Temblor

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Here’s a poem from my new collection of experimental haibun, Failed State. Long-time readers may recognize the videopoem, a earlier version of which appeared here some seven or eight years ago, under a different title, and with a briefer text. The haiku is based on an experience I had when I was an exchange student in Taiwan back in 1986.

The book is the product of a new nanopress, Via Negativa Books — i.e. me — with print-on-demand and electronic versions available through Blurb, which has a worldwide network of printers to keep shipping costs down (and give them bragging rights about a lower carbon footprint). I wrote about my decision to self-publish, and my gratitude for the filmmakers who have made adaptations from it, in a blog post on my author website. To watch some of those other films, see the book’s dedicated page, or go directly to Blurb to preview the content.

Failed State is open content, meaning that it’s licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike “copyleft” license to encourage sharing and remixing. I’m also happy to offer a free copy of the PDF to anyone willing to write a substantial review on their blog or social media (or you can just squint at the full-text preview).

Winter Den

still from Winter Den
This entry is part 33 of 33 in the series Pandemic Season

 

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Limbs against the snow, outlined with more snow. Treetops no longer canopies but the bare nets of need. Their no-longer-rare caresses and collisions in the winter wind. The moans of the ice-bound. How tormented they’d be if they hadn’t retreated to the underworld, that silken matrix of rootlets and hyphae, to trade fermented memories of sunlight for the bones of a mouse.

winter den
a slow leak of breath
growing needles

snowy meadow
seedhead bending into
its own pit

We who cannot hibernate, isolated in our boxes of wood or brick, fight the cold any way we can. A poet posts a selfie taken by snowlight. A long-Covid survivor befriends the horse stabled beneath her apartment. The snow plowman dreams of combine harvesters bringing in the crop: a wintry mix. One of his chickens goes gaga over her egg.

cold sun
the fetal curl
of rhododendron leaves

What fever do I still need to break? I take a dose of Vitamin D with my morning outrage. Whose salt-block ignorance or black-ice tongue are we taking offense at today?

crescent moon
a snowflake’s asterisk
in my windpipe

It’s snowing right over there, on the other side of the valley, in soft syllables of Plattdeutsch. Fresh coyote tracks cross my own and I follow them back to a den under an outcrop of Tuscarora quartzite. I walk on, until the last bit of daylight has drained from the sky.

blinking
through the night forest
cell tower

house shaking
from the oil furnace
from the wind

***

Process notes

The longer I delay finishing these things, the longer they get. The delay in this case was due not to procrastination, but indecision about whether to make a haibun or a linked verse sequence with the footage and haiku I had, plus some difficulty in finding the right soundtrack. I’m not completely satisfied with the somewhat canned-sounding piece of music I ended up using here; I just needed to finish up so I could move on.

When I started making haiga with still photos at the beginning of the year, I wondered how it might impact my video-making. What I’m discovering is that, while it does scratch kind of the same itch, it’s given additional impetus to my haiku writing, so that I end up with more than enough material for both projects. The trick is remembering to shoot both video and still photos — if I’m looking for one, I’m not necessarily looking for the other.

Smell Pox

still from Smell Pox showing snow falling on wet leaf duff
This entry is part 32 of 33 in the series Pandemic Season

 

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I lost my sense of smell for just two days. When it came back, the first odor I noticed was soil, which still surprises me this time of year. When I was a kid, the only time the temperature rose above freezing in January was for a few days of warm weather toward the end of the month, a little false spring we called January Thaw.

white clippings
from my haircut
winter garden

Rachel went back to work after a ten-day self-quarantine. She had what might’ve been the common cold, though five of the other people who looked after the same special-needs person tested positive for Covid. That’s the hell of it, the not knowing whether one might be infectious or immune.

winter
afternoon moon
where’s your shadow

***

Process notes

This went through so. many. drafts. That’s in part because I had several haiku that worked with it, but didn’t have any particularly amazing footage. In the end, yesterday’s moon got me where I needed to go, I think: Absence was my true subject all along. I uploaded it last night, but this morning had one more tweak, that lens-warp fade in. I felt it needed something, but wasn’t sure what until I discovered that effect.

Epiphan’t

This entry is part 31 of 33 in the series Pandemic Season

 

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January 6: Epiphany. I’m not sure what we had in mind when, brainstorming a videopoem for the New Year, Luisa Igloria and I had played around with alternate versions: Epiphony. EpiPhone. Epiphan’t. I don’t think either of us imagined what the angel of history actually had in store. How a morning full of jubilation could be so quickly buried by a 200-year storm.

new Congress
the weight of wet snow
on my umbrella

A white space where history should be: the stolen and destroyed lands, the disappeared peoples. A blank screen where we project our dreams and nightmares, like this vigilante mob older than the republic itself. Rachel and I watch it together on Twitter, doomscrolling, unable to look away. It’s like a B-grade movie come to life, undead legions still loyal to the Lost Cause shambling through the very chambers where 740.5 billion dollars had recently been authorized for our annual “defense” — that Orwellian euphemism. Precious works of art smashed, stolen or defiled, and Donald Rumsfeld laughing: “Stuff happens!” Shit smeared on the walls. A policeman murdered by rioters professing to love the police. Do blue lives matter after all? Will any of us get out of these blues alive?

