Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Seductions of Can't

I dislike those descriptions of poetry courses (not that students often read them) that begin from the negative. "The instructor knows that you are scared shitless of poetry," the description goes, if more euphemistically than that, "and we will spend an entire semester trying to cure you; at the end, you will know some shit." (I think of Kai Gaspar's poem about the traumatized boy who refuses to shit, then aims to punish a cat for watching him make kukae in the woods. See Tinfish 18.5: The Book). I dislike these descriptions precisely because they are true. Students arrive in class tremulous, afraid, risk averse (pun intended after the fact). Negation stains the air like a squid's dark ink. Dis-ease is our dis-comfort as we arrange our chairs in a circle, the better to share our intuitions about the poems we read. We are not immediately readers, but a support group for poetry phobics. (Can you believe I found that link? I can't.)

The poetry professor is a general whose field of battle is a difficult terrain. She requires the full support of her metaphorical army: support staff, infantry, advanced weaponry and, above all, a strategy. She needs Lao-Tzu at her side, maybe even a Prussian master, like Clausewitz. She knows her pen is not mightier than her students' shields, at least not at first.

I have some success as a teacher of poetry, perhaps because I insist on activity, often frenetic activity, in class. Students do exercises, they act out their poems, they mix them up, they cut and collage. We use instruments like scissors and glue, which many of them have not used since early in elementary school. We laugh. When we read poems together, I insist that they read in human voices (lest we drown), demanding that they read passages over and again until their voices unbuckle the belt of monotone wrapped around the syllables that press from their mouths.

And still students come to me in my office and say they can't. Or, as we say in Hawai`i, "cannot." Oddly, Pidgin makes things shorter, but the word "cannot" is kept long, emphasis on the second syllable, used in sentences with the frequency of the word "but," which only in Hawai`i that I know comes not between clauses, but at the ends of sentences. "I went to the bookstore but." "I like that but." Most often, these students look uncomfortable. Doubtless a lot of this comes from their fear that their "cannot" reduces their grade, that there is something they cannot get, like metaphor, like an A.

But in class, as in the life of my family and non-academic friends, there are those for whom "cannot" seems a pleasure, not pain. Their "I just don't GET it's" are spoken with emphasis, with all the life that their reading of poems out loud lacks. There's meter there, an exaltation of form, as Annie Finch might put it, even in this context--for their not getting it is definitely form, formula, repetition as sure as any poetic refrain. As the poet and poetry teacher in my husband's family, I am occasionally and ritually asked what makes poetry poetry, what makes it good, what makes it enjoyable, and so on. But I am not really asked. What might be questions come out as statements:

--I can't understand it.
--I can't write it.
--I can't figure out what's good and what's bad.
--I can't see things that way.
--I just don't get it.

Chalk it up to the verbal jousting that goes on in families, but this is no call to explain or to appreciate or even to read out loud. This is the door slamming shut, with all the pleasure that slamming shut offers us. It's a poetry tantrum for the benefit of the poetry parent.

I wonder how to use this energy, this aggression, toward poetry. Sometimes I say that we are all speaking in words and poems are made of words and so we can read poems. Sometimes I say this poem (by Dickinson, say) is difficult, but we've all felt despair and enjoyed riddles and thought about death and sex (yes, "Wild Nights" comes out first in my quiver). Then again, sometimes I offer up Camille Paglia's reading of Dickinson as an absolute literalist. She says she's sticking a needle in her eye. Well, damn it, it's a real needle and real eye and you'd better wince because she's coming after you next!

My poetry friends Hazel Smith and Lisa M. Steinman have each written textbooks on poetry in the past couple of years. Hazel Smith's The Writing Experiment is directed at creative writers, while Steinman's Invitation to Poetry: The Pleasures of Studying Poetry and Poetics is directed to creative readers. Both are marvelous texts. Each is written in a professional discourse; Smith's sometimes sounds like a sociology text whose concluding paragraphs are abstracts of what just transpired. Steinman's book projects a patience that makes me jealous; if I often feel like a hare in my reading and writing, she walks like the local tortoise, Ku`i, steadily toward her goal. She wins. Her first sentence is a thesis of sorts: "The purpose of this book is most simply to talk about how to read and understand poetry." Yet the title offers the hope of pleasure, surely what we all wish to give our students and family members. I have only started Steinman's book but can already see use value (there's pleasure there, too) in chapters about the sonnet and about "intertextual conversations."

I suspect that these books will be aids to pleasure for many students, especially those pre-disposed to clear their minds of obstacles. It's here that Writing Down the Bones helps; while that book over-emphasizes the "write crap until you drop, because at least you're writing," it does suggest that one clear the mind of judgment, above all things, before embarking on one's poetry experiments. While judgment is an inevitable human pre/occupation, I'd like to banish it from the undergraduate classroom as much as possible. So much enters the first day, unguided yet terrifying, a gift from missionaries, not angels. To clear that surface of dust-bunnies gives the reader (and her professor) the space to play with interior design. The Marvell couch and the Moore love seat; the Stevens lava lamp and the Harryette Mullen upholstry: these can only find their places if the room itself beckons.

