[The Castle, where Steve Shrader lived]
Editor's Introduction to Arc of the Day & The Imperfectionist
In Autumn, 1983, East West magazine in Honolulu ran a cover story on Mother Marianne of Molokai, who would be canonized by the Pope nearly thirty years later, in 2012. On the cover was a painting of Mother Marianne, her face framed by a habit, the slightest smile visible on her lips. Only after the magazine was published would its editor, Chris Pearce, discover that the nun's face was, in fact, a self-portrait of its painter, the magazine's graphic designer, Steve Shrader. I start with this anecdote because Shrader was a painter, photographer, and poet who lived for over 35 years in Hawai`i, while hiding in plain sight. He was not unknown—he had a circle of friends, he'd published a book of poems in 1970 through Ithaca Press—but he kept his poetry to himself. His apartment in a large building on Waimanalo Beach, called The Castle, was full of paintings, collages, books, music cd's, and poems that did not find their way out the door and down the staircase of The Tower. He made his living as an instructor of English, a journalist, a graphic designer; those were his public lives. What was most important to him—art, music, literature—he kept within the four walls of his house, and inside his quiet exterior. Even some of his closest friends had no idea he was so many writing poems at the end. As best I can determine, these are the poems of his last few years, written in a final rush of creativity before he died in February, 2007 at age 62.
It's appropriate that Shrader, whose poetry mixes history, fairy tale, references to the Great European Masters and to post-World War II Japanese photography, a lover of military history, local politics and journalism, model airplanes, Brazilian music, surrealism, and possessed of a strong sense of place in Hawai`i, should have lived in a building called The Castle. A looming old brown building on Waimanalo Beach, as much apartment building as house, on whose second floor (up a looping staircase into “the tower) Shrader lived for some 35 years, The Castle sits among ironwoods, with views of Rabbit Island on the one side and Mokapu Point on the other. In her 1989 memoir, My Time in Hawaii, Victoria Nelson—friend to Shrader, who took her author photo for that book—describes “the enormous sea captain's house known as the Castle.” The house is the stuff of legend: “The massive Castle was flanked by the Red Barn on one side and the Nameless House, a three-story frame house of great elegance and beauty, on the other. Legend had it that the captain's luau on December 7, 1941, had been strafed by Japanese fighters on their way back from bombing Bellows army base as the terrified family hid in the Castle's basement” (30). As Shrader's life unfolded within the Castle's walls, it also contracted. John Knox described Shrader in his eulogy this way as “form and composition. And the isolated individual, the man apart.” But the man apart entered into more than the tradition of Transcendentalism, which celebrated the individual. He was also engaged with Asian traditions in Hawai`i and the Pacific; he alluded to indigenous ones in his poetry. While he alludes sometimes to being haole (or white), in “A Constellation” he notes:
I squat in the sand
a significant participant of no plan in particular
uncomfortably at ease.
“Uncomfortably at ease” describes much about these poems, which have a feel of spontaneity to them, but came out of great labor. The ease with which Shrader brings local and international traditions together belies his--anyone's--discomfort in doing so. Here's one version of that mixing, from “A Bossa Nova”:
drag that bloody gringo off
the mountaintop I say
but in this favela
we lack such remedies
except that we're but
a short walk away from
a decent pinot noir
and a big bad bento
Here “gringo” sits in for “haole,” but the “favela” to which Shrader refers is likely Waimanalo, a poor town, whose population is largely native Hawaiian, on the eastern side of O`ahu. The “pinot noir” sounds upper-crust and arty, the “big bad bento” a local Japanese box lunch with a variety of foods, which came to Hawai`i by way of contract laborers. It's an odd mix, but it's one Shrader knew well. According to Warren Iwasa, “Bento” was also a nickname for Shrader's son, Ben.]
