Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Lilith Looks for an Old Friend


It took me a long time to remember their names, Les and Leona. For a while, I called them L&L, like the drive in. They walked every day down some of the same paths that Lilith and I do. They walked to the store, pushed grandchildren in a stroller, sauntered through the cemetery. Always erect, always striding. One day (a year ago?) I ran into Les, on his own, who said that Leona had cancer. Over time, she got treatments; they started to travel again, to Japan, Vegas. I asked Uncle John this past weekend if he'd seen them. (I hadn't been around for a long time, too.) He said he'd just seen Les leave the cemetery. Yesterday, I saw a car backing into Les and Leona's garage. The garage door shut, so I knocked on the side door. Les appeared, two gorgeous grandsons squirming beside him. "It's Aunty Susan and Lilith," he said to the boys, who started playing with a hose in the front yard. Leona died three weeks ago. He's still watching the grandchildren. There will be a private funeral. "Her family is very big, so there might be 200 people there," Les said.

Monday, February 26, 2024

My Photo Life


[I applied for something.]

My Photo Life

I was born in 1958 in Belleville, Illinois and grew up on the east coast, while cheering for the St. Louis Cardinals. I became serious about photography at the time I retired from over 30 yeaers of teaching American poetry and creative writing at the University of Hawai`i-Mānoa. I’ve always been a writer. I work through through ear and printed word. My vision began to develop when my mother’s dementia deepened in the mid-2000s, I kept a blog that detailed the progression of her illness (and its digressions). The blog was published as two books. The discipline of keeping this blog over several years taught me to attend to what was directly in front of me, whether it was my mother or the love story between two Alzheimer’s patients in her “home.” I used to wander the care home looking at the residents’ “memory boxes,” framed spaces that held photographs of them when they had been active, engaged. Many were World War II veterans or their spouses, who had posed in their jaunty hats at a much younger age. The boxes were intended, we were told, to remind the residents of which room was theirs, but because they couldn’t remember themselves, they served to memorialize them for family and friends. (In Alzheimer’s, memorials come before, as well as after, death.) My friend, the noted photographer Gaye Chan, was fascinated by the idea of these boxes. She designed the covers to my books, both of which have flat “boxes” of photographs on the back. The first volume’s cover shows my parents in their Virginia living room, my late father a shade, and my mother blurring. The second volume features the page of an old photo album whose photographs are missing. What’s left are yellow lines, intended to help the owner set her photos straight on the gummy page.

Gaye and I also worked, for a decade, on a small poetry press, Tinfish, which I founded in 1995. I found the words and she assigned student and professors as designers, or did the books and journal issues herself. What an education for me in image and text! More than once, we gathered at large tables to put a publication together; the social aspect of it was part of the larger process. The journal issues were especially intriguing, as Gaye used recycled materials (print shop proof sheets, old cereal box covers, x-rays, and so forth) as the basis for her work, and as covers. Often, every cover would be different from the others, so that opening up the boxes when the finished work arrived was like being a kid again at Christmas-time.

As a teacher of creative writing, I increasingly let go of “knowledge” transmission (how to write a poem, how to scan a poem, how to construct a metaphor) and took up “attention” as my focus. My students had become unfocused, what with smart phones and financial crashes, sick relatives and two jobs, addiction and climate change anxieties. So I wrote a list of 30 “attention exercises” for them to do. Stand at a bus stop and watch and listen to people; watch a sporting event and pay attention to things that happen away from the action of the game; meditate on a raisin; take a walk with someone else, dog or person, and attend to what the other being notices. These exercises changed my own practice, and also led me into photography.

