Tuesday, May 31, 2022

You Take the Window Seat

 31 May 2022

Before we were disposable, we had friends. Before our hearts turned to plastic, we made them into metaphors. Before I began to write this, I thought I’d venture into happiness. Where you are my harbor, the crook of your arm my consolation. When I lie on you, your body calms itself from trembling. Give in to move on. Prepositions again, or propositions that all moments are created equal, even if our experiences of them differ as orchid to train (except on a bridal dress). The small words are all signs, in a relative sense, pointing to something more than relative, though less than enlightened, perhaps. When Sebald ran into Hardy at an intersection, they spoke of coincidence (there is none) and of experience as a map, spooling like tape to touch a ruler, erect, that measures vertical space. To react too strongly to a map is a sign of trauma, because the map can’t bear witness. It’s just a throw rug on which we either walk or fall down. Slippery slopes are often real, even when they’re flat. His flag (in space) so close to my childhood (in time) that memory starts its demented walk down a long hallway, slow and stiff.

Before we had friends, we were disposable. A blue toy, lacking hands and feet, left by the mower and his retinue of egrets. The mother Mary, whose fingers were chipped, now stands without her hands--stacked below her on the ground. The next day, one hand lay in the road, smashed. I moved it back in proximity to her. Feet still intact, she looks out over the graves, batting no eye at such a loss.

I take a photograph of an old black pick-up truck; in the back are an old broom, leaning against the back window, door just ajar, and a purple net at the end of a pole. I try to get both broom and pole in the photograph, or broom and window, but nothing works. A man yells at me from down the parking lot. “Whatchu taking picchas of?” I tell him the broom. I say no harm. He yells “ass” at me. Mine, or his, I don’t know. When I look at the photo, I notice his safety sticker is overdue by nearly seven months. Which of us in this vignette was not safe?

Her window view is static: her tall apartment building looks out at similar. Time in Kyiv has slowed; she now goes out for coffee, invites her twitter followers in. Chronology's gone in Donbas, each minute laid out on a table to be crushed. There are fingers, but no hands, glass but no windows, the components of wholes without any context. Neither body nor building holds, though eyes and windows stare out. Someone at the coffee shop yelled to put a lid on it.

Monday, May 30, 2022

At the Tomb of the Known Quantity


30 May 2022

Today’s “current events” will be as obscure as a dial phone by next year, but I wrap myself inside them like a hair shirt on a baroque composer, who thinks his fugue will cure memory of its scabs. We forgot all the old people shopping in Buffalo when the kids were killed in Uvalde. Our senses of place make none. Names as headstones, just as apt to fail. Take photos of the spalling to mark the disintegration of concrete as it falls away from rebar. Everything is a mark: this word, that photo, old conflicts butting into the repeat sign. We won't give Ukraine rockets that reach Russia, the president says. A domesticated war, though the word “genocide” pops up like a question, or a popsicle, melting into our inability to define terms. Term limits might help, but they’re just other borders snapping shut.

Wish me a “Happy Memorial Day” and I’ll tell you some memories are worth misplacing. We praise memory for keeping our losses alive somehow, families under umbrellas at the cemetery this morning, children fanning out to play, little girl with hula hoop. She said she was bored of memory, but it’s my perpetual borer, worm making the silk screen of my brain, a wooden frame to hold cloth still. Dying for, so honored. Dying as, forgotten. One little girl who danced wanted a Tiktok account to show them off. Her parents told her she was too young. In her absence, they create it themselves.

Domain expired. Digital memory depends on subscriptions, on sturdy platforms, on benevolent technology. Time with its ones and twos keeps strutting past in the parade, cheerleaders wearing yarn leis.

The Donbas will not be recognizable. The faces of children shot by an AR-15 must be reconstructed by a special mortician before the casket can be opened. "Cut flower food" reads a tiny plastic pocket on the ground. Keep the blossoms going, at least for this weekend.

