A Poet’s Deep Compassion for Life

Vinograd’s deep-rooted compassion for life makes her portrayals of suffering, death, and destruction overwhelmingly poignant.
Panic by Julia Vinograd A book of poetry, 70 pages Published by Zeitgeist Press, Berkeley http://www.zeitgeist-press.com/vinograd.cfm

Published by Zeitgeist Press, Berkeley


Review by Mary Meriam

What of all the worlds we never know and never get to see? Some poets helpfully capture worlds in their books, worlds packed with energy, visions, thoughts, and feelings about particular places and people. Julia Vinograd has an uncommonly vivid, alert, and original perspective on the world she inhabits.

Vinograd is a well-educated writer (with a B.A. from the University of California at Berkeley and an M.F.A from the University of Iowa) and a beloved, celebrated poet with awards and accolades. Julia Vinograd is also a Berkeley street poet, and Panic is her 55th book. These two facts require some thought: What is a street poet? Who has written 55 books of poems? Vinograd has had a unique and remarkable writing life.

She sells her books on the streets, and when she isn’t selling her books, she writes poems about street people and places. Vinograd’s books illuminate this tight-knit creative ecology. She tells us, in these two sections from “Writing a Poem,” that her world, far from being limited, is cosmic, painful, demanding, exotic, and rich:

Snakes sing in twisted old trees.

I lean on a cane to keep speeding stars

from crashing into my head.

I skin my knees on the moon.

Other people’s blood quacks for my attention

like ducks for breadcrumbs.


I remember digging a hole to China in my back yard,

the smell of moist earth and snails.

I’m still digging down to the paper,

breathing hard.

In contrast to the passionate, urgent searching of the above last two lines, Vinograd concludes the following carefully observed ekphrastic poem by subtly excoriating God for spacing out over a rose, oblivious to the Holocaust:

For the Holocaust Paintings of Samuel Bak

by Julia Vinograd

The color of memory, the color of time.

A refugee ship sails out between cracks of sun-baked clay.

The sea is made of bricks.

Bearded wanderers bent over,

carrying the Tree of Life like a suitcase

kicking stones to make a path beneath their feet.

A young boy with a cap

peering thru the holes in history

sees equally armies and a toad croaking marvelously.

Both birds and angels wear raw wooden

roughly hinged wings;

the sky tears to let them thru, the sky tears anyway.

Wings of splintered boards from the town dump,

the town burned behind them.

Everything burned.

Eyes get in your smoke.

What a rose must look like to God

when He wasn’t looking at anything else

and He should’ve been.

In a poem about the Holocaust, Vinograd’s world of Berkeley street people is echoed in the “Bearded wanderers bent over,” refugees, armies, burned towns, and even homeless birds and angels, with their makeshift wings, doing the best they can, while the sky tears to make room for them, the sky already torn, and “Everything burned” like a perverse biblical sacrifice.

A portrait of Berkeley poet Julia Vinograd painted by her sister Deborah Vinograd

A portrait of Berkeley poet Julia Vinograd painted by her sister Deborah Vinograd



As she has many times before, Vinograd draws portraits of soldiers. In these lines from “Soldiers,” she brilliantly reverses her frequent use of personification, so that the soldiers become the war itself:

We were no longer human but fireworks;

using our names for fuel our skins exploded

in bursts of brightness above the jungle

while everyone burned, screamed and ran.

We were a gut roar of triumph

sinking a bloody knife into morning.

For a moment we were bigger than tomorrow.

Then we woke up in hospitals,

still alive,

and knew we had failed.

Vinograd’s deep-rooted compassion for life makes her portrayals of suffering, death, and destruction overwhelmingly poignant. Each powerful line is another indictment of the insanity perpetrated in the world. Some of Vinograd’s most beautiful poems personify Jerusalem. In “Jerusalem’s Night,” the woman, Jerusalem, with the cosmos in her hair, wants to be a wild horse — not a place, not a person, not blessed, not adored, not holy — simply free:

Jerusalem went into night

to hide from the stars in her hair.

“Oh, let me be a wild horse

never lassoed by blessings,

never ridden by love, let everything holy

be only holes in the ground

for my young hoofs to leap over…”


You can find Julia Vinograd on Telegraph or at Fourth Street in Berkeley, hawking Panic for $5.


Pan In The Tenderloin

by Julia Vinograd

The drunks who saw a goat-legged man

thought he was just the Devil,

and what kind of liquor do they drink in hell

and does he have an extra bottle handy?

Then Pan lifted his pipes and blew antique sorrow,

tall old forests where the sun never shines.

Drunks looked around for their highway underpass,

trucks charging overhead. Ambulances screeching.

So silent around Pan’s music even the cops

would’ve been welcome. Ruthless music.

Pan gave the drunks one glance under his shaggy

curls, then the pipes shoved them on their sodden

staggering feet into a stumbling dance.

“Hey no,” the drunks gasp while he prodded their

livers back to life.

Some of the working girls left their corners,

kicked off their heels and danced barefoot for Pan.

Tomorrow their pimps will beat them

for all the money they didn’t make.

But tomorrow’s far away.

The scent of pine needles underfoot

drowns their cheap perfume.

Spiderwebs cover their false eyelashes.

Pan doesn’t touch the girls except with his music

leaving virgin bruises. Then he’s gone.

The drunks tell all about how they met the Devil

and tourists give them money to go away.

Resurrection of the Poor People’s Campaign

Rev. Barber told the activists gathered in the nation’s capital that by demonstrating in solidarity with poor people, they had become a link in the long history of people who fought for justice.

Hate Crime Laws Needed to Protect the Homeless

As homelessness becomes more visible, people living on the streets are targeted for bullying, assaults, harassment and even murders.

Life Is A Precious Gift: Mother Teresa’s House in Washington

We will never know how many huge pots of soup Jacob lifted with the sisters into trucks, to take to the homeless in the park. We will never know how many diseased bodies he fed, held and bathed, and the number of tears he dried in the early morning hours.

Mother Teresa’s Gift of Love in San Francisco

She took home with her the men who had only a few days left to live and were suffering the most, and tenderly cared for them around the clock. I am certain some of the people I was meeting were angels, whose job was to make certain no soul died alone and unloved.

My Back Pages: A Song for Miss Kay

She softly sings the soul anthem “Stand By Me.” It is a song for Miss Kay, a song for all of us. Her life, with its music and joy, followed by a downward slide into homelessness and death, tells us something deeper than words about the human condition.

My Back Pages: Kerry’s Kids, An Undying Dream

Oakland pediatrician Dr. Karen Kruger said, “Kerry’s death was so sudden and seemingly purposeless and shocking that I think there was a need for people that loved her to carry on her memory in a way that she would look down on from her cloud and be happy about.”