Independence Day

This entry is part 17 of 17 in the series Pandemic Season

 

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Remembering a time in my life when I still found people interesting and believed in the future. I think I’m happier now that I have no particular expectations.

once again
finding my fly unzipped
Independence Day

The full moon is bright enough that for once, moths aren’t drawn to the light of my phone. Their wings brush against my pale legs as I sit out in the meadow, drinking homebrew and jotting down these notes with one finger.

fireworks done,
the milkweed’s honey-
suckle scent

***

Process notes

the video combines footage from our own little backyard celebration on Friday night with the footage and audio of the full moon on Saturday night, when I did indeed sit outside, as the haibun says, jotting down haiku and senryu as they popped into my head like a sad parody of an aging haijin. Rejects included:

moon on the meadow
the flight paths
of white moths

*

fire
works
hard

*

moon in conjunction
with Jupiter
I blame Putin

*

That “Yee-hah!” during the credits is me. Just in case there’s any doubt whether my misanthropy extends to myself.

Truncated

still from Truncated showing a rat snake on the ground
This entry is part 16 of 17 in the series Pandemic Season

 

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In the news, there’s a report that COVID-19 antibodies might not persist for more than a few weeks, and therefore that we can expect no herd immunity. Thinking about this, I barely hear the black-and-white warbler wheezing or the wood-pewee’s melancholy melisma. But then, from around the bend, a deer comes bounding straight towards me, doubtless trying to escape her nimbus of flies. I freeze. She stops 50 feet away and stares, moving her head from side to side for a better view. Human, or a tall stump? She makes up her mind to step warily around me. And I am a stump. I barely remember having my head in the clouds.

whose road is this
the tree snake’s
rootless flow

***

Process notes

An experiment in mixing and matching two different recent wildlife encounters, plus some other footage I happened to shoot the other day. For the soundtrack, something nervous and itchy-sounding from the invaluable Freesound.

The snake, by the way, is a black rat snake—very much an arboreal hunter, so I don’t think it’s inaccurate to refer to it as a tree snake, even if here it’s on the ground.

Robber Fly

This entry is part 15 of 17 in the series Pandemic Season

 

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All around the world, jubilant crowds are pulling down statues or, barring that, smashing off their heads. Confederate generals must be relieved not to continue in a pantomime of victory they never knew. And imagine the ecstasy of a slaver thrown in the sea, which erases all debts!

I find a key in my sleep, but it’s not clear what it opens. An ornamental, patriotic heart? The moon’s blue twin? I was born without language, but somehow I already had a name—one so heavy I couldn’t stand up for more than a year. Those I inherited it from once ran a plantation on stolen labor, brutalized bodies, shattered lives. I imagine us all joined like knots in one net.

robber fly
too many legs
to walk

***

Process notes

This was hard to make, and to be honest, I’m still not sure it works. But finding public-domain music I could use for a soundtrack, and editing to that, really helped give the words and images the space they needed… while also hiding the less-than-satisfactory aspects of my vocal delivery. Thank you, pseudonymous Cuban anarchist musician on SoundCloud!

I considered grabbing some news footage of protests, which is generally permitted under Fair Use, but decided that for this haibun series I needed to maintain the connection with my own lived (and hermit-like) experience by relying on the shots that—in the case of the robber fly and the hollow snag—actually prompted the haibun in the first place. And I wanted to focus ultimately on my own discomfort at and complicity in our white supremacist heritage—a follow-up to an earlier haibun in the series, Flag of Hate.

Including the flopped-over peony was an idea that only occurred to me late in the process. I hope it isn’t too cartoonish a connection with the text.

It’s interesting that while I was working on this, my co-blogger Luisa posted poems first about the toppling of statues and then about peonies, which was completely unplanned and uncoordinated but I guess demonstrates as well as anything that the sidebar description of this blog as “an experiment in daily, poetic conversation” isn’t just empty blather.

The wall in the left side of the split screen, by the way, is something I shot last summer: London’s Wormwood Scrubs prison. I suppose I could’ve driven to one of the two local maximum-security state prisons here, which are of course much more forbidding looking, with razor wire and what-not, but there’s no way I would’ve been able to get anywhere near that close to the walls. And I like the connection with the UK, given how transatlantic this iconoclastic phase of the Black Lives Matter protests has become.

