September 2006

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for Dale

What if you opened your morning paper and found nothing but poems — lyrical and satirical, surrealistic and realistic — illustrated by photos straight from an art gallery?

What if your scrambled eggs rhymed with your orange juice, and your coffee made you think of a nightcrawler’s ladder into the earth?

What if your partner’s sleepy good morning lit up the kitchen, like a human-scaled version of the third verse of Genesis?

What if the house sparrows scrapping on the sidewalk seemed as worthy of attention as Odysseus and Achilles, and twice as heroic?

What if, when the sunrise hit your rearview mirror, you were to marvel at the daily coincidence of clarity and blindness?

What if the voices on the radio blended with the traffic noise like a stream into a river, the turbulent knowledge of particulars loosed into a more impartial capacity to reflect?

What if the bits of trash along the freeway were shards of a sky that has been busy falling for well over a century, while the whole world has been too distracted to notice?

What if the parking lot filling up with cars looked like one half of a balance sheet, and you made your way into work thinking, Here comes another eight hours of inventing new rules fast enough to keep people from noticing it’s just a game?

What if the fax machine’s incessant tongues of paper were really prayer flags, intended to intercede with the angels of grief?

What if the printers and photocopiers were retooled looms, weaving sails of paper, piecemeal, for some incessant Armada?

What if the tech support guy were an authentic guru, every one of his seemingly dry instructions pregnant with allegory?

What if the soft cubicle walls reminded you of albumen, and the clicking of keyboards sounded like the tapping of beaks against shells, under the florescent lights of an enormous incubator?

What if, every time someone inserted a card into a machine, some small animal on the other side of the earth died an anonymous death?

What if time were money?

What if all the potted plants were replaced with very slow moving, green mimes?

What if, in order to pass from room to room, you had to perform a small ritual that included striking your knuckles at chest level against a removable section of wall, naming yourself, turning a small wheel at navel height, and executing a brief dance with a large, flat slab of dead tree flesh?

What if you put in your two-week’s notice just for the novelty of the thing, and discovered to your surprise that you would miss your fellow workers in all their pettiness, their chemical odors and imperfect beauty?

What if you rested your forehead briefly on the steering wheel and remembered how it felt to be five years old?

What if the unplowed fields of corn stubble along the highway were graveyards for the wind, parceled out into individual breaths?

What if the names and numbers on the signs were all in a foreign language, imposed by conquest?

What if the car kept heading straight for home at a mile a minute, your arms and legs operating smoothly in its service while you sat and watched, incredulous as a child at a magic show?

What if you found the words for all these things, and said them, and instead of laughing, people thanked you for saying what they too had often felt but hadn’t really thought about until this moment?

If everyone else jumped off a cliff, yes,
you’d get in line. That’s how it was.
The national radio said they would kill us all
if we let them live.

We are not barbarians — we are no different from you –
but this is a poor country.
We couldn’t afford 800,000 bullets,
much less the guns to fire them,
so most of the work had to be done
with ten-cent machetes
made in China.

It helped to be a little crazy: the cockroaches
looked so much like neighbors,
like friends from childhood, even
your own wife.
At first they screamed, but then
they’d grow silent, waiting for the end,
already frozen inside.

It wasn’t always pleasant, but we worked
together, in friendly competition
to see who could land the first blow
or do the most killing.
We chanted songs & slogans from the radio.

Some people did not even find someone to kill
because there were more killers than victims.
I saw people whose hands had been amputated,
those with no legs, and others with no heads.
I saw everything.

It went on for a hundred days, until the rebels came.
Afterwards, we burned our clothes
& buried the machetes in the backyard,
using the blades to dig the holes –
there was a nationwide shortage of shovels –
& firming with a foot that rich volcanic soil
where anything will grow.
__________

Written in reaction to the movie Hotel Rwanda, which I saw on Monday night as part of a History Film Series at Penn State Altoona. It’s an amazing film, in part because it portrays one man who did not jump off the cliff — a true hero. The portion in italics above is taken from the testimony of one of the killers, a man named Gitera Rwamuhuzi, courtesy of the BBC.

another chance 1

A twig falls from a tree and lands on my hat — I feel a gentle tap, much too light for an acorn. I take the hat off and watch as the twig arches and inches forward: an inchworm, the larva of a geometer moth.

