Thursday, June 20, 2024

The Conservationist (Volcano)

Down the road past the pasture where goats used to graze, now a few cows nibbling amid the `ohia, past other goats' empty hutches, adorned with an old tire on the roof, I heard a dog bark. A man's voice interrupted the dog, who nonetheless appeared, sweet as can be, to investigate my smells. He called him Brin, and I asked if that were for "brindled," a word I'm hearing a lot these days. Yes, he was that. The man stood outside an open container, inside of which was lots of stuffs; I asked if he was a UH grad, to go with his green shirt and logo. Yes, UH Hilo.
His first mistake, he said, was to study biology; his second was to go into conservation. "Doesn't sound like a mistake for the world," I said. He's now an independent contractor, listing on his fingers the many places he works. The last, most difficult finger, was the County. "They put the small p in planning," he said. "Oh, the corruption, the staring at screens and saying they're working. Can't fix it from within." I muttered something about SCOTUS.
I hate the way people are scraping their lots of the rain forest, I said. Oh yes, but you can do anything you want with a lot less than an acre, and if you buy four adjoining half-acre lots, you can scrape them all, he said. When I said the climate would get warmer here, if the rain forest gets "nibbled," as he called it, he said, "But now you're thinking! And that's a mistake!" 
He has a friend who teaches high school English. So hard, he said. The kids need a teacher to be their alternate parent, because the parents don't have time, or inclination, or they're druggies, he said. I'd told him about my mental health work at UH, how I didn't parent students, but tried to support them. 
Brin kept circulating. Across the road in the brush, down the road, behind the man, sniffing my pants. The man finally said it was getting cooler, so I should probably continue my walk, as that's a sign of rain. We shook hands, exchanged first names, and I walked on, meeting a former neighbor from Oahu who was driving by, and a philosopher ceramicist, friend of the philosophy prof who lives in Albert Saijo's old place. He asked if I was from KC. He's from KC. But no, I just wear a Monarchs cap.

Saturday, June 15, 2024

Dog walk, sans Lilith (Volcano)


About a quarter mile ahead of me as I walked back on Haunani Road, a large white dog stopped; she was with a thin man, which was all I could see of him. The man tried half-heartedly to get his dog to move, but she (she was Sheba!) was more interested in my long approach down the road, past the car graveyard and the house with screens hanging from their frames. Her person had kind eyes, set in a wrinkled face, a mouth with few teeth, and a knit cap on top. We talked. His elderly mom had lived in the basement of his house; he brought her here from LA. He can't even stand Hilo, he loves it here so much. He lives on the private road where a man (named Shawn, as it turned out) had screamed at me a couple of years ago. "He's especially bad with women," said P. I said I could tell. 
Up Maile, I saw a much bigger dog--Akita--on a rope held by his person, another wrinkled guy with a glimmer in his eye. I told him I'd often seen the dog (named Mana) by himself, loping down this very road, sometimes with the man in a beat-up car trailing him. Turned out both our dogs are hunters (though little Lilith is not on this trip). Mana had attacked a pig nearby, took his ear off, went after his neck but couldn't bite through the ridge. The man's name was Shawn, but he was not the same Shawn. "I had my .45 with me, and I thought of using it on the poor pig, but I'm not a killer, so I couldn't. The pig looked at me and said, leave me alone, so now there's a one-eared pig out there somewhere." He'd gone home and cried.
I told him I appreciated the fact that he had such a weapon and didn't use it. He hitched up his jacket, so I could see the pistol on his belt. There are gangs around here, he said, and he's interrupted three robberies. They chased him around Volcano village at 60 miles an hour the other day. "We're going to get you, Shawn," they yelled. 
He'd commented on my KC cap. I said it was the Monarchs, from the Negro Leagues Museum in KC. He thought my hat was "politically correct." "You could see why the white guys didn't want to play them," he opined. They were bred . . . I broke in to say that no one is bred for baseball. "Oh, as athletes, he said." I responded that the Black players were like the local Japanese ones, chips on their shoulders, shitty fields to play on, needing to prove themselves. 
He was from Kansas he said. Did I know why Lawrence is such a beautiful town? (So liberal it's crazy, he said, and I responded that that's probably why I liked it, along with having friends there.) Cuz the Jesse James gang burned it down. "Was that before the Civil War?" I asked. He looked pleased and said, yes, Bleeding Kansas. Missouri wanted to be a slave state so they came and burned Lawrence down. It was rebuilt as a beautiful, tree-lined place.
We shook hands (my second hand shake in half an hour) and I walked home. No dog, but a story.

