IMG_7361The novel Clio’s Mobile Home is a facet of my creative work. Several characters in my novel write poems; I am serious about writing poetry. I also work on short shorts, and short stories. They are all modes of thinking about identity, transcendence and beauty in contemporary life. Art keeps us aloft, but it is more than decoration. Its force can be astounding. The artist becomes an instrument, and art lives to tell the tale.

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Of Oysters, the 4th and the Surreality of it all

Prompt: Tie together the Fourth of July, garbage day and a sense of the possibility of renewal.  

Make it spontaneous, so it doesn’t seem that the images preceded the prompt.  Don’t dwell too deeply on recent observations that  came while practicing poet’s observation, though you might want to show off that you’ve been able to look again.  (The fluff of airborne dust drifts, stops and starts, halting, as an indie band, as a shiny bubble that a child has blown through a plastic hoop, until you realize the fluff has a moth’s indelible wings and is flying freely, for fun).

Independence Day (or Interdependence Day, as I’ve heard it called): The country has been thrust back on me.   I’d left it countless times, then straddled between two countries, then made a life of motion.  But circumstances being what they are, I am simply facing it, America…  

posthumous, finished, junked, done — or part of the process of rising and passing that covid-19 has made us so aware of?   A “Finale for America” as clever wits have referred to rogue fireworks that have been exploding nightly?  In recent weeks and months I have agreed.  But the 4th gave me — what — freedom of stuckness.  I looked kindly on things; it wasn’t forced, it just happened.  

I thought about the Declaration of Independence and read, along with many, Frederick Douglass’ bracing famous 4th of July address: “You may rejoice.  I must mourn.”  The polyvocalism of these declarations of values – that we are living in the polyvocalism – unstuck me from singularity.  The truth and reconciliation process we’ve so long needed might be here.  I listened to the very best of American song — the sinuous pairing of elegant contrast, Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald duets.  In a flight from nihilism, there are ways to combine the large and small. 

Look how beautiful the day after – peony petals against a pile of oyster shells. They are dissociated from their meaning — yet in this time of appreciating passage, the wisdom songs of covid as well as garbage day, here they are.  The flowers had been flush and full, the oysters a marvel. The energy of passage keeps us from getting stuck.  The poet Alice Oswald talks about this in her new Oxford lecture, “An Interview with Water.” Poetry, dance, rhythm and water all keep us moving. Then there’s the leaping between odd things – country, trash and renewal – that keeps the mind buzzing.

To listen to Oswald’s lecture, go to the home page, english.ox.ac.uk

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Flowers and Monsters

“In recent months I have been intent on seizing happiness.”  So wrote C.D. Wright, my guiding star right now.  If you’re naturally happy, you don’t make declarations to be happy.  You throw out an idea, a wild proposition and follow it passionately to see where it goes. If your arm is strong, you toss that net far and wide to pull in both flowers and monsters. 

I’m sitting at Wright’s feet now to gauge those monsters and flowers, but also to hear how, in her poetry, she navigated extremes. She wrote that she was pulled by extremes, as am I, and her selves swing wildly, as do mine.  Mine has a kind of “pessimistic optimism” or “optimistic pessimism” or “radical realism.” I feel that I’m carrying battling twins around on these humid summer days.  Where can I put them except on a page in form that doesn’t have to be resolved? Their form and spirit overseen by kindred spirits that I’ve pulled from my shelves? How lucky I am to have a way that keeps me human.

