Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Lilith missed the mail man

"Our mailman is a loon," was how Bryant greeted me when I got back from my walk with Lilith. "You mean, you didn't know that?" said I. Oh yes, he knew that. B had told him he was glad to see him wearing gloves. Well, he'd hadn't been told to, but he wears them for other reasons; not worried about the pandemic. It's all about getting ad revenue from people who watch TV. He doesn't believe the growth in cases could be anywhere near as bad as claimed in the news because it's not going up 2, 4, 8, 16, etc.. B pointed out that 30% a day IS exponential growth. He also doesn't believe in global warming. There are more polar bears now than in the 1930s. B responded that of course, people aren't shooting them now. They're bothering the Inuits, he said, there are so many of them. Yes, and the Inuits' houses sink in the mud in the summer, B responded. But I gather the mailman won the argument when he claimed that the ice cap has gotten larger--harder for "Deadliest Catch" fishermen to get fish. And yes, B found, the ice is larger this year than in several years. Therefore, no climate change and no coronavirus. Case closed!

Teaching email: on documentary poetry

30 March 2020

Aloha class--
This week we’ve started reading (and, I hope, writing) documentary poetry. I’d like to answer a couple questions here, and then tell you something about my own interest in this sub-genre of writing. I’ll do this as a Q&A between me and myself and you!

--When does this tradition of writing begin?
While documentary poetry seems especially popular (is that the word?) these days, the form comes out of Modernism (which was a response against Romanticism). Poets like Ezra Pound, in the Cantos, and T.S. Eliot, in The Waste Land, used literary and political histories to write “poems that include history,” as Pound put it. William Carlos Williams’s long poem, Paterson, and Muriel Rukeyser’s Book of the Dead, are important early instances of documentary poetry. That Williams was a doctor and Rukeyser a journalist, inclined them to using documents (consider that prescriptions are documents, as are newspaper articles) in their poems. Rukeyser’s work inaugurated the use of documentary poetry as a kind of activism. She wrote the poem about an industrial disaster in West Virginia in the 1930s in order to shed light on abuses against workers, who were put in harm’s way without adequate protections. Her poem includes everything from the blues to excerpts from Congressional testimony. Another poet who used documentary poetry in a similar way was Charles Reznikoff, whose Testimony, drew from legal cases, many of them about terrible injustices against African Americans, among others. He also wrote a book called Holocaust, which uses the Nuremberg Trials as its basis. I’ve never been able to get through that book; it’s unrelenting.

--Why is documentary writing so important?
The 20th and 21st centuries have been chaotic: monarchies gave way to democracy and to communism; colonialism collapsed and post-colonial nations floundered; there were wars and wars; faith in institutions, systems, faiths fractured. Poets responded to this chaos either by 1) trying to put Humpty Dumpty together again, as the Modernists did or 2) by cobbling together a new way of representing the world, trying to heal the fractures by investigating them. The Modernists tended to be Fascists, which is certainly one way of organizing things. The post-modernists have tended to be more on the Left side of the spectrum, like Rukeyser and more recent poets like Adrienne Rich and Mark Nowak. Lisa Linn Kanae and Donovan Kūhiō Colleps try to make sense of Hawai`i’s very fractured histories of western contact and immigration. The documentary method is good because you can at once acknowledge the breakages (the poem is written in pieces) and try to show a way to patch the pieces together.

I wrote two books about my mother’s dementia (Dementia Blog and “She’s Welcome to Her Disease”: Dementia Blog, Vol. 2, both from Singing Horse Press). These are mixed genre books. I used more documents in the second volume, having to do with the government asking if my mother had remarried or even if she existed (this was about my father’s military pension); questionnaires sent out by the Alzheimer’s home about my mother’s habits and interests (sadly few at the end); and the contents of her bedside drawer after she died. Each of these rather impersonal sets of documents opened up questions about identity, history, and how to grieve for someone who had not yet died . . . it was tough stuff, but the biggest adventure of my life as a writer. (Yes, writers tend to thrive on crises.)

--Why teach documentary poetry?

I’ve found that this mode of writing works really well for students here. There are so many layered stories and cultures and languages in Hawai`i that the material is there to be tapped. I also like to teach documentary writing because it’s a wonderful way to make connections between private family stories and public historical ones. For example, if your ancestors came here as refugees from Vietnam, your family story is necessarily tied to a series of shatterings in world history—wars, displacements, and so forth. One of my favorite teaching stories involves a young man in a class years ago who responded by my asking the class to find out their family stories by telling me that he and his father didn’t talk. I suggested that he explain that this was an assignment for a class, that he needed to do it. So his father started talking. He was Vietnamese, fled to the USA, and is now a commercial fisherman. By the end of the semester, this student had a project that illustrated those connections/separations and he was also closer to his dad. Like so many great teaching stories, it depended not on great teaching, but on simply making an event possible (without evening knowing I was doing that!).
Donovan Kūhiō Colleps’s Proposed Additions, which I hope many of you have and will read, also came out of documentary poetry class I taught on the graduate level. The layers Donovan uses range from the Hawaiian histories of Ewa to contemporary Ewa. He uses his Hawaiian grandfather’s cancer diary, and his blueprints for an addition to the family house, as well. His grandfather becomes the link between Donovan and his immediate family, as well as to Hawaiian culture and language.