I have always snapped photos, but until recently, they were photos of things, snapshots, goads to memory. After getting a smartphone in 2019 (I’m an adoptive mother, but a very late adopter of technical gizmos) I began to change my way of looking at the world by getting my phone lens close to what I saw. The “whole” fell away and the “part” became my focus. Often, a very ordinary thing (the back of a tow truck, for example) became wonderfully strange if I got close to the back, where a metallic eye sat under a metallic brow. I take most of my photos, even now, on walks with my dog Lilith (Lilith Walks is another of my books, with photos, as writing and photography are coming together for me). I take close-up photos of rusty dumpsters (which remind me of modern art), pieces of trash with partially erased words on them, my dog’s tail as she wanders out of the frame. I’m especially fond of decay, of which there is so much in the rain forest of the Big Island, where I take photos of abandoned houses (eager to suss out family stories that were simply abandoned), brown hapu`u ferns, abandoned cars and boats covered in the asemic writing of mildew and mold. I’ve taken rust and lava walks with a friend in Volcano Village, who also loves to see the world through her camera’s lens.

I’ve taken a couple of photography classes since retiring from my professorial gig. I use a camera for many photos now, though my technical skills are still developing. For the final project of the first, course I took photos of roadside memorials on O`ahu and the Big Island. These are sites devoted to remembering someone—rather like outdoor memory boxes—who died there. They’re often built in intricate detail, then largely ignored by passing traffic. I wanted to see them close up and to record what time had done to the memorials themselves (following the advice of my friend, Gaye). For my second class, I took photographs of a local Eucalyptus tree, one of those that ribbons in reds and greens and drips sap and bark. It’s a messy tree, but beautiful. Black and brown sap runs slowly down the dark trunk, reflecting reds and greens; bark peels off in sheets. A Facebook friend suggested that the Eucalyptus had invented Abstract Expressionism. At around that time, an old poetry acquaintance gave me a copy of Martin Buber’s I and Thou, so I wrote a sequence of meditations on the tree, my photographs of it, and my relationship (I and Thou) with the tree. The manuscript, titled I and Eucalyptus, is a fusion of photograph and word—the links are not direct but in conversation with each other.

I’m a practicing Buddhist, so my attention to attention has taught me other lessons, on equanimity, the power of ordinary objects and moments to make meaning, on the meditative process of looking (as far as possible) without a screen of thoughts and memories. The idea of sangha (or community) strikes me as important in art, too. I am developing a sangha of fellow photographers, many of them poets who, like me, are late to the practice. But fervent.

Lilith and the Admirer of Rust

The man with the open round face looked at me with suspicion--for just an instant--as he turned to look out of the cab of his pick-up truck. I had, after all, been seriously ogling the truck bed. "You've got great toolboxes," I said to him. He smiled; "yes, old school, from the 1950s." "Great rust," I said, I told him about my dumpster photos, how the rust makes artistic patterns. He lit up. "You must love the sugar mills! Kahuku, Waialua, Ewa." I don't know about the one in Ewa. He said, "you'll be in heaven there! I know how you think!" 
At the lip of the truck bed were his keys and a pickle ball paddle. We could hear the happy yelps of pickle ballers from the nearby courts. Lilith and i headed off. The man and I agreed we'd enjoyed our conversation. The photos are still in my phone, and my husband just left on his bike with his pickle ball racquet . . .

Wednesday, February 21, 2024

21 February 2024

This is because, spiritually, they have only one nostril. Oh Smell Cyclops, too literal to be ordinary, too metaphorical to be strange! The final call will come with flowers in a plain vase at the window of his room.

My father had no window, but he could see things through. He didn’t need memory; people were either present (a cousin’s young daughter walked through his room, known only to him), or they were only absent. Smell triggers memory in those who want it. I bought a jar of Vicks because it brought my childhood back. Sick nostalgia.

Via a friend on email, Laura sends him all of our names. Please say these names to him out loud, she asks. Name as visitation in plain language. Name as our hope for this.

Another poet wants no contact; she’s too busy dying. A name comes to mean less and less, though it fills at least one hole in a day.

The cyclops cannot smell; his one lane tunnel leads to hell fires, we’re told. We smell his breath as a kind of warning.

At the elementary school, firemen line up beside their yellow truck. It’s career day.

The dying poet wants to refuse closure. Our names demand it. We want to have been there in the end. “You can say good-bye,” the nurse said, even though he’s past breathing.

