Watching as the automaton
sketched lines across a sheet
of art paper, I wondered
what messages I might send
from the hereafter—
Even the dead elm tree
still glows pale green,
grey bark hosting small
bits of incandescence.
2011 was an extraordinary year for me and for this blog. This year more than any other since I started blogging, I really felt the love from readers, fellow bloggers, and fellow poets and artists whose kindness and generosity opened new doors and helped me close others.
First and most obviously, I guess, 2011 was the year that Luisa Igloria clearly became Via Negativa’s most regular guest blogger — more like a co-author, really — with her extraordinary and so far unbroken string of daily poems in response to updates at VN’s sister blog The Morning Porch. This represented a major shift for a site that had always been pretty closely identified with its main author — one that perhaps a few long-time readers found disconcerting. But for me, Luisa’s contributions are a tremendous gift and represent a way forward, a broadening of focus for the site in a time of dwindling public interest in anything that forces people to leave the amniotic embrace of Facebook or Twitter, and a reminder to myself not to grow complacent, to keep challenging myself creatively.
Another collaboration beginning just after the New Year resulted in some of my strongest poems to date: a series of spring wildflower poems in response to macro photos by blogger and naturalist Jennifer Schlick. This proposal came completely out of the blue, and again I suppose owes as much to The Morning Porch as to Via Negativa, since I believe it was her regular reading of the former than led Jennifer to think I might be the one for the job. The poems were incorporated into placards at an exhibition of Jennifer’s photographs in Jamestown, New York, which I wasn’t able to attend due to a conflict with another reading and exhibition where my poems were also featured (see below). Despite the costs and difficulty of printing a full-color book, I hope we’re able to make the collection available this year (ideally in time for wildflower season). Regardless, I remain deeply grateful to Jennifer for suggesting the collaboration.
For the second year in a row, I spent April reading and reviewing a poetry book a day, and was joined by another blogger and poet, Kristin Berkey-Abbott, in reading four of those books and interviewing the authors by phone for the podcast. Poets were generous in donating their books for the effort, which is frankly one of the main reasons I do it. (And it’s not too early to send books or chapbooks for next April.)
In May, I travelled abroad for the first time in many years, thanks to the generosity of an anonymous benefactor who bought my plane ticket, and thanks to blogging in general: the occasion was a group poetry reading in Wales for the release of The Book of Ystwyth: Six poets on the art of Clive Hicks-Jenkins, which includes my Temptations of Solitude poems first published here in 2009. Highlights of that trip included getting to meet Clive Hicks-Jenkins and see his 60th birthday retrospective exhibition, and hanging out with other blogger-friends in Wales, Birmingham and London: Kaspalita Thompson and Fiona Robyn, Will Buckingham, Jean Morris, Dick Jones, Natalie d’Arbeloff, and the enigmatic Hg and RR. And naturally the trip spawned plenty of new blog posts as well, including videos, podcast episodes, and a whole series of poems sparked by a visit to a Victorian cemetery.
Speaking of series, I was flabbergasted to have a manuscript of my banjo poems, which I continued to blog sporadically this year, selected for publication by my favorite poetry chapbook publisher, Seven Kitchens Press, in their Keystone Chapbook series. (Here’s the announcement.) This was the first time I’d entered a poetry manuscript contest since 1999, and here’s the fun part: the fellow who won the last contest I entered, Sascha Feinstein, was the judge who selected Breakdown: Banjo Poems.
My rudimentary filmmaking skills became slightly less rudimentary this year, I think, as I continued to make videopoems to share here. Unlike last year, though, my focus was more on envideoing other people’s poems, helped along by Nic Sebastian‘s generosity with the audio recordings she has created for several online projects, most notably Whale Sound and Pizzicati of Hosanna.
The big downer of the year, I guess, was the deterioration of Via Negativa’s web hosting situation, which led to a significant decline in page views (though not necessarily in actual readership). My web account was suspended six times for excessive CPU usage, and while the geeks at my old web host were friendly enough, they weren’t interested in helping me trouble-shoot. We also saw frequent downtime that had nothing to do with me; I think it was a typical case of a cheap shared web host trying to pack too many sites onto too few servers, and penalizing the rare sites that actually get some traffic. I meanwhile didn’t understand that the constant barrage of spam comments coming into the site was probably a big part of why it was using so much CPU, even though 99% of those comments went straight into the trash. And I made the all-too-common mistake of assuming that because a web hosting company touts “unlimited” subdomains and add-ons, it was O.K. to take that literally and piggy-back all my other sites onto Via Negativa. Bad idea.
They finally lost patience and terminated my account in mid-October, which was not altogether a bad thing, since it forced me to find better hosts and divide my sites up between them in a more intelligent fashion. I’ve now closed comments on all posts older than a month (which I hated to do), and so far, resource usage at the new host seems fine. I also ported all my content to a brand-new database rather than re-installing the old one, so that probably helped a lot too.
