Friday, May 28, 2010

Anatomy Of A Poem

Mysterioso One

          with rusty brown spots as the oldest
                    IMMORTAL PRINCESS
          or the Bodhisattva Kwannon as a simpering
                    and infinitely generous
                             OLD WHORE

          How surprised we are at what passes
                    in past and future
              for the scent of apples.

          know more about the skin and muscles
       and the wall of stars two billion light-years long



       from Mysteriosos And Other Poems, by Michael McClure.

The above poem, which I have crudely reproduced here (the Google Blogger does not allow center justification and line indentations involve a complex, coded process), looks like a plant. It has a stem, or spine, from which the lines branch out, radiating toward the margins on either side, thwarting linearity and encouraging a view of the text as a form of three-dimensional sculpture. It appears to be holding its ideas and images and sounds in suspension. Its verticality exalts thought. The eyes travel up and down a verbal form inviting rumination in the embrace of a candelabrum. But something else is going on. There is a tension hidden among its lines. Its structure worries a vivid paradox. Words flare outward, like yardarms on a clipper, but are also drawn inward, like particles of iron magnetized into a needle. Two conflicting energies excite the height and punch of the poem.

This structure has been a hallmark of McClure’s for many years. It reminds me of Apollinaire’s Calligrams, or George Herbert’s “The Altar,” which were early examples of concrete poetry, though McClure does not create pictures so much as chisel his way into space, creating oak out of nothingness, plumping energy into palpable chunks. He is inviting us to read the text differently, as a Möbius loop of sound; as a gardenia.

The first two lines, “LOVELY. LOVELY AND ANCIENT AND FOXED/ with rusty brown spots as the oldest,” refer to a form of spotting, or browning, on old paper documents, postage stamps, birth certificates, death certificates, and legal transactions. Pages of an old book, especially. Here in Seattle, it’s impossible to escape the encroachment of humidity and damp. You have to be pretty vigilant, run a dehumidifier, keep the windows open on balmy days, in order to prevent “foxing,” as it is called, in your manuscripts and prize books. The image McClure is presenting us with is paper, old paper, but the next line, “IMMORTAL PRINCESS,” which switches paper to skin, the skin of an old woman, frail and parchment-like: one sees moles, warts, veins. Time written into the scripture of her wrinkly surface. I imagine a venerable old woman in a twinkling tiara, a mischievous sparkle still iridescing in her eyes, something fey and girlish about her despite her age and royalty. She is not a queen. Heavy responsibilities go with being a queen. This being is different. She is unmarried, still waiting for a final ascendancy to the throne of whatever realm she inhabits, a potential for consummation that has long passed by. McClure is presenting us with a strange combination of youth and age. Or, possibly, an old piece of paper with nothing yet written on it.

Or possibly an aged manuscript in the British Museum. A letter from Keats. The beginning to Tennyson’s “In Memorium A.H.H.” The frontispiece to a first edition Leaves of Grass.

Something that feels light and crinkly in the hands. Something complexioned and sensual and prickly with writing.

The next three lines change things radically: “or the Bodhisattva Kwannon as a simpering/ and infinitely generous/ OLD WHORE.”

Things are quick and alive as the alleys of Montmartre with these lines. The woman is seasoned and wise but also self-destructive, promiscuous and daring. She is a wily denizen of vile places. She has seen it all. Beatitude and sin. Everything repellent and stinking and rotten with depravity, but also robustness and Rabelaisian energy, singing that goes long into the night shaking the stars into delirium and Fauve painting, bedsprings squeaking among old wood-burning stoves and African masks.

Kwannon is the Japanese counterpart of the Chinese Kuan Yin, or Guanyin. She is also known as Gwan-eum in Korean and Quan Âm in Vietnamese. She is recognized as the bodhisattva of compassion. Bodhisattva translates roughly as “wisdom-being.” It comes from the Sanskrit: bodhi, meaning “perfect knowledge,” or enlightenment, and sattva, meaning a variety of things: goodness, essence, being, existence, spirit. All these things combined. It refers to someone who has chosen to attain enlightenment with a goal toward helping others. Its application to other suffixes varies its meaning accordingly: sattvadhika means spirited, courageous, or valiant.

According to the Buddhist legend from the Complete Tale of Guanyin and the Southern Seas, Guanyin vows never to rest until she frees all sentient beings from samsara, or reincarnation. After struggling to comprehend the needs of so many, her head split into eleven pieces. Amitabha Buddha (principal Buddha of the Pure Land sect; Amitabha is translatable as “infinite light”), seeing her plight, gave her eleven heads with which to hear the cries of the suffering. When her arms shattered into pieces, Amitabha gave her a thousand arms with which to aid the many in suffering.

But why not an old whore? A venerable, and venerated, sex worker. An infinitely generous sex worker. I leave it to you to imagine how that generosity might manifest. Remember: a thousand arms, and eleven heads.

There is an abrupt shift of thought in the next line: “How surprised we are at what passes/ in past and future/ for the scent of apples.”

Two things come to mind: Frederick Schiller, and Monsanto.

Frederick Schiller kept rotten apples in his desk drawer to sniff while writing. The odor inspired him.

Genetically modified food - fruit, vegetables, wheat, etc. - poses both promise and threat. Selective breeding, or artificial selection, has been in practice for thousands of years. The poodle, the dachshund, and the Guernsey cow are products of selective breeding. Plant breeding is as old as human civilization. Rice, barley, wheat and oats are all products of plant breeding. Classical plant breeding crosses related individuals to produce varieties with desirable properties: increased quality and yield, increased tolerance to such factors as salinity and temperature, resistance to viruses, fungi, and bacteria, and increased tolerance to bugs and other pests. Classical plant breeding relies on homologous recombination between chromosomes to generate genetic diversity.

Genetic diversity is crucial. Diversity in all its guises is crucial. Sameness and standardization run contrary to life.

Modern plant breeding uses techniques of molecular biology to genetically modify desirable traits. The danger here is multiple: corporations that own a patent over a genome have commercial control over the product; the danger inherent in that is obvious. Extortion would not be strong a word.

Another problem with so-called Frankenfood is lack of nutrition: by favoring certain aspects of a plant’s development, other qualities may be compromised. Corn, soybeans, and cotton are, at this point, the crops most subject to genetic modification. It’s a highly debatable issue. Insecticide use has decreased with the adoption of insect-resistant crops. But is the disappearance of bees and colony collapse disorder related to this? As McClure notes, what will pass for the scent of apples in the future?

The next line, which runs vertically down the page, “I MUST,” serves as part of the stem of this poem. The word ‘must,’ as a noun rather than a verb, echoes the earlier line about the scent of apples. There is strength in the phrase “I must,” which the majuscules emphasize. Must is a strong verb. It pushes. It marshals. It declares itself to be an imperative.

Must what?

Must “know more about the skin and muscles/ and the wall of stars two billion light-years long.” It’s interesting how McClure conflates skin and muscle with the stars, with the cosmos, with the generative energies of the universe. This is a salient quality of McClure’s aesthetic; to conflate disparate qualities, disparate energies, disparate magnitudes. It is in high contrasts such as this that we discover power in hybridization, expansion in the poetry of differentials. A root may be exponentiated by water and dirt into a flourish of branches and leaves. A consonant may be hissed into cypress by a magician of vowels. Multiplicity stems from reaching.

“IT IS all QUICK!!!” completes the stem of the poem, roots it in exclamation points. How quick, as Johnny Carson would say, is it?

Pretty quick: 186,000 miles per second.

According to the theory of relativity, space and time are connected. They are one and the same, a single continuum. Space is three-dimensional, time is four-dimensional. By combining space and time into a single manifold, or mathematical space (a line and a circle are one-dimensional manifolds), physicists have consolidated a number of theories in a manner that allows a clearer description of the workings of the universe. In classical mechanics, time is treated as a constant. In relativistic contexts, time bends. Time depends on the motion of an observer.

A poem is quick not only because it blends space and time (time in the poem being a measure of cadence, and pause), but because it dyes the eyes with the fire of inspiration.

As writers, we are discouraged from using exclamation points. McClure has gone contrary to this edict, big time. Not one, but three exclamation points leap up at us at the end of the poem. The first effect of this is that it doesn’t feel like an end. It feels more like a beginning. Secondly, the verticality of the exclamation points mirror the verticality of the poem.

