Friday, January 22, 2016

Does Nikki Moustaki find redemption in THE BIRD MARKET OF PARIS?

Christal Cooper

All excerpts given copyright privilege by Nikki Moustaki and Henry Holt Company LLC

1,637 Words

                                            Nikki at the Miami Book Fair International
                                            November 2015

The Inevitability: Stars As Birds 
Poet & Animal Writer Nikki Moustaki Hopes To Find Redemption in The Bird Market of Paris

In my imagination, birdsong filled the market, waving and swelling like smoke, sunlight bathing each feather to a glisten, down to the shaft where the feather anchors into the wing.  Pullets, canaries, and finches playing with the afternoon light, an iridescent sheen bouncing from their tightly groomed feathers.  Roosters with feathers on their feet.  Pigeons with tails spreading up and out like an Andalusian lady’s fan.  I didn’t know these birds, but Poppy’s talk made them irresistible.  That’s the way I’ll love them, too, I thought, when I’m old enough to go to Paris.  It was as inevitable as the stars, which were birds after all.

Excerpt, page 15

                                          Painting by Jan Portielje (1829-1908) and
                                          Eugene Remy Maes (1849-1931).

       Nikki Moustaki’s first memoir, The Bird Market of Paris, was published on February 10, 2015 by Henry Holt And Company LLC.
The Bird Market of Paris centers on Moustaki’s relationship with her Grandfather Soli Moustaki, whom she calls Poppy.  Poppy is a great storyteller who tells his only grandchild about his experiences with birds and visiting The Bird Market of Paris.

                    Poppy and Nikki, age 5

He was a gifted raconteur, telling stories over and over, each time adding another tiny detail, embellishments like sequins on a dress.  He talked a bit about Egypt, about the green talking parrots that lived in the palace and about the superior nature of Cairo’s fruit and vegetables, but most of all, Poppy overflowed with stories about Paris, the city’s broad sidewalks where ten people could walk shoulder to shoulder, and the lazy afternoons sitting in cafes, people watching.  Rarely did I hear about the Pyramids of Giza or the Sphinx.  He was taken with Paris, and through his stories I was taken with it, too.  He said he would take me there someday.

Excerpt, Page 14

       The Bird Market of Paris, though a memoir, is comparable to Torey Hayden’s fiction novel The Sunflower Forest, where seventeen-year old Lesley adores her mother as much as Moustaki adores Poppy; and like Poppy tells her about The Bird Market of Paris, Leslie’s mother tells her daughter about The Sunflower Forest.

       Both Leslie and Moustaki carry these places in their hearts and it is in these two places and the love they have for their mother and grandfather that help them endure the hardships in life.

       There are differences: The Sunflower Forest is a fiction novel with a “shattering” end in which Leslie finally travels across the globe to see The Sunflower Forest only to discover that The Sunflower Forest never existed.

Like Leslie in The Sunflower Forest, Moustaki plans to go to Paris, France to see the The Bird Market of Paris Poppy saw.  But does it exist, or is it like The Sunflower Forest, a place that only exists in the imagination of the one Nikki Moustaki adores and loves?

                        Toddler Nikki eating a cookie

       Nikki Moustaki is proud of her Greek and Jewish heritage she inherited from her paternal Grandfather Poppy, who passed on a passion of life and a passion of love for birds to his only grandchild.  Because of this heirloom or inheritance she received from her Poppy, Moustaki describes her life as a birdsong soundtrack album that is ingrained in her genetic makeup.

                                             Nikki's first day of preschool.

       I always believed that my affinity for birds was inherited, or at least contagious.  In Corfu, at the end of the nineteenth century, Poppy’s father had a white cockatoo that sat on the wall in his courtyard and called each family member by name.  Poppy’s father passed the “bird gene” to Poppy, who as an adult, sat in an outdoor table at Café Riche in Cairo, beckoning to the Egyptian sparrow merchants who sold the little birds for food.  He would buy several cages for the doomed creatures, fifty to a tiny crate, and as dusk fell over Cairo, Poppy and his only children, my father, would set the birds free from the balcony of their apartment.  Poppy passed the bird gene to my father, who was responsible for bringing many of Poppy’s birds into our world in South Florida – and for later indulging my bird hobby from beak to tail – effectively passing the bird gene to me.