Twelfth Night
congressmen playing congressmen
in face masks

***

Process notes

I had a completely different haibun ready to envideo on Wednesday afternoon, when I made the mistake of checking Twitter. It was all about the passing of time, the turning of the year, getting older, and the pleasures of wandering around in a snowstorm. The snow had fallen on Sunday, I think (it all seems so long ago now). The first haiku above had been an earlier draft of one in that abortive haibun, which I still think is a bit stronger:

wet snow
the growing weight
on my umbrella

I have lots more footage from that snowstorm, some of it fairly striking, which I tried using in the video, but in the end, a more minimal approach worked best.

The word epiphan’t appears in NEOLOG 2021.0: new words for a new year. The last line of the bun portion is a John Lee Hooker reference.

NEOLOG 2021.0: new words for a new year

still from Neolog

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gaslighght

haranguish

antivoxpopuli

farmine

winterred

sunderland

isonation

simulus

plutocrack

infestive

corporulation

dishoarder

whitewish

epiphan’t

quarantinder

chutzprat

sworm

immoanity

inocubus

virall

Notes

The original plan was for Luisa and me to collaborate on a linked-verse videopoem, but around Christmas the word “infestive” came to me, and I thought maybe it would be fun to do one-word poems after the style of Aram Saroyan, famous for “lighght” among other micropoetic masterpieces. I messaged Luisa, and as soon as she ingested some more caffeine we were off to the races. The footage is mostly my own, gathered over the past three years. A few clips have appeared in other things I’ve made, and a few were shot intentionally for this project, including a car-window glimpse of cotton fields that Luisa shot. I found the soundtrack once again at the fabulous online community of musicians and remixers at ccMixter.org.

The selection of words we used represents about a third of what we came up with in the course of an hour. We tried to avoid bathos as best we could, with the Urban Dictionary to keep us on the straight and narrow: several of our most obvious ideas had already been coined! Nevertheless, we wanted to include a mix of more and less obvious neologisms, since (unlike Saroyan) we’re not necessarily just about art for art’s sake here — we also wanted something accessible enough to serve as a sort of weird holiday greeting card for Via Negativa readers.

So thank you for visiting Via Negativa in 2020, and thanks especially to those who share our links on social media or pick up a subscription. (We don’t make any money off this, it just make us feel good to know that some people like our content enough to commit to reading it every day… or at least as often as our slightly buggy set-up manages to generate new emails.) Best wishes for a Happy or at least Less Intolerable New Year to all.

Heard on High

still from Heard on high
This entry is part 30 of 33 in the series Pandemic Season

 

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In the news: a last-minute Brexit deal, a Covid stimulus bill passing through Congress, and possible signs of intelligent life from Proxima Centauri. Sitting outside around midnight, I watch a deer silhouetted against the snow pick her way to the stream, hooves crunching through the icy snowpack. And the lacework of tree branches: a threadbare garment. It’s one thing to feel as if we’re all connected in some cosmic web, but it’s another matter entirely to share the bleak familiarity of our solitude with strangers, I mutter to myself. Her head goes up, ears pivoting like radio telescopes in my direction.

power outage
all the glowing lights
in the sky

***

Process notes

This all came together rather quickly. There’s nothing like a power outage to remind one of just how dependent we are on the increasingly decrepit and unsustainable infrastructure of a fossil fuel-based civilization. And also how dark and quiet the nights can be. Fortunately, last night’s outage only lasted half an hour. (One year, the power went out for much of Christmas day! That’s life in the country for you.)

I’d been playing around with haiku on the theme of animals walking in human footprints, but for this video just a shot of deer hoofprints in my snowshoe tracks seemed sufficient. I found the music on ccMixter.

Losing Maizy

still from Losing Maizy
This entry is part 29 of 33 in the series Pandemic Season

 

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Maizy the terrier had always traveled in circles — around the park, around the block, around the garden — but toward the end her circles tightened drastically till they occupied no more than a corner of the kitchen. She no longer recognized her own front door and became utterly lost. Except, it seems, on the lap of her life-long companion, my partner Rachel. Her fits become more frequent and prolonged, each time leaving her a bit more impaired. Finally Rachel made the agonizing decision to have her euthanized. She found a vet who made house calls, and when the time came, held Maizy as if she were an infant while the drugs kicked in. Rachel said she felt her relax all over, and then, a few seconds later, simply stop breathing.

windy sidewalk
a spiral of leaves lying down
at my feet

It was hard not to be there with them in London. We’ve been crying a lot over Zoom. How strange it is, Rachel says, to wake up and walk around without Maizy. “Death is the only thing we know to be true,” says my 70-year-old friend L. We’ve been walking through an oak-hickory forest on a mostly unmarked trail for a couple of miles, and we’ve come to a T-intersection with a sign that points left to “Beach – 1 mile” and right to “Dead End – 1 mile.” We turn right. And after a mile we find ourselves in a large clearing filled with reindeer lichen. There are certainly worse places to end up.

curled
in a maze of roots
another life

***

Process notes

I hope it’s obvious what I was trying to do here. I did take quite a bit more time with this than usual, in part because I wasn’t there for Maizy’s death and burial (in the back garden). I wasn’t willing to write a haiku solely based on second-hand experience.

