Quarantine Walk

still from Quarantine Walk
This entry is part 3 of 40 in the series Pandemic Year

 

Watch on Vimeo.

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?

Pandemic Time

still from Pandemic Time
This entry is part 2 of 40 in the series Pandemic Year

 

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.

Self-Quarantine

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall
This entry is part 1 of 40 in the series Pandemic Year

 

Watch on Vimeo.

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

Host

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

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

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

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

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall
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

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

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

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

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

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

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