Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Late October, Part II: Grief & Praise

Continuation from Part I, found here.

Uncle Jack & Aunt Marita

Clay Etruscan Head
Out of all those journals in those mice-filled boxes, I ended up keeping only two. One of them included a description of a late-night conversation with my Aunt Marita and Uncle Jack - about the ancient Greeks, about a sailor, about Jack's childhood, about the Etruscan language…

In the months after my divorce in the mid-nineties, I spent a lot of time at my Aunt Marita and Uncle Jack's place, showing up unannounced in the evening. They were night-owls and fellow artists and were very accommodating and we'd talk late into the night about everything. Uncle Jack was known for pursuing threads of thought that could extend sometimes for hours. I was usually fascinated. One night, when I got home from one of those late-night conversations, I sat down and tried to piece together what he had said - and there it was in a long, lost journal:

"We started to talk about the Greeks after I mentioned that I'd always focused on The Odyssey and had never read The Iliad…which I suspected said something about me…and Jack talked about Xenophon and the march of the ten thousand soldiers, which led to talk of Schliemann and his discovery of Troy, which led to him remembering a Greek sailor that some Greek Des Moines family had sponsored, who had worked with Jack at Sherwin Williams, was blonde, blue-eyed - unlike most Greeks Jack had met - which led to speculation about how we all come from a long strange history, more interesting than the stereotypes, which led to talk about how the Italians were descendants of "barbarian" tribes that had invaded Rome, which led to Jack telling me how the Romans of Roman Empire fame weren't really the original people there either, which led to him talking about the Etruscans and an Italian man he and his father knew back in the 30's.

"Jack's father would talk with the old Italian sometimes, parking down by the railyard where the old Italian spent the day sweeping the switch tracks of gravel (his job?), and they'd talk politics - both were Democrats, of course - and when Jack's father would talk about some Republican president or governor, the old Italian would nod and say lamia. Jack asked his father what it meant, and his father just shook his head, saying 'I don't know…it's just what he says.'

"But it always puzzled Jack, so when a Sicilian moved in next door Jack asked what lamia meant and the Sicilian said, 'How should I know? There is not a universal Italian. What I speak in this village is different from the village on the other side of the mountain. We've been invaded by so many people - French, Germans, Russians, you name it - that everyone speaks something different in different parts of the country.' But what does it mean to you, Jack asked. 'A woman's breast, to some…or maybe a witch…someone fed on witch's milk, I think.' A magical person? 'No.' A bad person? 'Could be.'

"And then Jack brought out this 19th Century book about the Armenian origins of the Etruscan language. The author found evidence that the Etruscan's originated from Armenia. Jack opened the book, pointed down at a word: lamia. He said lamia was an ancient Etruscan word. It meant 'evil spirit.'"
After reading that journal entry, I was suddenly back in their small living room, Uncle Jack's paintings on the wall (a circus tent…a strange Dali-like limb on an empty plain…), a dim lamp casting shadows across the record shelf that contained a copy of Le Mystere des Voix Bulgares Jack once played for me - a lamenting women's choir, diachronic, dissonant - half-western, half-eastern - waiting for my reaction…

"It sounds like sorrow," I said, perplexed. "Or joy. I can't tell which."

And just around the corner was Aunt Marita's office, a converted porch, where I would go to talk when I was young and passing through town, lost, not knowing how lost I was, babbling on about choices (young enough to believe I had more control over my life than I actually did). Once, she'd looked out the window - at the bare box-elder trees, the snow beyond - and said:  "We didn't have as many choices as you have now…I think that might have been a good thing."

Ceremonies: Grief & Praise

So there I was, standing in a garage in New York state, more than a thousand miles from home, brought back to my aunt and uncle's house in the Midwest, thousands of miles away. Both of them were gone, the house sold off. Grief moved through me.

The thing about grief is that it is a form of praise (I got that from reading Martín Prechtel). It is a form of praise because there is something missed. It's about love. To grieve deeply, you have to have loved the thing that you lost. So, to grieve the loss of someone is to acknowledge that they were praiseworthy. Just like life and death, grief and praise cannot be separated from each other.

