Synchronized Chaos June 2020: Hermetic Thoughts

Hermetic thoughts. These words, taken from Henry Bladon’s imagistic poem, reflect the state of many of us, sealed up in quarantine.

Whether we have gained longer hours to spend in reflection, or just changed up our schedules and daily rhythms, we’re likely living and thinking in different ways.

Each contributor’s creative works in this issue are highly distinctive and personal.

Some writers meander into nostalgia. Ian Copestick remembers vibrant young love while reflecting on mental and physical aging. J.D. DeHart depicts the loosely shifting sense of space and time on a road trip.

Others look within themselves and to their pasts for a sense of self-understanding. Norman J. Olson recollects his favorite styles of painting and the development of his personal aesthetic, while Robert Ragan’s protagonist wonders whether he could have done more to prevent an old friend’s suicide.

Some of the ruminations turn sorrowful. J.J. Campbell contributes subdued pieces on aging, weakness, melancholy and death, Abigail George writes of heartbreak, abandonment, and the vertigo of hospitalization.

Sometimes the same pieces, or collections of work, vacillate between hope and despair. Chimezie Ihekuna’s personal essay describes how he developed the inner self-worth to withstand social exclusion due to a facial disfigurement, and how practicing the craft of writing gave him strength and a different focus and source of identity.

Mahbub’s poems speak of a fanciful romance out in nature, yet also criminal and ethnic violence and dangerous weather within his homeland of Bangladesh. Ahmad Al-Khatat brings us the death and grief of the refugee experience, yet the potential for rest and healing for humans and the rest of the natural world while sheltering in place.

Steven Croft conveys the tension of war and other disasters by illustrating the small visual details that can loom large when strong emotions distort our perception of time and space. A glimpse of a woman’s hair under her headscarf, the sight of church windows overlooking an empty baseball diamond, and a rescuer replacing his shoes after saving a swimmer in distress draw and keep us within Croft’s scenes.

Another piece harnesses details and objects to illustrate larger themes: Daniel DeCulla turns a single high-heeled shoe into a meditation on the power and grace within traditional femininity.

Tidbits of ordinary life take on artistic meaning within the films of independent director and university professor Dina Abd Elsalam, profiled by Jaylan Salah. Elsalam’s movies often portray regular people, sometimes elderly people, enjoying and making the most of their lives, and celebrate friendship and neighborliness.

Joan Beebe reaches out to all of our readers in a spirit of caring, with a gentle poem about roses, an expression of sympathy for our neighborhoods with empty streets, and a prayer to the Virgin Mary for an end to the pandemic.

Ike Boat offers up a radiant celebration of life, reciting a spoken word piece that’s an ode to the beach where he stands on a brilliant summer day in his native Ghana. A man of faith, Boat gives thanks to God for his existence.

Other contributors are also spiritual, or at least philosophical. Ken Rutkowski ruminates through drawings on his time abroad in Vietnam, where the people he met lived with equanimity and optimism. Hongri Yuan lets his imagination penetrate the heavens with a lengthy bilingual English/Mandarin vision of a golden city and supernatural statues, flowers and trees.

Christopher Bernard comments through poetry that the pandemic-emptied streets have reduced our urban crowds to a more human and manageable size, where we can actually see each other – and the return of nature and wildness.

Other pieces from J.D. DeHart describe how isolation affects our creative minds. Uniquely, he reviews a book through poetry, shifting among artistic forms just as our lives are shifting with the pandemic.

Mark Young’s artwork also shifts our expectations, combining the abstract and the concrete, lines and curves, defined and implied shapes and spaces. He incorporates text that’s meant to be aesthetic rather than literal and readable into his fanciful and at times humorous images.

We hope that readers resonate with the aesthetics of this issue, whether in the abstract visual art or poetry or in the concrete images or emotions or the narrative storytelling.

Everyone has different ‘hermetic thoughts,’ we all experience this season of isolation in our own ways and follow our own trains of thought. This issue points towards making space for all our varied mental states and different pathways towards co-creating a healthier future.