Brenda buys teeshirts of rock stars so she can wear them when they die. Let’s make teeshirts of ourselves and wear them when we go.

But she’s so young, a student says. 82. The marker is in our brains, not on our calendars. He’s 69. My father was 78. I’m 65. Numbers don’t ad up. My son, 24, tells friends that his cat’s ashes are kept more prominently, and in a nicer box, than those of his grandmother. My mother’s grit resides in a plastic bag in my closet. I should put them on the same shelf as my father’s at Arlington, but I put the act off.

It’s been 337 words since I began writing this morning. I brought home a bright button with photo of a woman, a man, and a boy on it. The man flashes a shaka. After picking it up from the grass, I placed it on a ledge yesterday, but no one took it. The button offers no names, no condolences, no hint as to its purpose divorced from context. I could pin it on and wear it to go shopping, but I think I know better.

To call them all back, the ghosts, is to create a flash mob of shadows. A friend nearly fell back when Sean leaned forward on stage and became his father, John. Family resemblance is spooky comfort. Family non-resemblance lets us let go of our names.

My husband turns on the television this morning. Women pregnant in Gaza. Women raped in Gaza. Women raped in Israel. Donald Trump. My husband sounds angry. I go downstairs to write my sadness down. The author of The Cloud of Unknowing cautions me not to confuse metaphor with truth, and for once, I can’t.

Note: quotations from and influence of The Cloud of Unknowing, A.C. Spearing, translator.

Tuesday, February 20, 2024

I and Eucalyptus in Cordite (Australia)

 From my obsessive project on a local Eucalyptus tree, by way of Martin Buber's I and Thou. There's a photograph for the piece, but it wasn't included here.

Monday, February 19, 2024

Lilith Walks Down Memory Basepaths

The man was wearing a Kamehameha Baseball teeshirt. "It's almost baseball season!" I chirped. "I'm a Cards fan." "I know," he said. "You coached my sons." That would have been teeball, some 20 years ago. The team was the Kahalu`u Cardinals; they wore Cards caps and bright red uniforms. (I'd always wanted to manage the Cards.)
"Were they the twins?" I asked. Yes. I remember the twins; once I suggested that they could get outs without throwing the ball to someone else (a real problem in teeball), they ran all over the field tagging other players. It became a rout of outs. At that age, most kids are most fascinated by the dirt around their bases.
The twins played baseball at Kamehameha, and one was first team in the state. One works at Kualoa Ranch in marketing, the other for the Bishop estate. As the man started to walk away, dachsund on his leash, I said, "Oh, and they loved NASCAR!" "Booga booga and all that!" said the man in closing. (Likely misheard.)
Postscript. Back when I coached 5 year olds in teeball, I found some stuff out. One dad leaned over to tell me to "tell my son not to act like a girl." A few years later, when I coached a pony league team, again the Cardinals, it was because none of the dads wanted to go to meetings or do the paperwork. It turned out that no one would let me coach, either. At the final potluck, a mother thanked the dads for doing the coaching, and me for standing in. Needless to say, I was furious.
When I saw the man's son years later, he was a lovely young gay man who'd been assigned to a Navy ship in the Mediterranean.


Saturday, February 17, 2024

Lilith, Eucalyptus, Hounds

The smell of brownies and puakenikeni attacked our senses this morning as we left the house (to mangle a favorite Ashbery line). At the cemetery, Uncle J and I tangled half-heartedly over current politics; it proved a poor re-mix of _Lilith Walks_. He said he didn't want to talk about it; he wanted to talk about Lilith. After Lilith lunged to get at some orange and brown cat kibble--earlier, there had been beef stew brought by the Cat Lady--we headed back. As we walked toward Eucalyptus, I saw a man, a woman, a boy, and two large brown-eyed dogs, nearly primate in their expressiveness. The man, in straw hat, kept them at a distance from Lilith. I recognized him as the former cop I'd been told had been shot in Hau`ula; he used to walk with difficulty and his dogs. Now he walked easier with them. The woman was showing their grandson the tree. 
I've never seen anyone else examine the tree from close-up, poking at it with a twig, finding it intriguing enough to show a small boy, who quickly started petting Lilith. The deep-eyed hounds looked on; one seemed to wear a fur doily at its neck. I showed the woman some of my Eucalyptus photographs, the way the photos bring out reflected reds and greens. As we left the area, I saw the little boy "sledding" down a grassy hill on a blue and white saucer, his grandparents and their dogs waiting patiently at the top.