Excerpt, pages 2-3

                                                  19th Vintage painting of girl and her birdcage

       Moustaki’s parents work in the garment business and in luxury car sales.  During the day, when Moustaki is not attending school, she spends time with Poppy, who earns a living as a successful fashion designer.  It is during these times that Poppy teaches her about life via birds and expresses his undying love to her through birds.

       Poppy & Nikki, age 6, at one of his fashion shows  

He told me about the Marche aux Oiseaux, the bird market of Paris, held on Sundays in conjunction with the famous flower market and close to Notre Dame.  I heard about the bird market of Paris from Poppy so often, it became something I had to experience.
“You can hear the music of the birds a mile away,” he told me.  “The birds are a miracle, you cannot imagine such beautiful birds, the colors, the songs.” He spoke emphatically, like a man running for office, and I believed him.

Excerpt, Page 15

                                               Nikki and Comet in 1997

One of their grandfather-grandchild yearly traditions is on her birthday Poppy gives Moustaki a white dove, which she releases into the sky, a ritual she compares to that of blowing out candles on a birthday cake.

Parian Marble Stele of a girl with a white dove Greece 450 - 440 BC 

       Her love for birds intensifies when her first boyfriend gives her a baby lovebird for Valentine’s Day when she is eighteen.  Moustaki falls helplessly in love and so does Poppy, proud to finally be a great-grandfather.   Moustaki christens her first bird Bonk.  Bonk is the first of many birds in Moustaki’s love affair of great birds – resulting in her becoming a bird expert and writing for birds.  Her 25 books on the care and training of exotic birds have sold more than 350,000 copies.

Moustaki details her experience of Hurricane Andrew where she is grateful that Bonk and Bonk’s baby eggs are safe, even though she loses just about everything else.    

The back of the Moustaki Home after Hurricane Andrew hit in 1992.

In 1993, after she earns her Bachelor’s in English with a minor In Philosophy from Florida International University, Moustaki attends her first poetry workshop at Florida International University where she studies under poet Campbell McGrath and is enamored with poetry by Sharon Olds, who, at the time, is part of the New York University’s Creative Writing Faculty.    

                 Campbell McGrath  

I wanted to study at NYU because of Sharon Olds, a poet whose work explored depths I also wanted to plumb, a soft-spoken woman who penned dark, sexy, semiconfessional free verse pocked with curse words.

Excerpt, page 129.

                     Sharon Olds  

In the Spring of 1995 Moustaki submits her application, which includes ten pages of poems about birds, to New York University Master’s Degree Creative Writing program, and is accepted.    

I was twenty-four and this would be my first foray into living as an adult in the real world.

Excerpt, page 129.

       Moustaki finds comfort in alcohol  as her means of escape and the way she handles the stresses in life, which include Poppy’s illness and death.  Things only darken when she is not able to attend Poppy’s funeral.

               19th Century Vintage of Grandfather and Granddaughter 
       Moustaki graduates from NYU with a master of arts in poetry and is accepted into Indiana University creative writing program where she earns her Master of Fine Arts in poetry. 

By her second year at Indiana University, she is drinking a tall glass of Kahlua topped with a scoop of vanilla ice cream for breakfast.  The results are 30 pound weight gain, an eroded central nervous system, paranoia, erratic behavior, and the isolation of friends and peers. 

                 Painting by Parker Lanier 

Despite drinking seven martinis at one setting she manages to fly to New York City and land an editorial position where she edits books on animals.

Her drinking continues until she meets a fellow bird lover and recovering alcoholic, Walden, and attends recovery meetings with him. 
       Moustaki is still not whole, still feels broken inside and seeks solace in writing – this time a ten-page poem about chickens. She applies for a grant with the National Endowment for the Arts by submitting the ten-page poem along with her artistic plan of how she would utilize the funds.  In December of 2000, she learns that her application for the NEA grant of $20,000 has been accepted. 

Nikki feeding a stray chicken on February of 2010.
       Good news can have the same affect as bad news – both bring stress and restlessness.  Moustaki’s response is to drink again, to the point where she blacks out only to be awaken by a phone call from Walden.      