At the cemetery, the men call me Aunty and scratch Lilith’s head, her flanks, call her a good dog. Today, the place crawls with local folks, including two old women bearing stacks of ginger. I take a picture of one from behind, but it doesn’t reveal much. Tomorrow, it's back to tourist buses, to phones held from car windows to shoot the mountains. To drive through is not to be, though to be is rather like a drive through, never a still moment, always wandering in the clouds of impermanence. Where is the middle way when both rails are so extreme? In a concrete gutter beside an old wooden house, where you throw a bone your dog found? Gutter, gutted. We can’t grieve because there are no intervals. So we check out of Hotel Mourning to watch an action film. He said when his father-in-law died, he watched three action movies in one evening. He didn’t feel well when he woke up.

Saturday, May 28, 2022

The Poetry of Quietude


28 May 2022

“We were good. We were good. We stayed quiet.” Even the child hit on the nose by a bullet remained quiet, as did the teacher, bleeding from her leg. The ones who could be seen played dead; the others prayed. What makes them prey, these innocents? He wanted to be close to them, his mother said. When one girl said “help,” he shot her. The intimacy of a bullet wound. I could not bear the thought of intimacy until the wound closed, a bit. Rape by bullet a false intimacy, sick in its equation of blood not with relation but with its breaking. Blood is metaphor, except when it’s spilled.

You are either abandoned or lucky, there’s no middle position. You are either left or you are right. “I have to put L on my left hand, and R on my right,” she tells me, to tell them apart. My mother played cards left-handed, though she gave that up before I arrived. We want one or the other, because the middle confuses us. So blame the shooting on a door, blame it on anti-depressants, blame it on evil, blame it on the mother who failed to take her daughter home that day. She blames herself. Leave Moloch out of it.

Moloch Moloch Moloch. He is never quiet, demands us like our big cat, yelling to be let out, then in, then out. My silence feels passive; I am trapped in the corner of our sickness, unable to speak it. The coach pounds a table. “Those are just words,” a neighbor says. We want words to matter. The former president reads the names of the dead while a bell tolls. He cannot pronounce most names. (Names are words, I see someone write.) Then he does a jig on stage. Another successful NRA convention.

A second cat comes to sniff the chair on which a third cat had slept. She is utterly quiet, even as her nose moves. I sit on the floor typing, while the dog sleeps. Our silence is under threat from birds, from traffic, from the man coughing upstairs. Which way do you run, when the shooting starts?

“I don’t want any more moments of silence,” he says. Can there not be outrage in such quiet, between the storms. We know the next one comes, because murder is a weather pattern. Hope the wind turns the other way so you can breathe, then worry when it stops. When our memories melt like sand, make glass. To see brings us close. To see through keeps us quiet. Someone look inside the windows of that classroom and take it all back.

The war diary has moved home. War photographs give way to those of small children holding their honors certificates and smiling. That was before. After, we write about the silence, if not inside of it. If you can count to ten, you can breathe for them. If you breathe for them, won’t they come home again?

Where the palm was cut, I found the image of an outer space creature, wings flung out from its orange face, a yellow collar composing the image for me. If you look close enough, nothing pretends to make sense.

Thursday, May 26, 2022

At Kualoa Beach Park


26 May 2022

After Columbine. After Red Lake. After West Nickel Mines Amish School. After Virginia Tech. After Northern Illinois University. After Oikos. After Sandy Hook. After UC Santa Barbara. After Umqua Community College. After Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School. After Santa Fe High School. After Robb Elementary School. After.

A monk seal was sleeping at the water’s edge, her scarred gray belly looming in the air, head only barely twitching when the water reached it. (We agreed that was a good sign.) A small flipper tucked under her large gray body. Three men had driven close in vans; their job was to make a barricade between us and the seal. Do not get within 100 feet. On our way out, I told a tourist about the monk seal; “what’s that, honey?” her friend said.

