Heard on High

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This entry is part 30 of 31 in the series Pandemic Season

 

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In the news: a last-minute Brexit deal, a Covid stimulus bill passing through Congress, and possible signs of intelligent life from Proxima Centauri. Sitting outside around midnight, I watch a deer silhouetted against the snow pick her way to the stream, hooves crunching through the icy snowpack. And the lacework of tree branches: a threadbare garment. It’s one thing to feel as if we’re all connected in some cosmic web, but it’s another matter entirely to share the bleak familiarity of our solitude with strangers, I mutter to myself. Her head goes up, ears pivoting like radio telescopes in my direction.

power outage
all the glowing lights
in the sky

***

Process notes

This all came together rather quickly. There’s nothing like a power outage to remind one of just how dependent we are on the increasingly decrepit and unsustainable infrastructure of a fossil fuel-based civilization. And also how dark and quiet the nights can be. Fortunately, last night’s outage only lasted half an hour. (One year, the power went out for much of Christmas day! That’s life in the country for you.)

I’d been playing around with haiku on the theme of animals walking in human footprints, but for this video just a shot of deer hoofprints in my snowshoe tracks seemed sufficient. I found the music on ccMixter.

Losing Maizy

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This entry is part 29 of 31 in the series Pandemic Season

 

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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

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This entry is part 28 of 31 in the series Pandemic Season

 

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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

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This entry is part 27 of 31 in the series Pandemic Season

 

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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

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This entry is part 26 of 31 in the series Pandemic Season

 

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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

Catching a Cranefly: linked verses

Catching a Cranefly still

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just one drink
catching a cranefly
in mid-air

how many months now
since I’ve held someone

missing you
the morning after
a hard frost

breath measured out
in small white clouds

buzzing
what the rattlesnake sees
in infrared

ah just to touch
that velvety skin

floating leaves
the fetal curl that makes
a good craft

trapped in transit with
whatever’s going ’round

migrants
a Japanese barberry
trembling with sparrows

will the circle in fact
be unbroken

mountain path
I step aside to let
a caterpillar pass

in the trail register box
an empty bottle

just one drink…

*

Process notes

This began as three tanka jotted down in the Notes app while I sat out in the woods, and snowballed from there. While haiku-writing culture prizes Zen-like objectivity, tanka are traditionally more open to the overt or side-long expression of deep emotion. This persisted even as I broke the tanka apart into a short linked-verse sequence, which I’d call a renku except that it wasn’t composed by a small group, just me. But as in renku, each pair of adjacent stanzas may be read as one verse.

I thought of ways to underline those linkages by repeating verses throughout the film, but the footage I ended up using — all shot on my phone over the course of the month — was so pretty, I thought it had to take center stage. And quite early in the process of editing I decided to make the bluesiness explicit with the choice of music. Fortunately, there are some seriously good blues musicians and remixers on ccMixter. After playing for a while with a more traditional, BB King-style guitar instrumental, I went with something more drone-y and experimental, which was a better fit for my slow presentation of text and images.

I also experimented with mixing music with spoken word, but couldn’t make it work. At that point it just sounded like a failed blues song. But I have long felt that the way traditional blues singers improvise songs, by adding or modifying verses from their repertoire to a stable melody+verse core, bears a more than passing resemblance to the way Japanese linked verse sequences are made. So I was glad for the opportunity to create a sort of hybrid of the two.

I hope the flying-in animation effect for the couplets doesn’t become too annoying. I recently bought a souped-up version of my video-editing software to help with client work (Need a poetry video or a clean-up job on a reading documentary? I’m your man!) so yes, I let myself be seduced by this new, not-at-all-cheesy effect. I find the contrast between slow-moving footage and nervously excited text aesthetically interesting. Your mileage may vary.

Also, yes, a timber rattlesnake! Sadly not here in Plummer’s Hollow, but in a nearby state forest. Ditto with the woolly bear. As for the trail register with the empty whiskey bottle, I shared a photo of it on Instagram (with my first draft of the haiku about the caterpillar).

In Common

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This entry is part 25 of 31 in the series Pandemic Season

 

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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 31 in the series Pandemic Season

 

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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.

Arboreal

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This entry is part 23 of 31 in the series Pandemic Season

 

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Moonlit night without the moon. In the treetops I see the shapes of various beasts, real and mythical, all in a slow retreat toward extinction. The trees themselves radiate hostility, and who can blame them? We are building apocalypse.

Let the ideologues go first, exploding like mushrooms into a fertile smoke of spores. Let workers who fall asleep on their feet get new infusions of sap. Let artists and musicians grow sleek new tails, as long as themselves and infinitely suggestible. What a relief to be monkeys again and hurl our shit about with abandon! The forest will have no choice but to return.

foggy night
I come home to find a leaf
stuck to my shirt

***

Process notes

As anyone who’s been following this series will know, I spend a lot of time outside at night. My iPhone’s video camera, however, does not perform well in low-light conditions, so to get “night” shots like the one here, I have to film at dusk and then desaturate. I did, however, pick up a leaf on my shirt on the very walk shown in the video. (And it was fully dark by the time I got back.) I even posted a photo of the leaf to Instagram. The prose portion of the haibun evolved from a free write based on sitting out in the woods two nights later.

As usual, I thought I was done with the thing but held off uploading until I’d slept on it. (Nighttime, it seems, is integral to my process even when it’s not the subject of the haibun.) Following which, of course, I completely re-wrote the haiku and fiddled around with the soundtrack.

I should add that in this time of social distancing and economic downturn, I’m grateful to local businesses for continuing to provide free wifi. I’d have a much harder time uploading these videos without them.

Execution

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This entry is part 22 of 31 in the series Pandemic Season

 

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At some point in my late teens, I took over from my dad as chief executioner. I think it bothered me slightly less than it bothered him, a life-long pacifist.

a V of swans
my fingers still sticky
with chicken blood

When I heard that poetry makes nothing happen, I thought, how marvelous—that’s the job for me! What a fantasy. Four decades on and almost everything continues to happen; nothing happens only to the dead, it seems. The pandemic may have temporarily slowed the movements of people, but money keeps on flowing like malignant, abstract blood, circling the world thousands of times a second. Ice sheets melt. Old-growth forests and deserts burn. Here on the mountain, the summer-long drought is forcing trees into a premature fall.

first rain in weeks
the turtle’s eye turns
from me to the sky

***

Process notes

I’ve always loved single-shot videopoems, and when on Sunday I was lucky enough to be largely ignored by a box turtle as I filmed it from two feet away, crouched under my umbrella, I figured it would spark another haibun. I assumed the subject matter would be something about the slow re-opening of schools and businesses during the pandemic, but no, nothing that obvious would do. In fact, as I worked on the text, I had to abandon a rather too neat and tidy ending — it just wasn’t in the haibun spirit. Fond as I am of stretching the form to accommodate surrealist touches or, as here, social/environmental critique, I do think that haibun ought to retain something of the original Japanese aesthetic, where indirection, asymmetry, and disjunction are prized as part of an effort to create an impression of unforced spontaneity.

This is the first time I’ve used that upwards-scrolling text effect for haiku in a videopoem; it’s obviously designed more for credits and such. But since both haiku reference the sky, I thought maybe I could get away with it. For obvious reasons it’s a bit more slow-paced than most of the haibun in this series.