Monday, July 2, 2018

Ruins: in American Journal of Poetry

I have a long poem called
in Volume Five of

The poem can be found


For years I've been meaning to write an essay about ruins. I love ruins. Many of us love ruins. Why? Villages, towns and cities have huge tourist industries based on the love of ruins. And so, I wanted to explore my own relationship with ruins; write about what passes through my head, my heart, my guts, when I'm standing in the middle of a thousand-year-old castle or looking at a pile of boards that used to be a ranch, or staring at the remnants of a paleolithic burial site (inside a cave above the waves of a sea that used to be a forest).

Everything is a ruin in the making. Think of the stars: light that's alive, that pierces our eyes, arrives from many suns that are already dead (What the poet Erling Friis-Baastad calls Fossil Light - the title of his last book).

I thought of the essay as moving through the denial, grief, and acknowledgement process that happens within proximity to any death. And so, I divided it up into different ruins I've visited and the emotions/thoughts that rose up while there. 

But once I looked at my notes, I realized they were close to being a finished poem. For me, a poem can get to the heart of something, and still make the associated connections (maintain the complexity), in a way that a linear essay cannot. Thus, a poem was born out of the notes for an essay...a poem-essay.

Below are some notes about the poem, which aren't necessary to "understand" the poem. I wrote the notes because I'm always interested in the process of other artists…

The poem can be



1. The introduction is a description of an abandoned farmhouse in Iowa I came upon in the early nineties. There was a rose bush outside and I sang William Blake's poem, The Sick Rose, to the rose (from Poems of Innocence & Experience):

O Rose, thou art sick!
The invisible worm
That flies in the night,
In the howling storm,

Has found out thy bed 
of crimson joy,
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.

When dealing with ruins and death, Blake's poem seemed a perfect introduction. I've always interpreted it in terms of the worm that is always at everyone's ear, that's always whispering to us about death. This worm, the promise of eventual death, can be seen as a horror, something to be avoided, or it can be seen as intricately woven into life - that there is no true life (the feeling of being truly alive) without acknowledgement and acceptance of death.

2. Innocence about death: Playing in a World War One Trench, Belgium. When I was a kid (sixth grade) I was playing with some friends in a forest of spindly trees outside the town of Nimy. I suddenly realized - probably because I read books? - that we were playing in a former WWI battlefield. We were young enough to see the battlefield in terms of glory and mystery.

3. Romance about death: standing in the ruins of Tintern Abbey in Wales. The rich of previous centuries in the UK created a tourist industry based on the aesthetic appreciation - the haunting beauty - of ruins. Before the leisure class focused on these ruins, they were just piles of stones where poorer folks sometimes lived.

4. Fear of Death: the gravesite of a ten-year-old girl behind a crumbled wood house in Northeastern Colorado. I sometimes get a fear of death, of the passing of time itself, of transience, in some ruins. The moment when I feel the broken stones as my own bones. This is where you are going. This is where all things go…

5. Prophesy: wandering among the ruins of the pueblo village at Bandelier National Monument. What I found even more intriguing than the ruins (still a sacred site for nearby pueblos - the former domain of their ancestors) were some rock formations that seemed to be guardians of the place - so, a geological or cosmic view of human cycles.

6. Acknowledging Transience: this came about in the ruins of a concrete hotel built near the top of Mount Overlook, above the town of Woodstock in New York. I was thinking about the desire for wealth that kept spurring the building and re-building of this hotel. It was finally abandoned after three fires. The first Noble Truth of Buddhism is "Dukkha." Meaning, all life is suffering. A truer translation would be: all life is transient. It's easy to accept intellectually, but hard to swallow when we suffer as love dissolves, as loved ones die, as things change beyond our comprehension. In those ruins I felt the space between my own atoms mirror the space - the holes - in the concrete.

7. Acceptance of Death: this castle is on the Gower peninsula, near Swansea, Wales, where I lived for two years. The castle sits next to a golf course. Which makes the whole gravity of "time passing" and "transience" kind of a joke. Fore! Acceptance comes in that sense of humor, I think. This section is somewhat surreal, as it should be. Acceptance also leads to strange doors that suddenly appear - strange signs pointing the way.

