August 2005

This entry is part 14 of 42 in the series Antiphony: Paul Zweig

I’m reading Paul Zweig. This is the third poem in the second section of his Selected and Last Poems, followed by my response. See here for details.

I must say that the longer I continue with this project, the more difficult it becomes to bring my full attention to each poem without some calculation entering into it. That is to say, as my desire to write poems in response comes to feel increasingly compulsory, my reading becomes increasingly distracted and fragmentary.

Losing a Friend
by Paul Zweig

When the anger finally came
We were starting to find how much we already knew
About dead friendships . . .

[Remainder of poem removed 9-08-05]

* * * *

Lament

How many friends have I neglected
because I was too busy waiting for
the long shadows of January
or watching clouds cross some ephemeral
forest pool, dark with tannins?
How many friendships have withered
while I stalked a slug along an oak log
orange with fungi, agog at its ability
to glide on an instant carpet
& retract the stilts of its eyes
all the way into its head?
I’ve lost friends & learned how to be
merciless with myself – I mean,
how to edit.
Living in this mountain hollow,
I tell myself I could never take
the same walk twice.
I have planted myself here like
a yellow birch sapling on top of a hemlock stump
that rots away even as the birch encircles it
with an apron of roots, & a hundred
years later it still preserves, unseen,
the hollow shape of the corpse
that gave it life.

The political dimensions of warfare are rarely alluded to in [Aztec] poetry; instead, warfare is seen as an artistic act, and the warrior becomes a poet. There are, in fact, two ways to be reborn on earth: in poetry, and in warfare. It is in battle that nobles can achieve their true stature, and their greatest fame, by becoming “eagles and jaguars,” the names for orders of seasoned warriors:

Nobles and kings are sprouting as eagles, ripening as jaguars, in Mexico: Lord Ahuitzotl is singing arrows, singing shields.
Giver of life, let your flower not be gathered! …
You’ve adorned them in blaze flowers, shield flowers.

In these lines, as in many of the war poems, images of natural fertility and harmony are linked to the beauty of art, with shields adorning the warrior in the same way that poems adorn the poet. By this means, the battlefield itself, seemingly a place of death and destruction, is represented as a place of beauty, growth, and fertility. … Singers in the imperial period seem to have vied with each other to create ever more striking images to link beauty and terror…

– David Damrosch, “The Aesthetics of Conquest: Aztec Poetry Before and After Cortez,” Representations Vol. 0, No. 33

If history, as it comes through the historian, retains, analyzes, and connects significant events, in contrast, what poets insist on is the history of “unimportant” events. In place of historian’s “distance,” I want to experience the vulnerability of those participating in tragic events. In other words, Sappho rather than Homer as model. His sacred times, the time of myth, versus her time, which is the moment, forever irreversible. Beginning with Sappho’s insomnia, there’s a tradition of the poem which says “I exist” in the face of all abstractions and cosmos and history, a poem of a passionate desire for accuracy for the here and now in its miraculous presence. I am not talking about confession. The best poetry of this kind is conspicuous by the absence of ego. The most reliable “histories” are told by first-person pronouns who remain subordinate, even anonymous. History teaches humility. My own physical and spiritual discomfort is nothing in comparison to that of those being imprisoned and tortured tonight all over the world.

– Charles Simic, “Notes on Poetry and History”

I came out first as a political poet, even before The Dream of a Common Language, under the taboo against so-called political poetry in the US, which was comparable to the taboo against homosexuality. In other words, it wasn’t done. And this is, of course, the only country in the world where that has been true. Go to Latin America, to the Middle East, to Asia, to Africa, to Europe, and you find the political poet and a poetry that addresses public affairs and public discourse, conflict, oppression, and resistance. That poetry is seen as normal. And it is honored. …

I keep on not wanting to know what I know — Matthew Shepard, James Byrd Jr., the schoolyard massacres. There keep being things I absolutely don’t want to know, and must know — and we as a society must know. I explore the whole idea in a poem in Midnight Salvage called “Camino Real,” while driving this road to Los Angeles, thinking about [accounts of] abuses that I had been reading by people who actually went back to where they had their human rights violated. And how that coexists in the poem with what is for me a journey of happiness. …