Unrest

This entry is part 14 of 17 in the series Pandemic Season

 

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Humid middle of the night. It’s stuffy in the bedroom, hard to sleep. I get up and sit outside, waiting for a storm to clear the air, but nothing—just a flicker on the horizon now and then.

frost-struck oaks
slowly recovering
a rash of stars

I check Twitter on my phone and holy shit, the uprising in response to police violence is spreading across the country. The precinct building for the part of Minneapolis where George Floyd was murdered is in flames. Goddamn. Under the porch I hear a porcupine clacking its teeth to ward off an enemy. Then gnawing, gnawing, gnawing on the foundation beam.

that near shriek
in the last note
whip-poor-WILL

Process notes

Written two nights ago. Since this series has the flavor of a diary or vlog, I worry about current events-related pieces getting stale, so I tried to finish the video up last night. But nothing seemed quite right so I held off, and I’m glad I did. The necessary changes weren’t too extreme, and in fact I ended up sticking with the footage I’d initially chosen. Too bad it’s beech and not oak leaves, but otherwise I liked the vibe — especially combined with some public-domain audio of the scratchy silent part of an old vinyl record, which had just the unsettling, obsessive quality the video needed, I thought. After the last three videos playing around with more complex combinations of images, I wanted to get back to the basics here.

As is often the case, the haiku I really struggled with, the first one, isn’t as good as the one that came easily. One alternate to “a rash of stars” that I flirted with was “the glabrous sky,” but I decided that would be entirely too clever and obscure. But I’m sure my fellow botany nerds would’ve enjoyed it.

This feels like a totally inadequate response to the severity and sadness of current events, but in my experience it’s better to be understated in poetry than to try to say everything and end up spinning off into abstraction or didacticism. Besides, I AM a fairly clueless old white guy living in the boonies, there’s no use pretending otherwise. Poets in the streets right now will write the essential poems about this possibly pivotal moment in the decline and fall of the American empire.

In the Fullness of Time

still from In the Fullness of Time
This entry is part 13 of 17 in the series Pandemic Season

 

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Six weeks after I planted potatoes, they are finally all up, the latest leaves no bigger than the ears of the mice I was sure had dug up and eaten them, especially after a series of holes appeared in each hill. But it’s been unusually cold this spring, and sprouts were simply taking their time. Our neighbors had urged patience, and they were right.

All this waiting to see what happens with the pandemic would be hard to bear if I didn’t also have something to wait for: a garden growing and changing day by day now, so that time doesn’t merely pass like some lifeless assembly line, but unfolds, ramifies, flourishes, bears fruit.

even as
I pull weeds my beard
keeps on growing

evening garden
a snake has left her skin
beside the lettuce

***

Process notes

Yes, I’ve been shooting videos of my feet propped up on the porch railing since mid-April (the first of the two snowy shots) waiting for an excuse to combine them into a videopoem. I’d love to tell you that I shot them every set number of days, because I’m all organized like that, but actually, I just did it when I thought of it. As followers of my long-running Morning Porch microblog will know, I have a bit of a thing for sitting outside. In fact I sat on the porch while waiting for this video to upload (which took an hour and a half! Ah, country living).

The font I used for the haiku is called Permanent Marker — basically a Comic Sans that doesn’t suck. And it just occurred to me that the most likely reason it struck me as a good fit is because the grid presentation of shots is ultimately derived from the comics — an association very much in the haiku spirit, by the way, given the traditionally high valuation of lightness (karumi).

Someone asked me how long this video haibun series will go on, and honestly I have no idea. The only thing I have in mind to do with them is stitch some or all of them together into a longer film, as I did with the half-hour-long film of videohaiku that I showed at the REELpoetry festival in January, Crossing the Pond (watch it here). The longer this series continues, the more selective I can be when it comes time to make Pandemic Season: The Movie. On the other hand obviously I am fervently hoping for the pandemic to be over as soon as possible, but it looks as if we may be in for the long haul. Good thing I have gardening to distract myself. And there’s a real sense of solidarity with all the other people getting into gardening in a big way this spring — some for the first time, others, like me, with a renewed passion.

***

Here’s a brain fart I posted on Facebook when I shared the previous haibun in this series, for what it’s worth: Ever since Basho came along and turned what had been a parlor game into high art, haiku writers have made a fetish of satori-like moments of awareness. In reality, such moments are rare, even for Zen masters, and a better analogy to what we’re trying to do with haiku is the novice spending days pondering an unsolvable riddle (koan), proposed in this case by the universe. You generally have to discard at least your first half-dozen attempts as too clever and keep going back to the riddle of your original glimpse or inkling. With modern haiku and haibun, the challenge is no different; it’s just that the number of allowable subjects has exploded, and our relationship with nature has changed to acknowledge our complicity in its degradation. (Climate change, for example, is playing hob with traditional seasonal references.) Instead of aha moments I tend to look for WTF moments, and instead of personal insights, I’m more interested in creating a space for the reader/listener to make some connection on their own. Without engaged listening and seeing, there’s no haiku.

