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Don Rothman Tribute

This tribute to Don Rothman features two of his essays that can be found on his web site, a poem by Diana Rothman, and a poem dedicated to Don by Patrice Vecchione. These four pieces will be read by Don's friend and neighbor, Julie Minnis, at phren-Z's Live Reading at Bookshop Santa Cruz on Tuesday, February 19 at 7:00 pm.

In addition to words written by and about Don, the tribute includes a look at the world through Don's eyes with a showcase of his photography. Every page in this issue of phren-Z contains a thumbnail of one of Don's photos, with a link to a larger image. In addition, a larger slide show of Don's photos is available HERE.

Patrice Vecchione - Poet

JulieJulie Minnis - Reader

Diana Rothman - Poet

By Diana Rothman

When we picked persimmons
off the tree, handling each
orange globe as if it were a sun,
the leaves around your head
made a golden halo,
the sky was bluer than blue,
and we knew that soon wind
would scatter leaves,
the bard tree’d stand naked
‘gainst a grey sky, and this golden
ripening time would leave us soon.

Later, when you asked
what made me happy and I
said “picking persimmons,”
you seemed surprised
and I’d no words to say
how whole and sweet
these moments are
before the ripe fruit falls.

Early Fall Along the Shores of Los Osos
By Patrice Vecchione

in memory of Don Rothman, whose friendship and guidance
influenced my life beyond measure

At first light, breeze makes the fennel bush shake—
dry sticks except for its still-yellow flowers.
Strolling away, the scent of licorice follows.

There isn’t just one name
for anything—not for the hidden bird
whose call repeats,

not for the pair of long-beaked sandpipers
scurrying across the sand, nor the ducks
swimming in calm obedience to water.

Sunshine doubles every boat upon the bay.
And upstairs, the sleeping one reaches
his hand across the width of our bed.

Though my inclination toward these tiny
black shapes, their flush, filled-out sounds
doesn’t equal his reach,

still I take early morning outside, alone,
for the fading foghorn, sun at my neck, t
he lash of far-off waves.

If I don’t tell about the boats,
the dreaming man, fennel in the air, that within
which quivers, where does my life go?


Patrice Vecchione’s new book of poems, The Knot Untied, comes out from
Palanquin Press/Community Publishing in March. This book is being published
through the support of readers and lovers of poetry.

One Way of Seeing: My Inner Life on a Bookshelf


A short time ago Bookshop Santa Cruz put five copies of my self-published book, One Way of Seeing: Photographs and Essays During a Time of Reflection 2010, on their shelves in the Photography and Local Authors sections. The book seems too expensive to me, but my inexperience with publishers and my aesthetic requirements led me to high quality printing. I have no idea who’d buy a little book with 17 short essays and over 100 of my photographs.

Everyday I wander through the store, counting how many of my books are still on the shelves. One day I noticed that one had been sold, probably to a friend, I thought. My wife checked too, as I learned at dinner.

A few days ago I walked into the store and headed for the Photography section, but a woman was standing in front of that narrow vertical display, so I placed myself where I could observe her without being seen. As I glided behind a table spread with glossy cookbooks, I imagined myself behind a camera, secretly observing someone who could, for all I knew, be about to take my book into her hands. I even noticed how the light was falling on her face as she looked up.

Without my camera, I was, indeed, taking a photograph. Admittedly, seeing with and without a camera is a recurring theme in my book, along with my attraction to blurred photos and how to forgive photographers for their transgressions.

She reached up to the top shelf where three of my books were propped against a plexi-glass stand. She selected the top copy and thumbed through it. My heart stopped as I realized what was happening. At this very moment, I thought, I was witnessing what I’d imagined in the sleepless nights since placing those books in the store: Someone, a stranger, not family or a friend whose encounter with my book was more like a hug than a book choice, was enacting what every writer, at one time or another, fantasizes.

I was flooded with a sense of gratitude that the universe with its often perverse trajectories had placed me in proximity to someone who was browsing for inspiration among photography books.

I thought: Perhaps she always heads for the Photography section first? Perhaps she’s looking for a gift for her partner who recently mentioned an interest in photography? Perhaps she has recently thought about driving up to San Francisco to see the photography exhibit at SF MoMA, where she has spent many wonderful hours? I could hear her saying excitedly, “It takes years for a new museum to develop a first-rate collection, but the MoMA already has terrific photos!” In a few seconds, she’d started to become me.

