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The Ghosts of Venice West (1994)

The Ghosts of Venice West Cover


"Cold cliffs more beautiful
The deeper you enter
Yet no one travels this road."
-Han Shan, Cold Mountain
In this old cold Venice building
“The Ellison”
In this small dark room
I sit cross-legged
Upon an old stale mattress
The feathers are finally
Leaving my pillow
To rejoin the birds of the air

At least once a month
The upstairs neighbor's toilet overflows
Our ceiling bulges
The walls turn black and green

In this dripping room
All my clothes are torn
Our only guests
The ghosts, the mice
Only dust
Over dog eared books
And drifts of paper
Like dirty snow
My daughter stays away, says
"You were never a model
For a nine to five job."
My son visits occasionally
Long enough to smile
And ask for an aspirin

In this cold room
The window is bricked up
The pipes leak
Puddles always on the kitchen floor
Never any rice in the pot
Once there was a view
A eucalyptus tree, a ghost gum
It was cut down in June

I, who once was proud
That they called me
"The Queen of Bohemia"
Now blush, ashamed
"John!" I call
"I'm trying to bring myself
Out of something -
To nothing...
I'm going to pray
To embrace this poverty!"

"Pray to embrace silence
We already have poverty!" he says
"Hey.  We're doing pretty well
For a tired old man
And a crazy lady...
Tomorrow I'll get you
A crown of rhinestones.
Do I give you enough?"

"John, to have you
For my companion
Through the glass centuries
Your diamond body
Calm, enormous land
This is the only center
That I seek."

At night
The cockroaches come out
They walk across my neck
To get to Masami Teraoka's print
"Zen Monk On A Blue Whale"
Hakuin contemplates death
They take refuge in the Buddha
Little insect eyes. Sad. Sad.
But too many.  A thousand at least
So they must die
We'll use the money from
Selling our books of poems
To purchase roach poison

There are no roads
From this cold Ellison
Better sit still
And quiet the ills
Of the mind

I sit high in this old building
Higher yet the sky passes slowly
The birds swirl
Incautious, completely free
I climb the road
To cold, cold Ellison
The road that never ends
"Who can break the snares of the world
And sit with me
Among the white clouds?"

-- Philomene Long


Two and a half years
(On and off)
Earthquake proofing
The Ellison
Steel blades of
Buzz saws on steel I-beams
Pounding of
Hammer on brick
Hammer on brick
Between the shouts
Rage, rage
Between the shouts
Of addicts and prostitutes
Rage, rage

It is impossible to move
For midst the sand and dust my love
John Thomas is the caliph of Baghdad
The man who refused to travel
Because it would require four hundred
Camels to take his bedside books

All day I dream of being a hostage in Iran
Dim basement
Empty walls
Rent free
Food brought to me
Three times a day
Only the muffled
Prayers to Allah
In the next room
Occasionally they whip
The souls of my feet
That's all right
It keeps me awake
Which is more silent than dreams

There in Iran
I would sit cross-legged
Until my legs happily
Fell off
My only request
A blindfold
And ear plugs
I would sit
And not even think
Of Bodhidharma staring at that wall for nine years
He's too loud

-- Philomene Long


"I used to be fairly poor, as poor goes.
Today I hit the bottom of poverty and cold.
Nothing I do seems to come out right.
Wherever I go I get pushed around."

                 Cold Mountain -Han Shan

This month
The Cold Ellison
Brought us the Asian Flu
Too much noise
Too little sleep
Then blasts of cement dust
Last night I coughed for fourteen hours
This building is going to kill me

John coughs from across the musty room
He'll claim: "It is the force behind the heavens"

AH! Great statue of the reclining  Buddha!
John Thomas, everyday
Stretched across the bed
Leaning on his left elbow
Writes glowing poems
Among his pillows
Of books and dust

There is not enough dust
In this poem

Another cough from across the room
Then John hums
"Om mane padme
Ho humm...
All the bodhisattvas
Are rolling over
Slapping each other
Over that one
In compassionate mirth!”

