Saturday, June 24, 2017

24 June 2017


When my father died, he called down the hallway to me, and I came back. (The nurse said I could still talk to him, so I whispered good-bye in my father's, though--being dead--he couldn't acknowledge me.)  My mother gave him my father's gold Rolex, the one he'd bought for $100 after the war; she sold him our grand piano. He did her taxes when she could no longer keep her accounts straight, and told me on the phone that she was doing well when she was not. There was a cashier at Safeway, he told me, who spoke over 10 languages. Sure enough, the man bagging my groceries talked to a woman in Korean. She laughed. When he and his wife came to see my mother in her Alzheimer's home for the last time (I asked them to come), he teased her with motions of his arms and questions she could not answer. He said he could spend hours there engaging with her who slumped against the arm rest, her eyes flat glass. When my mother died, he sent a brief note. When his wife died, he sent a longer one. She'd collapsed suddenly after a wonderful day together. When I saw his house had sold, I emailed him and got no answer. I googled his name. There was his mug, an address in Incarceration, Virginia. He had a number, a sentence, and a crime: aggravated sexual assault. Someone had failed to protect him. A year and a half after his arrest the house sold and movers took everything away, but none of the neighbors knew a damn thing.


--24 June 2017

Friday, June 23, 2017

The world is not what we think it is

Since the anniversary of my mother's death was a few days ago, I googled her street, and found that one of her neighbors had sold his house. He and his late wife had sat for days and nights with my father when he was dying, and had loved my mother, caring for her well into her dementia. I'd always been fond of him. So I emailed to ask where he was moving, and to wish him a happy father's day. I got no response, so I googled him. First thing that came up was a mug shot. He's in jail for five years for aggravated sexual battery. And he's nearly 80 years old.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Toward a talk on Albert Saijo

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



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


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



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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, June 15, 2017

15 June 2017

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


--17 June 2017 

Saturday, June 10, 2017

10 June 2017


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


--10 June 2017

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

7 June 2017

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

--7 June 2017

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

6 June 2017

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


--6 June 2017

Monday, June 5, 2017

5 June 2017


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


--5 June 2017

Sunday, June 4, 2017

4 June 2017


You know that stones are hard. The dying octopus comes apart, her white flesh tailing off, arms waving apart from her brain and mouth. At meditation I sit beside an older Vietnamese woman, her make-up neat, her breathing hard. She never expected her stepmother to ask forgiveness. She was good to her children, especially her own. The Vietnamese woman misses her stepmother. Afterwards she says that when she writes she tries to get her nouns and verbs to agree. Another woman calls out the word “if,” as in, “if I have hurt you.” If the other knows if to be true, then if is a dodge. That's true, the teacher says. It's complicated, she adds. Go back into the hurt before you forgive. I add my name and email to the list at the door and return to my loop. I'd get closer, but there's no road or GPS for that.

Volcano
--4 June 2017

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

30 May 2017

'Love your neighbor.'” His last words: “tell everyone on the train I love them.” An unanticipated but well attended death. A woman took her shirt off to wrap him in and prayed. Down a narrow street at a bus stop a man named Christian swigged a beer, yelled profanities at the cops; the man who'd chased him down called him “cocksucker,” demanded the cops shoot him. “He stabbed them in front of children,” he kept saying, as if it were children that were the problem, not the knife or his intent. Muttered something about meth. For one agitated moment, Jeremy Christian is all the lost men of America, screaming his hatred as he paces the bus stop's narrow perimeter. He's wearing sneakers and shorts. We can't see him well from this distance, but who's to say we ever could. He's every last blocked desire, every last casting of blame, every last lost hope for agency this culture has to withhold. His mother can't believe he'd do such a thing. He was a nice man.


--30 May 2017

Monday, May 29, 2017

29 May 2017


Think what you want of this nothingness. On a walk with my dog, I counted my steps. Never got past three cuz she sniffs. It's her forensic investigation of the grass, occasional downspout or bulldog. For want of this nothingness he replaces “integritas” with “Trump” on a stolen family seal. In China, if you possess the seal, you're in charge. Trump follows others in a golf cart rather than walk with them. Our prepositions of the day are: with, in, for, of. All that's left are orders and insistence. Do this, do that, but don't consider it nothing. Build a wall around the sink-hole: Earth mouth hungers for your need. The president's excruciating want is our nutrition. Arrested on a DUI, the golfer graces my screen with his puffy eyes. He wrecked his body pretending to be a Navy Seal. #FakeNews is the enemy, Trump tweets. I am Tiger Woods.