The exclamation point was introduced into English printing in the 15th century and was called the “sign of admiration or exclamation,” or the “note of admiration.” One theory of its origin is that it was originally the Latin word for joy, Io, written with the ‘I’ written above the ‘o.’

I see it as a seed, the little dot being the seed, and the vertical mark above it being the stem.

What steam does not stem from a stalk of talk?

The lips move and a grace of air and thunder is gurgled in the clouds.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

A Brilliant Obsession

Neo-Surrealism Or The Sun At Night: Transformations Of Surrealism In American Poetry 1966-1999, prose by Andrew Joron.
Kolourmeim Press, 2010

Has surrealism vanished? So asked Maurice Blanchot in 1949, in his essay “Reflections On Surrealism.” “It is no longer here or there: it is everywhere,” he remarked further. “It is a ghost, a brilliant obsession. In its turn, as an earned metamorphosis, it has become surreal.”

The brilliant obsession that is surrealism burned brightly in the mid to late sixties, both in Europe, and the United States. It was there in the lyrics of Bob Dylan’s trilogy of albums, Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde On Blonde, not to mention the Beatle's Rubber Soul, Revolver, and Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, marking its entry into pop culture, and it was there in the poetry of Allen Ginsberg, Michael McClure, Diane di Prima, Jack Spicer and Jack Kerouac. And it was most assuredly there in the work of its greatest practitioner on the North American continent, Philip Lamantia.

It was there in the riots, the revolutionary fervor and anti-war movements, the psychedelic music of groups such as The Doors, Jefferson Airplane, the Beatles, and Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band, and most certainly evident in the utopian attitude toward experiments with hallucinogenic drugs. The conviction that society could made better, more compassionate, more balanced and enlightened through the use of hallucinogenic substances, was very real, and very sincere. Then, by 968, it had begun to unravel. The sixties ended for me on a fall afternoon in 1968 when the friend of one of my roommates in San Jose, California, dropped off a large box of books on Buddhism and eastern philosophy. He had taken a job in a sheet metal factory and decided to settle down, as they say, and raise a family. Buddhism, apparently, was not compatible with the kind of normalcy and consumption he saw ahead of him. By 1980, Ronald Reagan was president, cocaine was everybody’s favorite drug, and John Lennon lie bleeding to death in the lobby of the Dakota apartments in Manhattan.

So what has happened since? Is the spirit of surrealism dead?

Not at all. Andrew Joron’s lucid and eloquent prose chronicles the evolution of surrealism through the mid-twentieth century to the current millennium in his monograph on the subject, Neo-Surrealism, Or The Sun At Night. It is subtitled Transformations Of Surrealism In American Poetry 1966-1999, but he includes an Afterword that brings his subject matter into the current era. And while it is a given that literature has long lost any viable connection with mainstream culture, and the idea of a writer or literary movement having even the slightest influence on the culture at large is laughable, not to mention surreal, Joron presents his subject with a level of seriousness that makes one wonder why literature has ceased to be of any influence. What could be of greater consequence to a culture that prides itself on freedom than a means to obtain that freedom? Real freedom. Not its shabby counterparts in the marketplace. The impotent defiance of tattoos, flexible work hours, and cyberlibertarianism. The fact that only a tiny minority of the American public continue to read anything at all of merit is certainly a contributing factor.

But that is a separate topic. Joron’s focus is on the lingering effects of surrealism in the fractious domain of contemporary poetry.

The story of surrealism is the story of desire. “Surrealism is the practice,” observes Joron, “of conjuring otherness, of realizing the infinite negativity of desire in order to address, and to redress, the poverty of the positive fact. In Marxian terms, it demands a sensorium, a social body, capable of making the leap from the realm of necessity to the realm of freedom.” The reference to Marx underscores the political dimension of surrealism. It was more than a literary movement. It was utopian. It moved to shake up society. Liberate it from its deceits and repressions. That core impetus to remake a society in which one’s truest inclinations and impulses could be expressed remains; but literature, as I mentioned earlier, is so far marginalized at this point that its capacity for cultural or political influence is as about as lethal as a snowcone.

“The poverty of the positive fact” is the toxic residue of scientific rationalism. Ironic, considering Joron’s strong affiliation with science fiction. But then science fiction is a creative reordering of scientific rationalism. Enlightenment epistemology spun around like a top.

The search for otherness, for the marvelous, for bizarre, exotic luxuries, for the revelations entwined in convulsive and irresolvable paradox, for the intensities of a sacred fever embedded in the flesh of a living medium called language, are core surrealist values. They are not static. They do not exist outside of history. “They shift,” says Joron, “according to the contours of the surrounding landscape.” “Both the darkness of the ‘uncanny’ and the brightness of the ‘marvelous’ are not absolute but relative qualities. Only at midnight does the apparition of the Sun become strange.”

Joron traces the origins of surrealism to Romanticism, “and even earlier, alchemical and Hermetic, doctrines.” This would be an interesting point of departure for another work, but Joron leaps to the present: “In the dominant culture of the United States, otherness has been systematically denied a presence, so that the surreal must be perceived only as a representation of the unreal.” Advertising and MTV rock videos come to mind, or the puerile and trivializing fantasies surrounding hippie culture that occasionally bubble up in the mainstream media with all the profundity of a diet soda. “Here in the society of the spectacle,” observes Joron, “the empowering twist of estrangement tends to reverse direction and spiral toward the passive doom of alienation.”

“As Philip Lamantia, the most prominent North American surrealist, has asked: ‘What is not strange?’” The extraordinary is most apt to be found in the ordinary.

The United States was most directly impacted by the surrealist endeavor when André Breton sought refuge here during World War II. It is after “orthodox surrealism receded,” says Joron, that “it began to glow” on our shores. We see it emerge in the work of Ashbery, O’Hara, and Spicer, “whose After Lorca stands as one of the finest exemplars of American neo-surrealism,” and the Beats. Joron meticulously identifies all the instances in which surrealism evolved and left traces of its strange geology in the moraine of American culture, including, even, ephemera from the 70s such as Radical America, “the organ of the revolutionary Students for a Democratic Society,” who devoted an issue to surrealism, under the guest editorship of Franklin Rosemont.

Other journals which were prominent in the 60s but have since fallen into obscurity include George Hitchcock’s Kayak, “staple-bound, with ‘distressed’ typography, colored inks and paper, and Ernst-like collages,” which published poets such as Robert Bly and Charles Simic, whose deep-imagist aesthetic was influenced by surrealism, and Hitchcock’s own poetry, which possesses “the charm and perhaps quaintness of a handworked artifact” and whose images “seem deliberately drawn from a sepia-toned inventory of obsolescent objects.”

Joron devotes a great deal of attention to the poet Ivan Argüelles, “an important surrealist innovator with a Mexican-American background.” “From Lamantia, he inherited such stylistic trademarks as the frequent use of exclamation points and capitalization,” and whose “multilingual talent” encompassed everything from Sanskrit to Old Icelandic. “Citations of world-historical places, texts, and personages proliferate throughout Argüelles’s poems -- their kaleidoscopic facets always reflecting the central fact of the poet’s anguish.”

Adam Cornford, “another poet who rose to prominence in the pages of Kayak and has since become an important representative of West Coast neo-surrealism,” is a British expatriate who arrived in the U.S. in 1969 and enrolled at the University of California at Santa Cruz. His language “produces the marvelous by means of a highly structured machinery of visual metaphor.”

Other poets which Joron identifies as being in the North American surrealist mold include Edouard Roditi, Nanos Valaoritis, John Nòto, Garrett Caples, Charles Borkhuis, John Yau, Philip Foss, Michael Palmer, Jayne Cortez, Clayton Eshleman, Barbara Guest, George Kalamaras, Noah Eli Gordon, Eric Baus, Christine Hume, Karen Volkman, Brian Lucas, Kristin Prevallet, Andrew Zawacki, Joshua Marie Wilkinson, Brian Strang, Roberto Harrison, James Heller Levinson, André Spears, W.B. Keckler, Ted Joans, and myself.

Joans, who for a time stayed in a house not a quarter mile distant from where I live, also had powerful affinities with jazz. I would often encounter Ted and his partner Laura on walks. Our last conversation, which occurred in our little Subaru on the way to the local post office, was about how much we loved the titles to Thelonius Monk’s compositions: “Epistrophy,” “Crepuscule With Nellie,” “Rhythm-n-ing,” “Ruby, My Dear.”

