In Common

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This entry is part 24 of 24 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

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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 24 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 24 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.

Crickets

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This entry is part 21 of 24 in the series Pandemic Season

 

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“On Monday, Iowa was leveled by what amounted to a level-two hurricane. But you wouldn’t know that from reading, listening to or watching the news.”

That’s how the Washington Post began its belated coverage.

With so little air travel happening these days, we might need a new term for “flyover country.” How about “slow internet country”? Or, given the widespread collapse of local reporting, “low information country”?

Is keeping people ignorant and disempowered the goal, or simply the unintended consequence of greed, callousness, corruption, and propaganda coming together in what one must inevitably characterize as a perfect storm?

When you know that you don’t know: then and only then will true words begin to appear.

in a dream
I can’t finish a haiku
[crickets]

***

Process notes

Having made a video haibun focusing on katydids, it was probably inevitable that I’d follow up with crickets. For what it’s worth, I really was struggling to compose a haiku in a dream the other morning. Later, I had the idea of playing with the pop-culture definition of crickets as silence or absence of any intelligible response, and the prose came quickly after that.

The source video was something I’d downloaded from Prelinger’s home movie collection a few days ago, not knowing how or whether I’d use it. I decided to edit the shots to change at the beginning of sentences in order to give the otherwise rather prosy bun section a more formal kind of rhythm.

Originally I ended with this:

even in a dream
I can’t write a good haiku
[here there be crickets]

which amused me since it was clearly a senryu disguised as a self-reflexive, 17-syllable folk haiku. But I went with the more serious and concise one in part because of the interesting (I hope) ambiguity about what it is I can’t finish.

Descent

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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.

Augury

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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.

Drought

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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.

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.

Truncated

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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.