Sunday, August 29, 2010

Alarming Sentiments

A suitcase packed with time pops open revealing carefully folded minutes, hours, seconds. Boxing ghosts in a mouth of beans. A misplaced autumn. The gallantry of syllables carrying an image of swans haunted by a sky of reckless silk.

I get dressed in a personality convulsing with shadows. The buttons are crickets. The pockets are mouths. The zipper is a chain reaction warming the umbilicus of night.

I am in love with the collar. It opens like a large and stately tomb to let my head through. It is the final point needed to win a sports match. The ground rumbles like a partita when the chestnuts hit my helmet. Gases are expelled from a volcanic vent. Pretty music in particular.

An ambushed ambiguity embodies a plaster disease. Let us call it tuna. Let us call it distance. Let us call it pain.

The physiology of phantoms distresses the sublimity of the potato. The blood of a thousand stomachs growls with the thunder of eggnog. There is a kind of cloth in the ghost of a thesis. A concertina murmuring a medicine of nocturnal detachment.

Buffalo wrinkles. The glow of optimism. A plywood eyebrow dried and waxed by an Egyptian lifeguard and a series of pulleys.

Nerves are minted by experience. Experience is minted by nerves. While wearing 18 pounds of cotton between hallelujahs in a sanctuary of sand.

Imagine a house full of anxious sparrows. Imagine a house full of paint. Imagine a house full of unanswered subpoenas. Imagine a house.

The recruitments have arrived. They say beauty is fleeting. They say beauty is a chimera. They say beauty is the smell of salmon. Totems in the mist.

The clarinet bends a sound into stone. A mutation in green dangling from a chiaroscuro arm.

Soap is manufactured. The caboose is jingled. Jingled because it is a caboose. Jingled because it is not soap. Jingled because it is a cocoon of alarming sentiments.

I have chiseled a sound of elevation and hold it in my hand. It is light as the sternum of a bat. I will endeavor to drive it around the room, wearing a scrupulously loud T-shirt baked in the weight of a fork.

I need to pump some gasoline into this limousine. This pair of gloves. This pot of glue. This tongue of derailment. This palette full of paint.

Can a hit song solve the enigma of wind? Can a language crackle with shadows on a glowing forehead?

Space exceeds the steeple by hugging a janitor. There is salvation in bas-relief. Opium in a field where the cylinders of desire drool the milk of subversion. Opinions thicken with exile.

There is a pyramid on Isidore Ducasse Street and a metaphor sweating fire behind these words.

Here is a book of gravitation for Baudelaire. It is more fulfilling than a stint in the army. It is a hammerhead nickel doing a handstand on a gantry.

It is a body of bone and cartilage crawling toward an overture of bullets. Knives of unuttered sound.


And the prospect of birds.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Down By The Sound

Yesterday while the Fu Hua from Panama loaded with grain at Pier 86 I looked for remnants of the Seattle Hempfest. Specifically, precariously balanced pinnacles of rock along the riprap of Myrtle Edwards Park. These little structures fascinate me. They’re so delicately poised. Rock balanced on rock balanced on rock. The shapes tend toward the pyramidal, but not always. I wonder if it’s a single individual that makes them, or a group of people. I presume they do it for the sheer fun of it, though I would not rule out a deeper significance.

I’ve never attended a Hempfest. It’s not, so to speak, my cup of tea. I realize that hemp has many uses, including rope, textiles, and paper, but let’s face it, people go to Hempfest to get stoned. Which, here in Seattle, is a practice surrounded by strange, contradictory laws. During the Hempfest, there are hundreds of people of smoking marijuana openly, often right in front of the police, with no arrests. Whereas arrests for smoking pot in city streets is up by 29 per month, almost triple of that last year. Puzzling.

The trail along the Myrtle Edwards beachfront has long been a favorite run of mine. I go down to Aloha street, which leads into West Olympic Place, which leads to the entrance of Kinnear Park, and a small switchback trail that takes me down to Elliott Avenue West. I like to wait a couple of days after Hempfest, which occurs in late August, sufficient time for the cleanup crews to pack up all the lumber and poles and debris. That way I don’t have to dodge trucks and people.

I have mixed feelings about Kinnear Park. It’s a pretty, well-kempt park, but it gives me the creeps. In the past it has had a reputation for drug deals, since a good portion of it is well-hidden from city streets, and a popular place for homeless people to set up their camps. Last June, a man’s body was found, dead from stab wounds. I’ve never encountered a single homeless person, drug deal, or corpse in all the times I’ve run through the park, but it has that kind of atmosphere. A weird, ineffable, film noir shadiness to it. Sinister. Louche.

But there is also a lushly wooded and groomed section of lawn that would be perfect for a production of As You Like It, or Midsummer Night’s Dream. I’m not sure whether I would be less surprised to find Duke Senior and his men roasting a deer there in the park than I would the cast from The Panic In Needle Park.

As soon as I exit from Kinnear Park, I encounter another creepy place. This is a former retail space on Elliott Avenue West that has long since been shuttered and closed. Its interior is a complete mystery. The windows have been painted over. There is no way to see what is in the building. It seems to be deserted. And yet, on one occasion, I saw a group of men barbecuing in the parking lot. And there are always at least one or two cats hanging around, which indicates that someone must be feeding them. What goes on in that building, and why all the secrecy? It’s spooky.

Yesterday I saw a decrepit old man with white hair and a cane make his way slowly toward the back door. Was this the wizard of the building? Inside I imagined Goldbergian complexities amid dizzying Piranesian corridors.

Or was it just all shabby furniture cluttered and dusty with rats scurrying about and Batman or the Green Lantern chained to a wall?