In “French Bread,” subtitled “a deformed sonnet,” what might appear to be an arbitrary set of references reveals carefully chosen allusions to the Vietnam War (French and American chapters), and shock waves that draw in political/economic issues from Brazil to Spain. This is how the poem begins:
Big bear (Ursa Major) and little bear (Ursa Junior)
went out with Goldilocks looking for their mother,
a brilliant dope field. In the litter in an alley behind
the Vo Nguyen Giap Patisserie, a work brigade
from the commune hacked them to death with its hoes.
If “French bread” refers to a food baked in Paris, then the Vo Nguyen Giap Patisserie was where it was “deformed,” defeated. General Giap was the North Vietnamese General who defeated the French at Dien Bien Phu, the Americans in 1975. The commune may allude to the Paris Commune of 1871 or the communism of Ho Chi Minh, or to the Khmer Rouge, whose commune members killed fellow Cambodian citizens with hoes. The hoes, we should note, refer both to the tool and to the President of North Vietnam, Ho. Having set up a particular historical field, Shrader moves into more general territory:
Violent gestures beget violent gestures.
A plutocrat shrugs in Sao Paulo.
The diaphanous wings of a shockwave obliterate Madrid.
He links actual violence (Vietnam, Madrid of the Spanish Civil War and/or the terrorist bombings of 2004) with economic violence (the Brazilian plutocracy). And it's here that we note the apt violence of yoking the children's fairy tale of Goldilocks to the deformed fairy tale of political and military power:
Is this porridge poison? Will a mother's habit kill another rabbit?
Big bear & little bear rise from the dead
on their hind legs. Uncle Ho rises too in his boots of fire
and blows young Goldilocks away.
In a standard version of the tale, Goldilocks enters the bears' house, breaks a chair, settles in imperiously and—by extension—imperially. In the deformed tale, she is “blown away” by Uncle Ho, who takes the side of the bears. The poem ends with a fourth bear, Brer Bear:
Brer Bear: Easy to walk on d'water
but hard lord to crawl up upon d'land
The Uncle Remus and Brer Rabbit tales come out of an African-American tradition. While I can't find the source of Shrader's quotation here, I locate in the Chandler Harris version of the tales a story called “Brother Bear's Big House.” In that story, Brer Bear has a large and comfortable house to which Brer Polecat wants entry. Having weaseled his way into the house, “he had sech a bad breff dat dey all hatter git out—an' he stayed an' stayed twel time stoped runnin' ag'in' him.” Another fairy tale about home invasion, another echo around the stone of Shrader's theme, another violent gesture promising only to beget more violent gestures. As someone who heard about native Hawaiian issues, Shrader would have known more than he writes in this poem about colonialism and resistance to it.
During his years in Iowa in the late 1960s, Shrader had protested the Vietnam War. Alice Notley remembers bailing him out of jail once after a protest. Vietnam references were personal as well as political, but perhaps not as personal as those references he makes later in Arc of the Day to the atom bomb. One section of the book, which is dedicated to Shrader's son Ben, is titled “Mushroom Child.” The eponymous first poem in this section is dedicated to Shomei Tomatsu, a Japanese photographer whose photographs of Nagasaki atomic bomb victims are among the most powerful responses to that event. (Ben Shrader's middle name is Shomei, some of his ancestors from Hiroshima.) One of Tomatsu's famous photographs is of a bottle melted and twisted by the force of the bomb. But Shrader's half-Japanese-American son is not the only “Mushroom Child.” Shrader was himself one, his father, Erwin Shrader, a nuclear physicist who participated in the Manhattan Project. In “Brookhaven,” from Arc of the Day, Shrader alluded to family silences and to a trip he took into Manhattan with his father: “We ate at the automat / strode among towers / rode the train home / in the quantum's silence.” In “Mushroom Child,” he elaborates: “as far as my parents were concerned / I was the Manhattan project / as is their grandson / out of the loins of Hiroshima.” The rest of the poem offers meditations on language, on metaphors of atoms and balls spinning, on what is born out of our elements. Horror and love, in other words:
language will not shield us
from that flash which half cripples us
nor from the annealing flesh resembling
indolent on the court, arcing spheres
through circles, shooting hoops
spinning on the rim and dropping in or out
fusion's offspring, mixed son
of whatever transforms the elemental
into the complex
The metaphor is nothing if not dangerous. Any direct comparison of the atom bomb's devastation with the creation of a hapa son might seem terribly reductive, foolish even. But Shrader's method of spinning (like an atom) into the final metaphor by way of Tomatsu's photographs, an image of boys playing basketball, only then alluding to the mixing of genetic material, gives us access to the comparison, not as fixed point on a map, but as fertile (and destructive) movement. According to Iwasa, Shrader and his son watched NBA games together, a fact that renders the metaphorical literal again.