It might be worth sharing some of my alternate attempts at a closing haiku. For a placeholder while I worked on the video, I had something based on a morning porch observation several days ago:

mid-morning moon
the only cloud dissolving
into blue

which seemed Buddhist in a way I’m not, and didn’t bring it back to Maizy and circling, aside from the cyclical phases of the moon, which I continued to play with:

nestled
into a box
daytime moon

garden burial
the daytime moon’s
thinning tooth

maze of roots
for a cardboard coffin
another life

It occurred to me last night, while gazing at the edge of the woods where tree trunks were faintly visible, that it’s entirely accurate to consider trees (and plants in general) as beings of light, however New Agey that may sound.

For what it’s worth, I believe this is the first I’ve ever included a post-credits scene in a videopoem. But surely the dead deserve a secret ending.

New film adaptation of Failed State

screenshot from Estado Fallido showing a woman examining her face in the mirror

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Eduardo Yagüe, a filmmaker friend from Spain, has just released this film based on my forthcoming collection of haibun, Failed StateEstado Fallido in Spanish. Here’s what he told me about it in an email (translated with the help of Google):

This project has been with me for a long time and for me it is very special. I always liked the title a lot and I wanted to bring it over to my own domain: “What would happen if the failed state were a person, what would it be like?” Then your haikus became the memories of the protagonist, in a kind of delusional inner monologue.

The production was lengthy and I had to cancel the recording several times, change the script, the location, the actors, the expectations. Until I found Rebeca, who lent me her house to record in, and she herself was a brave actress to investigate everything I proposed to her through your texts. Then came the pandemic and confinement and we had to wait again, and in the end (in the final shot) it was noticed. Somehow the entire failed state of the world in which we have lived this year appeared.

I know it is a hard video, difficult to watch, in a rather harsh mode. I hope it does honor to your poems, which I find extraordinary. I wish your book a long and successful track record.

As I mentioned on my author site just now, the book itself won’t be available till the end of the year or early January. Somehow I don’t think I would’ve gotten a big bump from Christmas sales anyway.

Presence

still from Presence
This entry is part 28 of 33 in the series Pandemic Season

 

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A tree seems like the very embodiment of presence, but this time of year it is mostly absent, at least aboveground. It’s real in the same way that a life-size cardboard cutout of a politician is real. You can project anything onto it. It’s another blank space on your mental map.

sleeping it off
on a park bench
fallen leaves

In her poem “Come Into Animal Presence,” Denise Levertov celebrated the rare privilege of being ignored by wild animals. Lately I’ve experienced this to an unusual degree: with a doe that barely stepped aside for me, a beaver that went about its business fifty feet away, flocks of turkeys that walk right past, and small creatures foraging all around me in the night woods. I’m not sure what I’ve done to deserve it, but I’m humbled and grateful to be allowed to fade into the woodwork.

hole
between the stars
flying squirrel

*

Process notes

This was a rare instance where the filming and writing happened nearly simultaneously, on or near a convenient bench in the forest. It occurs to me that it’s the first I’ve made a black-and-white film in a year and a half—and the last time I did so was also to focus attention on shadows. I’m a simple man.

This is one of those times I really could’ve used a tripod. I tried speeding up the entire five-minute clip of the tree shadow eclipsing the hand shadow, for a time-lapse effect, but the shaking became too distracting, even after I applied an image-stabilization effect. On the other hand, keeping the whole film in real time might’ve been the best approach anyway.

The drone music in the soundtrack (thank you, pseudonymous Freesound user) might or might not be a necessary addition to the natural sound, which does include some distant raven croaks and lots of falling leaf noises. I worry perhaps a bit too much about taxing viewers’ attention spans.

Antennae

still from Antennae
This entry is part 27 of 33 in the series Pandemic Season

 

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Seeing the almost bare trees as antennae—intelligence-gathering stations for an alien umwelt, the rococo feelers of moths.

lonesome hollow
speaking softly so the void
doesn’t reply

What I miss most of all in the colder months: beetles and butterflies, crickets at night, and those delicate ninjas the ichneumon wasps. The way they tap the ground with paired canes, sniffing, listening.

unmarked path
a stick leaning on a tree
for the next hiker

*

Process notes

This was born of the simple desire to film the brown and gray colors of a November forest, on a hike in another hollow nearby. Standing in the same place, I did two slow pans from opposite directions, then thought about combining them with a horizontally split screen. When I tried that in editing, though, it wasn’t as satisfying as simply using two halves of the same shot, one of them reversed.

That hike was yesterday. Today, a hike on my home ground shook loose the text.

It seems as if the Pandemic Season series won’t be ending any time soon. I will probably end up re-naming it Plague Year, echoing Defoe, or something similar.