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No Distinguishing Marks

In 1897 Max Beerbohm wrote a charming little bon mot entitled ‘The Happy Hypocrite.’ The titular character was a shocking, shameless dandy. He enjoyed a graceful, debauched life.

Until he fell in love.

However, she was a strong-minded innocent and repulsed by his approaches, by his face made ugly by a dissipated life. The man she marries, she declared, must have the face of a saint.

Distracted, this dandy found a very specific artist, an architect of masks. He had one made with the face of an angel, and it was molded to his face. He searched out his love once more, unrecognized and beautiful. They married.

But a woman from this rake’s past approached him and demanded that he remove his painted visage. Reluctantly he did and was amazed – along with his former mistress – to find that contentment and true love had wrought a remarkable change on his face. It was now indistinguishable from the mask.

Similarly, the street sign stood engulfed – it too was indistinguishable. It was obliterated by a curling garden that climbed like parasitic filigree, lissome and hungry. The steel marker was devoured, its banner threatened by a graffiti of roses and jasmine. Never had there been such a bower of vandalism, never had there been such delicate destruction.

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But this was not a hostile takeover. Rather, it seemed as if the metallic defenses of the city’s indicator welcomed the latticework of vines and the starry, chaste flowers. It must have been a ticklish business, feeling the tiny green movements and blossoms as fragrant as a boudoir.

The ascending growth dripped chlorophyll onto the cut and perforated metal. Butterflies visited to feast, dappling the structure with frost from their illustrated wings. The sign, blinkered by a bouquet of leaves and petals, had succumbed to a higher power.

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And perhaps, in the fullness of time, the invasive borders will be cut away. But the unknown gardener will be confounded, for he will find that the sign will have vanished, the street doomed to anonymity. All that will be left would be a single green sapling.

Maybe that is the way of all cities, to be replaced by networks of forests. Perhaps it is their destiny, to return to their earthly dominions, to dissolve into the twisting labyrinths of their fertile homes.


The Changling

I might have walked too close

Or passed within the shadow

Of the nursery hidden in the trees

For I quickly felt the parent’s rebuke

A pierce and pluck of hair 

A painful scold above me

Intuitive and mindlessly brave


I faced my aggressor

In whose amber eyes

Glittered precision and suspicion

Diminutive and vicious dominion

With anger lurking in its blood

DNA waiting to surface

Into the new and pastel colored season


Then after a perched debate

And avian consideration

It vanished with invisible decision

And like handwriting that had come to life

But with no pen for guidance

My hair arched and curled in its grip

Destined for a bed built out of shadow and green


And throughout the day my head throbbed

Victim to such tiny fury

That rang through the air pealing surprise

But at night though my windows were closed

I heard soft flutters

The gentle murmurings of flight

And the soft crush of feathers across my cheek


Spring’s Ahead

In Palos Verdes, the cliffs overlook the assortment of beaches and coves like a weaving terrace of basalt and shale, layered with skeletons – the
strata of prehistory.

Climbing out of those towering deserts are bushes and trees.  Dry, salt-ridden and barbed, they harbor living creatures above the ocean, for all their inhospitality.

Not long ago I was watching the sea, standing by the cliffs, when I heard a bird singing close by.  It was balanced on a gorse bush; singing with such passion, with such blithe intensity that it didn’t notice how close I really was.  I was near enough to see the muscles of its throat fluttering, to see the small, sharp beak open to release the notes into the air.  I was able to visualize the music, tiny filigrees and arabesques twisting in an invisible fabric:  lilting and lowering, as the bird saw fit, to suit the musicale its joyous blood would dictate.

In the city, where I live, I have been hearing music too.  Pale and plaintive, it rises with the morning, a lavender echo of breaking clouds and a sunrise swathed in watercolor.  A mourning dove – always alone – rests on a telephone wire, its sadness filling the air.  All I see is the dark silhouette, but I know well the prism of its feathers:  mauve, grey and lilac:  the accepted dress colors for Victorian ladies in half-mourning.  Though there is only one, its mate is undoubtedly nearby.  Whether they are collecting materials for their nest, or scouting for new real estate, their impatient DNA urges them on.

Spring is coming.



Pretty little flowers, their heads tilted in the breeze, sing with spring’s lullaby blossoming in their hearts like a pastel-colored garden.  Their tiny voices, as light and fluid as a bird’s, fly into the balconies of the Theater du Chatelet and disappear – perching alongside other songs that have melted into the distant, singing air.