Lamantia is a key figure. He is the grand patriarch of the North American surrealist pantheon. “In Lamantia’s mature work, language often functions in the manner of esoteric texts, by using words as hermetic seals to simultaneously conceal and mark the location of power sources. Such allusive, elusive strategies were developed by medieval and Renaissance mages to insure that the fruits of the Great Work would not fall into hands of the uninitiated.” “In this language of correspondences (which provides the infrastructure for magical efficacy), nothing occupies the place of the referent but another sign. The meaning of the mystery always recedes and ‘vanishes into the night hot with luminations.’ This revelation has no content but conjuration: it is the mage’s own movement within an infinity of facing mirrors that makes the poem.”

Another key figure is Bob Kaufman, “a black surrealist and Beat-associated poet who for many years lived in San Francisco,” but was “never acknowledged by Breton or the members of the Chicago Surrealist Group.” Kaufman comes closest to the surrealist as outlaw. “Kaufman was in fact a virtuoso practitioner of the Rimbaldian precept of ‘disordering the senses’; he was jailed more than once for his subversive disorderliness.” Which is not to suggest he was an indulgent, out-of-control anarchist. He was passionate. He felt things deeply. In response to Kennedy’s assassination, “Kaufman fell into a state of quasi-silence (speaking rarely, and then only in monosyllables) that last for ten years -- an indication not only of Kaufman’s sensitivity, but also of the overwhelming significance with which he endowed the act of speech.”

The mysterious Pete Winslow emerges. “Winslow died suddenly in 1972, aged 37.” Winslow’s style “had been moving toward a space of grace and clarity comparable to that of Eluard’s Capital of Pain.” “Winslow’s only widely distributed book, A Daisy in the Memory of a Shark (City Lights, 1973), was posthumously published.”

Will Alexander, observes Joron, has produced some of the “most unprecedented and fiery” surrealist work. Alexander has “positioned himself within the contingent order of the lexicon, refashioning (and thus reclaiming) language word by word. As a result, Alexander’s writing liberates the imagination from the restricted economy of the image.”

Besides poetry, Alexander has written novels, short stories, and plays. In all of these forms, Alexander allows the autonomous Word to come into being in its own way: either to drop vertiginously into a semiotic space of unexpected correspondences or to become a merely localized fillip of sonic or graphic texture. Under the terms of this allowance, the Word, prior to its emergence, is recognized to exist in a state akin to nothingness, yet charged with potential. Thus, there are frequent invocations to the awaited Word’s vertical, vortical, tornado-like suspension.

As I write this, millions of gallons of oil continue to be spewed into the waters of the Gulf of Mexico emanating from a hole drilled some 30,000 feet deep into the earth’s mantle by British Petroleum. Mike Malloy, a progressive radio host, has used the term ELE (Extinction Level Event) in relation to this environmental catastrophe, and not, I believe, at all irresponsibly. The Obama administration has done nothing. They have reacted to this catastrophe with the same perplexing negligence as the Bush administration’s disturbing non-response to the Katrina disaster, other then to disarm the local population and protect private property with Blackwater’s mercenary thugs. A few well-rehearsed, critical words is all to have emerged from Obama’s mouth. A free market, predatory capitalism has run unchecked the last thirty years, at least, and now humanity is facing the actuality of extinction. In view of this, it seems silly to discuss the future of surrealism. Of anything literary. Of any art.

Joron seems to have anticipated this, yet remains cautiously optimistic.

Amid signs -- which have increased exponentially in the past ten years --- that capitalist civilization is arriving at its endgame, there is no need to argue for the ongoing relevance of the surrealist project. Postmodernism’s ironic deconstruction of the commodity is at best a critical moment (one that was already anticipated and sublated by surrealism at its inception), which, if another world is possible, must be augmented by a creative moment driven not by commodity-logic but by the free association of the producers.

Of course, a surrealist poem can’t change the world. But a cry of protest, in such confluence that revolutionary action becomes inevitable, will change the world. The genius of surrealism has been to discover that the cry of protest is also an act of imagination, and to insist that precisely that imagination is more powerful than reality. The cry is a crack in the world, revealing what lies beyond.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Ex Nihilo

Paper is supposedly a product of dirt, but if it is shot out of a cannon in Florida, it becomes a narrative. Debris from a stunning metaphor, or the metamorphosis of names vivifying the transformation of magma.

What I mean is this: a crow glides by and lands in the street. There is a certain narrative there, a story waiting to happen, wrinkles in a bag of potato chips, crumbly bits of potato chip spilled from an upturned bag, the ingenious maneuverings of the crow, the aforementioned crow, which has already flown away, because a middle-aged man on a Harley drove by.

Today I am going to take my stomach for a walk. It’s been upset lately. Acidic. Agonistic.


I don’t know whether it is from something I ate that didn’t quite agree with it, or the continuing story of oil oozing from the ocean floor in the Gulf of Mexico, threatening life on our planet as we know it.

I cannot remove the image from my brain. A great black billowing column of oil burbling up through the spinal duct of my medulla and mushrooming, imbuing the folds of my brain with the bile of despair, viscous, sticky, sinewy, exuding into the frontal lobe and hanging there in a torpor of defilement. I don’t much like it when anything that ugly that gets into my head.

Like gravity.

I like gravity. I just don’t like it when it keeps me down.

My sideburns have miscarried the message of hair.

Which is this: every face could use some embroidery, some embellishment, particularly when we age, which is its own form of embellishment, though certainly not the kind of embellishment that anyone can be happy with, as it involves wrinkles, and a general look of sourness, which is the natural response to existence.

The wilderness offers a remedy for our weirdness. But much of it is disappearing. The only true wilderness left us is that of the mind. The human mind, or the mind of a dachshund, if you prefer dogs to humans.

Much of the mind is water. Accepting its abstractions as they bob and float is part of the problem, but easier to follow than the mutability of sidewalks. The way they crack and fold is fascinating, but it takes time, and time is rationed in tiny amounts.

Insights glitter in the pineapple.

The plastic cover of a cherry crumb pie twinkles in the kitchen light.

Nothing comes from nothing.

Except, possibly, nothing itself, which upsets the notion of an independent reality of objects providing a pre-existing field of referents for signs to attach themselves to. Such a notion cannot be sustained. It is only an illusion. We need another mechanism. We need the creative power of zero. Zero to manufacture an infinity of signs. An algebra of tense. And the ablution of pronouns. And the clarity of the clarinet.

Once zero becomes the baseline for one’s sense of reality, all things become possible. Strange affiliations arise. I think of the marvelous title for one of Ponge’s books, Le parti pris des choses, which translates roughly as “taking the part, or side, of things.” Giving a voice to the mute. But one does not effect the phenomenological projection of oneself into the other. You become zero. And you become the world.

Multiple. Composite. Aluminum.

There is joy in aluminum. Even when smoke triggers the smoke alarm, as it has just now, there must have been some goop on the burner, because there is smoke coiling up from beneath the coffee pot, and it has filled the apartment, like thought, in this case thoughts of aluminum, fill the mind.

Aluminum protects things, extends things, conducts things, fastens things. The telescope, for instance, or an airplane hangar.

Aluminum is the most abundant metal in the Earth’s crust and makes up approximately 8% by weight of the Earth’s solid surface. It is too reactive chemically to occur in nature as a free metal, or rhinoceros, or emu. It is remarkable for its low density and ability to resist corrosion. It is vital to the aerospace industry, as it is to this paragraph, which is building a case for aluminum, the celebration of aluminum, aluminum as something to ponder, something to envision, an element of the mind evolving into images of sheen and wonder.

Meanwhile, I should attend to the smoke alarm. It is loud and prevents my reflections on aluminum from reaching a serviceable apotheosis.

Or apothegm.

Nothing is the cause of itself, which is why this is happening.

Although the smoke alarm has been turned off, for which I am thankful.

An even worse problem is galactic evolution.

Calculus rips the stars into choirs. And all around us is the simmering confusion that is the chemistry of consciousness interpreting and translating sensations into sonnets, and guitars, and lightning in Arizona. Horses forged from bronze. A man leaning against a wall sharpening a knife.