Poetry can add its grain to an accumulation of consciousness against the idea that there is no alternative — that we’re now just in the great flow of capitalism and it can never be any different — [that] this is human destiny, this is human nature. A poem can add its grain to all the other grains and that is, I think, a rather important thing to do. …

I think my work comes out of both an intense desire for connection and what it means to feel isolated. There’s always going to be a kind of tidal movement back and forth between the two. Art and literature have given so many people the relief of feeling connected — pulled us out of isolation. It has let us know that somebody else breathed and dreamed and had sex and loved and raged and knew loneliness the way we do. …

One of the things I have to say about this demon of the personal — and I have to take responsibility for my part in helping create this demon, as part of a women’s movement in which we celebrated personal experience and personal feelings — is that it has become a horribly commoditized version of humanity. It’s almost as though the personal life has been taken hostage in some way, and I’m shying away more and more from anything that would contribute to that.

– Adrienne Rich, 1999 interview with Michael Klein

The larva of the tortoise beetle has the neat habit of collecting its droppings and exfoliated skin into a little packet that it carries over its back when it is out in the open. If it were not for this fecal shield, it would lie naked before its enemies.

– Stanley Kunitz, “Three Small Parables for My Poet Friends” (#2)

This entry is part 13 of 42 in the series Antiphony: Paul Zweig

I’m reading Paul Zweig. This is the second (and title) poem in the second section of his Selected and Last Poems, followed by my response. See here for details.

The Dark Side of the Earth
by Paul Zweig

We don’t talk about the war anymore,
Living on the dark side of the earth,
The winter side . . .

[Remainder of poem removed 9-08-05]

* * * *

The News at Four A.M.

I wake to a slow dripping
outside my window,
click on the news,
then remember
the recycling has to go out.

My feet find
the path without
a flashlight. I wade
through faintly visible fog,
a soundproof room
inhabited by the automatic
lusts of insects.

Halfway to the road,
I come to a halt.
There in the darkness
at my feet,
from glowworm
to glowworm

something is passing, it seems,
fading out at one spot
only to come back on
a few feet ahead:

a faint, cool signal
making its way over
the hidden face
of the earth.

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You wouldn’t think bears would have much to blog about, but they do. I rarely find living trees – or even dead snags in the woods – marked up this way. Bears seem to have grasped the link between telephone poles and communication. This is the pole on top of our Sapsucker Ridge.

The pole on top of Laurel Ridge has served as a group blog for bears for a number of years now. Scratches range from one to seven feet off the ground. After making the scratches, the bear will turn and rub his or her hair and scent glands against them; unlike us apes, bears are more olfactory than visual. Most of the information conveyed here is invisible to us.

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Among the other things that caught my eye this morning was this bull thistle. The field is just beginning to come into its own as a repository of autumn color, with most of the goldenrod species yet to flower. Since the non-native bull thistle is a biennial rather than a perennial, the native goldenrods are in no danger of being out-competed by it, despite the hysteria of the weed-control crowd. And despite the name, cattle, including bulls, won’t eat it. Funny all the things we blame the bulls for.

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In the woods, late summer flowers such as pinesap (too small for my camera to be able to capture effectively) and the intriguingly named smooth false foxglove (shown here) offer a bit of color. Pinesap, a close relative of Indian pipe, is a saprophyte, producing no chlorophyll but relying instead upon a mutualistic relationship with a species of fungus in order to extract nutrients from dead and decaying organic matter. The fungus also serves as a nutrient bridge between pinesap or Indian pipe roots and the roots of various species of trees; botanists argue whether the saprophyte-tree relationship is mainly parasitic or symbiotic in nature. Nature usually isn’t as neatly dichotomous as the Western mind would like, and we have trouble categorizing many forms of plant and animal behavior as a result. (Are the markings of black bears territorial, for example? Probably not – at least, not in a way we’d understand.) Smooth false foxglove is classed as “partially parasitic” on the roots of oak trees.