Saturday, June 1, 2024

Second elegy

pilgrim’s progress

16. If only you had simply died.

17. “Yes, the lessons do keep rolling in; I’ve noticed that too,” you wrote in your last message to me. If this life is a flash quiz, I’m failing it now, flailing to find answers. Or, answers fail. The wall’s gaps hide lizards and mongooses. But you’ve slipped past my line of sight, even through my fancy new glasses.

18. And then: “It’s nice to think of putting down stakes for good, to lay out books and my mother’s china in their proper homes.” [Pause] “...or less transitory homes, that is.” Apt prosody of a Signal message. Signal from somewhere the map on my phone can’t record.

19. Yesterday morning a signal, perhaps. Lilith and I were climbing a hill when I turned toward the Koolau: a double rainbow! The rainbow didn’t drift in wind, it simply dissolved. Signal to sign, virtual to symbolic presence. There’s presence in your death; I hear you whispering mantras to our animals, blessing them. This morning: a solitary peacock on the road.

20. I hadn’t written you back. I write you back. I cannot write you back. “What happened, Sina?” I’d ask. Interlocutor silent. Not a failure of the net, but of the breath I imagine on your side of it. You were such a spider, weaving out and weaving in. Nets hold bodies, but not their breath.

21. “The revelation that poetry was alive and riding on the breath, line by line, in a direct link to one’s heart,” she ascribed to Olson, whose heart had nothing on hers. Her poem’s breath was slash, oblique, an enjambed line within the line itself. You read as if seated on the back of a gently bucking horse.

22. Radiance of these mountains in the early a.m. Orange yellow cast over green, under blue, and into white. Buddhist shawl sun slung around cliff’s neck. Trees like fuzz on a head resuming its production of hair. After chemo. After radiation. I brought Sangha to the hospital with me; your nurse asked, “where did you get him?” Adoptive mothers, both, we rolled our eyes.

23. We get our lives, don’t we? As in, we acquire them without asking, or acquire them again in adoption. What we don’t get are life plots, tangles, figures of speech, surprises (that seem less so later). The shock of your dying will stop kicking me in the chest, but don’t plan on closure, dear Sina. It’s all detour now.

24. You were our MC when we remembered the university’s dead, too often buried outside of print or email or any notice at all. We performed memory before the Chancellor (who cried), members of the counseling center (in case someone freaked out), students whose peer had died by suicide, colleagues who’d “passed on,” as they say. I prefer the Victorian grave marker, “she fell asleep” on such and such a day. The ground a comforter. Karl Marx and George Eliot whisper to each other from their firm London mattress. The ocean will be your comforter.

25. We set up electric candles, the better not to burn down the Center for Hawaiian Studies indoor/outdoor theater space. We posted photos of the dead. We told stories about them. We pushed them, their names, up grief’s brown hill. Mostly, they fell back to us, undeveloped images still yearning for our company. Syntax is memory's machine. Pull the weed whacker string, hear its whine. A man wearing a monkish uniform will cut back the grass. Grief’s an act of editing.

26. Police say there was an argument between you and her that “escalated.” You, who worked so hard at right speech. Mostly, you were ignored. In the media narrative, you are someone’s victim and someone’s aunt or sister. The real secret was your presence. “She’s a mirror to others,” another author said to me. How the kiss of billiard balls turns to aversion. How your reflectiveness told us who we were, but left you out.

