Donovan Kūhiō Colleps constructs Proposed Additions out of
many parts: a house blueprint; his grandfather’s cancer journal; the
instructions to a pulmonary respirator; the story of a daddy sea horse;
and an investigation of O‘ahu’s leeward side, its histories and its
mo‘olelo. In this hybrid work—documentary poem, prose reflection,
elegy—Colleps recovers his grandfather’s memory by way of the filing
cabinet he left behind. As the poet carries the metal cabinet strapped
to his back across the ‘Ewa plain, he recovers more than this intimate
past. He also recovers significant cultural and linguistic histories of
place in a part of Hawai‘i now being turned into fields of templated suburban houses.
from “Daddy Sea Horse”
I found him behind
the Appliances folder.
Daddy Sea Horse, preserved
like so many things aren’t.
In a dirty plastic
watch box tomb.
His perfect shape
a memory organ,
his dried skin
a dark yellow. Each
ridge of his spine
confirming the fractal
geometry of generations.
reason 3: sight & sound. the daddy sea horse is anchored to a plastic plant in the tank and people are yelling behind me. i do not understand the words being thrown but i see hands cutting the air in the glass reflection. my sister storms out with her naked children, and when the front door slams, daddy sea horse explodes. i do not count his babies because there are too many. a desire to make a shaka in the water overwhelms me. but it passes.
I brought him
to the dining table
“Here,” I said, “here.”
Standing in the spot
where I swear
it all happened,
and placed the box
in front of her.
“Where dis came from den?”
The hole in daddy sea
horse’s belly was
still there cavernous, and
he was leaning
against the clear side
of his container, staring
out at the empty
plate of sausages.
“Nana bought dat,”
“long time ago,
from one adoze
Donovan Kūhiō Colleps was born in Honolulu
and lives in Pu‘uloa, ‘Ewa, on the island of O‘ahu. He is currently
working toward a PhD in English at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa,
focusing on creative writing and Pacific literatures.
If you find Donovan's book compelling, try other Tinfish titles. Books about place include Kaia Sand's Remember to Wave, Barbara Jane Reyes's Poeta en San Francisco, and Craig Santos Perez's from unincorporated territory [hacha]. Hawai`i authors include Steve Shrader, J. Vera Lee, Lee A. Tonouchi, Lisa Linn Kanae, and the many authors of Jack London is Dead. Books of documentary poetry include jai arun ravine's and then entwine. Elizabeth Soto's book, Eulogies, complements Donovan's elegy to his grandfather. And so on. It's a weave, a lei, a labor of love.
ka mate ka ora: a new zealand journal of poetry and poeticsincludes an essay by me on Alzheimer's. (Please click to see the essay!) This issue comes out of a conference held earlier this year in Auckland on poetry and social action. Christopher Parr has a response to the conference that includes a critique of my work--not the essay but the documentary writing--to which I intend to respond soon (though I'm very happy to see it).
Here is that section of Parr's essay:
The speaker I heard most willing to push the envelope for social
change through poetry was Susan Schultz, in her explication of texts
generated in part by her mother’s verbal disorientation because of
Alzheimer’s disease. Perhaps appropriately, she presented a serious
challenge to me-as-audience or reader. By appropriating scrambled
sayings and disjointed speech patterns from her mother and others with
that debilitating disease, Susan was certainly expanding the range of
what ordinarily gets included in poetry, and in regular language use,
so she was again questioning the boundaries of ‘the social’ and what
constitutes social action in communication. I found myself made
uncomfortable by this source of practice, without being sure I should
be. The problem had to do, I thought at the time, with whether her
mother could and would truly choose to consent to her mis-speaking being used like this.
On reflection, I think it may really have to do with appropriating unintentionally impaired
speech from someone else. I am myself a fan of appropriation
strategies and have indeed used found speech and language, and I
readily concede that in most if not all instances we writers use such
found language without the consent of the initial utterer or writer.
But usually the utterer has a choice whether to have said or written
what we appropriate, no matter how discombobulated their utterance
might have been.