Last month
Our ninety-year-old neighbor said
This place depressed her
"Too dark, too dark," she said
"Philomene, You deserve
Better than this."

The year's end has left me
Ragged and desolate

With this dust:
My eyes, black circles
I can no longer read, even short poems
Must sit alone in the dark
Hour after hour

Poetry and religion brought me here

Through this cold Ellison
I journey to the very center

-- Philomene Long


"Living in the mountains,
mind ill at ease,
All I do is grieve at
the passing years.
At great labor I gathered
the herbs of long life;
But has all my striving
made me an immortal?"
Cold Mountain
-- Han Shan

Thank you for pretending
To be here
I do not know but
Have I brought you?
The words must have done that
The silence needs neither
You nor me
It is so deeply
Even the mice have
Left me, and
My dear departed fly

To have died
And still the living are
To release me
I sit
Crosslegged my
Broken, bleeding feet
Once I could have had
Much to say
About them
Left palm upon my right
Thumbs touch at the tips
Is this my hand?  Or a 
Cloud?  I hear my own
Weeping in
The distance
Their laughter
Over my grave

My hair was once
A brilliant red
Or yellow?  Everyone said so
My eyes, I think, were green
The sand has scraped
The color from them
Eyes now white
Hair white
So much hair, and
Each strand causes me pain

Am I here then?
I can scarcely hear
My own words
Or yours
This endless yawn and gape of sand
Exhausts me
Once I had hoped
(Was this vanity?)
For my death
To be worthwhile, not
To become simply sand
More sand

Thank you for pretending
To be here

-- Philomene Long


Warm summery days At the Ellison
And "Bones" the young dog Chris found I the last stages of starvation
Infected with heartworms Damaged eye from being kicked
Back full of gun pellets And Chris had to carry him everywhere
Slung across his shoulders like a mink stole It was beginning to seem that
He was deciding he would spend The rest of his life on Chris' shoulders.
"Bones" is fat now, and trots                                
Fat lazy days at the Ellison And the building is finally earthquake proof
So that with the 7.5 sent from Joshua Tree And the 3,000 aftershocks
It moved with such grace Cruised the shocks, the ripples
Like an elegant ship And it still moves
To the music in Paul and Barb's apartment
And for my son Patrick (My beautiful son)
And the Blue Crew surfers, these days The waves are good
At night I walk down to the sea And in the very place
They ride their boards Dolphins leap and roll and ride
The waves in themselves The very spot
Must be a good one Warm summer waves
Soft swaying days
At the Ellison Its marshmallow bricks
The lazy elevator And my daughter Maureen returns
From Asia (my beautiful daughter) She brings me a gift
Of a Buddhist Temple bell The bell she gives me
Brings three dreams --
I dream I am a Buddhist monk And that I have been given
A small Zendo The size of our apartment
I dream I enter a deep dark cave Where there are Giant Living Buddhas
I dream I am a
Buddhist monk basketball team But they have to stop the game
Because we are jumping too high                   
"Now that's a the real dream team" My daughter days
Soft summer days
At the Ellison John whispers
Across the room
"You and I, Philomene, that's All that matters --
You and I"
"You and I, John and The radiant, the vast..."
"Apartment", he says
Soft, dreaming days
The Ellison dreaming, swaying Dipping and sailing
Its own warm seas

--Philomene Long


"As for me, I delight in the everyday way,
Amidst wrapped vines and rocky caves.
Here in the wilderness I am completely free."
                                 Han Shan, Cold Mountain

Silver days at the Ellison
Longest rainstorm in ten years
Beneath the slippery sky
The Ellison glistening         
Dangling raindrops
Silver sounds

I slip out to the sea
I am the only person
On Venice beach
Grey sea, grey sky, grey sea gulls
I am wearing a bright pink raincoat
The seagulls believe I am the sunset
They turn their backs to the sea and face me
They assume their sunset viewing positions
Chests forward
Motionless. Except for
An occasional scratch of the ear
The flutter of a wing

We watch each other
I act like the sunset for them
I raise my glowing pink arms
I stand motionless for a long time
Kneel, then recline upon my heels
Alone on Venice Beach
It is all so slow, so simple
Being a sunset

Back at the Ellison.
Alone at the black iron gate
I look up
Soft rain sliding
Over the red bricks
Two red brick wings open
As if to embrace me
Two ghostly shimmering red wings

We watch each other
I look at the Ellison
As the sea gulls looked at me
I love this old building!
I love this old building!