What does the word “after” mean? Can it live without “before,” or is it “before”? After, but ahead of the next event. After, on the altar of human sacrifice. Parents could not recognize their children, had to provide DNA. (And what if they were adopted?) The horrible dementia of violence, that it takes away our memory because it takes faces away, blows limbs apart, drenches clothes in blood. Memory comes back as repetition (“repetition is one of my triggers,” she said) as the awful moment before you forget everything. Again. It leaves a space for the classroom’s return as the place in your head you can never get out of. The doors are locked, except one the gunman walked through. Senator Cruz blames the door. Governor Abbott the mentally ill. They speak of evil. The man who confronts them is uncivil. Because who would dare speak of such a thing when it just occurred? Before we speak, we must be after. But after can’t be born.

Two fisherman look at their taut line, holding seaweed like laundry or flags. Not even the good kind, one says to us. From the vans and buses, from the parking lots and from the shoulder of the road, come lines of tourists. They march across the grass and toward the narrow beach. You can find Niihau shells on this beach, Ruth says. There are clumps of coral on the grass, light as small sponges, and a clot of bleached concrete, resembling coral. An old man paddles by on his board, as a military plane comes toward us, lights on. The water appears to have lights on its caps, and kayaks rest on the small island nearby. You can see them but not their people.

Lilith and I walk up hill. Two little girls take turns posing in front of a small palm, the taller girl wearing a long black and white dress. First one and then the other smiles. Their young mother takes pictures. They are so beautiful--and ("and" is addition, I say to my students, not conjunction) they could be killed by a boy/man not much older than they are. It could happen after they hold up their honor student certificates. It could happen after lunch. It could happen after, or before. Last day of school? I ask. I take their picture, and hand the phone back. Streams of children flow toward the elementary school. We know the tide has an edge you dare not cross. So we trace its curve along the sand, leaning over to pick up shells, fish skeleton, blue plastic bottle with frayed hieroglyphics scrawled at its base.

Impermanence ought not be slaughter.

--for Ruth Canham

Sunday, May 15, 2022

My MUD Parcel Reading in Cincinnati (or, on zoom)

Aryanil Mukherjee and Pat Clifford kindly invited me to read in their series, which I did yesterday. A smattering of work from the present back to the mid-aughts: memory cards, honest sentences, and dementia blogs. Click below to watch:





Friday, May 13, 2022

A mirrored stage


13 May 2022

Watch only the beginning of each video. See Russian soldiers open a glass door, but turn them off. See policemen approach a Black man on the street; turn them off. It’s not to create suspense, rather, suspense consists in looking back. Where did this begin, and how do we know when to click the button, off? Like McCartney inventing “Get Back," but without the final concert on the roof. There were cops there, too, who ended it early. Go backwards from there, like a song that tells you which band member is dead (hint: he’s one of those still alive). Yet there’s pleasure in going back to a song’s origins, not in returning to the scene of a war crime starting to unfold, when you can only decide not to watch. The inverse of narrative is a cliff.

Atrocity is forced narrative. It stops time where time wasn’t meant to be stopped, kills it with as much certainty as the journalist shot in the head by a soldier. To create peace, give time back to story, allow it to unfold as slowly as a green bud with purple highlights, denoting the color it will become without a megaphone announcement. Or dissolve it all together, refusing to show the opening of the door, the soldiers entering, cops exiting. I prefer my photographs still on Instagram, precisely because they go nowhere. Stories are all addition; I lay out my coins like a child at the cash register. “You should really learn how to do this yourself,” one clerk said to me.

An enormous white cloud drifts across the window to the right; in front, an absolute gray. The collision will occur where the blind spot in my townhouse lies, at an angle just past the television, the speakers, all our forms of output. Absolute is only approximate, but it’s dense. A cat sniffs the deck, laps up some dirty water. A red plastic pot lies on its side on a tan plastic chair, divided into shadow and light. No, I don’t write poems about my photographs. The relationship is more intimate, less about “about,” more about parallel construction. This has little to do with back focus, as neither the pot nor the cat moves much. A photo of my Memory Cards is aptly blurred.