My sites are now scattered across three different web hosts, more than doubling my blog-related expenditures. So for the first time I set up a Via Negativa store, featuring mainly t-shirts and mugs with old Words on the Street cartoons, and I also began to beg for money with a Donate button in the sidebar. Thanks to several generous donations from readers, plus a well-compensated poetry reading at Penn State Altoona in October, I’ve been able to cover expenses for this year. Another reader donated a very large external hard drive, which should be a big help with storing and retrieving video files especially.
Long-term, I suppose I will have to gird my loins and do some sort of low-key annual fund-raising drive, because I suspect that the mere presence of a donate button won’t be enough. Another project that might raise a little bit of money, but is more just a fun thing that I should’ve done years ago: a Words on the Street anthology, which should be available in paper, ePub and Kindle form in another week or two (we ran into some unexpected problems with bleed-through on the paper, so weren’t able to release it in time for Christmas). Given my new-found willingness to beg, it kind of makes sense to bring back my fictional, urban alter-ego, Diogenes the bum.
I blog for love and not for money, and that’s unlikely ever to change. But the gift economy is a wondrous thing. As Ecclesiastes put it: “Cast your bread upon the waters, for you shall find it after many days.” (Mmm, soggy bread!) This year I really learned the truth of that saying. Thanks to everyone who links, comments, or simply reads.
If you’d like the re-acquaint yourself with some of the best posts of the year, check out the Greatest Hits category, which may be accessed any time from the navigation bar under the header. Luisa and I have just brought it up to date with our personal favorites from the past twelve months. For a complete, clickable table of contents to all the posts from the past year, visit the Archives page. And if you’d like to surf around and sample some of the best posts from Via Negativa’s entire eight years of existence, click the Random link.
And the sugar is more than bones
or skin, the hunger has not made
new music. Let me drown reaching
for a cardinal, for a thimbleful
of flight: bright like you, when
flies give thanks.
Carry cinders for others.
Give a table your boredom or misery,
all cheap china or shiny fire.
The rose, children, is a branch away.
Unscathed, you kept
your new electronics.
The witch in the belly
rose to the breast.
Under the hammer, a firecracker,
A smell like a cheap rose.
Banks drown everyone for ten red flies.
Afterwards, the air came cheap,
new wants sleeping at the breast.
Grandmothers in the bush for a good time,
the post-it note read.
An order of their chocolate-covered candied orange peels and Ice Wine Truffle Bars arrives by Fedex in August and keeps me going at the place of his birth. Under a sweet spell, I draw the fallen-in foundation, buried in biomass, stones pushed apart by tree roots and shaded by hemlocks and hardwoods. The chocolate is very, very, very good.
And afterwards? Didn’t the air carry a burnt sugar and cinnamon smell, even as the cinders stopped falling? You came out relatively unscathed, dammit. Which is more than can be said for others like you. Did you stop to give a thought about whose bones lay about in the cage or under the table where you crouched, where they thought you could be kept until you burst out of your skin from boredom or angst or misery, or all of the above? The hunger hasn’t gone away, has it? I’m not talking about cheap fashion made in China or Bangladesh, or shiny new electronics. The witch always wants what makes the music. Not the heart but the fire in the belly. Let me tell you about the rivers that rose beyond their jelly-colored banks to drown everyone in the sleeping town. Sweet children at the breast. Grandmothers in their hammocks. Under the sheets, fathers’ gnarly hands reaching for something softer than the handle of a hammer or the back of a plane. Watch that cardinal in the bush, sitting nearly motionless for a good ten minutes now. Even in that thimbleful of time, the instinct to take panicked flight is stilled: bright firecracker, urgent red of its triangle cap like a post-it note on a branch— You could read it from a mile away. And when it flies off, give thanks because you can.
“The quality of mercy is not strain’d…”
— “The Merchant of Venice”, Shakespeare
Before snow blew sideways, scattering
crystalline fragments, we held up metal
wires dipped in magnesium, ferrotitanium.
Held to a match, rich white and golden yellow
sparks branched off into the dark. Don’t lend
out any money today, the feast of Niños
Inocentes. Or if you do, don’t count
on getting any of it back. For a second,
think back to the story of soldiers scouring
the countryside for infant boys to slaughter
in their sleep. There is a difference between
naivete and the purely diabolical. Insist
on the former as an undeveloped state
that might yet lead to grace. The deer
might come to lick at lumps of packed
salt you’ve placed at the far end of
the garden. When they do, sit still, just
watch them. I know it’s hard, but hold
your face up to the fading light, mouth
rehearsing the ancient shapes of wonder.