--29 May 2017

Sunday, May 28, 2017

28 May 2017


So I encourage you—bow eagerly to love. A soccer dad in black knee brace kicks his son in the leg, yelling something about a hammer. Ask if the perpetrator is much bigger than you are, if you're in a confined space when you confront someone who spews racism, think about instability and escape routes. Think before you love, CNN advises us. The author of The Cloud of Unknowing was anonymous. He advises me to bow, but I do not. I walk by the man in the Bulls shirt as his son's eyes fill with tears. A coach speaks to his team nearby, says he turned girls down because he didn't like their parents' attitudes. On my way back, I stop to tell him of the coincidence. The president tweets about fake news. As Williams writes, some men die for lack of the real stuff. Others see it, walking past. A young man with full beard is dead in Portland, along with an older man, the one who must have said, “You don't talk to girls that way.” His name was Best.


--28 May 2017

Friday, May 26, 2017

War veterans read Sophocles, off the NYT

I don't usually post material from the newspaper on my blog, but the video in this story is stunning. Not only do the vets reading Sophocles address issues of combat, death, suicide, and betrayal, they also testify to the power of literature if not to heal us, then to explain our condition. I will show this to my students whenever I can, especially when I hear them reading in a droning voice, as if there is no human being trying to speak from the page. These readers get it, are gotten by it. If you do nothing else today, watch them:

https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/26/opinion/us-veterans-use-greek-tragedy-to-tell-us-about-war.html?action=click&pgtype=Homepage&clickSource=story-heading&module=opinion-c-col-right-region&region=opinion-c-col-right-region&WT.nav=opinion-c-col-right-region&_r=0

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Pre-publication sale



http://tinfishpress.com/?projects=the-last-lyric

25 May 2017

Feel not merely who you are but that you are. She wove a multi-colored shawl as biography of Anna Akhmatova, enclosed a key in the decorated box. Who we are is clothing. There's a frog on Camus's motorcycle, and it's hurtling toward a tree at excessive speed. Frog, too, feels the problem of existence, albeit without memory or prospect. Only Basho could render the SPLAT well on the page, but that incident at the tree solves the problem of identity (frog) vs. (sentient) being only insofar as it illustrates its end. A green stain means nothing unless you know its history, but history means little unless you know what it means to sit beside the pond and croak at lilies. The pond's water is also green, but only imitates substance while it drifts. The frog jumps in, we remember. But we cannot remember frog.


--25 May 2017

[to be published by Bill Lavender]

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

23 May 2017


Embrace the word whole. “Ze hole in ze text,” Herr Iser intoned, circa 1985. That's where we fall in like babies in a well, before we ascend into the headline, which rests at the top. Tails you find the bottom, where wisdom is before it kills you. Of course you think about suicide, he said, because you're trying to prevent it. I just added the “w” to make the pun complete; the hole had had a hole, albeit without a sound. Being of sound mind, I think out loud, muttering mantras on the plane (“we are experiencing turbulence, do not be worried,” said the Chinese voice, too often to prevent it). Can a canned voice console? Will our robots help us through our griefs, whether of beloved uncles or disappointing friends? Should we can our own words, like blood or peaches? The White House website advocated “peach” in the Middle East. I remember someone put a large leaf over the letters “im,” so that only “peach” turned its skin toward Kahekili traffic. The pun in German is with sex; the word whole is where we're headed.