Poetry from Christopher Bernard

Two Poems

by Christopher Bernard

 Urbi et orbi
Myself, I prefer a city with no one in it,
or, if not exactly no one, only a few.
It’s like being in an enormous sculpture garden,
immense minimalist slabs
of glass and concrete throwing shadows
dark as poetry across streets grown modest
with stillness and opening trustingly as a child’s hand.
The few people there look less grotesque
when teased out of the crowd –
the way a solitary farmer turning his field,
a pair of friends or lovers, a daydreaming
hiker, seen in a summer countryscape
between bays of woods and folds
of pastureland and field, under
an ingenuously immense sky
make the dignity of humankind,
its vulnerable nobility,
palpable, and not the poorly spun joke
it seems so often
in a city hysterical, delirious, and crammed.
No: our monuments, our things,
the traces of care in the woodwork,
the shadow of a mind molded from a sun –
tools and toys and trinkets, engines and edifices,
the shape of a hand on a prehistoric cave wall,
a flute played shyly on a Sunday morning –
make me less ashamed of being human.
I wander the empty city like a hunter
in a wilderness, except that I have found
the object of my hunt, and hold it close
inside my coat, where I can feel its heart
beating, and its warmth, and its wings.

The Coyotes of North Beach
Sunset, spring: a strange wailing
rises from the gorge under our house
cautiously balanced on a cliff edge
as on a knife
above a valley where coyotes are gathering.
Strange indeed for a city
(our neighborhood, part declivity, part escarpment,
is strange enough for any city).
But maybe not strange for a city
largely emptied from a malady
emptying much of the world –
and giving meaning to the "pan" 
in panache, panama, pancake, panjandrum,
Panglossion, Pandragon, pandemic –
and so giving way to wilderness
seeping back into the streets,
crows appraising the roof tops,
mountain sheep strolling about in Wales,
curious spiders measuring bus shelters
with their delicate silks,
coyotes gathering at cross streets
and dancing in the glimmering streetlights
as they flicker on in the dusk
and making their coyote-like noisings,
as sweet as they are uncanny,
in the city's deepening twilight.
Why are they wailing so?
Is it from fear, or loneliness, or need for love?
How did the coyotes know
that they are speaking for us?


Christopher Bernard is co-editor and poetry editor of the webzine Caveat Lector. His new novel, Meditations on Love and Catastrophe at The Liars’ Café, appeared in January 2020.

Poetry from Mahbub

Author Mahbub
Mahbub. Bangladeshi man in a light blue collared shirt and glasses with a pen in his pocket

Rohingya Repatriation

It was left no stone unturned

Doctors, nurses, relatives all engaged

How to restore to life

Having them all behind the spirit flies away silently

This carefulness we serve for the humanity

Humanity cries for humanity

But what can we see on the other part of it?

Thousands and millions of people left to experience death and suffering

Rohingyas living in Rakhine with a severe torture on their body flew away

Took shelter in Chattogram of Bangladesh

A pathetic Asian history

Passing their days in the sun suffering from starvation and rain

Under the open sky in unsafe and shaky habitations

Every day the earth blooms pale and grim

Like the old brown leaves in the tree, we see

Every day they would like to go back to their home

But ignored as the citizens or any ethnic group

People flee from the forests in fear of the tigers and the lions

Along the edge of a sea to not to get lost on the vast waters

What a sigh to be deprived of the right!

Not to be able to say

It’s my own land, my own country

The rulers serve people, delivering much of love

Ironically say again and again the same

Deceive them; kill them, a scene of massacre

From this clutch who can save themselves anyway

Try to take the breath fleeing to the other place

Sorry to say its second time failure the attempt-repatriation

Of the Rakhine people living in Bangladesh.

Chapainawabganj, Bangladesh

Lots of Rain but No Clouds

The sky turns into black from the blue

All seem to be dark and glue

What a restless time!

Though so many fans are running

In this unbearable hot

What feels the mind and body?

The scent of rain through the nostrils

Change the thought to envisage

We see the sky but from black to white

In the meantime the sun shines

We hoped a lot but there is no drop of rain

The world always gains some moments

Our hearts rejoice, beside the heavy rain drops

There floods the rivers causing deaths and sufferings

Where I stand here I see the sky with much of hope

But this overhead is always covered with drought and fog.

Chapainawabganj, Bangladesh

O My Love

When you love me in true sense

The waves of the river flow in tune

I see and see the full moon in the sky

A sign of love in the rainbow

What a rising after the rain, a new glow

Grasp me all my body and soul

A dream in reality

A promise to reach my destiny

O my love; please hold me in tongue

A wriggle never to be lost

O my heart, my love.

 Chapainawabganj, Bangladesh

Backlash Fear

He turns his face like a ghost

The victim standing before him forgets all

She mumbles and recollects the lashing and dashing to her

A rosy beauty

The cop with his gang stings

The rose full of fragrance and attraction

Torn into —– on the soil

Soft and blooming

The burning eyes encircling her

The mischievous roles a iron rod

The helpless victim reclines silent

The broken heart fumbles on the board

Mr. Judgment is hung on the wall.

