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.
friend, just out of detox, says, "it's almost too much to sit in a car,"
and I say, "after my last major depression, I remember intently
watching someone tie his shoes, thinking wow, that's amazing, maybe I
could do that, too."
The resistance to empathy that resides within it.
Tenderness as the politics of if.
About an hour ago:
front of the music shop near the Central Market in Phnom Penh, as my
daughter combed her hair, she'd opened up about the Khmer Rouge time,
her escape to Thailand. "It was worse in the camps," she'd said. I ran
into her at Macy's in Kane`ohe today. Her daughter studies in Seattle; I
told her about the Cambodian woman from Battambang I met in Seattle
last week. "That was my home town," she said.
to the big writers' conference, seated next to a guy with black-framed hipster
glasses, two digital devices, a kindle & a laptop, who was trying to
get his young son to write a 12 page story about boogie-boarding
(to be written in a booklet the size of a blue book, with lines and a
big square for drawings). They argued about the story, the son slammed
his fist against the tray table, and there was no peace in our row until
the boy got to use his iPad again.
to the big writers' conference, three hour lay-over on Maui (what we do
to get good fares). No paper in the women's room, or soap. "At least
we're going back to the real world," one woman says. "I live in Hawai`i," I say.
2/26: "You know, like straight guys who really love cats . . . had no idea they existed, until I met Ryan."
lovely hand written signs in the vegetable markets in Seattle remind me
of the work of the Australian painter, Robert McPherson who
paints grocery store script on canvas. The hand written sign by the
young white man who sits near the Convention Center: "Money, food, bus
ticket: anything helps." He was working on the lettering this morning.
Last time I walked by, he had his head down, sign propped up.
man in alley crushing crackers under his heel so the birds can eat;
writers at AWP bookfair--no, the metonymy's too easy.
of the hotel housekeepers was telling me her throat hurt. She thought
she was getting a cold. On a hunch, I asked if she was Cambodian. Yes,
she said, usually people asked if she was from Thailand. I showed her
pictures of my son. She was from Battambang, in the west. Our friend
Hongly's father died there of starvation during the Khmer Rouge time.
She said my son looked like a movie star. We laughed and said good-bye.
talked about the weather, the couple next to me on the airplane and I.
Then we talked trauma: her mother had tried to kill her as a baby, spent
years in hospitals, left her to be abused by a grandfather; she
hadn't known what it meant to feel. [Her husband explained "conversion disorder" to me: she'd been paralyzed, except for her eyes, for two weeks. When asked by a therapist what she remembered, she'd said, "nothing before age 8."] Her husband said he just wanted to be her
best friend. Their one grandson was found abandoned, covered in HIV
sores, in Ethiopia. [He's autistic, but they live too far away from treatment to qualify.]
3/2: In the "it never ends" department:
[I have no idea what happened to make the photograph appear in this way, but it's appropriate]:
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