--23 May 2017

Monday, May 22, 2017

21 May 2017

In contemplation, direction as we know it ceases to exist. We only travel in one direction, my friend tells me, and it's toward dying. What the direction is, the map doesn't show, nor does the map's voice tell us, sprouting from the phone. The metaphor of roots takes root, but seems to mean less and less, when going out's the same as coming in. Shanghai's doors illustrate a leap from one economy to the next; even those that are boarded up (corruption!) retain their numbers. The difference between horizontal and vertical housing is only quantified as direction, not as value. A Buddhist temple sits surrounded by shopping mall neon, though its golden roof tells another story. Twenty minutes before we landed, the video screens showed us how to do tai chi in our seats. To land is to float over marshes and acres of new apartment blocks and a river that would prove full of plastic and the city whose history is one of opium and banks. We pulled up to the as-yet-to-be-completed terminal, then bused to the extant one that took us in. My office is where friendships go to die, though our good uncle died at home, well after the airline refused him oxygen. Something's happening in our culture, a friend says, and we're all going back.


--21 May 2017

Friday, April 28, 2017

A note to my students of the avant-garde


What is the avant-garde, anyway, and are we doing it?

Aloha class--the question has come up, and it's exactly the right one. What, in the end, is the avant-garde? The "official" version of it goes something like this: the European avant-garde, including Futurism, Dada, and Surrealism, foregrounded the material of language and art over its content or meaning. Whatever meaning we find in these works we locate in some sense outside of it. Not: how do we read closely in order to find what the poet intended, a message, but what does this work of art do in the world? How does it disrupt our notions of reality, which begin with grammar, syntax, narrative structures? We end up reading ourselves more than we do the poems. In more recent decades, Conceptualism has taken up the banner of the avant-garde and engaged with questions of plagiarism and other norms that most of us have chosen not to break (much).
My argument in this class has been, however, that the avant-garde can be other things, especially when it travels to Africa, African American, the Pacific. It can find itself located in place. The disruptions made by writers from these places are disruptions of an imperial grammar, one imbricated in language and in other forms of power. This avant-garde may seem "tamer" to the adherent of the echt avant-garde, but it's equally powerful in its questioning of norms and cultural assumptions. Where works along these line directly take on questions of language (using more than one and refusing to translate, for example), they intersect with the traditional AG. Where they tell the stories of place, however broken they may be, perhaps they do not.

Are we writes of avant-garde works? Speaking for myself, I have been deeply influenced by Language writing, especially, and in recent many years by poets like Westlake who are seeking to include places like this one in their work with honesty (which I would here distinct in many ways from "authenticity").These are poets for whom there are tensions between various paradoxical inheritances (Hawaiian mele and Chinese poetry, say) and between desires for nationalism and internationalism. But my work is all about the meaning that the poem can generate improvisationally. It's oddly more NY School than AG, even if I've never lived in NYC. 

I see something similar in your work. None of you has become a fervent avant-gardist. Instead, you're taking what you need for the work you already do and enriching it, as the question ran last night. While sometimes I confess to wanting you to go crazy with the possibilities and abandon aspects of your own style, I've come to realize that's not realistic. Those of you who are Ph.D. poets, especially, are already deeply invested in what you do and how you do it. Easy for me to say, spend a semester mucking around with something else. 

BUT, I would like to see you thinking about the ways in which the avant-garde has influenced your work this semester, and also the ways it has not. What have you accepted, and what rejected? Are you more like Kenny Goldsmith, or like Hart Crane--essentially a late Romantic poet, but one who sometimes used the techniques of the AG--or like John Ashbery, who had only one book in the early 60s that might be termed "authentic" AG? That word again. Where are the boundaries, and where do they blur? To what purpose each? In what ways are your poetic heroes aligned with the most radical purposes of the AG, and in what ways not? Let me see the contexts that you're developing around these ideas. That work of analysis will help when you write your own poems, and when you think about literary history as a teacher.

As students, I want you to devise a narrative about the avant-garde; as poets, I want you to place yourselves inside (or outside) of it.