I realized then that I needed a ceremony. To acknowledge what had been lost. And so to praise it. To acknowledge all the death was a way to move more deeply into the rest of my life. To feel it. And, for that time and place, for that particular moment, it was my antidote against the Trump hate-speech that encouraged numbness, that encouraged not feeling anything at all - except maybe rage. The world of Trump and his followers is the world of death without life (which isn't really about death at all - it's about nothingness, being un-dead). It is the world of numb-silence in the face of loss. But whatever ceremony I came up with, I needed to perform it back at home - in Santa Fe. 
The Journey back from the Underworld

 In the end, what was left? What did I keep? The sketch of a clothesline between two trees in a French campground; a postcard from Tintern Abbey never sent to Marita and Jack; a swatch of linen cradling the grey hairs of a long-dead cat; several boxes of paperbacks; two journals, some files, a box of photos, and a poem in pencil on a torn envelope:

Woman in a blue car
holds a white flower
to her pink face.

She breathes the flower,
eyes closed,
waiting to make her turn.

Leaves open their arms
and fly wild onto the wind.

Nothing can stop the world.

It was time to head home. After the Mississippi River, there was the relief of an open sky. Arkansas shacks and signs telling us what will happen when we die: "You WILL meet God." A threat? From God? Each night on the journey back I'd look into the hotel room mirror and see all the others - all my past selves, the ones who had written in all those journals - standing with me. Those who had found their voice, those who had not (and now never would), those who had loved, those who had not, all studying me with curiosity, waiting, patient, for this "I" to join them. Leaves flew across Oklahoma. Dust sailed the flats outside Amarillo. On the border of Texas and New Mexico, there were fields of wind turbines seen through a dawn haze…and the giant white crosses, always the giant white crosses…

 We arrived home on All Soul's, when the barrier between worlds is thin. That night, out under the stars (the entire sky above again!), I listened to the black sunflower skeletons rattle together in the wind. I could hear the dead parting the stalks, saying: Who are you? Who was I? I built a small frame from fallen apple twigs to use as a scrying window and looked through it - to see the shades move, dark against dark, their eyes black as sunflower seeds, blinking, newborn.

Then I whispered the names of the dead over a crack in a stone - dead poets, old loves, lost pets, Aunt Marita, Uncle Jack, even all my previous incarnations and their words (so many words - now long gone). I prayed for silence, and, at the same time, hoped that something or someone would whisper back…

Have a beautiful Day of the Dead.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Late October, Part I: I is Another

Two years ago, Michaela and I went on a strange journey across the country, from Santa Fe, New Mexico to the Hudson Valley in New York to recover thirteen cardboard boxes and nine plastic bins that we'd had in and out of storage for almost ten years. The boxes were mostly full of books, papers, and our journals. The journals ranged back almost thirty years. 

As anyone alive at the time remembers, this was the month before Trump was elected. Craziness, confusion. The horror had not become the new normal yet. In Oklahoma and Texas and Arkansas and in rural Pennsylvania and New York we saw billboard after billboard about "Crooked Hillary." And, as always, there were so many white crosses alongside the highway. But they'd become huge. Giant white crosses, the size of two, three story buildings. I remember thinking "There is a factory somewhere that makes crosses this size?" Am I saying the two things are related? They were related in my mind. The massive crosses symbolized for me a kind of zealotry, an "us versus them" theology. At this time, because of Trump's "Mexican rapists" rhetoric, there was a new wave of hate crimes. I remember posting a photo of a Black church that had been set on fire in Mississippi, spray-painted with "Vote Trump." All sanctioned by Trump-speak. Before we started the drive, we thought it'd be a close race, but he wouldn't be elected. But after seeing all those billboard signs…something was happening…

Into the Underworld

We spent a week in my sister and brother-in-law's garage, surrounded by our past, trying to figure out what to take, what to leave. We had only room for a few boxes in the car. The rest of the stuff we were going to pare down, then box up, and mail to ourselves. Though we couldn't mail much - we didn't have the funds.

