Thine is the Transkingdom

SONY DSCJasmine Temple, laboratory technician at New York University Lagone Medical Center, Institute for Systems Genetics, won this year’s agar art contest for her creation “Sunset at the End.” The contest, held every year by the American Society for Microbiology, features images of landscapes, portraits, and conceptual art made by the arrangement of microorganisms grown on agar plates.

Temple’s image was unique not only because it was beautiful, but also because it showed the potential of transkingdom interactions—the exchange of genetic material between taxonomic kingdoms. Temple and her team made the image by engineering the yeast with plasmids that code for pigments normally made by bacteria, fungi, and some sea life forms. As the yeast colonies grew, colors and patterns emerged until a sailboat, Montauk oceanfront, and a red sky at night emerged.

We are never truly ourselves, and this fact has the potential for great healing.

Transkingdom interactions occur frequently in the gut and in the soil. Our identity as many different organisms sharing code and forming what appears to be a composite whole may lead us to new medicines and modes to honor all the ways we belong to and are formed by each other.

How do you make all thirty-seven trillion of your cells seen? my dance instructor Matthew asks.

I open my eyes in the ninety-degree rehearsal room. I look at the other dancers, and they look at me. We are making a dance about where we come from and the land that lives in our bodies and memories.

The innocence of dance is that it is lost the moment after it occurs. Dance is a haunting that you give yourself; performance an accumulation of ghosts. What does the audience see? Why do we need people to see us in order to express what our homes and our bodies mean and want? [Read more…]

On the 50th Anniversary of the Six-Day War

What I didn’t know in June of 1967 was that this month and year for Jews around the world was the moment of great triumph, the moment of saying to Hitler and his legions, you lose, you lose, you lose. Pride moved like a fever throughout Kingston Estates Swim Club, from the Jewish mother with her iced tea to the Jewish mother seated with mahjong tiles spread out before her, from the Jewish father at the plate to the Jewish father in right field, the perfect arc of the deep fly about to deposit the softball right into the pocket of his gloved hand.

I was thirteen. It was my mother at the mahjong table, my father at bat. It was my summer, my swim club, where my game was tetherball and I drank vanilla milkshakes half-listening to the announcements on the loudspeaker while proudly wearing my green, deep-end band around my wrist. I was a suburban kid, a middle-class assimilated Reform Jew—Israel was a smudge at the edge of my map of interests, concerns.

My eye was set on Robin. She was my promised land. She was the country in which I would prove to the world, the kids on the block, that I wasn’t a Jew; I was a man.

As I write this, it’s coming on June of 2017, the fiftieth anniversary of my ignorance—let’s say my ignorance of Jewish history through which I drifted until, in July 1976, I landed in Tel Aviv, and found myself already written into a book, thousands of pages of which had already been completed, a few of which had hints of me but without naming me or situating me in a trap that I would either need to escape, proving how clever I was, or a trap that I would need to transform into a home, my home among my people.

Among my people, I am one who didn’t fight in the Six-Day War, but was called to Jerusalem nine years later, to the romance of Jerusalem, the freedom of a young American Jew who hadn’t suffered a pain any greater than the heartache of several failed love affairs—if that’s the right way to characterize a girlfriend here and a girlfriend there, the explosions of young bodies in public parks and VW Bugs and creepy motel beds.

But that’s a story for another time. [Read more…]

Poetry Friday: “The Spirit of Promise”

image of an individual in a church looking upwards and maybe taking a photo; her back is to the camera.Memories can make good material for poetry. In “The Spirit of Promise,” Daniel Donaghy is remembering his Catholic childhood in the particular church that he’s now re-visiting. At first the poet’s memories are negative: “my grade-school nuns shaking // their heads at me”; the priest “putting down his Chesterfield / to tell me how many decades // of the rosary I’d need to say.” Then he recalls his parents in church: a softer memory, which however ends in their deaths from smoking. The remainder of the poem turns to his interlocutor, who had asked “what church was.” I love the poet’s multifaceted answer. “Church is a building, // or a service, or a group of Christians.” But then it’s even more: “something / you can give, so I’ll give it here”—and this something is “a blessing.” To think of “church” as a “blessing” is very moving to me. And the blessing given carries out the “Spirit of Promise” of the poem’s title: it’s “a blessing to a young woman / at the start of something or, /  like you, the start of everything.”

—Peggy Rosenthal [Read more…]

Poetry Friday: “Sewing Box”

Painting of a Girl sitting in front of a sewing machine facing a window that lets in slats of light on the girl and the burnt orange walls.We don’t think enough—or at least I don’t—about how objects can contain memory. But Murray Bodo’s poem “Sewing Box” shows us how: in this box in which memory is literally contained. Each of the four stanza takes us deeper into the box. At first it’s just “the busy / sewing box I’d organize on visits home.” So it’s a box, we guess, that belonged to the speaker’s mother. In the second stanza, it becomes “a memory chest,” as the speaker recalls his mother’s using it “to mend socks and hearts” after a hard day’s work. At the start of stanza three, the box becomes (alarmingly) “a sepulcher”; evidently the mother has died, and the box remains untouched between the speaker’s visits home, its “spools of thread, / buttons, thimbles, needles, and pins” all “stilled.” Then the final stanza heralds an unexpected discovery: “This year I found a hidden drawer / not noticed before…” The speaker finds in the drawer long-ago objects, including a needle-holder that he “made / for you in fourth grade.” But then the drawer reveals even more unexpected contents: holy cards and other religious aids to prayer. With these, which ends the poem, I see the box sacralized—as at the same time, the entire history of the speaker’s relation to his mother is sacralized as well.

—Peggy Rosenthal [Read more…]

The Eye Behind the Camera: Kirsten Johnson’s Cameraperson

image of a woman with her eye to a camera. to the right of her head are the words "camera person: a film by kirsten johnson" in yellow, white, and black narrow block type. When we first see the close-up of the dead bird on the ground, we wonder why. It’s only a few scenes later that we return to the site of the bird to see two young children, twin brother and sister, asking their mother and grandfather if they can go outside to bury the dead bird.

“I’ll put it underneath this rhododendron tree,” the grandfather tells them, “and that way it will cause the rhododendron tree to grow because it will fertilize it.”

He looks at his daughter—the twins’ mother—who is also the cameraperson, so it’s as if he’s looking at us. “What’s the word? Ashes to ashes, dirt to dirt?”

In creating a non-linear montage of moments drawn from her work as a cinematographer during the last twenty-five years, Kirsten Johnson searches for some contiguous logic that can make sense of the seemingly disparate moments that have, in her words, most marked her.

The viewer will see many different countries via footage from twenty-four documentaries. One moment will be in the Bosnian Mountains, the next on New York City streets. We first become attuned to the montage as pattern because eventually we return to a particular subject we’d seen earlier; the first emerging motif is that Johnson has documented sites of great violence and death, especially in the aftermath when grief afflicts memory.

If pain and death are part of life’s tapestry, can the pattern be beautiful? [Read more…]