Wednesday, May 25, 2011

No Poetry But in Fact: Allison Cobb's _Green-Wood_

[grave site at Valley of the Temples, Ahuimanu, O`ahu]

A gravestone offers facts: name, dates, relationships. It also--through these same channels and that of its narrow platform--offers poem. The gravestone is in equal measure original (here lay one particular person) and derivative (formal choices few, language abstract). The hyphen between dates turns us all into quotations.

Allison Cobb's Green-Wood traces the history of a cemetery in Brooklyn, New York. It begins aptly with two head-notes: quotations, titles, names, dates. The poet doesn't yet speak for herself, but first through an 1857 book about the cemetery by Nehemiah Cleaveland. His words are transplanted into hers:

You are about, kind Reader, to enter and explore a still yet populous Village of the Dead. Through its labyrinths of roads and footpaths--of thicket and lawn--you will need a guide. Take one that will be silent and unobtrusive, and not unintelligent.

By virtue of its being quotation, that last sentence sounds a note of humility, but these words describe the poet's mien, her task. She is no Virgil, more a ranger, or arranger. In the final section of her book, Cobb makes several poetic moves that she soon turns against: "That arc, it's fake," she writes (127). After one particularly high-flown phrase, she re-turns back: "No that's Poetry-swagger, false, a cover like / the cemetery = sleep" (129). Swagger is false metaphor, is the Victorians' substitution of "falling asleep" for "dying." Graveyards are incomparable places.

Metaphors there are in this book, but they emerge from square sections of text. The book's form is that of short prose paragraphs, slabs really, or gravestones that appear on the page with aisles between them. It's there reader walks with poet: "Wait. I came to know the place by waiting. Not waiting. By standing still and also walking. I lived. From the Old Teutonic stem 'to remain'" (8). Cobb's book often traces words back to their origins, stems, in this way. But the poet takes reader on a tour of life between its origin and end. That pathway is historical, not transcendent, even if part of the history of the cemetery is embedded in Cobb's research on the American Transcendentalists, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Beecher Stowe among them.

If there is a starting place to this book for Cobb, it's 9/11. I can't find the marker just now, but Cobb writes of hearing about the attacks on the World Trade Center off the radio of a delivery truck. The driver too happily announces there will be revenge; he promises that the unmarked cemetery that lower Manhattan becomes will be replicated elsewhere. This is reproduction, but of a deathly kind. Among the graves are many of people killed on 9/11, others of soldiers killed in Iraq. Beside the stones Cobb finds objects:

stars and stripes pinwheel glow-in-the-dark
muddy stuffed bunny face
down near Crescent Water

Batman action figure
frog riding a bicycle
Virgin of Guadalupe pen

DADDY WE MISS YOU pumpkin (33)

So much unsaid, yet visible to the eye: American patriotism (jingoism), the Hispanic/Catholic dead father, perhaps a soldier; the autumn season (with Halloween lurking in the pumpkin); the kids' toys; the odd humor of a frog riding a bicycle. Cobb calls these "juicy intervals" (33).

Although the objects appear at seeming random, they make an awful sense, one that draws the poet into the story. On one walk, Cobb finds an airplane part, clearly off the Airbus on its way to the Dominican Republic that crashed in November, 2001, making that autumn even more grim. (It's easy to forget that anthrax was traveling through the U.S. mail during that time, as well, dealing its own manner of death and terror.) On the discovered tag is manufacturing information, a kind of headnote in the airplane's memory. Having recorded the PART NO. of the airplane, Cobb notes that "The first five digits match my Social Security number" (32). The moment is sublime, but it's a bureaucratic, corporate sublime that draws a witness into its vortex. The uncanny identifies a "horse of disaster" with the poet whose eyes are glued to her grove of graves.

Before I return to groves, let me quote another bit of connective tissue, one about connection: "Ovid in the Fasti wages a pitched battle between order and chaos says the classicist Barbara Weidon Boyd. She discerns patterns in the seemingly unrelated episodes that keep sending us back, inviting us to make new connections between previously unconnected phenomena" (93). The cemetery does not come with a map, but with these landmark passages that teach us how to read the book about the cemetery.

And again, of Emerson and Benjamin: "Each focused on the minuscule as a container or concentration of the whole, hoping to encounter in the small and minute not just emblems or symbols but an actual instance of the all in concentrated form--as Benjamin wrote, the crystal of the total event" (120).

When you begin to stitch connections, you find yourself linking activities: walking, observing, researching. You stack up histories: Revolutionary, Transcendental, the Vietnam War, 9/11, Iraq. You put together etymologies, facts, objects, land, birds, 19th century collections, trees. You put many of these in lists, along with the names of drugs and pesticides. You take down names of the dead who have left their influence in the poet's thinking: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Linnaeus, N. Cleaveland, Alfred Russel Wallace, Walter Benjamin, Birute M.F. Galdikas. You note land that has been taken and/or devastated from the American Colonies to Papua New Guinea. You consider that the poet is at once naturalist, historian, citizen, and mother.

Or, she wants to be a mother. Cobb, who is partnered to a woman, undergoes fertility treatments, has frozen sperm shipped to her doctor, tries and tries again. She walks through the Village of Death, and cannot seem to enter a region of new life. Presented as fact, the name of the fertility drug, Clomid, bears affect in its trace. There is no baby at the end of the book. That is not metaphor or narrative arc. That is fact.