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When I was a kid, I used to collect wild turkey tail feathers to make pens. My brothers and I had a mimeographed nature ‘zine called The Screech Owl, which we illustrated with pen-and-ink drawings. We typed the text on an old Smith-Corona typewriter, except for the titles and the masthead, which I drew by hand. The Screech Owl had 35 subscribers and ran for three years; Via Negativa has 45-50 subscribers, plus a few dozen additional regular readers, and I’m on my second year. Sometimes I feel as if I’ve come full circle here.

This entry is part 12 of 42 in the series Antiphony: Paul Zweig

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I’m reading Paul Zweig. This is the first poem in the second section of his Selected and Last Poems, followed by my response. See here for details.

Getting Older
by Paul Zweig

Advancing into sleepless woods,
Each year the ice getting thinner,
And the trapped waters darker . . .

[Remainder of poem removed 9-05-05]

* * * *

Getting Heavier
    for SB

Prematurely grave –
sentences delivered with a note of finality,
syllogisms grasped & held in the mind
the way excess skin from a facelift
vanishes into a crack beside the ears –
I stretch myself over the same
mattress of bone, morning & evening.
I go on as if nothing happened,
as if I were free on my own recognizance
& this growing heaviness simply means
I need more sleep.
I’ve become adept at ignoring
the jagged piece of sky pressing down
on the back of my neck.
Since I stopped following the news,
my dreams supply all the missing details
of earthquake, torture, & mass starvation.
Ask me anything.
Sometimes I get up in the middle of the night
& pretend it’s morning: shower, drink coffee
& look for poems in the ready-made phrases
I think of as inspired, because breath belongs
to everyone & no one
& I am trying not to give undue weight
to the new reports that claim
it is oxygen, stripping the electrons
from other molecules, that slowly
reduces this body to a swamp of light.

This entry is part 11 of 42 in the series Antiphony: Paul Zweig

I’m reading Paul Zweig. This is the eleventh poem of the first section of his Selected and Last Poems, followed by my response. (I’m planning to skip the twelfth and last poem in that section, and move on the second section from here.) See this post for details.

Self and Soul
by Paul Zweig

The dwarf tears at his clothes
To greet the quietness.
He nudges me to show him what I write . . .

[Remainder of poem removed 9-05-05]

* * * *

Scarecrow & Farmer

Right at dusk, as always,
I overhear myself: a drone note
audible in the lull
between shifts of crickets.

Darkness rises from the ground
between the corn stalks,
which are anything but still.
I step deliberately, one season

on each foot. Today left a crust
of salt around my collar,
lifted now by a passing breath
of wings. I don’t look up.

Four quick cries & a pause,
then two more: Estiquirí­n.
The hoe handle digs
a furrow in my shoulder

while above me, outlined against the stars,
the one wearing my old clothes
shivers under his straw,
his cross of sticks.
__________

“Estiquirí­n   Great Horned Owl; a spirit in the form of a Great Horned Owl (onomatopoeic)” – Glossary, Seven Names for the Bellbird: Conservation Geography in Honduras, by Mark Bonta

Space and time can bend into a vanishing point: we know this, or think we do. Light disappears like water down a drain; from this inverse star, no visions come. We have only the words, black hole, and the idea of suction, the horror of no-place and its irresistible gravity. But doubt still clouds the imagination, and we clutch at whatever flotsam our worldy experience can provide. Surely it is a portal, we say – the same kind of logic that leads us to become entranced by the orifices of the beautiful. How could such a perfect mouth do more than sip or nibble? None but the thinnest of ties can bind its owner to the earth. Surely this is no gaping maw, no staring eye, no ravenous sex. The gaze is hidden behind sunglasses, the flat belly flaunts its false window and our eager glances cluster, like the flies that crowd the eyes and mouths of starving children, walking in and out with impunity. But no, it isn’t like that. The blank at the end of space and time refuses nothing, like a bull’s-eye that’s impossible to miss. If it were a doorway, it would have just one side, and if it were a mouth, one word: Yes.