There is another possibility, of course. That is teaching poetry as horror. Scared of poetry? This course confirms your suspicion that poetry is very very scary. Freddy Krueger ain't got nothing on W.H. Auden!!

--Consider that the poem bares its fangs at you.
--Consider that the poem is a vampire that sucks your blood.
--Consider that the best poems never shoot blanks, are always better armed than you.
--Consider that "getting" the poem makes it MORE dangerous.
--Consider that the poem has designs on you. All poems are Dick Cheney's.
--Consider your deep paranoia to be the greatest poem. Indulge it.

Dickinson's idea that the poem is what "takes the top of your head off" is then, per Paglia, potentially a literal statement.

In the age of violent video games, or even of Captain Underpants's "The Incredibly Graphc Violence Chapter (in flip-o-rama)," who can go wrong with such a lesson plan, at least those late nights when the next morning's poetry lesson most scares the professor herself?

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Save as evidence of your voyage

My husband loves the wording on airplane ticket stubs, advising you to save them as evidence you have traveled. There's something wonderful and spooky about the idea that you might, in fact, forget that you had. At 50, however, I find it's often less interesting to think about what you remember than of what you have forgotten. But there's no evidence for the latter, so what are you to do except take sharp intake of breath when someone else remembers.

We have been traveling, a family trip to San Francisco, where we met Radhika's birth sister (and Sangha's sister by affection and fiat) and adoptive mother. We also saw an elementary school friend of mine who was visiting her parents and brothers in California with two teenage boys I'd never met--they had not existed when last I saw her. I spent two days in L.A., reading with Deborah Meadows and attending a Dodgers game with her, Andrew Maxwell, Aaron Belz and son Elijah. Already I've misplaced that internet-generated ticket as proof, but there are photos.

As proof of voyage, some moments, thoughts, in no particular "order":

--The questions. They still catch me off-balance. "Where do they come from?" "You said 'your kids' sister'; what did you mean?"; "Oh, Radhika's sister"; "Was she an orphan?"; "Do you know their origins?"; "How old were they when you adopted them?"; "How did you find her sister?" And on and on. The questions are not hostile, but they are insistent. I choose fluttering like a butterfly or I choose rope-a-dope, and I usually change the subject. I have a vocabulary for our extended family, but no one else does; I only have it because I've developed it. Sangha's two sisters. My calabash sister (mother to my kids' sister). Then realize I no longer care so much about categories; remember that once I did. Somewhere in there an active forgetting of terminology, of names for families that do not fit my own.

--The Bridge. Joseph Stella's (Brooklyn) bridge painting is at SFMOMA, but the bridge that dominates San Francisco is Golden. We biked across it (two tandems and two single bikes) in the fog, rode through Sausolito to Tiburon, returned on the ferry. Deborah Meadows reminded me later that I criticized Michael Palmer for aestheticizing the shoe piles at Auschwitz. Beauty and horror. The emergency phones on the bridge that assure you--no, inform you--that jumping will be fatal and tragic. Call here. I watched, in short sections, Eric Steel's documentary on the bridge in my hotel room. He videoed the bridge for a year, caught (as in filmed) most of the jumpers. Some only witnessed as splashes, others seen pacing the bridge back and forth, those who looked nervous, furtive, climbed over the railing, jumped. Variations on that theme. The bridge in sun, fog, rain, gorgeous. Steel found witnesses, families, friends. The guy who survived assures us he changed his mind as he lept. But my sound didn't work that evening, so I don't know what else he said. So many ethical questions. The act is public as soon as it occurs on the bridge; to film and then show it adds another layer on. The jumpers' odd non-privacy is our own. We don't know what to do with it. I wish he had not ended with the most dramatic jump but with the most banal. But who's to judge that!? What he does best is get at the histories behind symbolic acts. If the jump is as symbolic as it is deadly, it represents not just pain, but long histories of pain.

--At Duchamps' urinal a grandmother leaned over her tow-headed grandson (age 6?) and said, "this is an important work. This destroyed art. If this is art, then everything is art, and nothing is."

--At SFMOMA, Sangha asked me, "what's so special about this?" He did like layers of paint on a canvas.

--Simplicity is an acquired taste. Rothko is not so simple.

--SFMOMA had a Robert Frank exhibit. I saw it there, and again in L.A., where there were fewer rooms of "The Americans." Frank as Whitman, tucked between bride (wrote "bridge") and bridegroom. Frank as bridge. An open casket at an African American funeral in South Carolina in the 1950s; two shoes on a desk at a military recruiter's office (no body attached, just the shoes); horn in front of/ instead of face at a parade; a black couple turning to stare at the photographer (I overheard a guide say this was one of Frank's favorites); the photographer's exhausted family in the front seat of an old car, lights illuminated; from New Mexico or Arizona, photo of the three large photos for sale at a rest stop (1. beautiful canyon, 2. beautiful foliage, 3. beautiful atom bomb explosion); starlet blurred, her fans crisp. More than hints of what was to come. Race, gender, cars, wars. Like Ginsberg, a Whitmanic vision after the fact of optimism. And yet . . .