Chapainawabganj, Bangladesh

The Love Shrine

There is no shrine except you

I lie and fondle in the jungle

This mound is only for you and me

Shakes my hands and heart

In this shrine there will be no goddess or god

At the ultimate point of joy

You are my soul mate, my all

Our blood is running too fast

Leaning over I see you on my hands

A full bloomed rose, a full moon starry sky

We wander and enjoy

In this heavenly lagoon

What is more than this idyllic beauty?

Where you and I

In this coral island the blue water sparks into your eyes

The water color eyes, fix into

I find no other heaven in this world

Wherever I see, I see this coral island

You are my atolls

Only you and I this entity century after century

Round over body and soul

After the burial of hundreds or thousands of years

The archeologists may find out

Engraving on the gate ‘The Love Shrine’.

Chapainawabganj, Bangladesh

Creative nonfiction from Norman J. Olson

art, art history and painting the nude – talking about art

By:  Norman J. Olson

Norman J. Olson

people often ask me the names of artists that I like or, when they look at my art, people tell me the names of contemporary artists who they think I will like…  when I later look up those artists, I seldom find them interesting…  in fact, as I have said many times, except for a few of the new surrealist/realist painters such as Dino Valles and the late HR Giger, contemporary artists are of little interest to me…

what do I like??  well, the answer to that is my topic here…  first off, I am a student of art history…  I love European art almost from the beginning until the big aesthetic shift in the early 20th Century…  I also love and have been much influenced by the matriarchal artistic tradition of the Ndebele women of South Africa…

I learned to use black and pattern in my work from the women of the Ndebele and I hope to someday make a pilgrimage to their village near Pretoria, to see some of their amazing art in the original…  from the prehistoric figures of Europe, I learned about abstracting the figure and moving beyond the classical in appreciation of human bodies…  from the great masters of European art, I learned to love the illusion of three dimensional space made with paint, ink, etc.  on a surface of painted canvas or paper…  from the academic and pre-Raphaelite painters, I learned to work carefully and to love drawings of people, especially naked people…  from James Ensor, I learned to trust my intuition and from Picasso, I learned that it was okay to fragment the figure in my drawings and paintings…  I have learned from many many others as well…

many of my paintings include depictions of the nude…  I am not really sure why I like to make images of naked people…  perhaps that is something that a psychoanalyst could uncover…  but ultimately, I guess that the reason of it is not important…  be that as it may, pictures of naked people with landscape elements, which is what many of my art works are, are common enough in the history of European art that, well, that is my tradition and where my roots and my love, art-wise, lies…

through most of European art history, these depictions of the nude seem to me to have been made for no other reason than that the artists, like me, enjoyed looking at and making images of naked people…  I believe that an artist like Michelangelo made his art because he loved depicting, studying, looking at, drawing and sculpting images of naked men…  the church was the big patron in those days (early 16th century) and Michelangelo needed to be a professional and earn money from his obsession and since the time was right with the rebirth of humanism in the 16th century, Michelangelo found a way to make the naked men fit into bible stories and so earned enough money to support himself and his parasitic family while still doing what he obsessively needed to do which was make pictures of naked men…  and the same is true of most of these artists…  I think that religion or portraiture or public commissions from fat cats are mostly, through the history of European art, an excuse for the artist to do something different, personal and only tangentially related to the purported purpose of the art…  even though the artist may have been unaware altogether of that fact…

I am not suggesting that this art is insincere, or fake but rather that it is more interesting to look at as a piece of art that exists without limiting the response to the art to that of a historian…  for example, I especially love Victorian and particularly Pre-Raphaelite art…  I think that I understand the motivations of those artists, in the sense that making drawings and paintings of figures with landscape elements also moves me…  and the nude figure was very important in the work of many of them, which I can certainly relate to…  on a technical level, I love the way these artists from the 1800s drew the figure as well as the landscape elements… a few years ago, I traveled to Brooklyn New York to see a show of Victorian Nudes at the Brooklyn Museum of  Art…  while many of these paintings are flawed and look kind of stupid to the modern eye, the use of oil paint or drawing media to represent is just so amazingly facile…  and these artists all had long experience drawing nude figures from models and were very very good at it…  I loved looking at those paintings…  when I tell people that my work devolved directly from that Victorian, Pre-Raphaelite tradition,  they say “oh, it looks more like Picasso to me…”   well, there is some Picasso in my work as Picasso was jammed down my throat all through art school and a bit of that stuck…  but Picasso was classically trained by his father, a classical 19th century painter, so came straight out of that 19th century tradition that I love and that may be why our work has points of tangency…  but my art works are drawings and paintings of faces, nude or clothed figures and landscape elements… which also describes the work of GF Watts or any number of Victorian and Pre-Raphaelite painters…  but where Watts had to convince himself and everybody else that his drawings of naked people served some higher moral purpose, I say that I feel like making pictures of nudes and landscape elements so I go ahead and do it…  in fact, I feel like many of Watts’s paintings would have been significantly stronger if he had ditched the sermon and just went ahead and painted the skinny naked girl on the rocks…  or whatever…  and not cared if the critics of the time thought he was a hopeless pervert for painting naked people without trying to make some moralistic statement…