A lot of decisions were made for us simply because mice had
gotten into many of the boxes and pissed and shit on quite a lot of the books, along with some of the journals, photos, and files. There were also strange insects that had lived ten thousand generations in the plastic bins and had been feeding off the glue in all the hardback books. What comes immediately to mind that was lost? Sophocles' Theban Cycle, translated by Robert Fagles; most of the hardbacks we had of Ursula LeGuin; a sixties edition of The Master & Margarita; The Collected Poems of Lew Welch; an early copy of William Carlos Williams' Kore in Hell; Disobedience by Alice Notley; Rimbaud's A Season in Hell   

Outside the garage was a hemlock and oak forest. The leaves on the oaks were orange, beginning to sail. The contrast between the brittle and piss stained carnage inside the boxes and the beauty of the falling leaves was extravagant. What to throw out, what to keep? The journals and books and photos were from various times in our lives. All the different people we'd ever been were whispering to us. And we had to decide - who will live, who will die?

Here, a copy of Dylan Thomas' Collected Poems I stole from Borders, full of rage at the backlash for starting a union. And here, letters from a poet who quit poetry, embraced a childhood god and burned his journals and manuscripts. Here, yellowing magazines: my first poems beside the poems of those long dead, forgotten. Names gone into the earth, returning someday as a leaf, a stone, a crow. And here, my hands, tossing letters, photos, notebooks, into the trash, executors of my own tiny estate - as if I'd already become a leaf stem, a crow's black beak.

During that week, the Trump and Republican hate-speech continued. Blaming everyone who was perceived as "other" as a scapegoat for all problems. But this time, violence was sanctioned. Trump told his followers that if they brutalized protesters, he'd pay for the legal costs. He gave a wink and a nod to possibly assassinating his opponent. All in good fun? A line had been crossed. A public - and popular - figure had started intimating that violence was okay as a solution…

I is Another

What I found in the journals were descriptions, endless descriptions. Desperate attempts to get it right, to get down an event, a scene, a face, an encounter, exactly as I'd experienced it. I think I believed that if I could "get it right" I'd be able to see into the nature of the thing - into the place where I and the thing described existed together. And as I read, I remembered the wonder that arose when I thought I'd come close - becoming aware of the stunning complexity of each moment, the beauty in that complexity. In a sense, all those descriptions were my first meditative practice.

At one point, I found a description of the whorl of flame that came at me when I'd gone up onto the porch as my family's house was burning down. I reached inside the front door to get the car keys, wanting to get at least one car out of the driveway before the front wall fell. A vortex of flame came roaring up the stairs from the den, turned towards me. I froze, stared into it's open mouth. The roar it made burned everything from me. I was pure silence, pure stillness, in the middle of an all engulfing holy noise. Just as the flame-mouth was about to reach me, envelop me, it turned up the stairs, following an air current to the second floor. At that moment, I came back to my senses, grabbed the keys (hot!), turned, and leapt out into the night.

I've tried to write about that moment for thirty years. I stared at one of my first attempts. Words twenty-five years gone, faded on the page. Who wrote this? After that there was a description of the moment I stood in the crowd that had gathered to watch the house burn, barefoot, in a t-shirt, on a cold New Year's Eve, and bummed a cigarette from some fellow gawker, watching as the flames reached around the full moon above the house. It was one of the most beautiful things I'd ever seen.

I flipped through another journal - a description of thunder in a blizzard. Another journal - a description of a man calling out his girlfriend's name, over and over, waving a gun on his girlfriend's front porch. I flipped through some pages of that same journal - the description of the music of two police cars idling side by side in an abandoned factory lot. Another journal - the description of a grey cat on a couch next to a dumpster, eyes on a plastic bag, drifting in the wind… "Hey, that's a description of Issa, my old cat!" We were together, that cat and I, for thirteen years. She's now long gone.

The leaves flew, landed. A couple of mice skittered out of an overturned box, into the forest. They probably didn't last the night. A light rain began. Book lice crawled in an out of Bitter Fruit (the story of the American engineered right-wing coup in Guatemala in 1953). I went out into the twilight rain, looked up. Darkness. The trees are so close together in New York, I can never see the open sky. Sometimes, there's a comfort in it. But there's also quite a bit of claustrophobia.

When I threw out the mice-destroyed Season in Hell, I remembered Rimbaud's words from a letter he wrote to one of his teachers: I is another. Old books, old papers, old trees, all closing in. And old words from someone else called "I." I is another.