Innocent lips, curved and painted, welcome but will not seduce.  They are not full of the threat of a more heated season.  Instead, they are a coy promise of the brilliance that trembles and a joy that hides.  It is only at the very edge of their smiles, coiling sweetly upwards, that vulnerability and danger wait.

Thick coils of hair, twisted and singed with curling tongs, flow across their shoulders, languid and soft.   Teased and pulled to Gibson Girl heights, the tresses then gently collapse beneath the weight of ornament and millinery into a froth of curls that tickle eyebrows and shroud eyes.

Dainty ankles are poised above footlights.  Arms show dimpled and white beneath sleeves that ebb and flow with each movement, like veils of pastel oceans.  Hands arch and change – eyes glitter, reflecting candles hoisted into the air, the diamonds scattered throughout the audience, the images in the glass paneling.

But their storytelling was unskilled; and they used their bodies – with all of the flesh’s eloquent potential – with a blunt girlishness.  They fulfilled the Edwardian feminine ideal of decoration and foolishness, and danced with tiny, curling steps, before pausing, yielding flowers, ready to subside into their lovers’ bouquets.



The bushes were chattering:  their branches twisting with hidden life.  Their jumping leaves were bright with gossip and the blossoms were shattered by the strident conversaziones.  The petals rested like detached words on the sidewalk.

The impenetrable languages spiraled and sparred, coiling around the branches like a violent filigree of noise.  The bowers of a fledgling Spring shook with an angry din.

But suddenly the tumult was silenced, and the confusion unwound into a shock of quiet.  There quickly followed a soft explosion of feathers – an outpouring of flight in a paroxysm of calm.

They fell onto the grass like a brown, flying carpet.  They put aside their disagreements and fluttering discords.  And they ate in peace.


The Perennial

It was given to me for Christmas – an ugly, brown orb that fit in my hand.  Peeling wisps of skin, it showed little promise:  a bulb that hid its green seed inside a living sediment.

Initially it was balanced over a skein of water in a glass jar.  For weeks it was kept stifled in my closet – waiting for the wandering roots to appear in the dark, birthing room.  Like plaits they curled into the water, nourishing a filigree of thirst.

After a month in the coaxing dark, it was brought out into the sun. Bathed in the warm slipstream of early spring it released green shoots that reached into the soft, pillow-like air.  These first leaves were a succulent green, a healthy bloom of color full of youth and potential.

The leaves grew higher and higher, until they seemed to lose interest: they faded and collapsed.  Perhaps this was a signal of distress…an indication that the earth was calling, that the dark and rustling soil was ready.

And so the ugly bulb was placed in Nature’s pure and patient hands. She would listen to its heart, to the flower curled inside it like a foetus.   It was placed into the dirt, where it slept for two years.

It was when winter was still strong, but at the same time when spring’s gentle notes began to filter through the air.   A distant song that had just begun to confront the chill, it beckoned to the dormant life, alerting it to a seasonal transition.

And it reached back into the memory of the sleeping DNA – the leaves grew again, but with additional offerings:  blossoms, as thick and white as milk, as cold and smooth as silk.   Amaryllis’ slumbering shepherdess awoke inside of three pale, flowering bowers  which opened in a yearning leap towards the faint warmth circling above them.


Hopefully they will continue to covet spring’s mildness, and hopefully they will survive summer’s harshness.  When autumn arrives, its soft grove will begin to recede, before returning to hibernate inside of winter’s bleak sod.   Patient and perennial, it will wait in the dark, a botanical shadow, until the seasons knit into its lifeline, and pull it above the surface and into the living atmosphere once again.

Petals and Petticoats

The flowering vine curled up the tree trunk like a twisting petticoat:  a lacy hem of petals pulled up shamelessly, crawling up the exposed branches.

Avril In May

Skirts the color of apricots curved like stairways, their borders pausing in mid-kick – graceful and shameless.  Jane Avril’s dance immortalized by tree and flower, her galop prancing in a garden for the duration of a masculine season appreciative of a shapely limb.

Skirts and a Flirt

Crinkling bougainvillea embroidered into filigrees as delicate as any that might have rested on a woman’s knee.  They rustled and swayed like crinolines in a music hall that was light with springtime’s new-made bounty.  The dusky perfumes of the demimonde were a different time, a different season, a distant woman. 