27. “Kali yuga on a stick” is how you described our politics. “The present age, full of sin,” Wiki tells me. The stick lent humor, as if sin were a puppet, bouncing happily on a portable stage, making children scream with delight. Yes, it’s farce all right, this lurching toward apocalypse. All orange wigs and logical fallacy. Stick it to them.

28. Laughter may be the best medicine, according to the Book of Holy Cliche. My meds block my tears. They’ve built themselves a balloon inside my chest that expands when I release my breath. My lungs want out, or at least what’s inside them, prisoner of the Emotional Repression Complex that knocks in code on my ribs. Let me bargain for my tears. Big Pharma, goddamn you, my cheeks call out for refreshment!

29. Oh Sina, truth teller, wise woman, purveyor of explosive laughter (which you offered without terms), colleague who never got to a meeting on time, ethical overlord, pull your trademark scarf tight and gird your loins for the bardo. Seven days in, the lay of the land is coming more clear. I hope you have mountains there, and that they walk like Dogen’s.

30. “farewell, Expectations and False Hope!” you wrote on Buddha’s birthday. “on second thought, don’t fare well. fare badly. fall / & break your wily neck”-- Farewell, dear friend.

Note: title taken from Sina’s poem, “pilgrim’s progress,” in alchemies of distance. Other quotations are from the Introduction.

Friday, May 31, 2024

A first attempt at elegy


White ginger bowing

1. One comes in order of remembrance, not queen of the memories but its pawn, setting out first on a board, intrepid, fragile. You came to the airport to give me The Tibetan Book of the Dead when I left for my mother’s dying. On day six of your death, I can't find it.

2. To remember death as first principle seems unfair. Call up the midst, the in-between, everyday bardos of being losing itself to being other. Your Manoa cottage fronted a frothy stream populated by orator frogs.

3. I remember when you died, not when you were born. You are on track to appear again, unknown to us. There will be flowers and books and dental surgeries, just like before time, crazy wisdom where wind meets the stream’s song, dentist’s drill screeching like a myna.

4. Your desk was neat, yet you arranged it tirelessly. You were inclined to great drama, and to saying farewell to performance. How many times did you say farewell?

5. You might be born again, but who will recognize the bird or frog, the dragonfly or the snapping turtle?

6. You called me in the very early a.m. as Bryant and I crossed Kansas on a train. You’d taken our car to Kaimuki and parked it in a structure. When you returned, the engine started, so you rolled the windows down. The car would not start. Bryant tried instructions from the top bunk. There was towing and there were ubers. We came home to a white Prius whose windows were black trash bags. A neighbor told me you and Lilith would stand on the sidewalk, staring at one another. You wouldn’t force her to do what she didn’t want to do. One to another stubborn kindness. No negotiations!

7. You always came late to meetings. You were too busy writing haiku about them, I suspect. “why do they call it / ‘meeting,’ when we leave feeling / ragged miles apart?”

8. We invited the young man to tea. You asked him to come early, so you could be aunty. We told him not to be divisive; the community is so small. He said he’d stop. Months later, old posts got regurgitated: dead cigarette mouths, haoles. Aversion to any who did not worship, or agree with him. Exhibit A.

9. There were always prayer beads and incense. I wish I could have told you of the rhythmical beat of “invoice, entry, check”: the 34 counts. We might have marched down a corridor to that mantra. Invoice. Entry. Check. Put it to music and sing it at a meeting.

10. “Away from the toxic stew of colonial isolation,” straight into another, cloaked by constant construction and glitz. You kept talking about the murder of one of our students by her husband. A colonial symptom, you said, unable to prescribe a cure. That was murder and suicide, though the police couldn’t hammer it down, called it double suicide. Under the Volcano explained the colonial darkness, you would say.

11. Hammer. My high school classmate was killed with a hammer by her boyfriend. He was so quickly forgiven; after all, he confessed to his priest. Book title: The Killing of Bonnie Garland, as if she were merely the object of that awful noun. I’d taken her place at a concert because she was afraid of going first. She played the flute. Sina, you loved the breath.