Consonance. Consommé. Console.

Swords of humid light traveling through the straw-laden air of a Kansas barn.

Pieces of fabric folded in vehement tenderness.

A thousand splendid suns emanating from the supersoul of a ping pong paddle in a summer basement.

Consciousness exists within consciousness within consciousness.

But what else should be filling the universe if current cosmological ideas are correct?

Four legs and a smile.

Which is a horse in somebody’s cartoon.

Here is a rattlesnake I found in an abandoned paragraph. Watch how it moves. Spirals. Twists. Undulates. Just like a real sentence. With scales and teeth and grammar. And a rattle at the end. To make sure it is heard. To give warning. To draw attention. To embody meaning. Because if it is true that the end is first in intention but last in execution, then it must also be true that causes are the causes of one another, and that opposites serve the heresy of rubber, which is why I love being underground, and am often astonished by the inaccuracy of air.

If I nail the scent of a thought to the wall, will it make any difference if I favor it with a gaze?

Yes. It will.

And if you notice the spectrum of blues and browns in a Corot, you will have noticed something very big and pure and exponential.

You will have felt the shove of solitude.

You will have tasted the ecstasy of zero.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Turtles Of Talk

The Recumbent Galaxy
poetry by Alvaro Cardona-Hine and George Kalamaras
C&R press, 2010

The Recumbent Galaxy
is, quite literally, two books in one. It is the product of two authors, Alvaro Cardona-Hine and George Kalamaras. It is a collaborative work, though not in the sense that two minds melded together on a single work. The two authors are bound by mutual interests, mutual aesthetics. They are like two neighbors living in a city called Vallejo. Their houses are similar, but not entirely alike. Each helped one another build their house, taking ideas from one and incorporating it into the other, so that the give-and-take of collaboration created two unique dwellings rather than a single dwelling.

I could extend this metaphor a little further and say that they did not use one, but several different blueprints, those being the work of the Latin American poets César Vallejo and Miguel Hernández. I called their city Vallejo because that sounds like the name of a city. I would have to stretch Hernández into Hernández-ville, which sounds a bit awkward. But I’m getting tangled in my metaphor. Let’s move on.

Alvaro Cardona-Hine, according to the bio on the back of the book, “is a poet, painter, composer, and translator. Born in 1926 in Costa Rica, he came to the United States in 1939.”

George Kalamaras “is Professor of English at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne, where he has taught since 1990. He is the author of ten books of poetry.”

The two men conceived this project together, according to Kalamaras’s introduction, “over the commingling of poetry and smoke.”

My wife Mary Ann and (and our then ever-present companion, our female beagle, Barney) were once again visiting Alvaro and his wife Barbara in the beautiful mountain village of Truchas, New Mexico. Alvaro and I were basking in the warmth of a late July sun on a patio situated between their home, and Alvaro and Barbara’s art gallery and individual studios, where they have devoted their lives to poetry and painting for the last twenty years. We spoke, of course, of our mutual poetry mentors, especially the Chinese poets of antiquity and the Surrealist tradition of Spain and Latin America, particularly César Vallejo and Miguel Hernández. We had discovered a few years before that of all the poets we have read, we both held Vallejo and Hernández in the highest esteem. I then read Alvaro a few poems from my ongoing project The Bone Sutras while he puffed gently on a cigar in late afternoon sun, Barney devoting her glorious hound self eagerly to sniffing the richly scented earth about us. Poetry and smoke, I later thought -- both are so intoxicating and so ephemeral.

Kalamaras goes on to say that it was Cardona-Hine who first proposed that they write a book together: “We should write a book together, my friend!” Kalamaras hesitated at first because the geographical distance between Indiana and New Mexico is considerable. Nevertheless, Kalamaras agreed, and as he further pondered the project, he conjectured that “that this book was meant to be.” It assumed the confirmation of fate. Moreover, as Kalamaras observes, and I quite agree, “all poetry is collaboration in one form or another, just as each breath folds into the other, the continuous dance of inhalation and exhalation, or as the yogis of India say, when the pan pours into the apan.” (According to the online Sanskrit dictionary I consulted, pan means praise and apan means exhalation. So, praise pouring into exhalation would be my guess).

The month following their New Mexico visit, Cardona-Hine sent Kalamaras his first installment by post, a “gathering of twenty-four narratives whose wildness and associative leaps delighted me to no end.”

Since my Sutras had first sparked his idea of our collaboration, I thought to respond to his work by writing more Sutras. I decided to take the first line or two of each of his narratives (on occasion, later lines) and either use them in part or pull words from them to make the first line of a poem. Then with that first line as a starting point, I wrote a poem, sending twenty-four such treasures off to Truchas. Although it does not follow the sequence of our composition, the first section of the book is my response.

Sutra, according to Wikipedia, “literally means a thread or line that holds things together, and more metaphorically refers to an aphorism (or line, rule, formula), or a collection of such aphorisms in the form of a manual. It is derived from the verbal root siv-, meaning to sew… In Hinduism the 'sutra' is a distinct type of literary composition, based on short aphoristic statements, generally using various technical terms. The literary form of the sutra was designed for concision, as the texts were intended to be memorized by students in some of the formal methods of scriptural and scientific study.”

I am not at all familiar with the tradition of the sutra, but there is little, at least on the surface, that strikes me as being aphoristic in Kalamaras’s sutras. They are rich and alive with lyricism and imagery, but their highly surreal character would seem at quite a distance from anything remotely sententious or apothegmatic. Surrealism tends toward mutiny. It is language run amok. The intent behind surrealism is not so much to teach as it is to subvert. Capsize. Upend the constraints of logic and reason in order to liberate the trapped energies of the unconscious. It may very well be that this is the underlying instruction of Kalamaras’s sutras. He does not present us with a maxim to untangle but a wave to ride, a momentum of linguistic force whose currents carry us to a heightened awareness rather than an unequivocal answer.

I would robustly agree with Kalamaras’s description of Cardona’s narratives as full of wild, associative leaps. Each has the flavor of an interior monologue, a flow of words with the sensual thickness of a ropy gob of paint squeezed from a tube. Here it is the medium put forward rather than its content; the physicality of words as opposed to their referential capacity. Again, a surrealist predilection. The narratives have the oneiric biology of dreams, organisms developing out of a fecund pool of amino acids and polymerizing abstractions of “sugar and sex.”

The first narrative in Cardona-Hines’s collection titled “The uncertaInty prIncIple” begins with the sentence “This girl was born in the blue mills of my typewriter. An Olivetti.”

Ok, two sentences. But isn’t this great? A girl born from a typewriter. I think that’s wonderful.

And Olivettis were great typewriters. I miss the clack, clack, clackety-clack ding! of the old manual typewriters.

Though, as Cardona-Hines is quick to point out, the actual birth of his creation “had nothing to do with machines. She was conceived at 3:30 in the morning, the end of a dream, and quickly placed in the swaddling clothes of a page in an old diary carrying a date of Friday, December 7, 1990, before she could fade away.” We are clearly in the realm of the surreal here.

And so, too, with Kalamaras. His first sutra, “If You Ask Me My Scattered,” begins “The girl was born in the blue mills of my shame.” mmmmm. Shame instead of a typewriter. A quick glide from the mechanical to the emotional. The psychological.

And the biological: “I woke full of sparrow secretions and required a clean burning of bees from the inside musk of an ox.”

Kalamaras is a poet of multiple interests. His poetic and cultural affiliations are far-ranging. He has lived in India and practices yoga. His interests in surrealism extend beyond France to Japan and South America. He has written a monograph on the poetry of the Japanese surrealist Takiguchi Shuzo (“The Air is a Beautiful Princess Without Bones: Takiguchi Shuzo and Japanese Surrealism”). His poetry is full of allusions to a wide-ranging assortment of poets and cultural traditions. This adds to the intellectual richness of his writing.

The same could be said about Alvaro Cardona-Hine, who, in addition to his literary contribution to this collection, included some of his paintings. These are lush, fanciful, dream-like images that mark, as a frontispiece, each of the five sections of this book.

