I am just back from seeing and hearing Donna Haraway at Revolution Books. The place was packed. (OK, so it wasn't packed for the Tinfish reading--I'll get that angst off my chest right away.) Haraway's talk was envigorating; like David Antin at his best, she speaks off the cuff in a way that you know she's laid out her road map ahead of time, moving forward and then circling back to say what she just did, and then taking off again. If I complained in my last post that my poetry class talked too much about Avatar, Haraway's talk was ON Avatar, so there was no escaping the subject. In this case, however, no poetry was involved. I wanted to ask her to explain her assertion early on in her talk that she was against metaphor and analogy, but admired story-telling. By the end, I thought that the problem with Avatar (which is also its virtue) is not that it's a bad story, but that it's incoherent poetry. Incoherence is not always a bad thing in a poem; Hart Crane's critics had something on The Bridge on that score, or at least parts of it (let's call it "Cape Hatteras" and leave it at that), but that poem remains a bone more worth picking than that of many coherent poems. What Crane called "the logic of metaphor" led often to what seems to us incoherent, but extremely rich.
Why I'm off on a Crane tangent I don't know; he had little to say about enormous blue native creatures or their invader/saviors, the people who figured out how to mimic them for a time. (Crane did inscribe a romanticized Indian narrative into The Bridge, however, so perhaps the digression isn't without its i-pod connector, as invented later by the later lesser poet, James Cameron.) Haraway's language is vivid. One of my favorite of her statements was "our partners are many and bumptious." Or, of Avatar's audience: "More people than e-coli on the planet saw the movie." Or, "all life depends on slime, and we become really sticky--love and rage make us sticky!"
Haraway feasts on connections; she began by riffing off how she knows Carolyn Hadfield of Revolution Books; why we should learn and teach the history of Haiti, including its ecological history; the two other women with whom she trains and shows dogs and how they tried to evade the Christian backdrop of their names, and the colonial pasts of their Australian shepherds, and so on. But the main point, always, was the way in which the particular makes us "worldly." We become more worldly, she said, as we inhabit contingency. "Here we are, who are we, and so what?" Accident and biographical detail form us.
Haraway clearly loved the film, but recognized its problems. What seemed to fascinate her the most is the many, often contradictory ways, audiences react to the film. These reactions were rife at the bookstore today: there was anger at the representation of natives; the film claimed to oppose commodification and yet !; there were the overly simple binaries; "the film is heterosexist, and so on. But there was awe at the film; a sense that the chicks were kick ass"; happiness that Fox had made a movie in which the Indians win. My colleague John Rieder put it well when he said that he was of two minds. One mind loved the visual creation; the other mind found an old colonial narrative at the heart of the film. As Haraway herself said later in the afternoon, "the film doesn't hold the contradictions, but this moment does." Her method, one of engagement, questioning, prodding, and then acknowledging complexity, was well suited for the moment. Having lived for a while in Hawai`i in the 1970s (her first job after earning her Ph.D. at Yale was at UH), she was aware that the moment is especially ripe here.
So, while I found the film a confused Pandora's box (allusion intended) of old stories and myths mixed together without a strong ethical basis except the ones we bring to it, and while I also found the film boring for long stretches, I would have happily paid Avatar's 3-D ticket price again to see Haraway dance through our discussion of it. She was entertaining in precisely the ways the film was not--she had ground to stand on, and her metaphors (should I call them archetypes?) were not as tired as many of those in Avatar.
One of the more difficult rhetorical moves Haraway made well was to take critiques of the film and suggest that there is also a "yes, but" element to what we do as an audience. Here is where the quote used as my title comes in. Yes, we can say that it is dangerous, harmful, for a white person to want to be a native, and yet is it not also good to love and desire being another? I was happy to hear this said by someone with enough intellectual substance to stand her ground. It is not a popular view, but it is one we need to consider. Now that the critiques are out there, let's synthesize, take elements of assertion and critique and make of them something different. A desire that does not appropriate; a metaphor that does not colonize (more on this, I'm sure, when my graduate class reads Derek Walcott's Omeros later in the semester). What I most appreciate about Haraway's critique of critique is that it refracts a message students need to hear. If you find a gap, fill it! If you care about literature that is not being published, publish it! This is a positive critique. The positive critique offers us the satisfaction of responding to an absence; it also offers us the joy of filling that absence in with products. Not commodities, products.
I wanted to ask about her distrust of metaphor and her love of story-telling in this context. What are stories but extended metaphors, especially in films as overtly allegorical as this one? Rather than sweep metaphors away, shouldn't we think about them, ask our audiences to do so? Weren't our problems with the story inherently problems with symbol, metaphor, with its poetry as much as its narrative? Could we not gain something by interrupting not only the narrative of Avatar, but also the narratives we use to talk about it? How can we interrupt them best but by interrupting narrative itself, honing in on the detail, or that which is most (or least) poetic, not driving the story where we know it must go. There is no great avant-garde Hollywood poem. For a reason.
My graduate poetry workshop started from the question: "why write poetry?" We ended up talking a lot--too much--about Avatar, the billion dollar movie, and why poets might still choose to seek out an audience of hundreds. (Hundreds of people, not dollars!) Not a new conversation, and one best left behind. Williams's Spring and All has us thinking about destruction and rebirth, prose and poetry, clean words and words that have acquired layers of ambiguity. I've always loved Williams's line about Marianne Moore, that her words were "clean" because she'd scrubbed them down. Stein's claim that she gave the rose back to itself after centuries of symbolic abuse resonates. Later on, we may organize a boxing match between WCW (the no-simile guy) and George Lakoff (the metaphors we live by guy), by way of activating our arguments about language use. Or a free for all with Don Share, who collects similes as if they were verbal hot rods.
But then Ikeolu (Clinton) Terrell came to dinner and called our bluff, my bluff, Lakoff's bluff, Williams's bluff, even Stein and Moore's bluff. He came close to calling the bluff on bluffing itself. Clinton, who is Executive Director of Breakthroughs for Youth at Risk in Hawai`i, declared language itself to be the problem. (Fast backward to my first class, where the question is not, "why write poetry?" but "why speak or write at all?"). In an odd way, he was echoing Williams's call to live and write inside the NOW, though Clinton believes in non-verbal communication. It might have Laura (Riding) Jackson in our living room, declaring an end to poetry because it is inevitably involved in bad faith issues, like professionalism, like competition, like decoration.
"What is this?" Clinton asked of the book I passed him, containing a poem about the Dogon (On Spec, by Tyrone Williams). "It's poetry," was my response. A phrase that validates everything for me did nothing for Clinton. As someone who works with parents and children who are unable to communicate effectively, he concentrates on developing their non-verbal communication. Just as our ability to see prevents us from using other senses, Clinton thinks that our ability to talk interferes with other, more profound, means of communication. (He blind-folds kids and their parents so that they expand their abilities to perceive the world.) Without speaking, he got up and felt my husband's energy field, which extended at least a foot into the living room.
As I argued for the power of language, my examples accrued in support of his assertion (hate it when that happens!) that language cannot always be confused with communication. For example:
--When we adopted our daughter, Radhika, she was three years old. She talked, talked a lot, but in Nepali, which we do not speak. After 9 days together in Kathmandu, we headed to Hawai`i, a trip spanning days, to Bangkok, Japan (six hours in an airport) and then Honolulu. While it would have been nice to communicate in words, what I discovered is that language between daughter and mother is less important that I might have imagined. When Radhika began to speak English, her uses of single words communicated more than I might have thought, too. On the H1 freeway at rush hour, she sat in the backseat and yelled "TRAFFICS!"