Tadpool

This entry is part 12 of 17 in the series Pandemic Season

 

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I didn’t go to bars or restaurants all that often, but I still miss them. Longing is all about the unattainable, isn’t it? I often find myself out restlessly walking around the mountain instead.

so much more
than one can hear
hermit thrush

I like walking at dusk because it is then that the buzzing stops. I don’t mind the whine of a mosquito, but as long as I can remember, I’ve been bothered by flies. Too many of them and my nose starts to itch uncontrollably, I don’t know why. And nothing is more horrifying than some dead animal heaving with maggots.

ephemeral pond
raccoon footprints fill in
with tadpoles

In the news, reopening restaurants are seating mannequins at every other table so diners will feel less isolated. Just before waking, I dream that the top-hat wearing skeletons off The Best of the Grateful Dead Live album cover pass me on the street, but they’re no longer dancing. They look disoriented. The skulls have somehow lost their grins.

tadpool
the social distancing
of cannibals

***

Process notes

First came the encounter with a hermit thrush at dusk, recorded (the audio anyway) on my phone as he sang his ethereal song on the other side of the big vernal pond up at the top of the watershed. Hermit thrushes are occasional visitors to the mountain, but they generally prefer higher elevations (or perhaps more accurately: the closely related wood thrushes prefer lower elevations and out-compete them). I’ve featured that pond often in videopoems, so wasn’t sure I’d really be able to use it until I came up with the idea of layering it with footage of a basement club in London shot a year ago, culminating in the ritualistic dissolving of a sugar cube into absinthe (which is probably not obvious in the film, but that’s OK). Because the hermit thrush song is so beautiful, I thought I could get away with some dark and disturbing text by way of contrast. Wood frog tadpoles don’t have a whole lot to eat besides each other, as their natal pool slowly dries up. Will they make it out before the pond disappears completely? Most years, no. Nature is a bitch.

I’ve never actually owned the referenced album (or any other Grateful Dead) so I’m not entirely sure where my unconscious mind got that from, other than a more generalized interest in memento mori iconography. In any case, it was fortuitous, since it’s much more likely to be familiar to the average person than the death metal I actually listen to.

This is nearly twice as long as the other videos in the series, in part because the text was longer and in part because the thrush’s slow delivery set the pace. So I had to drop down to a lower frame rate and smaller aspect ratio than usual so it wouldn’t take forever to upload on my sluggish rural internet. I don’t think the difference will be too noticeable, though.

Out of Whack

screenshot from Out of Whack
This entry is part 11 of 17 in the series Pandemic Season

 

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It’s not every year we get snow in dogwood season. This particular year, the wild weather simply adds to the impression that the world is completely out of whack.

spiderweb
catching snowflakes
their little spikes

Marooned in our homes, tempers fray. We wonder how long this will go on, worry about finances and food shortages. I watch a pair of scarlet tanagers—treetop birds—reduced to feeding near the ground and foraging for invertebrates in the creek.

redder
than our open mouths
tanager

But spring is always a puzzle: the innumerable ways that spikiness blossoms and leaves us.

***

Process notes

I’ve been trying hard to take my time with the videos in this series, and not rush them out as is my wont. Quite often this has led to some unexpected last-minute changes, as with the concluding line of prose here. I simply felt that the idea of spikiness hadn’t yet been adequately explored. And I have felt especially strongly this year just what a strange, perilous and miraculous thing a northern-hemisphere spring really is, even in normal circumstances.

The video has gone through three major drafts—about the same as the text, though largely unrelated to the changes there. I’m always a bit uncomfortable with too tight a fit between text and imagery in a videopoem, but I thought I might ameliorate the effect of mere illustration here with a split-screen suggesting outer vs. inner landscapes, using some old footage from (I think) the Tate Modern, altered enough to where I don’t think I’m simply ripping off the artist, whom I can’t credit because I failed to make a note of her name.

Obviously this entire videopoem is, in part, an exercise in obliqueness. It’s interesting to note that independently produced videos referencing COVID-19 or coronavirus explicitly on YouTube will be suppressed in search results in order to limit the spread of unofficial information. That’s not why I left out any reference to the virus here, though; at this point, it’s simply unnecessary to call it out. It permeates our thoughts… and soon enough, perhaps, our bodies as well.