--Needle Woman: Kim Sooja. LACMA. A room with screens. On/in each screen you see a woman's back. She has long hair in a pony tail, a light blue jacket on, and she is standing perfectly still looking out toward a river of people coming toward the camera, toward us, around her. Nepal, Chad, Tel Aviv, Havana, Yemen, Sao Paulo. Couldn't always figure out which was which. Kids mugging for the camera. A boy in Yemen(?), one eye directed at us, the other away. Evasion of eye contact. Stares (mostly in Tel Aviv); a man running his hands over his chest and belly (this made the children in the room laugh). The guard--it's his first day, he says--has decided that people pick their noses in all cultures. He's seen at least one nose pick per screen.

--If I answer people's questions about my children, what do they do with the answers? There is a need for closure when someone dies. How did it happen? The answer quiets us, for a time. Is there a complementary need for dis-closure, for knowing the prequel? Those who search their own origins would say yes. But the rest of us, why do we feel we have earned the right to know? The need? [The cat meows loudly. He was found 15 years ago at the Early School in Honolulu, lived 11 years with another family, which disintegrated. The new dispensation did not agree with him. He came to us, a new being in double digits.]

--Installation of hanging plastic ware, many rows of it. Like a garden of Babylon except made of plastic salad dryers, tubs, bowls, cups, hampers. Children thread the cords of it and laugh.

--Installation of street lamps, short ones, middle ones, tall ones. A gray forest with globes on top.

--Buses, trains, cable cars, BART, CalTrain, electric, diesel: San Francisco. Cars cars cars (L.A.)

--Rachel Loden's husband, Jussi, asks me to explain Language poetry. I gather he's asked before, and perhaps often. I do my best. He's skeptical. I try another tack. He's skeptical. I gather he's been skeptical before. Radhika asks for mango ice cream to follow her mango milk shake.

--Omnidawn, Cusp Books. Editors, Rusty Morrison, David Lloyd. To blog about. Both presses are what we call eclectic, though that word resembles "quietude." Rachel Loden says the word demeans silence; she does not like that. We talk about Silliman's categories: location, generation, inclusion, exclusion, avant, post-avant, school of quietude. Then there are the poetic dangers. "You have 7 readers and I have only 5!" 7 deadly sins, at least. Though if we're lucky, only 5.

--Daniel Tiffany tells me that Dementia Blog contains a mystery. What is the relationship of the observer to her mother? I say I tried hard to leave myself out. He says he knows. I'm reading Peggy Schumaker's Just Breathe Normally; she puts herself in. Uses a near death trauma to expand into family narrative. Marvelous exfoliation, in starts and stops. DB so claustrophobic. Six months and nothing else. Two ways of reading trauma. As wide angle, or as microscope. Either angle magnifies. Horrifies.

--Aaron Belz tells me it's funny. Why am I a bit taken aback? He's right.

--Marjorie Perloff says, "at my age!"

--Diane Ward says at 50 we need to figure out how to live with others for the duration. We agree that we think differently at 50. Quotient of remembering, forgetting, and the prospect if not diminished, then put in intense focus. My eyes in the morning refuse their focus.

--Deborah Meadows: "the most interesting poets are not in groups." She reads new letters, and a piece on primate thought, along with poems from Goodbye Tissues. We are at a salon. How Bryant laughed at that word last summer! Americans have reduced it to a word about hair, perhaps.

--I fly back to San Francisco; the plane lands wing to wing with another United plane. I hear my name called; our friends Joe and Hans are in the airport. We fly to Kauai to save money. The clocks there are all at the same time: Bikini Atoll, Honolulu, London, places whose names we don't recognize. Nothing on-line about whose project this is, this bank of clocks running at the same time, the same second. Hawaiian musicians, a hula dancer, Radhika dancing too. Radhika performing a chant for Queen Liliu`okalani as we land in Hawai`i, her hula arms telling part of the story.


Friday, July 10, 2009

"The angel at the center of this rind": Wallace Stevens & Hawai`i's pineapple culture

Nothing quite says Hawai`i vacation to the tourist like a pineapple. Airplanes leaving Honolulu fill with travelers whose carry-ons include pineapples packaged in neat boxes, the Dole logo displayed prominently in red. When my father returned from his yearly business trip to Hawai`i in the 1970s, he always brought us a pineapple. More oddly, perhaps, a neighbor in Williamsburg, Virginia, where I taught for a year and a half in the late 1980s, flew a pineapple flag outside the front door. When I asked what the pineapple meant, I was told it was a sign of welcome, of hospitality. Googling "Williamsburg and pineapple," I find pineapples galore in the architecture and culture of colonial Williamsburg, along with ads for pineapple door stops, a table top pineapple votive candle holder, a handmade pineapple mug, pineapple glassware, pineapple soap, pineapple garden stake, a "folk art Santa with pineapple needlepoint, a pineapple snow globe bottle stopper, pineapple rugs and mats, pineapple plaques and flags, pineapple night light . . . I could fill this blog box and more with pineapple kitsch. Suffice it to say that the pineapple is both more (and less) than a fruit; it symbolizes leisure time, hospitality, even Christianity (Christopher Wren used pineapple finials on churches in the late 17th century).

