Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Toward a talk on Albert Saijo

[This is subject to change: suggestions welcome along the way!]



On June 1, my husband and I arrived on the Big Island to stay in Volcano, right around the corner from Albert Saijo's old cottage (now spruced up considerably and suddenly in the open, as the next lot down the loop has been scraped horribly clean). We turned on the rental car radio and heard that Trump was taking the US out of the Paris Climate Accord.


The earth in Volcano is damp, soft, porous, built as it is on old lava fields. My husband spent a morning jacking up an old steam house on our property, because one side had started to sink. It's crumbly ground, composed of dead ferns, o'hia leaves, koa and o'hia trees, and other organic matter, with a layer of moss on stones and tree trunks. The land is incredibly fragile. For a couple days I heard, through the screen of rain and bird song, a loud mechanical noise from about half a mile away. I walked to it, finding a large bulldozer clearing a lot of all vegetation, leaving only the dark brown mud. A couple lots further down the road, another lot was clear, except for chopped off trees standing like the warriors of Xian. Downtown Volcano, if there is one, features a huge new strip mall, with Thai restaurant, hardware store, and a "lodge" being built next to a large parking lot.



We met Albert Saijo in the late 1990s, not too long after his Bamboo Ridge book, OUTSPEAKS, came out. He lived in a wood cottage he'd built himself, sat next to the fire and talked and talked to us. He filled notebooks of writing that are now stored down the street at a friends house in plastic tubs. His writing was all-caps in pencil, included drawings and lots of strike-overs and re-dos. There were no poems in these notebooks, though occasionally a square had been drawn around a section of prose. That small acreage became a poem. He wanted his house to be like that of the woodrat--to live no longer than its inhabitant (it would indeed have fallen apart had his widow's second husband not renovated it)--and his poems seem also to aspire to that quality of coming and going. When you open the lid to one of the bins, you feel a blast of moldy air. It's as if the pages are living their own dying.


I want to think a bit about why Saijo was so important to me, and why--more importantly--he ought to be more important to other writers and thinkers. He falls through so many cracks: an Asian-American Beat poet, known mostly for being the basis for George Baso in Jack Kerouac's novel, Big Sur; a prophetic poet who shied away (that's an understatement) from being published; a very talkative hermit. After a brief flirtation with the literary life in the late 1990s, he kept his paradoxes mostly to himself. A group reading in Honolulu with Gary Snyder and Nanao Sasaki was an unrepeated event. There's a grainy video of his trip to Los Angeles to meet with a class and discourse to the birds in Echo Park. Otherwise, hardly anything. There are a few mentions of him in literary critcism: Snyder scholarship acknowledges him; Jacqueline Park mentions him in passing. Saijo's wife, Laura, said people wanted to come interview him, but he always said no.


If we're looking for poets of resistance, then, we might look to one who resisted being a poet. In his pre-1990 work, published posthumously by Tinfish Press, he writes an aphorism about being against literature. He resisted the government, society, the law (when he was a northern California marijuana farmer), traditional form and prosody, and other people. He kept to himself. But in his notebooks he preached ("like John Muir's father"--and his own): "I WANT TO STAND UNDER AN OPEN SKY IN A FIELD & I WANT TO EXHORT & LAMENT ORACULATE ENTHUSE INVEIGH SCOLD RAIL STORM & RAGE RAGE ON WAIL & BEWAIL ELEGIZE & LYRICIZE INCITE DECLAIM EXPOSTULATE RAZZ SERMONIZE HARANGUE -- I WANT TO OUTSPEAK -- I WANT TO HOLD FORTH -- RANT & RAVE -- I WANT TO LAY IT ON THICK -- I WANT TO MUCKRAKE -- I WANT TO RHAPSODISE -- I WANT TO PREACH TILL I'M SWEATING" (O 17).