I'll also post this on the blog, and invite responses to it. 

aloha, Susan (who is also living with these questions )

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

At the New Orleans Poetry Festival, April, 2017






Eileen Tabios, Tim Dyke, Lo Mei Wa and myself before the Tinfish Press reading.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

17 April 2017

That clever display of wit won't increase your devotion. De- does not denote undoing, unless undoing falls on amnesiac ground. When I told my daughter what I wanted to do to the girl who broke her brother's heart, she said, “Mom, you shouldn't even think that!” Devotee of dew. De-volution's not the opposite of re-, though shards of it can be found beside the chain link fence. A newsman was arrested in front of Trump Tower, because they own the street. What I got paid to march I measure in my sun-burned skin. Her debauch was a white dress she was too young to assume. The pleasures of risk expressed at the expense of his feeling. Desire's not kind. What I say can't matter; it's all pantomime. Sit outside his door. Reach for his hand. Muss his hair. Ask him what he'll do this summer. (Aways use the future tense.) Turn on the car's a.c. Walk him around the block. To be mother is to follow with a broom, to gather in the dust, apply to your forehead, then lick it from your finger.


--16 April 2017, Easter

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Kevin Varrone's BOX SCORE: An Autobiography of Zeroes

[I'll be delivering this talk in Ottawa, Kansas on Friday. In the meantime, I highly recommend Kevin's book; I've read it a dozen times now, and it has rewarded every go around the bases.]


Kevin Varrone’s Box Score: An Autobiography of Zeroes

On April 20, 2007, the Cardinals played the San Diego Padres at Aloha Stadium in Honolulu. They won the first game, 2-1, in front of a crowd of 37,382; the game lasted two hours and 34 minutes and was played in 80 degree weather, clear skies, with no wind. Mostly I remember the strange shape of the field, modified from football; there were acres of foul ground, lots of cheap outs. I remember that it was billed as a home game for the Padres, but that at least a third of us wore red. At least half of what I just remembered came from the box score, which can be found on-line. The other half of my memories are mostly emotional: I was excited to see Willie McGee, and I attended the game with my future husband, a new baseball fan. Meanwhile, behind us a long conversation transpired between two older colleagues. In slow and looping fashion, and by way of baseball, they told each other the story of their lives: games they’d watched, events that had occurred during games, one father’s stroke. As my one now retired colleague, Arnold Edelstein, had written in a review (Biography 14:3, 1991) of The Baseball Encyclopedia, edited by Rick Wolff, and published in 1990: “Proust had his petite madeleine; baseball fans have the Encyclopedia.” The only World Series game Arnie attended occurred while his father, an ardent baseball fan, was dying at home; he used a ticket proffered by a relative to distract him. At the game he attended, played on October 3, 1953, Mickey Mantle homered with the bases loaded. In his brief but profound review, Edelstein argues for the importance of the encyclopedia not so much as a repository of information (Mantle’s heroic feat) but as goad to intense emotions (like the association of that home run with his father’s stroke and later death).

Arnie and his friend were practicing the oral form of story-telling, but baseball’s stories are also recorded in writing. The box score is not narrative; it’s short hand; in fact, there are no sentences, only lists of line-ups, what each player did in the game, and summaries of batting, fielding, and pitching. A box score is fossil to the game’s living body. But like a fossil, it’s a guide to memory. A game I remember better, albeit very imperfectly, is the 6th game of the 2011 World Series, the crazy game won by a David Freese homer in the 11th inning. I remember that Series, in part, because I have a line-up card pencilled in by David Freese from the 7th game on my wall; I bought it for the Pencils for Promise charity. The line-up card reminds me of the drama’s characters; a box score tells me the significant plays of the game; the full DVD set of that World Series holds in its silence on the shelf underneath our television the promise of total recall. Each version of the game, the one dimly remembered, the one pencilled into the box score, and the one watched again, liberates an emotional field for me. I remember my son slamming his door during Game Six when we’d all given up hope. I remember screaming with joy at the end.