--For a couple of months after coming to Hawai`i, Radhika had frequent crying jags in the evening, loud and dramatic ones as befit a girl who had just come so far with us. We had an old cat, Jon Stewart, who had come to us from a hard life in the parking lot, who would climb up on her and put out his paw to reassure her. Forget that she was scared of him, and screamed more loudly--the cat understood, the cat expressed himself.
--My mother is almost without language now. She--and the other residents of her home who lack words, or speak them randomly (to our ears)--are still human beings. They are still expressive, convey shock, surprise, happiness, sadness. That the triggers are invisible to us does not mean that they are not there. My mother is not exactly who she was with language (though when she said on the phone yesterday that she was "flopping about," some of her linguistic personality re-emerged), but an essence (what is that?) remains. My mother's silences, even when they seem the place where she would be speaking had she the words to do so, are still expressive. Sometimes I find myself filling them in; sometimes they stand in for themselves as telling silences, in all senses of the word "telling."
My desire to write about my mother grows in proportion to her loss of language, as if I were her proxy. When Radhika and Sangha created their own language one summer in Madrid, composed to what sounded like Hawaiian and Spanish and English words all mixed together, I wrote them down diligently. What I fear I cannot remember is what I write down. Though "what I fear I will not remember" is not so many things, and it's worth thinking about what these things are, even when they flicker into mind with seeming randomness. So perhaps that is the function of language, or writing, for me, a palpable energy field that attempts to maintain communication where it is being lost, or diverted. When I am with my mother, I too am usually silent. When I leave her, I go directly to my computer to write.
I don't usually confess to my students that where I once most adored poetry that bobbed and weaved, obliqued its subject, obscured its content, my loves these days are those writers who make strong claims on me and then permit me access to acting on them. This does not mean that they use transparent language--they are not Ted Koosers--but it does mean that they lay something out, demand that I see it. (It does not even mean that my favorite poets are always poets.) I can read wonderful poetry and be bored by it (like Chris Vitiello reading his own work), while the imperfect (paradise) of a poem that makes something happen (Sarith Peou's Corpse Watching, for example) makes something happen in me. No, I want to say to Ikeolu, or to Laura Riding, or to Plato, sitting in the shadows of my living room, words do matter. They matter in the body (the corps), not simply in the conversational ether. My bodily reaction is the form the poetry takes, a form more crucial than that residing within the poem itself. Poetic form is not an engine to drive the poem; the poem is the engine to drive the form of the reader's reaction. Or, closer to the home that is my body, the writing acts on me, as I live through it.
And so, when Clinton told us that Ikeolu, the name he has chosen, is both an African name and a Hawaiian one, and when I chimed in that Kamau Brathwaite was pleased to hear that his African name was also Hawaiian, I wondered if those words were not participating in the larger energy field that links us together in ways well beyond the word, but given life by it? The word is "communicable," a contagion that either destroys or strengthens the body it inhabits.
I mentioned my undergraduate workshop last time, in writing about Kaia Sand's new book. That workshop is focused on place; these first two weeks, students are taking photographs of their neighborhoods (nothing touristic! everything ordinary!), in preparation for getting beneath the image, into history. The graduate workshop, being more advanced, has a less relentless focus to it, at least in my design, but the reading list proposes an agenda, nonetheless. The readings, in that supremest of fictions--alphabetical order--are as follows:
John Ashbery, Three Poems, Ecco Press Teresa Hak Kyung Cha, Dictee, University of California Press Paul Hoover, Sonnet 56, Les Figues Press Susan Howe, Singularities, New Directions Ron Silliman, Under Albany, Salt Derek Walcott, Omeros, Farrar, Straus & Giroux William Carlos Williams, Imaginations (for "Spring and All"), New Directions
All of these works are self-reflexive, works of poetry but also about it. These are works of poetics as well as collections of poems. Each of these poets holds a mirror to his or her text, but the mirror doesn't just reflect what it sees. This is an argumentative mirror. "This is what I see, and this is why I see it," might be its mantra. Their "why" is also an argument. "It must be so!" (If you can't tell I've been reading Spring and All today, I sure can.)
Why ask advanced writers to read these books? A couple of reasons. First, many of the best writers in our program are writing blind, like fast horses heading toward the finish line (a degree, damn it!), but without a strong sense of why they are doing what they're doing. My program is not alone in sometimes encouraging this sense that the writer not only need not know such things, but should also take pride in not knowing them. It may be hard to teach mystique, but it sells. No mistake that the word "mystification" also comes to mind.
My second reason has to do with that simple word "workshop." The word (not "wordshop") suggests a carpentry shop where someone has tools and materials and works them into something pleasing and/or practical. Carpenters work first as apprentices; so do writers. That makes me into the master carpenter, adept with the tools of the trade, and them the acolytes, still blistered by unpracticed uses of hammer, screw driver, level. (The level is sometimes what I think most matters in workshops, alas.) I'm skeptical about workshops. It's not that I don't like furniture, mind you; it's that I don't like to think of poems as furnishings. Furniture is too easily dozed on.
The Iowa workshop describes what it does in amazingly unambitious terms on their website. Rather than proclaim the rank ambition of the workshop, they merely suggest what they can do to "encourage" writers, if not "make" them. Their placement of the verb "to learn" in quotes marks the following passage with irony as much as realism:
"As a 'workshop' we provide an opportunity for the talented writer to work and learn with established poets and prose writers. Though we agree in part with the popular insistence that writing cannot be taught, we exist and proceed on the assumption that talent can be developed, and we see our possibilities and limitations as a school in that light. If one can 'learn' to play the violin or to paint, one can 'learn' to write, though no processes of externally induced training can ensure that one will do it well."
After decades as the ur-workshop, you'd think they could craft a better sentence than that last one about "processes of externally induced training," which suggests the warning on labels, "for external use only." The "ex" and the "in" seem to clash, and the last phrase suggests an explicit lack of a guarantee. "Take at your own risk" might accompany this bit of medicine. Now I'm sure there are absolutely wonderful teachers and workshops at Iowa; I, who never took a single workshop in grad school, could have used a few. But this milquetoast description might cure us of our literary exuberance even before we set foot on Iowa City's river of ice.
So the poets we read in English 713 are intended, in the logic of the course (a logic that never plays itself out logically, in my experience of teaching), to disrupt the mechanism of the course itself. For what can a master carpenter teach his apprentice but techniques, angles of sight? The apprentice imitates the carpenter who imitates the guy he apprenticed himself to. Just ask Plato how many times that activity is removed from the Idea of a bed! And just ask William Carlos Williams what he thinks--avant la lettre--of the graduate poetry workshop. I hear him chanting, "Kill! kill! let there be fresh meat . . . " (Imaginations 90). Or, to the extent that the workshop is the spawn more of Eliot than of Williams, the good doctor mutters about "plagiarism." He feels the "handcuffs of art" around his wrists (not so good for a writer, or even a typist).
The goal, then, is something of an anti-workshop. Of course we'll talk about each other's poems and make suggestions for revision and think about showing and telling and all those enumerable qualities of poems, but I hope we'll also blow those things out of the water. For what writers need to think on are issues that are nearly impossible to teach (outside the focused theme-driven course), namely problem, content, ambition, demand, desire, effect (and affect). Kenneth Burke's situation strategy is a good starting point: what is the problem you want to try to solve in your writing? From there, it's wise to approach the workshop, as well as our poems, with WCW's violent skepticisms about art.
I'm not talking the kind of skepticism that is merely anti-academic. Here WCW finds himself one among many in a tradition of hating tradition's seat of power, the university. Just today, the political blogger Andrew Sullivan linked to a poet who complained
"The best thing that could happen to poetry is to drive it out of the universities with burning pitch forks. Starve the lavish grants. Strangle them all in a barrel of water. Cast them out. The current culture, in which poetry is written for and supported by poets has created a kind of state-sanctioned poetry that resists innovation. When and if poetry is ever made to answer to the broader public, then we may begin to see some great poetry again – the greatness that is the collaboration between audience and artist."