--Why write documentary poetry? I’m asking you to write a short piece this week. Take a document, like a birth certificate, or adoption papers, or a passport, or a family photograph, or a newspaper article, and work with it. You can write on top of the document, or you can expand outward from it. Give it a try. It becomes a wonderful way of exploring yourself in the context of larger histories and cultures.
Which brings me to the accidental conjunction of our readings of documentary poetry (Joseph Han’s on-line chapbook next week is another example) and the current global pandemic. Our lives have been fundamentally changed, and very quickly, by this virus. It’s not just our politics that have been affected, but also our daily lives. If we lived in larger communities before, we’re now living fairly solitary lives. If we had service jobs to work at before, we’re now unemployed. If we loved to enter the classroom and teach, we’re now reduced to writing emails to our students from the privacy of our “offices” (multipurpose spaces that they often are). As one of my son’s profs told him, we are now living history.

This is material for documentary poems, believe me! Get to them!

Wishing you all good health and peace of mind.

Susan S.

Monday, March 30, 2020

Lilith and the policeman's pug

When she was a puppy, Iwi the brown pug would run across the play area like a mad thing. Somewhere around the time her person (a member of the police) lost two of his friends near Diamond Head, Iwi developed a blockage in her esophagus. She had several surgeries. Even now, she requires a feeding tube and a balloon to open up the blockage (she's the first dog in Hawai`i to get that treatment, G told me today). She drools, because she's perpetually nauseated. G says there's no leadership from the top of the police department. No advisories on how to deal with the public. He asks me how on-line education is going. I tell him some of my quiet students have come to the fore on discussion boards; other students have gone missing. S has a missing professor. I tell him I'm worried that the crisis will become an excuse to convert us all to on-line from now on. He nods. Everything's changing. Kids whose refuge was at home are now trapped with their abusers. It's really sad, he says. Then he and Iwi go one way, as I try to steer Lilith toward the direction of a longer walk, one she starts and then refuses to continue.

[I wonder if the label "ordinary life" still applies to anything at all that appears here.]

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Tupelo Quarterly Forum on Diction in Poetry

Daniel Tiffany anchors a forum on diction in poetry; he was kind enough to ask me for a response. Here are links to his essay and to my response. There are a lot of other responses. Take a look!

Today, the worlds of contemporary poetry and academic scholarship about poetry and poetics are taking starkly different approaches to the social and political functions of poetry, the latter reviving attention to nuances of form, and the former increasingly preoccupied with matters of diction.



Thank you for asking me to respond to your fascinating essay, “Speaking in Tongues: Poetry and the Residues of Shared Language.” Rather selfishly, perhaps, it resonated with me as a kind of manifesto-after-the-fact for Tinfish Press. I founded Tinfish in 1995 as a platform from which to argue that experimental forms (with their various dictions) make good vehicles for work in largely post-colonial Pacific spaces. The con/fusion of poetic form and radical diction has been central to Tinfish’s argument from publication of Lisa Linn Kanae’s (2001), Sista Tongue, Barbara Jane Reyes’s Poeta en San Francisco (2006) Donovan Kūhiō Colleps’s Proposed Additions (2014), Leona Chen’s Book of Cord (2017), Geneve Chao’s émigré (2018) many other books and poems along the way. In each of these works, dictions/languages meet at fault-lines cut by political and cultural power.

Saturday, March 28, 2020

Letter to my students

27 March 2020

Dear students:

Wow, that sounded rather impersonal. I miss all of you and am working my way around the room in my head as I type this. Know that I’m thinking about you and the class community a lot.

Some of you have written in your attention exercises about the effects of the pandemic on you. It’s an very stressful time, and easy to get derailed (though getting derailed is also an important part of this experience we’re sharing distantly). But there are some antidotes: E writes about going to the beach and seeing a baby whale breach; S’s busy cooking; J is meditating (keep at it!); C is watching animal videos about inter-species friendships; J is cataloguing disrupted lives for his poem; L is writing about the effects of moving a table in her house, effects that are more dramatic than she’d realized. And J’s fancy google doc system won’t let me in yet! These are the responses I’ve been reading this morning.

Which brings me to this: the most important part of this class—perhaps even before the lockdown and world emergency—was the attention exercise. Your moments of attention have been beautiful and funny and perceptive from the beginning. But now they’re turning into a coping strategy. I know my daily walks with Lilith provide me with many small moments that seem even more precious now: conversations with neighbors, meetings with new dogs and people, stunning views of the Ko`olau mountains from Temple Valley in all kinds of weather. My feelings are mixed: the world’s beauty offers consolation for our difficulties, but also makes me tear up often. I’m reminded of losses—in the past and, I fear, the future—and of how precarious our lives are at all times.

So do the attention exercises with special care—not just for class credit, but also for yourselves.

I’ve started doing yoga with a poet friend, Brenda Kwon, on zoom. That helps ease anxieties and fears. My family is eating together, joking together, annoying each other together. So find releases for your internal exile(!). If you lose a job, know you’re not alone. If a friend or family member gets sick, please reach out to the class and to others. If you need something, ask.