Topical is timely, also an ointment. Tropical is moist and warm, also figurative. J’essuie donc je suis, I said, but everyone thought I’d made a mistake. Insofar as being is mistaken, yes, or that a greasy surface can only be spread around, or that my being appears to be mine. If mother is a job, as Bryant said, so are we. Not acting, quite, but something akin. As if each moment we assumed ourselves, breathing into a recent future, aimless. If the teacher counsels aimlessness, why does he write so many books?

He hit what appeared to be a bloop double, then stopped at first. When the next batter hit what appeared to be a bloop double, the first batter ran past second, only to be doubled off first. Game over. He looks lost out there, as if he left his map and compass in the dug-out. He’s got something on his mind, but because he wears a cap, we can’t see it. We live now in half-masks, carried from the car to the store, then placed over nose and mouth. Half-revealed in time. The teacher said his favorite student's image was inside a box. Each student came to peer in. Surprise, awkwardness, laughter. What was inside the box, but mirror, light moving so fast no child could tell her own face from the one that peered back at her. Glass bottom boats are like ancestry.com. We see us as we truly were.

Tuesday, May 10, 2022

Dear Mr. Buddha

10 May 2022

The recommended books of the day include Grief, Shame, Anger, and other vestments of our time. Our strategies for coping are old, and we need primers on how to act, or not. Fear is mother of them all. My quarrel is with the prepositions. For, at. The lens set too far back for in or with. I’m astounded at; I’m sorry for; I’m stricken by. But rain it keeps raining on the broad leaves and the narrow, the fuschia with their funny hats, angel trumpets with their fuzzy stems. No need for prepositions if you get close enough. Except in.

The big words are short, saxon. But the weak are pusillanimous, preoccupied with syllables instead of sound. Meaning’s the remainder you get with you divide anything with everything. You have a plastic shed outside in which to store it, but space is getting crowded, musty, and meanings congeal, glued together by proximity. I went out looking for one, but couldn’t remember which, whether it was dry or cooked, smoked or rotten. Hoping to connect meaning with its provocation, I measured my feelings: half-part anger, half-part shame, with apathy as my shield. But when the object denoting joy got confused with the one denoting grief, I entered the territory of mixed feelings. Time is said to un-mix them, by stirring and then leaving to settle like river silt. But where’s the time these days?

The steel mill is held by fascists and attacked by other fascists. Their languages are proximate, if not identical, as are their weapons. The names they call each other matter less than their flags, which don’t call but represent. They do not yell at, but merge with, the colors blue and yellow, darker blue and red. I really miss the Soviet anthem, don’t you? Their trance is war. We manufacture it with the big words, then melt it down into syllabits. Let memory be for a blessing, or let it not be.

We cloak our likes inside of hearts, a misfit anatomy. To like is either to notice, to appreciate, to curry favor, but we can’t find the context with our arrows. Write slogans to self about not-knowing, then know when to apply them. A fundamentalism of ambiguity seems preferable to one of certitude, though the most certain bail-out when questioned. The air is full of parachutes. We return to earth chastened, without claim, but need propels us toward the simple sentence. An eye in the ground from which a red-leaved vine travels. Its stare is fixed and so, we fear, are we.

Thursday, May 5, 2022

Suburb of Refuge


5 May 2022

Keeping score doesn’t matter if you lose. Not the next election, but the last; not the next right lost, but the previous. Scorecards hold history inside of repetition; each score staged within a diamond inscribed in grass. I use memory to visualize shapes and colors; the generator’s missing, but not the videotape. Memory’s a form of kompromat, blackmailing us against ourselves. Regret enables forgiveness, mandates regret, as a player runs the bases, tripping around third, caught in the bog of rules and an unforgiving baseline. Bryant follows the tally of dead tanks, dead transport vehicles, dead Russians. I watch video of a children’s park destroyed by artillery shells. There goes the red slide, and there the plastic fortress wall. Even empty spaces get obliterated.