Wednesday, February 14, 2024

14 February 2024


We watched as she drowned, but at least we watched.

We attended to our need to see her drown, but at least we attended.

No clarity but in the sentence, edited.

Clarity is not relief, though it may be sculptural.

She disappears into her socks, the ones they gave her to wear on wood floors.

The television spouts football history. She has forgotten mine, hers, ours.

Depressed people can’t remember their feelings, an article tells me.

My depressions were punctuated by floods of memories.

When her friend reminded her of the beauty of the church where they'd attended a concert--the vaulted ceiling!--she shrugged.

This morning emerges, lacking detail, as if the present also can be forgotten.

We don’t talk about the benefits of amnesia, only the way it strips us of our stories.

She in her socks sits in a gray plastic chair too heavy to throw.

She in her pinkish glasses looks at us. She seems too sane to be here, a doctor said.

A woman carrying her own big belly wanders through the common area, talking.

A black man in cornrows watches Earl Campbell on TV.

A white man in scrubs wanders by in socks, pulls a phone off the wall, whispers in it.

I’m surrounded by the rhetoric of need. Can I turn the mirror back?

I remember sentences, how comforting they were.

Those most unable to communicate shall have no devices with which to communicate.

I will buzz you in, says the young woman with repaired clefts, a lisp.

I will walk you out, says another woman, who thanks us for visiting.

Someone needs to take care of me.

This place is “more genteel than the other one.”

Tuesday, February 13, 2024

13 February 2024


Vulnerability as a layered thing; it is closer or farther away, which is not to say it’s not a constant. Constancy seduces us into an image of stability, cat on his usual maroon pillow, dog’s nose poking out through her blue blanket. But not the mountain, looking on like a watchman behind trees and townhouses. There’s a strange stability in cast-offs, a potato chip container pushed into a chain link fence, an old McDonald’s wrapper resembling an orange leaf, inside of which a real one. Trash is both vulnerable and eternal, in neither sense admirable. It promises decay, even as it refuses the kind offer, perpetual in its plasticity. The mind’s plasticity steers it around the obstacle of forgetting, or hearing loss (more common in Republicans, I read). Piles of twigs on a beach are either washed up from the ocean or placed there by a sculptor selecting time as his co-artist. I appreciate how the photographer left a blur in his shot, introducing impermanence on the right side of an otherwise stuck image. No rhyme or reason to what stays, and what seems to leave the scene sketched there.

That there is only one subject now (war, massacre) doesn’t mean we write only about it. A Buddhist abhors distraction, but the ordinaries among us need its flags. A desperate contrast between game and horror marks them both as troubled. Worse yet, there’s no calm between them, only a crazy wobbling. The game brings us despair and the war, oddly, hope. Or does it? We’re so trained to hope that affect precedes experience, warping it into a cast-off narrative of love and escape. The pretend battle offers love; the real one a series of hatreds so deep we can’t measure them. The test tube of our vulnerability has no hash mark for hate.

Forgetting hardly matters, except as a sign. Remember what is socially demanded (your anniversary, birth date) and neglect the rest (human history). If forgiveness is desirable, isn’t it a function of forgetting? I remember the feeling I had while I read his novel, but I don’t recall the plot. What I remember is my body, the angle at which it hurt.

