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Exchange of Values

Exchange of Values
acrylic on board 48'X96'

"Structure of Color Perception"

"Structure of Color Perception"
48'X96' acrylic on board

Thursday, April 25, 2013


A poem by Daniel Imburgia (dedicated to my new friend 94 year old Leo Wetmanski who once lived in the land of Prussians but now lies in a hospital bed next to me in this improbable city called Bellevue Washington.  This really is not a place to die when Konigsburg is available.  Isn’t it a pity though, what has happened to history).

Chaplains Rounds

How can I respect a priest
Who has never cried with Polish tears

Or the writer who hasn’t wept like
A pilgrim crossing the Russian steppe
Sedge and feathergrass extending farther
than a breaking heart can break for it

Teach me about your god when you have
Hacked at this frozen sod with a broken cross 
To bury your children in
Rosebud or Kaliningrad 

If beauty will not save this world
Then tell me, how do we save ourselves
After we have filled the crematoriums
Obedient to ideals of perfection

Do not offer me communion unless
You have eaten the shew bread of David
And I can feel the wounds in your palms

Better is the fear and silent loneliness than
Soft preachers hands
Shuffling the pages of his bible
Like a deck of cards


Boston Beans

They say that the day before the explosion the bomber acted completely normal.  He kept to all of his routines; gym, work, lunch with friends, drinks after work, TV with the wife in bed.  No one noticed anything out of the ordinary.  I think that it is this seeming normalcy that so often vexes us.  We are more psychologically comfortable with deranged killers dressed all in black with dark skin and foreign accents.  I have the same questions that so many others have: how could someone who appears so normal carry out such acts of brutal violence against so many innocent people?  What could ever justify in one’s mind this kind of impersonal killing from a safe distance?  What kind of religion could sanction or promote such a profound disregard for human life?  Wouldn’t someone who could kill this indiscriminately have to be insane?   But if we name this a pathology, a mental illness, aren’t we letting the individual off the hook, maybe even taking away some of his own humanity by treating his actions as symptoms of a disease over which he has no control?  I think that to hold these killers guilty and accountable may in a sense restore to them some measure of humanity.  This does not rule out forgiveness and grace, indeed it compels us to both for every act of killing defines what it means to be human, but so does every act of forgiveness.

Of course, in our search for answers maybe we will have to look farther and deeper than just the individual who presses a button.  Mass killers are products of families, communities, countries, cultures.  It is understandable that we want see where the killer lives, talk to family and friends, tour the neighborhood, read up on the history of his country, understand his religion.  But, if we are honest with ourselves, part of what we are looking for is something that reassures us that the killer is different than we are.  That even if we were raised in his family, in his neighborhood, in his country, in his religion, we would never have pushed a button that could kill innocent human beings.  Otherwise how can we hold one person accountable for as act where responsibility and guilt seem so widespread?  We are so desperate to believe that there is some intrinsic difference between us and the killers that I think it makes us vulnerable to our own mythologizing, about ourselves, and about the killers, and that makes confronting the truth all the more difficult.

I wonder if these kinds of killers can ever come to some sort of reckoning with the consequences of their actions.  Will they ever be made to see the bloody bodies or expose themselves to the grief and suffering of survivors  I want to believe that there is a indestructible part of them that knows that they have done evil and will evolve in time to confront their guilt.  I want to believe that no matter how depravedly indifferent they appear, that there is nothing in this world that can totally obliterate a persons essential humanity.  I want to believe that anyone can be redeemed.  It terrifies me to think otherwise.


Friday, April 19, 2013


Alien life forms run amok
Colonies of fast-breeding pioneers
But who really owns this territory
Is it just a numbers game
First come first serve
Or survival of the fittest

The indigenous light back-fires
Leaving only scorched earth and burned flesh
Ahead of the encroaching forces
Silent wars rage and the
Victims of these woeful massacres are
Strewn about the battlefields of our cavities
Yet we are so often oblivious

Is it merely thinking that “I AM”
Or the will to resist non-existence
Flourishing in the tiniest little quark
That is the seed of conquest
And this compulsion for survival

Aboriginals can take some satisfaction
That if the invaders vanquish their host
This terrene habitation will be purified by fire
Enemies and friends, bowels and hearts are
Indistinguishable among the ashes
This is reckoning and not Judgement
The fire judges
Love reckons not  

***  I wrote in previous posts about Japanese death poems; the practice of writing a last poem just before one dies.  Since then I’ll admit I’v gotten a bit twitchy.  I always carry paper and pen and I start composing a death poem every time a car honks at me at an intersection or I get a tiny twinge in my chest.  I wrote that poem above just before getting my heart scanned in an MRI machine on thursday even though this procedure is virtually risk free.  Really, in an earthquake or terrorist bombing, tucked away inside that metal tube, I would have probably been the only survivor!

