On Saturday, I emceed a “Poets for Peace” reading in State College, inspired in part by Sam Hamill’s call for an International Day of Poetry on September 11. Turnout was good, despite zero coverage in the local media. (Saturday’s edition of the major newspaper in the area had a special section on “What the Flag Means to Me.”)
The format was open-mike; I read first so as to give more people time to arrive. I was going to start out with one of Vallejo’s posthumous poems, “Y si después de tántas palabras,” but decided at the last moment that the Clayton Eshleman translation wasn’t all that good and I didn’t have time to improve on it. So instead I just read two of my own, recent poems written for this blog that happened to have taken their titles from pop songs: “Both Sides Now” and “From a Distance.”
Over the next hour and a half, fifteen other people read from their own and others’ works. There was a healthy mix of ages, backgrounds (including the mayor, in an unofficial capacity) and styles of writing and delivery. I was struck by the happenstance that two different nurses, Corene Johnston and Joann Condellone, read poems they’d written. Both were older women who had organized poetry groups in their respective communitites (Bellefonte and Huntingdon), and both felt that peace must be sought in the messy details of ordinary human life. How many other such unsung emissaries for peace and poetry are working in our midst, one wonders?
Other poets in attendance included Jack Troy, Todd Davis, Cecil Giscombe, Julia Kasdorf, Lee Peterson, John Haag and Dora McQuaid. Julia and Todd, our two Mennonite poets, were the outstanding readers of the afternoon, I thought, though a young member of the local slam scene named Kathy Morrow gave what was undoubtedly the most energetic performance.
The following poem is one I haven’t looked at in many months, so predictably, when I pulled it out of the files on Saturday I decided that it was unfit for a reading without some serious revision. I guess at this point I would class it among my noble failures; the imaginative effort here seems somehow inadequate to the subject matter. Like Ai, whose influence here is probably a bit too palpable, I think that empathetic understanding – trying to see the world through another’s eyes – is its own reward, even (or especially) when the the subject is a basically undeserving, ungrateful, brutal psychopath. Here, though, things are a little more complex, because the subject – a death-row inmate on his way to the chair – is himself imagining an exchange with the protestors of his impending execution.
They tell me you’re there, all
you would-be witnesses. Clustered
outside the gate. Each of you
clutching your candle
like a little white lie, right hand
cupping the flame,
the hot wax dribbling down the side.
If they’d let me, I’d come out there
& tell you one or two things.
I have done what most men merely
dream about, living proof that life is
a pale, weak thing. I broke the bones
in her face the way you’d ash
out a cigarette. Fear has a smell
like sour milk & it can turn, oh Jesus!
It can turn you so goddamned ugly.
From the moment you slimed your way
into the world, having just fucked
your mother backwards, you were
a creature incapable of innocence,
a pink grub, a howling bundle of wants.
If I had my way there’d be a chair
like this one on every street corner.
They’d be like video games. Only
the truly ruthless would be able
to walk past one without trembling like
a virgin. Those of you with
a guilty conscience would be
the first in line.
Be careful, now – something’s
diving toward the flame.
That’s right, drive it away.
For its own good, little moth.
Deprive it of its final joy.
Amidst last winter’s restless, unswept ash,
behind the cinder-laden grate, she found
a bird’s nest, tumbledown and skeletal.
It fit exactly in one upturned palm,
its hollow in her hollow. This is mine. . . .
– “Empty Nest,” Paula’s House of Toast
How is money made? Money is made through advertising. And how does advertising work? Well, to quote a movie I saw not long ago, advertising entails “thinking up ways to make people feel bad” so that you can sell them something to make them feel better. Advertising depends on the notion that we feel there’s something deeply wrong with us, something lacking, something flawed. We grow up in a society in which we’re taught from day one that we’re not good enough, and will never be good enough, and that we’re empty at our cores.
This is a lie. It’s cruel and deep and dangerous, and it’s a lie. A pervasive one. This lie gets down deep in our core notions of self. Living with this understanding is intolerable. It’s painful. It fucking hurts. And some of us starve to suppress this hurt. Starvation – a constant obsession with food – is far preferable to feeling that aching, howling emptiness. Some of us try to fill the lack in other ways. We eat. We eat. We eat. Some of do both: we start out starving, set on whittling ourselves down to nothing, hell-bent on demonstrating to the world the nothing inside us, but in desperately needing to fill this emptiness, we gorge. And then reempty ourselves.