A little further down things escalate very quickly into more upscale retail stores. The Creative Home Center offers windows and doors, blown glass, water-saving toilets, countertops and cabinetry, travertine tile and old world stonework, even sample wall murals by artists who can be hired for custom work. Next to it, the Wine Outlet offers pricey bottles of pinot noir, cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay and Riesling. No one ever seems to be there when I pass, but I can see lots of tables and glasses set up for wine tasting.

Further down is the most interesting place, Wilson Machine Works, established in 1926. This place gives me a potent feeling of nostalgia, as if I had just stepped back in time by about 80 or 90 years. The United States doesn’t do this sort of thing anymore. Odd, to think the U.S. was once famous for our machinery and factory production. Its current zeitgeist is better represented by the wealthy elite sipping pinot noir next door at the Wine Outlet, or the homeless looking for a place to sleep in Kinnear Park.

Wilson Machine Works makes everything from nitrated and triple keyed crankshafts to polished and shot peened connecting rods. A peek through the large open entrance reveals a plethora of milling and drilling machines, lathes and cutting tools. It is a strange vision. I hear echoes of Eddie Cochran singing “Summertime Blues” and see Neil Cassady doing pull-ups on a crossbeam.

Across the street is Blackstock Lumber and the Amgen bridge, built by Amgen Inc. Amgen is a Fortune 500 company working in biotechnology. The 420-foot Amgen Helix Pedestrian Bridge spans eleven railroad tracks. It is called a helix bridge because of the three-dimensional helix design symbolizing the DNA research going on behind its walls. I’ve noticed that the pigeons really like it. And not a few sparrows.

I drop down and pass the Pier 86 grain silos. They’re immense. Each of the 68 silos is 130 feet high, 28 feet in diameter, and holds 54,000 bushels. The grain gallery extends the full length of the wharf. Two electric-belt conveyors with five loading spouts drop the grain down into the holds of the big tankers parked underneath. I’m guessing this is grain grown in the Palouse country of eastern Washington, down around Pullman. German farms impeccably clean. High sloping hills of fine wind-blown loess. How they operate their tractors on such steep hillside I don’t know. But this where their grain goes.

It’s a noisy place. Lots of whooshing and hissing sounds.

Off in the distance, hovering over West Seattle’s Alki Beach, is the colorful chute of someone parasailing. Pier 57 Parasail offers rides for $49 to $54 for one person, or $89 to $95 for a tandem ride. They strap a parasail on your back, hook you to a long rope, two you around Elliott Bay, and you don’t even get wet.

A few yards offshore, not far from Pier 86, is a large rectangular structure of netting that used to puzzle the hell out of me. No one seemed to know what it was. At last, the Port of Seattle put a sign up explaining this structure: they are salmon net pens maintained by the Muckleshoot and Suquamish Tribes. There are two pens for salmon hatchlings to mature enough to release them into the open water where they can fend for themselves, more or less, in the highly polluted and boat-crowded waters of Puget Sound.

How different Puget Sound would sound if Puget were given a French pronunciation instead of the usual Puh-jet. But then, Poo-jay Sound wouldn’t sound quite right either.

How polluted is Puget Sound? It’s pretty polluted. Some 92,000 acres of mud and sand on the seafloor are considered moderately to highly contaminated by toxic chemicals and sewage. Water runoff from Seattle’s streets and parking lots go directly into the water. Even something as seemingly innocuous as tapping one's brakes a little has an impact; each time one's brakes are tapped, which occurs a lot in Seattle's heavy traffic, a bit of copper is lost, dribbles to the street, and becomes liable to get washed via drainage sewer into the water. But the worse damage is from industry. Navy ships, cruise ships, and hundreds of government and private facilities legally dump billions of gallons of polluted water each day into the Sound.

And yet life persists. You can gaze into water and see swarms of smelt, or the translucent beauty of jellyfish floating idly amid tangles of kelp. Sometimes the bald shiny head of a seal emerges and dips, emerges and dips. The purple varnish clam has even become increasingly abundant.

Last year there was a hoax. Rumor got around that one of Ivar’s signs had been brought up from the sound, and remounted at one of Seattle’s busier intersections. The story was that the popular seafood restaurant was making an appeal to passing underwater subs. I was one among the gullible that bought into the story. The billboard was warped and splotched as if it had been underwater a long time. I was rather crestfallen to find that it had been a hoax. What a charming vision, to see a billboard erected on the sound’s muddy bottom with a big luscious happy clam luring you to the tables at Ivar’s from the porthole of a sub.

Do subs even have portholes? Or just periscopes?

Further down the asphalt covered trail is a totem pole that has been recently installed. It was originally erected at Pier 48. It’s a 52 foot pole carved by Tlingit Indians, John Hagen, Ed Kasko, and Cliff Thomas circa 1975. It represents, from top down, an eagle, a brown bear, a killer whale, a hawk, a grizzly bear holding a mosquito, Strong Boy and Sea Lion. Apparently, the totem is some sort of fable, or novel. That’s the way I tend to see totems. As stories. Carved out of wood.

The totem’s overall theme was intended to celebrate the relationship between Washington and Alaska. The eagle represents a main clan of the Tlingit tribe. The brown bear denotes the great size of Alaska, and holds a “Tinnah,” which is a money piece symbolizing the great wealth of the land. The killer whale portrays tenacity and strength. The hawk depicts sharp eyesight, hence, perception of the future. The grizzly bear denotes bravery. The mosquito he holds is a cautionary note warning people that life isn’t always easy. At the bottom, Strong Boy and the Sea Lion provide the nucleus of the totem's quixotic tale.