Kevin Varrone’s Box Score: An Autobiography is a book of prose poems about becoming a Phillies fan. As he wrote to me in a facebook message: “The book was meant to end with the end of spring. Box Score had a mind of its own. Long story short: I clearly can’t write a short poem about baseball. Also, 6/18=a fairly important date in Philly history (day the Brits left the city during Revolusion; official day of ‘founding’ of Philly by William Penn, etc.), but I wanted the game itself to be insignificant, historically. Just important in the ways all baseball games are, for those of us who love the game. Anyhow, it was as close to the end date of Spring that year that the Phils had a home game I could attend.” The game he chose was between the Phillies and the Twins, June 18, 2010, a game won by the Phillies 9-5. In the book, this game unfolds in blurts between other observations about personal and political history.  It’s fragments of a box score set against the ruins of every other obsession in the book: his father, his two sons; his poetic lineage by way of quotations from the poets who helped form this book; the eephus pitch; several cases of the yips, and floating quotations from Goodnight Moon, by Margaret Wise Brown. http://www.baseball-reference.com/boxes/PHI/PHI201006180.shtml The full-length book came out first as a free app. It featured collages, audio of friends reading the poems, and included a shuffle function. The book itself, published by Furniture Press in 2014, has no page numbers, a(nother) fact that encourages the reader to open the book at random, wander around, find his or her own route to the ball.

Let me have Kevin to read the first two prose poems. I’ll then talk us through what he’s doing.

This opening poem can be compared to the abstract at the opening of Williams’s Paterson; in this short poem, we find many of the elements of the whole. You could read any section and have the same effect. Rather than follow linear chronology, these poems trace the circular history of our emotions; the circle that encloses the box where we find the score, before we realize that, “what happens between innings [hence not in the box score] is pretty much what life is all about.” What is a box inside a circle but a stadium built around a baseball diamond? What is history, but passed time or pastime: “when I’m sure there is nothing going on I step inside: the way you enter history a pastime”[.]

The second prose poem contains the keyest of the key words, spinning like mantras, in this book: “father.” Ray Kinsella plays with his father’s ghost, a comic revision of Hamlet playing with his. Varrone’s father, a NYC policeman based in Queens, introduced him to baseball and coached him in Little League. He’s quoted throughout the book. The phrase, “my dad used to say,” occurs at least 15 times in 82 pages. Varrone’s sons appear often, as well; Asher has three appearances in the text, while the older Emmett has twelve. If you’re keeping score, that makes for over 30 references to fatherhood in the book, one on more than every third page. Here’s a passing down, lineage of stories and poetic puns (“are we going home,” one son asks; the other says, “we’re playing catch ball”). They both hear their father (or mother) read Goodnight Moon to them, as do we. The poet’s dad tells his son to play baseball “the right way”; he’s also a compelling story teller, just as his son is a brilliant poet. The form of the book suggests that lineages are not fast balls but curves, or even the eephus, curving slowly up in the sky like a seagull and then coming down toward the home plate. Both baseball and its eephus “disrupt the flow of time & are tied to it.” As such, their lineages are also poetic.

I’ve seen seagulls at ball games (dozens of them once in Detroit), but not “a nightingale’s pastoral evasions.” Unless it was played outside John Keats’s cottage on Hampstead Heath, no one’s seen or heard a nightingale at a baseball game. So whence the nightingale’s pastoral? Clearly this is a bird that never wert (Shelley now!) at any MLB game, but lived in a poem, “Ode to a Nightingale.” “Cold pastoral” comes to us from Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn” and references eternity. Just as players come to us in long lines of “begats,” so do poets. Harold Bloom’s notion of the younger poet mishearing the elder occurs when, for example, “George ‘Will’ Oppen” is quoted as writing that baseball “does not & never did have any motive but to achieve clarity.” Or when, in a typical elision of baseball and word poet, when Varrone writes of the “nothing that is not there & the nothing that is is pretty much what the eephus is all about sd mark fidrych or wallace stevens.” Poets and birds have often been equated, so here a pitcher (Fidrych's nickname was "Bird") might be a bird and a poet’s lines might fold into baseball’s language. More surprising perhaps is the entrance of Emily Dickinson onto the field: “those evenings of the brain are pretty much what night baseball is all about sd Emily Dickinson” who then throws to the next poet, quoted as saying “or the apparition of those faces in the stands at Shibe Field,” namely Ezra Pound. There’s an all-star team of poets playing on Varrone’s team, because “language is pretty much what baseball is all about” [.] Among these poets are Bill Lee and Fidrych, quoted as saying, “I’m a little flakey . . . people say I should be a lefty” [.] (Varrone and I both write right handed and throw left, a flakey combination.) It’s all one big game of catch ball between poets and baseball players.