Monday, February 12, 2024

12 February 2024


As soon as any category of humans is placed outside the pale of those whose life has value, nothing is more natural than to kill them.” Horrors of analogy: Gaza is shaped like a football field, long and narrow. There are bombs on each, holes in the line, drones to catch the view from a stadium’s heaven. Pan away toward Paris and New York; it’s Vegas, after all. Meditation is double chance: I caught sight on my screen of a veiled woman holding the swaddled corpse of her child, a young girl beside her,  eyes too big to see through. Video shook, as if the machine that reproduced the scene was itself in shock. The planners live out of bounds, boundaries breached only by tantrums and tackles. In bounds, a kindergarten as killing field. The crime, they say, is to cross the border. They're invading our safe zone, when we gathered to watch them kettled between end zones. End zone is end time. We want to imagine there’s a clock, but it doesn’t stop.

The new queen of affect jumps up and down in her box, as her common law king bullies his coach on the field. If he were black, he’d have been kicked out. If she were a man, they wouldn’t call her a cheerleader. We care so much about her that we avert our glance from the mother outside a hospital in Gaza. If she were a man, she’d likely be dead, but it’s her child, trapped in a destroyed car, whose voice slowly diminished until only she was quiet. Once they've been harvested, the silences of a war zone denote killing fields. A man who killed for the Khmer Rouge wears eyes the size of the young girl’s. To see so much is to see nothing. What can I hope to see in their eyes, except anesthesia? The social worker was appalled that anyone would say that disassociation in a child is good.

Soldiers loot the shops for goods, destroy registers for fun. If you haven’t broken enough with your tanks, use your crow bars. Not tragic but sick joy. Take that, Yeats. Joy that hates itself afterwards. His wife asked him to bring her a souvenir from Gaza; he will bring himself back, objectified. Feel sickness wash up from the feet like a rogue tide, like flooded tunnels, like water sources unfit to drink. What washes up on us is chance, but what began it was fully intended. Three hostages were freed.

Note: First sentence by Simone Weil, quoted by Jacqueline Rose in The Plague.

Sunday, February 11, 2024

11 February 2024


Love is not consolation; it is light. Morning orange through tight and looser screens, blotch of shadow on the blue chair, dark puddle on tile beside one cat. Catalyst, my software suggests, the analogist that resides inside my laptop, spitting apt alternatives out of letter patterns. Another cat lists to hunt on the lanai, which might be typed as “language,” the machine’s longing for replacement. If love is part revulsion, then revolution is but a circle. The cats make triangles, lines, any shape that obstructs the others. It’s the design of their politics, like a flat slalom or Raelian garden, replete with concrete statues. We could offer repetition with that order, but to clone a mother to make a daughter is to split history in two, as if on tracks that promise parallels, but don’t deliver. A baby was cloned in Israel, far enough from Miami that no one could see or touch her. She’s older now, but lines of communication grow less precise. Is teenage Eve aware of her provenance in a lab? Is clone a peculiar incest, made again of itself? 


Above the meters in a dingy garage, I spotted a pigeon on a bed of sticks, tucked beneath the ceiling. I couldn’t tell if it was alive, until I saw its eye flicker. Pigeon was making itself, again, patient on its perch. Nearby, an open door revealed a large room of lazy-boy rocking chairs, meditating on their emptiness. A cat cafe had chairs, but also movement; a woman smiled at me, two kittens on her lap. $15 for 50 minutes of love in the light of an Aiea strip mall. I’ve conflated Kaimuki and Aiea, as if one were the other’s clone. The mall is future rubble, when it will all appear the same. Death no longer levels us, but concrete might.

We hear the screams of a Palestinian teenager seated in a car beside an Israeli tank. We hear shots. Later, the frail voice of a five year old girl traces her final days inside the car, alone with her dead family. Eleven days. Her mother still stands outside the hospital. My word processor offers me “motherfucker,” but that’s the other guys. Not an alternate spelling, but an alternative affect, the mother’s tears, our passive rage behind our screens. The light through those screens puddles like blood.


Note: first sentence by Simone Weil.