Leave aside my wonderment at mention of "lavish grants" (where can this poet-edit girl get one?!) but the notion that the university stifles innovation is frankly an old one. This screed could have been written by WCW; it's not as good as one of his bilious tirades, but it will do. I'm not going to touch "the broader public," because I find that the broader public for poetry tends not to like what I find important anyway. Even my colleagues within the concrete tower that is my office building don't read, let alone teach the stuff. But I do think that workshops can effect a dampening of talent rather than an explosion of it.
That's where I'm looking to Williams for an ally--and later on to Howe and Ashbery and Cha and Walcott and Silliman--in my effort to make the workshop into a place where poems are dynamic creations, not snapshots to be carefully painted upon by a toucher-upper. Even if I cannot give the workshop form new life by utterly destroying it, I can put in the back of students' minds the worry that what happens in a workshop can be counter-productive, as well as poetry-affirming. If a workshop convenes to talk "about" a poem, then I want to get us away from that preposition. "About" is not active enough. It's part of the larger term, round-about, which sounds like beating around the bush, drawing "around" into the same sphere of not quite getting AT what we mean to do. "Writing," writes WCW, "is not a searching about in the daily experience for apt similes and pretty thoughts and images" (120). "Like" is a brake, where WCW means to go full-on. The fullness of his writing conveys ideas to the reader as if they were IV'ed to his typewriter; something of D.H. Lawrence's "blood knowledge" occurs in the transaction between WCW and his reader. Everything is dynamic.
And so I'm obsessed with the workshop as a place where we engage in process and where we talk about (ooo that word again). Paul Hoover's Sonnet 56 is on the syllabus as a model for what I am asking each student to do. Pick a poem you want to live with for an entire semester; each week run that poem through the filter of a different form. Hence, what is first free verse or even prose (one student has chosen a Stein prose poem) becomes haiku, becomes sestina, becomes a voice mail message, becomes a grocery list. In these translations, these transactions, these transformations of one text into many others I hope the students learn something about poetic form (what they're supposed to learn in classes like this one) but also a great deal about the energies that can erupt when variations are born (or adopted) of themes.
I have yet to figure out how to lead a workshop discussion in a such a way that we move from the larger issues of ambition, scope, content and so on, organically into the necessary concerns with wording and punctuation, but this semester may provide me a forum for trying to figure that out. Where to start? With word, phrase, line, and then to idea!? Or from the largest scope of the thing down to its miniscule embodiments of poetic energy? In conversation these directions always criss and cross in ways necessary and annoying. But it will be my job to keep our eyes on the prize, the poem that matters (both as material and as claim on its audience to think about the world without the "emptiness" of over-used language. "There is no confusion--only difficulties" (140).
Unlike Andrew Sullivan's poetry blogger, I don't give a damn if my students know a few names of great poets. I want them to know something of poetry as process, as movement, and yes, as contagion.
By the road to the contagious hospital under the surge of the blue mottled clouds driven from the
is how the first poem in Spring and All starts. Nothing quite moves as quickly as the flu or a poem. Let us learn us some poems this semester and fill our classroom with their contagion.
A brief addendum to recent dementia blogging. My weekly phone call to my mother was unusual this week. For years now she has lost language, until her speech consists of only several phrases that I call "language lab English." "I'm so glad you called and everything's all right" has been the most she has said in a couple of years; usually that sentence comes in two or three segments, not one line. But today she said, "I'm just sitting here talking to the people around me." Astonished, I asked what she was talking to them about. "The state of the world," she said. And she was, in that phrase, so much the person she always was. Engaged in the world. "It's not so good now, is it, mom?" I responded. In the old days, what followed would have been a litany of complaint about contemporary politics, but for now that mere statement about "the state of the world" seemed a blessing. No disguise.
My undergraduate poetry workshop this semester focuses on poetries of place. While Hawai`i is not different from other places in the hiddenness of its histories, these histories often seem closer to the surface that they do in, say, Washington D.C. or Boston or San Francisco. I live near a place called Chinaman's Hat; it is also called Mokoli`i. And therein one finds an argument, like many other arguments here, about priority, about ownership, about reconciliation, about language. Hoping to get my students to be more exquisitely aware of these histories, I've devised this reading list:
Lawson Fusao Inada, Legends from Camp, Coffee House Press Bernadette Mayer, Midwinter Day, New Directions Craig Santos Perez, from unincorporated territory, Tinfish Press Barbara Jane Reyes, Poeta en San Francisco, Tinfish Press Kaia Sand, Remember to Wave, Tinfish Press Wayne Westlake, Poems, University of Hawai`i Press Jill Yamasawa, Aftermath, Kahuaomanoa Press (forthcoming)
We are reading Lawson Inada's book this week, so it seemed an inspired fact of literary synchronicity that Kaia Sand's new Tinfish book arrived from the printer just a few days ago. With a blurb by Inada. While the books have many affinities, including the important work they do on Japanese-American internment camps during the Second World War, they operate in somewhat different temporal directions. Inada's book begins from history, then launches into "legend," transforming individual histories into communal legends. While Inada's legends are still steeped in the histories that inspire them, they are not the work of a "poet-journalist," like Sand.
But let me begin with the point of contact between Inada and Sand. These books share a central documentary text, namely the "instructions to all persons of Japanese Ancestry," signed on May 6, 1942 by J. L. DeWitt, Lieutenant General, U.S. Army. This was the infamous order that mandated Japanese Americans to go to "Civil Control Stations" in preparation for internment (Inada's text comes out of Los Angeles; Sand's from Oregon, but the orders are the same). Inada reproduces the text as was, and then riffs off of it, making a poem of it in a tone of mock reverence. "Let us take / what we can / for the occasion," he writes . . . "Let us bring / what we need / for the meeting"; "Let us have / what we have / for the gathering"; "Let us take / what we can / for the occasion"; "Let there be / Order"; "Let us be / Wise" (5-6). Where Inada presents the text, then riffs off it, Sand writes directly on the document in an old typewriter font. Many of these words are echoes of the document itself, its "civil control," its "transport persons," its "personal effects." On the following page, Sand reduces the bureaucratic language to its bare bones, saving only the language mandating what can be carried by each family to the Assembly Center. It's not much.
Inada spent time in internment camps as a child (he was born in 1938), writes from experience (if not his own, we assume, then what he was told by family). Kaia Sand, born in 1972, shares neither the generational intensity, nor the ethnic marker, with Inada. So, while Inada writes the legends of his uncle, of "Bad Boy" and "Good Girl" with the authority of a participant, Sand relies on documents and on the "form" (physical and poetic) of the walk.
Walk poems have been around for as long as poets have been walking to and fro on the earth. The pedestrian poet has walked the Lake Country, the streets of New York City, Hartford and Honolulu (see Wayne Westlake). Bernadette Mayer devised a wonderful exercise according to which the writer walks, stops 14 times, writes a line, and then presents herself with a sonnet. To walk is to enact meter; to write is to rhyme what you see with what you think. Sand's walk is more literal, and better mapped, than most poets' walks. The book begins with her walk through Portland, Oregon, a walk she led her friends on as the book was being composed. (Her husband, Jules Boykoff, lets me know backchannel that she made that walk many times more.) Here's a picture of the walk, with captions. The red seam (rendered in black--red costs too much money!) that runs across the two pages records her (reproducible) walk from Vanport to Expo Center. In historical terms, the walk goes from the area of Portland where interned Japanese lived after the War and where African Americans settled (a place that suffered a deadly flood in 1948) to the Assembly Center, where Japanese Americans were imprisoned in 1942.