America is death-drenched, but cannot grieve. Like Emerson his late wife and then his son, America digs up its dead and then keeps quiet. "Of these experiences, Emerson recorded nothing" (72). Like Mayor Bloomberg, perhaps, Emerson was embarrassed by grief. Of some families he spoke to a year after 9/11, Bloomburg said, "It's not my business to say that to a woman, 'Suck it up and get going,' but that is the way I feel. You've got to look to the future" (72). The silences of the private sphere become screams from the public, another of the graveyard's paradoxes.

A cemetery's future lies not simply in its dead, but also in its trees. Cobb writes lists of the trees she sees at Green-Wood. She also writes about arsenic that's used as a preservative in wood. And she chronicles the perverse process of transplanting trees to New Jersey before planting them at the WTC site because New Jersey's climate is the same at that of New York City. "Those that can't adjust--the weak and the dying--will be 'culled' before planting" (70). When Green-Wood gets too crowded, an old tree is cut to clear the ground. Fertility and infertility alternate in the cemetery, but perversely, through human agency (transplanting, culling, poisoning, cutting, treating).

The fact of art a trace (9). Facts are made things, not truths. In this book, Cobb has constructed her paragraphs to offer us traces to the facts we make. Fact is not inert object, then, but a series of connections, the tissue of stories we tell ourselves about American history. The back jacket tells us that this book is "poetry" and also "American Studies." But what I love most about this back cover space is that, though it folds over a book of epitaphs, it offers up no blurbs.

What the book does contain is "heart pillow wrapped in a plastic grocery bag" (38). No aura here, but an amazing work of documentary poetry. Gravestones, like photographs, are not original, but the (mechanical) re-productions of image and text in Cobb's book offer us a point from which to contemplate our own citizenship, and to hope to parent a better world.

Allison Cobb, Green-Wood. Queens, NY: Factory School, 2010. Buy it here.

For more on Factory School, click this link.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Against The Market Economy of Words: Thinking With Oppen & Riding


"Poetry must be at least as good as dead silence." George Oppen

A few poets have chosen dead silence, at least--in Laura [Riding] Jackson's case--if "dead silence" can be said to be contained within capacious prose. LRJ pointed to the word "good," noted that value, because it involves interpretation, also invokes human vanity. Riding's shit-detector did double-duty as a decibel detector: the noisier the poem, the less value it had for her.

Oppen ended in silence, but it was not his choice, rather that of his Alzheimer's. His chosen silences occurred in mid-life, not at its end. He believed in miracles, ordinary ones. Merleau-Ponty: "it is easy to strip language and action of all meaning and make them seem absurd . . . But that other miracle, the fact that in an absurd world language and behavior do have meaning for those who speak and act, remains to be understood" (quoted by Michael Heller in Shoemaker, 190).

If language is ordinary material, then it is both miraculous and base. Its metaphors can too quickly be literalized; the "value" we associate with aesthetics turning into the "value" that operates in capitalism. As a publisher I know all too well how difficult it is to sell--in the most literal sense--books of poems. As a publisher, I need to make sales. But I also value the freedom given me as a purveyor of experimental poetry; I do not need to sell much to survive, and so I can publish unpopular work. The Retro Chapbook series that Tinfish Press is currently embarked upon (12 chapbooks in 12 months, $3 each) appeals to me because it goes under the radar of distribution (no ISBNs on these chaps) and each book costs less than a gallon of gas. That each chapbook comes in a run of 100 only (before possible reprints) is at once problem and liberation.

When does the act of reading become one more of consumption than of filtering, weighing, meditation (meditation being to thinking what small press is to Hollywood)? When, in some sense, we do not even ask readers to read, but simply to consume, and to pay us back in the materials of money and awards and fame? When we care less who reads our work than that it is somehow "getting out there"? Large audiences are not always best ones.

If we seek to "sell" our work, then that effort has an effect on audience. An audience that "buys" is different from one that absorbs (even anti-absorptively). An audience that "buys" is looking for something other than meaning, which is intangible. They are looking for effect, affect, the work that will punch them in the gut, or make them cry, or DO something. They want to be provoked. We want to say something strong so that they will react. No matter if we do it in poems or in polemics, we give them what they ask for.

The effect on words is to make them into objects to be traded, sold, rendered "poetic." As in aristocracy, the highest value goes to that which will not sell, but without possessing it you cannot otherwise become wealthy. Oppen wrote to Rachel Blau DuPlessis in 1965: "And the poem is not built out of words, one cannot make a poem by sticking words into it, it is the poem which makes the words and contains their meaning. One cannot reach out of roses and elephants and essences and put them in the poem. . . " The word "essence" has nothing to do with essence, in other words.


"When the man is writing is frightened by a word, he may have started."


For Oppen, the poem's content was his journey toward the poem. Poem was thinking, often thinking about thinking. There are images, yes, of shipwreck and foxholes, but they dare not stay put because movement ("ripeness") is all. The emphasis was not on poet, or poem, but on ordinary revelations found in words. "Not that it reveals or could reveal Everything, but it must reveal something (I would like to say Something) and for the first time" (to Charles Hanzlicek, 1966).

Much as I love meditative poems, I don't want to put all my eggs in the thinking basket. One of the huge gaps in creative writing curricula is any emphasis on content. We get so caught up in technique, in matters of craft, that we neglect to talk about what to write about, how necessary it is to write about necessary matters, and to do it ethically. We have so neglected this that when it's brought up, students sometimes say, "but we're here to learn how to write, not to think about writing." We especially neglect thinking about those matters of content that do provoke. Not that provocation is always a bad thing, but that we need to do it with care. Audiences matter, too, whether because they take pleasure in a poet's work or because we wish to engage them in relationships of teacher to student or friend to friend or bard to sitters by a bonfire.