       “Get up we’re going to a meeting,” he said.  He sounded way too energetic for so early in the morning.  I looked at the clock.  It was past three p.m.
       “Who is this?” I croaked, blinking in the half-light.
       “You drunk-dialed me in the middle of the night, along with most of everyone else we know,” he said.  “If you don’t want this program you don’t have to do it, but drinking isn’t working for you.”
       “I asked God to show me a sign if He didn’t want me to, and He didn’t, so I drank,” I lied.
       “God isn’t Santa Claus,” Walden said, “You can’t give Him orders and lists of things you want and expect them to appear.  That’s not how prayer works.  Get dressed.”

Excerpt, Page 197.

By early 2001, Moustaki finds herself at her desk holding the $20,000-check from the National Endowment for the Arts.  What Moustaki decides to do with the $20,000 is a decision based on stories that Poppy told her.  She believes these stories and the spirit of the storyteller (Poppy) will give her the redemption she so desperately needs.    

       Will her gamble pay off, or will she be like The Sunflower Forest’s Lesley, a believer in a story of lies, only to travel across the globe to discover the place she treasured never even existed, leaving her irrevocably broken?

Friday, January 15, 2016

Legendary Poet Robert Bly and his most recent collection "LIKE THE NEW MOON, I WILL LIVE MY LIFE"

Christal Cooper

Excerpts granted copyright privilege by Robert Bly and White Pine Press.

Article – 1,976 Words

Legendary Poet Robert Bly:
The Chinese Connection
Like The New Moon, I Will Live My Life

       Robert Bly’s 23rd poetry collection Like The New Moon, I Will Live My Life was published on March 24, 2015 by White Pine Press.

       Like the New Moon, I Will Live My Life is 218 pages of 171 poems divided into fifteen sections from Bly’s fifteen out-of-print books, chapbooks, and uncollected work spanning 53 years:

       A Private Fall 1995
       Angels of Pompeii (with Stephen Brigidi) 1991

       Gratitude to Old Teachers 1993

       Holes the Crickets Have Eaten in Blankets 1997

       In The Month of May 1984

Jumping Out Of Bed 1973

       Old Man Rubbing His Eyes 1975

       Out of the Rolling Ocean 1984

       The Apple Found in the Plowing 1989

       The Lion’s Tail and Eyes:  Poems Written Out of Laziness and Silence 1962

       The Loon 1977

       The Moon on a Fencepost 1988

The Urge to Travel Long Distances 2005

       This Tree Will Be Here for a Thousand Years 1979

       Turkish Pears in August and other Ramages 2007

Robert Bly has sixteen additional poetry collections not included in Like the New Moon, I Will Live My Life:

Silence in the Snowy Fields

       The Light Around The Body

       Sleepers Joining Hands

       This Body Is Made of Camphor and Gopher Wood

       The Man in the Black Coat Turns

       Loving a Woman in Two Worlds

       Selected Poems 1986

       What Have I Ever Lost by Dying?: Collected Prose Poems

       Meditations on the Insatiable Soul

       Morning Poems

       Eating the Honey of Words: New and Selected Poems

       The Insanity of Empire: A Book of Poems Against the Iraq War.

       The Night Abraham Called To The Stars

       My Sentence Was a Thousand Years of Joy

       Talking into the Ear of a Donkey

       Stealing Sugar from the Castle: Selected and New Poems 1950-2013.      

Robert Bly first came on the poetry scene in 1956 when he won a Fulbright scholarship that allowed him to travel to Norway to translate Norwegian poetry. 

                                Robert Bly at Harvard in 1951 

While there in Norway, he discovered Pablo Neruda, and was influenced by Neruda’s protean poetry. 

                                          Pablo Neruda in 1963.

The protean poetry’s definition is a mixture of scientific and poetic meanings – it is usually an ameba (an eukaryotic organism) having the ability to change in shape, form, or characters.  An example of an eukaryotic organism is the mushroom, which is the focus of Bly’s below poem:

Mushroom Painting by Jan Voerman Jr Russula in 1952
Picking Mushrooms in Late Summer in the Western
Half of the Island of Runmaro with Tomas Transtromer

The mushrooms loom in the grass like extremely stupid    
They are skies from which parachutes never fall.
From us, too, sometimes a poem falls, sometimes not.
Delighted to be together, we are out in the summer woods,
          picking mushrooms.