The walk form is dangerous. What do tourists do but walk, often without looking around them? And while the walk form is one that goes through and past and into a future apart from people trapped in floods or internment centers or PODS, what Sand does with the form is to use it to witness history as she excavates it. There is much in this book that is literal: there are documents, photographs, found poems, a map, lists, even the autographs of a woman's roller blade team. But Sand knows that to present history in this way requires the imagination's work. Toward the end of the essay that precedes the first sequence of poems, she writes: "Do we need our ruins visible? How much can we experience that past through interpretative signs? I carry old maps, but sometimes the space seems illegible because reclaimed wetlands and constrution changed the shape of the land. I cross-check books and oral histories and photographs. I imagine." A book built upon facts, statistics, images, remains unpaginated. The imagination sets loose from enumeration and enters an ethical frame, or map.
I will not reveal any more of the plot to this book; I need to sell copies so that we can publish more books like it. (Suffice it to say I have written about only one part of the title sequence.) But I do want to say something more. One of the things I love about the book is the sense of generous responsibility it offers. For argument's sake, let's posit that most readers of this book will not have experienced the Vanport flood or the internment camps. Let's say most readers of this book will be able to afford paying for it. Let's say that most readers have not learned the indigenous languages of the places they live in, that they do not know other languages at all, that when they teach (or speak to others), they teach (or speak to others) in standard English. Let's say most readers are not from Portland, Oregon. And yet, let's also posit that the imaginative reader, taking Kaia's walk, sees what has happened in the name of the American government. Let's also imagine that many readers will wonder how to respond, how they can deal with the hidden past as they walk in the not so hidden present. There are the twin poles of breeziness and abjection, complacency and anger, but neither seems wise or effective. What Sand proposes is "awareness": "A poetic imagination can be an insistent one, comfortable enough in uncertainties to demand meaning . . . Such awareness must be deeply felt while the U.S. government incarcerates so many people in prisons across the nation as well as remote to its borders."
What Sand suggests is that we not let Vanport or the camps or the dammed river or the erasures of languages happen again. Her view is forward-looking, based upon a knowledge of the past, but not locked inside it. In a neighborhood of bad faith possibilities, Sand has righteous faith that we can act. Her house is sturdy, and she is looking out, in all senses of that phrase. The spaces she leaves open on many of the pages of this book are spaces I hope will open in her reader. What now? What next? Let's begin to answer those questions.
Yesterday's Tinfish board meeting, at Cafe 2600 in Puck's Alley on the corner of King and University Avenues, was dedicated to solving some problems, like workload. As Tinfish has grown, the strain has begun to show. We have lacked procedures for making the transitions from words to design to press easier. We find ourselves more a small business than a guerrilla enterprise these days, surely a mixed blessing. While we are publishing significant books (hell, we got bestsellers at SPD!), we aren't laughing much any more, as we did years ago at an early meeting, when Bryant and Gaye proposed setting up a Tinfish van and driving around the island serving up poetry and snacks. That the university and the non-profit sector feel the real threat of budget axes only makes the sensation one more of anxiety than celebration. So we're adjusting the workload, asking members of the board to do more work, and holding our breaths (or I am, in any case). So it was good to turn to the launch of Tinfish 19 and Lyz Soto's Eulogies, just around the corner on King Street, at Revolution Books.
Here is a picture of the audience, composed mainly of graduate students and some friends of the poets. In some ways, what Carolyn Hadfield of the bookstore calls "the poetry problem" was proved (the missing were legion), but in other ways, the liveliness of the art was evident.
Tinfish has always aimed to surprise through shifts of tone and visual design. These shifts were on display yesterday. Gizelle Gajelonia, whose 13 Ways of Looking at TheBus is forthcoming from the press, is the very image of a nervous student when she first stands in front of an audience. She breaks all the rules I always set up (no self-deprecation, no acting lost, no nervous chatter) and somehow gets away with it, because very soon she launches into a reading as funny as her tone is dr--like a very dry martini. Gizelle read her poem, "13 Ways of Looking at TheBus," which riffed off Wallace Stevens, even as it took on local places and politicians (she mentioned Mayor Mufi Hannemann so often in her reading I began to think she was on his campaign staff). She followed that up with "Bustainability," a poem about Wahiawa that featured a girl in love with "Ikaikia, numbah 52," and finally her take on John Asbhery's "Instruction Manual." This last piece takes Ashbery's mock touristic take on Guadalajara, a place he's never traveled, and goes instead to New York City, where the speaker wants to attend Columbia University and mingles with all manner of stereotyped New Yorkers. It's a kind of Versailles of parody, that poem. Gizelle was then supposed to leave and attend a wedding, but I found her mingling with the audience after the reading.
Ryan Oishi read his poem from Tinfish 19, a poem that evoked a mixed reaction in the first meeting of my graduate poetry workshop this semester. It's a letter to the editor dressed up as a poem; it's a poem that parades statistics; it's a rant about the overdevelopment of Hawai`i. It's maybe not even a poem. Ryan takes on the traffic problem, the water issue, the incredible cost of housing, and his own complicity. He finished up with a short poem about the Father, Son, the Holy Ghost, Father Damien, and three pimples that had appeared on his face. He made deft links between Father Damian's care for lepers and the outbreaks on his own face (deft because he milks--to use an utterly awful metaphor--the situation for humor, recognizing the perspectival abyss of his comoparison). Ryan and Gizelle are only two among many local poets who have proved the literary value of TheBus.
Jaimie Gusman, Rachel Wolf, Jade Sunouchi, and Lurana O'Malley were guest readers, presenting poems by authors who could not be with us for reasons of geography. And so we heard work by Janna Plant, Aurora Brackett, Jennifer Reimer, and Emelihter Kihleng. This has always been one of my favorite parts of a Tinfish reading, the reading by proxy section (though Carolyn caught me when I suggested there would be "live readers," wondering out loud if the others would be "dead.") Between that gaffe and my forgetting to buy leis, the afternoon was not all together put together well!
Lyz Soto concluded the reading with a performance of her small book, Eulogies. Lyz is head of YouthSpeaks Hawai`i and herself a slam poet, so she called this her "first poetry reading." She commented on the fact that emotion is welcomed in slam venues, but tends to be tamped down in "regular" poetry readings. Her own performance was emotional, and utterly unlike what one hears in readings where the tone is "poetic" and monotone. I have blogged elsewhere on her book, but suffice it to say that her performance was an expression of necessity, not simply duty.
Note: Tinfish's board is composed of me, Gaye Chan, Bryant Webster Schultz, Jon Osorio, Masako Ikeda and John Zuern. Last year's office assistant was Jade Sunouchi; this year's is Rawitawan Pulam. I am grateful to all of them, and especially to Gaye for over 13 years of (un)common and unpaid labor on the project.
I was seated at my computer yesterday, tasked with preparing a first class for my graduate workshop in poetry, when an email popped up from the marketing manager of the corporation that runs my mother's Alzheimer's home. SUBJECT: dementia blog. It was a request for me not to use the names of the residents of my mother's home: "Frequently our patients and families blog about their stay at our centers. However, we must comply with HIPAA regulations. When we notice that other patient's names are mentioned, we ask that you edit any identifiable information out of your blog. That can include names, their hometowns, etc." She added that it was acceptable to "limit access" to the blogs that relate to "health care." I have since reduced each resident's first name (which is all I provided in any of my blog entries) to an initial, although I've not removed New York City, or even the Bronx, as the hometown of one woman (even as she sometimes thought it was Paris).