I don’t have to care what critics say because, I am a noncommercial artist in that I do not do art for money and the way the contemporary art world is set up, only artists who are on the commercial stage are subject to criticism…  plus, my little drawings and paintings of naked people and landscape elements are of no interest to the commercial MOMA art work in the first place…  so, being free of all that, I am able to go to the well of my intuition and let the art work happen however it seems to want to happen…  which is generally with more or less distorted representations of faces, figures and landscape elements… 

Michelangelo was a deeply religious person but I think that his religion was more personal than Catholic…  from looking at his art, I reconstruct the god of Michelangelo as a humanistic, pagan deity relating to Christ in the ecce homo sense and intrinsic to the act of being alive…  his worship was modeling the images that he loved…  and god was in the flesh…  I recently saw an article that pointed out that the representation of god the father in the central panel of the Sistine Chapel, where he is an old guy with a grey beard reaching a finger out to the reclining Adam, is in a swirl of drapery that is exactly a representation of the human brain…  and as soon as it was pointed out and I looked at the image, I saw that too…  this hiding of shapes and symbols in art was common enough in Renaissance art, (for example, see the howling figure in the background hills of Hugo Van Der Goes Portinari Altarpiece)…  and Michelangelo certainly had dissected enough cadavers to know exactly what the human brain looked like…  so, I am positive that he used this painting to explain to those who could see that his religion came like Adam’s spark of life from the deep and mysterious depths of the human brain…  well, I love that…  what a wonderful religion…  the religion of the brain…  the true, deep and only humanism… 

so, while I have lost the Lutheran religion I was raised with, I am endlessly fascinated by the human brain and body and by the planet upon which I, with my brain and body live…  is my art some kind of pagan religious observation??  no, of course not…  I don’t really even understand what it is at all…  maybe someday, I will do something besides figures and landscape elements…  who knows??  but, for now, it seems like enough to trust my intuition…  wrap my loving arms around the shoulders of the giants from South Africa, Venice and foggy London town who have given me so much and paint and draw whatever comes into my head…  it is an amazing and wonderful life…

Artwork from Ken Rutkowski

A large simply drawn daisylike flower with two petals.
A stick figure of a person holding up a line of other smaller stick figures with the sun overhead.
The words ‘Khong Sau’ and ‘Mistakes are Forgiven in Stride’ and three calm stick figures of people underneath the words
The sun overhead and insects flying to a house and children and a family standing nearby.
Lots and lots of diagonal right to left lines, short and all over the paper.
Stick figure of a serene person with a plant growing out of their head.
Person with a thought bubble thinking of lots of smaller people.
A person’s head and a question mark with the text ‘remember’ between them.
Person asking a turtle what the turtle has on their back.

I have been living in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam for the past six years. We, everyone here, calls it Saigon. I have traveled extensively around Asia, but I am most familiar and indebted to Vietnam. It is a misunderstood, small, but lively country.

The city is very colorful and bustling, flowers and plants everywhere, outdoor markets, packed alleys and daily services often forgotten about or disregarded in Western cultures. It is a collective mind in this country, life is good, not always easy, but they try to live well, by standards that have seemed to fit my own sensibility. 

I call these pieces “picture poems”, a Kenneth Patchen reference/ vernacular, but travel memoirs/ photo essays/ instances in themselves that reflect how I see the world in Vietnam, immersed, and always through learning and contribution.

I am most comfortable with words, but images are usually how the words take form, through the physicality of thought. 

Some of the pieces were created in the 3 months our lives have been on hold…three months for us…we have been set free, “man is condemned to be free”, I have seen great acts of determination and hospitality, trade and love, but also dire circumstances that have made me break down. Still, throughout this experience, “we” have remained calm and accepted this as survival first.