Strange Rerun: the American Vacation

The unexpected rarely rears its head in a life ordered by Zoom.   Spontaneity has become collateral damage.  

Usually I get my share of happenstance while traveling.  But traveling is so reduced this summer; possibilities for goofing off and going off the map have been clipped.  What we already know predicts where we can go, and what we do. So I’ve gone deep into reruns of American summers of childhood, memories of family, ponds, fireflies, deep woods, deep Americana.  Repeat, recycle, revisit.

But, being a Europhile and  self-declared “citizen of the world,” I realize I don’t know well our own country’s breadth and surface.  I know enough to know I was always leaving, and often returning.  I am always looking to other horizons, that restless draw to other horizons excites me, though maybe it’s just a need, a thing.

I found myself leaning into Maine. Austere, ranging from cool to cold, someone else’s nostagia.  What did I know of its thick and grassy salt ponds or broken peninsulas, the coast like the decay of a thousand organ notes or autumn branches oozing notes? Its stacks of lobster cages in the yards, its birches, beeches and beaches?  Coves with hard stones that the steady inundation of waves and tides has not crushed.   

It was a release from the everyday order, a time for chance and an outside world I didn’t know to break in. I got to renew the language of fish and fishermen that I use in languages I barely speak – international fishmonger lingo.  All those crusty lobstermen, dipping their catch in salt to make bait for the lobster catch.  Tiny islands that look like the heads of seals as they appear and disappear.  At land’s end, in the easternmost part of the US, the light was equally teasing – there, barely there, so thin and transparent it made everything within its reach slightly magical.  Light itself is invisible, though we tried to capture the zinc gleam on the mudflats at dusk, the streaky pink glimmer of oyster shell in the sky at sunset.  

The Zoom I prefer: going so far out of yourself you become part of that thin, invisible light before you settle back into a slightly different self. 

Cervantes wrote, “Where one door closes, another opens.”  The LED signage on the white clapboard Baptist Church in Damariscotta, glowing under a dark starry night, read, “Change is inevitable, but growth is up to you.”  Voilà!

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What Augurs, August?

I always feel trapped by August, its thick cluster of vowels.  Clotted.  Lugubrious, made for a lazy tongue.  Made for  limbs given up to the sun.  If it were a kitchen sauce, it would need to be thinned.  If there is a gust in August’s nature, we don’t feel it until the second half.  

Just what augur lurks in August?  Something is hiding in plain sight of its sun.  Its heaviness portends.  The gods know what hangs in the balance, but who can read the signs?  In the long wash of hazy beach sunset, reams of moody air rolled out, I can’t find a pattern.  The gulls are dropping mussel shells on rocks.  Sandpipers perform their own nutcracker suite in the just-washed shoreline.  Their pattern is their business. 

As for august leader, august occasion or company, hmmm, another conundrum.  Augustus’ shrewd power, respect and veneration — another shield which conceals while purporting to reveal. Weighty, in our days, droplets of moisture pasted to air molecules, weightly as in 90 percent humidity.  Do you feel the hanging of fate, one day swaying this way, one day that?    

Welcome August, to you I tip my hat, sticky old friend.  Let’s go hand in hand. 

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covid-19, summer-20

—after Inger Christensen

Covid exists.  Covid-19 exists, summer-20 exists.  High noon exists.  Heat exists.  Water in rivers, in seas, in showers, from fire hydrants exists.  Coves exist.  Hidden lanes of purple hydrangea exist.  Overturned bones of kayaks.  Smoothness of stones, stones, pebbles irreducible pebbles exist.  Marsh grasses like glissando on a piano.  Poison ivy exists.  Bodies in hospitals exist.  Grief exists.  Shadows and data and systems, bindweed and drifting boats, errors and interpretation.  Brutality exists. Bridges, from a distance, from other islands. A breeze laying traces of a fishnet on the waves.  Wildness, wilderness, wildness exists.   Light that has never been the same since the beginning of time exists. A swimmer’s ecstasy exists.  A swimmer exists as she swims through that moment’s infinity.  Festivity exists only because of the possibility that it might not exist.

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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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