There are words that flag these kinds of content. They are words like "race," like "gender," like "class," like "land," like "money," like "adoption," like "sex." These are our own "roses" and "elephants" and "essences." Because they are more than words--which have affect--but also content, they ask the audience to meditate. They need to be weighed, considered, thought through as means and as ends. Flags are never what they symbolize, however, and it's our work to defuse the knee-jerk meaning of "flags" (especially red ones) and offer readers the space for their own skepticism, which is where so much thinking starts.

For Oppen, "poet" was less important than "person." He wrote of one friend, "I am trying to say that I don't think Jo can be a poet--I think probably she can--but the fact is I don't primarily care. I think of her as a person and I don't think it of terrible importance that she should be a poet. We get so Obsessed. That part of 'being a poet' which resembles being a weight-lifter or a jockey or a driver of racing cars is a disease. That part of poetry which is a realizing, a revealing of the world--O, that's something else, and is more often than not unconnected with print" (to J. Crawford, 1966).

That means that the poet must also think of herself as person first. "That one must not, at least, stake himself on becoming famous. No way to guarantee it, and in any case if he is serious it will be a long time to wait . . . He must establish himself and his life, whatever himself means to him--but he must not find himself living--living entirely, I mean, living totally--in a dream of impersonal fame, dreaming of himself as being anything but what he knows he is--I keep thinking of the word 'blasphemous' lately, tho I'll not try to defend it" (in the same letter to J. Crawford).

Hard to do this, as so many writers have noted during the MFA era, when doing creative writing involves having a job teaching creative writing, when getting published is so crucial to getting a job. And so on, backwards in a hall of big mirrors. Oppen had the luxury of not participating in the market many of us know too well. But that doesn't mean his wisdom shouldn't still apply. Ambition for the self is in many ways different from ambition for the work. The work is what matters, for poet, for publisher, and for audience (whose responsibilities are significant, if not written of as frequently as are the poet's responsibilities). And so the "game" is to get the work out while holding oneself in. Not easy, but then neither are any of the good ones. Oppen himself acknowledged happiness at being awarded the Pulitzer Prize.


"It is impossible to make a mistake without knowing it, impossible not to know that one has just smashed something. Unearned words are, in that context, simply ridiculous--. Tho it is possible to be carried astray little by little, to find oneself, quite simply, trying to deceive people, to be 'making a poem'" (to Rachel Blau DuPlessis, 1965).


That I will "publish" this post on, then advertise it on Facebook, where my list of friends includes hundreds of people I've not met in person, implicates me in everything I've just written. Ever fertile, implication.


Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Editor. The Selected Letters of George Oppen. Durham: Duke UP, 1990.

Steve Shoemaker, Editor. Thinking Poetics: Essays on George Oppen. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2009.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

_The Primordial Density Perturbation_, by Stephen Collis, Tinfish Retro Chapbook #3

Stephen Collis, The Primordial Density Perturbation, Tinfish Retro Chapbook, June 2011. $3

This is a small book about catastrophe. Catastrophes in play are environmental, political, cultural. Vancouver poet, Stephen Collis, makes quick weaves of contemporary language—lexicons of fashion, violence, economics, media-speak, poetics, disaster. His word-sprint reveals the paradoxical richness and paucity of our lingo, rich in material, yet poverty-stricken as a solution-narrative to what ails us. A formidable poet-critic, Collis writes critical poetry about the contemporary world, pulling in with his seine everything from Tahrir Square to the Pacific plastic patch. It's quite a catch.

Stephen Collis is the author of Mine (2001), two parts of the ongoing Barricades Project—Anarchive (2005) and The Commons (2008)—and two books of criticism: Through Words of Others: Susan Howe and Anarcho-Scholasticism (2006) and Phyllis Webb and the Common Good (2007). His most recent book, On the Material (2010), won the 2011 Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize. A long-standing member of the Kootenay School of Writing, he teaches poetry, poetics and American literature at Simon Fraser University.

Tinfish Editor has blogged elsewhere on Stephen Collis's work.


It’s the events we lumpen

struggle agro-crop to

imagine the woops of

primordial density perturbation

or instant class consciousness

you know sea all swelly

of a sudden the perfect

heterotropic ship running

guns for governments or it’s

kefayas! all around Tahrir Square

up-thrust subduction no

two party system but

where did anything come from

and how like curtains

round a wizard ignore that man

tear it off this gauze from

eyes this false separation of

individuals we in this y’all

crap thrown fast from

unheard explosions

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Community Poetry, or, The Story of A.

Tinfish Press is a utopian pursuit. In that sense, it often strikes me as practically futile, even as the idealism of its particular vision (across cultures, languages, categories) appeals to me. At least three times a year (or so) it feels like the perfect set up for a fall; bruises accumulate, colorful and tender both. As I've written elsewhere, I would have readers (and writers) of Tinfish books read the entire catalogue (oh impossible wish), so as to absorb the press's ethos, but most readers read a book at a time. The old record album listener cedes to the ipod's aficionado of the single. It's an odd return to the well wrought urn notion of poetry, back from a more historical, cultural view of its complicated playing field. The forms are sometimes different, as they are forms of identity or, very differently, forms of experiment, but they resist the iconoclasm of categories stacked together until plates fall down, tectonically, and readers confront the necessity of rebuilding shattered (self) images. I write this knowing how different the valences are for categories such as "experiment" and "identity" and even "reading," but wishing for more discussions of why we place the values we do where we put them. I cling to my own without sometimes acknowledging the competing interests of other systems, some of which intersect with that of Tinfish or carry the Tinfish moniker or use Tinfish books to construct arguments not intended by the editor. (Why should they?)