In the case of an Alzheimer’s victim – or, I reflected, of my own
mother who has survived a bad stroke but has serious though not total
aphasia and at times gets words very scrambled – we can see brain
impairment causing them to say something which is not what they would
want or mean to say, were they not impaired. Yes, such utterances are
thus language in the world. But poetry as art is (by definition) a form
of display. So does one honour the person whose scrambled speech,
caused by brain impairment, one displays in texts presented as poetry?
Or, since they may not truly identify themselves with what is coming
out of their mouths, is something less than honourable going on in this
appropriation? I am raising this as a genuine question, definitely not
as an accusation, since I see a number of variables involved in getting
an accurate picture of what the practice is, including seeking
consent. Happily too, I know I am raising issues that arise in the
avant-garde, a context that exists as much as anything to highlight
discomforting matters, especially about boundaries and acceptable or
admirable practices. Susan’s work takes its cues in this regard from
those like the Dadaists – both in the derangement of language and its
ways of making sense, and in terms of what experiences we humans have
and pay attention to, in order to be aware of our capabilities for
awareness. My own anxiety is that the issues Susan raises for me are
moral ones, more than aesthetic – but then, that would surely come with
the territory of ‘social action.’ Thank you to Michele Leggott, Lisa Samuels, and Murray Edmond for making this possible, and to Pam Brown for being herself in Auckland, as she everywhere. She was one of the featured speakers at the conference. Here's to you, Pam. The ad for Ryan Higa ain't bad, either.
In the aftermath of the long witnessing of my mother's Alzheimer's and death, I've written a couple more light-hearted poems for my children on the occasions of their birthdays and remembering their adoptions. Sangha adores the St. Louis Cardinals, as do I; Radhika is a terrific soccer player. So here's the one for Sangha, which appeared in Talisman a while back:
Avant-garde writing takes the tools of its trade and makes them into subject matter. If words are bricks, the writer starts with bricks and constructs a wall of words. This wall isn't intended to express the writer's ideas or feelings, but to show how the bricks and mortar of expressing those ideas and feelings can work, when divorced from them. Walling the reader out operates on her, interrupting her, demanding that she realize she's looking at language, not at a seductive narrative or image. Avant-garde methods include chance operations, and begin from rules; concept matters more than content (though content is often surprising, funny, jarring).
Avant-garde writing constructs a world, but it often appears removed from this one. Recent experimental writing suggests that such writing can be made from the real world, can be a new form of realism. As I proof-read a short essay I wrote on Alzheimer's, I find this sentence: "Experimental writing, which has traditionally started from language and worked back toward a life that considers itself sturdier than it is, can be used to write outward from identity's implosions." Poets now appropriate the avant-garde to engage with forces of history, nature, identity. Or is it the other way around?
Consider Stephen Collis and Jordan Scott. Their new book Decomp begins as concept-question: what happens when you take copies of Darwin's Origin of the Species and you put them in five ecosystems of British Columbia's wilderness for a year? Their only conscious contribution to the project--at first--was this laying down of books. A wait-see. An odd and compelling idea that would not germinate but fall apart. A mode of composition that would end as decomposition.
Their book is composed of photographs of the weathered books, poems, sections called "The Readable" that come from the decomposing texts, glosses, essayistic bits, quotations from Blanchot and other writers, reactions and poems from friends, including Fred Wah, dialogues between Collis and Scott. Unspoken dialogues with antecedent authors hum below the top soil: Susan Howe (on whom Collis has written beautifully), Ronald Johnson, Tom Phillips (where A Humument meets moss).
"Typos in the accidental, a species of form and will, when the form is ever so clearly: cadence as rot," they write on 95. In one of the "Readable" sections we see this: "during the period great piles of or life had erritory hardly." In another this:
Each ecosystem has its own textual form above and beyond loss. Some leave long lines, others short ones. Some ecosystems leave pine needles; others cover their books with a layer of dusky dirt. Some ecosystems leave more to read than others. Some reading is red.
The erasures by nature bleed into human typos: "the fosl of mmigration" (69). The writers are themselves an ecosystem, above and beyond, or at least beside, those of the forests they leave their books in. "An us, with our books, waiting at the edge in a kind of explicatory light, wondering what method mulch is, what understanding ensoilment. What is forbidden returned as litter. Our leaving on the ground, for the ground." Ground is precisely what the 20th century avant-garde wanted to refuse. Like place it was too sturdy a fiction, needed to be displaced. Displacement now replaced by decomposition, because place has regained its place in our world. It is what is most under threat, least to be taken for granted. Place itself devolves, becoming litter. The book is a place in this equation, and what we find in it comes in spite of destruction.
