Thoughts on book publishing, editing, contemporary poetry, dementia, administrative memos, and teaching by the editor of Tinfish Press.
Tuesday, January 6, 2015
"I think I could turn and live with animals": Albert Saijo's wild/life
The quotation is from Whitman. Whitman's animals are perfect Buddhists; not attached to material goods or to ideologies, they are not "respectable" or hierarchical. Animals are. As I write this, my 20-year old cat cries from the other room. He's deaf, lives for sun, laps, and food. When we do not attend to him, he yells. Whether or not this refutes Whitman I can't say. But it does strike me that Saijo's animal poems, unlike his poems about human beings, are about being. (Can writing be about being, without being it?) They present situations without commentary or judgment, in ways that many of his other poems do not. When he repeatedly advises himself to "go Tilopa," we see him trying hard to live with the animal-self and perhaps not succeeding. But when he looks to see a mole, a rat. a flicker, a dead bush bunny, he simply sees what is there. He is much more John Clare than Percy Byssche Shelley, at least in his contemplation of the natural world.
Here are two manuscript pages from his notebooks; these poems are included in Tinfish Press's WOODRAT FLAT. This first poem, about a chickadee, seems an after-thought "show" on a page of "telling." Preacher Albert cedes to zen observer Albert. He sees the chickadee: the first layer of the manuscript page simply presents that observation. Another later layer comments on the rarity of this moment: "BUT A LONE CHESTNUT-BACKED CHICKADEE FEEDING ON THE GROUND IS MORE UNUSUAL STILL"[.] Then back to statement (the chickadee is alone on the ground), with a final trilling by the poet: "CHICKADEEDEE." The opening, "UNUSUAL TO SEE" only implies an "I/eye": the poem is nearly all chickadee. This is John Clare's nightingale, not John Keats'; while Clare participates in the bird's surround, he stays at its periphery. Keats's bird is but diving board for the poet's imaginative flutterings.
The poem about a mole has more of the poet in it. He's watching the mole steal his lettuce. But Saijo forgives in animals what he so distrusts about humans and their communities; he tells the story without judgment, then turns the usual narrative fable about saving an animal into one about saving lettuce for dinner. He's whimsical without being mawkish. In "Flicker Fact," he tells the story of a bird that hobbles on the ground, seemingly nursing a broken wing. He follows the flicker. After going 20 paces, the flicker flies off, "PERFECTLY ALL RIGHT." The poem ends: "DIDN'T KNOW FLICKERS DO THIS." The flicker is wily coyote, or trickster monkey, at once dishonest and playful. But Saijo does not hold the animal world to a human standard of ethics, one all too easily broken; the animal offers him permission to watch, unattached.
These observations are easy to let go. They are, as Saijo would say, "FUN." But his poem about a dead bush bunny somehow maintains this wit, while examining the aftermath of a violent act, the killing of the bunny. This is a poem I love and can't find in my many photographs of the notebooks. So here is the script in the Tinfish book. As usual, you can enlarge by clicking on the image.
As he often does, Saijo starts with the Latin name for the rabbit. If Latin is dead, then so too this bunny. Saijo's emphasis on its perfection (the word "PERFECT" occurs four times in this very short poem) sets us up for the trickster nature of nature. The rabbit is perfect, except he's been eaten at the top. Saijo's description of the rabbit is loving--it's soft, its features all inventoried--but he is hardly horrified by the bunny's death. If animals give him access to being, they also open up non-being without the fear and grasping of human "nature," as indeed of Saijo's more angry poems.
If animals are let be, plants are somehow more like human beings in Saijo's cosmology. There is the "SMART PLANT" that can reproduce itself in a pinch. I need hardly add--to any reader of Saijo's work--that this intelligent plant is marijuana. Much of WOODRAT FLAT is about Saijo's life as a marijuana grower in northern California. The book alternately praises the plant and attacks the police and the feds who are going after his crop. Unlike the animal, which is, the plant is sacramental; to attempt to destroy the poet's way of making a living is not simply an act of economic violence. It is also anti-spiritual, destructive on a higher plane, as well as the ordinary one. Hence, in "SACRAMENTAL," Saijo writes in Blakean fashion of the plant that, "CONVERTS US TO INNOCENCE MAKES US LAUGH & TEACHES US WHERE OUR FEARS LIE--IT OPENS THE EYE--IT MAKES THE EAR HEAR THE ONE TUNE--HOSANNAH--IT MAKES THE BODY EMBODIED MIND & IT RELEASES US FROM REASON--IT STRIPS US TO ANIMAL & MAKES US FEEL INSTINCT"[.] So the gift of the plant is to make us animal, but not in the sense Puritans or other religions frame "animal." Instead, we see clearly only under its influence.
If Saijo were to be fit into a neat box, it would likely not be BEAT or ASIAN AMERICAN, but late late ROMANTIC poet. But Romantic in the school of John Clare, one who abhors the human pest and his imperial imagination, who tries to see nature as is, rather than as the language that mirrors our desires. In the next post, I'll get to his more abstract and aphoristic work, where he does the human more completely! Because, as close and faithful an observer of nature as he was, he was also an inveterate thinker, prone to abstraction, judgment, and preacherliness. Complex creatures we. So leave the box open, for god's sake!