an on-line poetry magazine
for the 21st century



A Symphony of Broken Instruments
by Julia Vinograd (Zeitgeist Press)

For over fifty years, Julia Vinograd was one of the purest poets in America. She seemed to devote every day of her adult life to the art or act of poetry. Lame from childhood polio, she scraped by for decades on disability benefits in a curio-filled studio apartment in Berkeley, CA, which gave her the time and space to do her work. She appeared to write daily, producing a constant stream of mostly brief observational and allegorical pieces. For decades she was omnipresent at San Francisco Bay Area open mic readings, and became somewhat of a local icon in Berkeley as the “Bubble Lady of Telegraph Avenue”, where she hung out frequently blowing bubbles and, as she once said, “waiting for a poem to walk by.” She averaged more than a book per year from the late 1960’s onward, and by the time of her death in December, 2018, she had amassed a prodigious total of 70 volumes to her name.

Vinograd’s long-time publisher and confidant Bruce Isaacson of Zeitgeist Press has spent much of 2019 compiling A Symphony for Broken Instruments: Selected and Unpublished Poems, and it is a remarkable book. Isaacson claims that this collection contains only “the best of the best of the best” of her work, along with a number of Vinograd’s stronger pieces that never made it to print. Lovers of poetry, especially hers, could not wish for a better result. This 373 page gift to the world offers not only about that many windows into human nature, but also an impressive range of approaches to the practice of observation, both of the outer and inner worlds. Many people familiar with Vinograd’s work, especially those who primarily heard her read, thought of her as a “street poet”, some version of post-Beat working class castaway mining the streets for the rawness of humanity. Whereas that general perspective is present and runs strong through her work, there is also an abundance of more surreal, more abstract, more spiritual, and more deeply personal pieces to be found.

It is difficult to categorize the many subjects that populate her poems, or to at the very least give synopsis. But here’s a go. It’s true that her oeuvre is sprinkled with many portraits of people on the streets, both individual (“Man Watering His Lawn”) and in community (“For the Berkeley Inn, Where I Lived for Fifteen Years, Being Torn Down”). But you’ll find in similar measure a medley of work that includes fable-like allegories (the eponymous “A Symphony for Broken Instruments”), social justice and commentary (“The Homeless Are Our Dirty Underwear” and “A Box of Skin”), outright protest pieces (“Flock of Assault Rifles”), reflections on childhood or late-60’s resistance culture (any of her “Mother” and People’s Park poems), and dreamlike spiritual envisionings (“Night”), to name a few.

Through all these decades and directions, Vinograd maintains an impressively consistent voice which holds her work together like leavening. From year to year and subject to subject, her work clearly emanates from the same windpipe, the same mind, plainspoken, truth-telling, and eminently believable.

Here, for instance, is a passage from “Crying Children”, one of her later poems written in reaction to ICE’s separation and caging of immigrant children.

…now all those children wrenched from their mothers’ arms crying in the night. Are these my children somehow, the ones I never had who need me? They have real mothers they’re crying for; I know that. But why do my breasts ache when I hear them, my old milkless breasts? Why?

From the late 80’s, we find a similarly angry poem, “Blues Singer”, reprinted here in full.

In the same day the cops took away her dog and her man. She was broke and a sparechanger tried to talk her out of a quarter. And she said she might have to leave town. But those incredible blues still slashed out of her mouth like a butcher cutting thick slabs of raw meat and slapping them down on the counter. Tender. Bloody. The knife shining in her throat.

Lest these selections bring you to believe that Vinograd’s work is primarily angry and dark, let me reassure you that’s not the case. It is often filled with wit and whimsy, as seen here at the start of “When God Gets Drunk”.

Archangel Michael tried to get God to go on the wagon. “Each time you get sloshed there are more people climbing up their own assholes cause you think they look funny like that, and then you drop cathedrals on their baseball caps and kick them into the middle of next week; there’ve been complaints from the middle of next week…”

I’ll leave you to read the rest.

And it’s worth a mention that running through her province like the freshest of rivers is a persistent current of hope. While she criticized man’s worst behavior with all due harshness, she couldn’t help but find goodness and the potential for redemption in human nature as well. One of the best illustrations of that is in “World Dance”, the very last poem of this collection as well as her final book, most likely written while she was beginning to realize that she might not be long for this world. I’ll leave that gem for you to discover as well.

In life, Julia Vinograd was known for her determined motion forward. Though lame, she hobbled (or got rides) from reading to reading, café to café, poem to poem. In print, she moved steadily from book to book. For as long as many can recall, she had a new book out at least once a year from Zeitgeist Press, and she made it known to everyone she came across. She was both famous and infamous for hawking her titles person to person at readings, in coffee shops, on the sidewalk. She would hand each person a book, say, “Here’s my new book, only $5,” then move on to the next before they could respond. (In the 70’s , I hear, they were “only $1.”) Her prospective patrons would return either the book or a Lincoln.

Hell, this was partially what she lived off of, and it supported the next book as well. There was a joke going around at one time that when Julia finally died, she’d just disappear in mid-transaction: “Here’s my new—” then poof, and a book would thwap to the ground.

Sadly it wasn’t quite that easy in the end, but every lucky person who did buy those books now has a treasury of human insight to carry them on. Those who didn’t, and those many who didn’t collect a complete set (and even those who did), now have A Symphony for Broken Instruments to take them into Julia Vinograd’s world, their world, now and looking forward.

RICHARD LORANGER is the author of six books of poetry and flash prose, including the recent Mammal from Roof Books, and ten chapbooks, and has writing in over 100 magazines and journals. He has been neck-deep in words since his childhood. You can find more about his work and scandals at