Which brings me to our class. Many of you have moved smoothly into this new space of on-line conversation. Some of you are adjusting more slowly. It’s ok. We may soon have a credit/no-credit option; when that happens, be in touch. The withdrawal period has been extended; if you’re thinking of withdrawing, be in touch. I’d rather you not do that. I have no intention of grading harshly; all I’m looking for now are acts of attention that show up in your reading, your poems, and your lives. If you want to write a poem unrelated to the week’s prompt, please let me know. We can do that.

Important question: how many of you have copies of Donovan Colleps’s Proposed Additions, which we start soon? I can supplement the reading, for those of you who don’t have it, with on-line materials, I’m pretty sure. It’s too bad we can’t have a visit from Donovan, who works at UH Press and is a wonderful person. Maybe another time—I’ll ask him if he’s up for on-line discussions.

In the meantime, be well and take care of yourselves and your families and friends.

Much aloha, Susan S.
PS I see I'm getting J's materials as we speak. Thanks, J!

Thursday, March 26, 2020

26 March 2020

26 March 2020

“A nucleic acid molecule, in a protein coat.”
Nuclear medicine in a leaden cloak.
Nuclear family, crammed in one townhouse.
The deck needs a coat of paint.

All hands on! Called to be handy-
people, we put on latex gloves,
Our hands each wear a narrow coat.
Hand-masks against the viral load.

Load us up with medical supplies.
The lodestar of this pandemic is paper.
Products lost in bulk at the very back
Of closets filled long ago with goods.

In the morality plays, Goods wears
A capital coat, rides in a wagon across
The plain to stage a lock-down.
In the capitol. Quarantine’s

An inventory; it finds us home
And bids us count, as if numbers could
Shed their coats, walk naked
Through the supermarket at elder hour.

Today, we isolate from ourselves,
Each to a room, a computer, a remnant
Wind outside, promising us,
But not delivering weather shifts.

A shift in key. A shift key on the board.
A shift beneath a dress. The dr.’s dress
Resembles curtains, cinched by a belt,
Another performance set to begin.

The performance starts with the clown.
He wears a long and narrow tie, gazes through
White circles surrounded by Tangy skin.
Declares us soon free to move about--

Do our jobs, circulate with friends,
Infect the globe with our optimism.
There’s a drug coming, he knows it.
What it does, he doesn’t care.

The confidence man charms us;
He puts us under; he pulls the sheets up
And over our eyes. Somewhere, someone
Is building new morgues to handle

The over-flow of bodies.
We vow to give them to the charity
Of the Fortune-500, for hallowed
Be thy name. Kingdom come.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Lilith and the rice rocket driver

"Now that's what I want, that shirt!" the ginger haired haole guy with the rice rocket said, coming home from work, a bottle of Coke and plastic bag of what was left of lunch in one arm, cigarette in the other hand. "If we could just have him back." I was wearing my blue "Obama '08 shirt," now a sign of the resistance, as I told him. He had tatts, and spoke with a strong Pidgin-inflected accent. His white souped up car had been a VW with Mercedes rims, if I remembered correctly. Today it had no markings, though a logo vaguely resembling BMW was stamped on the hub caps. (They can't be hub caps; I simply don't know the lexicon.) The front grill was gone; his car is obviously a work in progress. He walked toward his front door loudly proclaiming he didn't know why _anyone_ would want someone who talks like that as president. During one of his gestures, his cigarette fell near his front door. I didn't notice if he picked it up or lit another, but soon he was back out near the side walk, waving a lit cigarette. "I juss don't get it. They all watch FOX. What's with these fuckahs who are obsessed with him?" he asked, rhetorically, as his right arm so swept forward and to the side. "Remember Megyn Kelly?" he asked me. "Remember she asked him about calling women horrible names? And then he said, only about Rosie O'Donnell." My neighbor looked stricken. "He just doesn't talk like a president. I hate him. Can you believe people are buying guns now? The second amendment--that was all about slavery." Our final exchange was about Trump's possibly cancelling the election. Then he walked to his front door with one last "ho, but" and Lilith and I continued on our walk.

Monday, March 23, 2020

Meditation with Jesse Glass

Jesse asked me a question. Looking back, I'm not sure I answered it. But I answered something:

Poets are historians--that was one of their jobs way back when. I'm interested in your chronicling of history in your 'squares'(!). Do you see a need for such a poetic retelling vs. the 'usual' telling of history, which hides the real slant of the narrative behind the ideal of objectivity? Is poetic truth (don't laugh) better than, equal to or less than 'objective' truth. Ed Sanders has done a poetic retelling of the 60s and seventies. Don't know if you're familiar with that? Jess