Strong Boy spent a lifetime of ridicule for his doltishness and laziness. But, somewhat like Shakespeare’s Henry V, exercised in secret. When his uncle was swallowed by a sea lion, all the other nephews ran, while Strong Boy remained, seized the sea lion by the tail and tore the animal in half, letting his uncle out alive.

It’s amusing to think that the totem preceded the blog. But it’s not so amusing to think that the blog has superceded the totem.

Or that Sarah Palin was once the governor of Alaska. How would you depict that in a totem?

As for the rock pinnacles, I only saw one. This was a disappointment. Had there been many more that had already been toppled?

The lack of rock pinnacles is made up by the three giant slabs of concrete and corresponding granite boulders that comprise Michael Heizer’s Adjacent, Against, Upon. Never have three prepositions been dramatized with quite so much rock. Each of the rocks was quarried from the Cascades and delivered by barge in 1976, where, for a time, it enjoyed a little controversy. Is this art? People are used to seeing men posturing solemnly and nobly as they gaze with stony pupils into city squares. Heizer’s prepositions invite participation. You can climb on the rocks. Jump from the rocks. Explore your own capacity for prepositional play.

There were still a few trucks loading up with poles and other festival equipment. I saw a colorfully dressed man with a long pointy beard giving directions, and experienced a nice little pinch of nostalgia, remembering back on Haight Ashbury in 1966, when people wandered the streets day and night, offering food and places to sleep. Then 1967 reared its ugly summer of love head and the summer of love turned to filth and squalor as thousands showed up to cash in on the scene.

Mark di Suvero’s Schubert Sonata marks the end of the Myrtle Edward trail. I love this sculpture (see picture to right). It is music made out of steel. It is a music of space and structure. Weight and form. It was created in 1992 and is constructed of partially painted steel. It measures 22 feet by 10 feet.

A sonata is a three-part musical construction whose charm springs from the interplay between the differing tonalities. Di Suvero’s sculpture plays with this structure visually, with steel. Lines curve and bend, reach and contract, pinch and release. It has a large, generous energy. It echoes sound without making a sound. Accompanies the sound in the mute sonority of steel.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

The Stepladder Confesses Its Clatter

What if a word explodes into surf and, bashful as a bride, rides an ox to Alabama where the hatchets are buried and humanity is stunned by the oysters absorbed in a dream of water? What if density has a wildcat and lifts itself into supposition? What if the mouth in our tea begins to narrate the door? Or succeeds at mosaic? Or breeds cognition? Or detonates in the olives?

A pump is spillable. Eczema is opposite. So is Alaska.

Bouillon overstates its particularity. Radical conceptions of hunger recruit bags of gravity as if a weight declared itself horses and evolved into lightning. Kandinsky kicking a stool.

Lines of poetry create a galaxy of goats that deform the fence and withdraw into squares of androgynous headlight. Look what walking has done to the sidewalk. Each flower is a hiatus of hands. To cauterize opinion is to anthologize the cackling of witches. Let bacteria shine out of a book. Boil the plays of Shakespeare into jelly. Let a mountain twist itself into swans.

A mind can drift through a cloud and think itself a scent of French yelling at unpredictable temperatures. Virtuosity comes in cubes that freeze below the threshold of consciousness. Mass mirrors the density of words. Fingers grow into metaphor and hold the mind like a slice of pumpernickel. A door opens in my head and a phenomenon of spoons and camaraderie culminates in evocations of blood. I can feel a fat cloud of cats and dogs rain on a map of England. I can feel abstractions of sunlight tugging my sleeve. I can feel the confusion of gardens.

The idea of frost has not been sufficiently explored. The golden glue of the estuary demonstrates the idea of union. It all sticks together after the tide pulls back revealing an ear full of imagery and a tongue of mud languishing in wreckage.

I am not another fungus come to announce the wisdom of decay. I am simply a house of language offering shelter to the nebulas of reverie ballooning into furniture. Actual chairs. Actual tables. Actual actuaries. Actual dimes and initiations.

Meaning coheres when the daydreams collude in exhibitions of cork, and the stepladder confesses its clatter.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010


Last Monday was hot. A lush 91°. A spate of hot weather in Seattle is rare as a democratic socialist at a Republican convention. It is not to be wasted. When winter comes, you want to be able to remember it. You want to gather and preserve the vividness and clarity of each and every sensation appertaining so that you can draw that time from the well of your memory and taste it again. Live it again. Recreate an inner summer in the midst of winter.

You do not want to spend such days indoors on the Internet. You want to imbibe such times deeply, suck them into your being, squeeze them into your cells, trap them in your biology. Hold them forever in the clutch of your nerves.

What to do. Go for a walk? Too boring. Sit in a nicely air-conditioned movie theatre enjoying a summer movie? Too decadent. Play tennis? We don’t have rackets or balls. Run through a sprinkler? We’re condo dwellers. We don’t have a lawn, or a sprinkler.

We decided to go canoeing.

I do not own a yacht. And I am glad of that. A yacht is a big expensive thing full of needs and complications. A canoe, on the other hand, is a small thing, easy to maneuver in the water, a sleek and graceful form. It is a joy to feel a paddle in your hands, the smooth round contour of the handle, watch the little swirls and whirlpools that follow a pull of the paddle in the water, the feeling of the hull as it glides over a serene surface, or splats and chuckles against the wake of some fool’s yacht. Some fool’s headache.

I don’t own a canoe either. But you can rent them. There are a number of places in town to do that, but one of the better ones is the Water Activities Center at the University of Washington. This is a modern bunker style building staffed by students on the western shore of Union Bay, in back of Husky Stadium. You sign a waiver, assure them that you can swim, and they hand you life-preserver vests and a couple of paddles and a slip of paper to hand to the boat handler at the dock, in this instance, a pretty young Asian student. Her co-worker, another young Asian woman, had just gone on break, and dove into the water.

