Host

Flight path sounds so lovely—until one appears in your neighborhood. Then it’s more like that 80s Peruvian guerrilla group The Shining Path, launching a fresh assault every two minutes on silence, which is clearly an imperialist imposition. Though when it came to entertainment, the Senderistas would tolerate nothing but indigenous folk music. Or so I was told back in 1991 by a Peruvian punk rocker, who’d come all the way to the States to pursue his raucous dream. Me, I like heavy metal… but not necessarily the sleek bellies of Boeings and Airbuses coming in low over the house, wheels extended like the tiny claws on Tyrannosaurs, howling with the strain of deceleration and descent. Which I can sort of understand, you know? How much better to stay aloft and remote as a fluke in the bloodstream, its paths nearly infinite, however circumscribed by the exigencies of a living host.

a week of sun
in the far north
they wave at our train

Human Resources: erasure poetry meets videopoetry

still from Human Resources by Marie Craven

Changes of State. That’s the working title of my book-length manuscript of prose + micropoetry, which draws equally upon my lived experience, dreams, and nightmares. In the last category, I have a section of seven untitled found texts from the CIA’s Human Resource Exploitation Training Manual, which was used to train right-wing counter-insurgency interrogators throughout Latin America during the last and most brutal phase of the Cold War. I extract a haiku-length erasure poem or two from each text and place them below it, haibun-style. Last month, an online journal called The Other Bunny, which specializes in experimental haibun, published a selection of these under the title “Human Resources.” Then two days ago, the Australian multimedia artist Marie Craven surprised me with this damn-near perfect video version. I strongly recommend expanding it to full screen and using good headphones:

Marie describes it on Vimeo as “A video about mind control and hidden meanings.”

The original text here is sections of a CIA document from the 1980s, concerning mind control techniques. […] The video is made up substantially of this text on screen, overlaid on a delirious blend of movie images from the Prelinger Archives. I chose to ‘mash up’ two different films for this background. The first, and most visually recognisable, is ‘Duck and Cover’, a famous documentary film from the 1950s containing advice on how to take cover in the event of a nuclear blast. The second film is ‘Destination Earth’, an anti-communist animation also produced in the 1950s. Both films were ‘doubled up’, making four superimposed layers, sped up considerably, with some parts appearing in forward motion, others in reverse, and some images rotating so that they appear at odd angles throughout the piece. The rapid melee of images is designed to express the hallucinatory effect of mental confusion engendered by mind control. The music is a psychedelic piece by The Night Programme (aka Paul Foster), with whom I’ve collaborated musically for over a decade, all via the net (he’s in Wales, I’m in Australia). The track is entitled ‘Cxx2’, from his album, ‘Backup 010318’. In a contemporary sense, the poem and video seem timely in this era of rampant fake news and unabashed propaganda.

Human Resources is Marie’s fifth videopoem based on my poetry. This is the sort of collaboration the web was built for, I think, and it’s always deeply gratifying to me as a writer to have been able to inspire an artist of Marie’s caliber.

Drunkard’s dream

I enter a pub in London, thirsty but nearly broke. What’s your cheapest cask ale, I ask the bartender, who happens to be the comedian Margaret Cho. This one’s only a pound a pint, she says, pointing to a handle with an iron cross logo on it. No one wants to drink it because it’s racist. Gosh, I say, I’m not a racist, but that’s really cheap! It’s also very tasty, she says. Classic English bitter. She pulls a pint for me and I take a sip. It certainly slips down easy. But I’ve barely finished it when she announces last call. I order five more pints and start tossing them back. Oddly, I can’t feel the alcohol at all. I mean, sure, I drink mainly for the taste, but I enjoy a bit of a buzz, too. Apparently even where racism is concerned, you get what you pay for. I notice Margaret looking intently at me and writing something down on a small clipboard. I wake up thinking: What excellent casting! Who’d ever have thought to have Margaret Cho play the devil?

      drinking alone
      among the flowers of evil—
      the bees are all dead

Last Work

This entry is part 3 of 5 in the series Art and about

 

Agnes Martin's last work

The retrospective is room after room of encompassing light and depth that draw you into Agnes Martin’s long journey. Here. Now. Over and over. These big, pale, calm abstractions, and moving among them the pale hologram of a lone, determined woman. Colour. Lines. Straight lines. And one small drawing that is different: a single, sure, if quivering, line that curves back and forth as it describes the contours of a potted plant.

her last work
at ninety-two
still life

London Haibun

Rye Lane, Peckham, yesterday. A cooler day, with hovering rain and storms: the kind of weather that brings seabirds inland. Remembering that the gritty inner-city areas were once where I felt most comfortable. It’s different now. I’m older, and our cities harsher. Now I’m only saddened by the grinding poverty and shocked – coming here from next-door Dulwich – by the glaring class and racial separation…

seagulls circle
crying over Peckham
migrant voices

Dreamliner

Aircraft. It sounds like something one could learn: how to breathe, how to oxidize. But this craft is the kind that floats, and it is enormous. It takes us the full width of Norway at its widest point to reach cruising altitude.