Aloha Jesse--I'm back. The question of history is upon us now, isn't it? We're intimate participants in the ugly conjunction of 9/11 and 2008 (and probably other disasters) at the moment. We're also part of the larger cycle: Spanish Flu, the diseases that killed huge numbers of Hawaiians after contact, the plague. So we're involved in both material ways and also as witnesses to analogies between then and now. To my mind, then, there's a clear link between history and poetry. As a personal example, my parents had lived through World War II, had lived in Europe during the war, and my mother especially had reams of stories about her life there. These stories were personal, but couldn't not be divorced from the "theater" of war around her. Like the story she told of a pilot she knew who told a woman that, if she didn't marry him, he wouldn't come back from his next bombing raid. She didn't and he didn't. Who's to know if he wasn't just shot down? And another pilot whose life was changed when he was on the ground and saw a child ducking for cover during a bombing raid. We are deeply affected even by lives we don't participate in: the media puts us in a blender of personal and private, celebrity and soldier. The power of celebrity stories often comes down to the ways in which they participate in larger histories: that of adoption, say, or civil rights. As do sports stories. That we often tell them so neatly seems false to me. We speak as if history makes sense, as if it works in order. My time in the Alzheimer's home with my mother taught me otherwise. Time in that place was not the time I lived in. My mother, watching a television blasting WWII movies, said she didn't remember the War. As a witness to America's festival of mass shootings (and so many other traumas), I know that I'm affected by them, even if they're highly mediated. So that tends to be what I write about. The Honest Sentence book, like the Traherne series, is steeped in the blood of people I never met, from Freddy Gray to the Charleston 9 to parishioners in a Texas church to to to. The writing is first a private response to public events, and then a public performance of the events we share (if poetry can be said to be public!). The kindest responses I've had to my work involve a fellow-feeling, especially from friends whose parents have suffered Alzheimer's. Simply reporting what happens (a kind of historical writing) becomes a felt experience that brings our subjective selves closer. In our current time, social distancing exists outside the house, but not in our poems. That might be what poems are for now. I read somewhere a plea not to write your contagion stories now, as if they would somehow be wrong or polluted by too much contemporaneity. I say, write them. Write them from within the moment they occur. That's a writerly and a spiritual practice. (Not that I've been writing many poems, of late, but even in the quiet of not-writing, we need to be using and sharing those habits of mind.) Hope this helps, Jesse. Really helps me. aloha, Susan

Sunday, March 22, 2020

The Emperor of Toilet Paper

We have a new neighbor whose dog is named Keala (tall and brown). He'd had a roommate who asked him to make a Costco run a long time ago and he'd put the stuff in a closet. While moving, he realized that at the back of that closet he had a mountain of toilet paper. "If you need any, let me know," he said.

Friday, March 20, 2020

Another dog walk through politics

There are two Jacks in our court (fancy term for parking lot area), one is orange and the other black, white highlights on both sides of his nose, denoting age if not wisdom. The truth is, black Jack is a goofy animal. He carries a square green ball, which he mostly drops under cars or loses to other dogs. He lets the ball go when Lilith gets close. Jack's person is P, a woman about my age who's recently gone gray, single mom to two grown children, one of whom is epileptic, the other of whom is simply a mystery. Her brothers are filthy rich right wing Republicans, one of whom has three Chinese women vying for his attention, or so he says. P. is religious, attends services at the mall's movie theater, thinks more people should be going to church now. We talk for a bit about the news; she fulminates about all that the Trump family has stolen. We lament the absence of a federal government. As our conversation comes to a close, she asks, "whatever happened to assassinating presidents? Wasn't that a thing?"

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Meditation 30

19 March 2020

Jesse Glass asked me to explicate a poem (he calls them “squares”) from I Want to Write an Honest Sentence. The poem is on page 17, dated 31 October 2017. These prose poems are often an aid to my memory: something happened on this date, which then caused me to remember other things. But this poem required me to do some research of my own, as I couldn't remember what had been in the news that week, and hence in the poem. Here are a few of our exchanges this past weekend:

Sun 11:25 PM

Hello Susan, I hate to bother you again, but I'm finishing up and including your square poem on page 17 . . .  I notice what appear to be several topics mixed together--money laundering, Filipina maids. Range Rovers, wave patterns, dead reefs, two women adrift without a cell phone, scarlet yarn from a chicken's entrails--why do you call that yarn?--Virginia mansions--a very powerful section about killing 'them'--tender buttons--yes--more climate change--and someone driving away in a Range Rover with a smile. Then end it with a date--Halloween 2017. That's lots of territory to cover in one poem.

You know that terrible letter from Harriet Monroe to Hart Crane about his Melville poem, and Crane's sad letter in which he tries to explain his process and what each symbol means. I don't want you to do that, but I would like to get an insight into how you wrote this poem. Where, for instance, did the Filipina maids come from?


P.S.--Do you harvest the newspaper? I do that--have done that with the Japan Times.
Mon 9:07 AM
Just saw this, Jess. Let me have a look and see if I can remember some of that!
As for the rest of it: "Room after room," not sure of the exact reference, but Waikiki is full of Filipina maids, one of whom I recall was very sweet to my late dad when he got terrible sunburn back in 1991. The two women lost on a boat were here in HI. I think that, too, may have been a scam, but I'll have to look that up, too. Bryant seems to remember that the lost at sea story was a fraud. Chicken entrails simply looked like yarn to me. The Virginia mansions refer to the AOL mini-mansions built in the 90s. I remember a taxi ride from Dulles where the taxi driver talked about how empty the huge houses were. "The flag of our disposition" is from "Song of Myself." And the deposition given us by the Trump administration. The gunman who didn't get into a good school (according to one article I read) was the guy in Vegas who shot over 50 people. One of my students was at that concert and had to run for his life, which comes up in other of the poems. He's sent his girlfriend back to the Philippines (more hotels and Filipinas). I think the perp drove a Range Rover and had returned to his house one night before going to the hotel to shoot people. And someone caught a photo of his face through the window of the vehicle. Does this help? I dunno, it jars my memory when it does. Otherwise, some small mysteries in there.

