World Valentine

This Valentine’s Day, my object of love is the world, and what kind of a clear manageable object is that?  

I could narrow it down, focus, make it a simple object, like an oyster, and use all of my five senses to explore its delicate being, its opalescent color, its sand and pearly shell  

I might complicate things by thinking about the ocean, and how many people die in it every year, and how many sailors and fishermen have perished over centuries, how many in the Middle Passage, and wonder if I can still love the ocean

or that oyster that is its product and essence of the ocean itself

and I might be eating the oyster as I am listening to a roll call, to documentation of a country falling apart

eating at itself, indulging in fantasies, imposing fictions on phenomena that is watery and impossible to fix or order

and I might wonder how I can love that project too 

or the oyster raised in a tainted original colony  

but since I’m past the point of infatuation, not holding the world 
to promises that it would laugh at if ever charged, I’ll keep witnessing, in all flavors and registers

all beauty and monsters that comes from the ocean

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BHLIG!! At-home Peace and Conflict Studies

This morning I started doing my own peace and conflict studies before tea, before I was awake. I’d startled myself when I realized that the word “conflict” shelters “con” — a warm and fuzzy prefix meaning “together”  or “with.”  I had the sudden bright idea that there was a unifying element lurking at the word’s root, that the enemies were not enemies at all but two players joined by a hinge, taking two parts of an open door.  And it all was lying in plain sight, in the words, and we just have to perform them properly, the way language, which maps it out, tells us it was meant to be.

A quick check of etymology told me yes and no.  Yes, two wrestlers move their heavy feet to circle around each other but no, they weren’t usually doing it for fun. More often they would do the Proto-Indo-European thing that we all sometimes need to do — BHLIG!  That’s strike in ancient talk, a word that should be in a comic book bubble so perfectly it is termed. Later it becomes “fligere”, strike, armed and military conflict.

As companion to conflict, the other across the hinge, I meditated on peace. Peace is also an action word.  Before the Latin pax there was the Proto-Indo-European “pag” or “pak,” meaning a cord or as a verb, to fasten.  Lasso me, bind me, fix me in agreement — engage me in an act of making pact that is, in fact, performing peace.  It attempts to hold, to bind, to secure peace as a continual human effort to fashion and fasten ties.  Through words, we have a performance of language again.  

With that done, I pour myself another cup of tea. 

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What Augurs, Biden?

A smart observer once said about our new president: “If you ask me who the luckiest person I know, it’s Joe Biden.  If you ask me who the unluckiest person I know, it’s Joe Biden.”  As a lover of paradox, a light went off when I first heard it.  It seems like a joke, a mocking play on reason, a Woody Allen wisecrack that one knows immediately is smart, and later profound. The way an oracle would speak and we wouldn’t understand it, though we’d count intuitively on its deep truth.

Biden’s biography fills the blanks of the paradox – his success as a debut politician was followed by the deaths of wife and daughter.  He would have died of a brain aneurysm, ignoring his health and stumping away on the campaign trail if hadn’t been forced to drop out of a presidential race on charges of plagiarism.  His son, Beau, died young of a brain tumor.   After eight years as Vice-President, he’s fulfilled his ambition — in the most wrenching stretch — of becoming President.

We live in paradoxical times.  We’re lucky – the election went our way. We’re unlucky – part of our poltiical body tried to burn down the house.  I heard, as the inauguration neared, people were nervously organizing and ironing as women due before they’re about to have babies.  Nothing is guaranteed, and the successes of America the literal, the exceptional and idealist must open to the shadow life of paradox.  The biblical Isaac survived a binding, but his shadow death walks alongside him as a human. Experience of tragedy is just on the other side of exuberance, suffering clings as a double. If we’re lucky, as a country, we just might mature enough to hold a truer sense of absurdity, to admit that success is willed only to a small extent, if at all, and chance plays the major hand. Between the two forces, a reminder to be human. It depends how we play our hand.

*Ted Kaufman quoted in Evan Osnos’ biography of Joe Biden, “The Life, The Run, And What Matters Now.”

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Stuck in the Stalls of History

In Roberto Bolaño’s Savage Detectives, his sprawling novel of poets, revolutionaries and Pinochet, I remember most vividly the scene of a poet trapped in a stall of the bathroom as riot police entered her university.   Where else would she be?  She is Auxilio Lacouture, poet and auxiliary individual, manic monologuist.  She is bound by the ordinary, which becomes extra-ordinary, in spite of and because she’s a minor actor in the stream of history.  She missed megaphone calls to evacuate because she was reading poetry in the can. Thus she becomes part of the surreality of reality overlaid on the streets and in her own vivid consciousness, as public and private eruptions, of multiple narratives over several days of her own obsessive confinement.

Lacouture recalls: “I lifted my feet like a Renoir ballerina, my underwear dangling down around my skinny ankles and snagging on a pair of shoes…I saw the soldier who was staring entranced into the mirror, the two of us still as statues in the women’s bathroom…I heard the door close…

“I saw the wind sweeping the university as if it was delighting in the last light of day.  And I knew what I had to do.  I knew.  I had to resist.  So I sat on the tiled floor of the women’s bathroom and in the last rays of light I read three more poems by Pedro Garfias and then I closed the book and closed my eyes and said to myself: Auxilio Lacouture, citizen of Uruguay, Latin American, poet and traveler, stand your ground.” 

My daughter and I were burning onions for a French onion soup the day the insurrection took place.  We witnessed the coup by play-by-play accounts, by a torrent of words as we were darkening onions.  We were pouring broth over heaps of caramelized onions stuck to the bottom of the dutch over, scraping up the brown bits when the coup was going down.  We are part of a river and it’s going somewhere and we don’t know whether we’ll be judged for some other bit of goodness that we did, or didn’t do.

