Saturday, October 29, 2011

Of Poets...

I arrive 25 minutes early for the first "Discussion on Contemporary Poetry." I see myself in this place and do not feel foreign. It is one of the many halls at New York University, this one in the School of Law, but at the moment it is filled with poets, and while such a gathering inevitably reveals the pretentiousness of our kind, it also reveals our love. Of beauty, of language, of meaning. We experience the world differently, I think, not only from those who do not identify themselves with this art, but also from each other.

A lineup of 14 Chancellors of the Academy last night, all reading from their recent work, spoke to this directly. Of their readings, three, for me, were deeply felt. Three more deeply appreciated, and at least two barely enjoyed. That is as received through my sensibility. The filter of my poetic ear, such as it is. I reflect for some time that this range exists for them, as well, toward their myriad colleagues, but always in common, always this: a profound reverence for the bard in each of them. For the poet's heart in every one, for the yearning and inevitability of their language, for the shared ecstasy of a satisfying turn of phrase. A human cry perfectly rendered. A love song that drapes the body like a shroud.

Across the board, the vanity of such types was highlighted--how we assume that people want to read our deepest, most hidden selves. See us close up and beneath an unforgiving light. And yet, how endearing to be so willing to be naked before our readers, cold and chicken-skinned, skinny and alone. How intrepid, how admirable.

The topic of the discussion is "Risk in Poems," and Komunyakaa talks from his wing-backed chair about the first risk being to call oneself a poet, and Marilyn Hacker takes it back even further, placing the "first" risk in the act of "taking up the pen." But it is Komunyakaa's point that echoes the sensation I had earlier in the day when I was standing in a group of 10 or 12, awaiting our Walking Tour of the West Village where the formidable enchantment of the artist's life and the city itself had sent many a poet (by way of the White Horse Tavern and other such haunts) to their deaths at St. Vincent's Hospital, now closed and haunted itself by more than a handful of American lyricists.

When our 'guide' asked us how many of us were poets ourselves, I was surprised to see how many hands caught half way up, hovered feebly at ear level and either came back down or rose from there like sidling flags, limping into the air. The risk was great, and it occurred to me that by shooting my hand toward the sky (after the requisite pause midway) I was opening myself up to questions to which I might have to respond, "Yes, well, I don't actually have a full-length collection of poems that is published, but I...have a chapbook that was published....yes, well it was seven years ago and....I do have a couple dozen individual poems published in literary journals here and abroad, but I...well, my manuscript is complete, I don't know why I haven't sent it out, I--" Ugh.

I threw my hand up anyway. What the hell, I thought. I am a poet. For all that it entails. A poet indeed. It's the way I love, the way I speak and write and read the world. It's what I am in all of the egocentricity and yes, ingratiating self-exposure that the moniker denotes. I am a poet, and the written word was my first love. I admit it.

And after all, as we began to move en masse down Hudson Street, an ungainly mix of writer types (you know, berets, reading glasses, writing pads and pencils in hand), I was safe in my claim; no one even asked.

Thursday, October 27, 2011


I don't write those wildly ornate tangles of words any more. Perhaps it is because my life is no longer wildly tangled, my desire no longer breathing me like an animal, my doubt no longer wrapping its tentacles around my throat. I find myself embracing simplicity. Generating words that mean what they mean, in shadow or in light, having finally slipped out from under the requirement of subterfuge. It is a blessing, it is a relief. A liberation of the highest order. Mahalo. Mahalo. Om.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Publishing Blues

Sitting in the hall of the XXXX Creative Writing Center in New York City, I feel simultaneously at ease, as if surrounded, finally, by likeminded people, kindred spirits even, and like I don't know what the hell I'm doing here. I exult in language that has presented itself to another poet, here read aloud under soft track lighting, illuminating a personal map of the world so unique, so precise, as to render it beautiful regardless of what populates its topography.

I despair a little, too, if I'm not careful, when I compare their words to my own for, depending on the writer, mine might seem to me at any given moment too ornate or too spare, too obfuscating or too naked. But no, I know better than to do this for very long, because in my poet's heart, perhaps uncharacteristically optimistic, I do believe there is infinite capacity for originality in this life. That though there be "nothing new under the sun," there are eternally emerging new ways to describe what is old, what has been felt or even said before. This gathering has taught me, too, how against the fashionable grain this naive view really is.

I believe poems are like human faces, genetically limitless in their possibilities over the generations, and though one might find one face staring out from the borders of a photograph like an ancient windowpane, startlingly familiar, there is always the variation of color, shape, expression, that distinguishes it from the known. The extant and already recorded.