 8. Coda: After writing the poem, I thought of the US in terms of a ruin. But a ruin similar to the light in the night sky. All poetry, all writing now, is writing in the maelstrom: children being held in cages on the US border, a prison system lining the pockets of various corporations, the militarization of the entire culture (and still so little news of the wars), water in the streets of towns on the Atlantic coast, saltwater invading the land, the supreme court disassembling the New Deal (destroying the rights of labor), along with upholding an unconstitutional ban on people from middle eastern countries (I'll say it again: a ban on people)…
And so, the attitude of this section I thought somewhat resembled the irascible and prescient poet, Robinson Jeffers, a poet of praise (for the natural world) and a poet of rage (against destruction of the earth and the militaristic designs of the nation). As the poet Gary Snyder once said of Jeffers (a very loose paraphrase): "He was right. But why did he have to say it as if he was the only one who knew?" Some of Jeffers' poetry can be found here.

Robinson Jeffers

Friday, May 4, 2018

Two New Poems in Serving House Journal

Two New Poems
are in

Both poems are from a new manuscript
influenced by Classical Chinese Poets
(Tu Fu, Li Po, Su T'ung Po, Wang Wei, Chia Tao…)

You can find the two poems

The poem "Dead of Night" was influenced by Tu Fu's 
"Night at the Tower."

In mid-December I was reading the poem and heard this massive low droning noise outside.

I opened the door and saw plane after plane, one following the other, all heading west, on some training maneuver.

The names in the poems - Chu-ko Liang and Pai-ti -
are figures in Chinese history (the first a state official, the second a warlord), referenced in relation to military adventures.

Night At The Tower

Yin and Yang cut brief autumn days short. Frost and snow
Clear, leaving a cold night open at the edge of heaven.

Marking the fifth watch, grieving drums and horns erupt as
A river of stars, shadows trembling, drifts in Three Gorges.

Pastoral weeping–war heard in how many homes? And tribal
Songs drifting from the last woodcutters and fishermen…

Chu-ko Liang, Pai-ti: all brown earth in the end. And it
Opens, the story of our lives opens away…vacant, silent.

                                         (translated by David Hinton)

Issue 18 of Serving House Journal
 includes poems, fiction, memoir and art
Beate Sigriddaughter, Jim Zola, Mel Takahara,
Alexis Rhone Fancher, Simon Perchik, Mary Makofske,
and Vivian Shipley, among many others…

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Dragon in the Rock: Animism

Everything is in Motion

There is a trail near where I live - just down the road - that I walk at least two or three times a week. It winds its way up into the foothills among juniper and pinyon. Here and there, poking out of the trees, I can see the adobe walls of the houses of the very, very rich. "Those who live on the hill."

Bobcat Tracks
Along the trail are stones, broken by wind, occasional rain, sliding down the mountainside, on their slow pilgrimage back to their source. Dust in the dry washes. Deer prints, coyote prints. Every so often, bobcat prints. And, right now, mountain blue birds darting in and out of the pinyon, on their migration north.

Everything is in motion - the birds, quickly; the stones, slowly.

I am fascinated by, and have a deep heart-felt attraction, to stones. Their texture, their color. The lizards that will soon appear out from under the rocks, crawling out from the dark tunnels that connect this world to the underworld, sometimes understand - in brief flashes - the language of the stones. It is far older than the lizard's tongue. The blue-collared lizard speaks in a language that can only be interpreted as various shades of blue. But the stone-language is older than the color blue…

Animism: Everything is Alive

Horned Lizard
I could be labeled an "animist." Animism (from the Latin anima, "breath, spirit, life") is the understanding that objects, places, and all creatures are alive. I feel sentience and spirit in everything. For me, it is not a "belief" that everything is alive, it is more of a lived experience. Granted, what I mean here by "alive" is a bit vague. While a stone is not alive in the same way that a human is alive, is not sentient in the same way as a bobcat or horned lizard is sentient, it shares in the shimmering, pulsating, transient motion that is life on earth, life in the universe.

Maybe what I'm talking about when I say sentience or spirit others would call "energy." Maybe I am feeling the energy of a thing. Look up into the sky. How is it not possible, in moments of stillness - accidental or purposeful - to feel that the stars, the moon, the planets, and the sun are also alive? There is a language going on between all things - an exchange of atoms - that is heard deep, deep in the body, on the cellular level. When I look up into the night sky, there is communication going on between my cells and the blue light of Sirius, the red of Mars…and the weed stalks rattling near my feet.