I suppose it’s worth mentioning that although the haibun in this series are nonfiction, the “we” in this case is pretty general; tempers aren’t actually fraying much where I’m staying, I’m happy to say. Which is not to say some of us aren’t still a bit spiky before we get our morning coffee…

Public Relations

still from Public Relations
This entry is part 10 of 17 in the series Pandemic Season

 

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I dreamed we were in a pandemic, but nobody knew what to do because the official pronouncements were too verbose and contradictory. I discovered that if they were re-written as ultra-short haiku, everyone grasped them at once. This became my new job.

the and
in pandemic
unmasked

Then I was in the lounge of a nearly deserted hotel, trying to buy a Belgian lambic with some form of local, antisanal currency. It didn’t add up. All the billboards were in Japanese. My phone dropped a call from my wife on the other side of the city, which had engulfed the earth.

your O face
a grounded
outlet

***

Process notes

The prose portion in this describes two related dreams I had the night before last, remembered because each time I awoke immediately afterwards. I hasten to add however that the haiku did not come to me in the dream (I wish!) and as usual were the hardest part of all this to get right.

It’s always harder to start with a text and find images to match, rather than work ekphrastically, but I realized I still have a lot of unused footage from last spring and summer when I was in London, and I thought some of that might work. At the end, I thought I’d better add a shot of an American grounded outlet so international viewers with different electrics would get the haiku — a rare instance of me using a baldly illustrative approach in a videopoem.

As for the music, I wasn’t actually searching for music at all, just something suitably atmospheric for the soundtrack, but the search terms I was using on freesound were sufficiently vague to turn up a goofy, glitchy track that really tied it all together for me — and licensed Creative Commons 0, i.e. public domain, to boot! Which means of course that I wouldn’t have had to attribute it in the credits, but on the other hand I don’t want to leave people with the impression that I’ve developed electronic composer skills.

How to Care

This entry is part 9 of 17 in the series Pandemic Season

 

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On the last day of April, Facebook gives us a new way to react: a care emoji. Yellow generic-person hugs a disembodied heart, perhaps the heart that absence makes fonder. But to older eyes, unless you squint, it looks like someone clutching an open wound.

taking shelter
under my umbrella
mosquito

Such a long, cold, rainy April we’ve had. The death toll continues to climb, just as the scientists foretold. Already more Americans have died from COVID-19 than in the Vietnam War, they say — a comparison which has the unfortunate side-effect of making our imperial adventures seem like natural disasters. But it’s always hard to turn the dead into mere statistics. Picture instead a large stadium where the entire crowd has just perished. Or all the stumps in a 300-acre forest that’s just been clear-cut.

soil
too wet to plant
fresh graves

***

Process notes

One of the few haibun in this series where the title didn’t come from the first line of a haiku. In fact, settling on the present title really helped me see the sort of haiku I needed for this. As is often the case, the haiku came to me on walks, both the two I used and three more I rejected, and I’ve managed to make the switch from a pocket notebook to my phone (the Notes app) for jotting down haiku ideas. I still do use the notebook a lot as well, especially for drafting the prose portion of a haibun while sitting out on the front porch. Haiku are short enough that the awkwardness of typing on a tiny screen isn’t much of an impediment.

I shot the footage a week ago and have just been waiting for it to summon something up.

Brachiate

still from Brachiate
This entry is part 8 of 17 in the series Pandemic Season

 

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I don’t remember the dream that woke me, just that it seemed suddenly very important to breathe, and to go on breathing. To go on, despite fear, loneliness or depression. I thought of a stone I’d found on a walk that was too charismatic to just toss aside but which I knew I had no reason to keep, since I’m in the process of moving out (or was, before the pandemic hit). I put it in my pocket, and a moment later took it out again and set it down beside the trail for some child to find, with its red mineral heart outlined in yellow. I thought of Charles Simic’s definition of a stone as a mirror that works poorly.

brachiate
as if my lungs too
might leaf out

***

Process notes

I tend not to do much with text animation, but some sort of zoom effect seemed essential, given the strange footage—which I suppose I should explain for anyone who’s completely baffled by it. It’s on the shore of one of the small, seasonal, woodland pools at the top of the watershed. What was happening I think was that this little puddle happened to be situated right beside or on top of a root, or possibly two intertwined roots of adjacent trees. As the wind blew and the trees swayed, the roots were raised and lowered, causing the puddle to grow and shrink.

Either that, it was just haunted.

They say that the pandemic is causing people all over the world to have unusually vivid, frightening dreams. My dreams have always been pretty vivid, so I can’t say I’ve really noticed a difference.