Or do I complain too much? Is the project too small to warrant such attention outside the head of its editor? Perhaps. And yet the press is also process, a thinking through of these private and public issues.

Provisional answers to these doubts come from surprising places, and this is part of the hard-won joy of editing. Under the enthusiastic and loving aegis of Leonore Higa, a retired vice principal who now works in the library of Farrington High School in Kalihi, I organized a group of four poets to read for more than 50 students. The poets were No`u Revilla, Jaimie Gusman, Craig Santos Perez, and Gizelle Gajelonia. They read raucous, sexy, political poems to a group that was sometimes restless, but always lively. No`u's poems were about power, sexuality and sovereignty; Jaimie read about vocation and loss; Craig slung out his canned meat poems; and Gizelle was closest to home in her poems about riding TheBus in Kalihi, about dissing Farrington (she's a Leilehua grad).

During the Q&A session, which I moderated, a young man at the very back of the room propelled a question in our direction that I couldn't hear or understand. It had something to do with poetry and life experience. He was adamant. Then he walked to the front of the room to ask another question. Again, I had a hard time with it. "When is your next chapter?" he kept saying, and I didn't know if that meant "chapbook" (which I'd written on a large piece of paper) or "reading" or what. We did our best.

When the session ended, the male students lined up for photos with No`u (one had asked "did it hurt when you fell from heaven?"), and a few others leafed through the books and chapbooks on the table where I left them. After a while, they all left. But the young man with the questions about "chapters" stayed. He asked me more about "chapters." Soon it became clear to me that A. was really jazzed about the event, especially the way the poems came out of ordinary life moments. He started pacing forward as he said, "you mean it's everything you do in a day?" I pulled him into the larger group; he started to recite a poem that rhymed. He told an anecdote about the television and waking up and doctors and the phrase "shut up." Again, I didn't quite follow, but the affect behind his words was powerful. His voice was blocked, but he had many things he wanted to say with it.

He left with a copy of No`u's chapbook, courtesy of the press; he also turned down a copy of the journal, as being too much. Leonore Higa said he was a "special needs" student. She had never seen him so excited about anything.

That's the utopian moment. It has nothing to do with the literary world, or with reading all the books or with abstract arguments about form, heated discussions of identity issues. It doesn't necessarily have anything to do with Tinfish Press, though our writers were its vehicle. It has to do with A., a young man for whom an hour of poetry meant more than he had imagined it would, more than we could have imagined it might.

Sometimes poetry makes something happen.

[Considering how she riffs off pre-existing texts, I thought it perfect that Gizelle should be standing under a sign that reads, "how to make copies." The flyer at the top was made by Leonore Higa for the May 9th event.]

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Mother's Day, May 8, 2011

[Martha J. Schultz, January, 2011]

--I'm looking for Martha Schultz on Country Lane.

--[C.] Martha, it's Susan. It's your daughter. On the phone. Say hello.

--H e l l o.

--Happy mother's day, mom!

--Thank you.

--How are you mom?


--Hope you're having a good day, mom.


--I'll call you back next week, mom.


--Love you, mom.

[Sounds from the television. Old movies. Laughter (from visitors?)]

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Don DeLillo's _Falling Man_: 9/11 & Alzheimer's

About ten days ago I got a mystery package in the mail. After tearing off the cardboard covering, I found a used copy of Don DeLillo's novel, Falling Man; a few minutes later, I vaguely remembered having ordered it after hearing that it contains an Alzheimer's sub-plot. I'd started reading this novel about 9/11 when news of Bin Laden's death was announced by President Obama on Sunday; last night I finished the book. This morning the television is plastered with images of Bin Laden taken from his house in Abbottabad. Book-ends.

I was teaching a course on prose poetry in Fall, 2001. A day or two after 9/11, when everyone was still in shock from the events of that day, I asked my students to do the "I remember" exercise, based on Joe Brainard's book. Many of them said they didn't want to remember, but they dutifully wrote their sentences. We'd already been told, in no uncertain terms, that the world had changed, so their memories--not that I remember their responses clearly--had a before and after feel to them. Or they were memories of the event itself, memories lithographed into their eyes by the constant stream of televised images. Early on the morning of 9/11, when my husband awakened me with the news that the towers had gone down, I had seen images of people falling from the towers, images that quickly disappeared, as if "forgotten" because "erased" or "removed" from the video stream. A friend who lived in St. Louis later told me he'd refused to watch television; he'd never seen the towers fall. What kind of willful amnesia is that? How odd to be the one man who can't "remember" that day in the sense the rest of us do, as image, as awful sequence?

"Where were you on that day?" There are a few days we are supposed to remember, grounded in the places we were when we heard the news. So my mother remembered hearing about the first Kennedy assassination as she brought a plant--thereafter called "the Kennedy plant--home from the store, and I remembered it as my first public memory, when she met five year old me at the door and told me. I have no memory that I knew who President Kennedy was, but I remember hearing the news that he died. The question is more interesting and strange for survivors of such an event, like the characters in Falling Man, including Keith Neudecker, who was in the first tower struck, found a friend dying in a nearby office, then descended the stairs with other survivors, clutching a briefcase someone left behind. In an NPR interview, Don DeLillo describes his character as possibly "suffering some sort of dissociative amnesia that the shock of the attacks induced in him." Here is someone who was there who cannot remember. And he's hardly alone.