Thursday, February 8, 2024

8 February 2024

May I be alive when I die. After taking photographs of discarded things, a friend thought I was doing a sequence on death. To do that would be to be alive when I’m alive, perceiving death as ground work: receipts for poke in the grass; cigarette tucked into a tree crevice; chip bag crumpled in chain link. It’s witness that brings death to life, or abstraction to the Eucalyptus. But that’s only half the equation. Who was the author of the bag, smoker of the butt, eater of the fish? They’ve signed their disappearances as material. Consumption invisible, the product is now worthless except to my eye. Eye and Eucalyptus would be another title, as E and Y rhyme inside the short and longer syllables. A dull photograph is perhaps more real than the saturated one. The word “putts” pops up as alternative to another in that sentence. Mechanical word play; now it reads “word-word,” as if word said twice meant something other than word said once. Who’s the maker there?

To be aware of death as one is dying is no different than an awareness of ordinary objects. It’s death that turns us from subject to object in a sentence. But you can’t get there without active verbs. My work as a teacher of writing should help me learn the grammar of life’s sequences. "From here on out" is a cliché that escapes the fate of other cliches; not dead but odd. Because she stayed up to watch the Grammy’s when her house started to burn, she thinks Taylor Swift saved her life. Miracles do happen between advertisements. Or, there’s a “barren terrain of feeling,” a parched surface on which we laugh and weep, unaware there’s a deep discount on affect. The affectation of old men erasing teenage girls. Their tears don’t change the world. “Their” is ambiguity, according to the Court.


There’s modern art in your nature photographs, a friend tells me. Kinda calls into question the difference between realism and abstraction, doesn’t it? If a tree makes abstract art, is it a painter? Or is a painter a tree when she does same? The photographer comes along at one remove, takes the photograph and is comfortable to be seer and maker both. Is there a place for volition where image meets thing, at whatever remove? The ascemic text of a burned out city confronts us with our inability to read it. 

Note: the first phrase is by DW Winnicott, quoted by Jacqueline Rose.

Sunday, February 4, 2024

4 February 2024

If unknowing lives on top of you, and forgetting below, then to forget is to fall into knowing, or what once was known. A Swedish artist makes miniature replicas of old Tokyo, adding on air-conditioning units and pipes, “weathering” them with paint, making the old old again from scratch. An old woman on a plane told me she survived the fire bombing of Tokyo; she remembered holding to her mother’s back as she ran. Labor not as productivity but as its antithesis, until the atom bomb dome gets lovingly refurbished to remain destroyed. The production of destruction boosts the economy, while a homeless man lays tape between his two shopping carts, “private property” scrawled across it. Behind the sling of tape, an odd tarp barely holds itself up over discarded cans and papers. He (if it is he) is nowhere to be seen; hence the tape. Nearby, a bearded man with a large growth on his left cheek reads an old paperback. Says it’s difficult. I recognize it only as a thriller. Goodreads installed on the sidewalk outside of Walgreen’s. He turns down a bag of toiletries. The woman at the acupuncturist's front desk had told me not to be afraid of them.

Gaza flattened is a miniature, constructed of the labor of bomb and airplane builders, the skill of pilots, the brilliance of computers. Perhaps our Swede can remake Gaza as it is now, concrete slabs broken on other concrete slabs, a boy crushed beneath the ruin. He added urinal and toilet paper to his Tokyo; those have been excised from Gaza, along with hospitals and schools. One is undertone of the other, the cloud of forgetting not yet vaporized, still knowing itself as suffering. The gardens outside Auschwitz are in the movies, if not the news. A film most effective for its sound, marking what cannot be seen (except ash). Artificial volcano, fueled not by earth but by bodies. I remember my horror when my mother, whose found Nazi spoon stayed in our cutlery drawer, explained to me that lampshades were made of human flesh. She described the liberation of Dachau, but in plain language. Plain language is to pray by; she needed a fugue more baroque and discordant. I still parse her words for the horror she felt (and she did) failing to feel their pulse.

What is your local anesthesia? One friend reads Jewish theology, another goes to the ocean. To see them is not to imagine their sound tracks, their sense of another’s suffering in the sound of machines. We’re told the bombing is a form of restraint. The explosions look good on television in the night.

Note: the opening is based on The Cloud of Unknowing. The movie is The Zone of