So the man who would stand in a field and rant actually stayed at home and wrote. But the resistances he outlined in his writing of the 1990s and earlier should be significant to us now. Paramount among them were his resistance to consumer culture, the military and its Gulf War (as well as the war that resulted in his own internment at Heart Mountain as a teenager), and the desecration of the land that all of these flaws in American culture involve. He writes as a poet steeped in the American Transcendental tradition--he read John Muir, Thoreau, Emerson, Dickinson, Whitman--but he came to the love of solitude through direct political oppression of his family for their race. The rage inspired by FDR's internment of Japanese-Americans drove him into the rain forest. He didn't go there because he had some good ideas, though of course he had those, as well. His hatred of the military came as a result of his three years in Italy with the 442nd; like many young men, he was drafted out of the internment camp and straight into the American army.

What I find most compelling in his resistances are the following:

--The links he makes between military power and the desecration of the land and oceans. This is not a connection I see in most eco-poetry except what's being written now in the Pacific, perhaps.

--The model of opposition to institutions, foremost among them--for our purposes--literature.

--A model of intense observation of what is rather than one of acting in the world. His last notebooks, written when he was old and sick, amounted to notes about the weather outside his cabin. He had stopped meditation practice and simply meditated all the time.

--What George B. Handley calls, in his fine essay, "Laudato si' and the Postsecularism of the Environmental Humanities," "a more spiritual existence": he writes of Pope Francis's encyclical that "His ecumenism as well as his adept revisionary hermeneutics of the same texts and traditions that have often betrayed the environment ought to signal that what makes education and the arts transformative is not content: transformation is not intellectual but experiential." This spiritual education shows us that all things are bound together. While Saijo, unlike the Pope, rejects community and its institutions, he does posit a resistance that effects change through the transformation of the self in the natural world.

I wanted to find a way to enact this resistance, to show Saijo in action, as it were. So I've taken excerpts from Trump's speech taking the US out of the Paris Accord and inserted responses by Albert Saijo from his book published in 1997.


TRUMP : I have just returned from a trip overseas where we concluded nearly $350 billion of military and economic development for the United States, creating hundreds of thousands of jobs.  It was a very, very successful trip, believe me.  (Applause.)  Thank you.  Thank you.

SAIJO: RANK ON RANK OF HUMANS UNDER INVIDIOUS FORMS OF POLITY FORCED TO GIVE UP THE PRIME OF THEIR LIFE TO ASSEMBLY LINE REGIMENTATION MAKING THE TOYS OF OUR DESIRE – I KNOW BOTH SMOKESTACK & KLEEN INDUSTRY BUST UP EARTH & BELCH POLLUTION – I HEARD EARTH CRYING YOU’RE HURTING ME -- (65)

Echoed by THOREAU: they have designs on them for our own benefit, in making the life of a civilized people an institution, in which the life of the individual is to a great extent absorbed, in order to preserve and perfect that of the race. . . I refer to the degraded poor, not now to the degraded rich. (350)

TRUMP: Therefore, in order to fulfill my solemn duty to protect America and its citizens, the United States will withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord -- (applause) -- thank you, thank you -- but begin negotiations to reenter either the Paris Accord or a really entirely new transaction on terms that are fair to the United States, its businesses, its workers, its people, its taxpayers.  So we’re getting out.

THOREAU: The gross feeder is a man in the larva state; and there are whole nations in that condition, nations without fancy or imagination, whose vast abdomens betray them.

SAIJO: HOW VERY PRESUMPTUOUS OF US TO RESIGN UNILATERALLY FROM THE REST OF NATURE & MAKE EARTH SUN STARS ATMOSPHERE NEAR & DEEP SPACE INTO ONE BIG NATURAL RESOURCE CALLING FOR EARLY DEVELOPMENT IN HOMO SAPIENS’ BEHALF SOLELY...

TRUMP: We have among the most abundant energy reserves on the planet, sufficient to lift millions of America’s poorest workers out of poverty.  Yet, under this agreement, we are effectively putting these reserves under lock and key, taking away the great wealth of our nation -- it's great wealth, it's phenomenal wealth; not so long ago, we had no idea we had such wealth -- and leaving millions and millions of families trapped in poverty and joblessness.