Crossing Lethe

During that week, my nose in my past, I kept looking up from that mess of papers, and seeing Fergus the cat. He had died a couple years before. Fergus was an orange cat - the same color as the leaves - my sister and brother-in-law found on the streets of Philadelphia. He was the watch-cat of the place. He seemed to always know what was going on. Sometimes I'd follow him down the long driveway or along a forest path. At some point, he'd stop, sit, and stare into the distance. I'd sit beside him and stare in the same direction. When I was living in New York, it was a time of terrible anxiety and confusion - and Fergus had been a force of tremendous calm in my life. I knew that he was watching us pack those boxes. All that week, I was surrounded by so many ghosts riding the leaves through the thin seam between worlds, down to the creek outside, turning in slow circles. Their eyes mirrored and made the turning sky. What did they want me to keep? What did they want me to let go?

About halfway through the week I started getting into throwing things out. This goes, and this, and this, and this… There was a liberating urge, a reckless urge, to let it all go. We squatted among piles for giveaways, piles of things to toss - old drawings, mandalas drawn to reflect the mind back to itself, lyrics to songs, cryptic notes for a poem never finished, old tax forms - all soon to sink into a sea of junk, seep into the soil, wrap around a pebble, a worm, for warmth (like all the lost children inside us), or continue falling all the way through the earth, to rise, weightless, a shade, swinging around the moon.

I kept telling Michaela: "Oh you should keep that." And she kept saying the same thing to me. It was a kindness we didn't reserve for own stuff. We were in that house of letting-go together. But we had to make our own decisions. We were in that house of letting-go alone.

And the world of Trump, and the media that loved his particular brand of carnival crazy (The ratings! The ratings!), dismissing it at the same time as "sound and fury signifying nothing," and the people that loved the little dictator's tough business and law-and-order rhetoric, became a juggernaut, an open clown mouth that could not be silenced. A terrible roar. There was something that felt death oriented about it all. A desperate death drive, for "an end" of some kind, no matter what kind of end it would turn out to be. The drive of an empire that was in the late stages of collapse. I thought of 1934 in Germany - the cheers and smiles. The Nazis will save us! The Jews are the problem! Eleven years later, everything was rubble, millions murdered.

Paradoxically, I feel that the death drive comes, in part, from a denial of death. For me, death is an intricate part of life, inseparable from life. But in American culture, there is a stunning denial of death, a refusal to acknowledge that we grow old and eventually die. We live in a perpetual youth culture. The denial of death creates the death drive. But this instinct has nothing to do with true death, the cycle of birth and death…the kind of death where grief and praise arise simultaneously. Only by acknowledging and letting ourselves experience death are we able to be truly alive, truly feel life...

Tomorrow, Grief & Praise 

Friday, October 19, 2018

Blue Sky Language: Seven Prose Poems in AZURE

Seven prose poems
from the manuscript
How the World was Made
have appeared as a series called
"Blue Sky Language":
A Journal of Literary Thought

AZURE is, 
as they state on their site,
the "home of otherworld realism."

It is edited by 

Here is their definition of otherworld realism:

otherworld realism
[uhth -er-wurld] [ree-uh-liz-uh m] noun

1. A style of literature devoted to intellectual and imaginative pursuits that point towards a potential, evolved reality.

2. Art and literature that evokes the space before clarity in which one must navigate the logic of intuition and instinct, alongside the duplicity of fact.

3. A genre illuminating a psychic space of process; a space of ambiguity, silence, and internal struggle.

4. The pre-dawn.

Word Origin
2017; coined by Lazuli Literary Group; first appearing in AZURE: A Journal of Literary Thought, Volume One. ​

The art work of Evgenia Barsheva 
accompanies the work of each author.

Check it out.

You can find the prose poems

Art by Evgenia Barsheva, for the Blue Sky Language series

Here's the opening of the first poem:


There is guilt. I found the drying body of a blue-collared lizard in a cleft of sandstone. I was not the one who killed it. It was already dead when I found it. I stood vigil with the lizard under the sun - lone standing mesas scattered across sage flats, long shadows across sand. The ghost of the lizard followed me home. I am not saying this from inside a dream.