A few questions emerge from this request. If the care home needs to comply with HIPAA regulations, do I, as a writer, need to do so? First, what are these regulations?
The HIPAA Privacy Rule establishes national standards to protect individuals’ medical records and other personal health information and applies to health plans, health care clearinghouses, and those health care providers that conduct certain health care transactions electronically. The Rule requires appropriate safeguards to protect the privacy of personal health information, and sets limits and conditions on the uses and disclosures that may be made of such information without patient authorization. The Rule also gives patients rights over their health information, including rights to examine and obtain a copy of their health records, and to request corrections.
Does this presuppose that everything that happens in an Alzheimer's home is health-related? Certainly, Alzheimer's (like schizophrenia, like brain cancer) is a disease, but does that mean that everything a sick person does is strictly private? The stakes are higher when people are unable to give permission of their own accord, I realize, but is my invasion of their privacy, if that is what it is, inevitably detrimental to them? Where does maintaining their privacy and that of their family become yet another way to hide our shame at what so many of us are becoming?
I google "use of proper names in creative non-fiction," which is one of the several genres I am traveling in. I find my former summer colleague, Lee Gutkind, offering this advice, in a piece entitled "How to Stay Out of Trouble": While the people and places mentioned in creative nonfiction pieces are still around, writers often change the names of characters in their work to avoid conflict. As long as it doesn’t impact the story, changing Linda, the waitress at the Burger Barn, to Cynthia from the Hamburger Hut might save Linda some awkwardness. And if you’ve fudged the facts about her, changing Linda’s name just might save you from a lawsuit, but there is no guarantee. Linda can still sue you for defamation if she is obviously defamed, regardless of the name you give her in the book. Changing a person’s name is not a guarantee of protection, but it might help.
So, you can change names to stay out of trouble, but that may lead you to getting in trouble anyway. What's at stake here seems to be "defamation" and saving someone "from awkwardness," in case you have defamed them. Gutkind continues by advising the writer to ask permission to use names: Protect yourself by getting written permission from people you wish to write about. And if they are no longer living, make sure you aren’t setting yourself up for a lawsuit from their family. (Obviously, you are fairly safe in writing about people who died long ago.)
So, while The Rule is written to protect the person being written about, here we see the writer advised on how to protect herself. It seems there's trouble everywhere in this non-fiction world. So much that one could probably write a damn good piece of fiction about it!
While I have reduced the residents' names to initials, I would like to explain what I think is at stake in writing seriously about dementia. This meditation returns me to consideration of the public / private binary that came up before in my writing about the alphabet. In our culture, health issues (and everything that emanates from them) are considered private. We all know that those protections are important, but to what extent do some of those protections also hurt us? If the Alzheimer's home, which is already locked-down so that residents don't escape and unwanted strangers can't get in, is considered a zone of privacy, then hasn't "privacy" become another version of "hiddenness." The madwoman in the attic was heard but not seen; the residents of an Alzheimer's home are neither to be heard nor seen. They are safely "put away." Individual family members can and do take their relatives out for a spin on occasion, and there are group field trips once in a while, but for the most part what happens in an Alzheimer's home stays in an Alzheimer's home.
In writing about dementia, I want to pull back that curtain. Any curtain so pulled back reveals a mirror. (That I don't take pictures of any residents except my mother suggests a paradox best considered later.) For what I find most powerful in the Alzheimer's home is not a group of people who are unrelated to us in their behaviors. (I once told a group of people that dementia was like a neutron bomb, was duly chastised by an older woman for not acknowledging the humanity of the dementia sufferer, and have been sensitive to that mistake ever since.) A person with dementia has fewer behaviors than those of us without, but the behaviors that remain are hardly alien to us. The woman who wants to go home; the man who calls out a woman's name; the woman who sings loudly and off-key; the mother who weeps for a baby; these are familiar (familial) activities. While their dysfunctional behaviors emanate from a severe illness, that illness does not strip away their relation to those of us who are "healthy." In some ways, it increases the pathos of that relation. The privacy we demand asks us not to look in the mirror, but only at the curtain. Excuse the Romantic tropes here; I hope not to be using them according to Romantic theories, but in a more literal sense. They act like us, we like them.
But why my stubbornness about names? Yes, the waitress named Linda might easily be transposed to the waitress at a similar restaurant with another ordinary, mid-20th century name. If the writer is out to defame Linda, who yelled at her child when the child spilled her ice water, then perhaps the writer needs some protection from the Linda who has not protected herself with due patience. But if Linda is in an Alzheimer's home, where her sole possessions are a few family photographs, some clothes, a handbag and her name? Easy enough to change the name, but I would argue that there are good reasons also for keeping it. To change a name is to create a secret, open or shut. To change a name is to change an identity (when I see a Linda in my mind's eye, she's not a Cynthia). When I hear the name Susan addressed to someone other than myself, I know I'm in the neighborhood of a woman born in the mid-50s to the mid-60s; our name is a generational marker. Maybe if I changed than name to Janet or Ruth, it would have a similar resonance. But leaving the name alone, in the context of the Alzheimer's home, is an assertion that something of this person remains as it was. And, that if that person is now unrecognizable as "herself," she is still related to that earlier person in ways stronger than just the body.
The Alzheimer's home is characterized by a deliberate and irrevocable blandness. My mother's house contained something of that blandness; it participated in the suburban school of interior decoration, after all. But the generic quality of the "home," its furnishings, its art, its use of language ("have you ever been in a boat?" beside a picture of The Constitution), while they aim to provide calm for residents and/or their relatives, also provide some cover of secrecy. If these residents are no longer individuals, in the sense we usually intend that word to mean, then their surroundings must also fail to stick out. I have only been in two Alzheimer's homes, but their similarities were striking. Blandness is a form of control for both the suburban resident and the resident of the Alzheimer's home; only the scale seems different.
Doubtless I protest too much, make philosophical hay out of the act of courtesy that was asked of me. But much of what we keep secret (illness, weapons systems) protects us only briefly, and often fails to protect those around us. We try to protect ourselves from knowing that people grow old--too old--that they lose their "right" minds, that to spend time with them can be quite painful. We lock their doors and we lock away their names.
[The images are from my mother's Alzheimer's home in Fairfax, Virginia]
--Some residents of Arden Courts destroy their memory boxes, rip out the photos of themselves. Hence the box with fluffy dogs in it; another box containing only parts of the old photographs, airplanes from the Air & Space Museum, tiny grandchildren gazing up. Oblique boxes. "This is my room," A says to me, pointing at her box, its old photograph of her. Does the box remind her of her past, or only of her door, which is located next to it? Direction divorced from history. Walmart means to build a box store next to The Wilderness battlefield. Each of its shelves will be a monument to forgetting, its tenor and its vehicle.
--"I assumed she was always quiet, polite," the caregivers tell me. I say she told funny stories, loved to talk. I recognize the looks in their faces. This is who she is, and has always been. This is who she is now, because I remember her this way. Her loss of my memory is my memory of her, long enough that she has become the woman in the rocking chair, not the woman of her stories.
--My neighbor to LA was in his 20s, wore an NFL jacket, a Dodgers cap, had a thin goatee and spoke into his cell phone in Spanish. I asked if he liked the Dodgers. He asked what I thought of the Redskins' coach. I said I didn't know. He talked about the Wizards, the Caps, the Raiders, the Cowboys. And then: his grandmother dropped dead at 50 in front of the television in El Salvador. She thought too much; it killed her. (He made a signal with his hand of a mind churning.) Half her family killed by rebels, husband, children, grandparents. Her daughter, his mother, age 47, multiple surgeries. She wants to build a house in Salvador and live there by herself. "Crazy idea," he tells her. He fixed air conditioners for a while, worked in restaurants, pubs, had his Cowboy's shirt stolen by Redskins fans. Wife in L.A., he wants to move back. Her dog died of cancer and she couldn't let go. She wanted to be alone after the dog died. "That's what I don't like about pets," he says. "They die."