another chance 2

It crosses the machine-stitched message on the front of the cap — another chance — and the lower wing of the ivory-billed woodpecker. I bought the cap last November on a visit to Brinkley, Arkansas (see here and here) and have worn it regularly ever since. The colors have faded quite a bit. The dot of yellow thread in the woodpecker’s eye has become virtually invisible, and its black-and-white suit looks ready for a trip to the cleaners. Unfortunately, it’s hard to wash a ball cap without shrinking it or warping the brim.

another chance 3

I am among those who continue to believe in the ivorybill’s rediscovery, because I believe in Occam’s Razor, that rule of logic which asserts that the simplest explanation that accounts for every case is most likely to be correct. The many small pieces of evidence and testimony, though hardly unassailable by themselves, do add up, inch by inch. Skepticism and cynicism risk nothing, but they also offer few rewards beyond the sense of membership in an elite club of fellow Brights.

another chance 4

Geometer means “earth-measurer.” The inchworm — also known as a spanworm or looper — takes the earth’s measure with its body, one prostration at a time. This isn’t a progress, but a pilgrimage, with no goal other than to be a caterpillar: it very likely has no notion that any transformation lies ahead. It reaches the far side of my hat and stretches out into space. I flick it onto the ground and watch to make sure that its course takes it away from the tractor tires. The next morning, there’s news of another ivorybill discovery, this time in the Florida panhandle.

another chance 5

Our observations, acoustic encounters, audio recordings, measurements of cavities, and analysis of feeding sign provide evidence that Ivory-billed Woodpeckers may live along the Choctawhatchee River in the Florida panhandle. In a 1-year period from 21 May 2005 to 19 May 2006, members of our search team saw birds that we identified as Ivory-billed Woodpeckers 14 times. We heard sounds matching Ivory-billed Woodpecker kent calls and double knocks, and our listening stations recorded numerous putative kent calls and double knocks, including both sounds at the same recorder on the same day. At the location of our sightings and sound detections, we documented trees with very large cavities with dimensions exceeding the published range for Pileated Woodpecker cavities and exceeding sizes of cavities measured in a nearby area where Ivory-billed Woodpeckers are known not to occur. Also at this same location, and sometimes on the very trees with large cavities, we observed bark scaling unlike that seen in other southern bottomland forests. Any one of our lines of evidence could be dismissed as coincidental or a mistake, but together, these observations, collected by experienced ornithologists, suggest that Ivory-billed Woodpeckers may be present in the Florida panhandle. The persistence of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers will be established definitively only by a clear photograph or video image, a fresh feather, or perhaps genetic analysis of material from a nest or roost cavity, but the evidence presented here warrants an expanded search and protection of this bottomland forest habitat.

It seems we may still have another chance to get it right.
__________

For more on the Florida panhandle ivorybills, see the evidence presented by the authors of the new report at their respective websites: Geoffrey Hill and Daniel Mennill.

dancing grass

All afternoon, the brown moth hanging head-down a few inches off the floor resists the advances of the house spider, beating her wings in a more and more restricted span as the spider adds thread after thread to the growing shroud. At the other end of the web, an egg sac the same color as the moth sways and trembles. The spiders soon to be born, the moth soon to be interred in a second cocoon — neither knows anything about their partner in this dance. Who’s to say we too aren’t joined to some unimaginable counterpart we’ll never meet?

beech eyesFor years, my only morning paper was a chestnut oak leaf that had been skeletonized by leaf miners. I taped it to the window next to my writing table so I could see the sky through a map of veins. Even now, I have an aversion to beginning my day with the news. I prefer to save it for late afternoon, listening to the radio while I make supper. By that time of day, whatever creative impulses I may have woken up with have long dissipated, and I’m ready for the streams of clichés, half-truths and nationalist myopia that make up a typical All Things Considered broadcast — actually one of the least offensive sources of mainstream news and opinion in the U.S.

On Saturdays, though, I have breakfast with my parents, and this morning, the conversation strayed to the news. My dad reported that a landslide in the western Pittsburgh suburbs had completely buried the main railroad line between Pittsburgh and Chicago, as well as a major highway, Rt. 65, used by commuters into the city. The landslide began on Tuesday, as a result of construction for a new Wal-Mart Supercenter. The construction had been opposed by a local group calling itself Communities First!, who had gone to court to try and block it on the grounds that the slopes above the Ohio River were too steep and unstable for that kind of development. But they’d lost the case and construction had gone forward. Dad said that 300,000 cubic yards of debris had buried the rail line and the highway. “That’s about 100 times the volume of our barn,” Dad said.