We were given canoe #87. All the canoes are aluminum, their bows dented and dimpled, but their overall shape and condition sturdy as a Viking longship. We passed the young Asian boat handler on the way out, her head bobbing above the water. Look, I said, a mermaid. She grinned.

We paddled under the freeway, SR-520, a.k.a. the Evergreen Floating Bridge, which traverses the islands and marshes of the Washigton park arboretum. The canoeing there is pleasant, except for the noise of cars whooshing by on the freeway, the water calm, the little islands alluring and intimate, the channels and bridges charming and diverse. There are a gazillion species of waterfowl, including coots, pied-bill grebes, bitterns, blue herons, cormorants and Canadian geese, but mostly wood ducks, all in anticipation of food, as the canoeists like to toss bits of snack food into their clusters. Sometimes a seagull will drop down and create a commotion, stealing some poor wood duck’s sandwich or potato chip.

The water is choked with aquatic plants which makes me a little nervous. I’m a good swimmer, but the tangle of growth looks like it had a real potential for getting around your legs and dragging you down. I did see people swimming in there though, their heads bobbing above the water, arms outstretched in easy butterfly strokes.

I was yearning to get into the water. I asked Roberta if she’d like to paddle over to Foster Island. She said sure.

Foster Island is a wetland with 1, 750 feet of shoreline. It provides critical habitat for Chinook salmon and nesting bald eagles, and is forested with willows, alder, madrona, pines, Douglas-firs, maples, oaks, Chinese empress trees, and cottonwoods. Various shrubs engross the turgid understory, such as salal, witch hazel, and serviceberry. The wildlife consists of goldfinch, song sparrows, bush tits, small rodents, beaver, and raccoons, though I have on occasion seen, or dreamed I saw, the heads of brontosaurus emerge from the understory serenely chewing a mouthful of mountain laurel.

We paddled near a spot where we might have been able to beach our canoe, but it was blocked by someone else’s canoe, ingeniously tethered to a small log afloat in the shallow water via one of the tethers of their lifejacket. We continued to round the island to the north. I remembered a spot from several summers ago when we had gone hiking on Foster Island on a similar hot day and come to a wall of riprap buttressing the shore where there was a stretch of shallow water extending about ten feet before disappearing into the abyss of a very sharp drop-off. I had been dressed in jeans and shirt that day and did not want to risk the embarrassment of swimming in my underwear. We returned to that same spot, but there was nowhere to beach or tether the canoe. I got out and waded in the water, guiding the canoe back to the spot we’d seen earlier blocked by the canoe. It was hard going because the bottom was very rocky, the riprap extending out onto the floor of the lake. I felt my way very gingerly with my bare feet, emitting a stream of invective, ouch, shit, fuck, shit, shit shit shit, along the way. A slip could easily capsize the canoe, along with Roberta, our camera and wallets. The stream of invective was a form of verbal crochet, an aid to my concentration.

I returned to the spot where the other canoe was tethered to one of two logs, both at an angle which, combined with the shoreline, created a tiny, pyramidal harbor. There was thick vegetation on the bottom which felt to my bare feet like a weird shag carpet. I did not like the sensation. It was a vivid reminder of a time when I was about eight or nine years old and my father and I were wading near an unused portion of shoreline on Perch Lake in Wisconsin where a grove of trees were growing, somewhat like the ones you see in the bayous of Louisiana. The bottom was mucky, a deep black rich mud with bits of woodland detritus mixed in with it. I hated it. I frustrated my father because I refused to wade in it. He insisted it was harmless. I was sure there was something hideous and macabre embedded in it, a human skeleton, or some primordial creatures left over from the Age of Dinosaurs with dangerous teeth and pincers. To this day I remember my father’s utter frustration with me. His son, the wimp.

Roberta was not dressed for swimming, but I was, so she remained behind holding our canoe while I waded out a ways, dove under the water and paddled around a bit before returning, nicely cooled off.

We took our time returning to the WAC. There is nothing more delicious than sitting in a canoe on the open water doing nothing but drift. I am fascinated by gazing at water. The little rills and dimples and waves that appear are enthralling. Hypnotizing.

It remained intensely hot even on the open water, the sun blazing in a pale blue sky. There was a brown haze of pollution at both horizons, worse than a day we remembered in Los Angeles gazing out from the overlook of Griffith Park planetarium. We watched a flock of geese as one by one they upturned themselves and showed their white butts to the day as they fed on the plants underwater. We felt light breezes cross and envelop our bare skin providing momentary relief from the heat. I gazed into the water and thought about the various planes lying on the bottom of the lake, seven altogether. One of them is a torpedo bomber, a Grumman TBF-1 Avenger, that had gone down in 1942 during a training exercise, and now languishes under 200 feet water off the shore of Kirkland.

Another is a Lockheed PV2-D Harpoon patrol bomber that had sunk in September 1947, when it went out of control during takeoff from Sandpoint Naval Airbase. It is a fully armed World War II combat aircraft, its nose stuck in the bottom, the guns pointing to the surface as if to shoot down some jet skier or people on a pleasure craft.

Lake Washington’s bottom is littered with wrecks. Minesweepers, schooners, coal cars, the original floating bridge, even a stern wheeler.

Mark Tourtellot, co-owner of Fifth Dimension Dive Center in Issaquah, once found a J.G. Fox & Co. glass root-beer bottle from the early 1900s in 40 feet of water off of Leschi.

I kept track of the drift of our canoe by looking very closely and identifying a specific underwater plant and seeing how fast we moved away from it. We seemed to be moving quite fast. I looked up and saw some men running at the far northern end of Union Bay, white T-shirted torsos bobbing along in a formation. Look, I said, a herd of wild men in a stampede. It must be feeding time.