A short list of all-star poets includes Dickinson. Oppen, Moore, Stevens, Olson, O’Hara (if only by allusion), Hopkins, Walcott and others. What these players throw around are words, and words blur together. Take the name, Williams. There was William Carlos and there was Ted: “marianne moore called william carlos williams the splendid pencil :ted williams sd to rip sewell (whose real name was truett banks sewell) throw that blooper sewell bill dickey told williams to kind of run at it williams sd & he did & hit a dinger (no ideas but in eephus) it was all stars 1946 & williams was between stint as a marine corps aviator” [.] Between stints, between names. The word “eephus,” which comes up obsessively in the book, becomes the “thing” of William Carlos Williams’s “no ideas but in things.” Ted Williams should have been out for running toward the super slow pitch that he hit out in an All Star Game. That fact is, of course, lost in the box score to the game. There’s grainy video to think on, but it doesn’t count.

Video hasn’t counted for much except bad feeling until the recent replay rule was instituted in most rudimentary form in 2008 (only by umpires for disputed home runs) and later in 2014, when the call for replays by managers was instituted. That accounts for one of the many moments of failure that haunt the poet. He’s concerned mostly with the yips, but he writes often about the game pitched by the Tigers’ Armando Galarraga in 2010 that would have been perfect had the umpire, Jim Joyce (who wept in public the day after), not mistakenly called a runner safe with two outs in the ninth. To Varrone, obsessed as he is with memory (either private or set on the page as a box score), failure is important because it’s so memorable. It’s also one of the great tropes of American literature. Late in the book he writes, “would anyone remember jim joyce if he’d gotten the call right & armando galarraga hadn’t made that smile break into blossom across his face”[?] That memory is a bit different from the one that follows in this poem, namely the one that fixes Rick Ankiel in our memory because only he and Babe Ruth had 10 wins and 50 home runs in the majors. The latter is a box score memory. But my memory of Rick Ankiel is all emotion. His five wild pitches for the St. Louis Cardinals in the 2000 playoffs, when he was tasked with pitching the first game because he’d been so phenomenal during the year, are five pitches I watched then, but cannot watch now without a visceral response. I flinch in horror, more horror than any game merits. There is redemption in the Ankiel story, because he came back as an outfielder, making some world-historical throws to third and home from center field. That, too, is compelling, more than his 11-7 record in the 2000 regular season, or his lifetime .240 batting average. It’s compelling because it’s a biblical story of failure and redemption, not because you can find it in the box score, except perhaps as WP (wild pitch) followed by HR.

In the book review of The Baseball Encyclopedia that I talked about earlier, Arnold Edelstein mentions Moonlight Graham, a real player whose story became the subject of W.J. Kinsella’s famous novel, Shoeless Joe. Graham’s first appearance in the majors was on June 29, 1905; his last appearance was that same day. Though he played right field in that game, his line score is empty. Kevin Varrone finds another such player, another such box score, in Harry O’Neill who, in 1939, caught in one game for the Philadelphia Athletics. He had no plate appearance. His line is all zeroes. In Varrone’s book, the box score appears under the first line: “the box score an autobiography”[.] That is the title of the book, and the poem he told one of my students once over skype was his favorite poem in the book. If this is autobiography, what does it say, especially considering that Harry O’Neill died in 1945 at Iwo Jima? He was in a major league game once, but he had no effect on the game (except to make the throw from the catcher to the pitcher, without which there would be no game, as Marianne Moore has pointed out). It says that the box score fails.


On the one hand, the box score, like poetry, "makes nothing happen." On the other hand, the box score opens up to autobiography as pure emotional possibility. Zero is to the box score what white is to all colors. Anything or nothing could have happened. A box score can indicate a perfect game, or it can tell us that someone with a name played and otherwise left no trace of himself. Varrone’s notion that a baseball stadium is a church moves us past the pastime of baseball and into eternal time. He is running the bases, yes, but he is also saying goodnight to the moon and sounding out a hush to his sons. The lights have come on; they are electric lights, but they also belong to that larger light that unites us to history and to something beyond it. The imperfect, as Wallace Stevens once wrote about baseball, is our paradise.