It took her less than fifteen seconds to riffle through my book and to return the thin volume to its stand. Finding nothing to dwell on, her encounter couldn’t have been memorable, except, of course, for me.

The pleasure of this brief theatrical moment was delicious. Sure, Proust came to mind—his slow motion rapture over a madeleine especially, which awakened for him “the immense edifice of memory.” Festina lente, I thought, make haste slowly!

But can a fifteen second encounter be so meaningful, even intimate, and justify reverie? Once again, another major theme of my book, where I explore what intimacy in a photograph, taken in a fraction of a second, means.

Had you seen us standing in the bookstore, you’d have suspected that I was up to something. You’d have seen a man of 65 with his eye on a middle aged woman, perhaps an ex-wife? You’d have noticed that her exploration through one photography book had proven disappointing.

But the ease with which she fanned the book’s pages, closed it, and returned it carefully to its display space spoke to her familiarity with gestures appropriate mostly to bookstores, where one assumes a certain wonderful privacy in which intimacy is possible for a brief moment. Sometimes this privacy in bookstores enables one to fall in love; sometimes to feel one’s gorge rise in dissatisfaction; sometimes to experience the heat on the back of one’s neck in response to an invitation that one may or may not be ready to accept. What will I do with this book in my hands? we ask. Carry it home? Invite it into my life as it invites me into its life?

This privacy allowed her to discard my book with particular grace. I watched a quintessential ballet, a delicate choreography, knowing that I craved the opportunity, not to make her into me, but to transform myself into her. I wanted to experience the texture and weight of this book, the vividness of its photos without being distracted by my affection for it. I wanted to know my book without possessing it and without being possessed by it. To know this book in the way that she did for fifteen seconds.

And I want to savor my witnessing, because it is as close as I can get to seeing myself as I am seen and to seeing my life through a lens that seems always to evade me. Like the reflection I notice as I walk past parked cars, there I am, peripheral, in motion, distorted, yet fully present in myself.

Watching this woman and my book also reminds me of Vermeer’s paintings of women standing in their rooms as they read a letter, weigh gold or sew. As Lawrence Weschler (in Vermeer in Bosnia) points out, some of them have an inner life, which is why we return again and again to those paintings.
My inner life can be found in the book, which is but a physical object in this woman’s hands. As I walk away, I realize that this inner life is neither a subject nor a predicate. But it is, nonetheless, available to be glimpsed in the book’s pages.

I open my memory of watching her as I open a book. The word confluence comes to mind. The flowing of witness and witnessed takes on the quality of a work of art, the quality of a flowing stream. The quality of connection, which gives both writing and photography meaning to me.


Who Controls Our Language? A Story


As he walked down the street, the street which locals called downtown, with the coffee shops, bookstores, a few antique shops and a few dozen homeless people spread over six or seven blocks, he realized, as he had before, that his life was changing. Not that it stopped resembling his previous life, just that what had been his preoccupation, competing with his real responsibilities, was now his way of life. He felt as if the margins had suddenly, or maybe gradually, become the body—the main text. That his eavesdropping, for instance, on conversations at the coffee shop or in between classes at the college where he used to teach, had now become a major component of his daily life.

It wasn’t just the caffeine that came with his walk downtown to Lulu’s—it was the connection with stories—the ones that people told to their cell phones or into computers that must have been phones, too, although you could rarely hear another voice.

There were always couples, and he’d noticed that one did most of the talking. Like the one I’m listening to now. The man just keeps talking, while his very cute lady friend sits impassive—a witness to his effulgence. One woman walks by the table with a chocolate chip cookie in front of her mouth and nose. I think she’s smelling the sweet butter chocolate aroma until I realize that she’s talking into a phone, just as the cell phone of the man behind me rings. People are underlining in course readers, college students studying, no doubt. Another cell phone goes off.