I don't harvest newspapers, per se, but news does emerge in my writing from the day or the week or the month I'm writing. So maybe that a good term.
I remember Bill Lavender saying that the most obscure poems are those that contain contemporary references. Now I see how that works. Thanks again for reading and thinking about all this, Jesse. Hope you're safe from the epizoodic.

I'll now keep going here, for my blog, which is again for Jesse, and for anyone who happens upon it.

As I ponder Bill Lavender’s dictum about obscurity, I begin to think of my poems/cards/squares as being about the very process of the public becoming private. There’s a lot of contemporary history in the square, but it needs to be unpacked, not in the way you’d unpack a Hart Crane poem (through deep listening to the lexicon and to metaphor) but via Google, diving into the week’s (wreck's) news. The process throughout is one of starting from the public moment (corrupt members of the government; shooter in Vegas), then quickly absorbing each detail into a private flow of associations. History becomes memory becomes a temporal space that is utterly private. Written down and then read—even by the author myself—involves exhuming the historical context, then combining it with personal memories. Many of those memories combine history (the AOL bubble of the 90s) with memory (the taxi ride from Dulles Airport to my mother’s house in McLean, Virginia).

There are a couple of valences to this movement from public to private. The first is spooky, mirroring the ways in which we all now absorb the public into ourselves via cable television. It’s as if we took a horror movie into ourselves and then replayed it constantly, because we have Netflix and didn't need to go to a theater with other people (however few). This movement is away from community, from sharing. Someone I knew in high school wrote a moving essay about the way the television held everyone together after Robert F. Kennedy died. She alternated between his death, the train that carried him across the country and the television that her family was watching. That assassination played its part in the chaos of the time, but the reporting was still narrative; it was still something we watched together. The poem of that event might have been narrative. After all, Stein was dead and the Language poets weren’t yet writing.

We live in the terrible interiority of the outside. And now, hunkering down in our houses, we shut out everything except what’s televised or streaming on the internet (except for blessed dog walks at least twice a day). We have privatized public feeling. This is the reverse of the Commons, a re-territorializing of the self into states of quo that are always inevitably separate from one another. No wonder I’m thinking more about my parents these days. My father’s simple kindnesses, which seemed naive to me as a younger person, now feel visionary—a means to get out of this trap, perhaps.

Bryant and I watched the first installment of the Icelandic television show Trapped last night. It was recommended to me by fellow Ashberyan, John Emil Vincent, a dear friend I’ve never met (ah, the virtual sphere can be kind, as well). As the segment ended, one child says to another that they’re all trapped, they and the murderer who has been set loose from the Danish ferry, if indeed he is the murderer. The pandemic is a trap that sprung on us. The solitude it imposes is partly mitigated by the digital world, but insufficiently so. We are forced to hide from one another, and hence to become better acquainted with ourselves.

At the end of the “square” dated on Halloween, 2017, the image of the mass shooter in Las Vegas returns: “He’s driven off, face hidden by a sun visor, though one angle shows him smiling.” He sits inside his Range Rover, having left his condo for the hotel room where his armaments are laid out to be used on concert-goers below. His movement is ever more toward interiority, but also outward toward mass murder. This is not to equate those two things, but to show how this radical new interiority of the outside can be a form of violence, can inspire violence. It’s trauma, though we also try hard to internalize the video of a fawn with her head resting on the stomach of a German shepherd that rescued her. Split the screen, rapidly shifting your eyes from suffering to cuteness. Cuteness may be one way to save ourselves, since it comes of arbitrary and unexpected kindnesses. Hello Kitty may be the cult we're seeking. (I think I'm joking here.)

My newest poetic meditation (27) ends this way, in relation to Magda Szabo’s amazing novel, The Door:The writer had no time to save the savior. The protagonist died on her way from the bed to the door. Remember, the poet advises, that suffering is your door. No angle will save you.” I had just thought through the Vegas massacre poem, which ends with the one angle that shows the shooter smiling before his act. This meditation written later the same day also ends with an “angle,” which might be either the size of the crack when the door opens, or an angel. Or it could be both, the angel that arrives when you begin to open the door. Terrance Hayes writes about the way suffering is a door. My students thought hard on that. It’s an opening, at least until it closes us shut. Back into the dark room of an earlier decade, before the genocide, when things seemed to make sense. Forward into the dust that room has become.

At this point in the week (it’s now Thursday) that everything is closing down against pandemic, the door that opens on our suffering is now closing against it. Or so we hope. It may only mean that our suffering becomes more private, as out of a global crisis we each internalize a pain too enormous to bear. But let’s remember that doors have the capacity to open, even when they’re nailed shut. That a door, too, can turn to dust.