– Nomen est Numen
Now, it is said that a Buddha “generates no karma,” which might sound like it means essentially free of cause and effect (since that’s what karma really means.) But I’m not sure it means that. I think it may only mean that a Buddha’s actions, unlike an ordinary person’s actions, lay him under no future compulsion. A Buddha, you might say, is a person who forms no habits.
If there is a space of freedom — and I’m by no means sure that there is, that the word “freedom” has any real referent — it is not a “freedom of the individual,” but the freedom of understanding that the narrow subset of reality that I usually call “Dale” is in fact not a self-standing limited thing at all, but rather a piece of something infinitely spacious, changing, interconnected, & interwoven. The desperation I feel when “having no freedom” seems like an awful thing is actually the desperation I feel at the prospect of being trapped as my own self-conception forever — which is indeed a terrifying thought. But a delusory one. I can’t be trapped into being “Dale” forever. I’m not even “Dale” now :-)
The more I read about this case, the more I am struck by this sense of identity being experiential rather than intrinsic – that it is not our bodies, but what is done to them, not our teeth, but the cement used to fix them, that will identify us. I also feel sadness that dental cement is more unique than the tooth – that I could dig through a whole pile of bones and never recognize them, were it not for a crack or fissure or scar, the chemical composition of an adhesive, the sheer dumb luck that such an adhesive could be new or rare.
That we have to be broken to be restored.
– evidentiary: alchemy
When asked the wherabouts of a lost item, my husband’s grandmother would often say it’s probably down in the cellar behind the ax.
I think translated it meant don’t bother me with that, go look for it yourself.
I like that saying. I don’t actually have an ax in my basement but I love the thought that all the things I’m searching for just might be behind one.
If you want to know a place, to really know the place, you have to live there and die there and give your elements back to the soil there and let the stink of your decomposition lift to the sky there.
We are just tourists, that National Geographic writer and I – and we should be a little more courteous. Because we can write, because we can write about this place, that gives us no proprietary rights. In fact, all we are doing is borrowing, and what we are borrowing we ought to treat well.
A Franciscan Travel Blessing
May God bless you with discomfort at easy answers,
half truths and superficial relationships
so that you may live deep within your heart.
May God bless you with anger at injustice,
oppression, and exploitation of people,
so that you may wish for justice, freedom, and peace.
May God bless you with enough foolishness
to believe that you can make a difference in this world,
so that you can do what others claim cannot be done.
– Ditch the Raft
As I sat back in my chair reading the blogs late yesterday afternoon, it occurred to me suddenly that for my houseplants, summer is the darkest time of year. The Norfolk Island pine sitting across the table from me – the Jack McManis tree – has filled out tremendously in the past few months as its branches reach ever farther in search of light. Since the trees and bushes closest to the house are mostly deciduous – mulberry, lilac, spicebush, black walnut – they intercept much of the sunlight for the six months between mid-May and mid-October. In winter, not only is this impediment removed, but – another counter-intuitive thought – the lower angle of the sun makes for more direct sunlight, even if there is less of it each day. Combine that with the reflective qualities of snow, and this room in particular can become easily twice as bright during the darkest months.
It’s almost like a Daoist parable, isn’t it? Inside or out, the plants are the same in nature, they want the same things. Just as a dog at the genetic level may be all but indistinguishable from a wolf – but when the two meet, the former tends to end up in the latter’s stomach. In each case, the originally arbitrary division of Nature into an inside and an outside creates opposing interests. Might this be equally true of the body and the soul, I wonder?
Empty truism, Dave! Yeah, I know. But I am fascinated by the role that wildness – the Big Outside – and wild animals play in the formation of our identities as fully human beings.
I accompany my mother this morning on her weekly visit to the Amish farmstand and whole foods store in the valley. Which is lucky, because it turns out that the torrential downpour of the night before last had brought down a tree across the Plummer’s Hollow road, a smallish red maple. (Mom’s weak back prevents her from doing things like operating a chainsaw.) In a couple of places, the road is washed out to a depth of 8-10 inches, and we are thankful for the extra clearance the s.u.v. provides.
It’s a spectacular Autumn day. We drive slowly along the winding township roads, enjoying the views whenever there’s a break in the ranks of field corn. At the store, we notice a flyer on the counter – “Lost Falcon.” My mom talks about this for a few minutes with the proprietor, her friend S. – a woman in late middle age, unmarried and very bright. They both know the falconer. S. mentions that one of her grandnephews saw – he thought – a large bird flapping over with “traces dangling from his claws.” The falconer came out to look, but with no luck. “I think if I was a bird like that, once I escaped I’d fly away and I wouldn’t come back,” S. says in her precise English as she heads back into the kitchen.