Arc of the Day is a volume at once serious and playful. Shrader was a punster (meanings hide in plain sight of other words) so his poem to the Finnish Anselm Hollo is called “Finn-de-siècle.” An anti-confessional confessional haiku ends with a telling double-entendre: “do not mistake me / for I am invisible / oblique oblige.” While he may have yearned for an invisibility cloak, several of the poems in this first collection are marred by misogyny. The second section of this book, The Imperfectionist, is more wistful, more allegorical, and far more elegiac. An entire section of the book, “52240,” is devoted to memories of Iowa City, where Shrader earned his MFA in the late 1960s. Many of these poems are dedicated to friends, alive and dead, from that time; that my correspondents didn't know Shrader had dedicated poems to them seems only logical, considering his increasing isolation.
In “Opening the Triptych,” Shrader writes that, “the central panel remains hidden yet still we feel / that obscurity is both its best and worst feature,” a phrase that could perhaps be applied to his poems. But one of the openings to the poems that I find most interesting isn't that of discovering notes about Bosch's triptych in Shrader's notes, but of finding clues to his life in Hawai`i in the poems. There are codes in all the work. Another poem, “The Da Souza Code,” (Da Souza would be a local name by way of Portuguese plantation workers, and a friend who worked for Governor Waihee) contains an allusion to the Da Vinci Code's Reon Tigaldo, or “golden ratio.” While the obvious intertexts for this poem—obvious to one who saw the poet's notes, in any case—are Bosch's “The Garden of Earthly Delights” and Ruggiero Leoncavallo's opera, I Pagliacci, Shrader also paints in ordinary words as code for place names, local parlance. “Opening the Triptych” ends with a very rare reference to time and place, “Waimanalo, Hawai`i 7/2006.” That beach is clearly one of the poems many sites. There are ti blossoms and white stretch limos, there are chopsticks with bean sauce, and there is a kite in the sky. And then in the first stanza of section 2, there is this:
we shook our bottles
till thumbs popped
visible as the steeple
in our tiny township
three to five foot faces
too quick to be human
insomnia and crackers
in a homespun hammock
unlawful use of a bellows
These last two or so lines bring us into Waimanalo, where one might eat crackers on a hammock. And then there are the “bellows.” Waimanalo Beach runs into Bellows, owned and operated by the U.S. Military, which uses the beach and its surrounding area to practice amphibious assaults. Knowing this casts the lines of the next stanza in a new context; the poet writes of a “ruff rumped grouse” that breaks away: “we wheel and shoot / blow it to smithereens.” In a poem about a triptych whose central panel is hellish, the reference to Bellows and to the fire nursed by a bellows is surely apt. One could write dozens more pages on Shrader's allusions to high art and to local places, but suffice it to say that no other poet I can think of would write, out of his own experience, such an instruction manual to places he had been, rather than those he simply imagined (pace Ashbery's “The Instruction Manual”).