Back to the working world now, a graduate workshop in poetry and an undergraduate workshop in poetry, if it makes. We'll need more students to keep our courses now that the budget is in perpetual crisis. The governor almost makes deals, then turns them back. Repeatedly. So we'll begin this year with more furlough Fridays for the young ones, and the threat of a pay cut from the UH administration, a grievance by our union. A facebook friend posts the status line, "Myth of Syllabus." Mine can be found here. Scholarship may have a privacy attached, but teaching is all theft. Theft and variations.
--Sundown. Filled in orange circle behind Arden Courts. Inside, sundowning. S, who gives me the a-ok at lunchtime, demands $2. “I just wanna get home; it's close by.” She's a businesswoman, has a house—two house! She's in knee socks again, a dress, waves around a brown wallet. Someone picked her pocket, left her with nothing. “Does anyone know me well enough to lend me two dollahs?” she demands. “Who's in charge here? Where's the office? $2 charity!” The office is down the hall and to the right, Betty says, although it's down the hall, through a locked door and to the left. Even so, S comes back with the boss, who says her son is coming later. “Does anyone know me enough to give me $2!” Then, somehow, she has a dollar. Her refrain changes, in number only. One dollah; her Bronx accent thickens. “Everyone's a liah! It's not funny!” She's not a charity case.
--Her son and grandson are signing in as I leave. Just so you know, the boss tells him. Her clothes are on her bed and she's ready to go.
--I wonder why I feel better this time. I wonder why I do not. I wonder if my reader still feels what I feel, or if we now diverge like paths at Arden Courts, those that never go anywhere except around and back to where they began. I wonder if the text's immediacy also wears down, wears out, wears away. If bereavement ends with acceptance, even before death comes down Country Lane, high stepping past the piglet at the entrance and the tiny clothes hanging on a line and past the suburban furnishings and the large television, past the generic old-time photos to room 9, where Martha Schultz lives behind her name.
--Oprah interviews a woman whose surgeon husband was a thief and a cheat. "Believe what people tell you about themselves the first time they say it," Oprah quotes Angelou. And when was the first indication he was not who he seemed to be? (It had something to do with his shoes and the time of day.)
--Mom responds to photos, when wifi kicks in, late afternoon. Facebook photos of the cat, the dogs (“cute dog!”), the girl, the boy, the husband, the President (he's the one after Bush, mom, a better one), some birds of paradise. She laughs, even. Not a laughter of recognition but.
--P is happy today. She still talks about children, still begins with words that dissolve into stuttered syllables. Another woman addresses me; I don't realize she's speaking Dutch, I only know I do not understand. A, who carries her purse everywhere, confides in me that “they tried to bullshit me” and “you know where they stick things,” before inviting me into her room. I stay outside.
--Did P suffer yesterday when she wept, or the day before, when she pulled the tree down? Does P knows she feels better now, coming just a little too close to me, to L, but not to bully us, as she does J? (We none of us remember duration well, the newspaper tells us, but remember events rather than years, months, days.) If there is no event to remember, or memory to record event, has there been suffering, joy, astonishment? The correct answer is yes. I think. Fill in the dot.
--L tells P she loves her, and P says more about the kids. Her eyes are dark moons, her hands white as if cold, and her voice velvety, even when her anger starts. The common area is full, well-dressed residents in their formal chairs, half awake, the other half slumped over. One man wears a tie; J wears one new white tennis shoe and one white sock; E burps loudly; my mother sits quietly in her rocker. She says she's happy I came.
--The science shows that people get happier as they age. One woman, now 87, plays the piano, attends classes, can be seen in photos with friends at lunch. PBS tells us that we are more calm when we're older; double so at 40 than at 20. We know our character strengths; we practice them. People are more resilient than you might think. The juvenile delinquent is a thoracic surgeon; the woman with cancer meditates now, changes wigs with less frequency. Positive psychology works for soldiers in the field.
--At the caregiver agency there are stacks of boxes, at least four of them, one on top of the other. They are full of cigars. The man is 90 and has plenty of money, so he orders cigars. Every so often they have to clear them out. “I keep thinking I started as a public health nurse,” says the boss. Now she ships cigars to soldiers in Afghanistan, Iraq. They'll be used, says a woman whose niece is over there now. His company could probably use some.
--It's a war movie today, men in helmets in the mud. War movie music, oddly sweet, so it's an old movie. “Her daughter, he loved her.”
--One of the two S's breaks the lunch time silence, everyone gathered to eat, no one eating yet. “It's so quiet in here, it's scary,” she says, loudly. Like the other S, she's from New York. “Where in New York?” Christine asks, breaking her own silence as she spoons the goulash-y dish onto the plates. “The best place in New York!” Turns out it's the Bronx, so I say the Yankees won the World Series this year. “Yes, that's why I love them,” she says, “but unfortunately, I didn't know.” I'm helping my mother eat, fork full by fork full; she no longer eats willingly, when S starts giving me the A-OK hand gesture. “Awl daughtas should be lwike that!” Yesterday she was on the arms of a daughter-in-law and grandson, fresh from the cold air. Today she wears a brown and black dress and black knee socks.
--J is eating his lunch by the back window, facing another man but not looking at him. A man and a woman come and stand behind and beside him; his daughter and son-in-law. “You spilled food on your pants! There's food everywhere! And how about your leg? Did you cut it? My husband is just out of surgery,” she says, jangling her keys. He holds up his bandaged arm. “Did you know about that? He had surgery! Hasn't had breakfast yet, so we gotta go.” Gone.
--A few minutes later, Christine says to J, “no don't even think that; you weren't mean to them, you were having your lunch. Get it out of your head.”
--Mom goes to the beauty shop. Under the dryer sits Pat; yesterday, P tore down the Christmas tree on Country Lane. Today, P is weeping. Emma tries to console her, but fails. P weeps because of a baby. She utters other parts of words, sounds, but the one word that works is “baby.” Then she begins to speak with a strong voice; she had four children and they had books and. The voice scrambles again. We'd arrived at the moment of trauma, when language slammed shut.
--F talks all the time to herself when she's not napping. Doe eyed, she wears a thick colorful sweater. She talks about Massachusetts, New Bedford. She says she does not have a good musical voice. She says she'll sing, but her voice. Christine tells me that Florence and her sister took care of each other until the sister died. “The MacKenzies, I said The MacKenzies!”
--At the common room, where mom hardly ever goes any more, E, the man who courts the ladies, wishes he could give Martha chocolate (against the rules), says New York was great except for the Irish section. Smell of pee on the corners. Mary Lou (a caregiver) says it was the Germans. Michael is gone, who led the discussions, replaced by a young man who remembers deli sandwiches in Brooklyn for $2 or $3. Mary Lou pitches in about pickles on the plate.
--The flowers. I'm known for the flowers I send from Hawai'i. They keep the place cool when the flowers arrive.
--Esther says not everyone realizes, but the residents take care of her, too. The way they talk to her, she knows what we go through.
--At the hair dresser, I ask mom if she remembers me. “I remember you,” she says, and smiles. In the common area, Betty from India asks mom if she remembers her daughter. “No, that's not my daughter,” she says, and smiles.
--The email header is “um,” from a poetry friend who wonders how I'm feeling better about it all this time. This is not cruel distance, nor is it enlightened detachment. “Whatever you do, that's your 'real' life,” my mom said when we complained our lives weren't “real.”