The Dragon in the Rock

There is a place on the trail where two sandstone boulders have been sitting on a ridge for god knows how long. One of them resembles a dragon. Dragons, in both eastern and western traditions, are energy incarnate. I have spent a lot of time sitting next to that dragon rock. At the foot of the rock, there is a great view of the Jemez range.

Lately, I've noticed that the tips of the pinyon branches all along the trail are turning rust-brown. This is probably from lack of water. Or black scale. We are in a drought. It is the result of climate change. The terrain is beginning to change because of the lack of rain, snow; rising temperatures. We barely have a winter anymore. It is heart-breaking to see the hillsides tinged with brown in early spring.

At the same time, from where I sit at the foot of the dragon, I see the looming triangle of the foothill Picacho to the south and the Jemez range to the west. It's always a stunner. And, as I sit here, one thought keeps coming back: at what point, ten thousand years ago or more, did human beings decide that they needed more than this? The need to accumulate, hoard; to make surplus for themselves and so deprivation for others; to destroy in order to stockpile. To claim one can step outside the web of energy, the interconnection between all things, reign over it, and create a world of "houses on the hill." What wounds in their hearts?

Jemez Range
The world has been wrecked. Things are going to get so much worse before they get better. And probably not in our lifetimes. But there are moments - sometimes brief, sometimes long - where I am stunned, possessed by a feeling of wellness, of being part of the living, breathing, beautiful and terrible web all around me, always in motion…and joy spirals through me.

However brief these moments are, they get me through. I wish you those moments, too.

Song of the Lover of the Dragon in the Rock:
A Praise-Chant

Shadow in the cupola at the top of the long horse-snout
where the left eye watches me; curious, fierce.

Every rock has a name the dead must learn to sing

Green crustose lichen tattooed across his side, where
feathers, flaps, and flags of desire once clung, now solidified.

Every rock was once a flame

Circle of orange-yellow lichen, mid-forehead. Third eye
follows the progress of four ravens in the valley below.

Every rock is a mouth keeping the silence before the name

Black wings, black bodies merge, separate. A continually changing
black hieroglyph: grass-sorrow, pinyon-laughter, heart-lightning…

Every rock is continually unravelling back to the place it was made

Wind through juniper, he rides flying snow-dust, escapes
this geo-spell for a few seconds, body equal to the sun.

The dead sing the names, but they don't know yours,
they don't know yours, will never know yours

(previously published in The Bitter Oleander)

Badlands, New Mexico

Sunday, December 31, 2017

New Year's Eve 2017: Eldorado, New Mexico

This morning Michaela and I were in Eldorado, a small town just south of Santa Fe. Although only a twenty-minute drive from where we live, Eldorado seems to always have a slightly different weather pattern. When its dry here, it's snowing there. When it's light here, it's dark there. Strange winds blow through Eldorado, winds we jokingly (and sometimes not so jokingly) call: "Bruja/Brujo winds." Witch wind…

 But that's not what I want to talk about…

From anywhere in town you get a shot of the Cerrillos Hills to the west. They look dusty and cragged, probably because black and gray shale is widely exposed across the hills. 

Standing in an empty parking lot this morning, studying them, I thought, because of how ancient they are - the sense that they have been keeping watch for so, so long

- how they could be related to something I sometimes feel inside my body when I am going through intense emotions (terror, joy, grief…from the death of a loved one, a life-threatening situation, love lost…) 

an eye that watches it all, extremely curious, thinking "oh, this is interesting…" 

I suppose I could put this down to detachment or dissociation from the emotion, but that doesn't really do the sensation justice - because while this "watching" is happening, I am still feeling the emotion burning through all my cells…

And so, the new year's eve poem:

Eldorado, New Mexico,
New Year's Eve Morning

Leaves scrape across an empty parking lot.

Purple, brown shades in the nearby brush. Faint tints of red.

A rabbit waits beneath the brush, imitating the dead.

Across the flats, silhouette of the Cerrillos hills, cragged
                      and dark with shale, ancestors
   of that part of us that keeps endless vigil; a curious eye,
                                                 through fire, grief, fear, loss…

The dead leaves move towards me.

Wind rustles the rabbit's fur, my hair.

Winter's colors deepen.


Happy New Year!