Years ago, when I was a student of Japanese literature, I loved the blog-like Tsurezuregusa, by the 14th-century monk Kenkí´, which Donald Keene translated as Essays in Idleness. “What a strange, demented feeling it gives me,” Kenkí´ began, “when I realize that I have spent whole days before this inkstone, with nothing better to do, jotting down at random whatever nonsensical thoughts have entered my head.”

A similar spirit of nonsense animates the inventions of Chindogu founder Kawakami Kenji. Kawakami has invented such indispensable devices as duster slippers for cats (get your house clean while your kitty pads about), the hydrophobe’s bath body suit (for people who want to bathe without getting wet), and beginner high heels, complete with training wheels.

A new article in Japan Focus points out the serious side of Kawakami’s farce. “If people laugh, that’s fine,” Kawakami tells the author. “We need more of it. I believe in rejecting society by laughing at it.” Though pictures of his wacky inventions have been a staple of widely circulated, jokey emails for years, the subtler points of his consumerist critique have been lost on those who arguably stand to benefit the most from it – Japanese and Americans.

“I despise materialism and how everything is turned into a commodity,” says the 57-year-old inventor, while chugging on the first of an endless supply of cigarettes. “Things that should belong to everyone are patented and turned into private property. I’ve never registered a patent and I never will because the world of patents is dirty, full of greed and competition.” …

Murakami’s anti-materialism appears genuine: He has the casual everyman look of an off-duty corporate worker and has not changed the oversized glasses he has worn for years. He is not married and has no children to send to private school. The only apparent concession to bourgeois luxury is the old 7-series BMW that sits outside his office, but a thick layer of dust makes it clear that the car has not moved in years. “I’m not much of a driver,” says its owner.

Definitely a man after my own heart! Though Kawakami’s inventions may strike many as the apotheosis of all that is Western about modern Japan, his critique is firmly rooted in the native thinking of eccentric aesthetes like Kenkí´, who, seven centuries before, was already convinced that the world was growing steadily more tawdry. “A house which multitudes of workmen have polished with every care, where strange and rare Chinese and Japanese furnishings are displayed, and even the grasses and trees of the garden have been trained unnaturally, is ugly to look at and most depressing,” Kenkí´ wrote. In Chapter 72 of the Tsurezuregusa, he enumerated “Things which seem in poor taste: too many personal effects cluttering up the place where one is sitting; too many brushes in an inkbox; too many Buddhas in a family temple; too many stones and plants in a garden…”

It’s strangely comforting to think that the mania for accumulation was just as mindless then as it is now.

In partial response to Dale’s objection to my anti-creed. Generally speaking, though, I think the two of us resemble the blind men in the old Sufi fable, arguing about the nature of the elephant. I’m really not thinking about an elephant, you see.

True teachers always say, Beware of desire. Not because desires are bad, but because they are insufficient. You can’t will your way into heaven; you almost have to surrender willfulness along with every last personal ambition. Surrender to what, to whom? To the Beloved.

For the sake of love – this is tricky – you have to relinquish love. But this may not be such an unreasonable thing, because from the beginning, true love isn’t something one can cling to. It is – as Blaugustine learned in her thirteenth interview of God – not so much a feeling we have as an energy we can tap into, or generate. (At least, it feels as if we’re helping to generate it. But maybe it’s already there, like background radiation left over from the Big Bang.)

Who, then, is this Beloved? S/he can be anyone, any being, I think. The widow and the orphan, of course, and that rank-smelling homeless guy down on the corner, but also the CEO and the sea cucumber, the demagogic president and that squirrel in your bird feeder.

Can it really be this simple? Hell, no! It’s just that, underneath the thin intellectual veneer, I am really a simple person, albeit one enchanted with the complexity of human culture and natural systems. And I have neglected to mention the problem of idolatry, which is enormous – possibly insurmountable.

