Sunday, March 3, 2024

4 March 2024

Not to try to interpret . . . but to look . . . till the light suddenly dawns. To take a photograph that can be guessed at, but not mean, as if image were music, the shadow of a strip of paint on the parking structure deck. Almost bird, but not. Almost slingshot. Almost moon surface. Almost topo map. Stunned by its mis-fit, this queering of decay (see Sara Ahmed). A sunset streams down the grid of parking stalls, but that’s not the good photograph, even as orange sun points toward us on our way to a baseball game. I love pulling back from assigning a name to this shape and its shadow, the way an image moves a viewer, but in what direction she can’t describe. Rothko’s parking structure, sacred rot.

White lines peel upward, the letter G hardly itself any more. There’s a walkway from one to the other side of the structure; there are benches, planters, a formerly green area (before they put in solar paneled roofs). No one wanted to sit there on the concrete, in the high sun, beside the dying grass, but as an architectural feature it made some sense. That’s the problem with sense, isn’t it, that it makes without meaning, and meaning so often makes so little of sense. The ex-president talks about languages that no one speaks crossing our borders. It’s hard to imagine such bodiless sounds drifting over the southern border in the sun, craving water and a blanket, spelling themselves out for audiences of one. Clearly, we’re meant to see them as dangerous in a synesthesia of fear. The floating wall in the Rio Grande can’t stop them, this viral sound that hints at sense but refuses to signify.

The language flees its homeland, broken into noise; somewhere in the caravan we might find its privileged ear, the conch that understands its tones. A conch sounded before the game, though it was piped in. Conches sounded before the movies, as hula dancers filled the suburban screens. A sound of yearning, untuned from the sacred, cow bell used to alert children to dinner. In this country, you can’t have children (by IVF) and you can’t not have children to save your life (by abortion). But we need more children! says the senator to the press.

The forming and the deforming land mirror each other. Lava from a helicopter, parking structure from my iPhone. The land is moving. The image is moving. But to see it, we need to park ourselves. When the fire station was damaged by a tornado, donors sent folding chairs for the firefighters to sit in. It’s a waiting game. If you slow down far enough, there’s nothing to see but what’s there in front of you.

Note: Italicized phrase by Simone Weil.

Friday, March 1, 2024

1 March 2024



The young man stands in front of us, dousing his head with fluid, clicking his lighter once, twice, three times at the cuff of his pants. Flames lick, halo, him--he’s not a body yet--one man points a gun, others bring fire extinguishers. He’s replaced by a gray blob on our screens, a gray blob that screams.

It’s the worst, most awful, photograph he’s ever seen, writes someone on X. He posts it. An elliptical gray blob on the ground in Gaza. We still see a left arm, plastic cable wrapped around its wrist.

The question is no longer how we write after Auschwitz, but how we write during Auschwitz.

Or if writing is what needs to be done.

I look for the photograph of a Buddhist monk who set himself on fire in Vietnam. That’s my google search, more or less. I can buy the photograph for $32.83 from Walmart, already framed to give as a gift or to put on my wall. The finest materials were used. A payment plan is available for the more expensive (larger) version.

Life on an Island


An SUV has stopped just where you first spot the Temple in Valley of the Temples. The driver points out a good photograph, but no one gets out to take it. "It's really beautiful," I say. "I know, I'm from here," the woman says. "I come to the cemetery to visit family members. But I've never come this far." You can go farther up, I suggest, almost to the mountains. "We have to drive around the island," she says, as they wheel off down the hill and out of the cemetery.

Lilith thinks about mortality

At the cemetery, S has his feelers out for news of Renn. He was the most consistent walker; his cancer was in remission, and then it wasn't. S hasn't seen him in a long time. I had just told him about Leona, of Leona and Les, who died three weeks ago of cancer. "My wife died at 45, of ovarian cancer," S said. His father died in his 50s, his sister . . . You get used to it, working here, he told me. There was a beautiful funeral the other day, he says, for a three year old boy. Everyone wore t-shirts with his face on them. So cute. He gets in his hepped up golf cart and starts up the hill, stopping once to say something else to me; as Lilith and I leave 45 minutes later, he opines that Juan Soto is overrated and the Padres should do better this year without him. I'm fond of S, his consideration, his love of baseball.
S. is a rabid Sandy Hook and covid denier. How does this equation even go?

Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Lilith Looks for an Old Friend


It took me a long time to remember their names, Les and Leona. For a while, I called them L&L, like the drive in. They walked every day down some of the same paths that Lilith and I do. They walked to the store, pushed grandchildren in a stroller, sauntered through the cemetery. Always erect, always striding. One day (a year ago?) I ran into Les, on his own, who said that Leona had cancer. Over time, she got treatments; they started to travel again, to Japan, Vegas. I asked Uncle John this past weekend if he'd seen them. (I hadn't been around for a long time, too.) He said he'd just seen Les leave the cemetery. Yesterday, I saw a car backing into Les and Leona's garage. The garage door shut, so I knocked on the side door. Les appeared, two gorgeous grandsons squirming beside him. "It's Aunty Susan and Lilith," he said to the boys, who started playing with a hose in the front yard. Leona died three weeks ago. He's still watching the grandchildren. There will be a private funeral. "Her family is very big, so there might be 200 people there," Les said.

Monday, February 26, 2024

My Photo Life


[I applied for something.]

