Self-Quarantine

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall
This entry is part 1 of 28 in the series Pandemic Season

 

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The word goes out: Stop congregating. Stop conjugating. Stop conflagrating. Look but don’t touch — not even your own face. Stay home. Keep your distance. Keep your own company. That’s all any of us have left, aside from toilet paper. You may already be dead.

red pill
telling the ladybirds
to fly away home

Pandemic Time

still from Pandemic Time
This entry is part 2 of 28 in the series Pandemic Season

 

Be sure to watch with the sound on. Vimeo link.

Kept apart by the pandemic — my wife in London, me in the mountains of Pennsylvania — we connect each day through video conferencing software. She tells me of a scary incident earlier in the day when a man spat at her, narrowly missing her face, as they passed on bicycles. She watched in astonishment as he went on spitting: at a bystander and then at a runner, fortunately also missing both, before he disappeared around the corner like a figure out of some urban legend — “the mad plague carrier.”

pandemic time
stopping the car to watch
a pair of ducks

I’m still digesting this news when she says “It’s time to clap!” and carries me outside. I watch from atop a rubbish bin as people emerge from their houses up and down the street to clap and shout slogans in support of NHS health care workers. It’s chaotic, unsyncopated, and over in less than a minute. That was really great, she says.

open road
our distances
are social

***

Process notes

Although many of my haibun draw on dreams or other products of the imagination, this one is all true. (The shot was taken half a mile away from the spot where I stopped to watch ducks, however: two common mergansers in the Little Juniata River near Tyrone, PA). I decided to experiment with overlapping haiku and prose to suggest the disjunction between what’s going on here with what’s unfolding in London. The risk with this sort of thing is that I lose linear thinkers or anyone with dyslexia.

The PennDOT sign might be hard to read on a small screen. It alternatives between STAY HOME / LIMIT TRAVEL and PRACTICE SOCIAL DISTANCE. It was that latter phrase that I found suggestive: the idea of social distancing as a practice. From that seed sprang the whole haibun.

Quarantine Walk

still from Quarantine Walk
This entry is part 3 of 28 in the series Pandemic Season

 

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quarantine walk
stopping at the sound
of a jet

I can’t stop marveling at how quiet it’s become under lockdown. In normal times I find the close horizons of this narrow hollow in the hills a bit claustrophobic, but now that there’s so much less noise echoing around in it from adjacent highways, the nearby quarry, and factories and businesses in town, it feels more spacious. A pair of local Canada geese fly over at dusk and I hold my breath, listening to their wingbeats. I no longer envy animals that live underground their superior soundproofing.

last week’s rain
that hush
in the moss

***

Process notes

I think of the relationship between the prose and haiku portions of a haibun as a conversation, or better yet, antiphony — call-and-response. When it becomes a film/video, two other elements, image and sound, join in for what might hopefully resemble four-part harmony. What’s fascinating about this from the creative side is how the editing proceeds, with each element continually getting tweaked in response to the others. Even if, as is often the case with me, the video arrives first and calls up the text, where to cut and how much to process it can still change up to the last minute, as the haiku morph and I adjust the prose to make everything fit into the span of a minute. Our internet in Plummer’s Hollow continues to degrade as the pandemic crisis intensifies; best to keep the upload as small as possible.

The haiku here assumed their final and shortest form after I got a few more hours of sleep and rose in the middle of the night when the internet is fastest. There’s something about the wee hours that favors concision. Ultimately, I take my inspiration from the moss, which crowds so much into so little space. It carpets the mountain’s steep slopes where the ravages of the first clear-cutting, more than 200 years ago, might as well have been yesterday as far as the soil is concerned. No matter how great the chasms that open between them during a drought, moss plants always manage to heal all wounds and join up again in a harmony that must be perfect — how else could such a teeming mob maintain such silence?

Putting a Garden In

still from the video - close-up of a baby bunny
This entry is part 4 of 28 in the series Pandemic Season

 

Be sure to watch with the sound on. Vimeo link.

Putting a garden in so often entails putting wildlife out. You develop an adversarial relationship with nature, fencing, trapping, shooting, poisoning, getting a guard dog… It’s this sad reality that many years ago turned me against what had been the reigning passion of my youth.

onion bed
pulling out
wild onions

But my wife suggested from her bunker in London that as long as I am stuck in Pennsylvania for at least half the summer due to the pandemic, I might as well grow some vegetables. Great idea, I said, already relishing the thought of getting my fingers in the dirt again. But just planting fence posts, I displaced three adorable baby bunnies from the long grass, and when our neighbor plowed the site up, a meadow vole rushed out, all fur and panic.

wire fence
the wind’s
new whistle

***

Process notes

In contrast to my usual one-shot approach, I had plenty of footage to work with this time. Serendipity, as usual, played the strongest role; my planned shots were the least interesting. I realized during editing that I could even use a few seconds of accidental video recorded by the iPhone when a strong gust of wind blew it off the well cover where I’d had it propped up, and make it look as if it’s my reaction to the feint of a milk snake. To me, haibun is all about balance between different registers: prose and poetry (obviously), but also in this case humor and seriousness, attraction (the bunny) and repulsion (the snake). I tried turning it black-and-white to see how that would work, but it pushed it too far in the direction of serious, high-brow art.