Or football training, Roberta surmised.

Or football training, I agreed.

I checked my watch. We had about fifteen, maybe twenty minutes left. But this was a guess. Roberta remarked that she was getting uncomfortably hot so we decided to bring our canoe back to the WAC. The paddles returned to our hands, the little whirlpools and dimples to the water as we moved forward, our craft slicing through the water, gliding like a dream of aluminum over a forest of milfoil and algae.

It is a continual fascination to me how many little irritations and annoyances combine to make a general pleasure. We were uncomfortably hot, but this served to augment the feeling of the breeze. The canoe was rented, but how nice to return it and have it out of our lives; boats require money and maintenance. And when we returned home, no words can express the lushness of the carpet beneath my feet. The sensation was glorious. I paused a minute to reflect and make sure the memory of Foster Island’s riprap and shallows were locked in my mind until winter.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Mecca Of Funk

Several weeks ago I listened to Lee Callahan at KPTK interview Rainn Wilson, the young man who plays Dwight Schrute in The Office. He mentioned that his mother, Kristin Wilson, sold handcrafted silver jewelry at Pike Place Market. Consequently, when Roberta began thinking about what to get for her sister’s birthday, I suggested we walk down to Pike Place Market and check out Kristin Wilson's silver jewelry.

It’s a short walk, about two miles. It starts by going down a very steep part of Fifth Avenue North, then passing several blocks of small stores, the Crow restaurant (killer lasagna), Panos Kleftiko (a traditional Greek taverna), Jewel Alterations & Cleaners, and Marinepolis Sushi Land (the impulse to try sushi has not been sufficiently strong enough to put me on one of their seats trying to figure out how to eat items going around on a conveyor belt).

Continuing south, the next few blocks takes us past Silver Platters (a nice place for old duffers such as myself who still buy DVDs and CDs because we have not figured out how to download movies and songs from the internet), the Experience Music Project (a building designed by Frank Gehry that looks like a cross between a plane wreck and the bear house at the Woodland Park Zoo), KOMO television (four gigantic vents blow warm air and God knows what else into the street onto hapless pedestrians), and Zeke’s Pizza.

Fourth Avenue is a pretty street, lined with small trees and wide sidewalks. Traffic is light, the pedestrians a standard urban mélange of tourists, panhandlers, merchants, and office workers. We hooked a sharp right on Virginia and headed down to Pike Place Market on First Street, overlooking Elliot Bay.

Pike Place Market opened August 17th, 1907, which makes it over a hundred years old, and is one of the oldest continually operated public farmers’ markets in the United States. If you like funk, this is the place for you. Pike Place Market is the Mecca of Funk. The pungent smell of fish mingles with the sounds of street musicians, banjos, mandolins, paint cans, empty plastic buckets, washboards, kazoos, and occasionally an electric guitar with a little speaker ejaculating Nirvana and Dylan. There are people covered head to toe with tattoos, bizarre coiffeurs, denizens of the waterfront filibustering their demons with streams of fascinating invective, crafts merchants in reveries of people-watching prognostication, snotty street kids sneering at the world with baggy pants and butt cracks, mothers pushing strollers, fathers fiddling with smartphones, girls viewing life through the screen of a digital camera or texting their friends back home, boys sporting goatees and skateboards, middle-aged retired accountants on Harleys with biker fantasies and Viagra prescriptions. In other words, the hoi-polloi. Salt of the earth. Riffraff. The rank and file. The great unwashed. Middle America. The vulgus. The multitude. The huddled masses. Roiling moiling toiling boiling brooding brewing mewing intruding eluding reviewing strewing feuding chewing exuding obtruding spewing tattooing and bamboozling.

Jesus. I sound like a Republican. I actually like being in crowds. People fascinate me. And crowds make me feel secure. This is wrongheaded, I know. Crowds have a tendency to become mobs. But what comforts me is the feeling of my individuality being a part of something far larger than the miserable carping ego I am locked into 24/7.

Roberta and I entered the crowd at the far northern end of the north arcade and began shuffling along in a Brownian movement of torsos, buttocks, paunches, and arms, a slow diffusion of nervous human energy contributing lipids and protein to the corpuscular crowd jamming the arteries and capillaries that is the Pike Place agora.

The myriad displays of cottage industry product and handmade commodity was overwhelming. A plethora of gadgets, doodads, hats and watercolors, bolo ties and bric-à-brac shouted their colors and qualities on each side of us, hungry for attention and money. Pipes, rings, cutting boards, wooden crayon vans, gift cards, art scrolls, custom invitations, silkscreened shirts and tote bags, healing salves and meditation music, bottles and jars of aromatherapy oils, handknit rainwear, pottery, photography, organic African herbs and shea butter for the skin, Hmong needlecraft, Holy Cow Records, jackstraw nudie boots, hand-pummeled japonica ice bags, signatory gateposts, sweetbriar escalator suits, and stegosaurus toenails.

I spotted a constellation of silver brooches, pins, and earrings mounted handsomely on placards of black velvet and guided Roberta in that direction. She saw what she wanted immediately, a pair of earrings in sterling silver, a moon and a star. They were exceedingly pretty. I wondered if the woman sitting at the stall was Rainn Wilson’s mother. I looked for hints and traces of Rainn Wilson in her face, but didn’t really see anything that loudly proclaimed “Rainn Wilson is my son.” The woman, in fact, turned out to be a friend who had been overseeing the sales of Kristin Wilson’s jewelry for many years. Roberta paid for the earrings, which the woman put in a black velvet pouch. We merged into the crowd again and shuffled along beside an immense display of flowers until I spotted an opening and dove for it. We returned to the cobbled street that divides the two main sections of the market and were greeted with the heavy fragrance of pastries emanating from the Mee Sum Bakery.