It’s interesting to compare the poetry of Cardona-Hine to that of Kalamaras. The poems in Cardona-Hine’s section titled “*S*T*A*R* *P*I*E*” are more disjunctive than Kalamaras’s sutras. He eschews majuscules, and his lines are shorter and more telegraphic. Here, for instance, is the first stanza of “Good Advice.”

consider butterflies of cinnamon
turtles of talk
moments in October
the wings of language
thrones of expectoration
that silly miracle of which she will speak
blushing furiously
at the age of concern
when she remembers

Perhaps it is because Cardona-Hine is a painter that his lines seem more like brushstrokes, whereas Kalamaras, a university professor, creates lines with more fluidity. Cardona-Hine, it might be said, leans more toward phanopoeia, image-based writing, than Kalamaras, who leans more toward melopoeia, toward lyricism and the musical phrase.

This is, in any event, a remarkable collection of work, and a strong testament toward the joys and potentialities of collaboration. For who, as Kalamaras has so wisely observed, is not in collaboration by the simple act of reading? Of engaging with someone’s work? And who, does not on occasion, extend their head from their shell, à la the turtle, to see what there is to see, to find what there is to find, to say what there is to say?

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Where The Sky Begins

In the hospital, odors are ghosts. Or is it the other way around? Or both?

I believe it is both.

How long does it take for blood to congeal? The mind goes in circles because the stars turn round the world. Depth is a presence. The sting of usury trumpets the bones of pessimism.

Long is the drool that requires a paragraph. It is because I am a mental banana that I am able to luxuriate among such great principles. Virtues such as memory. Emotion. Stationary.

Yesterday I saw Bill Murray in a yellow hardhat read a poem by Emily Dickinson to a room full of construction workers. It was moving. Sometimes it is the boat that it is obvious, but the oars that are perverse.

A chair drifts toward the squash. The fugue is personal, though it is disturbed by pirates. All the images are swollen. The wind cannot be caught. Even the prodigality of larks must sometimes traffic in nerves.

The gun exceeds the spirit of its use. You must caress the anomaly of its barrel. The tongue is swallowed by the ear. Chaos tastes of violence. This is why the glockenspiel must be removed from the cemetery.

Are these warts? Or misunderstandings?

Sometimes I feel like a cloud of steam, a bump of implications from ear to ear. But I have bacon, sweetheart, and a heart to go with it.

My mind drifts toward Schubert. The monster of his music is symbolically cold, but warm at the core, where the melody is born, and I have an irresistible desire to describe peanuts.

My studio is small, and smells of wildcats. My blood is warm. Would you like to be my friend? I will play the accordion for the swans in the park. I will be moral, like the arm of a phonograph. Remember vinyl? Remember literature?

The rain is raw. It’s time to leave now. Time to fold the air and put it into pronouns. Cause and effect are but the oars of logic. It is denim that perpetuates the scenery.

Summer swims in my veins. What is most desired in life is not the mythology of the universe but its reality. Quarks and dolphins. Vowels and consonants.

Opium makes a beautiful cloud. My palomino spoon reflects the orchard and the river blesses its movement.

Walls are temporary. Art is permanent.

I can be elliptical. But I can also be ardent.

The collar stud bounces off the crab and lands in a painting. Yellow churns between red and black. The intellect is of universals, the senses are of particulars. This is why I have decided to pack my mind in a suitcase and leave for parts unknown.

Language is the last frontier. If you happen to see a gauze curtain hanging in the window of a caboose, ask yourself, what would infinity feel like in French?

Communion requires pews. But language requires mouths, and at least 18 pounds of potassium chlorate.

The sky begins on my skin. It is warm. It is boundless. It is chirping melodiously on a branch of words.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Exit From Exurbia

I, Benjamin
A Quasi-Autobiographical Novella, by Theodore Enslin
McPherson & Company, 2010

We live in two worlds. The world of needs and hunger, sex and real estate, routine and servitude, and the more transcendent world of art and culture, mysticism and ritual.

The sacred and the profane.

Holy and hollow.

Trance and transom.

Extraordinary and ordinary.

There is no border between the two worlds, no doors, no roads, no tunnels or turnstiles. One is as literal and explicit as brick, the other as elusive and immaterial as steam. Access to one is automatic. Access to the other is a matter of perception and imagination. We are born into one, born out of the other.

And the two can reverse: there are times when sex is sacred and religion is profane. When ritual is empty and routine is fulfilling. When servitude is liberating and freedom is a burden.

Who is to know which is which?

The artist - musician, composer, poet, sculptor, painter - provides us with a medium by which we may exchange the currency of our attention with the treasures of the unseen. Enslin’s I, Benjamin, is such a work: its language dilates with labial suppleness into a realm of music and inspiration. Our eyes open to domain of the creative; to what speaks in art.

The “I” that speaks in the prose is a pilgrim in an allegory of consciousness, a mental entity required by the artwork for its crystallization.

“I” is a pivot upon which turns the parables and dreams of an awakening intellect.

The empirical “I” is a placenta for the transcendental “I.” The transcendental “I” is latent in the empirical “I.” And it is by virtue of the transcendental “I” leading toward universal values that the “I” becomes a “We.”

The primary medium in which this allegory transpires in I, Benjamin, is music. Enslin at one time aspired to be a composer, and it is this musical impulse that so imbues his poetry, and informs his prose. “In Western music,” observes Theodore Adorno, “it would be possible to demonstrate how much its most important discovery, the harmonic depth dimension, as well as all counterpoint and polyphony, is the We of the choric ritual that has penetrated into the material.”

I, Benjamin begins, as do many allegories, in a forest. He goes on a journey into the back country “which lies just off my left wrist, through the lake and marsh lands, past the blind set up by my friend, Roy Basileus, the painter turned duck hunter, up a gentle incline into hill country, past windmills and small houses where the maintenance crews stayed during their repair sessions.”

Everything sounds familiar enough, rustic as oak, empirical as clay, until a young man contracted to stay six months in the maintenance hut collecting accurate weather data introduces Benjamin to a young woman who “had lost her way some time back.” The young man had taken her in and “now she still needed someone to look after her, until her companions arrived, and could take her back to her own country.”

Benjamin agrees. The young man leaves, and Benjamin is left alone with the young woman, who is cold and distant. Forbidding. She warms to him just a little when she discovers that a book he is reading concerns Minoan Culture, “and the ill-defined cult of matriarchy.” He discovers that not only was she in attendance at his father’s lectures on Minoan Culture, but that she must have been the offstage soprano at his father’s dinners, attended by a singing waiter named Mathias, who sang Mozart arias, while his father enjoyed his dinner. She sings a few bars from Zerlina’s response to Don Giovanni, and he comes to realize that he is linked to this person by the genius of music.

The days pass. She continues to be cold, even though they have sex one night. “We made love,” Benjamin narrates, but “it was not wholly successful. It seemed as if there was a great deal of anger and restraint still between us. After it was over, she indicated that I was to go to my own corner.”

One cannot help but sense a contact with the marvelous here, despite the awkwardness and undercurrents of hostility. The crude, empirical self that is Benjamin’s inchoate identity is being initiated into the higher calling of music, the transcendent realm of unification. The incommunicability and inwardness of consciousness finds expression in the unifying spirit of music, but it is a slow and painful process. Antagonisms that are unsolved in reality remain unsolved in the imagination. That inner chafing generated out of frustration and irresolvable conflict is not only what separates us from a finalizing synthesis but is the furnace of our creativity. The universe calls to our higher instincts, our feeling for beauty, our receptivity to the sublime, our appetite for knowledge, but the world calls us back to the inanities of daily life, chopping wood, looking for work, killing game for our food, killing time for the sake of sheer forgetfulness. The world of television versus the world of telesthesia.

Totem versus trademark.

Magic versus market.

This is evident in Enslin’s allegory: there is always a threat, a feeling of menace, beneath the most benign gestures. One can perform preternatural feats, but only if one obeys certain laws, instructions given to us by beings whose wisdom comes from supernal realms. Our divine guides stay with us so long as we obey their peculiar set of obligations, rituals, paths, and sacrifices.

Eat a forbidden fruit, and we fall from Eden.

Leave the sanctity of Shangri-la, and our lover crumbles into dust.

Defy a warning, pluck a rose, drink from a forbidden well, and you become pregnant with the progeny of an elf, or forfeit to some dark power demanding appeasement and sacrifice.