The photograph draws you out into the drop of rain on a green stem beside curled brown ferns. The photo doesn’t live outside history but so far inside it you might drown. Earlier years were about thinking about being, parsing it, making metaphors of it, as if-fing it until the thread wound around your brain like the dog’s leash around fern trunks. Appropriate for the suburbs, when details appear to be claimed by the city, and your house promises refuge from them. “But this was meant to be our refuge,” a woman said of her new house, when thefts were reported. A place called Refuge, where suffering is hidden from view, negating the first noble truth because it can’t be read out loud. The suburbs are anti-photographic. Leave this note on your door: “Gone to seek refuge.” Revel in your abandon.

Photograph of a Ukrainian journalist, killed in action. To see him is to know him gone. His image is his obit. What is in front of us is absent from us. Is this how symbolism starts? Does it matter? Symbol as payback for our losses, money as a kind of poetry. The spreadsheet is a comfort form, like a score card or the metal grid at the front of a tractor. There’s a bent square the spider chose for her web, but the rest is relentless same. In order to straighten the image, you place it inside a grid and turn slowly until it slips into place. She asked why my verticals were not vertical. When I went back to look, the rusted poles were bent. The photograph’s fidelity was in its leaning.

Raindrops. They cling to stems, sit on petals, fall from angel trumpets. I watch the iphone’s screen try to arrive at clarity. When it does, I push the button. Otherwise, I move on. Focus is as random as the drop itself. Go with the chaos, a student says, or organize it in a frame.

Monday, May 2, 2022

Heidegger as a Cure for Anxiety


2 May 2022

“Anxiety could be experienced as a kind of calm by holding yourself out, into that experience”: moments when you’re past worry, adrenaline-surfing, full of everything you can’t name except it moves quickly, curling like a leaf around itself on asphalt, mottled brown and darker brown, and I wondered why friends thought about colors in poetry, as it was the thoughts that seemed most to count, and count they did, by 25s or 100s, in math that was not yet critical race theory, or anything except raw numbers. The four on a telephone pole sits upside down, making the shape of an “I” with a handle, as if we could hold our first person up to our lips and drink. If we take “calm” to mean stillness, not a steady being in yourself, then calm it is. Renovate your words and they will mean what you need them to mean.

Dissolving vignettes, each a single take, holding itself out until stopping in mid-air, which is mid-time, which is the space of an absent narrative, or at least of one that cannot find its ending. What we think is true—a woman captured by a psychopath in a metal container—ends. When next we see her, she’s ironing. The psychopath wants her to show her “true face,” not the one she assumes. The torturer always looks for truth, because the means justify whatever ends. Body, story, the tweets of Russian torture victims you can’t see because they’re “disturbing." Scroll past to see the latest trades, the low batting averages, the poetry gossip. That tweet is a trap-door, but you leap over it the way your dog does a puddle when a car comes. The water breaks into shadow pieces; her tongue sticks out, offering a hint of color in the drab overcast light.

Those still trapped in Mariupol’s steel factory have moved past anxiety, because where they exist is true. Anxiety assumes, but when it’s proven, it dissolves into an after-calm, horrifying and yet certain. This is not how you imagine relieving your anxiety; mostly, you think of yourself lying comfortably on a beach, once again able to breathe in, out. But the steel mill is the labyrinth that promises to hide you long enough to become accustomed. To hunger, to terror, to fingers that push on walls, but cannot feel them. Hongly described his body as it starved, his arms eating themselves. New Yorkers, we read, are now terrified.

We haven’t lost our sense of proportion, though that is our ambition. It’s our stage, where the player in a slump gets sent to Mariupol and the soldier in the tank gets to attend his own bobble head day at the park. Four men in a tank dream of meadows full of flowers. The tank dreams of its origins apart from war. And the war dreams it’s trapped inside a music room without a key. I’ll turn the house inside out to look for it. In the meantime, lock it all out as she did the mean lover who shot faces on the subway. Piles of books lie on the curb, each bearing the title, ETHICS.

Note: quote by Simon Critchley, in “A Philosopher Laughs at Death...” by Mark Dery. The Chronicle of Higher Education, April 28, 2022. Thanks to Jon Morse, who sent me the link. Some details come from Code Unknown, a film by Michael Haneke.