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Meditation 29 (a translation of 28)

I want to write a coherent meditation, one that poses a problem and then investigates it like a good detective, turning over the neighbor's rocks to find what lives beneath them, whether lizard or insect. But as I compose my meditations, they fall apart, scatter, perform the entropy that is both addition and subtraction. I never concentrate well, especially not during these days leading inexorably toward pandemic. Near the end of The Door, by Magda Szabo, however, I find a place to pause, to locate meaning, perhaps because the scene is one of meaning losing itself into dust, of history crumbling into the privacy of one woman's memory.

The "writer" whose servant master lives in the adjoining house, never opening her door to anyone, enters the back room after her servant's death. Its contents have been promised to her. They came from a Jewish family whose little girl the servant sheltered from the Nazis; she shows up in the novel as an adult too busy to see her protector for lunch. But we don't yet know who she was. The room comes to her from the distant past, untouched by history, but not by history's wear and tear. The writer begins to examine the furniture. She's warned by the Lieutenant Colonel not to touch: "The covers have perished," he tells her; "the furniture's dead. Everything here is dead, except the clock" (254). But she doesn't listen, and grasps the drawer of a console. It refuses to open to her touch. "Suddenly, everything around me became a vision out of Kafka, or a horror film: the console collapsed. Not with a brutal swiftness but gently, gradually, it began to disintegrate into a river of golden sawdust." Nothing remained but dust. Woodworm was the ostensible villain, but the symbolism of the baroque and guarded room dissolving into dust is clear.

There's always been rot at the heart of the Republic, but usually there were a few good carpenters or re-upholsterers to keep up appearances. If a beam started to fall, someone built a brace. If the roof leaked, someone patched it. If our grammar fractured, we found an orator to speak through it. But during these days of self-quarantine (we are all Thoreau now, even if we can't afford to be), I have the sense that our institutions are little more than dead furniture. We might be able to pipe some virtual furniture in through our computers (the world's museums are offering their wares for free!), but what we see, we know, is not what exists in front of us. Materiality is some consolation to us. But now we're given walls of pixels and asked to remake ourselves in their image, even as the president enacts his racist literalism. "It's 'China flu' because it started in China," he tells us, ignoring the hurt inflicted on Asian Americans. An Indian American woman standing behind him swallows hard.

The Lieutenant Colonel asks the writer if she wants the clock, which is still running, even though the room has evaporated into dust. She didn't want it, or anything. She left the room without looking back, as if she were Lot's wife, and self-disciplined. We are now leaving the room that just a week ago looked old and maybe perfect, out of date, yes, but coherently so. Everything in that room has revealed itself to be rotten at the core. What does that make us? It unmakes us. What we will become is uncertain, but history has broken like an old couch. Put it out for bulk pick-up and hope the removers are still working.

Magda Szabo, The Door. Translated from the Hungarian by Len Rix. NYRB Classics. 1987; 2005.

Meditation 28

18 March 2020

A turtle’s tear, as the butterfly drinks it.

The problem is one of scale: word after word accrues a viral load, heavier before witnessed by the reader than afterwards. We toss the metaphor in the dumpster, but that’s an unclean box, prone to viral excess. Teaching on-line encourages other viruses to spread. A worm vomited bits of my poems to all my contacts: one got miscarriage, the other adoption. To talk on-line is to acknowledge abstraction, a pane of glass between a son and his famous father. The difference between a cat’s scream inside or outside the house. When the old woman died, she left behind a beautiful parlor, the gift of a Jewish girl she saved. Touch the brocade and carved wood and it disintegrates in maroon and gilded dust. Our losses were pre-conscious until the day all the emails came flooding in. It’s a big wave washing through, and it will be gone, the president said a week ago, before he started alluding to deaths and higher poll numbers. The Fed makes him happy. She'd closed her door on everyone to preserve her secret. It was a real door, but in the context of the novel, it was also symbolic. She closed her border to the alien intruder, the neighbor who sought meaning behind shutters and a garden wall. Meaning foreclosed declares bankruptcy, takes the house of our being and pulls it down from within. First comes the dry wall, and then the beams, everything but the shell. The house cries like a turtle, but no butterfly drinks. I’ve got ashes near the television and others in the closet. I don't know where to scatter them. A scattered brain is more conducive to anxiety than to accountancy. Everyone told her she was creative, but her mistake was not to become an accountant. She loved to count numbers as they went up and down in her checkbooks, the ones that would have been her memoir had we saved them. I’m left with a few lists of what she had for lunch. I want to account for my life and hers, but I can’t keep the numbers straight. The only job I was fired from was one that involved putting data into a spread sheet. She was like Crusoe but I live on the island to which you are dis-invited to visit. Do not drink at our bars, eat at our restaurants, fill our hospitals with your tourist asses. The grown girl had no time to visit her savior. The writer had no time to save the savior. The protagonist died on her way from the bed to the door. Remember, the poet advises, that suffering is your door. No angle will save you.