Local officials, who had waived slope standards to permit the construction, denied that the disaster could have been predicted. Norfolk Southern managed to get one of the three rail lines cleared, and trains were moving at less than one-third normal capacity, which accounts for the relative scarcity of trains whistling our crossing over the past four days. Removal of debris from the highway is expected to last until October 7, though they might be able to open a single lane for traffic in each direction before then. “Who needs terrorists when you have developers?” Mom said.

The War on Terror did score one major, albeit under-reported, success back on September 11, netting obnoxious muckraking journalist Greg Palast for allegedly filming an otherwise top-secret oil refinery near New Orleans. Palast got Homeland Security to divulge that his accuser was none other than the owner of the refinery, Exxon-Mobil Corporation, which is understandably nervous about the effects of muckraking journalists on the fragile ecosystems of the lower Mississippi Valley and Gulf of Mexico, where a serious erosion of muck greatly amplified the effects of Hurricane Katrina. Save the muck!

In yesterday’s big story, unelected Pakistani President and supporter of democracy Pervez Musharraf accused the unelected Bush administration of making terroristic threats on September 12, 2001. Former Powell henchman Richard “Plame game” Armitage denied saying that he told Musharraf’s representative that the U.S. would bomb Pakistan back into the Stone Age if it didn’t support us in the War on Terror, however. He merely told the Pakistanis that they were “either with us or against us,” before describing in vivid detail U.S. intentions to bomb Afghanistan back into the Stone Age.

Despite the allegations, Bush and Musharraf were at pains yesterday to emphasize the closeness of their relationship. I was reminded of a story from an old girlfriend, describing how her parents had gotten together. Their relationship got off to a rocky start, but one day, her father-to-be pulled out a gun and told her mother-to-be that if she didn’t agree to marry him, he’d kill them both. She swooned, he took her into his arms, and they got engaged shortly thereafter. “Isn’t that one of the most romantic things you’ve ever heard?” my girlfriend asked. We weren’t together for very long after that.

Also yesterday, I was agog at the news of a hundred thousand fans cheering Sheik Hassan Nasrallah in Beirut. Yes, I realize that Hezbollah provides many valuable social services in southern Lebanon, and has morphed into a quasi-state entity not unlike the Medhi Army in Iraq or the Tennessee Valley Authority in the Southern Appalachians. Hell, every government, at its root, is nothing but a glorified protection racket. But the fact that Israel withdrew before eradicating every multi-cellular life form in Lebanon does not amount to a glorious victory for Hezbollah.

Nasrallah reminds me of this retarded kid who used to follow me home from school when I was in 11th or 12th grade, shouting insults and throwing rocks. He was kind of deformed — think “post-nuclear holocaust mutant” — and thus unable to throw stones with any accuracy, but now and then I got annoyed and gave half-hearted chase. Once, to my shame, I went so far as to catch the kid and push him to the ground, where he gobbled and writhed grotesquely. As soon as I walked away, he lurched to his feet and resumed throwing rocks, yelling and jeering — “Ha ha! You’re afraid of me!” or words to that effect.

In a similar vein, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez made headlines at the United Nations this week by calling Bush “the devil” and referring to the stench of sulfur. This was a serious escalation in metaphor for the long-winded strongman, who had previously likened the U.S. leader to a donkey. Though Bush regime flacks declined to respond publicly, one can’t help supposing that the PR machine is working overtime, trying to figure out how to tie Venezuela into the Axis of Evil without endangering the flow of sulfur-scented oil. Chavez began his speech by waving a copy of Noam Chomsky’s latest polemic and urging everyone to read it, especially Americans. “It’s an excellent book to help us understand what has been happening in the world throughout the 20th century, and what’s happening now, and the greatest threat looming over our planet,” Chavez said. He did not, however, announce any concrete plans to help the United States overcome its planet-threatening addiction to fossil fuels. The devil is, as always, in the details.

Then there’s the pope flap. I think it’s possible that Pope Benedict XVI actually intended to inflame the Muslim world, as a kind of show of force. After all, the pontiff’s power in modern times is basically restricted to speech acts — excommunication, the issuing of papal bull, and general pontificating — which must surely chafe for a man whose previous job was heading up the Inquisition (now known euphemistically as the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith). But while he can no longer burn heretics and Muslims at the stake, he can incite them to burn effigies of himself, which in his mind probably condemns them to the fires of hell just as definitively. And as Christ’s representative on earth, he may even derive some vicarious masochistic pleasure from seeing his name and image subjected to such passionate desecration.

