Monday, January 5, 2015

On finding a typo (is it?) in WOODRAT FLAT by Albert Saijo (Tinfish Press, 2015)

This is most of the Albert Saijo archive. I spent several days on the Big Island going through these two tubs of notebooks and miscellaneous bits of paper, two calendars, a posthumous certificate from Barack Obama to thank him for his military service (he would have hated that), and other items. The updraft of dust and mold kept me high, which was only appropriate, as Saijo was a marijuana farmer and advocate, among his many (a)vocations. Some of the notebooks are very large; many were "Utility Notebooks." Such was their utility that Saijo filled them with his block print meditations. Others were small hardcovers, sketch pads with ring bindings, tiny notebooks. There are single pages, large and small, covered in penciled writing. Very few of the meditations came out in linear fashion; most pages are covered with emendations, some with print at myriad angles. Others are unreadable, but visually stunning. They all enact his process of thinking. Mostly forward, but occasionally back, or on top of, or below, or sideways. Few are his central subjects: his hatred of civilization (or "CIV" as he terms it); the appeal of "IV" (which I take to be the opposite of CIV, though I don't know for sure); time; space; love; fasting; marijuana. Much of his work is abstract, taking on big concepts. It's the sort of work that goes terribly wrong in the hand of a lesser thinker or poet. Other of the work is incredibly tangible, both in language (he uses Latin as if it were still spoken, at least by lovers of nature) and in image. Not image, exactly, because in his state of constant meditation--he writes somewhere that he no longer knows the difference between meditative and non-meditative states--he observed precisely what was in front of him. At the end, he wrote only about the weather, keeping track almost by the hour in fragile hand, but always he was looking out the window or through the grass and seeing animals, birds, plants, human beings--not as elevated creatures, but as one among the mix. He writes about piss and shit, and he writes about love, sex. He writes angry and he writes contemplative. He rants, he lets go. He quotes, over and again, the Baudelaire line about "luxe, calme, et volupté," and he repeats an admonition to himself about Tilopa. Read Tilopa's advice to Naropa, and you'll know why: 

Cut the root of the vine that chokes the tree,
and its clinging tendrils wither away entirely.
Sever the conventionally grasping mind,
and all bondage and desperation dissolve.

Much of Saijo's thinking is violent in this way: he "cuts," "severs," he interrupts. But alongside this violence is the calm and voluptuousness of Baudelaire's "L'invitation au voyage," a love poem about ease, about pleasure.  

I found the originals for WOODRAT FLAT (Tinfish Press, 2015) in two of the notebooks, one utility size, the other just a bit smaller. The notebooks are taller than the published book, and the handwriting less consistent, by far, than the block print we used. That said, our all-caps rendition of Saijo's texts is less dark than the Bamboo Ridge versions; I found those too in-your-face. The less bold version echoes Albert's voice, which was calm and slow and considered. Or so I hope. One of the poems from the book, ably edited by Jerry Martien, who re-ordered the poems to make them more book than note-book, is called "Chuang Tze Update." Here are three photographs of the text. The first has the book seated on top of the notebook; the second and third are the notebook version of the poem. 

[Click to enlarge images]

As an editor, I have a good eye for typos, especially after the book has been published. So I notice that toward the beginning of the poem, Saijo has written, "THESE 2 TREES SURVIVED BECAUSE THEY WERE TOO ODD TO LOG," while at the end, the Tinfish version replaces "ODD" with "OLD": "CHUANG TZE YOU'RE RIGHT BE TOO OLD TO LOG." The editor has taken out some of the writing that wanders above and below the final lines. Did he change "ODD" to "OLD"? Did our scanner do it? Did we do it? The mysteriousness of the mistake is appropriate to any consideration of editing, especially when the manuscript is by someone so prone to over-writing, to self-editing, to making the reader's life at once pleasurable and difficult. The replacement does not ruin the poem: Chuang Tzu is, after all, quite old. Too old to log, one might add, except that Saijo has taken a cutting from him in writing about the tree. I find a biography of Chuang Tzu that gives no dates for him. And then I find one that does. This one notes that he may not have existed. Go figure.

But why the poem about the tree, with a punch line about Chuang Tzu, a punch-line that seems to have turned into a title? (Kevin Dimyanitz tells me that Laura Saijo said Albert did not fight in World War II in the 442nd, but became a stand-up comic; he had them rolling in the aisles, he said.) Google "Chuang Tzu and trees" and you get this, by way of Thomas Merton. It's a parable about usefulness, that uses a tree as its central image. The tree, like Chuang Tzu's teachings, one says, is "useless." Then, by way of a wildcat, a mouse, and a yak, the writer of the parable gets to his punchline, which is also a warning. "So for your big tree, no use?" The teacher advises his interlocutor to plant the useless tree in a waste land, and to walk around it, meditating. No one will ever cut the tree down. "Useless? You should worry!" concludes the teaching.

Saijo's 2 old Douglas firs, the ones that survived "ANIMAL WHO IS BIOTIC SCOURGE" are different. One sways in the wind like a young tree, losing branches; the other does not. They are perhaps two ways of looking at the world "oddly": the first involves bending, the other involves remaining still. Their oddness saved them. Saijo was himself an able carpenter. Many of his notebooks contain conceptual and more detailed drawings of houses and furniture, including his own house and chair. He knew use value. But he was also someone who knew non-value, the art of sitting around in front of the fire, sketching out his thoughts as they flickered by. One of the funniest poems in WOODRAT FLAT is called "FLICKER FACT." It's about a flicker who seems to have a hurt wing and leads the poet for twenty or so paces. "AFTER LEADING ME ON THIS WAY FOR TWENTY PACES OR SO IT FLEW OFF DOWN CANYON PERFECTLY ALL RIGHT -- DIDN'T KNOW FLICKERS DO THIS"[.]

What is a typo but the most un-useful of mistakes, leading the reader astray without (in this case, because one word has become another word) his or her realizing it? The typo is the most useless feature of an otherwise useless art, that of poetry. It signifies danger, one reason Albert may not have wanted his work published (though that's a stretch, I suspect). But it also signifies the fertility generated by standing or sitting still. Luxe, calme et volupté. Or, as Tilopa advised Naropa in his own in-utility notebook:

Renounce arbitrary, habitual views.
Go forth courageously to meditate
in the real mountain wilderness,
the wide open Mahamudra.
Transcend boundaries of kinship
by embracing all living beings
as one family of consciousness.
Remain without any compulsion
in the landscape of natural freedom:
spontaneous, generous, joyful.

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