Robert Bly and Tomas Transtromer

       “Picking Mushrooms” meets the criteria of a protean poem in many ways:  mushrooms change personalities – first it is an individual’s stupid faults, then it is the skies that prevent the parachutes (in the form of poems) to fall, only to change back to the literal mushroom – where two poets pick mushrooms not only to eat, but a symbolic act of their friendship. 

Tomas Transtromer and Robert Bly 

The poem exemplifies the elements of protean poetry by combining the humor and the serious without diminishing the quality of the other.  The humor is that even though these two poets have stupid thoughts in the form of skies that prevents poetry from being birthed, they are still able to write poetry, allowing the poetry to fall like seed in the woods, where the seeds represent their friendship, which is expressed by the intimate act of picking mushrooms in the summer woods.

Robert Bly in the 1970s 

       Bly’s most dominant influences as a poet are the Chinese poets that he encountered in the 1960s:  through the translations of Arthur Waley, Kenneth Rexroth, and Robert Payne’s anthology on Chinese poets.  

Arthur Waley 

Kenneth Roxroth

Pierre Stephen Robert Payne 

This discovery was so prevalent in Robert Bly’s life that he stated in a 1968 interview:  “The ancient Chinese poetry still seems to me the greatest poetry ever written.”

Robert Bly and his two daughters Bridget and Mary in the 1960s.

       Thomas Smith wrote the introduction to Like The New Moon, I Will Live My Life. 

Thomas Smith 

In the introduction, “Robert Bly’s Less-Traveled Road”, Smith describes two-thirds of the 171 poems as having the same elements as the great Chinese poets that Bly so aptly admires and adheres to:  freedom in spaciousness, space around the words, space making it possible for the reader to read the poem and inhabit that space, phenomena being observed both outside and inside the poet, and the informality and spontaneity of the Chinese-influenced style.

"Quatrain on Heavenly Mountain" by Emperor Gaczong.
Part of the John B Elliot Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art
given to the Museum as a bequest of John M. Crawford Jr in 1988

       “In Bly’s Chinese-style poems, an essentially meditative consciousness affirms the importance of work, solitude, and acceptance of grief and suffering to spiritual well being.  These poems collectively suggest a practice for maintaining spiritual wholes in physically dismembering times when wide-spread “death-mother” energy claims many victims.”

                                            Robert Bly 

       Ancient Chinese poets express their emotions by fusing their feelings into external objects, which could be described as imagery, but not image.   Image refers to concrete physical objects where as imagery refers to the fusion of the poets’ subjective feelings with objective scenes.  In ancient Chinese poetry, a poem is usually composed of several imageries, which the poet uses to arouse emotional associations and, at the same time, to enrich their poetic context.

                     15th Century Painting inspired by Daoism "Poetry On a Mountaintop"

       In most of Robert Bly’s poems there is the imagery of birds, water, trees, snow, bones, and rocks.  It is through these imageries that Bly is able to encounter isolation, solitude, the acceptance of grief and suffering while at the same time experience some form of spiritual well-being even if it is in the simple recognition of sorrow and unwanted change.

                                Robert Bly 

       An example of this sorrow and unwanted change while at the same time appreciation for humanity is Bly’s “Poem for James Wright” dedicated to James Wright, a fellow poet who was also influenced by the Chinese poets.

James Wright 

Poem for James Wright

When I read your lines
I sometimes see, like
Hair on the back of hands,
Grown out from between words.
Whole companies,
Battalions, died
In Guam.  The surviving
Brothers drift on rafts
Scattered on the ocean,
Like the ocean-
People, going with the currents,
By one or two palm leaves
Shaped like ears.
You put your elegant
Language skiff into the brine,
As if to say, The octopus
Living in the grenade shell
Is still beautiful.

                               James Wright and Robert Bly 

       Moon and insects are perhaps the most popular symbolisms used in Chinese poetry and Bly uses them expertly in “Night Farmyard” where horses and chickens and perhaps humanity are symbolized by the bark of a cottonwood tree on a journey that ends at the moon.

                               Painting "Moonlight Sonata" by R.A. Blakelock in 1892

Night Farmyard

The horse lay on his knees sleeping,
A rat hopped across the scattered hay
And disappeared under the henhouse.
There the chickens sat in a stiff darkness.

Asleep they are like the bark fallen from an old cottonwood.
Yet we know their soul is gone, risen
Far into the upper air above the moon.