The pope’s defenders say that his words about the “evil and inhuman” aspects of Islam were taken out of context. The context was an arid theological exercise designed to show that the Christian concept of deity is superior to the Muslim concept. Though couched as a defense of “reason” against those who allege that God is above and beyond all human categories, the pope never defines reason and decries its “limitation … to the empirically verifiable.” While Muslims contend that God can violate his own word if he wants to, the pope denies this, citing the opening of the Gospel of John, “In the beginning was the Word.” Well, again, it makes sense that the pope would believe in the power and primacy of words — his words, at any rate. He traces the roots of Christian theology to the Greek Bible’s mistranslation of Exodus 3:14, “I am that which is” — a tautology verging on pantheism, but never mind that. While acknowledging the novelty of the translation, the pope doesn’t mention that a more accurate translation would tend to support the Muslim position: “I will be what I will be.” Nope, sorry, God! You’ll be what the pope says. And everyone’s invited to a “genuine dialogue of cultures and religions,” Catholics and heathen alike.

As I was washing up the breakfast dishes this morning, my mother mentioned that all the recent pictures of the pope in the news had given her an eerie feeling: “He looks just like Pop-pop,” she said, referring to my deceased grandfather, her dad. “The long nose, the great big ears — must be the Bavarian look. That’s where Nanna’s [i.e. Pop-pop's mother's] people all came from, Bavaria.”

Hmm, Pop-pop and the pope. They might even have been distant cousins, who knows? Pop-pop did like to indulge in sweeping generalizations about “those people over there” from time to time, although I am sure he would have been very distressed if he’d thought his words might have offended somebody. Thankfully, I don’t seem to have inherited his penchant for shooting his mouth off. At least, not as long as I can manage to ignore the ceaseless stream of blather they call the news.

Movie review: Everything is Illuminated

grasshopper

The men in whose name the communists ruled stand in the earth up their waists, installing what looks like a sewer line. They’ve all taken their shirts off, and you can see at a glance what age and a heavy diet have done to them. Hot sun above, mud below, and at the edge of the pit two young men in city clothes, nervous, asking directions to a village that vanished along with its inhabitants sixty years before.

For the wrong words, a beating. For the right words at the wrong time, a beating. For hitting the dog, a beating. Every hint of unreserved affection ringed by profanities — backfires set to ensure that the conflagration doesn’t spread. “Is the war over?” the Holocaust survivor wants to know. The grandfather replies tenderly, for once — and that’s the end of him.

We for whom this movie was made become foreigners to ourselves, amused and baffled. The narration is in a form of English invented for the occasion:

This is Sammy Davis Jr. Jr. She is Grandfather’s seeing eye bitch. Father purchased her for him not because he believes Grandfather is blind, but because a seeing eye bitch is also a good thing for people who pine for the opposite of loneliness. In truth, Father did not purchase her at all, but merely retrieved her from the home for forgetful dogs. Because of this, she is not a real seeing eye bitch, and is also mentally deranged.

Much of the movie appears to be shot on location in the Ukraine. Except for the nearly deserted roads, it could be Iowa. Little is actually illuminated, but everything is collectable: potato and ticket stub, hand soap and soil. At one point, the car passes a radiation warning sign and cuts through the edge of a deserted town — empty Soviet-style apartment buildings, weeds growing through the pavement.

Grasshopper in the sunflowers, soon you too will have a non-speaking role.

for Teju Cole

The kingdom of poetry is like a man who, having hired an expensive prostitute & taken her back to his apartment, kneels on the threadbare carpet in front of the chair where she has deposited her shed garments & lifts them one by one to his lips, weeping, while she sits in the kitchen wrapped in a blanket, eating General Tso’s Chicken straight from the box.

The assistant baker, shapely
in her chef’s whites, squeezes
past the rack of fresh rolls
cooling in the doorway
to stand in the alley by the stacks
of plastic milk crates & listen
to the robins waking, the occasional
rattle of the manhole cover out front
when a car goes over it, & the quiet
breath of the prep cook drawing
on his cigarette, pah . . . fff . . .

They are both still replaying
their conversation from the last break,
two hours before: how in less
than a month, she will move
to the next state for a job
that will let her work during the day
at a desk in a tall glass rectangle
next to the interstate, put
her college degree to use. I’d do
the same,
the prep cook told her.

As for himself, he’s decided
he’s tired of preparation.
The owner has promised
to give him some hours behind
the line, where the action is –
not to mention (& he didn’t)
the waitresses. Chilly out.
I’m getting goose pimples,

says the baker. The rolls harden
in their metal beds. Dawn settles
over everything like fine flour.