We went down the long series of steps that leads to the waterfront and the Seattle Aquarium and crossed Alaskan Way to the sidewalk that follows along the slop and slap of Puget Sound's bracken waters around the barnacled pilings and jetsam below. The crowd did not look that thick when I eyed it from across the street, but once we began running the crowd proved to be much thicker than anticipated. It felt more like we were dodging players in a basketball game than running. We crossed to the other side where the going was much easier. We enjoy running on Alaskan Way because the scenery and freshness of the salt air. When we reached Pier 70 we ended our run and began walking again.

There are two Louise Bourgeois sculptures by Pier 70, at the beginning of Myrtle Edward Park. One, Father And Son, I cannot stand it is so infernally corny: a man and a boy, both nude, both rendered in aluminum, face one another, the man’s arms lowered and flexed, slightly, in a welcoming posture of reception, hands turned upward. It is a fountain timed to mark the 24 hours of the day, the water squirting upward between the two figures, obscuring them. I find it almost offensively lame.

The other Bourgeois sculpture, Eye Benches, is brilliant. It is hard to believe it is the work of the same artist. Two immense eyeballs, rendered in burnished black granite from Zimbabwe, peer east in an eternal gaze toward Western Avenue, Ye Olde Spaghetti Factory, and the railroad crossing. The back sides, where a network of optical nerves would be if there were an actual brain involved, are contoured to fit one’s gluteus maximus, and face west, toward Elliot Bay. The eyeballs are positioned rather precariously, subject to collisions by bicyclists, and errant automobilists crashing down Broad Street. I hope they survive.

We passed two more works that are part of the Olympic Sculpture Park. The Neukom Vivarium, by Mark Dion, is a climate-controlled greenhouse housing an immense, moss-covered Western Hemlock nurse log hauled into Seattle from the Green River watershed. A nurse log is a fallen tree which, as it decays, provides “ecological facilitation to seedlings.” I like being in this space. I can feel the vibrance of decay as it generates more life. It is odd to see so much vitality in dying. Unfortunately, this space relies on volunteers to keep an eye on things and field questions and is closed much of the time.

The other is titled Split, and is a stainless steel tree by Roxy Paine. Roberta and I wonder if this tree is susceptible to lightning strikes. One can only imagine the confusion of squirrels and birds trying to build a nest in it. Where are the leaves? Where is the bark? Where are the twigs?

The rest of the way home takes us through the Seattle Center Fairgrounds, past Fisher Plaza, where we had recently seen Wooden O give an outdoor performance of Much Ado About Nothing. Seattle has two Shakespeare companies, Green Stage and Wooden O, who put on free Shakespeare in the park performances every summer, beginning in early July. These are a gas, and immensely popular. People show up in the hundreds for these shows. I’m amazed at how much the kids get absorbed in these plays. So do the dogs, though they have a tendency to improvise and be a part of the drama when things get excited. King Lear, watch it: you might discover amid all of your other woes a Chihuahua latched onto your leg.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The Noise Of Your Eyes

Starings, visual poetry by Nico Vassilakis
Xexoxial Editions, 2010

The Roman alphabet is not very pretty. The letters are stark, angular, and respectably pragmatic. They do what they are intended to do, which is to represent phonetic values, not ideas, pictures, or principles. The beauty of this is their infinite capacity for externalizing thought. Yet, unlike the logographs of Chinese, which are far richer in visual appeal, it is not necessary to memorize thousands of characters in order to be literate; one need only familiarize oneself with 26 letters.

Perhaps it is the very resistance to aesthetic treatment that the Roman alphabet has inspired artists such as Jasper Johns, Paul Klee and Charles Demuth to make art of them. John’s False Start colorfully illustrates how letters are more quickly recognized as words, but their very familiarity makes them strangely invisible. We do not see the word: we see its referent. False Start presents words in stark contrast to their surrounding environment of loud rich color. We see them as words referring to the very colors in which they appear so absurdly redundant. The letters, in military stencil fonts, are black. They bolt from the colors like charcoal, their meanings superfluous, the flames of their issue annulled and graphic.

Starings, which implies both a fixed gaze and a flock of starlings, intensifies the graphic quality of letters and presents them as bones, the fundamental objects around which the flesh of meaning is wound, disarticulated and bare, jumbled, smashed, entangled, rocked. The effect is strangely beautiful.

The cover piece, in which the word ‘starings’ is superimposed on one another, black on top, gray beneath, smooshed together to form a busy abstraction not unlike the unbridled physical energy of a Pollock drip painting, arrests the eyes in a visual splendor of orthographic entanglement. The word is just barely recognizable; it is like trying to focus on the bones of dinosaurs embedded in a wall of stone where, millions of years ago, they jammed together in a flood, had been caught in the bend of a Jurassic river, their former articulations so disjointed that the original animal is difficult to recognize. The compactness of the design, which from a distance appears to be a block of disheveled letters, has been deliberately arranged to entangle our eyes, aggressively wrestle them into vision. There is no meaning here. Or rather, the meaning is so explicitly a part of the composition that its intent is brought right to the surface. This is the actuality of seeing itself, perception magnetically held in a totemic vivacity, made energetically apparent.

“You stare your way through words and into middles of words,” Vassilakis states in his introduction, “You resolve the noise of your eyes. The information you see, you seek, to find another nature therein.”

It’s you viewing textual oddities askance. It’s the words, their origins, words within words, the seeds of language. It’s the symbols, signs, and icons seared into your brain. It’s you being attracted by perfect letter structures. It’s the revisiting of early alphabet education. It’s the timeframe between learning how to draw letters and how to write them. It’s you seeking to express the phenomenon of seeing language. It’s you transforming and appreciating the design and construction of alphabet.