None of the pineapples I've mentioned thus far appears in a field of red earth, irrigated by water contended for by more than one part of an island, picked by laborers and machines, shipped thousands of miles, placed on store shelves; instead, these "pineapples" rest on tables or stop doors or hang from poles. The pineapples my father brought home had nothing to do with ground, but everything to do with ornament (of the kitchen counter, the dining room table) and with an exotic sweet-sour taste that I never quite took to. Though, to be fair to my father, who grew up on a farm, he marveled at Hawai`i's red earth when he saw it. My mother also used pineapples out of cans, which cut the sour and added considerable sweet to the equation.

Wallace Stevens wrote "Someone Puts a Pineapple Together," a poem he left out of his collected, but which can be found in the Library of America edition as part of "Three Academic Pieces." Less likeable than Stevens's poem on two pears, this excursus on fruit and the imagination presents the pineapple as a replacement skylark. Where Shelley used the imagined bird as fertilizer for his metaphorical frenzy, Stevens uses the real pineapple as a goad to figuration, as well as a warning against it, ending with what he terms "prolific ellipses," or the gaps rapidly (rabidly) filled in by the poet's imagination.

In the second stanza, we find the pineapple already tabled:

It is something on a table that he sees,
The root of a form, as of this fruit, a fund,
The angel at the center of this rind, (LoA 693)

Stevens, who called money poetry, calls this fruit a "fund." Lucky they don't grow in hedges. Fundamental to his observation of the pineapple is its appearance as "imagined artifice," not a double negative for "real fruit," but a marvelous description of a fruit that looks so baroque it might well be imagined. And so, since "These casual exfoliations are / Of the tropic of resemblence," at once tropical in origin and trope-ical in trajectory, Stevens riffs on them:

Day, night and man and his endless effigies.
If he sees an object on a table, much like
A jar of the shoots of an infant country, green

And bright, or like a venerable urn,
Which, from the ash within it, fortifies
A green that is the ash of what green is (694)

Elsewhere in the poem he refers to the pineapple as "a table Alp," doubly displacing the fruit from its soil in the tropics to Switzerland, albeit making a fine visual (if not a pleasant sounding) pun on the pineapple as Matterhorn. Can the pineapple as clockworks be far behind?

According to Gary Y. Okihiro, in Pineapple Culture: A History of the Tropical and Temperate Zones (UC Press 2009), the tropics have long presented the temperate zones with a conundrum. From the tropics come wealth and good food, danger and illness. Hence (to make a very long story short) the plantation system, where natives and workers/slaves from Asia and Africa performed the hard labor in the tropics, and well-to-do citizens of the temperate zones (from Scotland to Williamsburg, Virginia) enjoyed the shoots of those infant countries, shoots that also (in ways that few tourists carrying their boxed pineapple can imagine) killed. Stevens was more incisive in his view of the imagination when he wrote that "poetry can kill a man"--if not poetry then what inspires it, the pineapple and the labor it takes to grow it. Something Stevens may not have imagined. These days, "It Must be Abstract" gives way to "It Must be Material." For better and for worse.

Reading Kane`ohe: A History of Change, one of the marvelous 1970s-era reports on the archeology and natural history of the windward side of O`ahu that I find in the Public Library, I see that I live in an area that was farmed with pineapple in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Pineapple, rice, and sugar were planted by outsiders, and replaced the indigenous culture of taro. There was a large cannery at Matson Point nearby, where the old Pineapple Hut (crumbling tourist trap) has been crumbling for decades. This cannery was built on the site of a heiau, or Hawaiian sacred site, and was rumored to have failed because of it. Pineapple has moved away from Kane`ohe, from Lana`i, from most of Hawai`i, where it is too expensive to produce compared to Thailand or the Philippines. But my husband brought home a "Maui Gold organic" the other day, a pineapple with a large label designed to appeal to anyone who likes his fruit hand-picked, organic, and locally grown.

Okihiro's book is very good at showing how Hawai`i pineapple became an object of desire more than a fruit, as much artifice as foodstuff, and hence an object of advertising. (The photos here are of a neighbor's garden down the hill; the pineapples are ornamental, nearly as artificial as the other objects in the garden.) Georgia O'Keeffe got a three-month junket to Hawai`i from the Dole company to paint; she came up with many paintings of Hawai`i, but only one of a pineapple, and that a bud. James D. Dole himself said: "Perhaps the romantic nature of the pineapple hit me, don't you think? You know it has a personality; an 'IT'" (129). Or, as Stevens writes: "the incredible, also, has its truth" (695). The advent of plantation culture and advertising meant that no longer were pineapples the province only of the rich, but also of the middle class. While a 1909 Ladies Home Journal ad for Hawaiian Pineapple shows a worker bent over in a field of pine, a large hat on his head and floppy sack on his arched back (146), other ads highlighted practical uses for the pineapple, and emphasized the can more than the field. "The freshness and tenderness of ripeness, the flavor of Nature, canned on the field in sanitary cans" reads another LHJ ad from 1909 (145). Agency is gone: who canned them on the field? Part of the sanitation, it seems, is the "ellipsis" where labor was. Pineapples are magical, after all, objects as notable for what the observer does not see as for what Stevens does:

The small luxuriations that portend

Universal delusions of universal grandeurs,
The slight incipiencies, of which the form,
At last, is the pineapple on the table or else

An object the sum of its complications, seen
And unseen. (696)

Among the pineapple's qualities--more aptly, those of its observer--is its status as a waystation between beauty and danger. Okihiro quotes one of King Ferdinand's envoys to the "new world" as writing that the plant has a "very sharp thorny thistle with long prickly leaves . . . very wild," even as is was "lovely" and "delicate." "Paradise," Okihiro concludes, "Europe's Orient, was indeed both civil and savage" (89). In "Someone Puts a Pineapple Together" Stevens tries to mitigate the natural dangers (if not those of the "evilly compounded, vital I" as he puts it elsewhere) by absorbing nature into thought:

The fruit so seen
As a part of the nature that he contemplates
Is fertile with more than changes of the light

On the table or in the colors of the room. (694)

And a few lines later: "There had been an age / When a pineapple on the table was enough" (695). Stevens intends a sufficiency before thought, ratiocination, scholarship. He expresses a nostalgia for the object itself. But as Okihiro points out, Stevens's own desire had a historical basis. "Captives of those wants and initiatives, Indians and their material culture, including the pineapple, were spoils of imperial designs, annexations of conspicuous wealth and power than encircled the globe. . . But it was expensive, that mastery over nature" (92). I do not want to do a "Stevens is insufficiently aware of the ramifications of imperialism and capitalism" riff. It would be too easy to accuse a businessman from New England (where the missionaries hearkened from) of such a lack of imaginative knowledge. Stevens has his strengths. Among them, even, is his awareness that the pineapple is an amazing work of natural art, one that can inspire a poet as much as bird or vase or constellation. But I do want to add a layer to another of his poems (a better one) about table-gazing, "The Poems of Our Climate."

Okihiro spends many dozens of pages at the beginning of his book on the meanings accorded to climate by scholars of geography and race; much of this chronicle is profoundly depressing. The globe, as divvied up by scholars like Ellsworth Huntington (in 1915) or Ellen Churchill Semple (in 1911), was divided between temperate zones and their industrious folk, and the tropical zones, with their lazy louts. Whether framed as an issue of climate or one of race pure and simple, these early scholars ("the forfeit scholar coming in," to take Stevens out of context) justified empire as enlightened behavior rather than remarking on the theft it was. Read in this context, Stevens's poem on climate is not simply an allegory of the mind, but of the mind in such a world, one that creates unfulfillable desires for a paradise where fruit grows and savages need to be saved. His poem begins with a "brilliant bowl" on a table, a simple day in which the poet's mind (is "evilly compounded, vital I") still "would want more . . . need more"):

There would still remain the never-resting mind,
So that one would want to escape, come back
To what had been so long composed.
The imperfect is our paradise.
Not that, in this bitterness, delight,
Since the imperfect is so hot in us,
Lies in flawed words and stubborn sounds. (Collected 193-194).

While Stevens misses out on the material history of the bowl (I'm seeing in my mind's eye a picture of one of the crystal bowls from Williamsburg, decorated with pineapples), he gets at something profound about the western mind and its desires. He was publishing these poems in the mid-1940s (in war-time, in other words) and the early 1950s (the age of suburban abundance). [Hat tip to Jon Morse for pdf and dates.] What is worst (and best) about the Western imagination is its propensity to want. The poet's imagination (metaphorically) travels in search of desired objects. The strength of Stevens's imagination, in this poem if not in the later pineapple poem, is in his awareness that what paradise there is involves search more than finding.

And, via the pineapple, Stevens is also aware of the dangers of making metaphor at the expense of the object. In an earlier piece, "Poem Written at Morning," he avers that:

A sunny day's complete Poussiniana
Divide it from itself. It is this or that
And it is not.

His proof text is the pineapple:

By metaphor you paint
A thing. Thus, the pineapple was a leather fruit,
A fruit for pewter, thorned and palmed and blue,
To be served by men of ice. (LoA 198)

But the truth is more complicated, involves "experience," touch, "the total thing." Unable to resist his own desires, the poet ends with metaphor, but this time it seems well earned (urned?): "Green were the curls upon that head."

So, to Okihiro's assertion that desire was created in the "'inarticulate longings' of white middle-class women," and the pineapple was rendered "safe for the homefront even as Hawai`i's annexation and the absorption of other distant colonies made their products 'domestic'" (190), I would respond yes, but. That desire was evoked in the ever so articulate longings of Wallace Stevens leaves us with poetry that explores (if not with the historical and material consciousness we might wish) the process of travel and desire in the western imagination. Stevens's pineapple poems may seem to this reader too abstract in some ways, but they are not ever safe.