The young woman, who insists on remaining anonymous, even though they continue to sleep together, is finally visited by her six companions, six men and women who also have that “indefinable ‘dark’ quality, which seemed to hang like fog around them.” The time is come for her to leave. Early in the morning, she extends her hand to Benjamin, still in bed. Her other hand holds a candle. Benjamin rises to shake her extended hand and upsets the candle. Hot wax spills on the back of his left hand. The scars it leaves become significant, a source of power.

Benjamin returns to his village. He becomes a pariah. People avoid him because he is odd, avoids their celebrations, and has no visible means of support.

He leaves. He travels, once again, far into the back country. He encounters his old friend Roy Basileus (Roy, from the French roi, means king; Basileus, from the Greek, means “super king”), who sets him on a journey even deeper into unknown terrain. He also discovers the identity of the woman in the maintenance hut: Zerlina.

Benjamin encounters a house whose construction and items within are identical to the ones of his own home. The pump has been primed. Freshly cut wood is stacked by the stove. A fresh cup of coffee, the same one that he had left, was still warm. “Was I still in my former house in the other dimension,” he wonders.

He is not rattled by any of this. Quite the contrary. “It seemed that I had made this journey, and that it was mine in ways that might not have been the same for others who had suddenly found the circumstances of their lives changed.”

Enslin, who once aspired to be a musical composer, constructs his sentences with the finesse and tuning of a born musician. Which is to say, they are fundamentally simple and plain, free of embellishment. The have the burnished quality of a cello, the lightness of a violin. The sentences yield their information with lambent grace. You can see the grain. You can smell the wood of their construction. They have the charm of a lute, the brilliance of a piano. A refined simplicity that feels confident and unhurried in the resolution of its conflicts. A meticulous plainness that savors the music of aplomb.

Dissonance, consonance, cadence.

Patience, skill, and measure.

A carpenter, a really good carpenter, is a musician of angles and grain. The intent is to make seams invisible, rabbets strong. The house Benjamin describes exceeds its dimensions. It becomes a carapace of protecting amenities. “The sagging floors were straight. The front door had been rehung, and opened and closed easily. The broken window panes had been replaced. So this was how it was to be. The door opened and Lark reappeared.”

Lark is a shapeshifter. Sometimes she is a young girl, sometimes a middle-aged grand dame, sometimes in the “guise of a young diva,“ sometimes an old dowager. She is the tutelary spirit of the house, making Benjamin his meals, doing the housekeeping and dishes. But she is not a maid. Their relationship assumes an uncanny naturalness. Benjamin feels at ease with this woman, despite her many guises. She attends to his needs with remarkable felicity, without a trace of self-serving humility or theatrical abnegation. She performs tasks in a sprightly manner akin to Prospero’s Ariel. But even Ariel was hungry for reward. For release. And for love. Lark calls such little attention to herself in the performance of her tasks she is virtually invisible. One intuits her motivations as having a source in something divine and supernatural. Perhaps this is why Benjamin’s loneliness continues to be a problem. Lark belongs to the world of spirit, not the world of bone and blood and warm consoling skin.

Lark advises Benjamin to follow his left wrist. He discovers a woods with a small stream, “which was extremely clear, with occasional deep pools.” He goes into the water. “It is refreshingly cool, but not frigid.” When he emerges from the stream, he discovers “a tray with various picnic foods.”

He is given but one warning in this Eden: he must not enter the ravine. “That is forbidden,” Lark tells him, shaking her finger. “If you insist, I cannot prevent you, but you will have lost the use of your wrist, and you will not be able to return here.”

Benjamin begins composing music. This, it is evident, is his true destiny, his raison d’être. Lark busies herself with all the household chores while he is free to compose his music. Aside from the ravine, there are no restrictions. He is allowed, even, to attend a stage performance of Don Giovanni, where he sees his old companion from the maintenance shack, Zerlina. He begins, using his friend Roy as conduit, a musical collaboration with her in which both remain anonymous. Roy is happy to convey his compositions into the “other world.” Benjamin, hungry for companionship, wishes Roy would visit with more frequency. Bringing ducks and brandy. And then,

one night Roy did appear with ducks and brandy. He said very little until we had enjoyed our usual feast. Then he settled back and told me a little of his adventures. He said that the other world had become much worse than in the days in which we both had lived there. The lives of most people were senseless in our terms. There was little good to say of such a civilization with its consumerism, waste, and fatuous self congratulation that could recommend it. There were lacunae of more pleasant things, however, and he had been able to distribute copies of my work to a number of prominent musicians, some of whom I had known. The pieces were eventually discovered in files and folios. No one had a clue as to who the composer might be, whether he was living or dead, or as to the actual period when the pieces had been composed. There had been a number of performances. Critics and musicologists were at odds with one another. None of them seemed to know what to say about the work, except that most of them, as well as a growing audience, felt that there was something pleasurable, even important in a kind of music not usual.

Here we see the divisions between the sacred and the profane. Divisions which have become far more pronounced of late.

Imagine, for instance, our current nightmare, the barrels of oil bubbling up from the fissure in the ocean floor in the gulf of Mexico, killing dolphins, plankton, algae, mollusks, thousands of species of marine organism, destroying the lives of the people who live on the coasts of Florida and Alabama who make a living fishing and shrimping or servicing the needs of the tourists.

Big stinking toxic blobs of black BP oil on the sugar-white powder-fine beaches of eastern Florida.

Or how about the still unregulated capitalist plunder of our economy by the banksters of Goldman Sachs and their ilk. I consider it deeply ironic that the perpetrators of these crimes are very ones who most despise, who most spurn, who most fear the creative work of painters and poets. The ones they call idle dreamers.


This disparagement is a defense, primarily against their own emptiness. Their obsession with wealth, especially when it assumes the vertiginous abstractions of financial instruments so baroque and exotic they seem more like the drug-induced hallucinations of a blindfolded baboon than rational investment schemes, has severed them from the human universe of mustard and myth and music.

The world Benjamin has left behind for the charmed realm in which he composes his music is dying. Dying of greed and oil. War and famine. Arrogance and brutality.

Indifference. Willful ignorance. Lack of imagination.

How might we imagine the music Benjamin produces? “I soon abandoned neo-mediaevalism,” Benjamin confesses. “This was not the music which I wanted to compose -- mine would have to be, in some sense, equally austere, but of another time.”

I have no idea or understanding of how long it took me to compose things that seemed to me worth keeping. I do know that I was immersed in something that took away the sense of loneliness which had made my life less than what I had hoped for. Many times I woke with the nucleus of something I wanted to develop. As music is a supreme saying, I tried to speak. Eventually it seemed easy -- as breathing or a conversation with those who can answer. At times I could pick up bits of sound from birdsongs, or the wind. I spent much time walking in the forest. I had small pads of paper ruled for score, and often completed sketches on such walks. It became more and more evident that my prime concern was melodic, and I composed many songs, not exactly art songs, but things that somehow demanded performance. My soprano passages were often prompted by remembrance of Zerlina’s voice -- the particular timbre which had been her supreme gift. I listened to many of her actual performances. There was something special -- wholly her own -- beyond her superb musicianship. My attempt was to make something worthy, not acrobatic attempts at mere technique.

Enslin’s allegory of creative inspiration, which also happens to be semi-autobiographical, and arises from lived experience as much as it echoes correspondences among the pneuma and eidolons of the spirit-world, is particular in its names. Each bears the imprint of a legacy that is both personal and mythic. The name Benjamin, for instance, houses a frieze of association.

The biblical Benjamin was the last-born of Jacob’s twelve sons, and the second, and last, son of Rachel in the Book of Genesis. In the ancient Hebrew, Benjamin is described as the son of the left hand, before the biblical aphetic change to the “son of the right hand.” Also, left is matriarchal, and right is patriarchal. The role of women in I, Benjamin are pivotal. Zerlina is his muse. Lark is his guardian spirit.

According to W.W. Skeat, author of A Concise Etymological Dictionary Of The English Language, the word ‘lark’ comes from Anglo-Saxon lawerce, which may be compared with the Icelandic laevirki, which means “worker of craft.” Lorraine Byrne, author of Schubert’s Goethe Settings, the image of the lark in Schubert’s song of romantic yearning, An die Entfernte, was drawn from Goethe’s Faust and becomes a motif of separation, signifying the loss of what is loved. The lark is also popularly seen as a symbol of domestic affection, boundless energy, merriment, hope, happiness, and creativity. It is said that the lark sings at the gates of heaven. It is also, as we remember from Shakespeare’s Romeo And Juliet, a harbinger of morning that is not always entirely welcome: “Wilt thou be gone? It is not yet near day:/ It was the nightingale, and not the lark,/ That pierced the fearful hollow of thine ear.”

