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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.

Berkeley shelter closes

The closure of the largest homeless shelter in Berkeley leaves many with nowhere to go

Writing for the Street Spirit: My 17 Year Journey

Writing for Street Spirit has awakened in me a sense of responsibility toward others. Street Spirit is a way for people silenced by big money and big media to have a voice.

Animal Friends: A Saving Grace for Homeless People

“I wrapped her in my jacket and promised I’d never let anybody hurt her again. And that’s my promise to her for the rest of her life. In my mind she’s a little angel that saved me as much as I saved her.”

A Testament to Street Spirit’s Justice Journalism

The game was rigged against the poor, but I will always relish the fact that Street Spirit took on the Oakland mayor and city council for their perverse assault on homeless recyclers. For me, that was hallowed ground. I will never regret the fact that we did not surrender that ground.

Tragic Death of Oakland Tenant Mary Jesus

Being evicted felt like the end of her life. As a disabled woman, she saw nothing ahead but a destitute life on the streets. She told a friend, “If I’m evicted tomorrow, I have no choice but to kill myself. I have no resources, no savings, no money, and nowhere to go.”

They Left Him to Die Like a Tramp on the Street

Life is sacred. It is not just an economic statistic when someone suffers and dies on the streets of our nation. It is some mother’s son, or daughter. It is a human being made in the image of God. It is a desecration of the sacred when that life is torn down.