He doesn’t even own a cell phone, he thinks, realizing that so long as he has no need for a cell phone he will resist the pressure to buy one. It’s not like he’s a Luddite. His daughter bought him an iPOD, which he uses; he’s on email all the time, and he just figured out how to send digital photographs to a lab in the Midwest. But he’s unduly pleased when this technology works—even proud, especially when he can tell his wife of his success.
But today he realizes that the “quiet desperation” that Thoreau described as the condition of common men was always somewhere in easy reach, despite his usually cheerful disposition. He knew more about quiet desperation than he imagined his friends and acquaintances thought he knew. Sometimes, however, he suspected that they knew more than he wanted them to know. He was the sort of person whom others felt obliged to protect from the normal harshness of the world in 2008.

He was given a long leash to indulge his imagination, a sort of embroidery on the edges of mundane reality, dependent on an immersion into others’ conversation rather than the arrival of an ethereal muse.
He recalled what a girl in college had said to him as he stood outside the Brown Jug, a student hangout in 1960s Ann Arbor. They’d just parked their car, and he made some kind of typical comment: “Imagine if we recited poems to feed the meter.” That would have been typical, he thought, as he remembered being 18 years old in that college town, infatuated with his own and others’ imaginations.

Later that night he’d realized that poetry and meter have a certain intimacy that he’d not thought of before. He wondered if Betty Bush, the girl who’d responded to his comment, had realized that poetry and meter belonged together and that his suggestion drew out that connection without effort. He wondered if her response revealed how she’d missed the connection, as he had also missed it until just before he fell asleep that night. You see, while they fumbled for nickels to put in the parking meter, she said, “You know, you always have such amazing ideas, but…” she added ruefully, “you never do them.”

He’d been stung by what Betty Bush had said, at once wanting to defend himself and to acknowledge its profound accuracy. He knew that her description was exactly, if only partially, correct. He also knew that his comment about reciting poetry to feed the meter was only in the most limited way his at all.

Did he think that, like the epic poets he’d studied, he was a mere vessel for others’ lofty words? He’d never say that, but he often listened to what he’d say with bemusement. There we go again, he thought, as the word bemusement first arrives and then, after he’d written it down, reveals itself—its resonance with muses.

Isn’t that the way language really is? We deceive ourselves into thinking that we control it, but that’s a delusion sponsored by writing teachers and moralists. Think of all the teachers whose encouragement to write requires that they tell students to take charge of their prose, to own their own ideas, to avoid seeing themselves as merely stenographers transcribing others’ words, but instead, as a source, a fount of originality and unique insight.
This had become the modern paradigm for teaching writing, and even those who didn’t teach writing but expected students to submit papers that were often read perfunctorily and treated as serious burdens, distractions from real scholarly work, also expected originality and ownership. They pretended to be shocked and disappointed by rampant plagiarism, describing it amongst themselves as a violation of everything they held sacred in the academy. After all, colleges were places where individuality in thought and behavior was valued.

But he knew all too well that language held the reins, at least when he scratched beneath the surface or found himself being scratched by an animal only partly domesticated and almost never compliant. He began to collect examples of things he’d said that revealed their deeper meaning only after they’d been spoken, sometimes days, even years, after. At some point he realized that vast areas of his memory had been settled (he visualized this as an encampment, with tents on a vast desert, each tent a sentence or paragraph, flaps sometimes tightly closed against the searing heat, sometimes open to the dry, inquiring breeze) by these linguistic ranks.

Every time he took out his list of sentences, his delayed-release essences, he’d worry that he’d singled out for his own amazement what was commonplace to everyone else. Of course our words come back to us from time to time as if they were not ours.

Isn’t that why little children say a word out loud so many times that it stops being a word but becomes sound then noise? This is how children grapple with their understanding that what has been given to them by their parents, “mama, papa,” gives great pleasure when mama and papa hear their miracle utter her first words. But in the private reverie of nap time in a crib, children turn such words into music, and they feel pleasure listening to themselves.
Why we lose this reverie with words as adults has a lot to do with the illusion that we control our language. If we do control it, it is like our control of wild horses. Turn around and they’re out again.

Don Rothman

Don Rothman

Winter 2013

Peggy Townsend
Jill Wolfson

Arthur Streshly

Barbara Bloom
Lisa Ortiz
David Sullivan

Tribute to Don Rothman
read by Julie Minnis

FloodLight Feature
Stephen Kessler

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