She would, too – neither of us have any doubt of it. The lyrics of the very un-Amish gospel song “I’ll Fly Away” begin to percolate through my mind.
On the way back up the hollow, I catch the flash of wings from several hundred yards away. When we pull even with the spot, I see the profile of a hawk’s head against the trunk of one of the largest red oaks in the hollow. We back up for a better view, and find ourselves in a staring contest with a red-tailed hawk. Buteo jamaicensis: our most common hawk, but always a pleasure to watch – especially from such unexpectedly close quarters. Its species name reflects the fact that the type specimen was collected in Jamaica; any other connection between this individual and the island currently in the crosshairs of Hurricane Ivan is strictly metaphorical. Most of our red-tails don’t migrate even as far as the gulf coast, and some live here year round. Both last winter and the winter before we had a pair in residence, attracted no doubt by the abundant gray squirrels.
“Don’t you know you’re supposed to fly away?” my mother croons. Talking softly to wild animals is usually a good way to keep them from spooking – it seems almost to mesmerize them, sometimes. But a couple more blandishments and the hawk dips his head, opens his great wings and sails away downhollow. “Ah, an immature,” says my mother, noting the absence of red in his tail. “No wonder he acts so dumb.”
With Frances gone, the air’s about as clear as it ever gets here. The rest of the way up the road, every shifting shadow seems alive with promise.
Even a good person obtains rebirth in the Pure Land; how much more so the evil-doer. People of the world are wont to say, “Even an evil-doer obtains rebirth in the Pure Land; how much more so the good person.” At first glance this seems more reasonable. But in fact it is contrary to the purpose of the Original Vow of Other-Power.
– Shinran, Tannisho
It is not widely acknowledged in the sutras that a bodhisattva may have a strong cynical streak. From the Institute for War and Peace Reporting:
“Then the glorious times of the ‘Golden Age’ came, and my father could no longer manage to feed our large family,” she said, in a bitter reference to the “Golden Age” of prosperity declared by Turkmenistan’s president, Saparmurad Niazov, better known as Turkmenbashi.
“We went hungry. And then a neighbour suggested to my father that he sell his daughter to visitors, and this money would help the family to make ends meet. Despair made my father agree to it. It happened once, and then again and again.
“However, it didn’t help our situation, so I had to move to the capital where there is more demand for women like me and the pay is better. I don’t keep the money I earn — I send it home for my brothers and sisters.”
I can just barely comprehend how a mother might sell herself to provide for her children, as another woman interviewed for this story said she does. But for a teenaged girl to risk disease and death and undergo daily humiliation in order to provide for her siblings strikes me as beyond heroic. And yet I know there are tens of thousands of young women like Amantach the world over. Whenever I hear the phrase “family values,” I think of this.
I’m sure I don’t need to dwell on the horrible injustice, how women in male-dominated societies are expected to sacrifice themselves for others. (“One day I will kill myself,” says the mother.) And you could certainly argue – as I might argue myself – that idealizing these women, likening them to bodhisattvas, only compounds the wrong that is being done to them. They are real, suffering human beings.
But in gassho we evil-doers all come to give ourselves up. Only the power of a pure intention, an undeserved grace, can save us. In gassho . . .
They lie overtop one another, intertwining with abandon. Some vines climb the buddleia bushes, while others stretch down the stone wall toward the driveway. Three of the four volunteer seedlings I transplanted from the compost pit in early June are bearing cherry-sized fruit, and new spots of orange and red appear among their tangled greenery morning and afternoon with astonishing profligacy. From where I sit, I can look over the top of my computer to a window shelf full of tomatoes I just picked an hour ago, with their parent plants visible through the window beyond. Especially with all the rain we’ve been having, few of them would make it to dead ripeness on the vine without attracting the covetous attention of pillbug, slug or hungry chipmunk.
Seedlings that sprouted in the compost pit since I removed the first wave of volunteers have flourished, too. On the upper side, growing out of the low rock wall surrounding Fort Garbage – as my dad calls it – the most successful of these volunteers is birthing fist-sized tomatoes right down among the rotting melon rinds, coffee grounds, corn shucks, and – yes – freshly discarded tomato parts. On my way up to the main house this morning, I plucked two that had almost reached full ripeness, marveling at the festive melange of growth and decay.