[added a bit later: painting by A.M. Cassandre]

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

The Connections Between Things: Gary Y. Okihiro, Ledward Kaapana, and the Centrality of Hawaiian Culture

As a child I had a wooden puzzle of the United States. My parents thought it important for me to know the states and their capitols. I can still feel the edges of the pieces, so much more sturdy than those of most jigsaw puzzles. But the puzzle was incomplete; there were only 48 wooden states to fit within the bounds of the United States. I remember wondering why Alaska and Hawai`i were painted on the left side of the puzzle, shoe-horned next to California. Hawai`i, like its off-shore mate, was abstract rather than tactile, a representation of a representation of a state rather than a three dimensional object. I have since learned that most maps of the USA misplace Hawai`i, which is too far away from the continent to be given its rightful place in the Pacific Ocean.

Next month will mark my 20th anniversary as a resident of this state; it will also mark the 50th anniversary of statehood, a state still fraught for many, who wish Hawai`i had not joined the "union." There is still a question of agency; who wanted statehood, and for what? These questions and their answers are often very different in Hawai`i than they are outside Hawai`i. But the impress of the continent, its power to abstract Hawai`i, is still considerable. Hawai`i is still considered a synonym of "vacation" to much of the country, and its very real problems (militarization, over-development, methamphetamine use, etc.) ignored as blots on a happy fantasy.

Gary Y. Okihiro's Island World: A History of Hawai`i and the United States reverses the typical historical narrative in which the United States acts on Hawai`i, which remains a passive receptacle for tourism, the military, and an outward directed economy. In his introduction, Okihiro writes, "Instead of the customary narrative of the United States acting upon Hawai`i, I present the Islands' press against the continent, causing it to move and endowing it, accordingly with historical meaning. In this version of the past, Hawai`i is the center that, in its circuits, stirs and animates the United States" (2). While Okihiro's subjects (like the missionaries) are often deeply involved in this circuit, taking what they have learned in Hawai`i and adopting it on the continent, Okihiro is also attentive to what is most particular (I will not say authentic) about Hawai`i, namely its culture.

I was drawn to "Poetry in Motion," the sixth chapter of Island World, where Okihiro writes about Hawaiian music and its influence on the continent. I had just read George Kanahele's marvelous encyclopedia, Hawaiian Music and Musicians: An Illustrated History (1979), on which Okihiro bases some of his narrative. So I was aware that Hawaiian music has traveled the globe since at least the early 20th century. (There were "Hawaiian" musicians in England and in The Netherlands, among other places, a century ago, picking up what they could from Polynesian travelers and from 78s.) Where Kanahele's book (which he edited and wrote large portions of) is exciting in part because it was published during the Hawaiian Renaissance of the 1970s, which brought Hawaiian culture and language back from the brink, Okihiro's less Hawai`i-centered history is exciting for what it tells us about the influence of Hawaiian musicians on music that is not Hawaiian. So, for example, while Kanahele's book devotes a lot of attention to the history of the steel guitar and its introduction to Hawai`i, Okihiro writes about how African American musicians adopted the steel guitar (played on the musician's lap) for the blues. "It is . . . likely that the Hawaiian steel guitar influenced bottleneck blues north of the Delta from the 1910s through 1930s as touring musicians performed Hawaiian renditions at Chautauquas, at fairs, and in vaudeville" (199).

There is a racial/racist history here, too, as early Hawaiian music was marketed as "coon songs." But, as Okihiro points out, "like the hula, 'hula blues' points to the resistances posed by Hawaiians and African Americans in popular culture to the vulgar cartoons of them as 'weak tropical races'--idle, ignorant, but happy and given to dance and song" (195). Surprising, then, is the equally strong alliance between Hawaiian and white country music, which Okihiro also elucidates. Many country musicians, born and raised in places like Ohio and Texas, performed Hawaiian music as well as hillbilly music, and also played the guitar Hawaiian style. Okihiro leaves this reader persuaded that American music is nearly as Hawaiian as it is African American or Appalachian.

Over a decade ago, I attended a concert by Cyril Pahinui and Ledward Kaapana at the Music Department at UHM. It was a formal affair; the two musicians sat on stage and the audience sat a few feet below them. Pahinui, one of the sons of the legendary Gabby Pahinui (whose music I heard on NPR circa 1993 as I drove through Maine), was clearly an amazing musician. But it was Led Kaapana who impressed me the most. I heard Deepak Chopra say of Michael Jackson a week or two ago that he entered a state of ecstasy when he performed. That would be how I might describe Led's performance that night (and on this video). Led laughed and horsed around, at one point playing the guitar behind his head at full virtuoso speed--he is a ukelele virtuoso, as well.

The other night my husband and I went to the Kona Brewing Company on the waterfront in Hawai`i Kai to hear Led again. I now have a "Led Head" teeshirt to prove it. Where Led now travels the world, playing Hawaiian music to audiences in Virginia, Seattle, and Europe on a regular basis (living out Gary Okihiro's thesis), here he played for family and friends. The only tourists there were there by accident, but most of those at the bar displayed the utmost volition in being there. Led gave the "stage" over for a while to a group of young people, including a young boy who carried something that resembled a bow (he didn't play it). But after a break, he came back with Mike Kaawa and began a rollicking set that we had to exit from (children at home, you know).

[Ledward Kaapana, center, Mike Kaawa to his left]

A lot of Hawaiian music is played for tourists in hotels in Waikiki, and even in the Hilo airport lounge, where we heard an excellent trio play (kanikipila) with two hula dancers this past Friday as we awaited our overdue Go! flight. (The singer kept saying "we want to aloha you," a phrase I had never heard before.)