 Skirts circled the bough, a halo of amber blooms lifted as brazenly as any actress frozen in a postcard, tinted by hands long buried in the ground.  But this lady has her living roots in that same earth…and she will live forever.

Skirt of Blossoms


They were waiting.  Their shapes were wilting; the fine edges becoming dim and unfocused, like aged eyes.  Their chlorophyll was running thin through a green cartography that was drying into faded rivers.  The palm print of Summer pressed with an alchemist's anticipation – but the leaves, the waiting leaves, fought the heated transformation.

The triumph of Spring was over.  Their birth had finished, when they had emerged in verdant curls from stems thick with the muscular promise of a growing season.  Their green scent had been dainty and cool; Persephone's fragrance heralding her return from black obscurity.

But now the sun had run rampant across the sky; his heat turning the blue eternity into a blank wilderness.  The leaves curdled during the fierce day; their fatigue betraying their internal botany.

So they were waiting.

They were waiting for the season of harvests; for the smell of horses waiting in the yellow fields, shivering under a rising equinox:  they were waiting for the sunsets to burst in their veins, so they could fall once more into the darkness.


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I Listen For My Voice

I have become reconciled to Spring.  Even though it puts the soft chills of Autumn and Winter to flight, I do not resent that pastel-colored season.  If Summer is a lazy voluptuous woman, immobile in her thick and fragrant bower, then Spring is blithe and slim: as changeable as sunlight under water, breaking into watery prisms, impossible to count.

Spring is busy.  Nature's offspring are born during that verdant time, when the earth becomes lush again and the air is blue and spinning.

During these months, birds become loud, reckless and bold.  Where I live, real estate is at a minimum, and the days are strident with their arguments.  Gables, street signs, garages, rooftops – all are populated with perfect creatures that maneuver through the air with a mathematical ascendancy.

Their songs pierce the sunlight until the golden fabric becomes a pattern of their febrile joy. 

When I walk to work, I always pass by a row of decorative shrubs: prickly, tropical and dense.  Once, I heard in their sultry depths the plaintive pwee-pwee of a newborn bird – too childish to realize the danger of its voice.  I stopped, hoping I could discern where the nest was.  It was then that I saw a peculiar machine perched on top of the shrubbery.  It was a mockingbird, rising its wings up and down like an automaton, a heraldic toy.

It was trying to make itself as intimidating as possible.  But despite this whimsical masquerade, I moved closer.  It was the sight of its needle-like beak, ready to embroider the skin of any intruder, that finally gave me pause.  I spoke a few calming words, all the while waiting for the gasp of wings: the impatient breath in my ear should I not be retreating quickly enough.

I have often thought about the words I spoke to that angry parent.  Mockingbirds are famous mimics, and I imagined this bird measuring my voice, analyzing its tonal equations.  And I hope to hear it again one day, coming back from its green, concealed places or floating down to me from the sky.

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A Galaxy Unraveling

Walking to work, I saw a very peculiar thing on the sidewalk.  Its color was soft and meek:  a whimsical fluff, a piece of delicate detritus which had somehow lost its way and now lay defenseless on the granite causeway.

What was it?

I couldn't pass it by – it was too bizarre, too exquisite, to ignore.  It looked at first like a mass of grounded feathers, a detached wing, having somehow come to grief in a garish and unidentified battle.  I peered closer closer, and the feathers because an explosion of silky fibers, and the wing opened into a seed pod, split and exposing a galaxy of birth, unraveling at my feet.

Its job was almost complete – only one seed remained. 

Inside the barren husk, flights of fancy cast about the milky depths.  I saw threads light enough to have burst from a captive princess' spinning wheel, sheer enough to embroider a satin bodice.  They had loosed their future generations on the wind, bound for nurseries unknown.

I saw sparks of light in the constellation of strands – electric, white-hot filaments creating a grid of vibrant synapses.  The finely spun froth seemed destined to melt, like fishes' breath rising from the waves.  And yet, for all the life the life I saw inside this discarded shell, this was a dead thing.

I picked it up carefully, cradling it against the intrusive breezes, emboldened by the onrush of Spring.  I carried it to work and once there brought it to my desk, where I could further admire it.  But perhaps my admiration was shelfish; perhaps I should have left it outside, where it would have dissolved into Nature's graveyard, a part of the greening of her most precious jewel.

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