Unforgetting

still from unforgetting
This entry is part 35 of 39 in the series Pandemic Year

 

Watch on Vimeo

A year into the pandemic, do I still remember how to kiss, or even to hug? Is it a muscle-memory thing, like riding a bicycle? I’ve forgotten whole languages, one lonely drink at a time. I barely remember what it’s like to be in a room full of strangers. Will we ever pretend that’s normal again?

last year’s pod
still holding on
to next year’s milkweed

I walk to the end of the mountain above the gap. To the east, the giant gray steps of the limestone quarry. To the north, the paper plant with its white flag of vapor. The railroad following the river and the interstate following the ridge. Snow has taken its blank eraser and retreated to higher ground, but the bare earth offers nothing new in its place. Not yet.

noon whistle
I pause to eat a handful
of old snow

55

still from "55" showing a junker car in the middle of a snowy field
This entry is part 34 of 39 in the series Pandemic Year

 

Watch on Vimeo

I turned 55 on the first spring-like day in late February, which felt like a cosmic mixed message. For weeks I’ve been fighting low-level depression about getting older and being a failure as a husband — and by fighting I mean going for long walks, mostly on snowshoes.

bone-tired
ogling the snow-free
strips of field

My birthday was shopping day, though, and when I got back to my parents’ house with their groceries, just past noon, Mom surprised me with a cake. And it was warm enough to sit out on their veranda and talk. It took me back.

When I think about my childhood now, it seems to me that I spent an inordinate amount of time just kind of poking at things with a stick. I suppose that must sound absurd to anyone who grew up with video games and the internet.

decades
after the last train
tree-of-heaven

I’m consoled by the thought that this sort of arm’s-length but intent preoccupation with whatever was in front of me may have been the perfect preparation for being a haiku poet. Though of course predilection doesn’t necessarily imply a gift. It would be presumptuous to assume that nature works like that.

growing
a thicker exoskeleton
rock tripe

Smell Pox

still from Smell Pox showing snow falling on wet leaf duff
This entry is part 32 of 39 in the series Pandemic Year

 

Watch on Vimeo

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 39 in the series Pandemic Year

 

Watch on Vimeo.

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.

Losing Maizy

still from Losing Maizy
This entry is part 29 of 39 in the series Pandemic Year

 

Watch on Vimeo

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.

Presence

still from Presence
This entry is part 28 of 39 in the series Pandemic Year

 

Watch on Vimeo

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 39 in the series Pandemic Year

 

Watch on Vimeo

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.

Undivided

still from Undivided
This entry is part 26 of 39 in the series Pandemic Year

 

Watch on Vimeo

1. Amazing Grace

I mistook dysphoria for euphoria once on purpose, and it almost worked. When you live in the forest, winter—not summer—is the season of light. And so an empty plate became the full moon, and the mouse in my filing cabinet was a companion animal. I could sometimes hear her late at night, shredding my old poems for nesting material. I meanwhile was building a cenotaph out of cigarette butts. My disemboweled television watched over me while I slept.

last cigarette
as long as grass grows
or rivers run

2. Song Dogs

Three days before the 2020 U.S. presidential election, my friend L. and I get lost on a hike above a dammed-up river, too busy arguing about politics to notice that we’ve branched off onto the wrong logging road. The sun is going down. On the ridge above us, coyotes start singing. Their melismatic solos intertwine in a way that can’t be called dissonant, though Lord knows it’s nothing as simple as harmony.

no longer lost
that hole in the clouds
far upslope

In Common

still from In Common
This entry is part 25 of 39 in the series Pandemic Year

 

Watch on Vimeo

What does it mean to be average? When a computer averages the features from hundreds of faces, the resulting image will look like a supermodel. This tells us that what is average is not necessarily common, and vice versa.

But I love the idea of this perfect face held in common, each of us contributing our own small part to it. Together we are conventionally beautiful. As individuals we can be uncommonly beautiful.

first day of fall
a harrow’s
yellow teeth

It’s the autumn equinox, one of two days a year with perfectly average durations of day and night. I look west to see the sunrise reddening the ridge till it’s as flushed as the face of my British wife after one drink. My uncommonly beautiful lover, whom I see now only by web conferencing software. The soft wear of her. The solid-state drive of her.