Bly continues the connection between death and the moon and newness in “For My Brother, a Year After His Death.”

                     "Two Men Contemplating The Moon" by  Caspar David Friedrich

For My Brother, a Year After His Death

Last night, full moon, I walked the roads
              where we played-
Walking between the plowed fields, silent and alone.
I thought of you, seeing black earth
Show clear above the new fallen snow.
Like riverbanks, above water, or the chest of

       In “Insect Heads” insects experience death but their final destination is not the moon but another life through reincarnation. 

Adult female Iris Oratoria performs a fluffing threat display, rearing 
back with the forelegs or wings spread and mouth opened

Insect Heads

These insects, golden
And Arabic, sailing in the husks of galleons,
Their octagonal heads also
Hold sand paintings of the next life.

In “Silence” the insect this time a bug takes on the same quest as humans – that of the continuous search.

                     Adult Box Elder Bug.  Attributed to Bruce Martin  CCASA 2.5 Generic 

Something homeless is looking on the long roads-
A dog lost since midnight, a small duck
Among the odorous reeds,
Or a tiny box-elder bug searching for the windowpane.

Excerpt, Page 27

       In “Wind” the grasshopper takes on the persona of an individual that either commits suicide or takes a big risk in life in order to live to the fullest, depending on the reader’s interpretation.

                       Grasshopper flying.


The grasshopper on the cliff
Leaps about
Recklessly, two hundred feet above the water!

       Insects take on the form of life in “Women We Never See Again.”

Moths hatched in winter disappear behind books.

Excerpt, Page 85

       In “Walking Where the Plows Have Been Turning” crickets exemplify being at peace, something us humans have been trying to do since the beginning of time. 


                                                                           There is a hum-ming in my body, it is jealous of no one.  The cricket lays its wings one   over  the   other,   a  faint  whispery   sound    rises   up  to its  head . . . which it hears . . . and disregards . . . listening for the next sound. . .

Excerpt, Page 93

       In “Gnats”, the insect gnat takes on a ghost like identity constantly in the state of change.


This cloud of gnats resembles
Ghost substance-
It changes
Shape, lifts or sinks.

They are too excited –
They can’t be feeding.
So few days to live
And they spend it this way!

       Bly, in his poem “A Moth with Black Eyes”, depicts the moth as having the capability of incest, which can be jarring for the reader, until the reader learns about the Navajo legend, a departure from the Chinese connection, that helps explain the poem’s meaning. 

The Navajo legend tells the story of the male butterfly god Begochidi, who leads the butterfly people and has sexual relations with both the males and females.  Soon Begochidi leaves the country and the butterfly people decide to commit incest instead of have sex with outsiders to produce.  This causes the butterfly people to go insane, which explains, why moths have the tendencies to rush into flames. 

       “A Moth with Black Eyes” could also refer to the Chinese folklore of moths – that the moth or butterfly is actually the souls of loved ones who have died coming to visit those that still live.  The soul of the individual who has died is not ready to move onto the next world, which explains their restlessness and why the moth flies in a hesitant manner, particularly in fire.

       It is the speaker of the poem, a writer, telling of his experience of the moth climbing up his left arm, left hand, thumb, and finally his chest.  The moth becomes a great many of things:  a messenger for the other world, a human in disguise, simply an insect communicating with another species.   However one interprets this poem, one thing cannot be denied: the sense of humanness in everything.

                                 Robert Bly 

A Moth with Black Eyes

         A moth climbs down the sleeve of my sweater onto my left hand, as I write with the other.  He waits there, among all the lamplit hairs.  Then his antennae begin to move, as if a band were starting down the street, and he moves swiftly up my thumb – reaching the end, he turns around and goes back, and up the chest of my brown sweater.
         Lamplight falls on his compressed, intense body, so self-contained, free of the longing for incest.  How far he is out on the plain!  His head is a haystack of brown fur, a hatrack with two mad gleaming eyes in front, and witchlike wands going out to either side, to poke into the other world, and see what the eyes cannot see.
         And my big moving chest, what is it!  I scratch the side of my nose, and a shadow falls across the chest. Outside the night goes on, on all sides into November, children are sitting near each other, on sofas, waiting for supper . . .

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                                Robert Bly at a book singing for LTNM,IWLML on April 15, 2015