I, Benjamin, bore special personal significance for me. Anyone (and I suspect that number is many) who has had to suffer the boredom and indignities of a day-job while trying to keep their artistic genius alive can certainly appreciate the allegory of Benjamin’s “exit from exurbia.”

Books such as this are rare and valuable items, availing our eyes with arias of wood, healing our injuries with scars of wonder.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

A Day At Doe Bay

The whitecaps were worrisome. It was a windy day, one of the windiest I had seen for a few weeks, if not months, and it did not bode well for our flight that day. Did seaplanes fly on such windy days?

We were jogging the crown of Queen Anne hill. We looked down at the water. The surface of Puget Sound spit and churned menacingly under the abrading wind. When we rounded 8th Place West and headed east down Highland Drive until Lake Union came within view, the water glittered merrily, as it usually does, with only here and there a feather of white glinting the surface. We found ourselves trying to read the fate of our day in the whimsy of water, the insanity of wind.

Roberta suggested we call Kenmore Air. I said naw, if they had to cancel flights every time the wind blew, they couldn’t run a business. Deep down, I knew this kind of hubris leads to trouble. I did not want to follow the example of Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper. But there, I had said it.

Roberta, ever the wiser, checked the phone. Kenmore Air had not left a message. We went ahead and packed.

I did not have much to pack. We were only going to be spending one night at Doe Bay Inn. But packing is part of the ritual of travel. I had to pack. There was a tacit obligation to pack. I packed a pair of jeans, a shirt, and some underwear, thinking that if I slip and fall off the plane’s pontoon, or a slippery rickety dock, I can change my clothes. I tossed a few items into my little zippered toiletry pouch with a view toward keeping my person within reasonable bounds of hygiene. I also included the two books I was going to be reading from, Backscatter, and Souls Of Wind.

Ironic that, Souls Of Wind.

We arrived at the Kenmore terminal on Lake Union at 11:00 a.m. It’s an easy walk from our home. This was to be part of the day’s charm. The convenience of air travel minutes from one’s home. And on water, too.

The Kenmore terminal is the opposite of the terminals for the big commercial flights. For starters, it’s small. About the size of a Triple AAA office, T-shirts and blouses hanging on racks, three casually dressed agents behind computers, scales for luggage, the weather channel on a plasma TV.

Secondly, it’s calm. No paranoia, humiliation, shoe removal, scanning machines, body searches, or long, interminable lines listening to people share their latest visit to their doctor, or their invaluable insights on Twilight, seeming to talk to no one but some imaginary audience, on their Bluetooths and cell phones. No wailing babies, kids on the loose, TVs blaring, fat hairy bellies hanging out of loud Hawaiian shirts, or stale, overpriced chunks of chemically synthesized matter masquerading as food. Kenmore Air’s terminal was what an airport used to be: a calm, comfortable place to daydream or read a book until your plane arrives.

We approached a young woman standing behind a computer screen. We gave her our names. She gave us the sad news: our flight had been canceled but a three minutes before we arrived. The problem wasn’t the ability to fly, but the waves. These were, after all, seaplanes. They have to land and take off from the water. And the winds were blowing far more forcefully to the north in the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the San Juan Islands. That’s where the real problem was.

We thought instantly of our chances of returning home, throwing our bags in the car, and heading up I-5 to Anacortes and catching the ferry to Orcas Island. But one of the staff members, a young man at one of the other computers, said he might be able to pull some strings. He disappeared into an office and emerged a little while later to say that there was a couple who might be willing to reschedule their flight so that we could catch a wheeled plane out of Boeing Field. We waited anxiously, talking to the young woman who had initially helped us, who was from Juneau, and was now on the floor folding T-shirts. She loved airplanes, but had not yet made the commitment to fly. Lessons can run as high as $30,000 dollars.

There was a video of Harrison Ford. He bought a Beaver from Kenmore after falling in love with one during the filming of Six Days, Seven Nights.

Our agent returned with some good news. The couple in question were willing to slide their flight back to 6:30 so that we could board a wheeled plane flying out from Boeing Field at 3:30. Whoever you are, wherever you are dear couple who did that, thank you. And thank you to the staff of Kenmore Air for going beyond the call of duty and helping us get off the ground to Doe Bay.

A pilot drove us to Boeing Field in a van. We went in and weighed our luggage. My bag weighed only 8 pounds. The limit is 24. I worried that I had exceeded that limit. Eight pounds. Clearly. I need to do some weight lifting.

There was only one other couple in the waiting room overlooking the field. I got up and looked at some of the artwork, which I found quite good. There were a series of drawings in gesso and ink by Meredith Lee, funky airplanes and goofy looking spaceships on long delicate insect legs, a flying machine that looked like a potato bug with a propeller on its end. A highly amusing painting of acrylic on wood panel by Cathy Fields called “Ralph Goes Fishing,” a cartoon-like man and his beagle in the cockpit of a small airplane as it approaches a landing field and banks at a sharp angle, making the perspective all cockeyed and funny. Ralph wears a festive Hawaiian shirt and a fishing hat bristling with lures.

At boarding time, we walked out onto the field to get in our plane, a 9-passenger Cessna Caravan powered by a Pratt and Whitney turbine engine rated at 675 shaft-horsepower. A young man with neatly groomed dark hair named Tony welcomed us aboard. I got a shot of Roberta as she clambered aboard the craft. “This is my first time in a small plane,” she said to Tony. “Mine too,” said Tony.

Tony, as it later proved evident, was an expert pilot. The plane was buffeted with winds the entire way. We would drop suddenly, then found ourselves pushed rapidly aloft again. Windswept one way, then windswept another way. It was like being on a small boat in rough seas. Though rather than a rough, turbulent sea, where there remains a sense of horizon, a division between water and sky, we were at the mercy of a volatile gas called air, where there is only space. Clouds and angels. There is nothing for your senses to take hold of. There is total, implacable chaos between visually perceived movement and our sense of where we are in space, our equilibrioception, or proprioception. When these become disoriented, the result is nausea. Fortunately, we had had the foresight to take some Meclizine several hours before our flight. Otherwise, we would have been making heavy use of our vomit bags.

Tony made a safe landing at Friday Harbor, despite the buffeting of a crazy, bullying wind working hard to upset our plane. The wheels touched ground. Screeched. The engine roared. We slowed to a stop, and we all applauded. A few of the passengers disembarked. Then we took off again for East Sound. Tony said it would be a bit smoother. This was a relief. I was beginning to break out into a cold sweat.

East Sound was calmer, but raining heavily. We scrambled to the small terminal where a young woman named Heather greeted us. She had been sent to give us a ride to Doe Bay.

We conversed a little on our way through the heavily wooded Eden that is Orcas Island. Heather was from Chicago. She had studied biology in college and was the Doe Bay gardener. I asked about wildlife and Heather said the deer population was way out of control. They had no predators. And no one had the heart as yet, apparently, to begin hunting them. But how do you hunt in such a small geographic area with so many residents and tourists wandering about? It occurred to me that the riddance of deer might be something of appeal to rock star Republican Ted Nugent.

Heather dropped us off at the general store in downtown Doe Bay. Downtown Doe Bay consists of a general store, a scattering of anonymous houses, sheds, and outbuildings, and a very fine restaurant.

We entered a shop whose shelves were crowded with an array of familiar and unfamiliar items. A huge handsaw hung high above the door. It felt solid and old inside. The wood floor seemed ancient. It was like stepping into 1870. I would not have been surprised to see a man with a slouch hat, badge, handlebar mustache and a pair of pearl-handled Colt revolvers come walking in.

There was a small office area with a large open space and a counter. A young man named Kegan welcomed us and gave us a map, indicating, with a yellow marker, where our cabin was, and outlined the trail to get there.