[musicians in the Hilo Airport]

Aunty Genoa
(to provide just one example) played for years in Waikiki. But the Hawaiian Renaissance, while it's had side benefits for tourists who yearn for more than the beach, has had a more significant impact on Hawai`i's culture and politics. As Gary Okihiro argues, what happens in Hawai`i also matters deeply to the rest of the country, whether or not (likely not) people there know it. Okihiro has performed a great service by bringing hidden histories to the surface, showing us how considering Hawai`i as the center of the narrative, rather than its periphery, can benefit the art of history and our larger senses of American and Hawaiian cultures.

Saturday, July 4, 2009


[Albert Saijo at 71, 1997]

“Star-crossed sideshow (misheard for Saijo)”: I remember reading that phrase at a Van Gogh's Ear launch in Paris, off the Champs Elysee in November 2002, after saying it alluded to the poet Albert Saijo. After the reading, a man came up to me and handed me his address; said he'd known Saijo's sister when she was Lew Welch's secretary. A couple of years later I handed the address to Albert as he sat beside his wood-burning stove in the cottage he had built himself. The cottage sits near the end of a rutted road in the rain forest that surrounds the active volcano, Kilauea.

The “sideshow” I alluded to was that of William Shawcross, whose book on the Nixon administration's murderous policies in Cambodia I was reading at the time. We would adopt our son Sangha the month after that poem was written. But unintentional allusions are as powerful as intended ones, and seem every bit as striking when the author has some years in which to become the intentional reader of her text. So it seems to me, rereading this memory card, that Saijo's treatment as "sideshow" to official narratives of Beat poetry (or any other kind) needs to end. He has a rightful place in the literary history of the last half-century. (His wife has said that Saijo is often asked to speak to graduate students who want to write about his work, but he turns them away.) There are recent mentions of Saijo in important books on Gary Snyder by Timothy Gray, and on Modernism and Asian-American poetry by Josephine Park. But still.

In Gary Snyder and the Pacific Rim: Creating Counter-Cultural Community, Timothy Gray makes the point that counter-culture was not cross-cultural: “Rarely did their [the Beats'] journeys into that space include conversations with Asian-Americans. Indeed, for all the talk about Asian religion and philosophy during these years, Albert Saijo (whom Kerouac disguised as the 'hepcat' George Baso in Big Sur, and Welch once referred to as a 'very swinging but repressed little Jap, really beautiful . . . with the open little moon face of the children of his race') and Shigeyoshi Murao . . . are the only Asian-Americans to receive much mention in the literature and popular accounts of the Beat era” (168). I will leave that language to speak for itself.

Saijo read at the University of Hawai`i Art Auditorium with Gary Snyder and Nanao Sakaki in 2000. Their approach to reading was dynamic, as they sat facing the audience, calling and responding to each other's work rather than reading from a fixed menu. The event called up all that is best and most problematic about the Zen tradition of American poetry (with Sakaki as spiritual cousin), its reverence for the earth, its reverence for a decidedly male tradition of poetry-making. Snyder was especially problematic on that score.

I forget exactly when my husband Bryant and I first visited Saijo on the Big Island. It must have been not too long after we were married in 1998, because we knew him before we adopted Sangha, and then Radhika, and took them to meet him. So it was the late 1990s. We visited, and talked for hours about things Albert should have known nothing about, but strangely did. He abhorred the internet, but not in knee-jerk fashion. So, while he didn't have a computer, let alone an internet connection, he had read computer magazines and knew whereof he disapproved. He talked about the internet, as he did so many things, conceptually. On a later visit, we noted that he had acquired a laptop—a relative had sent it to him, he said. For a time, he even had an email address that we knew, but it lapsed. Bryant speaks of Saijo as a man who is always present, always engaged, always sitting in his chair beside the stove, as the large windows let the rain forest into his cottage. "He belongs there," Bryant tells me.

Saijo is a peaceful man, though one senses a peacefulness that has been hard earned. The "author's note" to OUTSPEAKS is acrid in its references to President Roosevelt, who was responsible for imprisoning his family, and then drafting him into the segregated army. In his poem, “January 16, 1991,” titled after a date we know as the beginning of the First Gulf War, day after Martin Luther King's real birthday, Saijo writes:


(My students always thought the caps meant he was shouting; he says he always liked the big print books for people who can't see well, all I can say is that his voice was soft but carried weight.) In this passage, the lack of a television cannot save Saijo from witnessing--even participating in--the violence he would see there. Actually he would not have, as the Gulf War was pre-cleansed by the US government and media. Without ever playing a video game, however, Saijo would have understood what had happened, as military power postured as play, inverting the expected movement from war to war-game.

As a teenager, Saijo spent years in an internment camp at Heart Mountain, Wyoming. I find a photograph of him as a very young man, inspecting a camp newspaper, as another teenager turns the mimeo machine:

He spoke of that time as awful and yet strangely liberating to a teen allowed to wander the camp, set free from the usual ties of family and community. When I told him, circa 2004, that I was writing about internment poetry for a conference in Maine, he offered to send me writing by his mother, Misa Saijo, who had been an important haiku poet on the west coast. A large manila envelope arrived some time later, filled with manuscripts. In the short essay I wrote, I noted that she had written about almost everything except internment. No. She had written of that, too, but her internment writings had been lost, leaving her autobiographical writings with a significant gap.