There is joy. Sometimes, the lizard's ghost speaks into my left ear in a language that can only be described as various shades of blue. It is a language of unbearable beauty, of the blue sky itself …

Monday, October 1, 2018

Deafening Music by Paul B. Roth

This is another installment of Poetry? I just don’t get it. A series where I post a poem or group of poems by one author, followed by anything the author wants to say about the work.

Today’s poem is "Deafening Music" by poet and publisher, Paul B. Roth.

Paul has been published widely in the United States and his work has been translated and appeared in journals from Japan, Peru, Israel, Bolivia, Ecuador, India, China, Mexico, Romania, Estonia and the UK.

He is the author of eight collections of poetry of which his four most current are Cadenzas by Needlelight (Cypress Books, 2009), Words the Interrupted Speak (March Street Press, 2011), Long Way Back to the End (Rain Mountain Press, 2014), and Owasco: Passage of Lake Poems (Finishing Line Press, 2018). He lives in Fayetteville, New York, where he’s served as editor and publisher of The Bitter Oleander Press since 1974.

What I like about the poem, and what I like about the poetry I find in The Bitter Oleander, the magazine Paul edits, is that there are numerous imaginative leaps throughout. The poem starts in one place and ends in another, moving in a spiral, like a vortex, a tornado, bringing more and more parts of the world into its field of gravity. And then there's the line "a salamander's slithering exit suctioned through a vertical flute's mouth-high octave…" Say it out loud. See which part of your brain lights up.

I first read this poem in Skidrow Penthouse .


Deafening Music

            Beethoven knew external music eluded him whenever meteor showers or burn victims from a nearby barn fire screamed at him from all directions without making a sound. A jellied hand, a cloven toe, a bandaged shoulder blade, or lightning's crack at the back of every headache should have been enough to make anyone curious, but he could not, beyond his own heartbeat, hear what was happening to him. He'd already given up listening for a katydid's tympanic legs scratching underneath August's dry leaves, a salamander's slithering exit suctioned through a vertical flute's mouth-high octaves, even a stone's subtle tumble after heavy flooding from torrential rains kept flipping and sliding it further and further downstream in a viola's dream. Those handclapped blackbirds bursting their sudden flight off his raised eyebrows finally got his attention. Not to mention pieces of his body crawling away in the night where he thought he heard their goodbyes without feeling any difference. Dreams separating from their colors with only the silhouettes of their effective sub-plots to guide him. Thoughts no longer tethered to a planet believing itself special because of its human habitation. Everything more sacred than him and him knowing it. More sacred than those who believe they do no wrong at the expense of every other living organism on the planet. Religions precluding them by forcing them to don ritualistic costumes that no moon, ring or methane crystal this side or that of the universe would ever recognize except as those messy bits of carbon smeared when swept up after all they've become.


On the Poem
“Deafening Music”

As with any of my poems, there’s no reason for this one to have been written. I may have been listening to one of Beethoven’s Razumovsky quartets at the time or maybe I wasn’t.  It really doesn’t matter since nothing I write, when I write, is ever planned. If it were, wouldn’t I only be repeating myself to myself; a scribe of my own words, of what I already know, rather than a poet seeking the gratification of the unknown through all of its possible and even improbable presentations? Isn’t that how one lets the poem lead him or her into the future without having to copy the past or what others have already written? It seems now that the only preconceived and formulated notion in this poem was his well-documented and unfortunate deafness. It couldn’t help but become the necessary background against which everything about to be written would hold the poem in place. Everything has a background, even absence and in this case, there happens to be the absence of hearing. Yet rather than try to write about the well-documented difficulties of the master composer’s deafness, it must have seemed better for me, at the time, to imagine all that he missed by coupling instruments with the natural world he loved and in which he found such great inspiration. Still, there had to have been low points I felt obliged to mention regarding his self-importance as a human being. Not to mention how religion, in those turbulent times, might have culled together his most painful and suspicious doubts. How even at his lowest moments, he might have felt that, after all he’d accomplished, after all he’d transformed, he might still be one of “those messy bits of carbon smeared when swept up after all they’ve become.”  And since it might have been nice to tell him otherwise, maybe in some way, through this paragraph poem, I was doing so.

Paul B. Roth 
Woodside Way

Links to Poems & Interviews