As with my previous haibun, the haiku took the longest to get into their final (I hope!) form. It helped me to remember to go back to the original moment of inspiration for each one, and not get too abstract or clever (such as “now the wind has somewhere to whistle”). I displayed them as one-liners in the video and three lines above, and this inconsistency doesn’t bother me in the least, though many modern haiku people seem to obsess about such things. (One has to wonder whether their energies might be better spent learning to make videopoems!)

I am worried about the video seeming a bit rushed, and wonder whether it makes sense to continue to restrict myself to a one-minute duration. Regardless, this video haibun thing appears to be turning into a proper series. Yay!

Face Masks

still from Face Masks
This entry is part 5 of 28 in the series Pandemic Season

 

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Face masks, that curiously redundant name—perhaps because it’s only partial, and the mask becomes part of the face… or vice versa. Last week I forgot a mask on a trip to the supermarket in Liberal College Town, and the other shoppers stared and glared. Curled lips were hidden, but I could read their thoughts: “He must be one of them.”

essential
workers behind plexiglass
Easter lilies

This week, a quick trip to a deli in Blue-Collar Republican Town, and this time I remember my mask. Again I get stared at—and now I can see their mouths, too. The smirks. “He must be one of them.” It’s a relief to retreat to the mountain, where the blue-headed vireos are back with their chant that means I am here and This is my spot.

snow on shadbush blossoms
the governor’s
new order

Process notes

A videopoem in the classic style, remixing home movies of unknown provenance and an old commercial from the Prelinger Archives. I did a first draft of this using my own footage of blossoming shadbush and such, but found the result too boring. A second draft sourced footage from a different film for the first half, and I found the contrast with the text a little too jarring. I finally got the idea of searching Prelinger for films tagged “mannequin” and got some footage that seemed to work.

All that farting around, however, meant that the information here got a bit out of date. As of today, I’m told that many more residents of Blue-Collar Republican Town are wearing masks in public.

Flag of Hate

still from Flag of Hate - setting fire to a confederate flag
This entry is part 6 of 28 in the series Pandemic Season

 

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My brother comes back from a walk to report that someone has nailed a confederate flag to a tree at the end of the mountain. This far north of Dixie, that’s an unmistakable sign of hard-core racism. Our neighbors in the hollow have biracial grandchildren; perhaps it was aimed at them? Who knows. Hatred is a disease that can only be cured by love, but its carriers must be isolated and the symbols it infects destroyed.

flag of hate
hissing as
it burns

Fire breaks the hydrocarbon chains in polyester with a thousand fingers at once. We gaze at the flag’s charred outline on the road as if it were a map to some disaster area: a nuclear test site, a strip mine, the tar sands of Alberta.

fake stars
learning what it means
to shine

***

Process notes

My sister-in-law Paola was kind enough to film this for me. I had been playing with the text ever since Mark first reported his discovery, but burning the thing really helped me see that I had to lose all digressions and just focus in on the flag and our disposal of it. I had originally gone off on a tangent about a dream I’d had, brought in an incursion onto our property by off-road vehicles, and wandered off into a discussion of racism that was much too didactic for a haibun, where even the prose is supposed to be lyrical. I’m finding the one-minute approximate limit I’ve set myself for these videos immensely useful.

The Creative Commons-licensed music was surprisingly easy to find on Soundcloud. Through a complex procedure I don’t quite understand, the composer turns passages of James Joyce’s novel Finnegan’s Wake into music. There I was looking for an off-kilter version of “Dixie” and I found something brilliant.

Spring Evening

still from Pandemic Time - distant lights in the darkness
This entry is part 7 of 28 in the series Pandemic Season

 

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For anyone in the rural U.S., power outages are a way of life, so one of the most surprising things about the pandemic so far is that the lights have stayed on. I stand on the ridgetop as darkness falls, gazing at a very bright Venus high in the sky; below that, a sliver of moon, the black bulk of the Allegheny Front, and then the usual display of interstate exit lights, street lights and house lights. And in a town of 5000, however Appalachian, there must be at least a few Muslim families breaking their Ramadan fast.

spring evening
scent
of a backyard grill

8:30 and already most traffic has stopped. Way off down the ridge I hear the first whip-poor-will.

night forest
a glowworm’s
slow blink

***

Process notes

Written three or four nights ago (time is a blur these days). I thought I could use other, more oblique footage, but ultimately it just didn’t work, so I went back to the same ridgetop spot tonight to shoot what I could of the valley (the iPhone video camera is not great in low light) as well as to grab some audio with my trusty Zoom H2 microphone. I was worried about it resembling too closely my earlier haibun in this series, Quarantine Walk, which also used a single, slow panning shot at dusk, but oh well. I take a lot of night-time walks; what can I say?

If you’ve missed any of the other haibun in this on-going series, there’s now an archive page for them here under the ad hoc name Pandemic Time: Haibun, as well as a showcase on Vimeo.

Brachiate

still from Brachiate
This entry is part 8 of 28 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.

How to Care

This entry is part 9 of 28 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.

Public Relations

still from Public Relations
This entry is part 10 of 28 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.