No, what makes me despair are the bad poems, and I consider myself a generous judge, an astute reader but compassionate and trusting nonetheless. Still, there is crap that gets read at a thing like this (is it laziness, after all, that drives a poet to publish work that feels unfinished?), and it is this content which crawls up under my fingernails and bores into my flesh like parasitic doubt, makes me swim in the arbitrariness of it all. What indeed swung this poet into favor and kept her there for so long that she cannot fall out?

The reading is punctuated, after all, with bright moments that make me sigh, that drive me back into my primal sense of love and beauty, and for these I can appreciate the whole of the delivery, but the backdrop, grim and banal at times, is what makes me wonder if I could ever count in this world where all I have are my verses, tenderly crafted, kissed onto the page over two decades, and not a single "relationship" that could place me squarely in the game, nor knowledge or hope of moving strategically within it. 

Tuesday, October 18, 2011


She wears serenity on her brow, soft canvas of un-fear. She gazes skyward, shoulders gentling in their sockets, proverbial wings lifting from their blades. There is a wide open channel between herself and God, and she knows that she alone crafts the objects and experiences that will populate that distance.

Warm hues of lavender, sage and pale blue pulse around the egg-like space that she occupies. She emerges from one nourishing space into another that has yet to take shape as hospitable or hostile. She is not agitated or fearful, because she knows the place takes its form from her mind, from her own intention.

"The universe agrees to every thought you have," she heard someone say, so she thinks up a perfection, a peacefulness that will receive her with grace.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

For the Butterfly Girl

The last time I saw you alive you were taking a right turn onto Mamalahoa Highway in a dark, lifted truck. You looked too little behind that steering wheel. Too slight. A wine-colored streak of blush punctuated your cheek. Your eyes were smudged with darkness carried over from your time in the City of Angels.

You were so beautiful then, in your seeking, treading lightly on that diaphanous membrane you knew might give way at any moment, send you sprawling out into the ether, untethered and falling, falling into the nowhere that threatened you every living moment.

I wonder again and again whether when I read your post you were already gone. But you had made that plaintive cry so many times, and the wolf was always in the wings, waiting, waiting. Finally, when all was said and done, you gave yourself to him and I, among all the other fools, had long since turned away from the shadow he cast by your light.

The surprise of your departure was exceeded only by our sorrow at the thought--of you alone in the universe of the living, sending a quiet message into space, your shadowy face accompanying it like a phantom messenger from the edge. A photo-shopped whisper from the lost planet of your sadness, where you had roamed for too long and to which you never intended to return.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Angel Card: Transformation

I pull the word "Transformation." Again. For two years, this word keeps entering my life. Can one be transforming for years on end? When it first started appearing, I got excited, anticipating a dramatic, even a sudden, shift in my life. I suppose moving from California to Hawaii and then on to Vermont qualifies. I suppose writing, editing and finally publishing the story that has been blooming in my heart for five years qualifies. So what other transformation promises to take place? In what metamorphosis am I still engaged?

What I find is that life is a series of transformations, some of them more intense than others, all of them in service to the evolution of the soul. We are all constantly becoming. I could perceive this as frustrating--doesn't an individual constantly oriented toward achieving, doing, growing, yearn to at some point say, "I have achieved, I have done, I have grown?" Not according to certain philosophers who would argue that our very constitution contradicts itself in our inherent desire to achieve but not ever to 'have achieved.' They suggest that the moment that one has achieved a goal, s/he begins seeking to articulate and subsequently manifest the next, because the condition of actually having reached a goal is not indeed what we crave. It is the striving itself that we long for and which fulfills us, but we are beguiled by the goal into thinking that it is its consummation (and not the effort to consummate it) that makes us happy. I believe it was Dostoevsky who called this human tendency a "joke."

But I consider that perhaps our constitution is not so contrary to our reality. Perhaps our achievements are only perceived as 'ends,' but in reality they are simply transitions, and when seen in this way, the disappointment that inevitably accompanies the anti-climax of achievement can be eradicated. If I view life as a series of transformations, I can understand myself as occupying exactly the right place on a continuum at any given moment. Never falling short, never failing, indeed never succeeding either, but instead rolling with the tide of experience, expanding and contracting, splitting and dividing like a great cell contained in my proverbial skin, the diaphanous membrane between my soul and its eternity. Perfect in my learning. Perfect in my blooming. Ever embodying a great transformation that has every moment the potential for perfection. I am engaged in transformation now. And now. And now. Here. And here. And here. Oh. And Om.

Friday, October 7, 2011


Sunlight. Bubbles. The movement of light through feathers and shells strung in an arch over the improvised stage. A Vermont band sends their music across the valley that opens before us on the hill...vast expanse of green punctuated by Queen Anne's Lace, Bull Thistle, Black-eyed Susan.