This is where DeLillo's use of Alzheimer's strikes me as incredibly effective. Keith's wife, Lianne (whose father had "died by his own hand" when he found out he had early Alzheimer's), works with a group of early stage Alzheimer's sufferers, leading them in writing about their lives. But she--and we--live in a post-traumatic world where no one remembers what happened to them on a particular day. They can name the day, 9/11, but they can't say clearly what happened to them, or to us, on that day. In some cases, they don't know the "real" names of people with whom they are intimate. DeLillo's description of Alzheimer's effects also applies to the effects of trauma on his characters: "a mind beginning to slide away from the adhesive friction that makes an individual possible" (30). Writing allows the Alzheimer's patients to re-collect themselves, just as the novel gives DeLillo access to what it might mean to recover a cogent memory of that event. The memory-damaged group writes nothing different from what my college students wrote: "They wrote about the planes. They wrote about where they were when it happened. They wrote about people they knew who were in the towers, or nearby, and they wrote about God" (60). Rosellen wrote that she wanted to see the jumpers hold hands; "I am closer to God than ever," she noted (61). Rosellen appears later in the novel only in Lianne's memories of her, as one day "she could not remember where she lived" and no longer came to the group's meetings (141).

Keith Neudecker recovers his memories in encounters--sexual, competitive, ever awkward--with other survivors. He's part of a huge jigsaw puzzle that attempts to put itself together, pieces seeking out other pieces, those that might fit, might be good neighbors. But nothing fits that is not being destroyed. Neighbors soothe themselves, but annoy each other with their music. The book ends with Neudecker's memories of 9/11, his recovery from amnesia, the symbolic Alzheimer's DeLillo describes. But the actual Alzheimer's patients, writing desperately together toward coherence, inevitably lose it: "The truth was mapped in slow and certain decline. Each member of the group lived in this knowledge. Lianne found it hardest to accept in the case of Carmen G. She appeared to be two women simultaneously, the one sitting here, less combative over time, less clearly defined, speech beginning to drag . . ." as Lianne imagines a memory of her past as "a spirited woman in her reckless prime, funny and blunt, spinning on a dance floor" (125). Fearful of Alzheimer's, Lianne has herself tested, succeeds (mostly) in counting down from 100 by 7s. Neither 9 nor 11 participate in that count-down, although those are the numbers that haunt her the most. She ends the book consumed (as it were) by the number 3, as she turns to Catholicism for solace.

This morning, 5/7/11, the television promises us Bin Laden's home videos, including one of an armoir that appears in what we are allowed to see of the Seals' death scene video. (In DeLillo's book, children think obsessively of a character named Bill Lawton, Americanizing him in a very telling way.) We will see Bin Laden's memories, not our own. There is no sign yet that we allow ourselves to forget him, or our own trauma, let alone any of those traumas inflicted on others in our name. Our private memories of that day were also public; some of his private memories belong to us, now. What we will do with them is a mystery. The missing photo, that of Bin Laden in death, shall haunt us too, not because we don't see it, but because we can.

I'll end with another absent photo, that of the "falling man" on whom DeLillo bases a performance artist in his book. The falling man replays a famous but hardly ever shown photograph of one of the "jumpers" from the Twin Towers. The New York Times published the photograph next to Frank Rich's review of the novel, but blurred the falling man out. Up to 200 people died on 9/11 by jumping out of the windows, away from the fire, the heat, the lack of oxygen. They would have died anyway; they were the few who "chose" to die by "their own hands." A French documentary represents "the jumpers" only as sound--repeated thuds on roofs and on the ground. Apparently, many of the thuds were edited out, as the sound itself was thought to be too traumatic for viewers (induced synesthesia?). The photographs are not violent, but are treated as if they were. I suspect that some of the trauma of the photos is precisely that lack of violence; they exist in moments between horrific events--the burning in the Towers, death from the fall on the ground. These are the moments we oddly most want to forget, when time still moves, but cannot, will not, achieve the ending we wish for it. They image the present, a last moment in time before we lose time. The Alzheimer's patient still has it; everything else has been forgotten. And so the present tense becomes pornographic precisely because it's taken out of sequence; it belongs to no notion of life as we conceive it. We are drawn to and repelled by it, in equal measure.

The falling man, unblurred by the censor, is here. The article by Tom Junod that follows investigates ways in which people approach their own memories, or forgettings, or not knowings, by way of a single photographic image. One mother of two brothers who died that day recapitulates the film, Blow Up, demanding that the photographer make a larger image. Others choose to look away from the image, even to hate, reject any possible connection between it and themselves. The photograph becomes such a powerful symbol that it's suppressed. What we choose as our icons for the event are ordinary things. Don DeLillo names them in an article he wrote for Harper's in late 2001. I found it in the Guardian, which explains the spelling: "The cellphones, the lost shoes, the handkerchiefs mashed in the faces of running men and women. The box cutters and credit cards. The paper that came streaming out of the towers and drifted across the river to Brooklyn backyards, status reports, résumés, insurance forms. Sheets of paper driven into concrete, according to witnesses. Paper slicing into truck tyres, fixed there."

We can remember these things, because they do not, on their own, traumatize us in the way a photograph does, or in the way memory is sometimes so strong we cannot find it. Some are items one finds in an Alzheimer's home, intended to calm the residents. Shoes, pieces of paper, insurance forms. There they are. The rest of us deal with them as we can.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Writing While White: Thoughts on Writing Race as a White Poet

When I think about writing (across) race as a white poet--using a non-universal example of two white poets writing about injustices against African-Americans--Reznikoff of legal cases from early in the 20th century, C.D. Wright during the Civil Rights Movement of the late 1960s. I am profoundly skeptical about categories, but am trying to engage discussions being held at Harriet blog, and also here, Claudia Rankine's site, jacket2 and the blog posts that follow, as best I can within the limitations of the question and this form.