That particular plant hides its fruit in the pit for a reason: its upper branches were stripped by a deer or woodchuck a couple of weeks ago. There haven’t been any such depredations since, however. The leaves aren’t exactly palatable, and I imagine whoever chomped on them suffered severe stomach cramps for hours. Not for nothing are tomatoes called love apples!
Before truck-farming Amish moved into the neighboring valley about twelve years ago, we kept huge vegetable gardens, most of which had to be fenced against the animals. Only squash, tomatoes and potatoes could be grown without any protection other than a good hay mulch. One of the things I really liked about tomatoes was the way that, given a steady supply of chicken manure and hay, they could happily inhabit the very same spot year after year. We started seedlings indoors in February, but feral volunteers would quite often outstrip the tender transplants. It was always exciting to see what kind of fruit they’d bear, since we grew so many varieties.
Perhaps it says something about our lax approach to gardening that we could almost depend on volunteers. But at the peak of tomato season, it’s impossible to keep ahead of the flood. My mother used to can close to a hundred quarts a year, and we boys still found enough rotten ones to turn the otherwise dull job of harvesting into juicy warfare.
And now, again, that red flood is in full spate. Boxes of tomatoes can be had from the Amish for a few dollars each. The super-sweet cherry tomatoes from my herb/butterfly garden vie with the Macintosh apples in my fridge for my attention at snack time (which for me is pretty much all the time). We dry some, but otherwise just gorge, slicing tomatoes into sandwiches and salads, adding them to almost every dish. And what don’t tomatoes go well with? For ’tis the season too for basil, cilantro, eggplant, zucchini, peppers . . . a hundred variations on a half-dozen themes.
Like the potato, the tomato is a native of South America. So what did Italians eat before they had tomatoes? They ate lots and lots of eggplant, apparently. Here’s a simple oven dish of Mediterranean provenance that you could make without tomatoes – but I’m not sure why you’d want to.
Dave’s Vaguely Greek Eggplant and Black Pepper Casserole
Saute together over medium heat:
1/4 c olive oil
2 medium onions, diced
1 large sweet pepper, diced
1 medium eggplant, chopped
In my opinion, eggplant is like tofu: more or less tasteless by itself, but good for sopping up and retaining whatever oils and juices you cook it with. So use good olive oil, and err on the side of generosity!
Add and cook ten more minutes, still on medium heat, until eggplants start to break down:
2 large tomatoes, chopped
1 t salt
up to 1 full t ground black pepper, depending on freshness (and your own tolerance)
optional fresh herbs, especially thyme (I’d be cautious with rosemary or parsley here, though. Black pepper in such quantities admits of few competitors.)
Chuck everything into a 3-qt casserole dish and pour the custard overtop:
1/2 c milk
1/2 c cottage cheese
2 egg yolks
Bake covered at 375 (F.) for 45 minutes. Serve with fresh corn on the cob and a green salad topped with fresh tomatoes.
Continuing the invertebrate theme from yesterday, I thought I’d try my hand at worm verse. This is an invention of Ivy Alvarez. As she explained back on July 29,
I had this idea that I was talking out and working aloud with my s.o., about a chapbook of poems composed mostly of median letters.
You know, those letters that live in the middle, that don’t have tops [b, d, f, h, i, j, k, l, t] nor tails [g, j, p, q and y]. The worms of a c e m n o r s u v w x z.
How clean they look! How streamlined!
And quite surprising how many letters there are. And these are choice letters. You can do a lot with these, I thought. And you know, poets love a challenge. Well, some do.
Not satisfied with this restriction, however, she
bred it together with the hay(na)ku form, created by Eileen Tabios (a.k.a The Chatelaine), and described on the Hay(na)ku website as “a tercet where the first line consists of one word, the second line of two words, and the third line of three words”.
Some of Ivy’s recent efforts are here (scroll down for all three days’ worth). One favorite:
rename our summers
we romance names
I’ve never been too concerned about the look of poems on the page (or screen). What interests me about writing with only a few letters is that one can focus entirely on groping for sense and let alliteration and assonance take care of themselves. To be fully wormy, I think, one should follow Ivy’s example and eschew all punctuation (except perhaps for dashes and periods), a rule I was unable to stick to.
scours some vacuum.
raceme. no manners.
over warm sermons,
so are we
a nacreous sum?
serve an ovum.
amazes me more.
So go ahead, try this at home. (And feel free to litter my comment boxes with the results!)