And of course our dilemma is as common as COVID. The law of averages may be on our side as individuals, but who wants to take a chance on being average? The only way out is if we each contribute our piecemeal vulnerability to the common good.

marsh hawk
the draft horses with
their blinders on

***

Process notes

Although the pandemic is far from over, I felt the need to wrap up the Pandemic Season series since my haibun seem to be heading in a different direction. In a reverse of my usual pattern (which I described the other day in a talking-head video solicited for a videopoem workshop), I actually wrote the haibun first (on, you guessed it, the autumn equinox) and then shot the video.

The haiku came from a drive through the neighboring valley, where the clay is yellowish brown and at least half the farms are Amish now, I think. I played with the idea of a spring tooth harrow in autumn, but ultimately decided that was too much, too clever for the kind of haiku needed here. And yes, I know we’re supposed to call marsh hawks harriers now, but I like the older name.

Since the goldenrod in the video is dancing, the soundtrack clearly needed something with a beat. I searched ccMixter for experimental folk music and quickly discovered this track by the user Anchor, which seemed perfect. They uploaded it back on April 5, describing it as “a musical prayer/plea which hopefully, the more beneficent forces of the unknown universe and the altruistic higher nature of humankind might project as a lodestar of Hope in troubled times.”

Nuthatch

This entry is part 24 of 39 in the series Pandemic Year

 

Watch on Vimeo

If a mountain had a heart, it would be made of water. And if it has water running through its veins, it is full of life. I am saying the mountain is alive, but in a complex way that we are only beginning to understand.

dried-up pond
is autumn still autumn
without reflection

It’s a shame that the sort of people who become writers are those who believe they are good at writing. Such people don’t always make the best listeners. Myself included.

So many sounds in here. I mean out here, in this grove. There’s a nuthatch, upside-down as usual, sounding anxious.

What if poets were prevented, by law or custom, from ever signing their work? What if we never got to learn who was the maker of anything? Would I still write? What sorts of poems would I so thirst to read, I’d have to bleed them out myself?

nuthatch
if you want to know the pine
take root

***

Process notes

A more light-hearted videopoem than most of mine lately. I’m not entirely sure that this belongs in the Pandemic Season series, but I’ve included it for now. I’ve decided it doesn’t belong in the existing haibun series, and might in fact be the start of a new one. We’ll see.

It helps to know that the white-breasted nuthatch forages on tree trunks and limbs upside-down, gleaning small invertebrates, mostly. And in the second haiku, I’m riffing on Basho’s famous dictum: “If you want to know the pine, go to the pine.”

That saying is printed on the side of the water bottle that I had with me on the walk/sit represented here. (It was a gift from Penn State Altoona’s Environmental Studies program, after one of my readings on campus a few years ago.) I was in fact sitting in a grove of Norway spruce, not pine, at the top of the watershed, near the ephemeral pond mentioned in the first haiku. The odd shot angle happened by accident at first — I was scanning up the tree opposite and then down the one I was leaning against — but I liked the reflections in my glasses so much, I had to shoot a video of just that (using the proper, front-facing smartphone lens, not the selfie one).

I sat there for a couple of hours, watching the light change, listening to the grove (young spruce trees are NOISY!), and jotting down thoughts on the phone as they occurred to me. (I wonder why I never use the voice recorder app for that?) So this was the rare example of a video haibun emerging altogether, at one time. I did enhance and repeat the nuthatch call during editing, and eventually decided to find some ambient music on freesound to better represent a stream of consciousness.

What I left out from my notes and ultimately from the haibun was the central theme of my existential pondering; excessively abstract thinking sits uneasily with poetry, especially poetry in the Japanese tradition. Nevertheless, the bun here does derive more from zuihitsu than the poetic diary genre that gave rise to haibun. (Years ago, a drinking buddy saw a copy of Kenko’s Essays in Idleness on my bookshelf and said, “Dude, did you write that?” Ouch.)

Let’s just say I’m trying to enact something treeish and mycorrhizal here. I hope it works.