Returning to Wright, what follows her opening line in the poem”Crescent” about intending happiness is “to this end I applied various shades of blue.”  She then hauls in all kinds of fierce and ironic material examples. She works up into a fierce lather that seems to reflect a sexual fury, a restless rage.  No one lives in a world of our making.  Yet fury at the “system” is freighted with an unabated wonder.  Her material world crackles with straight-ahead fierce wonder at what is.  As she moves through her world, she softens or careens to a kind of balance that places her outside herself, into selfless love and community.  In her final great phrase, she delivers a profoundly earned mantra of illumination, for the road has been exhausting and exhilarating: “draw nearer my dear: never fear: the world spins nightly towards its brightness and we are on it”

“Crescent,” from Steal Away, Selected and New  Poems (Copper Canyon Press)

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The Protests: Sprung from Moral Uncertainty

What could be more dispiriting than a biological enemy, an invisible enemy, an enemy that has turned the morality schema upside down?   Yesterday’s bad guys — alienation and isolation  — are today’s heros of good health.  Those heros of isolation are also conditions for autoritarianism, which makes them still count as bad guys.  No wonder we’ve felt so lost and confused.

No wonder the police murder of George Floyd has changed the moral landscape.  In its horror and shame, in its immorality, it prompted the massive outpouring of public grief and collective protest.  It has a clear-cut narrative, with victims and perpetrators.  The unequivocal police brutality has no moral ambiguity. It liberated us from our own cells. Our listless selves had been told that this narrow narcissistic world was heroic – perhaps with limited horizons, we didn’t trust it. 

Walking on a summer afternoon to the RI State House, I refound my “we.” We were some 10,000. To hear the roar of thousands who respond in unity to the call of a leader – to feel the vibration in our bones, as my daughter said – began to restore a self in relation to others.  Collective, actively scooping up a sense of purpose. Rebellious. Called to look into our selves where moral ambiguities will most obviously arise. That has to be part of the pact. We can still do that while dissenting injustice, abuse of cops and our homegrown tyrant crossing new red lines at every turn.   This is not bad news wrapped in a protein. 

Coronavirus in still a threat, as we’ll always remark when we look at photos, in the future, of protesters in masks in photos.  As a young friend said, “History looks back at the past.  We’re in the middle of history.  But we don’t know what it looks like — we’re living it.”  He wasn’t comfortable with not knowing.  He shrugged: he knows he doesn’t have a choice.

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Vertigo, How Real You Are

copyright Andy Warhol

I saw the clarity 
of my eyesight 
turn to soft waves.

You know the cliche about writers being sensitive flowers, taking into their bodies whatever is “in the air”?  How the external world becomes translated in various ways into their nervous systems?  Inscribed on their internal bodies?  Melancholy, hysteria have led the way.  

With each imprint of the computer keys as I’m telling it, I’m getting more and more wavery.  Almost inducing Vertigo, the condition I myself was riffing about in a blog only a few slender months ago.  It was mostly metaphoric.  It was my attempt to name, in fondness and in dread, the sensation of spinning, whether or not we consciously felt it, as the ground beneath our feet was exceedingly delicate.  Back then, it was exacerbated by post-modernity.  We existed mostly in the attempts to negotiate balance. The off-balance had become our norm, and our “grounding” ritual was the attempt to negotiate some peace — while on the everpresent tightrope or in moments when essential values like love, beauty and the spirit reassured us. 

Some sensibilities even courted this, reveled in its radical challenge.  The rollicking fragmentation and disorientation was a reality of the world around, like it or not. Immerse, get drunk it in! If it sounds like it has a nouveau Baudelairean quality, I agree.  I paraphrase the preface of “Les Fleurs du Mal”: hypocritical reader, my lookalike, my kin!

As corona virus hit, the metaphor began to cut through thicket, getting more and more personal.  In the world, borders were being invaded, irreality becoming a part of reality, up becoming down.  In my body, the metaphor invaded my very cell structure with a nasty case of real vertigo.  My head is wobbly, the ground is shifting from time to time.  It comes in spurts: I have to negotiate steps on that tightrope from one point to another, delicately, with feet that are tender and with an appreciation for the emptiness below.  It used to be so easy! In the reclaiming of essential values that float to the surface, asserting themselves as essential, I’m putting “tender” and “care.”  The tender tending of things which may or may not affect you. Or be you.

All the work I’d done to prepare myself for shaky ungrounded reality not enough. Maybe words and images have led me to a point: into the real. 