--I punch in 6s and 3s and 1s. I keep getting them wrong. The door won't open. A resident is walking toward the door, feeling the molding on the wall as he goes. Door clicks. I open it, and he says something about going out. I push the door closed against his voice.
--She sits slumped over to her right in a chair in the Country Lane common area. “Sit up, Martha,” Christine and I tell her. She props her left elbow on the rest for a few moments, then slumps over again. Christine wanted her to get her hair done before I came; it's short, plastered oddly to her head. She wears the black sneakers with pink lace holders that Bryant and the kids and I got her a couple of years ago, white socks, black slacks, and shirt and brown suede jacket that I've not seen before. The one time she stands up to go into the next room for lunch, she appears smaller than before, needs guidance to walk the several paces to sit down next to Sylvia, the woman who speaks loudly when she speaks, sings sometimes down the hall. Today, she'd been asleep until one of the workman came and flapped his arms for her, pretending to fly.
--I'm so tired at lunch (lost sleep, jetlag, a trip to mom's lawyer and tax preparer in Arlington) that I excuse myself, lie down on mom's bed and go to sleep. She's in room 9, has a new neighbor since last year. Christine brings mom in after lunch to go to the bathroom, then leaves. Then I hear loud noises. “YOU'RE TRYING TO KILL ME, I KNOW YOU'RE TRYING TO KILL ME!!!!” When I go back out to the common room, Cristine is dealing with a fake Christmas tree that's been knocked down. The glass angel, the one the workman had already fixed, is damaged again, its wing broken off. The light strings are in knots. Christine takes the tree down. It was P, whom I remember as a placid woman last February. She's angry now, back in her room, banging on the door.
--Later in the afternoon, P comes out; Christine gets her to sit in the common room, brings her Ensure in a small cup. P is almost past language. Lifts her arms up, as if to place them on the handle bars of a motorcycle, says, NNNNNNNNNNNO, NNNNNNNNNNO. Begins a sentence one way, finishes it, or fails to finish it another. J, the man she shoved, does the same. “Julie,” he says, nothing more. P's eyes get big when she gets mad, and she's mad. Then she comes over to me to ask, "what can I do for you?" Can't finish her question. "What do you think you could do for me?" I ask. She holds her shirt at the bottom, might raise it. Christine intervenes; leads her to a chair.
--J says he has a “hole.” He keeps telling me about falling out of bed, waiting for three hours, crying out, and getting this hole, larger than a quarter, as he shows me with his hand. He has a cut on his forehead. But the hole is on his leg. Christine raises up his pant leg. “You have an abrasion,” she says. I try to help by reducing the word to “scrape.”
--”She used to be my best, first customer in the mornings,” Lena tells those gathered in the common room. Lena holds a large white ball, which she tosses back and forth while she talks. “Now it's you,” she tells a woman in the first row. Mom's too frail now, not so interested.
--My mother dozes as the television runs. Before lunch it's _Young Frankenstein_. That was a movie I saw with mom. Now five old people sit and sleep while Gene Wilder vamps. After lunch the _Planet of the Apes_ movies are on. Charlton Heston sweet talks a young woman, thin and breasty, who does not speak. “Can you talk? Talk?” he demands. There is hair on his chest, loud teeth in his mouth. He gives her his dog tag. Says “Taylor” and points to himself. Says the name again, again points. Disappears, with a gun, off his horse into thin air. The second one, the one who looks like Heston, has the woman, who still cannot speak English, take him to the ape village. A military ape rants about war, invasions, the need to conquer. A female ape mutters against the war. The man ape wins. The Heston clone is captured, escapes. I lose track, wander off. Mom still dozes. [Later, I find that the movie was the 1970 sequel, _Beneath the Planet of the Apes_.]
--Something has changed for me. This visit is easier than before. I am used to seeing my mother like this. She doesn't talk, smiles only occasionally, stares at the TV or into space, slumps over, sleeps a bit. I wonder why it feels easier now. Why there's less need to lock in, hold everything in memory until later in the motel room, though I have. I try to remember which residents are gone. There was the woman with the dolls around her neck; the woman who carried a kleenex box wherever she went; the woman who seemed European. Others I do remember: the grandmother who could not remember how many grandkids she had. Dr. F still has room, memory box. A Rev. B wanders the halls, as if to minister to the residents. It takes time to realize he is one.
--Amber, who works the front desk, still hasn't sent me inauguration photos. She recommends a Vienna restaurant, Maple Avenue, where I go for dinner. Beef stew. Reminds me of home. Reminds me this is not.
I'm spending a very few days on the east coast to see my mother in her Alzheimer's home and to see her lawyer, her accountant. And so I go back, briefly, to dementia blogging.
--”You're inconsiderate,” I say to the man standing at the gate, who talked all night to his friends. “Well, you're a bitch, so who cares?” he responds. “As if some of us don't have to work today,” says the woman next to me.
--Sometime during the night I imagine asking them, the three drunken talkers, if they had mothers. Hours later, their talk turns to mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, the one whose little sister is so much wiser than he is, the other whose mother had so many husbands, or so I think I hear within these slurry sentences.
--The German man next to me lives with his family in China. He works in plastics. Traveled back and forth to Germany nine times one year, only seven this last. Was in Vegas for the new year, must be where he got his Harley jacket; said something about riding Harleys through town, flying a Cessa (he said Chessna) over the Grand Canyon with a pilot young enough to be the ground guide. After a call is put out for a doctor on the plane, he asks out loud what the next thing to happen in the movie of this flight would be. “Is there a pilot in the plane?” is his answer. He tells his wife the same joke in the gangway, in English.
--A white woman strides down the corridor between gates 73 and 74 at LAX, screaming into her cell phone. She is unwell, she yells at whoever is on the other end. A two year old Asian boy in bright red shirt approaches her. He is crying. They stop, look at each other, until the woman returns to her phone and another woman takes him by the hand. He has no idea where he's going, but knows his name is Wyden.
--After the self-help guru meets his Jennifer Anniston and sets free his cockatoo and leaves notes with big words on them at her florist shop; after he heals the sick and then himself, and after he tells them all about his own loss (car accident clips jump into the space of his speaking); after the self-help guru begins to look less like Ted Haggard and more like Brad Pitt, then we switch to muscular salmon fighting up a river, flying through the air, landing on stone or water and pushing their tails, hard, again, after the grizzly retreats from the wolves, a cut on his side, and after the little bears shake off the river water, then the big and the little bears take to the stream to hunt; after we've seen the eagle snatch a fish from the water's surface, the bear turns, slips, and misses, as Pujols might miss a fast ball down the center of the plate, except the bear's look is bemused, nearly helpless.
--Pathos of plane trips: the crying, the bitching (“I'M NOT in a BAD MOOD,”the woman says at the gate, as her husband feigns calm, making her look worse with every heavy syllable), the prospect of a father (long dead) at the other end or a living mother (long demented) or an unplotted circuit into the monumental city and not the quick stops for car and hotel and lawyer and accountant and dementia lock down and the trip that is remembered more by one because not by the other.
--She advised leaving out the politics. Liked the disjointedness, the distractions between, but not the politics. That politics passes, if too slowly. Pauses, perhaps, within decline's rough arc. Ark. The plane is one. When there's not a fundie in undies, or drunk to say “find a bar and I'll see you there,” or a child to frame the sentimental journey, the inwardness of outwardness or push of a private grief into the airport's corridor. Gate 73 is now for Kona. You want 75D, instead.