The pieces are wild. Purely visual. The designs are so explosive and frenzied that it is difficult to bring them into focus. Their energy is not negotiable. It is just too perfuse. Little ‘h’s dribble down from big ‘H’s, bending like willow branches in a light breeze. A mound of S’s, enlarging then diminishing like a Doppler shift in an arc over a junkyard of tumbled g’s and o’s, lifts then drops one’s eyes in a tickling sibilance of insinuation. In another, a large white asterisk blares out of a background of m’s, crisscrossed sticks and what appear to be B’s or D’s, and the word ‘void’ strung together like a chain of polymers. To the left, a wreathlike oval of h’s, q’s and b’s surround the letters ‘b’ and ‘h.’

When I first saw these renditions, I was not a little amazed. It had not occurred to me that one could make so many eccentric and fascinating patterns with Roman letters, that one could do so many things with our staid alphabet and its prim and rigid shapes. Vassilakis claims to have made these designs on an iPod. His fingers must have the nimbleness of a Frédéric Chopin.

“Visual poetry,” observes Anna Whiteside, “refers not only to itself but to itself referring to itself.” It is circular. It is a breakdown of the inherently sequential nature of European languages. Our alphabet and sentence structure are designed to make us read from left to right. Meaning unfolds in a methodical chain of noun, predicate, qualifier, etc. This is how we feel about time. This is the sensation we have in life. Our histories are structured on the basis of cause and effect. This happened, then this happened, then this happened, and so on.

Other languages differ radically. In Balinese, for instance, all knowledge is arranged around one figure: a center with four or more points around it. It is a metaphor holding the world together.

Visual poems resist formation in a rectilinear grid. They flout their plasticity. They transform the poem into a picture.

I am reminded of an afternoon spent staring at Newspaper Rock in Canyonlands National Park, Utah. These are petroglyphs, actual recognizable pictures of people, animals, stars and wheels. Whatever that actual news may have been, is hard to say from the perspective of someone such as myself completely unfamiliar with petroglyphs. But whatever those pictures carved into the rock happened to be conveying, it was strong enough to hold my fascination for over an hour.

François Rigolot remarks that “the laboratory of formal experiments has been most active at times… when a crisis in formal values has obliged the formulators of culture… to question their expressive medium.” If anyone doubts that we are living in an age of crisis, they are living in a cave. Serious ecological decline, endless war, climate change, unbridled global capitalism, and a full hornet’s nest of other stinging and nettlesome problems find themselves represented not on paper but pixels on computer screens. Information has been digitized. The consequences of this has been a decline in attention span. And this is but one small manifestation of the crisis in the linguistic arts.

Visual poetry causes us to halt and look. Not just look, but gaze. Stare.

Visual poetry is a construction in space, not time. It reinforces the notion that the poem is a made thing. It lodges statements in the form of a shape. When pictorial and linguistic elements meet, the result, as in Starings, is startling; language extends its range of possibilities via its distribution in space and the fragmentation of the elements - letters, phonemes, morphemes, etc., that make meaning, meaning - immerse our eyes in a multifarious word factory.

Any of the pieces in Starings would not look out of place framed and hung on a wall in a museum or art gallery. They will, however, be assuming the tactile and eminently portable form of a 24-page, saddle-stitched black and white booklet next month.

September: s-e-p-t-e-m-b-e-r. Sepia timbre.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

The Birch Doctrine

The birch doctrine in summer summons emeralds. Algebra is friendly to the lucidity of evergreen and exempts many further allegories from incessant vinegar. A metaphorical bistro has been emphatic. Mohair by the aerodrome, a bikini by the mushrooms. Virtue, in a later pyramid with a bone black expansion, wheels forward on an oath of oak and popcorn.

Fiction is square as well as ripe and flavored with nature. Ocher is the path to mustard and its emotion gives a hunger to the inflation of carp. A jungle in cake, a napkin pinned to a hungry wind. A diagnosis fondles a mirror pulled out of a disease of bone and drum. The Rio Tinto zinc mines which aggressively drag around on stilts are further symptoms of pith.

Libraries are better suited to the greed for grammar. The kind of grammar predicated on angora, dirt, and portulaca. Fireworks pulled from a ball of gurgled hallucinations. The ascension is detailed in oblivion. Perception alters the pickles.

A funny morality exhumed from a hive of wasps teaches us ideas of jackknifed coagulation. Morning scribbles its abstractions on a pumpkin. A wild time dangles from a violin. And a bald trombonist pulls a fold of protoplasm out of a wallet to pay for an impersonal consonant. One must always draw the clutter of life as if it were both vulgar and parenthetical.

The vowel I discovered on the top of my head was heavy and red, like a scratched mineral. Apollinaire unrolled the lotus of his mind and varnished it with wisdom. Medicine left us all feeling new and grand. Knots of verbal fiber inched its way toward a deeper meaning in a stew of prose and luscious hysteria. Greed murdered a goldfish.

The galaxy, in its elegance, felt visceral, as if a pineapple had rolled out of the door and into the hallway, tripping one of the neighbors I dislike. There is a door in the pigment opening to a wonderful seclusion percolated through a cone of isinglass and morphine. Each muscle is personified by an engine of spinning chairs. The humor of it is total flagstone, hectic with heat and paper.

The crab, contrasting with the hammer, has been reluctant to settle down and do crab-like things. Blood, meanwhile, comes in daubs, haunted and serious. The sternum collar stud has married the chair to its gloss. Our drawers are filled with summer, little potpourris of sloth and shittimwood. Below the aurora is a neck in the river that holds the secret of itself in cottonwood and willow.