I want lyric, but I want lyric responses, not poems.

I want the poet to create the conditions for feeling, thinking, but not to offer her own directly.

I want the truth, but believe the only way to tell it is slant.

I want a poem less about any category than about histories of categories.

I want a poem that both honors boundaries & questions them. One before the other.

I want a poem whose intimacies reside & grow out of their distances.

I want a poem based on facts, not limited by them.

I want a poem that takes language seriously, points to our misuses of it.

I want a poem that makes the reader call herself to action.

Two Examples:

Charles Reznikoff: "Negroes"; and under Aldon Lynn Nielsen, "Negroes"

C.D. Wright, One with Others, Copper Canyon, 2010.

Charles Reznikoff:

Several white men went at night to the Negro's
shot into it,
and set fire to his cotton on the gallery
his wife and children ran under the bed
and as the firing from guns and pistols went on
and the cotton blazed up, ran through a side door
into the woods.
The Negro himself, badly wounded, fled to the
house of a neighbor—
a white man--
and got inside.
He was followed,
and one of those who ran after him
put a shotgun against the white man's door
and shot a hole through it.
Justice, however, was not to be thwarted,
for five of the men who did this to the Negro
were tried:
for "unlawfully and maliciously
injuring and disfiguring"-
the white man's property.

Aldon Lynn Nielsen writes:

"Reznikoff allows the irony of America's racial injustices to foreground itself in these pieces, as in this one, which makes no comment on the fact that there were no charges for destroying a black man's property or for assaulting him and his family."

Reading Race" White American Poets and the Racial Discourse in the Twentieth Century (U of Georgia P, 1986)

C.D. Wright:

"Over at the all-Negro junior high, a popular teacher has been fired for 'insubordination' or a 'derogatory' letter he wrote the superintendent saying the Negro has no voice. No voice at all. It was the start of another cacophonous summer." (3)

What Reznikoff and Wright do in these poems (among other things) is to point at words. They don't point at the words themselves so much as at how those words are being used in particular historical contexts. Reznikoff's quotation comes from the legal case itself; read out of context, or in a more appropriate one, words like "injuring" and especially "disfiguring," suggest bodies, faces, human features. The brief line, "the white man's property," with which Reznikoff concludes the poem, echoes a time when black men were white men's property during slavery, and on the deep and unjust irony that the law will prosecute for destruction of a white man's property, but not a black man's body/figure. On re-reading the poem, the word "justice," cannot not be read with the reader's own quotation marks. A disfigured word re-figured by the reader.

Likewise, C.D. Wright points to the words "insubordination" and "derogatory" by placing them in quotes. These quotes un-veil (by paradoxically clothing in marks) misuses of the words by the school system.

The other day I was in a meeting to discuss the Ph.D. prospectus of a writer from Nepal who writes in English rather than in his native tongue. His writing was too intensely personal, he said, to work in his first language; instead, he chooses to write in the language that offers him distance from his subject and from the face that appears over his shoulder when he writes (read father, read culture). One committee member advised him to look into what might happen if he were to engage the fireworks in his native tongue. I am jealous that he can choose. But not all choices are between languages; some come within a single one. What Reznikoff and Wright have done is to write poetry not in a "native tongue" of feeling and lyricality, but in a "second language" of distance. They don't avoid feelings, but they instigate them in others. They trust their reader to translate back. They also trust themselves to see clearly, not through the damp lenses of passion or anger, instantly gratified.

[I've written elsewhere on being a white poet in Hawai`i; I've tried to complicate the notion of "whiteness" beyond what's inscribed in an essentialist category. One should perhaps add lines of modifiers to any reference to a poet by race or gender . . . I'll leave those modifiers to the poems themselves, which inevitably modify, indeed transform, our categories if we do well by our readers.]

Monday, May 2, 2011

"Grounded by Humbleness": Okana Road, The Murder of Percy Kipapa & Mark Panek's _Big Happiness: The Life & Death of a Modern Hawaiian Warrior_

[The intersection of Hui Iwa with Kahekili Highway in Temple Valley, windward O`ahu]

Shortly after my husband, son and I moved from Hui Iwa Street (the makai side of Kahekili Highway) to Hui Kelu Street (on the mauka side) in early 2001, I bought a bicycle. When I ride to Kahekili Highway, which was named after the Maui chief who ruled O`ahu for nine years and killed its ali`i, I have very different choices to make. If I turn right, I head toward Valley of the Temples cemetery; beyond the cemetery, off Kahekili, are bedroom communities for people who work (mostly) in Honolulu. To the right is where my daughter's soccer team practices, her teammates' parents solidly middle class, standard-English speaking, at least in the semi-public world we operate in as we watch our daughters practice. Kahekili dead-ends at the Likelike highway, which goes through the mountain toward Town and provides easy access to H3, which also heads through the mountain, toward Pearl Harbor. If, on the other hand, I turn left at Kahekili, I ride quickly away from the suburbs and into Kahalu`u, rural O`ahu. I ride toward my son's baseball practice, where many parents speak strong pidgin; I overhear conversations about trying to kill the pigs that are eating your yard, about the miseries of the Castle High School baseball team. "They goin' chrow you nutting but curve balls," one coach tells my son, "aftah you hit one ball lidat." One day I talked to a prematurely wizened woman who told me she had wanted to adopt children, but her past, you know. Her cell phone rang, her reaction electric. Her son, just back to the USA from Afghanistan, safe.

