Out of Whack

screenshot from Out of Whack
This entry is part 11 of 24 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…

Tadpool

This entry is part 12 of 24 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.

In the Fullness of Time

still from In the Fullness of Time
This entry is part 13 of 24 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.

Unrest

This entry is part 14 of 24 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.

Robber Fly

This entry is part 15 of 24 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.

Truncated

still from Truncated showing a rat snake on the ground
This entry is part 16 of 24 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.

Independence Day

This entry is part 17 of 24 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.

Drought

still from Drought
This entry is part 18 of 24 in the series Pandemic Season

 

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Rain has forsaken us. However much water I give my gardens, it still isn’t enough. Tomato and squash vines wilt. Corn leaves curl. The potatoes gave up altogether, leaving me a half-sized harvest. I feel like the opposite of King Midas: Everything I touch turns to dust. But let me have one wish. I’ll keep it secret even from myself, and carry it back to earth’s ear in a bucket.

sinkholy
fields resting on straw-
thin stalactites

***

Process notes

I shot the footage a couple of weeks ago in the valley to our east, which is called Sinking Valley for all its sinkholes and caves. The soda straw formations referenced here require SCUBA training and special permission to access, so I’ve never seen them, but the entrance to that cave, shown here, is free and open to the public. Needless to say there’s a different hydrology here on the mountain, but things are dry all over.

The last three sentences of the prose portion of the haibun woke me up this morning, and the rest of the text followed soon after. I had been working on a less-inspired text about the drought in response to different imagery, which I won’t go into any more detail about because I might still use that in a different project. I thought of actually shooting some video of my wilting garden for this, but as usual went for a more indirect approach. To me, the riskiest move is opting to leave the e out of sinkholy, making an explicit gesture toward the sacred. I’m not entirely sure why I feel a need to do that.

Augury

still from Augury
This entry is part 19 of 24 in the series Pandemic Season

 

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The dark, seasonal pool at the top of the watershed has dried up, so where do I go now to let my eyes relax and envision possibilities apart from the doom-scroll on my phone or laptop?

cracks in the mud
100% chance
of chaos

In the garden, Oswego tea leaves tremble with the buzz of pollinators, but soon I am mourning the scarcity of butterflies — a region-wide phenomenon. Up on the ridgetop after dark I watch a distant thunderstorm off to the southeast: sudden fissures of light opening and closing without a sound, while the first katydids test out their rattles. But soon I am remembering an article about a terrifying new category of monster storm. I turn and look for Comet Neowise below Ursa Major. It’s the barest of smudges now, like the death-smear of a midge at the bottom of a monitor.

trying to recall
my touch-typing skills
the sound of rain

***

Process notes

The continued drought, combined with worsening news on the political, pandemic, and environmental fronts, makes me want to simultaneously escape from and delve deeper into the present moment. I do love the expression “doom-scrolling,” though.

A mixture of old and new footage. With the haibun text, I’m trying to stay mindful of how it fits with its predecessors, picking up old themes and references to make the series feel more like a sequence. (I’m posting the texts into a manuscript as I go along, to help out with this.)

It’s possible these haiku are a bit too clever. Call them senryu, then. I don’t mind.

Descent

still from Descent
This entry is part 20 of 24 in the series Pandemic Season

 

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katydids
in and out of sync
our ragged breaths

In dreams, my hometown in central Pennsylvania has partially merged with London. There are multiple high-rise apartment buildings now, rather than just one, the river is wider, the paper mill has become a sprawling industrial complex, and the poor section of town now has a distinctly bohemian flavor. Wandering the wooded hill in the center of town, I find a nearly deserted, glassed-in staircase, and descend it in great leaps, nearly flying. My British wife, undercover as a Bond girl, asks how I can do that and not get hurt. This is all just a dream, I tell her. Is it real for you?

katydids
together apart
together

***

Process notes

My own field recording of the nightly common true katydid chorus is the soundtrack for a video haibun based on a recent dream. I used footage from the Prelinger Archives: someone’s old home movie from a trip to London, and a documentary advertising Redbook magazine (which I also used earlier in this sequence, for Face Masks), all treated with a simple vignetted effect. I couldn’t decide whether it was better to have the images dark and night-like or garish and dream-like, so I settled for a blend of the two reflecting the contrasting conditions of the source films. No doubt a professional film maker could’ve done a better job with the dream sequence, but as usual I’m OK with something that evokes approximately the feeling I had while writing the text.

As for the haibun, I find it both humdrum and exciting: humdrum as dream narrations go (especially in the middle of an increasingly scary political/economic situation with the pandemic continuing to rage unchecked—where’s the fear and paranoia?!) but mildly exciting for the haiku, where I hit upon the idea of including two different versions of essentially the same idea, and sandwiching the dream between them.