There’s a reason why the ancient Hebrews put the commandment against idolatry first: it encapsulates all other sins, if by “sin” we mean “separation from the Beloved.” Idolatry is what happens when we allow ourselves to feel that our desires are sufficient, that life is no more than eating, shitting, fucking, drugging, birth and death.

But of course it doesn’t work to just say, “Well, then, I will believe that there is more to life than that; I will call that more-ness heaven, nirvana, moksha; I will relinquish this and pursue that.” Relinquishing desires can be more dangerous than their pursuit; anorexia kills you a lot quicker than over-eating. Here comes the State, for example, saying, “Ennoble yourselves! Sacrifice your beloved son!” So it turns into an idol: our own desire writ large.

The same thing happens with personal wealth or power, however much we may tell ourselves it’s all for the Beloved. An idol begins as a mirror and ends as a mouth, a bottomless pit. We dream of falling – a nightmare at first, but soon a thrilling plunge, an amusement park. In the whirl of excitement, our encounter with the Beloved gets reduced to a brief, wild firing of ganglia. Energy of a sort, but hardly that still, small, inexhaustible Presence whose existence we intuit in between the myriad throbbing things, in the presents they make of themselves to each beloved other.

YES! we are supposed to exult at every egotistical triumph, pulling the lever on an invisible slot machine with our fists. The challenge, some say, is still to find God in the slots.

That may work for you; but knowing myself and my addictive tendencies, I say NO. I will neither aspire nor relinquish. Like everything in nature, love comes on its own schedule, if at all. I will be neither saved nor spent, but simply give thanks for the present of this hunger as well as the food – thanks for the poverty as well as the comfort – thanks for this unquenchable desire that reminds me I am alive.

This entry is part 10 of 42 in the series Antiphony: Paul Zweig

I’m reading Paul Zweig. This is the tenth (and title) poem of the first section of his Selected and Last Poems, followed by my response. See here for details.

I am trying to refrain from critical/appreciative comments here, but folks, I think you’ll agree that is one magnificent f—ing poem. I might risk leaving this one up permanently.

Against Emptiness
by Paul Zweig

      I
Whatever surrounds the raw body of wind
And rolls over me in silence;
Whatever I am this screaming body for . . .

I want to climb to you, foot by foot,
Along the prayer ladder:
Dusky flower,
Gloom tree in the nerves,
And then my body rigged with magic,
Crying to fill that great invention, your emptiness,
Your tricky silences between stars.

      II
The prophet casts his life upon the water;
Upon the waking fish and those, asleep,
Who interpret their solitude without end.
They ascend by their teeth,
By the cell rot of unaccomplished days,
Each small death tidied into words, until
The walls of death enclose them, and they are
Grateful to be remembered by their failures.

      III
Know these words: demon, angel,
And they will follow as you climb
From pit to pit, leaving behind each day
A cell of your rage, a life,
Until, exhausted into wisdom,

Your face will ease you into death;
Your wise face, shedding its peacefulness
Like a lie upon your angry children,
Your patient devils, and the intricate
Joy of the angels you never named.

* * * *

Underfoot

I leave the house, & right away a mosquito finds me & starts weaving a nest for my ear with her shrill petition. This time of year, I can hardly take an unencumbered step. Piles of bear shit, pudding-full with half-ripe black cherries, litter the path. A garter snake turns my airborne leg rubber with vertigo six inches from the ground. Caterpillars rappel from the treetops, & spiders – legions of the solitary – work to enclose every last cubic foot of open space. My hands are in constant motion, wiping the silk from my face & clothes, but no exorcism holds against the hob-nailed micrathena, her collection of mummies & her soft yellow nebula of eggs. Emptiness is a mirage; an architect would go mad. The other morning I fled to the former clearcut, where deertongue & panic grass dripped with dew. My feet were soon swimming in my boots. Where is this outside, this fabled refuge? Home for lunch, I gaze inquiringly into a bowl of steaming soup.

Sky-blue petals in
the wet grass. I crouch down,
my mind blank as a cloud.

Back home, I look it up, chagrinned:
forget-me-not.