When I first began riding my bike heading north (to the left), my goal was to reach Lulani Street, which goes quickly upward, arriving at astonishing views of Kualoa and Mokoli`i or Chinaman's Hat; on the other side of Lulani, I would turn left and return to Kahekili via Kamehameha Highway along the ocean, catching many of the same views from sea level.
At the intersection of Kam and Kahekili, I'd note a 7-Eleven to my right, the Hygienic Store across from me to the right, and directly across the highway a huge banyan tree sheltering a small group of people seated on folding chairs. I'd turn left, and return home on Kahekili's right shoulder, Ko`olau mountains to my right.

To get to Lulani, I rode on a section of Okana Road. Okana runs parallel to Kahekili Highway; from it you see highway traffic zipping past. But Okana Road is a different world from that of the highway that sits so close by. It's country. "Keep the Country Country" bumperstickers refer to roads like this one. The gulch between the roads is often muddy. Sometimes I see mostly teenage boys, but also parents and kids on motorcycles and four-wheel vehicles, riding as fast as they can in circles through the dirt and mud. A year ago one of them was killed when he drove into Kahekili Highway by the bus stop, on which someone still hangs flowers. His name was Kimo. Beside the road I often see abandoned cars, child seats, tires, all manner of trash left for someone else to pick up. My bike often scatters hens and their chicks; sometimes a rooster will crow loudly, then fly up into a nearby tree or run into the brush beside the road. There are a few small single-wall houses; in the carport of one I often see men sitting, drinking beer, talking story. They wave, I wave. There's always a lot of dirt on the paved road; it turns to mud in the not so occasional downpours, such as one I got caught in yesterday afternoon.

So, while Okana Road began for me as a route to another street, it quickly became a primary focus of my rides. I began to turn right at Ahuimanu and Okana Roads, rather than the usual left. (There's a map of the area here. No surprise that it comes off a realtor's site.) To the right there is less evidence of Kahekili Highway's proximity, though you can see the local sewer plant through the yards of houses to the right. (The smell moves toward Kahekili, where I catch it on the way home.) To the left are driveways, some of which disappear into the trees, others of which lead quickly to houses. Some of the driveways are gated (old gates, not fancy ones, like you find in Lanikai). Dogs bark, roosters crow (up the road a ways is a well-fenced house whose property is covered by dozens of rooster hutches; the decibel level is very high). Up a rise and down and then to the left the road goes, past houses, a lot full of containers, boats, industrial equipment and plants. It ends in a cul-de-sac where a group of nice houses sits, looking back down the road toward a mountain vista.

Okana Road fascinates: from its narrow asphalt you witness astonishing beauty. But lower your eyes and you might see a thin woman lean into a car briefly then dart away, or a low-riding Honda rice rocket sitting by the road with men sitting in it, waiting with their engine on. Across Kahekili, on Ahuimanu, just yesterday (Sunday), we saw a man and a woman facing off, a chain link fence between them. She screamed profanities at him; as we turned toward my son's baseball game, a police car turned toward the altercation. Like so much on this island, the beauty mixes with dissonance, the stark sense that something is amiss, though you cannot say quite what as you ride your bike, only stopping to take photographs or a quick drink of water, then continuing on. And, like so much on this island, the road has inspired a song, Natural Vibrations' Jawaiian "Okana Road," which celebrates fellowship, the growing of plants (the lyrics say taro, though one wonders), briefly mentions the ugly, intrusive Water Supply building at the corner ("Who the hell / Told you put that pump station in our yard") and then ends with the traditional (to Hawaiian mele) naming of places on O`ahu's east side.

For some reason (a recent adoption? soon-to-be trip away from home? not yet bike-riding on Okana Drive?) I do not remember the murder of Percy Kipapa in May, 2005 on Okana Road. He had just come from a stop at the 7-Eleven across from the Hygienic Store. Even more strangely, I don't remember the trial of his murderer a year later, a trial that was covered diligently by local media. So it was with a strange sense of a missing memory, one that ought to have firmly lodged there, that I read Mark Panek's new University of Hawai`i Press book, Big Happiness: The Life and Death of a Modern Hawaiian Warrior. I am grateful for this book for many reasons: it is at once a loving elegy to the author's friend, a history of Windward O`ahu since statehood (1959), an incisive piece of investigative journalism about land and water issues, development, and the crystal meth (ice) epidemic of the 1990s and 2000s. That epidemic struck all of Hawai`i--in fact, it struck many places like Hawai`i, where rural dreams run dry and the only way to make a living is to leave, join the military, hope to make it as an athlete--but it struck Kahalu`u particularly hard. It is also a book about Okana Road, about an area I know, however superficially, from the seat of my Specialized bike.

Panek's book is much more than a who-done-it, or even a why-was-it-done to this good man; Big Happiness (the title translates Kipapa's sumo name, Daiki) is forensic in its examination of root causes for the desperation that afflicts so many, its manifestation in the abuse of crystal methamphetamine. Percy Kipapa comes across as a man with a loving family--one that fought the loss of the family's land since the Mahele of the mid-19th century--who was recruited as a sumo wrestler due to his athleticism and his size (nearly 500 pounds). He lives in a community of windward O`ahu that fought hard to get back water that was being directed into development on the leeward side, once agriculture (sugar and pineapple especially) left the island. But he also lives in a community under constant threat from money and developers. The Japanese boom of the 1980s was particularly dangerous for what Panek calls its "addiction" to golf. Reaching back to a study commissioned just before statehood, Panek discovers that windward O`ahu was targeted for the same level of development that has occurred in Kapolei. According to Rev. Bob Nakata, a local minister (with whom I've waved election signs many times) and one of the real heroes of this book. It's worth quoting Nakata in full, because the scenario he describes would have altered the windward side completely, utterly: "They were going to dredge it all out . . . So this strip of low-lying land was going to be the wharfs and heavy industry. At the edge of the lagoon that was created for flood control there would be a twenty-acre sewage treatment plant. Hotel resort in this valley, hotel resort over the fishpond . . . He`eia Kea Boat Harbor was going to be four times bigger than that Ala Wai. Hawaiian Electric was going to put a power plant there, and oil barges I guess would have come into the boar harbor. The He`eia meadowlands were to be a golf course. The He`eia fishpond was to be a fancy marina. I think the point where He`eia State Park is, somebody wanted to put a fancy restaurant and I don't know what else is up there. There were going to create an artificial island in front of King School. Oh yeah, the piece that I'm forgetting : Temple Valley? That's where the oil refineries were going to be. It was wild!" (267)