What’s that burning smell, that rattling like sleet on the roof of the garden shed? Or is it the woman tumbled into the oven, flailing her arms against sleeves of darkening crust? Why is it her and not the woodcutter, the paterfamilias whose task it is, supposedly, to raise healthy children as future citizens, maintain the moral propriety and well-being of his household, honor his clan and ancestral gods? Pass the salt, skip the pepper. There’s nothing but sausage casing in the house to eat. It’s the membrane that wraps the minced ground pork or veal, that makes a farce, a shape that holds in the fire though all are torn from their origins. Pass the paprika, pass the pickling lime. What do they know? Who do you really think tried to hold it together, made paste out of boiled rice and water? Who read to them of stone soup and fed them stories to make the scraps seem sweeter? The law can punish for even the intent to abandon. But whose is the burden of proof? The bony finger that swims in the poorest gruel is the same one that polishes the moon, that hangs its dollar store corpse from the trees. Someone has confused the spelling of “desert” for a house of confectionery located in the woods. This is where they left us, or left us for dead. This is where they wanted us fed, then eaten alive. Well, I’ve got news for you, daddy-o. It’s your days that are numbered. I’ve found a bitch’s stash of balisongs and Ka-Bars that cut through both the softest bread and the hardest glass. Eat your last sweetmeat, kiss your dumpling wife and child. Not bothering with the cork, I’ll lop off the top of a bottle of champagne. It’s customary to offer a toast, a roast, on the eve of the new year.
translation of “Alta traición” by José Emilio Pacheco
I don’t love my country. Her abstract glory
But (this may sound bad) I would give my life
for ten of her places, for certain people,
ports, pine forests, fortresses,
for a ruined city, gray and monstrous,
for several of her historical figures,
—and three or four rivers.
* * *
José Emilio Pacheco is one of Mexico’s leading contemporary poets. I had posted the Spanish original of this poem, along with somebody else’s translation, to Facebook back in 2009. I forgot all about it until I switched to Facebook’s new Timeline view a couple days ago, which for the first time gave me access to older posts and updates there. After re-acquainting myself with the poem and the substantive comments it elicited from Alison Kent, Miguel Arboleda and Ray Templeton, I decided to post this new translation — in part because I’m fascinated by what the process of translation does to a poem like this.
Already on Facebook there was disagreement over how best to translate “una ciudad deshecha, gris, monstruosa.” The English translation I’d posted put it as “a run-down city, gray, grotesque,” but Alison objected that, in the poet’s native Mexico, this most likely referred to a pre-Columbian ruin. Ray, by contrast, felt it might equally apply to a run-down industrial city in his native U.K. To me, as a country dweller, most cities seem gray, monstrous and dilapidated, though I’m not sure I’d give my life for any of them. At any rate, the point is that our reception of the poem depends very much on whether we read it as a specifically Mexican poem or a more general statement about love of country.
And even the general proposition will strike people differently depending on where they’re from. Here in the U.S., where it’s quite common for ordinary citizens to display the national flag year-round, saying that you don’t love your country is guaranteed to shock and dismay people from across the political spectrum, with the exception of segments of the far left. Even strongly libertarian types will say things like, “I love my country, but I hate my government.” (It’s nearly always O.K. to express contempt for the government here, despite the reverence paid to the Constitution, which famously equates the government with the people.) In many other countries, I gather, displays of the national flag by private citizens are extremely rare.
To me, love of an abstraction is a dangerous thing, and I react to it with I think much the same loathing which the ancient Hebrews reserved for idol-worship. A worshipped fatherland demands blood sacrifice and gives little in return but the sort of “protection” one purchases from gangsters at gunpoint. I find it telling that the kind of super-patriots who treat any questioning of the war machine or the surveillance state as tantamount to treason all too often do not hesitate to condone the despoiling of their country’s land, air and water. “Drill, baby, drill!” they chant at political rallies, and without irony advocate the construction of a massive pipeline across the country’s midsection, to bring Canadian tar sands to Texan refineries, as necessary to reduce our dependence on “foreign oil.” Here in Pennsylvania, we’re in the early stages of a hydrofracturing shale-gas boom that threatens to poison groundwater across the state and destroy some of our last remaining wild places, but those who object on environmental grounds are derided as effeminate tree-huggers at best and anti-American troublemakers at worst. I could go on. But the point is that in this case, as in so many others, destruction of the actual, literal country is licensed by lip-service to the abstract Country.
Translating Pacheco’s poem into English, I recall that there are in fact people who put their lives on the line for mountains and pine forests: the brave souls who chain themselves to cranes at mountaintop removal sites or sit in old-growth trees threatened by clearcutting. This makes me think of the Occupy movement, and then the far longer struggle of those whose country — or countries — my ancestors came to occupy. And having lived in one place for most of the past 40 years myself, I can tell you that becoming attached to any one mountain, river or forest is nearly always a recipe for heartbreak, as you witness the cumulative effects of ecological degradation. No doubt the residents of cities like Detroit or New Orleans feel much the same kind of helpless sorrow these days. The life of a drifter — that quintessential American individualist — becomes more attractive with each passing year.
Like them, we were young once at the bend of the road where the trail enters the woods. No one who goes in emerges unchanged. Watch the way the colors shift on the bark of trees, from russet to carbon, to old serpentine. We turned the stones over, lay our bodies across their moss. Who cared what the sunlight touched? The littlest stones looked glazed with sugar. Feathers flashed in our hair— stippled, brilliant with color, purple and green. Egged on by hunger and need, our tongues were quicker than quick. It was always now or never; always fire, fucking, curses. Our hearts never stopped banging at the door. And then, the tollways reached, the fumbling for ivory card stock embossed with names. Under the moon, on the winding trail, our pockets rich with crumbs.