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Olfactory

Olfactory 

Flat and metallic, my tongue  
like disinfected aluminum.  The scent 
conveyed from nose to throat,
a sympathetic gag almost. 
Vapors wave before my eyes.
Clorox, ghost of scents past,
seemingly obsolete, you’ve come back.

You were banned, like death,
things we thought we’d conquered.
The stink of fear, soured dispositions,
army hospitals of World War I.
Mass attack on love and senses.
A stifling way of stifling risk.
All those no’s — for women endless.

We dared, three sheets to the wind, 
cheek to cheek, Paris. The perfumes 
of eros sharp and sudden, riveting, 
beyond magnificent.  We skirted 
to the dark side of the abyss 
which, as we know, make 
fragrance all the more intense.  

But damn it if the frowning mothers 
have their day,
if a room fresh with bleach 
is the madeleine of 2020. 

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On Missing People

I miss people.  As a self-declared introvert, I’m surprised, pleasantly – I miss people badly.  The list of what I miss is endless.  I miss their clean smells, their dirty smells, their mop of hair, their prickly beards. The irony of their eyebrows.  Their slack lids, their twitch.  Their sniffles and complaints about their sniffles.  The bass timbre of their voices. The cloud of their breath, their own personal barometer.  I miss their living quality.  (And that’s just the face.)

I miss things of the senses.  My senses gather confirmation of all kinds regarding external existence.  They are the yes to my no or yes to my yes.  They are charged fields that activate me, as plants churn sun with chlorophyll for energy.  People and their vibe – they are the other to my I.  The talk to my talk back.  Without the other, how do I know I exist?

I am a skeptic of the virtual.  The compilation of pixels will never convince me, viscerally, of life. And yet, do I have a choice? 

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A Sonnet for Seder during Lockdown

Sonnet for Seder during Lockdown

Nothing is new under the sun, not even confinement.  
The sun is not new, narrow straits not new, 
the liberation story rolls like time in search 
of an ending.  With Passover we should be done 
but we keep narrating, like old people forgetting
we’ve already told it five thousand times. 
The more freedom, the more we struggle
to know what it means. The truth of Exodus 
is on trial, in crisis.  Salt waters crest 
to our chins.  Awestruck, we know nothing
can be said though we testify and babble 
in quivering attempt. We want to want more keenly.
On high, the Lover is never quite satisfied;
He sees our desire raw, though not raw enough. 

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The Introvert’s Guide to the New Reality

“Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” Ludwig Wittgenstein

Of course we introverts have feelings.  We know that real grief is sometimes too deep for words.  The Covid-19 plague blew in with a whiplash of emotional states, laced with adrenaline and black humor.  I made jokes, rolled my eyes in the vertigo of each shifting reality and read social media — until the torrent of words, emotions, anger, f-words, words, words, f-words, knocked me down.

What exhausted me was the snap mastery, the fear-driven rush to judgment.  Then the need, akin to the Biblical Job’s friends, to mouth all-knowing vindications of tragedy.  It didn’t leave much room for the kind of tongue-tied response of silence and awe that made me sit, shaken and numb and full of longing. I pulled in and pulled from my shelf the books of my companion poets.  In the language game, whose words would stand up to reality? Great artists who had taken harrowing journeys and sent word back.  Those guides brought me across the void, helped me mourn and feel sorrow for the immensity of what is being lost.

The weeks since then have been spinning by.  Spring is celebrating itself.  Pink buds wave towards the future while we are stuck on reruns.  The new reality is taking shape.  It is technological.  It is busy while being stilled.  It used to be a metaphor that if you’re not online, you’re invisible.  Now it is a reality.  