Wild, indeed, but the land grabbing and planned developed had been a constant stress on Windward residents since at least the Mahele. Panek patiently follows the history of Kipapa's family, and its fight across generations to save their land in the Waikane valley. According to Place Names of Hawai`i, by the way, "kipapa" means "place prone (corpses slain in the victory of O`ahu forces over those from Hawai`i in the 14th century). Some fights were won by Nakata, the Kipapas, and others--fights over water, for example. Some fights were lost, like the one over the H3 highway that now traces its way along the edge of Ha`iku Valley and then goes through the Hirano tunnel and down Halawa Valley toward the stadium. The stadium is currently being refurbished, but much of the labor has been brought into the state from places like the South so as to avoid local unions. Just another symptom of the narrowness of Hawai`i's economy, and the very few opportunities there are for people here, especially if they don't have a college degree. Percy Kipapa may have spoken fluent Japanese, but he was one Castle grad. And he did not want to work for a Japanese company in Waikiki, showing tourists a good time.

One of the other fights was lost nearly before it was adequately engaged, namely the fight against crystal methamphetamine. When I see people under the famous banyan tree next to the Hygienics Store, I suspect they are ice users. When I see the woman reach into the car and dart away, or the guys loitering, their engines on, on Okana Road, I think of ice. But now I will think of Percy Kipapa, who got caught up in the drug before anyone knew how dangerous it is, stayed off it while enduring horrible conditions as a sumo fighter in Japan, and who returned home to so few opportunities, began using again, and was murdered by a "friend" with whom he'd done the drug for at least a year and a half. Panek details the struggle by advocates of drug treatment to get money; he also shows how resistant the then governor, Linda Lingle (R) was to providing it. She who said bluntly, "treatment doesn't work," despite plenty of evidence to the contrary.

I don't want to say too much about the book, which you should read. But I do want to say something about Mark Panek, who got his Ph.D. from my department several years ago, and is now an associate professor of English at UH-Hilo on the Big Island. Mark never took a course from me--he was into fiction, biography--but we talked quite a bit about baseball. At playoff time, he would wear a full body Yankees uniform, and strut about the halls (Yankees fans do not know how to walk like normal mortals). He was a warm and open person, despite his baseball flaw. As he recounts his friendship with the local sumotori, and his cold calls on local friends of Kipapa's, calls that inevitably ended up in long conversations, I can see that his manner--friendly, humble, sincere--so unlike that of a Yankees' fan, really, stood him in good stead locally. While he is a character in his own story, friend to the victim and his family, past and present biographer to sumatori (his book on Chad Rowan/Akebono was published by UH Press in 2006), he never intrudes. A good deal of the book is in Pidgin (or HCE), as Panek has transcribed his interviews faithfully with Pidgin speakers. My favorite linguistic moment in the book comes at Percy Kipapa's funeral, where Akebono sits in the front row. "I turned to see Chad sitting in the front row, that troubled look not having left his face." What does Panek say? "'You get one for Hawaiian?' I asked Bumbo."

I love that moment because that's when Panek shows himself to be a Pidgin speaker, too. Raised on Long Island, a graduate of Colby College in Maine, Panek has managed to create a career for himself out of a love for Hawai`i and Japan, Hawaiian and sumo culture, and a familiarity with culture here that most academics (especially those from elsewhere) never come close to possessing. His book is a valuable contribution not just to the history of Hawai`i, but also to explorations of masculinity, like Chris McKinney's The Tattoo, which is also situated in part in Kahalu`u, and is mentioned several times in Panek's book, or like (the more hopeful) Ty Tengan's Native Men Remade: Gender and Nation in Contemporary Hawai`i. But it could not have been written so faithfully without several decades of local literature, steeped in Pidgin, or research by Hawaiians, local Asians, and white academics alike, research that often approaches or becomes advocacy for a Hawai`i left more to its own determination than that of developers, the military, or the drug dealers.

Panek knows from the beginning that he is, as Bob Nakata tells him, "writing the history of the community," that he bears a responsibility as a writer. Charles Kekahu tells him, "So you gotta word 'um to the point where everything's still beautiful, it's just . . . that we missed it somehow." He adds, in a passage Panek must have taken to heart, "this story has a meaning and it has a purpose, and it was real life." This is a necessary book. We can thank Mark Panek and UH Press, and beyond them Percy Kipapa's family and community members quoted extensively in the book. Panek wrote it, but the community offered it to us through him. It's an alliance worth celebrating.

[from the far end of Okana Road--to the right from the Ahuimanu Road intersection]

You can see a set of my recent photos of Okana Road via facebook's public link, here.
A good interview with Mark Panek on this book can be found here.