The Boeing 787 is nicknamed the Dreamliner, and its crowded cabin, though far from silent, is filled with a lovely hush of white noise that makes it difficult to stay awake. The only light left in the sky is a band of red above an oddly low horizon which goes before us like Yahweh leading the Jews out of Egypt, on and on into what my body assures me should be night.

five-hour sunset
a movie plays on the back
of every seat

Our original flight map had shown the plane going farther south, but I wake to find us over northern Iceland. In little over an hour we’ve made the journey that used to take the Norsemen more than a week in their own formidable crafts, part Dreamliner, part F-22. I’m not sure what always makes me favor window seats on the left side of a plane, but this time it pays off: that stream of bright orange in the near distance can only be the lava flow from the volcano Bárðarbunga, which on Google Earth—accessible from my seat-back video screen—shows as a great round hole. Now it is the rest of the island that is black, and the caldera, when it periodically appears, is as livid as a setting sun.

a glowing wound
in the darkness six miles below
Bárðarbunga

Volcano! in half
a dozen languages
we gape through our portholes

A little later, as the lava flow recedes into the distance, I start to see the lights from settlements along the north coast. Pressing my face right up to the glass, I realize there’s still just enough light to distinguish land from the slightly darker sea. I recognize Vatnsfjord from the maps that accompanied translations I’ve read of Vatnsdæla Saga and Grettir’s Saga, and then the fern-frond-like Westfjords from, well, every map of Iceland ever (though I do think of the ill-fated hero Gisli). Then we are back out over the north Atlantic, its waves and storms as remote as a legend from our comfortable, high-tech bubble. The west seems brighter now, but it will have faded to blackness by the time we land in New York. I remember with a smile something someone said about the pilots as we waited to board at the Oslo airport: “If they’re too late, they won’t have time to fly up over the top of Canada as they usually do.”

curve of the horizon
even from this height
it’s hard to believe

Existential museuming

The human genome 1

Who are we, really? The current exhibits at London’s Wellcome Collection provide several intriguing suggestions. I loved a photo of the neural network pulled from the body, which looked like some kind of fairy shrimp, and a photo of many pairs of socks shaped like chromosomes. But I wasn’t moved to pull out my camera until we got to a printed edition of the complete human genome. Each volume had a thousand pages, with type so small it was difficult to read without a magnifying glass.

The human genome 2

Human-being-as-library is an attractive metaphor to me, not least because when I was growing up, I often visited my Dad at the academic reference library where he worked. Plus my Mom was a writer and our home was full of books.

Symbolical head

Reading was always a great way to live in my head.

Gormley on the ceiling

Antony Gormley is famous for making casts of his own body. His art prompts us to ask deep questions about the meaning of human embodiment and habitation, such as, “Wouldn’t it be cool if we could stand on the ceiling?”

galloping penises from Pompeii

But as some of the art unearthed at Pompeii demonstrates, people have been indulging in gravity-defying fantasies for a long time.

false eyes and nose

One of the sculptures I particularly liked was a human skeleton with the skull substituted for the pelvis and vice versa. Such acts of imagination strike me as essential to who we are as social and ecological beings, attractive as it might be to pretend that we are entirely scrutable — recorded in the Book of Life or programmed in the hard drive of our genes. Besides, 90% of the cells in our bodies belong to microorganisms.

a blown-glass sculpture
of the HIV virus—
loud children swarm past

Postprandial

The feast: more than a meal, it’s flesh at its most opulent surrounded by a nimbus of starches and sweets, by anticipation and ceremony, by cacophony and prayer. If fast is a holding firm, feast is a letting go — but no less a ritual for that. Certain foods must be served in a set order. Belts must be loosened along with inhibitions. First the table must groan under the weight of the food, then the eaters must groan as they attempt to rise. The boundary between pleasure and pain must be breached — especially on a feast of thanksgiving. You can say grace before any meal, but Thanksgiving’s mandatory excess imparts a visceral understanding of the cost of consumption: something has to die that we may live.

Walking it off
through the night & fog
the dazzle of home

Autumn haibun

This entry is part 17 of 37 in the series Bridge to Nowhere: poems at mid-life

 

Fall is a time of strange promptings, even for those of us who never succumb to vagabondage. If I happen to spot decades-old spiderwebs like wings of dust in a corner of the basement, I glance quickly away & reach for the jar of screws. And when the green is gone, when it has leached from the last of the leaves & the ground is ankle-deep in gloria mundi, I want to know the trees as Indians once did: from the flavor of their ashes. I want to learn restlessness from the natives, stand still enough to become a landmark for a mob of lekking gnats in Indian summer. I want the little brown bat in my portico to find a hibernaculum no other bat knows about, where he can hang all winter like a stilled pendulum, safe from the killer fungus the color of snow. I want my bootprints to collect the November rain & freeze: windows for whatever Argus might still be with us, insomniac, going over & over the dwindling flocks.

The Amtrak’s
quick double blast—
then cricket   cricket.

Ceiling snakes

This entry is part 4 of 37 in the series Bridge to Nowhere: poems at mid-life

 

Direct link to video on Vimeo

The night that a pair of mating milk snakes drops out of the ceiling, I do not dream of snakes. I dream of mating, and of breaking through the crust of the earth and discovering another world filled with an unnatural light. I dream of inescapable stairs verging on a cliff-face to which I cling like a wingless fly. When I wake, it’s still humid, if no longer hot, and a wood thrush sings at the edge of the woods, where wood thrushes always sing: one part joy, two parts longing. I find my notebook from the night before, what I’d been writing when I heard a noise in the kitchen and set it down (some writer!) to grab the video camera. Picking at a scab, it says, and worry beads. I’m sure I had something in mind, but I don’t know what. The snakes were beautiful, and if I hadn’t known better, I might’ve thought from their configuration that they were one snake with a head at both ends, curious but calm as milk snakes always seem to be. If they’d stayed longer I might’ve stood beneath them and offered the use of my body as a steep set of stairs. But the ceiling or their unfinished business called them back, and up they went.

night kitchen
feeling in the dark to pour
a glass of milk