We can’t run into people in the agora/marketplace anymore; you have to show up in a de-centered agora, online world to show presence. Without the shelter of the body, eye contact, bodily judgement, warm smile, we have to cross the threshold from private imagination to screen.  Tons of people do it.  Others of us cringe.  On the one hand, the invisible is swallowing our selves. On the other hand, one might argue that selves expressed on social media are never quite real anyway — and now we’re engaging in a whole series of endlessly mirrored and repeated recreations.  We are caught in the tension of being made invisible, at home, cloistered away from it all, or online, performing an infinite reflecting mirror of self.  Then there’s the obvious extention of the love-hate relationship: our screens are not only conduits of connection with loved ones and family, but also vectors of surveillance and control, as Debarati Senyal discusses in her excellent blog about Camus and Covid. https://bullybloggers.wordpress.com/2020/03/27/the-virus-and-the-plague-albert-camus-on-covid-19/

If you were looking for how-tos for introverts, I don’t yet have the manual.  Check back over the next few weeks.  I’ll be writing it as we go along!

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Marfa: The lightness and drollness of being

Donald Judd’s aluminum boxes, Chinati Foundation

Marfa.  
Its name precedes it as an art-oasis in the Chihuahuan Texan desert. 
It has a certain droll quality – and might suggest such drollness is part of its very nature. One can’t help but wonder, “What the hell are we doing here?”
Donald Judd, the mastermind who purchased the former Fort D.A. Russell, with Dia Foundation, and installed 100 of his milled aluminum cubes of varying angles, might have relished the question. His answer, dry, droll, might be his very gesture of art. Self-referential, but here I am, in all my glory. It is what it is. Better than in a museum, leaning into the sparse empty desert where somehow, the human wants to put his mark, his query, the unfoldings of his mind. When I suggested to a guide, a lanky silver-bearded dude, that Judd had transformed violence of artillery sheds into art, the guide jumped quickly to deny intention: “Oh no! He wouldn’t have done that. The fort was cheap!”
Equally, Dan Flavin, whose magnificent aura of flourescent tubes fills dank barracks, gave simple instructions on how to interpret his work: Don’t. it is what it is. Easy in, easy out. Don’t overthink it.
Don’t imagine artists are acting as missionaries bringing the good (art) word to the land of pickup-trucks, Native and Latino and LBJ and Glenn Campbell.
Or that they want anyone to be mystical even though the desert is open, and gorgeous, with a certain induction to metaphysical thought. The self-referential art culture that has grown around such an ambitious project will eventually lean outward, beyond itself, if you let it.

The inimitable Pizza Foundation
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Amurika, the Open Road

The Canadian writer Dionne Brand says when you go on a trip, you leave the table, the book on the table, everything behind; the book and the table know you’ll be an entirely different person when you get back.  

That’s hyperbolic even for a poet-traveler like me.  And yet, a little road trip across New Mexico and Texas has affected me; the strange beauty of the American desert has me saying, ya know, maybe this place isn’t that bad.  (I guess I am a different person).

There are cities — humans in their settlements — and suddenly there are none.  You strike out ahead on the straight and narrow into myth, the road and its companion big sky.  You speed by land that is patterned with strange geometry of desert yucca, reoccurring over and over so that what you just passed is what you are still seeing.  Bleached out, quiet.  Empty scruff with shifting colors and light.  Little tufts of cactus sprout on the bald land, dead but full of life.  The road. 

 We were seeing ghost towns and big sky and lots of road.  Baby antelopes feasting on desert agave, on desert willow and scruff.

When the land gives way to settlements again, one wonders about pressures that shape the human.  We came to Roswell, a town where people swear UFOs landed.  Out of town, a scent rises over the plain — stockyards, cattle squeezed into small spaces, then oil rigs and pumps.  Then the relief of groves of pecan trees.  The peaceful desolation on the sage desert gives way to industrial ravage.  Boomtowns like Carlsbad sprout from the business of fracking, and people are slick and giddy with money.  I’ve never seen so many trucks or ads for liability lawyers (“Get burned in an oil rig?  Call the big guy.”)  

The faces, the drawl, the ten-gallon hats, the gang of four cheerful sheriffs coming into a wood-paneled joint for their breakfast of huevos rancheros; even Tony, the Trump enthusiast who wanted to buy me dinner — all make rich the human landscape along the strange road. 

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