As it turns out the most challenging part of the experience was not being trapped inside the MRI machine but the music I was forced to endure.  Among the choices offered to me I picked the classical music station.  However, the MRI technician named Mandy screwed up and piped into my headphones an hour’s worth of contemporary christian music “by accident.”  “Ooops” she said and smiled when I asked her about it after the scan was done.  I have a hunch that Mandy does this kind of thing intentionally though, and that she thinks of this as some sort of ministry.  A scruffy looking old guy comes in, tattooed with a long braided beard, and maybe a bad heart, and she starts thinking that this might be this guys last chance to hear about Jesus!  In a way it’s sort of sweet and innocent; in another way its kind of creepy and frightening.

I had never heard of him before but I was forced to listen to pop christian ‘super star’ Chris Tomlin’s #1 hit “Whom Shall I Fear” Twice!  The words go like this:

“You hear me when I call
You are my morning song
Though darkness fills the night
It cannot hide the light”

Nothing wrong with those lyrics.  Sort of comforting really for someone having a bunch of medical tests done.  I want to believe that God is hearing my prayers in between the grunching and tweaked out screeching noises that the MRI machine makes.  Its comforting to know that even completely alone inside this dark metal cave that God’s light can find me.  Thank you Jesus.  Next verse:

“Whom shall I fear
You crush the enemy
Underneath my feet
You are my sword and shield
Though troubles linger still”

Hmmm...well yes the language is bibleish and Psalmy.  But I guess I don’t tend to focus as much on the metaphors of God as a Terminator stomping through a blackened wasteland of human skeletons; the skulls of sinners pulverized beneath his sandaled cyborg feet, and his fiery X-ray eyes targeting hearts full of secret sins.  And just who are these “enemies” of God anyway?  Sinners? (I’m one), unbelievers? (yeah that’s me too sometimes), enemies of america? (I’v been called that), heretics? (oy vey, but then what about Jews?).  No, I think King David, like so many kings often have, confused his own enemies with God’s enemies.  Still, it’s good to believe that God has my back.  But when I turn to find God in times of trouble, what I encounter is not a gladiator but another broken body like mine, only this one is hanging on a cross.  The next verse continues:  

“I know who goes before me
I know who stands behind
The God of angel armies
Is always by my side”

Maybe it’s just me, but anymore when I hear about “angel armies” I often associate those armies with republicans, George Bush, and the shock and awesome power of the american military machine.  I picture them all buddied up with that sword-wielding Jesus of the book of revelations to cleanse the earth of relativist deconstructionists, Lady GaGa and her LGBT loving little monsters, Bono, and the activists Pussy Riot.  But maybe I’m just reading too much of my own fear and ideological biases into these lyrics.  Remembering gentle sister Mandy and how she smiled at me as I emerged from the MRI tube,  It’s hard to imagine her as someone who sings about crushing God’s enemies (or imagine her shepherding Jews and gypsies into gas chambers to the music of Hillsong).  I may see Mandy again next week.  If I do I might tell her that I have prayed for Jesus to be in my heart many times, but I don’t expect that’s something that will show up in an MRI scan, thank God.


p.s., I'm thinking of doing a whole series of paintings that explore our innards via CAT scans and MRI's like the one above.

Friday, April 12, 2013


***  “Poetry heals the wounds inflicted by reason.”  Novalis (yeah, maybe, sometimes).

***  It seems that many of us may have forgotten Leonard Peltier. (If you don’t know who LP is you may not want to bother reading any further).  It is understandable that other concerns would crowd Leonard out of our awareness.  War is again looming (North Korea, Iran, South Ossetia), and any of these wars could escalate and result in the total destruction of human life on this planet.  Unemployment has risen now for two months in a row.  I have also noticed that women’s *wardrobe malfunctions* are a daily feature of many of the on-line news sites that I read and peeping a nipple ranks right up there with tracking North Korean mobile missile launchers.  There is no use in feeling guilty about all of this, it is hard to really care about strangers, and I don’t know how much good it does anyway.  My wife and I have corresponded with, supported, donated to, protested for, and written letters to politicians and BOP officials supporting Leonard  Peltier for 25 years.  I confess that I have lost hope that he will ever get out of prison alive.

All this was brought to mind again when I was looking through my poetry library for a friend and I came across Leonard’s 1999 book “Prison Writings: My Life Is My Sun Dance.”  It was then that I remembered for how long I had forgotten Leonard.  And that I have also forgotten many other suffering people and worthy causes that I vowed to remember.  I am wondering if maybe that is what my old age is going to be about, unfaithful forgetting, remembrance, repentance.   Here is the first poem in Peltier’s book:

Doing time creates a
demented darkness of my
own imagination

Doing time does this thing
to you.  But, of course, you
don’t do time

You do without it.  Or
rather, time does you.

Time is a cannibal that
devours the flesh of your

Day by day, bite by bite.