Ah! yes, Kukai, the gulls and
Yes! Even these stones
Will become Buddhas

--Philomene Long


This is a dynamic account of Blinking and breathing

At day the pigeons outside the window Eye our apartment with envy
At night I haunt the Ellison In long white gowns, white veils
At dawn, more pigeons Then arriving gloriously with the sun
Flies from a living mobile In the center of our room
Photographs of dead saints surround us
On the wall, a large wooden crucifix Holy water, oils and two white candles
Within it. Portable for the rite of the dying It is the last thing I see each night
Before I go to sleep
The landlord is running from The law. On sight they can
Arrest him for what he's done To this building.
John calls him a devil "What this building needs," he says
"Is an Exorcist." Never before have I had the law
On my side, not even The Ten Commandments
Last night Harry Northup
Kindly found us someone Who would clean our apartment
For only twenty-five dollars But I didn't have the heart
To tell him we won't Have that kind of money
For six months
Last night Holly Prado told us "That you love each other,
That you live in this tiny apartment Is a miracle."
This morning another spiral of flies The pigeons blink and breathe
It is good that I hung
That picture in the kitchen Where they bricked up the window --
The woman with long auburn hair and crown Ascending, chains breaking from her wrists
Angels circling. It reminds me of my future-- To be crowned in Heaven. That I was once
Crowned there already, that...
"John," I shout from across the room "You said you would get
My Queendom back for me!" "I have," he says
"What do you call this!"
"Queen of Bohemia!  Now Queen of Leaks!
Queen of Pigeons!  Queen of these catacombs!
John, you're making me feel Like this squalor is better than Heaven!"
"It took you eight years to Realize that!"  he says
The pigeons have mastered their envy
And settled for our windowsill Their orange eyes radiantly blinking
Golden crown Celestial pigeons

-- Philomene Long


It seems to me, Philomene, your apartment is
a little bit of hyperrealism.  -- Mario Savio, 1974

Dust particles clinging to the hint of reality
is this what we are?     – Hammond Guthrie, 2004

In these rooms, it seems to me
The dust speaks
Dust mostly from books
(The dominant presence of
These rooms, my enclosure)

At times a book will fall
(Perhaps under pressure
Of too much dust)
And open to a sentence by Sappho:
“The sounds of mourning
Do not suit a house
Which serves the Muse;
They are not wanted here”

“Mom,” my son Patrick says:
“You feel that gravity will cease to exist
If I move a speck of dust.”

Daily, hourly he says that I ask him:
“Where am I? What happened?
What is that dull sound?
The future of the universe being ripped apart?”

I have not always been emotional
About dust, but so much of this particular
Dust is my late husband
John Thomas’ dust
I love this

“Where are my dead leaves, Patrick?”

“They are with the other dead leaves”

There was a caterpillar in the bathroom
Living amidst the dust of a dead rose
It looked like it was going to run out of food so
He moved it to kitchen plants, but
It slid out the window when
The pigeons were being fed and
I think a pigeon may have gotten it

Patrick is here to organize
After John became (shall I say?)
More subtle than dust

Patrick: “MOM!
Why must everything you say
Sound like a poem?!
A moment ago you said
‘The wind! The wind!
It seems as if it is going
To scrape Venice off the Pacific plate!!’
Instead of the normal:
‘It’s a little windy today’ ”

Patrick is in the closet now
“Mom! You cannot wear that!
It looks like you took it off a dead body
It looks like what Norman Bates’ mother
Would wear sitting in a chair!”