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Mary with a Q and her Sunflowers

"Sunflowers are for sale at Ko`olau Farmers," she said, the woman who gardens between her unit and the sidewalk where Lilith and I sometimes walk on the way to Kahekili and the cemetery. She bought two and put them on the other side of her unit. She and her husband, who's a nurse, were going to visit family in California, but cancelled. He's still going east--his sister is in the last stages of ALS--luckily he'd been on leave recently when the COVID patient was at Kaiser, where he works in the ICU. He was going to take his sister and her German husband to Berlin for a last visit, but now there's no travel to Europe anyway. We said some things about Trump. She kept raking beneath her pine tree; she grows very large leafed plants that resemble taro but have vivid white lines on them. I told her about a pandemic gardens group on social media. When I asked how to find her, she said she's Mary Cortez with a Q. "Don't get wet," she said to Lilith and me, as we headed toward the cemetery, where it started to rain. When we got home, Lilith did her dance on the carpet to dry herself, and I sent a request to Mary's instagram. (If anyone has details of the gradening group, please let know. I saw it, but have no idea how to find it again.)

Sunday, March 15, 2020

Lilith meets a Republican

I guess I was lucky that Bryant made me kava for my sore back before Lilith and I headed out this morning. That meant that I felt mildly stoned when we ran into a neighbor who works for Hawaiian airlines, along with her big brown dog, Bear. She's a local woman, born and raised here, but unlike most local people, she's a Republican ("a soft one," she said). Mostly she hates politicians, and mostly she hates local politicians, plus the House and the Senate, all of those 70 year olds who aren't thinking anyway. Ige should do more; we're on an island. Pelosi has a really nice house with walls around it. She's a hypocrite. There should be walls. Her fiance is a vet and he can't get his meds. "That's part of the problem," I suggested, not realizing that the wall was being constructed so he might get his meds. She raised two or three kids alone. Lived in a car for a while, worked at Jack-in-the-Box (everyone who has a brain should suck it up and work for a living). If they lose their job, they should get another one. She doesn't want to pay for other people who aren't working. I suggested that health care is a human right, but she didn't agree. She worked for the welfare department and all these people came in for hand-outs. If you give people too much, they won't want to work. But really, we shouldn't follow parties; they're trying to divide us. We're not Republicans or Democrats, we're human beings. Colleagues on the plane won't even talk to her because of her beliefs. We briefly covered gun control and cops shooting black men and boys (predictably). Obama started this Black Power movement; things were never so black and white before he came along. Hillary Clinton is a criminal and should be in prison. Benghazi. I asked if she watches Fox news; she said, no, only local news, but her fiance does nothing but watch Fox, CNN and MSNBC. They're all cults. A new neighbor came out her back door and said a cheerful hello. I was grateful when my interlocutor said how much she liked the neighbor's haircut. Lilith and I took our walk. Lilith kept stopping to stare at me, wanting to turn around. I wondered if my dose of kava was helping or hurting, because all I wanted to do was cry. As I write this the rain comes in.

Saturday, March 14, 2020

A walk in the cemetery

"Your guess is as good as mine," is my response to the question, "what kind of dog is he?" [She wears a blue harness, hence the persistent error.] Today, as Lilith and I walked out of the cemetery, a woman with a phone and an iPad was standing beside the road. She approached, cooing over the dog. She had two dogs, in heaven now, a Maltese and a Pomeranian, and she misses them, but she has a job here now, and a mother. There was a photo of her dogs on her phone, which she pushed my way. I mentioned that funerals have been called off in Italy. (The guard at the entrance had said to me, "They didn't shut their borders fast enough!"). She's Chinese ("I haven't been there recently," she quickly added); the memorial for the dead in China in April won't happen this year. (Isn't this an appropriate year, I wondered). Her phone rang and she answered it in Chinese. Lilith and I exited the cemetery, heading home down Kahekili, passed an old man in a Purdue Boilermakers shirt. Lilith barked at him as we walked by.

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Meditation 27

10 March 2020

Those who don’t know history are condemned to repeat it, but there's no repetition, only contagion. What matter if the stock market crashes on truth or rumor, it crashes. Contain and contagion begin as cons. So does the president, and there he ends, red hat to orange hair, promising a stop because, after all, none of this ever began. Don’t buy the knife when the knife is falling at you, Bryant says of the stock market. All the stock tropes are trotted out for effect, including the woman who nods, the gray-haired man who stares ahead, and the other whose hand is on the president’s shoulder not as reassurance but as restraint. Contagion is circulation, like a public library whose books go from island to island, but always return to their home branch. Be sure to maintain social distancing and wash your hands constantly. An army of Lady Macbeths takes to the stage to show us how, and Weird Sisters stir their pots in steamy circles. We can’t see the gobs of blood, but we know they’re there, even if they smell more like strawberry jam from the lower seats. It’s the tone we can’t tune, frantic oscillations between serious and absurd panic, this being punked by a germ that resembles my dog’s spiky ball. When she pushes it with her nose, it squeaks. Plastic laughter to match organic. She used the word to mark her illness on a grocery list, while others wrote “toilet paper” ten times on the blackboard, vowing not to buy the last roll again. The central scene—Stalin’s death—is funny, but digressions are pure horror, which leads me to wonder how regression fits. We regress from the serious center in the dull suburbs, except in this case, where Siberia's suburbs are central to the moral panic. I cast my eye to the side to see the word count jump. When I asked the older man how he was, he turned his eyes to the right, away from mine. His wife needed surgery after a fall in the night, then he’d been carjacked at the end of a shotgun in Hilo. Even I recognized the female perp in the paper; her second carjacking in nearly as many months. His practice kept him calm; he got their license plate number. His new role is to care for his wife, learn to cook and clean. The newspaper refers to him only as “the elderly man” so often it becomes a mantra for his presumed incapacity. One section of the book ends with the word “perfidy”; it has to do with “chance movement,” which either gives or takes away. The seeming chance in a sestina enables the poet to begin in this world and then to make it dream. The garden you see outside the house is drawn in by the inscrutable child.