My Photo Life

I was born in 1958 in Belleville, Illinois and grew up on the east coast, while cheering for the St. Louis Cardinals. I became serious about photography at the time I retired from over 30 yeaers of teaching American poetry and creative writing at the University of Hawai`i-Mānoa. I’ve always been a writer. I work through through ear and printed word. My vision began to develop when my mother’s dementia deepened in the mid-2000s, I kept a blog that detailed the progression of her illness (and its digressions). The blog was published as two books. The discipline of keeping this blog over several years taught me to attend to what was directly in front of me, whether it was my mother or the love story between two Alzheimer’s patients in her “home.” I used to wander the care home looking at the residents’ “memory boxes,” framed spaces that held photographs of them when they had been active, engaged. Many were World War II veterans or their spouses, who had posed in their jaunty hats at a much younger age. The boxes were intended, we were told, to remind the residents of which room was theirs, but because they couldn’t remember themselves, they served to memorialize them for family and friends. (In Alzheimer’s, memorials come before, as well as after, death.) My friend, the noted photographer Gaye Chan, was fascinated by the idea of these boxes. She designed the covers to my books, both of which have flat “boxes” of photographs on the back. The first volume’s cover shows my parents in their Virginia living room, my late father a shade, and my mother blurring. The second volume features the page of an old photo album whose photographs are missing. What’s left are yellow lines, intended to help the owner set her photos straight on the gummy page.

Gaye and I also worked, for a decade, on a small poetry press, Tinfish, which I founded in 1995. I found the words and she assigned student and professors as designers, or did the books and journal issues herself. What an education for me in image and text! More than once, we gathered at large tables to put a publication together; the social aspect of it was part of the larger process. The journal issues were especially intriguing, as Gaye used recycled materials (print shop proof sheets, old cereal box covers, x-rays, and so forth) as the basis for her work, and as covers. Often, every cover would be different from the others, so that opening up the boxes when the finished work arrived was like being a kid again at Christmas-time.

As a teacher of creative writing, I increasingly let go of “knowledge” transmission (how to write a poem, how to scan a poem, how to construct a metaphor) and took up “attention” as my focus. My students had become unfocused, what with smart phones and financial crashes, sick relatives and two jobs, addiction and climate change anxieties. So I wrote a list of 30 “attention exercises” for them to do. Stand at a bus stop and watch and listen to people; watch a sporting event and pay attention to things that happen away from the action of the game; meditate on a raisin; take a walk with someone else, dog or person, and attend to what the other being notices. These exercises changed my own practice, and also led me into photography.

I have always snapped photos, but until recently, they were photos of things, snapshots, goads to memory. After getting a smartphone in 2019 (I’m an adoptive mother, but a very late adopter of technical gizmos) I began to change my way of looking at the world by getting my phone lens close to what I saw. The “whole” fell away and the “part” became my focus. Often, a very ordinary thing (the back of a tow truck, for example) became wonderfully strange if I got close to the back, where a metallic eye sat under a metallic brow. I take most of my photos, even now, on walks with my dog Lilith (Lilith Walks is another of my books, with photos, as writing and photography are coming together for me). I take close-up photos of rusty dumpsters (which remind me of modern art), pieces of trash with partially erased words on them, my dog’s tail as she wanders out of the frame. I’m especially fond of decay, of which there is so much in the rain forest of the Big Island, where I take photos of abandoned houses (eager to suss out family stories that were simply abandoned), brown hapu`u ferns, abandoned cars and boats covered in the asemic writing of mildew and mold. I’ve taken rust and lava walks with a friend in Volcano Village, who also loves to see the world through her camera’s lens.

I’ve taken a couple of photography classes since retiring from my professorial gig. I use a camera for many photos now, though my technical skills are still developing. For the final project of the first, course I took photos of roadside memorials on O`ahu and the Big Island. These are sites devoted to remembering someone—rather like outdoor memory boxes—who died there. They’re often built in intricate detail, then largely ignored by passing traffic. I wanted to see them close up and to record what time had done to the memorials themselves (following the advice of my friend, Gaye). For my second class, I took photographs of a local Eucalyptus tree, one of those that ribbons in reds and greens and drips sap and bark. It’s a messy tree, but beautiful. Black and brown sap runs slowly down the dark trunk, reflecting reds and greens; bark peels off in sheets. A Facebook friend suggested that the Eucalyptus had invented Abstract Expressionism. At around that time, an old poetry acquaintance gave me a copy of Martin Buber’s I and Thou, so I wrote a sequence of meditations on the tree, my photographs of it, and my relationship (I and Thou) with the tree. The manuscript, titled I and Eucalyptus, is a fusion of photograph and word—the links are not direct but in conversation with each other.

I’m a practicing Buddhist, so my attention to attention has taught me other lessons, on equanimity, the power of ordinary objects and moments to make meaning, on the meditative process of looking (as far as possible) without a screen of thoughts and memories. The idea of sangha (or community) strikes me as important in art, too. I am developing a sangha of fellow photographers, many of them poets who, like me, are late to the practice. But fervent.

Lilith and the Admirer of Rust

The man with the open round face looked at me with suspicion--for just an instant--as he turned to look out of the cab of his pick-up truck. I had, after all, been seriously ogling the truck bed. "You've got great toolboxes," I said to him. He smiled; "yes, old school, from the 1950s." "Great rust," I said, I told him about my dumpster photos, how the rust makes artistic patterns. He lit up. "You must love the sugar mills! Kahuku, Waialua, Ewa." I don't know about the one in Ewa. He said, "you'll be in heaven there! I know how you think!" 
At the lip of the truck bed were his keys and a pickle ball paddle. We could hear the happy yelps of pickle ballers from the nearby courts. Lilith and i headed off. The man and I agreed we'd enjoyed our conversation. The photos are still in my phone, and my husband just left on his bike with his pickle ball racquet . . .