We wear wildflowers in our hair, too, and we move our bodies in this way that means summer, ease, the free and open exchange of what lifts on air, from each of us, because it is less dense than our physical forms. Because it is the same as what rises from the head of every other person present. Because it is made up of our love: the buoyant atoms of an etheric and gently lilting embrace.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The History We Carry in our Bodies


What always strikes me is how our shared history, though it spans back eons before our own births, is carried in its entirety in our cells. The grief and suffering of our ancestors moves in our marrow. It compromises our bones. At the 52-years delayed funeral of my grandfather, whom I never knew and whose remains slept in the fuselage of an F-86 Sabre Jet for half a century, buried beneath generations of dirt and debris and finally, a Chinese man's new garage, I wept.

I cried for what it meant to my grandmother to finally lay to rest the love of her life, to finally know without any doubt that he would not be coming back to her. I cried for what these remains, hidden from us for so many years, meant to my dad. How the whole of the ordeal could be distilled, for him, in a single sentence: "I grew up without a father." That is all. That is all.

"If you've never touched your dad, you know?" he said to me, almost asking my forgiveness for sending his hand out across the heap of human debris laid out before us in the Army identification laboratory; it was what remained of a man I never knew and who last touched his son before his infant memory could hold onto such momentous things. And yet the un-memory seemed in essence to be part of our shared consciousness, just as it was a part of our shared history, and together, we wept under the fluorescent lights of that laboratory, a line of military officials watching us from behind plate glass.


How we carry our history in us, at the cellular level. Oh. We are so hurt in so many ways. We inherit a litany of suffering and without an effort to the contrary, it becomes the score for our lives. What must it take to break such cycles? Of intolerance, of injustice, of violence and war?

We must muster more than idealism if we are to escape it. More than awareness and education. It must be at the heart of our consciousness, and our every action must be in defiance of what has come before us. We must refuse to act from a place of fear and judgment of the other. But where can the seed take root? In the heart of the one who judges? Can s/he be asked to have such courage? The courage to assume that this undefined "other" has an intention, however deeply buried or obscured, to unite rather than to divide, to heal rather than to destroy?

Conversely, how can that seed be cultivated in the one who has been judged? Can we ask him to open himself again to such abuse, in the vulnerability of this new found and untried trust? It is so difficult to know, as real as our intention might be. We want to be good. It is in us to love, but how, given the precedents, can we lay ourselves bare to what in all honesty could precipitate our own ruin?

Sunday, October 2, 2011

"One Floor Up More Highly"

"Rather than choosing between painting being a window and painting being flat, I view everything as a window: you're a window, the window is a window, the car is a window. For me, everything is an illusionistic surface, and painting is a mode of thought--a way to link these illusionistic elements together."--Katharina Grosse on her current exhibition entitled "One Floor Up More Highly" at the Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams, Massachusetts.

I already ascribe to the idea that everything is a mirror--you're a mirror, a mirror is a mirror, a car is a mirror. Ha. Every single thing, every "illusionistic surface" is in essence a mirror that reflects us back to ourselves. What we love, we love because it shows us what we love about ourselves. What we despise, we do so because it reflects back to us those traits we'd rather deny.

If I consider that a window can also be a mirror, then what Grosse suggests is that beyond the reflection we see there exists another, if not multiple, dimension(s), which if the surface is viewed from a particular angle or with enough concentrated effort, might be perceived.

What, then, does lie behind the glass? Behind the canvas, the concrete, the steel constructions that populate our cityscape? What does it take to perceive it? And if it can be perceived, can it not also be entered, explored, occupied? Here is Katharina Grosse's representation of what's there, dormant, until we perceive it. Are these not the vestments of those who have ventured thus far?

A window is a window, you are you, a car is a car. Or perhaps, for a moment, in the shadow of an enormous iceberg rising out of rainbow-colored earth beneath halogen lights, some number of individuals traversed the glass, doffed their worldly garments, their weight, their very memory of gravity which had kept them rooted to the real.

Once naked, they lifted off, one by one, the insubstantial quality of their physical bodies finally confirmed, their spirits soaring on light-filtered air, unrestrained and liberated unnaturally--but oh, so beautifully--from the fear of death, which is the only limitation that counts for anything in this world. I reject that fear, though it be based on what is indeed the only certainty we have in this life.

With one leg out the window, I look back over the landscape of the real. What I have lived these many years. What I know. Perhaps there is yet a choice to be made which has nothing to do with paintings or windows...and everything to do with life.