We went outside. It was raining heavily. I studied the map, covering it with my hand to keep it from getting too wet, and seeing our neatly outlined way turned illegible and smudgy. We headed up the main street, Doe Bay Road, made a wrong turn at Ganesh Way, reoriented ourselves, and located the trail that took us to our cabin. On the way, we crossed a bridge with a creek bubbling ebulliently below us, no doubt happy with all the rain that was feeding its sparkle and verve.

The cabins have different names. Some of them are Sanskrit words, such as Chakra, Churi, Padma and Agni, and a few are more pastoral, such as Salmonberry and Skyview. Ours was named Priya, which means (according to the Monier Williams Sanskrit-English Dictionary), "beloved, dear to, liked, or favorite; to feel affection for, love more and more." After a night in Priya, I would have to agree. Priya neighbored Bhakti and Kutir. Bhakti means intense devotion, with connotations of worship, piety, faith, religious principle or means of salvation. Kutir means, quite literally, small cottage or hut, though with connotations of being a hermitage-like residence. It is common to see, in Hindu literature, the two used as a single term, Bhakti Kutir: a retreat for deep meditation and spiritual devotion.

These names were apt. There was, it could not be denied, real divinity in the air. The most diehard positivist would have to admit that there was something truly serene and trance-inducing in the mingling of mist and rain and surge of vegetation, the dense stands of Douglas fir rising exultantly into the sky, the air laden with a gazillion mingled fragrances, a soothing quiet imbuing everything with an omnipresent balm, and resilient aggregates of Garry oak, a.k.a. Oregon white oak, a broadleafed deciduous hardwood good for boat building, lending a somnolent majesty to the floral amalgam.

There is also quaking aspen, lodgepole pine and mountain juniper. We were surprised to see lodgepole pine, which normally grows east of the Cascades, in the dryer regions of Washington state, but the San Juan islands are in a rain shadow. The islands receive about half the average amount of rainfall in Seattle, which is about 37.1 inches per year.

The soil in the San Juans tends to be rocky, gravelly, or sandy which requires that plants adapt to limited water during portions of the year and rapidly draining soils. Rare and endangered plants, such as the Brittle Cactus, the Naked Broomrape and the Golden Paintbrush, can be found in certain locations. Spring flowers, such as the Buttercup, Chocolate Lily, Shooting Star, Blue Camas, and Calypso Orchid embroider the island’s tapestry of tall grass and tangled underbrush.

A rain shadow is created when mountains, in this case the Olympics, block the passage of rain-producing weather systems.

No rain shadow that day, however. I was nearing that point of rain-soaked discomfort where my additional pants and shirt, still nicely dry, might come in handy.

The cabin was clean and warm. Since we were both a bit wet, we decided a little extra warmth would be a very good thing. There was a small electric radiator available, which we plugged in. In minutes, it was radiating delicious heat, and had become my best friend.

Roberta napped while I sat at a small table and read Notre-Dame-des-Fleurs by Jean Genet. My reading lately had been drawn toward misfits and outlaws. Crazy Heart was waiting for me at the library when we got home.

Time slipped by. I didn’t realize how late it was getting to be. We strode down to the restaurant at about 6:30 p.m. for the reading. We were warmly greeted by Jennifer Brennock, organizer of the Artsmith Salon Series, who had invited me to read there that night, at the suggestion of Renae Keep, whose husband, Pliny Keep, is general manager of the Doe Bay resort.

Jennifer is a petite young woman with a large spirit. She reminded me a great deal of the time in which I had come of age in the late 60s, down in California. It seemed there were so many passionate, creative people back then. What had happened to them? Perhaps Jennifer’s grandparents were among that population of people I missed from the 60s.

The reading was scheduled for 7:00 so we decided to have dinner after my reading. Jennifer gave me an enthusiastic introduction. I read a chapter from Souls Of Wind, and some prose poems from Backscatter. The audience was warmly receptive and appreciative.

After my reading, we chatted with Renae and Jennifer and several other audience members, and ordered dinner. A young woman named Mary took our order, and later read some of her poetry at the open mic session which followed my reading after a brief intermission.

There was a painting above the reading area which was graced with a music stand, microphone, heater, and wrought-iron candelabra with five burning candles.

I was greatly intrigued with the painting. A man dressed in an orange suit of indiscernible material cinched with a black belt cradled a huge fish and smiled while, behind him, an immense dark cloud gathered. The mood of the painting was strange, at once foreboding and benevolent. Judging by the grass in the foreground, and distance in the background, the man seemed to be standing in a very remote, northerly latitude. A place of miracles and oaths, heroic deeds and rugged enchantments.

The cook brought our dinner while our waitress, Mary, read her poetry. I enjoyed a bowl of fennel and potato soup, followed by ling cod, which was out of this world. White tender meat embellished with udon noodles, vegetables, and a rich buttery sauce. Roberta had the vegetarian pizza, garnished with gorgonzola and mozzarella cheese, fresh tomatoes, onions, and spinach. How do people so transform organic matter into something that transcends mere food and becomes something more like art, or music?

The restaurant at Doe Bay uses natural, locally grown ingredients. Renae explained that the eggs on the island were particularly nutritious and savory, because the chickens were allowed to forage, and ate a lot of insects, which augmented the amount of keratin in their eggs, and mitigated the insect population.

It was fun eating my dinner and listening to poetry during the open mic. I normally don’t enjoy the distractions of dinner theatre, but this was different. This was more like dinner with friends, a cornucopia of poetry, food, and some of the most beautiful scenery I have seen, rugged rocks, towering trees, and the lure of wooded isles in the distance.

It was dark when we made our way back to the cabin. A few lights guided our way. The cabin felt cozy. In minutes it was deliciously warm again. We were enveloped in knotty pine. The nightmare that is the United States safely remote, all but forgotten. The destruction of the Gulf of Mexico, depredations of the outlaw gang that is Goldman Sachs, literally sacking the country’s economy, on top of the two wars sucking it dry, torture, rendition, shredded constitution, tea bagger maniacs sporting guns at political rallies, all that seemed to belong to a horrific dream the magnitude of which could not possibly belong to this world, the world of fragrant air and knotty pine, sea otters cracking mollusks on their bellies and deer grazing in meadows dripping with fresh rain.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Come In

It is anonymous or glue to excite the cream of the mind into animals. Hurt will swim in it like a definition of birth. The river stirs its simple mirrors. Dogs, by implication, smell the evergreens.

The tonic which is teeming with thought floats a bicycle made of urge.

Pepper from incentive, not hills.

An architecture of willow which scratches the sky is forefront. Everything else is butter. Pharmaceutical planets converging on an aerodrome.

Apollinaire ambushed the bruise because it was too parenthetical to carry into pulp. Blister between a finger and an old conflagration.

Intentions are all I have, including plays, reflections, and Braque.

Think like a geisha, act like a Cubist.

The organic must breed hinges and strength to reach today’s ceiling. The late examination so jingled it disturbed the potato. Stink as a mutation, as a mushroom does. Byzantine cotton for apples and virtuosity. Thought was the joy we flopped on the floor, a symptom of paregoric, as if yellow disintegrated into description.

If you use words as I do, as popcorn, the chowder will change into calliopes.

Invite an almond so that a murder’s height reflects the plumbing from silver. The creamy emotion has been spread on our needs. Perception through indispensable chains is providence. The incentive disturbs me but the itch is within.

Myriad smacks unsnap their peculiarities on a cloud of dust. Hirsute dump that a ground disfigures.

The mongrel air proliferates in silk. Words slide through it igniting remembrances of cribbage and crab. Mint eludes the trousers. It is a pleasure that is vague to the bulbs but specific to wind. Call it the chisel that an hallucination banks. The deliverance inside the brain. Indigo more bride than abstraction. More enthusiasm than travel.

Sandstone fits the escalator within. Words are shattering. Awed leaves in the anthology below my world. Smack because the semen develops alone. The ghost of an ox is apparent in sex, but what shapes the water in a ceremony of drool? Spirits have spun our pronouns into roots. The house begins with asphalt. The thumb is an incentive to swarm the knife with our fingers.

There is a grebe that bangs against the roof of the mouth. It is a slap to the stars to think existence grows from brightness. It grows from stress. The same blade in the emotion that an alternating current creates from incense.

Pronouns are eels. Pull them into the water. Bottle the red until it writhes in deeper attraction. Clasp the winters that sanctify teeth.

The air bites shrewdly.

The door is a category of amber.

Come in.