THOREAU: Flints’ Pond! . . . Rather let it be named from the fishes that swim in it . . . not from him who could show no title to it but the deed which a like-minded neighbor or legislature gave him,--him who thought only of its money value; whose presence perchance cursed all the shore; who exhausted the land around it, and would fain have exhausted the waters within it . . . and would have drained and sold it for the mud at its bottom.

SAIJO: LOOK AT PANORAMIC SCENERY & SAY IT LOOKS LIKE A PAINTING IN A GALLERY – WHATS OUR TRIP – CONTROL – DOMINATION – CAUGHT IN A TRULY MONSTRUOUS INSTANCE OF PATHETIC FALLACY – ANTHROPOMORPHIZE EARTH – TURN ALL OF NATURE INTO STOREBOUGHT – SCREW LOOSE IN BRAIN PAN MAKE EARTH LOOK LIKE GOODS ON STORE SHELF (44-45).

TRUMP: As the Wall Street Journal wrote this morning:  “The reality is that withdrawing is in America’s economic interest and won’t matter much to the climate.”  The United States, under the Trump administration, will continue to be the cleanest and most environmentally friendly country on Earth.  We'll be the cleanest.  We're going to have the cleanest air.  We're going to have the cleanest water. 

SAIJO: LET’S ALL BE POISONED TOGETHER WHO WANTS TO BE A LONE SURVIVOR – WHO WANTS TO BE ALIVE IF EVERYONE ELSE IS DEAD . . . COME LET’S POISON OUTSELVES TOGETHER WHO WANTS TO BE A LONE SURVIVOR – BUT THIS WATER IN THIS GLASS – ARE YOU MAD AT ME & ARE YOU OFFERING ME THIS WATER TO INSULT ME – THIS DIRTY WATER IN A CLEAN GLASS THAT SMELLS BAD & TASTES WORSE – DRINK IT – IT’S 100% SAFE – 9 OUT OF 10 DOCTORS RECOMMEND IT – THE NOXIOUS & TOXIC ADULTERANTS HAVE BEEN NEUTRALIZED BY OTHER LESS NOXIOUS & TOXIC ADULTERANTS . . . . AND WHY BE A CLEAN AIR FREAK – WHY LIVE IN VIEW OF OCEAN WITH NOTHING HUMAN UPWIND ACROSS 3000 MILES OF WATER WITH WINDS ALWAYS DELIVERING AIR THAT IS LAMBENT CLEAR & MARINE IF CHERNOBYL GOES BLAM & WE FEEL LIKE PUKING & OUR HAIR FALLS OUT & WE FEEL SICK TO THE VERY MARROW OF OUR BONES . . .

TRUMP: The agreement is a massive redistribution of United States wealth to other countries.  At 1 percent growth, renewable sources of energy can meet some of our domestic demand, but at 3 or 4 percent growth, which I expect, we need all forms of available American energy, or our country -- (applause) -- will be at grave risk of brownouts and blackouts, our businesses will come to a halt in many cases, and the American family will suffer the consequences in the form of lost jobs and a very diminished quality of life.

SAIJO: O SMART & BEAUTIFUL – O LUSCIOUS FULFILLMENT – O PROTEAN DESIRE – O EVER SHINY – KEEP ME IN COMMODITY FROM YOUR ENDLESS LARGESS O THOU RICHNESS – GET ME WHERE I’M GOIN FAST FAST WITHOUT PERSPIRATION – MAKE THINGS EZ – KEEP ME EVER NEW & IN MOTION (62)

TRUMP: I have just returned from a trip overseas where we concluded nearly $350 billion of military and economic development for the United States, creating hundreds of thousands of jobs.  It was a very, very successful trip, believe me.  (Applause.)  Thank you.  Thank you.  