--The man next to me on the next flight was off to boot camp in South Carolina, and the young woman next to him. He pulls out a stack of small white tablets, takes them out of their plastic wrap, writes a letter to his wife. She's pregnant again; they have a 17 month old boy, and he's off to what the younger ones call “kindergarten.” He calls it a vacation for getting in shape. They'll yell at him on the other end. At Dulles he pulls out his phone and texts “Wife.”
About a week ago, I posted an entry about the alphabet as a marker of what is most public (knowledge) and most private (when used as a poetic device, a code with no key). As I wrote there, I've long been curious about the ways in which the private is rendered public in poetry, but also (and more radically) how the private nature of our public experiences gets invoked in poems.
So along comes a free moment to read Daniel Tiffany's new critical book, Infidel Poetics: Riddles, Nightlife, Substance (U of Chicago, 2009), which moves away from "imagined communities" posited by Benedict Anderson, communities born of newspapers and other media culture, and into the realm of "impossible" ones. "The community established (or preestablished) by poetry depends neither on meaningfulness nor on external relations--indeed," Tiffany writes, "it may be described as an impossible community" (150). He begins from the notion of "vernacular obscurity," which he finds in the canting songs of beggars and thieves, the riddles of Old English and Mother Goose rhymes, reaches into jargons (which come from bird song) and Pidgins, and comes out the other end into the strange land of avant-garde Modernism. His equation has a beautiful counter-intuitive feel to it, until you begin to hear echoes of "He Do the Police in Different Voices" in your ears. Or until you read his chapter on Mallarme and Mother Goose. "Mallarme and Mother Goose" is one of Tiffany's own riddles, which he teases out over the space of a chapter late in the book, as he shows us how Mallarme taught English to his pupils through the aid of nonsense. Tiffany's central argument--there are many that orbit around it--is that vernacular and high art are similar in their reliance on communities of people who share their obscurities only with themselves. Hence the unlikely link of, say, Ezra Pound with an 18th century purveyor of rhyming slang on London's streets. What he calls "the radiant properties of obscurity" (232) are part of a larger linguistic continuum, not an escape from it. T.S. Eliot might call one form of poetry "personality," the other "impersonal." Tiffany writes that, "acknowledging the priority of expression redraws the map of obscurity, expanding its territorial reach beyond the literary sites of virtuosity and experimentation, thereby blurring divisions (based solely on the criterion of obscurity) between literary and vernacular poetries" (232).
In the end, Tiffany's book calls for a return to anonymity as a literary and a cultural marker. He has taught us already that "anonymity" began its career as a literary term and only later became associated with modern notions of angst. And so he takes the term back, but with a difference, quoting Hannah Arendt at the end of his book about "a flight from the world to concealment, from public life to anonymity" in dark times (234). Not that this anonymity is mere escape for Tiffany, mind you, rather it involves connections between "solipsism and connectedness," "secrecy and expressiveness" (234). The turning in that Tiffany advocates is not so much away from the world as away from its counterfeit realities. Back perhaps toward what Schlegel describes as "the thinking of thinking" (which is a quotation of a quotation on page 92). That meditative poetry is a tradition rarely advertised as transparent, clear, open, glassy, helps to make this point for Tiffany. Poets' thinking is rarely less (or more) than what we term "obscure," even as we value it for its in-sights. Poetry has no outsights to offer us. Thinking is the most inward of acts; to put it on paper hardly makes it less so, though it may share some of that inwardness with its community of readers.
[Editor's note: Daniel Tiffany adds this: "I do have one thought in response to your comment about a putative call for a retreat from "counterfeit realities" in the name of obscurity, In fact, as the book's Afterword confusedly urges, I'm suggesting a turn TOWARDS inauthenticity (the unavoidable condition now of the vernacular, I think), towards kitsch, as a way of reigniting sentimentality in some atavistic sense--of reclaiming the dialectical substance (the halo) of the commodity for poetry. It's a risk worth taking, I think. Fakery and obscurity become entwined in a brand new way!"]
The other book that launches me from one "low, dishonest decade" into this next (if you think the decade has, in fact, ended) is Claudia Rankine's DON'T LET ME BE LONELY. While the book was published in 2004 (by Graywolf), it reads as an elegy to the aughts, whose tone was set early. Y2K was the false, comedic crisis that 9/11 became, and 9/11 has stayed with us for a long decade. Rankine's "lyric" is, in fact, a book of prose. The back cover calls it "lyric essay/poetry," which reminds me how much I prefer the term "meditation." "Lyric essay" seems another marker of the selling of genres as teachable units; it's a subset of "creative non-fiction," after all. But that's enough complaining. Rankine's work is forensic, getting at our most public moments by way of her most private ones. Not only does she share family stories with her reader, some of them tragic, but she also examines the effects of American life on the inner organs--the brain, the breast, the liver. Medicine is part of this narrative, though any link between medicine and healing is not as neat as one might hope (against hope). The link between human value and that assigned by the insurance industry is even more troubling. The book is held together by the ever-symbolic television screen, that place where our private and public lives most often meet, as we sit (mostly) passively to receive them. Our passivity is what makes us most ill. To meditate upon the public event and the poet's private (very physical) reponses to it is to re-take some notion of agency (though that word loses agency as I type). DON'T LET ME BE LONELY appears as a billboard in a field of sunflowers on the cover of Rankine's book. It's an unlikely billboard, this private call of anguish set beside a main road (which is empty, save for a thicket of signs.) There's a sense of public obscurity about the clear, private anguish that is the book's subject. While Rankine quotes Levinas on "being for the other," she frames that quotation with assertions of loneliness. And so, on page 120, she begins, "Then all life is a form of waiting, but it is the waiting of loneliness. One waits to recognize the other, to see the other as one sees the self." Then, she quotes the other, Levinas:
"The subject who speaks is situated in relation to the other. This privilege of the other ceases to be incomprehensible once we admit that the first fact of existence is neither being in itself nor being for itself but being for the other, in other words, that human existence is a creature. By offering a word, the subject putting himself forward lays himself open and, in a sense, prays." (120)
I am reminded just now of the hilltops of Rwanda in the mid-90s, during the genocide, when thousands of people milled about, stunned, hungry, and the eye of the media turned itself on them. There was a correspondent for ABC news whose face was narrow, hair gray, voice melancholy. I sat and cried at the images as he spoke into the camera's eye, which mediated between me and him, him and the story he was paid to tell us. Over the course of days, weeks, the correspondent's face fell, his voice began to quiver. I don't remember which gave way first, the correspondent's psyche or the short attention span of the media. But one day they were both gone from my screen. I was alone again, without him, without them. Levinas is surely right about self and other, the word, the prayer that links us. But what if we are all behind television (or computer) screens and our words are spoken only to ourselves? That kind of privacy is hellish. [I google Rwanda and eventually come up with the name of that correspondent, Jim Wooten.]
But Rankine turns away from the screen to face an audience of readers. That act of turning towards us, whoever we may be, does not close the loop that makes her body suffer, but it does invite in the "impossible community" of readers and writers. Our relation may not be "lyrical," but it can be close-knit, our own secret incantatory (from "cant," surely) calling out. That, in any case, is how I want to begin the 2010s, with that hope. And then action?
My first post on Tinfish Editor's Blog was last January 4. I wrote it after making a rare new year's resolution. That one was to write more about Tinfish and all it signifies to me. I wanted to move outside the "invisible handedness" of my position as editor and into "handedness." For Tinfish is an organizing principle that works well beyond the small press publishing world: it organizes my thinking in the classroom, and increasingly becomes the material for my arguments about literature and about the places (real and imagined) that I inhabit. While the blog has taken away energies from "creative" work, I have enjoyed the deadlines it imposes on me, the goad to thinking things through in print. So I will aim to continue the blog for at least another year. We'll see. A very Happy New Year to all of you who get this far!