12. Several days before your death, I checked out Rushdie’s Knife. It came in large print. How it feels to have been attacked by someone wielding a knife. How it feels to survive. Hammer and knife killed you. Police say there was an argument. You who worked so hard at right speech. If only the murderer survives, whom can you trust to tell the story except the dead?

13. We intended to stage a performance of workplace violence (emotional). We’d make it funny, maybe wear masks (pre-covid). We’d choreograph the paths of avoidance we took in the hall, then dance them to our colleagues. Walking paths would be dances would be poems.

14. “I need to talk to you about our beloved Sina,” wrote Selina. Facebook video put a yellow cat avatar over my face, which I x’ed out with difficulty. Selina, who drove across Waiheke Island in a car bursting with us poets, belted out Barry Manilow (could it have been??). We laughed before she told me.

15. You were killed in a theater, where only you and the killer performed. Spectators came later, but no one has the audio. This is the only secret left on earth. As it is in heaven, forgive us our trespass. Om mane pame hung.

--for Sina

(the title is the last line of her book, Alchemies of Distance, 2001)

Monday, May 27, 2024

27 May 2024


 I was with the girl pulled from the rubble   covered

in dust   shaking aftermath of hurricane without wind

and she was with me in my bed when half-awake

my powerlessness failed to shelter me like a sheet

I was powerless to feel powerless   afflicted by her

terror I reached to hug her and did    for the rest

of the night hold her body to my body    the teacher

said each of the tears she cried for her dead son

saved thousands of souls she’d never known  

despite the terror of five hours under broken cement

without parent or sibling    tears come between

her and her broken bed    water streaming down stairs

at the ballpark   waterfalls engorged after a week of rain

the sound of it to her was voices or nothing

the sound of bones inside her arms clattering

something to keep her awake in my bed with husband

and cat and dog (were we to let her) a safe puddle

to bathe in   my daughter’s first bath with me a bucket

she turned over her head in a tub overlooking Kathmandu

rising in antiquity to meet us as I watched her

caring for herself   grieving and yet happy

the dust ran off her tiny body as she stood

embraced by glass and light and dusted air

I wish for you a life small girl who shivers un-

controlled on my screen    pulled from the acid

of this war   developed like a photograph into

the obverse image   on my lanai dead palm fronds

the better to catch the sound of early rain

Wednesday, May 22, 2024

They're all angels


He opened the back of his white van. Inside was a big box that read "Underpants." He slipped a plastic bag with cat food inside, as Lilith stuck her nose his way. "Oh you feed the cemetery cats," I said. "They're angels, they really are," he replied. "All the animals make us happy; they're angels. I'd better be getting back to mine." I ask if he has cats. "Oh yes, cats, dogs, mongooses, pigs. Live near the Hygienic Store." 
I ask if I can take his photo. He wrinkles up his face, mutters something about old fat guy, then smiles, posing. Reaches down to pet Lilith. "It's so sad when they go. Angels."
"Did you say your dog's name is Lily?" I explain that it's short for Lilith. "I know someone with a dog that looks like yours named Lily." That rang a bell. Near the school. In local fashion, we quickly tripped on a connection. His grandchildren live there; their father is Jared; this man was Jared's father-in-law. "I tell Jared, he was my son-in-law, now he's my son." I tell the man that I wrote a book about my walks with Lily, and Jared's the hero. (Let's just say Jared's and my politics rhyme, though his are best expressed in da kine.) His granddaughter sometimes calls to ask for a ride home from school. "But it's across the street!" he tells her. It's clear he gives her one.
He asks my name. Sticks out his hand to shake mine. He's Jay. Jay Kapu. I step back slightly, hold up my hands. "You're sacred!" No, there's a very long story there, he says.

Saturday, May 11, 2024

Laura Mullen's _eTc_

I reviewed Laura Mullen's new book for Ron Slate's _On the Seawall_.


If you work for an institution, or if you write poems, or if you're an older woman, or if you've experienced the wrath of sociopaths, or if you have or are a cow, the book is a must read. Mullen is fierce, and funny.