Sunday, March 8, 2020

The history teacher with PTSD

Three years ago today FB says I posted this: "Education is a weapon, whose effect depends on who holds it in his hands and at whom it is aimed". --Joseph Stalin.
The 50-something white guy from LA eating next to me at the Volcano market said he loved riding his bike up Wright Road. I told him there's a great hike at the end, closed off, but you walk through the gate. "I'm too scared of being shot," he said. This isn't like LA, I said. He turned his intense brown eyes at me and said, "I teach in Ka`u. I used to teach in Compton." It's like Mississippi here in the schools," he said. "They've got resources in Hilo, but out here...I deal with 4th generation meth addicts." He said the reading levels, except for 10% of the kids, were exceedingly low. (Later, he added that you can't grow good weed here because you need to read to figure out how.) In Compton, they'd given him a group of Marshallese students, put them in the music room. In half a year, he'd gotten their reading up one full grade level. How'd he end up here? Got fired. "Actually, this isn't going to sound good, but I got fired in Ka`u, too." He's in a documentary, the history teacher they talk about. Knew how to deal with gang members (the criminal code) and with drug users ("I used drugs, I know how to talk to them"). "Even the gang members wouldn't send their kids to school with drugs in Compton; they knew which schools not to send them to." Said he makes $250 a day teaching in Ka`u; his students can make $200 a day harvesting Mac nuts. "So who are we to talk to them?" I asked about the suicide rate. It all gets covered up, but you can figure things out. He worked in Compton, after all. "What's going to kill everything is robots." I reached out to shake his hand and noticed the hand sanitizer placed on the table in front of us. Bryant used the sanitizer before shaking. "But the idiot's got it all under control," he said as a kind of farewell. "Have a good day," he grinned.

Saturday, March 7, 2020

Divers and Protectors

G-9, Southwest Airlines to Hilo. One tall white bearded man approaches another, asks if he's a diver (fins stick out of his carry-on). One lived in Kona for two years, loves the diving there--there are tunnels through the reefs, and it's so intensely clear. He has a daughter in Kona. He likes to walk around at 2 a.m. and run into random people; Oahu's much better for that. The guy with fins asks if he's been to Kealakekua Bay (where dolphins swam in circles around our kayaks). "Is that where Captain Cook died?" The guy with fins says, "I'M Captain Cook.". Seriously, he pilots a boat and is name is Cook. "Are you related?" the second guy asks. "No, but I'm the only one now; looked through all the directories in Hawai`i and there is no other Captain Cook." One row of seats over, a man and a woman cover their faces with Ku Kia`i Mauna bandanas; he wears a protector shirt. Approaching Hilo, the young man next to the window, wearing a splintered paddle cap, volunteers to take a photograph for me. The Mauna sits snow-covered, wreathed in huge white clouds.

Friday, March 6, 2020

Forthcoming from Court Green in Chicago

are Meditations 2, 3, 4 and 7, which are no longer visible on this site, but lurk again as drafts!

Court Green 's most recent issue can be found here: https://courtgreen.net/

The meditations will be in one of the next two issues. Thank you to Tony Trigilio and David Trinidad for the acceptances.

Tuesday, March 3, 2020

Meditation 26

[I don't like this one much, but the discipline is where it's at. Will probably not survive blog-status in the end, however.But when I put it here and fuss with it, there's improvement! The beauty of error.]


His mistake was to make himself the poem. Easier to collage with a knife or digital razor, tracing the skin’s edge, cutting himself like the newly pardoned governor, whose hair turned white in prison. Not used to the razors yet, he said, dabbing his face with white cloth. If we’re the poem, we really are laid out upon a table. The table is for surgery or for dinner, for numbness or conversation. It could be both, but that’s a crime. Men are killed in prison for that. One student says he has a question unrelated to our discussion. “What’s a poem?” he says. What do you do, asks another, with the fact that one poem has a tight structure, and other lacks one? “What’s the line?” they want to know. They’re my students who talk about the stock market; one tells me it doesn’t matter if it crashes now, he’s got 15 years to wait it out. The market’s our cardiogram, tracing the hills and valleys of an 

empire’s vital signs. The president, we’re told, is deeply engaged; he asks about the market all the 

time. That we can believe. Lilith’s spiky ball is a corona virus, a plastic sun awakening in spikes of orange light. Mountains were layer cakes this morning: blue, white, green descending to the mottled leaves within my line of sight. I do not work in lines, but cuts run deep as rivers between them.