Where were you? 

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2020: Opera Extraordinaire

I was given to lying prone on the living room carpet, pencil in hand, contemplating my topic sentence. It was a strange luxury: the blank page and a sentence-to-be.  In my mind’s eye, I knew it had to be multiple. There couldn’t be just one angle, one point of view or concept to explore on a sixth-grade paper.  It was a good thing I had a stack of paper handy.

Skipping ahead, how many voices, or topic sentences would we need to write about 2020?  The mind splits under the pressure.  It’s been a behemoth of a year, and any rational attempt at “making sense” is a slippery, doomed adventure, without multiplicity. 

Better to imagine the year as a screaming, overstuffed, opera, exhausting in its sheer number of plot lines and tonal shifts.  You didn’t want to cry but there you were crying at something sentimental that now rang true.  There was sacrifice, there was love against all odds. Death always in the background, or on the other side of the flimsy stage door.  That’s what made the singing so moving, the sorrow, even in love songs, so poignant. 

When the opera quiets at intermission, you are soaringly happy, with inner circle, with friends.  I was happy with a square of grass, a flower, a word.  When I listened to the mute language of things. 

Sometimes from all the screaming and confusion, my mind got fuzzy.  I seethed from the cage of futility.  I raged, scoffed, then laughed at national farce.   I bled, then tried to be nourished by things as they are.  The same image of my physical self on a film strip would be repeated, with only the color radically shifting according to mood.  

One thing I’m grateful for: to have been saturated with emotion, saturated with experience.  Things mattered.  Chaos mattered.  At the edge, we did small things, though we were charged with personal accountability.  We found lightness at the center.  When we pack our suitcases to take forward into the future, they should be lighter and filled with an open weave of memory and desire, of fierce attention, of strong beauty.
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Solstice, burning bright

Solstice, winter, covid: we are close to the dark.   Those winter days that swing between flat gray and blindingly bright gray work a subtle palette. 

During insomniac nights — at 3am, at 4am — I am close to the darkness too.  As I lay awake, I go deep into it. I riff:
Darkness, my compatriot, my friend, my pain,
my swan dive, tail in the air, everything inverted.
My color palette, everything contained. 
Darkness, all swirling imagination, all nourishment, all foundation.
All restart, light, recognition of what is outside me, 
of darkness inside me that leads to the beyond.

Everyone is talking loosely, wildly, glibly of light, something we lack and thus want desperately to lure.   The electrified trees, the candles that never drip though they burn in every window every night, the bright rafters — all speak to a desire to light up in “unprecedented” fashion.  These are rituals of continuity, myths of faith that lay the way to see in darkness — considered “old-fashioned,” they are back with a bang.  As if we thought they could be replaced with bulbs!

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Playing with Woe

The protestations 
— the kicking and screaming —
where did we think horsehairs
came from
how do you get chicken soup
if not from a chicken

what did we really think 
of this reality thing

at night, unguarded 
in our heart of hearts
at the poker game, 
hurtling in the dark
do we bet on ourselves
as Americans

water and blood,
and skin and porosities and bloomy smells
from closeness, from love,
what did we think bodies were made of
if not bodies that touch and hold,
that tremble, improvise endless encounters until they 

don’t you don’t 
go down a dark alley lightly
even if you are stupid, or American

you go to the Blues
straight-up, all-American art
lugging lowdown bad news
you moan and groan

knowing reality is your dance partner
not asking who leads

you begin to play with woe
compete, restate, elaborate,
find the slinky horn, mockery,
human pulse in the drum beat

tragedy is to be stuck in a single mode
and joy improvisational — all elegance,
meditation, intentional 

“Joy is not for the faint of heart,”
says Robin Coste Lewis, riffing on Clifton
as I riff on Albert Murray, my mother,
Getting old is not for babies.

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thanksgiving in blue, quince and gray

It’s raining, a dreary gray-drenched drizzly rain. But rain blurs, takes the detail from things. What is data in rain? What is insistent, goal-driven argument? What is rain plus holiday? A chance to lay down my arms. Rest in a different kind of time. Steep in blue-gray pointillism where we can see ourselves in a continuous, constantly reimagined line. There were parents who puzzled the mysteries of cranberries and giving thanks during a World War; we once ran around Paris searching for airelles, cranberries, in a self-appointed quest. And in small pods, today all figurations of “we” will be losing some of our grievances. Yes, puzzling the mysteries of celebrating during crisis. Yes, cognizant of all the suffering and challenges – God knows we’re in the soup. At the same time celebrating the soup.

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I wanted a cheap fix, a release, an anything
but the present thing, a veering from catastrophe

and know as the wind blows
there is no quick fix

but jeez, how little is granted, how stingy reality, 
how it seeps its goodness, 

what a frustrating partner is reason, seeming
other to my others, I tear my hair out

so I too began to dance, to shake off the tick
to make it make sense, I turned 

the snow globe on its head, I spun the disk, 
shook the paradigm, I know in my bones 

it is good nonetheless.

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Praise the stepping stones!  Simple, each notched and shaped with its own smooth surface. Laid for one purpose — to help us get to the other side.  To balance delicately over the raging chaos.  Monsters bark; still, praise the plank, several planks, foraged from the rough forest.   They feel good to the feet.   Everything old feels new,  brought back from the brink.  We’d been wandering, lost.  We wouldn’t have lasted much longer.  

The old not a destination, not an end game, not a savior.  See it as an in-between.  Horns honk, celebrations, rituals mark a passage.  The in-between is always our place.  Savor our own deep resources.  Never should they be surrendered.  We’ve taken the bridge from the abyss toward a resting place with a vision to the future.   

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