointing.

Well, no wonder! Look at those bicycles! I wondered, though, what their reaction would be to some of the images of WWII, the bodies laid out like cordwood in a Budpest square, for example.

Here is a better photo of what I came to think of as Our Lady of Peace and Liberation, on the virtualtourist site.

(Go to http://members.virtualtourist.com/m/p/m/14cc25/ for more information and photos)

Sunday, October 26, 2008

A River Runs Through It

Every time we crossed the Elisabeth Bridge, we passed numerous tourists taking photos of the river, or of their significant others leaning against the railing, with the Danube flowing indifferently beneath and the Budapest skyline as backdrop. Crossing the Danube became a daily journey, and each time, whether at night or during the day, the scene was different. I never got the night-time photo I wanted, but I could not stop trying.

Budapest is divided in half by the Danube, with Buda being on one side and Pest on the other. Our hotel was on the
Buda side, where many of the historical sites are located. Pest is more bustling, with shops and cars and hordes of tourists. We loved being on the quieter side of the river.

(The Danube and Budapest from atop Castle Hill.)

(Another shot from Castle Hill. This view is addictive!)

(Having crossed the river, on our way into Pest to see TOSCA at the opera house, we we saw the full moon rising over the city.)

All the Mornings of the World-----

--- if only they could begin like this: hearing the bells of Budapest ringing, then opening the windows to see the church tower glowing in the sun, no cats yet on the adjoining roof, a clear blue sky above. Time for breakfast, walking down the stairs where at each turn of the stairwell, the church tower greets us through the window.

(Later we learned that this church was built on the site of a mosque, built during the Turkish occupation of Hungary.)

The breakfast room is filled with different languages--French, German, proper British, some Australian accents, and Hungarian, of course--and fresh coffee waits on the small table where we sit down. On the buffet an array of cheeses, meats, yogurt, cereals, and wonderful European bread of several varieties. Real butter. A jam called Fruits of the Forest. Outside, the tour buses labor through the small street, and the natives hurry on foot to jobs or classes. Beyond them, the Danube begins its morning, the tugboats chugging along, the cruise ships gearing up for another day of business.

We decide to cross the Danube on the Chain Bridge, bicycles whizzing past us, not to mention cars. And tourists! One couple walking toward us looks American (how can we tell such things about people?) and I see on the woman's vest an Obama button, so I know I'm right. We chat for a little while about the Presidential debate the night before, which we are glad we missed. When we reach the other side of the bridge, police cars and emergency vans are everywhere. Has there been a terrorist attack? No, NATO is in town, having one of its big meetings and all the big shots are nearby, needing police escorts and secret service protection.

We look around several well maintained parks and then head for the opera house, where we hope we can buy tickets for Fidelio and Die Meistersinger. The street leading to the opera is lined with outdoor cafes, banks, and shoe stores. Yes, shoe stores. They are everywhere in Budapest, and I see some fine looking legs wearing snazzy shoes, including boots to die for, walking around the city.

At the opera house we buy our tickets, listening while we wait to sopranos in their practice rooms above us, running through their scales. Across the street, Bel Canto, a charming looking cafe and bar is opening up for business, but we decide to continue our walking tour through the center of the Pest side of the city.

After strolling through the always crowded pedestrian freeway named Vaci Utca (pronounced vahsi ootsa), the big tourist-shopping section in the city, we stop at an elegant restaurant just off the Danube for lunch. It looks a bit too elegant for two tired Americans, but despite a snotty waiter, we enjoy the meal, my dish being a vegetable "tower" of roasted egglplant, zucchini, tomato, onion, melted cheese in an incredible sauce, and Jim's being a fish with a tasty paprika sauce. We cross the Danube at the Elisabeth Bridge, with a nap on our minds. We will think about where to have dinner when we wake up.

First Night in Hungary

And now it's time to find a restaurant. Night has fallen and we are hungry. The helpful hotel receptionist recommends Tabani Terasz, just a few yards down the street, but we decide to walk farther and see what we can find. We walk by one of the entrances to Castle Hill, a place we will visit two days from now. Tonight, it's too dark to climb this stairwell.