Here, from my essay, which ended up in the Greenwood Encyclopedia of American Poets and Poetry:

The papers Saijo sent me, in a large manila envelope, offered an initial clue as to what was to come in my research on internment camp poetry. The writings by his mother, Asana Miyata Saijo (pen name Misa Saijo), are all from the 1930s and the 1950s and 1960s. There are no camp poems from the 1940s in the small collection. One essay tells a funny story about ticks in the camp, and concludes with the following lines: “How bathed in nostalgia are the memories / of that long ago camp life” (1956, Los Angeles), which hardly seems a final word on such an experience. In the short biography of the mother by her son, running just over 30 pages, printed (in the capital letters Saijo uses for all his writing), this absence is clarified. “HER HAIKU SOCIETY FLOURISHED AS THERE WERE POETS FROM ALL PARTS OF THE WEST COAST IN HEART MOUNTAIN – UNFORTUNATELY ALL HER WRITINGS FROM THESE CAMP DAYS WERE LOST IN THE MOVES MY PARENTS HAD TO MAKE AFTER LEAVING CAMP – HEARTBREAKING.” Saijo’s barely suppressed conflation of the name, Heart Mountain, with the “heartbreaking” nature of his mother’s loss, speaks volumes about the silences that surrounded the internment camp experience and its poetry for decades after they were closed by the US government. [end of quotation] Like many internees, Saijo fought in World War II in Italy. I like to imagine that he crossed paths with my mother, who was in Italy then, and who owned boots given her by "one of the Neecy boys," as she called them. I'm not even sure she knew that the word was Nisei.

Those big capital letters do appear loud on the page when set into type. In their original form, they were not “set” but “pencilled” into letters that illuminate (in the many senses, textual and otherwise, of that word) the words. Juliana Spahr reviewed OUTSPEAKS for Tinfish 6 (1998), and noticed how much was lost in the transfer from handwriting to type in the Bamboo Ridge volume: “since I am a text fetishist, I can't let this review go by without complaining just a little. Saijo writes a visual poetry of scribble and revelation in different colored inks. There is an interesting reproduction on the cover and there are tantalizing black and white glimpses of the visual poems through the book but the book itself presents word by word translations of these poems. Saijo, I want to argue, is a new Blake and his readers deserve an illustrated edition. His manuscript pages are beautiful because they are messy yet readable” (Tinfish 6, 53).” Spahr writes about Saijo's participation in the tradition of Blake and Emerson; to that I would add Dickinson, especially in manuscript. While Dickinson's writings were not bardic, like Blake's, like Saijo's, her sense of paradox, alive in the scribbled forms of the handwritten words themselves, resemble his. Where she said "If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me, I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry,” he writes: “HERE IS A BOMB—IT IS MADE OF WORDS—READ IT & IT GOES OFF IN YOUR HEAD & BLOWS YOU AWAY” ( 77). Dickinson writes of herself as reader; Saijo of us as readers. That shift of address marks over a century of attrition on many assumptions, one of them being the ability of the poet to operate as a free agent. That they have both come to be associated with volcanoes is appropriate. Dickinson never saw one, but understood volcanic power; Saijo lives on top of one.

Saijo, like Dickinson, seems a solitary figure. He moved to Volcano in the early 1990s with his wife, Laura, and by the time we knew him, could not be teased out of his cottage. He would have us over and make us lunch and coffee and we would talk, but it was always in his space. He was quoted in the Honolulu Star-Bulletin in 1997, about the time his book was published and his life became more public for a while, as saying: “All you can do is do something with your personal life. Ask yourself how you are supporting what is happening out there and how can you take energy away from this madness.” When I asked two years ago if I could publish one of his books in manuscript, he declined. He was not interested in publishing any more; he was interested in writing. While I hope his later work finds a home soon (in its original handwriting), I respect that sense of privacy, that sense that the work is what matters, that the personal is more than solitary, and that readers ought not be a poet's first priority.

For, while it belongs in literary histories, Saijo's poetry does not reside in a particular time or category (he is not exclusively a Beat poet, or a Bamboo Ridge poet, though he is of course both of those). He is also a contemporary poet whose work crosses--transgresses--many boundaries, whether ethnic or temporal. Saijo's poems concern the particular lacks we now face head on due to our ravaging of the land, air, and the moral environment. And his voice is pitched to speak to readers beyond our time, as well. When I googled "Albert Saijo" I arrived at an odd map that claimed to tell me what authors other than Saijo a reader of his was likely to read. Walt Whitman was virtually alone on the map. Like Whitman, who still speaks to ferry-riders in Brooklyn, Saijo will continue to speak to anyone who cares to listen. His concerns will more and more be ours, and we ought to cup our ears, the better to hear him. His work is urgent.



[photograph of ohia lehua taken on the Kilauea Iki trail, July 3, 2009]