SAIJO: SWEET BREATH OF TRADES BLOW LIGHTLY WHILE BACK AT THE RANCH THIS LAST GASP OF WHITE COLONIALISM SOUNDS HORRIFICALLY OVER ARABIA DESERTA . . . WE ARE A DESERVEDLY ENDANGERED SPECIES BOUND FOR EXTINCTION (80)

TRUMP:  We’re also working very hard for peace in the Middle East, and perhaps even peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians.  Our attacks on terrorism are greatly stepped up -- and you see that, you see it all over -- from the previous administration, including getting many other countries to make major contributions to the fight against terror.  Big, big contributions are being made by countries that weren’t doing so much in the form of contribution.

SAIJO: HERE LET US GIVE A SHORT WWAIL FOR THE GONE BIOME OF MESOPOTAMIA & FOR THE GONE WATERS OF PERSIAN GULF . . . THINK OF BIRDS BLASTED OF THEIR FEATHERS . . . .THINK OF THE STARTLED SKY – AND THE WAY WE DID IT – PUSH BUTTON WAR (86-7)

[BOMBS] WHAT A WONDERFUL COMMODITY – YOU CAN ONLY USE IT ONCE—THAT’S ALL THE LONGER IT LASTS – IT’S A THROWAWAY ITEM--

DEATH IS GOOD NEWS – THE BEST NEWS – SO WHEN YOU DROP THE V-BOMB ON EM THINK OF IT AS 100,000 TO 200,000 PEOPLE GETTING THE BEST NEWS THEY EVER GOT IN THEIR WHOLE LIVES – LETS GET ON WITH IT – BOMBS AWAY (106)
TRUMP: At what point does America get demeaned?  At what point do they start laughing at us as a country?   We want fair treatment for its citizens, and we want fair treatment for our taxpayers.  We don’t want other leaders and other countries laughing at us anymore.  And they won’t be.  They won’t be.
SAIJO: I MUST BE APOSTATE FROM HUMAN BECAUSE I BELIEVE THERE IS NOT ONE THING WE DO GOOD – NOT ONE THING – WE’RE FUCKED – FIRST WE FUCK OVER OURSELVES THEN WE TURN & FUCK OVER OUR SURROUND
I MUST BE APOSTATE FROM HUMAN BECAUSE I BELIEVE THE HUMAN RACE INDIVIDUALLY & IN AGGREGATE IS A RACE GONE TOTALLY PSYCHOTIC AND I BELIEVE THE LEADING SYMPTOM OF THIS ABERRANT CONDITION IS WHAT WE CALL CIVILIZATION (122)

I MUST BE APOSTATE FROM HUMAN BECAUSE IT LOOKS TO ME LIKE CIVILIZATION IS BASED ON INVIDIOUS DISTINCTIONS WHEN WE ARE SAME WHERE IT COUNTS (123)

And so Saijo's influence on me, greater than seems reasonable perhaps, is more personal than political or poetical. He (and older age) has taught me that gain is so often a loss, that having more desecrates the earth, that having ambition is not wise, that as Pope Francis writes, "Happiness means knowing how to limit some needs which only diminish us, and being open to the many different possibilities that life can offer"; that "peace is much more than the absence of war" (but that it would be absence of war). And that cultivating a spiritual life is one way to act upon the world, even if (especially if!), as Saijo advised backpackers in the early 1970s, we leave no trace of ourselves behind us.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

15 June 2017

And other faculties change and fail. I fail, therefore I'm a white man in America; I conceal my weapon because I know the deep state leaks secrets. There's a cloud over this administration, pregnant with rain, and it's been seeded by the opposition, those who, according to the president's son, aren't even human. They call it my political rage, but I also beat my wife. To be “depressed about” suggests there's content to your illness, but content comes after forms, filling in its crevices like zeros a box score. There are no hits on this grid other than the shot that took down the second baseman. Our vocabulary did this to us, confounding a real game with an attempted massacre. The coin of the realm is metaphor rendered as fact. “He mowed him down on the base path.” My son has his video game turned up; I hear gun fire from below. PTSD is fantasy after fact, an imagined bear inciting terror because you once saw a real bear. As I child hiding under covers, I assumed all sirens came for me. I ask my son to turn his gun fire down.