My intent climbs to my mouth and jumps out in words over which I appear to have no control. Even the butter of morning bends into fish. A buffalo exclaims headlights are the eyes of a grizzled cacophony peremptorily rubber. I believe in nothing but my own two axioms: description is shaky, and bitumen is solemn. Mass and density are two sides of the same halitosis.

Crawling is enriched by hands. Grow strong from hammers. Touch the trapeze upon the pulling of it toward you. Then swing. Swing in squirts, like a rubbed tube of precipitous tinsel.

Smack that oar against the water and splash the clouds with camaraderie. Nothing exists that has not been mouthed by the smell of effusion. Coordinates scribbled on a café napkin, or a trumpet wrapped in silk. Those sweet experiences we sometimes hear in the fragrance of sheer endeavor. Algebra, with its surge of symbols, creates a feeling of consciousness, faucets arranged by kinetic mosquitoes in a dream of beauty.

Astronomy makes itself available, then later photogenic meat. Everything has a certain weight to pull. Stars, or zippers, things you would not expect interfaced with thousands of inconceivable sensation, walks on the beach, an anchor descending into the water, a romance littered with jokes. The baking of sexual dollars in the Federal Reserve inflates a phantom wealth impregnated by a syringe of gooey improbability. The brushed fangs of an unbridled autumn converging with the tender meat of a day old harmonica.

There are some irritations that turn peculiarly aesthetic. Others are just plain irritating. A stove, annotated with strips of chrome, awakens the palpability of watts in its coils of gloss and glory, then recedes into shadow when the light is turned off. I have no further thoughts on this. My words revolt, grinding the world to a swollen indeterminacy, irritating critics, but otherwise providing a platform for the reverie of crickets. The metaphysics of a jerky chiaroscuro warming the shadows of a vagrant cantata plunges the rest of the story in straw.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

The Poetry Of Brick And Vapour

"In the landscapes the very absence of human tension allows a whole material poetry, a poetry of brick and vapour, of resistance and penetration, a complex pattern of feeling in which the attraction to the tangible world and a rejection of it were at last reconciled." -- Lawrence Gowing

It could be a day in Seattle. There is a cloud bruised with gray, gravid with moisture. Another cloud is a puff of white, soft as a throne for angels. I can feel the humidity. I can smell the air.

Ozone. That smell of the air when it grows electric and rich. Spring is evoked in the brushwork. Implications of fragrance and change. The energy is unique to the bristles of a brush. It has married mass and light in maneuvers of supple rapport.

Near the center of the foreground, two women in black, big heavy skirts, white folds of fabric for big floppy hats, stand talking to one another. Further to the left, a woman and a baby and two men and a woman talk soberly by a boat. It is evident by their pilgrim dress that this is not Seattle. It is, in fact, Delft.

A few of the city rooftops and steeples are touched with gold. Most are in shadow. The sun is obscured by the cloud full of gray. There is a river at the base of the buildings. Sunlight, diffused by the clouds, lacquers the river with a silvery sheen. The outlines of the buildings are softened in the slightly rippled water.

This view of Delft must have been painted around 1660 or 1661, and is by Jan Vermeer. Delft had become, by then, famous for its pottery and had around 24,000 inhabitants, of whom 1,500 to 2,000 were potters. The city reposes in quiet opulence, on what must be a Sunday, since there are few people within view, and none of the boats are in use.

The steeple awash in sunlight behind the heavy stone building in the dark foreground is Niewe Kerk, a Gothic cruciform basilica which began construction in 1396 and was completed on September 6th, 1496. Every brick and trowel of cement had to be taken up by hand or on pulleys. Vermeer’s home, at Maria Thin’s house in Oude Langendijk, would be just to the right of the Niewe Kerk steeple, but is not visible in the painting.

Vermeer must have positioned himself on a roof or a room with a view to the south over looking the river Schie where it joins a network of inner city canals and had been widened in 1614 to form a triangular pool which served as the harbor for Delft. It is possible he occupied a room in a house on what is now a road called Hooikade, which is presently occupied by 140 multi-family dwellings spread along four blocks.

A tiny clock on the Shiedam Gate shows that it is just past 7 o’clock.

The rooftops, steeples, towers, city gates, battlements, parapets and drawbridges that comprise the Delft skyline have been distorted a little in order to give the composition greater harmony. The twin towers of the Rotterdam Gate, for instance, extend further into the water than they do in the painting.

It has been speculated that Vermeer used a camera obscura, in the process of his work. There are certain effects of diffused light that suggest this use. We are in the presence of the real world of light. Effects of light not visible to the naked eye. Optical effects that reveal themselves in the diffusion of light in the water, its subdued tones, its elaborate hues.

What amazes me is the ephemeral quality of that moment. That specific light, that specific formation of clouds, that particular quality of light on the river, that fugitive luster, that feeling of the air, the shadows and details of buildings, mortar, brick, stonework, their angles and symmetries accented by a particular time, particular glaze, particular gaze.

Vermeer, quite possibly in a room with a camera obscura, the image of Delft cast on a wall, is outside history. He is outside the walls and tempo of the city, its customs and manners and complications. He loves the city and wants to create its beauty from a viewpoint outside the heat and heart of its canals and arteries, the clack and racket of its looms, the pulleys and gears of its construction and Delftware factories, the noise of wooden wheels on cobbled streets, men and women yelling at one another from boats and warehouses. The squawk of gulls when scraps of food or garbage are tossed onto the quays. The cursing of bricklayers with heavy loads and bad tempers. Vermeer is outside all of that. He is outside looking in. Into the city. Into light. Into texture. Into stone. Into grandeur.