He finishes with the black velvet section
Now to the long white dresses
(I now wear little else--
The color of Light and Dust)

He shouts
“What did I just pass?
Is this for catching fish?”

“That’s old lace”

“If you wear this you should
Be sited for public nudity”

“I wear a slip under it…
A white veil over my head…
I dress for the Muse… at times
Become the Muse… the
Bride of… Love Itself…”

“You just keep having
Random thoughts as you
Lie on your back
Spouting them out loud
As I move stuff around”

Random thoughts
That’s just the problem
Patrick’s organizing has been
Hard on my thought processes
It’s been snipping my synapses
So that I’ve begun referring
To this archeological dig
(So to speak) as “Organizen” 

But  tonight I am told
By Kyoko Asanuma
(A Japanese Exchange student
In my UCLA class)
That the Japanese have no
Dominance of right brain or left brain
They use both simultaneously
And now I can’t stop singing:
“I think I’m turning Japanese
I think I’m turning Japanese
I think I’m turning Japanese
I really think so”

“Patrrick,” I say
“I want the place to be
Part Zen monastery
Part literary salon”

So he lovingly
Much like the Dalai Lama with
Tibetan Buddhist Sand Paintings)
Sweeps much of the dust away
Except for the pipes
I ask for the dust to be left on the pipes

Dust which I have let fall gracefully
Over these last two years
And lay upon where
John’s lips have touched
Mingling breath with ash
His breath, our breath
19 years
Breathing together
Breathing together
Our breath, our life--
The Intersection of
Love and Poetry   

“90% of dust is human debris”
John would say
I do not know if this is correct
But if it is-- much of this dust IS
John Thomas

So I request dust be left
On the floor where
John’s bed had been
Dust over which I scatter tears
Then cover it with plastic
Where I create a small Zendo
The very spot where he and I
So often made love in the afternoon light
And I place

A cushion on this very spot
Where he would recline
On his left elbow
Stretched out like a
Reclining Buddha
And read and write and
Fall half- awake / half-asleep
Into his ocean out of time
“Silence, I know, loves me”
He would say

Dust, I know
Has always loved
John Thomas
He, always, so mountain-still
Could create dust

I sit quietly
Breathing slowly
And sometimes
In the morning and afternoon light
I watch new dust

Which the Pacific winds move
So very gracefully
Across these rooms
At times
Slowly, happily
I become
Like dust, myself

As I listen to the loud
Of our very small
Black plastic clock
(Only 2” by 2” but
Sounds like a Grandfather’s Clock)
Sometimes the only sound
In these rooms
So that it seems as if

It is the only sound
Everywhere, anywhere
The First Sound
Before the First Word
And before the first sound the
Silence which
“The sky can’t cover
The earth can’t support
Empty space can’t contain
Sun and moon can’t illuminate…”


And our words
Now into dust
In these rooms words
So softly uttered
Almost unspoken
Dust now speaking
As if one person
Our poems now
So slow, so silent
That only he and I
Can hear

--Philomene Long, April, 2004


There is no comfort
In the poem.
Expect to be seared
Out to have entry.

There are always
The rains.
They leave no survivors.
The poem’s ocean is stone.

Who knows
Whet god will be found in its ashes.

There is a calm
In the power of its snows.
I speak for the dead.

--Philomene Long


They are already ghosts
John and Philomene
As they pass
Along the Boardwalk
Where ghosts and poets overlap
As they pass, the gulls
Ghosting above their shadows

Everything's haunting everything

Already ghosts
John and Philomene
Under the ghostly lampposts
Of Venice West
Their cadence
The breath of sleep
At rest
Lost at the edge of America
Already ghosts
And each poem
Already a farewell

Everything's haunting everything
The sea is the ghost of the world

--Philomene Long

The Venice West

Philomene and John at The Ellison

(C) Copyright Philomene Long Estate 2008-2011, All Rights Reserved. Photographs by Pegarty Long.

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