Leonard had been in prison for 22 years when he wrote that.  And he has been in prison 14 years since then.  One can check on any federal prisoners status at this website:

Leonard will be eligible for parole in the year 2040.  He will be 95 years old.

***  The procedures and protocols for visiting day at the Washington State penitentiary in Monroe are daunting and dehumanizing.  First, all of the visitors are crowded into the induction area and watched over by armed guards and patrolled by drug and firearm sniffing police dogs.  The children alternate between being bored and scared.  Small children are usually happy at first when they see the dogs coming, but as the dogs get closer and the guards snap at the kids and tell them not to touch the animals the kids see that the eyes of the dogs are not friendly and they start to cower behind their mothers.  The dogs are prisoners too.  Everyone is scanned and searched and often the women are taken into a room for cavity searches.  Of course smuggling goes on all the time in all kinds of ways.  sometimes it is the guards themselves that are the smugglers, but on visiting day even a baby’s diapers are opened up and checked.  Baby bottles and formula confiscated.  All our pockets are turned inside out.

This is really hard on those inmates trying to maintain some sort of family life.  Most prisoners are poor, and so are their families.  It’s hard for a woman by herself to schlepp 2 young kids on a long series of bus rides from Seattle to Monroe.  Having to explain all about the guns and guards, and why visiting this virtual stranger should be important to them.  Once visitors are allowed to enter the visiting area the family’s table might be right next to some sort of gangster having virtual chair sex with his woman.  Maybe at the table on the other side sits a white-supremacist who keeps making obnoxious remarks about mud people or whatever.  Some visiting rooms are segregated for just this reason, but Monroe’s wasn’t.  It was always the family tables where everyone was really trying to act normal that saddened me most.  Dad was asking about homework and what’s new at school.  Mom is trying to smile and not burden her husband with money or home problems that he can’t possibly fix.  Usually by the time the kids are 10 or 12 or so they hardly know ‘Dad’ anymore and they either stop visiting or else just sit quietly and answer every question with a shrug.  Prisoners long for and dread visiting days.

I worked with the Black Prisoners Caucus and most all the inmates were lifers.  At the time a life sentence meant that the first parole hearing came only after serving a minimum of 13 years.  And parole is rarely granted the first time.  Not many families survive prison.

***  This is an old poem/song I wrote doing time while waiting to get through the visiting room.

The Visitation

What came you out to see
A reed shaken by the wind
A prisoner and penitent
In a penitentiary
The C O’s and the dogs
Can smell that somethings wrong
My baby won’t stop crying
No matter what the song

What came you out to see
A man in fine arraignment
Lifers and short timers
Hold their friends and families
Orifices have been searched and seen
Declared legally clean
My mother won’t stop crying
My fathers long disowned me

What came you out to see
A prophet and what more
Saints and sinners being punished
Shut away with lock and key
There are no secrets here within
Every soul’s turned inside out
My lover won’t stop crying
My heart is filled with doubt

What came you out to see
A man of miracles and faith
Or a prisoner on death row
Who’s been denied his final plea
His children are all strangers
Every man has turned his hand
Against the killer of his brother
Cursed is he and cursed his land

What came you out to see
A man broken and ashamed
Trained for taking orders
Unfit for life with decent company
No touching skin allowed
And every word is written down
Faces changing year to year
As the man you knew is drowned

What came you out to see
Someone with skin black or brown
Who crosses deadly borders
Transgressing walls of poverty
Every soul does time alone
Not just the ones in solitary
But we will try to keep some peace
For just one hour on visiting day

What came you out to see
A man atoning for his sins
A scapegoat or a monster
Untouchable unclean
Broken down to smaller pieces
Brothers hardly recognize
The picture in their mind begins to streak
Wait with him for just an hour
Watch justice roll down like dice
Innocence has a price

***  This would be a good place to go on a righteous rant about the prison industrial complex, but I won’t, at least not here.  That sort of ineffectual prattling is more suited for my facebook wall.  Poor people go to jail, always been that way, and it’s getting worse.  I think that if your interested then watch this video put out by the BOP (bureau of prisons) about career opportunities within the prison system.  Most everything you need to start understanding the relationship between capitalism and incarceration is in this 3 minute video.

Leonard wrote at the end of his his book.  “I don’t know how to save the world. I don’t have the answers or The Answer. I hold no secret knowledge as to how to fix the mistakes of generations past and present. I only know that without compassion and respect for all of Earth’s inhabitants, none of us will survive—nor will we deserve to.”  And then he ended with this poem:

In the shadowed night
I become spirit
The walls, the bars, the gratings dissolve into light
and I unloose my soul
and fly through the inner darkness of my being
I become transparent
a bright shadow
a bird of dreams singing from the tree of life.

Leonard has spent 14 years of shadowed nights since he wrote that.  I pray his soul is loosed.  Obliged.