Shrader's poems evoke a world at once precise and ephemeral, beautiful and awful. As he wrote these poems, he was contemplating his own mortality. At several points in the two manuscripts, he alludes to his own ashes, meant to be scattered (as they in fact were) off the beach where he lived for so many years. In “Skywriter,” for Reuel Denney, poet and cultural critic, he writes, on seeing a biplane stunt pilot fly by:
an exhilarating appeal to reason
or to death
which is reason in disguise
wrapped in four dimensions
the sky unfolds
I loop and bow to you elder
kinsman high above sparkling water into which I with luck
smoke and ash likewise
shall be scattered
In “Under Construction,” Shrader alludes to Hart Crane, whose origins were also in Ohio, who also wrote of an “arc,” the Brooklyn Bridge: “across Crane's curve / to Brooklyn bronzed by ash.” The “scattering” of ashes at the end of “Skywriter” echoes the scatter of sound in Crane's late poem, “The Broken Tower”:
The bells, I say, the bells break down their tower;
And swing I know not where. Their tongues engrave
Membrane through marrow, my long-scattered score
Of broken intervals… And I, their sexton slave!
Shrader, who lived in a tower in a castle, would have understood those lines nearly from the inside.
That Shrader's creative work, aside from what he did for magazines, remained invisible for so many decades is a sad fact. But I want to argue for the importance of his work now, over half a decade after his death. For in these poems, especially those in The Imperfectionist, where he works extensively in forms—among them sestina and haiku—Shrader links traditions in highly original ways. The surfaces of his poems, to say nothing of their titles, sometimes read like those of John Ashbery, at once highly artificial and utterly vernacular. As Joseph Conte argues in Unending Design: The Forms of Postmodern Poetry, traditional forms like the sestina can be used to generate untraditional poems. John Ashbery's “Farm Implements and Rutabagas in a Landscape” is no “Ye Goat-herd Gods” (Sir Philip Sidney). Ashbery replaced the goat-herd with Popeye and his cartoon comrades. So, in “This Idea Has People,” Shrader writes a witty sestina about teenagers that cultimates in this rant of a fourth stanza:
these teens lecture us about the fall
they lecture us about the second coming
we have a thought (we'll run away)
teens jeer loudly, hurl their cells at this idea
milling in the parking lot (we are teens
you may be older, but we've been there before)
What the form does for (and perhaps against) the poet is to turn the screen against teens back on the poet (we might imagine that he was, at the time, father to a teen). The line, “you may be older, but we've been there before,” inverts more than age. Here the teen is father to the man and the man realizes it, the sestina returning over and again to the words “teen” and “before” and (tellingingly!) “the second coming.” The poem ends, “when we were teens, that is, before the fall / ourselves an idea whose time was surely coming / before we fell and cast it all away.” What began as a screed against teens thus turns into an elegy to the poet's own early years. The time that was coming has now gone. Hart Crane wrote that “we were promised an improved infancy,” to which Shrader responds, “we were promised an improved adolescence.” The failure to improve memorialized in the poem, it is still as much a verbal romp than an elegy.
“This Idea Has People” uses the sestina's arbitrary but strict form to create seemingly random connections. The sestina is a precise instrument, in other words, toward a poem that courts imprecision, ending not where the poet demands that it end but where the language mandates it. Another way to say this might be in the conclusion to “Toward a Lingua Anglica,” where Shrader writes that “we deal in the language we're dealt.” And it deals with us. Everyone to whom I spoke about Shrader noted his exactitude, his precision at his work, whether as a painter, a photographer, or a graphic designer. His poems, too, are precise. Their precisions are formal, but the poems are also precise in their allusions, historical references, and their grounding in place(s). Yet it's not accident that he might call himself, or the author of his poems, “the imprecisionist.” In a world where “Every Day Is an Accident,” as the last poem here attests, “midpoints” are “shifting,” not fixed, and “time zones / . . . are rearranged each night by the wacky moon.” The central fulcrum of these poems, then, is the counter-weight of accident with what Elizabeth Bishop termed the “awful, but cheerful” untidiness of daily life.