--17 June 2017 

Saturday, June 10, 2017

10 June 2017


The first alteration speaks to us from the Rose Garden, promising transparency and--above all--safety. The only safety is that of exclusion; safety's pure, is cream that floats on milk, is hemmed in, is corral or coral reef. A mother's hand is barred cell held against sun-washed wall, territory of faults and callouses. I ought not talk more about my children's adoptions, for what I get back are narratives of loss and reunion. “He found his mother, in the end.” They're book-ends to what excludes me, the middling present-parent. Narratives are theory, but I'm all practice. I am family resemblance in a family that cannot resemble. Yet silence concedes the field to theory, mandates we hire ideas rather than persons, that we value origins not as history but as nature. “It's in the nature of the person,” James Comey says, but he doesn't invoke the nature we mean to preserve. Self-invention's a fine idea, so long as you have a mirror and a podium. When my son tries to get my goat, he sounds just like his dad. That's safe to say; I've always loved goats.


--10 June 2017

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

7 June 2017

When I say “darkness,” I mean absence of knowing. I followed the bulldozer's drone til I saw a gap in the forest, black mud bearing the impress of a wide tread, then a wisp of smoke, earth mover removing trees. Find the gap in thinking, a teacher writes, where you can, for a moment, be. But the gap in the forest doesn't denote rest, just earth jaw with teeth knocked out. The man in a silver car still lives parked beside I'iwi Road. The roof is lined with beer cans and bottles. They make a neat grid. Behind him, an old house breaks slowly down, absorbed by o'hia and hapu'u ferns, its brown beams snapped inward. His silver car is a filling, but the mouth bears no witness. Another car sits 50 feet past his, filled with black plastic trash bags. I was struck by the grandfather clock beside the door of the room where James Comey and the president had sat alone. Good night clock, good night constitution.

--7 June 2017

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

6 June 2017

Humility is seeing yourself as you really are. Meditation, I once read, has sometimes lead to breakdown. Its side effects are not noted on the box where I locate my meditation, pull it out and sit inside it, like a demented rat in a federally funded experiment. The leaker wrote an anti-Trump tweet, which proves everything. Beyond the fake news, he screams, we can hear the TRUTH; while there's no mirror in my meditation box, there are his tweets to navigate. Perhaps he sees himself as he really is, though not in his humility but in ours. I peer into his mirror to see how small I can become. Note how, in the bass line, McCartney actually plays in a different key, how this destabilizes the song. Perpetual modulation is like anxiety, though it's disciplined by the music box. The leaker's name is Reality, so I more than suspect we're all pilgrims at this point. Take the road least bombed, and open your arms to the child in Mosul who'd huddled beside her mother's corpse. There's more there than meets your mirror's eye.


--6 June 2017

Monday, June 5, 2017

5 June 2017


This discipline doesn't require brute strength, but joy. In order to forgive, the teacher tells us, you need to go back into the wound. Forgiveness has more to do with memory than with forgetting. If, in this forest, I recover my wounds, tie them in a bundle and leave them on the sweet soil beneath the ferns, and if, amid these birds in whose songs I infer (but cannot know) joy, then I can leave them to their composting. We remake ourselves in the image not of our attackers, but of our forgiveness of them, less image than the skittering sounds of these birds after a night's rain. We see evidence of the pig in wet soil, her rooting about near the tea plants. We hear coqui frogs, and we call to them with smart phones before consigning them to freezers or feeding them to the chickens. The wound is what we work on, tethered like a goat to a stick. The girl with a violent mother used to tiptoe into the kitchen to get herself bread and cheese. She'd tuck herself in bed, putting food in her mouth with one hand, stroking her own hair with the other. She murmured kind things to herself before she fell asleep. 


--5 June 2017