There's a waxing moon above us, over a restaurant we decide to pass on as we walk toward the Chain Bridge.

The traffic is heavy, and the lights of the Chain Bridge shimmer as cars speed over it.

We haven't found a restaurant on this side of the river yet, so we decide to turn back toward the restaurant recommended by our hotel. But we take one last look at the lights across the river, knowing that we will have time to explore Budapest after dark in the days to come.

So, we return to Tabani Terasz where we have several glasses of good Hungarian wine and beer along with delicious veal paprika. We feel restored, ready to get a good night's sleep, eager to wake up next morning and begin to explore Budapest.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

First afternoon in Hungary

Well, you can tell a European carrier from an American soon after take-off. We left the Detroit airport late on the night of Oct. 7 and as soon as we hit cruising alitude, out came the snacks and drinks, including beer and wine. The meal was good, along with wine if one wanted it, which I didn't just then. Hot cloths beforehand to wash hands, face, and help weary travelers feel just a bit fresher, which I appreciated. For days I'd agonized over what to pack, how long and tiring the flights would be, so by then, a warm cloth and good meal were just what I needed. Our plane landed in Amsterdam on time, and after more security checks, we boarded the Malev airlines plane for the flight to Budpest, a mere two hour or less flight, but my goodness, we were treated to a tasty sandwich, a chocolate wafer dessert and wine, if we wanted it. I declined again on the wine, feeling pretty dehydrated by then. Water was what I wanted.

From the Budapest airport we took a bus to the metro stop where we caught a subway to the stop nearest to our hotel, on the Buda side of the Danube (more about this later). Climbing out of the underground, we found downtown Budpest awaiting us, as beautiful a sight as I've seen in the late afternoon sun. These photos were taken later, in early afternoon, so they don't capture the richness of the light at the time we arrived. I just stood there on the street looking around.

Our hotel lay across the Danube, on the Buda side of the city, so we had to cross the Elisabeth Bridge to reach the Best Western Hotel Orion, a small elegant hotel just a street away from the river. As we crossed the bridge, I saw to my left on the hill overlooking the city a sight that would draw me to it most of the time we were in Budpest, an image in stone of a young woman holding overhead a palm wreath. She became, for me, the central image of this glorious city. I looked for her whenever I crossed the Danube, and my question, "Who is she?", became a kind of poetic focus during the time we were in Hungary.

On our way to the hotel, we passed through a small park with a statue of Queen Elisabeth, "Sissi", the popular wife of Franz Joseph I, ruler of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. (Elisabeth Amalie Eugenie (24 December 1837 – 10 September 1898) of the House of Wittelsbach, was the Empress consort of Austria and Queen consort of Hungary, being married to the Emperor Franz Joseph I.) She was a beautiful, unhappy woman who was stabbed to death at the age of 60 by an anarchist as she boarded a boat on Lake Geneva.

We found our hotel with no trouble, ready to lay down our burdens of baggage and jet-lag.

And were greeted at the desk by a young man who turned out to be one of the most pleasant and helpful people we met while in Hungary. He congratulated us on taking public transportation to the hotel, most of the guests arriving by taxi or airport shuttle. I regret never learning his name. We became very fond of him, along with several other hotel employees.

Once in our room, on the third floor, I looked out the windows and saw on the rooftop across from us two cats enjoying the late afternoon! We celebrated our arrival in Budapest with a toast of good American whiskey, which I'd tucked into my checked baggage, and began to think about supper.

Next post: our first night in Budapest!