But Shrader's poems belong to an actual Hawai`i, not the (mostly) imagined Hawai`i to which Ashbery alludes in his poem, “On First Listening To Schreker's Der Schatzgraber,” when he writes: “Now that you're in Honolulu you've got to live it up / no matter what kind of grub they throw at you on Main Street” (And the Stars Were Shining 58). They are often grounded as much in politics as in art and music. Shrader's journalism from the 1970s' Hawaii Observer centered on local politics and the foibles of politicians in informative, witty, ever observant articles. Shrader was possessed of a deft wit. Of one legislator in wrote in 1976: “Kunimura is a veteran—of the 442nd Infantry Regiment and of the Kauai Baord of Supervisors (1955-62)”. Of another: “Rep. Andrew Poepoe (R-25th / Aikahi-Enchanted Lakes) is the House minority leader and, as such, has guided his tiny band of Republicans to new heights of ineffectiveness.” This was the Hawai`i of the 1970s, where Republicans were as rare as nene geese, after all, and flew about as well. Finally—though the examples are legion, of John Medeiros (R. 25th Aikahi-Enchanted Lakes): “Medeiros's most conspicuous talents are those of a small-town raconteur and are a part of the personability which has allowed him to work quietly and inconspicuously toward his own limited ends—the foremost being the initiation and subsequent expansion of the school-security guard program.” The poems are less focused on persons than on images, ideas, the character of Shrader's inner world, but his wit emerges in the cryptography of his references, the exfoliation of meaning, the uncomfortable joining together of the New York School with this Waimanalo School of one. A local bumpersticker reads: “New York. London. Paris. Waimanalo.” It's not intended to be serious. But it's as if Shrader breathed real life into that knock-off phrase, plastered onto many a rusted old car on Oahu.
Included in a folder shown me by Shrader's ex-partner Maile Yawata, which contains the manuscript to “Opening the Triptych” is a brief essay on art history by Rebecca Solnit, published in LOST magazine in May, 2006. She writes about the significance of the color blue in 15th century art, especially the “blue of distance.” She notes that painters became interested in “the faraway in their art,” unlike earlier artists. Her second paragraph reads, in part: “Often the band of blue toward the horizon seems exaggerated: it extends too far forward, it is too abrupt a change in color, it is too blue, as though they were exulting in the phenomenon by overdoing it.” But anyone who has been to Waimanalo Beach knows that the blue of the Pacific and the blue of the sky are intenser there than they are elsewhere. There's no exaggeration to the turquoise blue, the blue blue sea, the sky blue on which clouds ride toward the Ko`olau mountains. So, to Solnit's conclusion that, “in this world we actually live in, distance ceases to be distance and to be blue when we arrive in it. The far becomes the near and they are not the same place,” Shrader might respond that the world we actually live in is that very world that is the “blue of distance.” His poetry, understated as it is, engages a world that others might consider “exaggerated,” “unreal.” But it was Shrader's real world, and it is ours. We have his poems to thank for seeing this world as it was to him, and might now be to us.
Shrader left “camera ready” manuscripts in the font he wished his books to be published in. The files, however, could not be opened, though we made numerous attempts to do so. So our designer, Allison Hanabusa, has tried to be faithful to Shrader's design. There were mistakes—typos, misspellings—throughout. I have corrected such mistakes as I thought undeliberate, leaving only those that struck me as possibly being puns. To title a book Arc of the Day and then to include a section called “Ark of the Day” might be error, or it might be intended. Both words work: “arc” as the geometrical shape that joins unlike objects, ideas, and “ark”as (fertile) refuge from the world. So both versions of arc/ark remain here.
In working on this project, I owe great debts to many of Shrader's friends and family, including his son Ben Shrader, Maile Yawata, Warren Iwasa, Grady Timmons, John Knox, Daphne Chu, and others. For their financial support, Tinfish thanks John Wythe White & Victoria Gail White's Left Wing Right Brain Fund of the Hawai`i Community Foundation, Victoria Nelson, Buzz Poverman, Ellen Robinson, and others.