Allegory, then, of climate change? Of destruction as odd counterpoint to Darwin's evolution? Perhaps. But also a return to the avant-garde as politics, a very different form of it. If Futurism praised the machine, its maleness, its tendency to blow things up, then Decomp-ism praises a slower disintegration of the material world, even as it hints at a poetics of more--or less than--praise. Because, while the text is reduced to another kind of beauty than the one Darwin intended, it is also a symptom of unraveling. As in Alzheimer's the destruction of language becomes its remaining beauty. As in Alzheimer's what occurs is "natural," in the sense that decomposition and disease are natural. Until "The Readable" is an empty box only. "The book is buried and we cannot read a thing."
For the ones who try to read the text the forest has toyed with, there is a stark lesson. "At the edge of forest, I'm all mystery of separation; hologrammed immensity of what the forest does with us, with our entitlements" (117). We are the ones who disappear, along with our texts. That we have set this erasure in motion only makes it more pathetic, in the original sense of pathos. We have undone our best words. The forest has done what we knew it would do.
And yet, in the absence of a reader, there is still an interlocutor. Steve and Jordan keep talking. They continue to curate these erasures, and to write off of them, around them, through them. The process is a doing and an undoing at one and the same time: "Us in crustaceous forms weaving what is undone and what is done by our hands' distant cupping. What is to. To our undoing. Joined" (128)
"18 years old and hungry": girl with small dog. Repeated many times. Teenage boys and girls on the bridges between hotels.
"Just a penny." Older man with white beard.
Rounding the corner behind a hotel, four men lined up, backs to me, hands in cuffs; another man stood behind them, talking loudly, as yet another seemed to listen. A bicycle cop arrived as I passed.
"Shame on all of you! Thinking about all that shit all the time." This man has several small cardboard signs; on one of them I read "Kim Kardashian." He wears a small camouflage cap. His eyes are big, but don't make contact.
College shirts: Wisconsin, Something State, Arizona, Something else state, Rebels. Girl soccer teams. The "little haole girl" on the team of white girls who beat ours up. One of their mothers, next to the bathrooms after (the only shade), said they should have beaten us 10-0.
Peacock girls. Feather girls. High heeled girls. Butch girls. Drunken girls. Prostitute leans over a small blue sports car in Paris. Queer cowboy, flashes "no pictures" at my camera. Statues. "Bring me to life" reads a sign in front of a dirty stuffed dog.
Couples. White couples, brown couples, Spanish speaking couples, Black English speaking couples, Indian couples, London accented couples.
Buff African American cop having his photo taken with a young white guy holding a beer cup. Hard to tell at first if the cops were real or street hustlers.
Children holding hands. Kids in strollers. "That was neat!"
"Did you see Darth Vader crossing the street?"
"Did you see that guy lean over in the middle of the road to tie his shoes. They were flip flops. The guy in the car honked. He just kept tying his flip flops."
"I'd a run him over."
"Barely legal Asians." Blondes. Boxes full of girl photos. Homeless people handing out "girls straight to you in 20 minutes."
Back to the Luxor. Bare chested man with back pack heading toward the elevators.
In my room, the repeated riff on "Being alive," a ringing bell, noise of frat boys ("you want my peepee," one asked Sharon in the hall the other night).
Photo of my daughter asleep at a table, 26 minutes ago, surrounded by blue and red plastic cups.
My books include Aleatory Allegories (Salt), And Then Something Happened (Salt), Memory Cards & Adoption Papers (Potes & Poets), Dementia Blog (Singing Horse), Memory Cards: 2010-2011 Series (Singing Horse), A Poetics of Impasse in Modern and Contemporary American Poetry and edited collections on John Ashbery (Alabama) and on multiformalisms (Textos), the latter with Annie Finch. Tinfish Press recently published Jack London is Dead: Euro-American Poetry of Hawai`i (and some stories), which I edited (2013). My newest book is volume two of Dementia Blog, "She's Welcome to Her Disease" (Singing Horse Press, 2013). Tinfish Press can be found at tinfishpress.com