Thursday, October 23, 2008

To Hungary, in Celebration

Today is a national holiday in Hungary, a day to remember the Revolution of 1956, the huge loss of life and the subsequent arrests and executions of many of the leaders of this popular uprising against Soviet domination after World War II. So, it seems appropriate to begin the story of our journey to Hungary this morning, on this special day. By now it's 4:30 in the afternoon in that country, the late afternoon light over the city of Budapest beginning to gather what must surely be one of the most beautiful cities in the world into its embrace. I wonder how Hungarians celebrate this day of both terror and promise, and I wish we could have stayed a few days longer to find out. Instead we will raise a glass of wine, though not of the Hungarian variety, alas, to the people of Hungary, to their spirit, their culture, their history, and yes, their cuisine, which we enjoyed for two weeks. And I blow them a kiss across the Atlantic. Despite their worsening economic woes, thanks to the global financial meltdown, may they have a glorious celebration of freedom today!

Below is a 500 Forint bill, with its commemoration of the events that began on October 23, 1956. As cobwebby as my memory has become, I remember the 1956 uprising on the news when I was in the 6th grade, our horror at what was happening, expressed around the dinner table.

According to wikipedia, the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 (Hungarian: 1956-os forradalom) was a spontaneous nationwide revolt against the Stalinist government of Hungary and its Soviet-imposed policies, lasting from 23 October until 10 November 1956. It began as a student demonstration which attracted thousands as it marched through central Budapest to the Parliament building and the revolt spread quickly across Hungary, and the government fell. Thousands organized into militias, battling the State Security Police (ÁVH) and Soviet troops. As wikipedia points our, " Pro-Soviet communists and ÁVH members were often executed or imprisoned, as former prisoners were released and armed. Impromptu councils wrested municipal control from the Communist Party, and demanded political changes. The new government formally disbanded the ÁVH, declared its intention to withdraw from the Warsaw Pact and pledged to re-establish free elections. By the end of October, fighting had almost stopped and a sense of normality began to return."

That normality was fleeting. On 4 November, a large Soviet force invaded Budapest and other regions of the country. Hungarian resistance continued until 10 November. An estimated 2,500 Hungarians died, and 200,000 more fled as refugees. Mass arrests and denunciations continued for months thereafter.

Although public discussion about this revolution was suppressed in Hungary for over 30 years, since the thaw of the 1980s it has been intensely discussed. At the inauguration of the Third Hungarian Republic in 1989, 23 October was declared a national holiday.

On our walk to the house where Franz Lizst lived out his last years, we passed what is known as the Terror House. Photographs of some of the executed line the walls, all with the same death date--1959. Ironically, the windows of the Lizst House face this building, and as I stood looking out, I could hear piano music coming from the recordings being played for visitors and from the practice room next door.


(Statue of Franz Liszt in the square named for him. Notice the long fingers! Small children enjoy playing on his lap and hanging from his arms.)

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Back from Hungary!

We arrived at the Asheville airport last night late and drove home in a state of transatlantic flight-stupor, chugging up the hill to our house around midnight, at which time our horde of dogs came running out to greet us. I will be downloading photos later today, along with commentary. This will take awhile, so I may need several days. We had a fabulous time, so stay tuned!

Monday, October 6, 2008

North Carolina Poetry Society, Poet Laureate Award: John York

I've been asked to judge many contests over the past few years, but at no time have I been as excited about an entry as about the poem titled "Naming the Constellations," which was among the group sent to me from the NC Poetry Society's Poet Laureate Award finalists. " Who is this poet?" I asked the contest co-ordinator. I didn't find out till weeks later that it was John York, an old friend and one of my favorite poets. Of course all the entries were submitted anonymously. I had no idea who the author of this poem was. All the more reason to be celebratory when I found out! This poem was published in the NCPS anthology PINESONG this summer. I'm honored to be able to feature it here.

(John York)

Naming the Constellations


Trace a line from the front
of the Big Dipper’s cup, over to Polaris,
the penny nail on which the Little Dipper swings.
The rest of the sky, even the visible
galaxies fleeing the big bang,
seem to turn on that near nothing of a star.

Then look for Bootes rising
among catalpa blossoms, Aquila hovering
above summer haze, Orion climbing
through unleafing trees, or the Gemini
watching over hoar-frosted mountaintops.
Even if we never venture over desert places

or through winter woods at night,
we need to learn the old names,
Ursa Major, the Great Wain, the Drinking Gourd:
a way to walk in our ancestors’ boots.
We watch the stars as we watch our steps,
looking to take the long way home.


When my grandmother read the paper,
there in the back yard, where she watched
the squirrels playing around the eaves
of the barn’s tin roof, she sat on a white chair,
until she eased forward to the crackling
sigh of relieved cane bottom.

It’s a low chair, made for a shorter generation;
either that or the tapering legs rested
once on rockers that wore out.
Little Roy Burgess wove a new seat,
a simple pattern that’s held for decades.
I fended off Uncle Gilbert at the auction

and claimed my inheritance: and sometimes
I ride the chair around the galaxy while I play
my guitar, the jigs and ballads
Great-grandfather fiddled, tonic, dominant,
sub-dominant chords, then back
to the keynote, opening a door to a cornfield at dusk.

And sometimes, walking out on a December night,
I find the Celestial Chair--Orion's rectangle--
his belt, a tin pan spilling,
his sword, corn dropped for the chickens,
Canis Major making a flock of white beaks,
the hens rushing to flashing seed, while Grandma
sits invisible, a dust cloud gathering into a star.


Walking down to the bike path, I see
Orion tilting, stretching over
the street from one group of trees to another,
and on the horizon, a white steeple,
shining in front of a trio of skyscrapers—
a Gothic tower, a space ship, a box—

so bright, I can’t find the Pleiades
or the Pole Star. The astronomers know
that the constellations are changing,
the patterns bending, the stars light years apart,
so that Orion may become “the Manacle,”
“the Butterfly,” or something nameless—

all stories lost: our fictions have lasted
for centuries, the narrative lines forming a map,
there for everyone to accept, revise, or reject,
but now we work at obliterating
the sky, smog, ozone, blather and baloney
our children’s final inheritance.

Walking home, I see a row of lights, a constellation
along a hilltop, but so much of what I do
is by dead reckoning, feeling my way
in the dark, until I find a familiar door,
a chair, a book, a place to snudge like a Hobbit,
listening for a tea kettle, snow fall, sleigh bells.


What is hardest is walking with a naked
mind into the night, like some earliest
man or woman, leaving behind
the communal fire, the flickering screen,
to go to mountaintop or empty field
and forget our yammering selves.

When I was a country boy, before I read
about Orion, I saw his limbs and belt
and called it all “The Great Box Kite,”
and I held its string as I stood in the alfalfa stubble,
and a strong breeze kept it aloft
long after I went to bed—and it flies

in me still, when I shine like a clear
sky far from city lights,
when I remember the smell of cows
and a chill wind shimmering,
the tug of the string, the letting go,
the silence where everything is born.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Off to Hungary!

On Tuesday I head to Hungary for the European premiere of Harold Shiffman's wonderful Alma Cantata that is based on poems from WILDWOOD FLOWER. The American Premiere took place at FSU in 2006; these photos are from that event. Harold's website, haroldschffman-composer.com, will give you a definitive glimpse into this important composer's life and work. I will return on October 22.

(Harold and I discuss our collaboration before the premiere of "Alma.")

Onstage after the performance with mezzo-soprano Nadine Cheek Whitney and Harold Schiffman)

(At the reception afterward with Nadine, Harold, and conductor Alexander Jimenez. )

From Harold's website:
Coinciding with his 80th birth year, Harold Schiffman's cantata Alma (2002) will receive, in Győr, Hungary, its European première in a performance by the Győr Philharmonic Orchestra and the Hungarian National Chorus, Mátyás Antal (for whom the work was written) conducting. The première is scheduled as part of the orchestra's regular subscription series. Mátyás Antal's recording of Alma (North/South Recordings), released in 2004, has drawn high critical praise.

The concert will take place the evening of Thursday, 16 October 2008 in Győr's János Richter Hall.

Streets in the center of the old city of Győr,* which
are but a short walk from the János Richter Hall.
Győr, Hungary (16 September 2007)
Photograph by Szidónia Juhász