Monthly Archives: September 2016

My poem, “Viva Fuerte”, and why I wrote it

 

First some comments followed by the poem:

I have been reading Pablo Neruda for the first time in many years. Bly (who has translated Neruda) describes him as the South American dark version (Chiliean) of Walt Whitman. He has his filters for his images, but his filters are generous filters, like Whitman’s. They allow a lot of  content through that a more focused writer of so-called modern poetry would eliminate as sketchy or out-of-place, without reference. Neruda is his own man. He trusted the imagery to lead the way. He didn’t bend the language to the subject.  An example?

. . .Monday, when it sees me coming / with my convict face, blazes up like gasoline, / and it howls on its way like a wounded wheel, / and leaves tracks full of warm blood leading toward the night.

There is so much that can happen when one throws caution to the wind poetically.  Just going with his description of his “convict face” and following a trail of blood “toward the night” is riveting. It’s a thriller in the form of excellent poetry. The master-poet is allowing language to call the shots and lead the way. Most writers, even when they write creatively, are writing with a domesticated idiom; perhaps there is better poetry in their drafts.

With “Viva Fuerta” I am allowing for some surprises. The language and my intentions are equal partners. If I try to impose my will, that trail of blood dries up. (There is a janitor who is mopping ahead of me; he is just doing his job. He is like one of those “seconds” in a dream or a character in a computer game. He doesn’t think beyond what he is there to do: clean up messes. Spit and polish.)

With this kind of poetry you don’t know where it is leading, but this trail of blood is a trail of life. Or it is a trail toward life, as much as it is toward night? We are already living in a dark time and a time of woundedness. We forget how full of blood we are until we hurt ourselves and then it flows. Sometimes it takes getting hurt or bleeding to remember we are still alive. Or seeing something or someone else get hurt works the same effect. Or maybe we are driving along. It takes seeing a beautiful animal dead in the middle of the road to remember that there are other beings out there to the left and right of the road trying to live their lives just like us. Sometimes I forget, for long periods of time, how much I love squirrels and chipmunks until  one runs under my “wounded wheel”.

Who can begin to measure the suffering in the world? Joanna Macy writes that “there is no such thing as private salvation. . .and . . . there is no healing without connection”. So these poems, where I follow the imagery, are poems where I stay close to Neruda’s trail of blood, toward life, and they almost always lead toward some kind of healing and connection.  Here is Neruda again:

If you ask where I have been / I have to say, “It so happens . . . “/ I have to talk about the earth turned dark with stones, / and the river which ruins itself by keeping alive . . .

Viva Fuerte

I’m standing firm and
you’re a rock.
The plinth is fracturing.
Your filter isn’t filtering
but at least it caught this poem.
 
My tongue is angry!
I have a snake in my shoe.
I’m in a funk:
Why aren’t we rising up
Like a thunderhead
 
Like a new brain in a petri dish?
A heart-shaped leaf
is waving in the breeze.
A lavender-tinted cow
stands behind me.
 
She is my ally.
A bird caught in a spider’s web
who I free just in the nick of time
is announcing an event
to a girls’ soccer team.
 
And they are listening.
I’m re-schooling myself.
My teachers were all afraid of me.
They were afraid of their own subjects.
The tests were all slanted toward
 
Submission and prostitution.
My car broke down
and wept.
I ate wild grapes like a bear.
I translated one single tear
 
Into nine languages.
I saw my face in the Rorschach of a stain
on a subway window.
And what is more, I saw your face.
And yours.
 
And then the people came.
Up and through and over
and in and with and without,
alone and in droves.
With dreams.
 
With bitter stories.
Without passports.
Tatooed and branded,
covered and naked.
Some animals came along
 
As translators.
There was going to be a council,
but where?
This world has no space.
All the land is private
 
Or slated for upheaval.
We made a clubhouse under a bush.
The bird from the web and the cow came under.
And an old man with a beard with bells
dressed in a filthy sheet
 
Wearing a sign saying they had impounded his car.
And a million others:
Neruda with his serious eyes,
Gandhi was there and Jesus and Punch and Judy
and even a clown with a big harmless hammer.
 
And I looked around
for the girls’ soccer team.
And way up I saw the angels glittering,
up about 4000 feet.
All I could see was their glitter
 
But they didn’t come any lower
but at least they were curious.
And I thought,
This is pretty close
To how I always knew it could be.
 
You have to begin somewhere.
Under a bush with millions.
We’ve got to start somewhere;
if you make it here, you’re welcome.
Viva fuerte!
 

Paying attention to our readers makes us better writers

One of my favorite blog sites for posting my writing, mostly poetry, is OpEdNews, self-described as a “progressive / liberal news / opinion media blog community site”, because it functions in a very egalitarian way. Articles (poems in my case) gravitate upward to the top of the content pyramid based on number of reads. As new content appears, old content filters down into the archives. It’s not quite fair because there is plethora of good material that isn’t read simply because the author is new / unknown and there is a tendency for readers to stick with their tried and true favorite contributors. This is only human.

I have seen famous authors benefit from the loyalty of readers when some of their books, by any objective measure, were not worthy of the attention they were getting such as Vonnegut during his heyday. Prolific popular writers often make the mistake of thinking that the adulation of their fans means that they are worthy of adulation, when in fact they are simply flourishing at the center of a personality cult. Is there anything wrong with that? Not at all. But time will eventually winnow out the golden wheat from the chaff. There are many examples of this but the one that comes to mind is Herman Hesse. He was extremely popular in the 60s and 70s but in my opinion he only wrote a few books that deserve to be regarded as classics: Demian, Siddhartha, and the Glass Bead Game. But, in his defense, literature of the moment has its value and its purpose. And maybe that is a heroic function of modern or pop-literature, to promote works of dubious quality that serve as catalysts for change and transformation and even revolution, and the critics be damned.

So, where is this blog-post leading? Back to my own process of course: I am looking over a short list of the poems that I have posted on OpEdNews over the years that were rated most popular (of my posts) and I am surprised to find that they were of 5 distinct styles, and of wide-ranging quality . #1 and #2 are thoughtful, I would say thought-provoking, carefully written ones that I felt represented my best writing, #3 is “out there”, angry, sardonic, all over the place, raw. #4 is stirring, serious, a call to action, #5 is experimental: the style is spare and dreamlike with almost no punctuation, composed of barely related fragments, and #6 is funny but also shocking with an edge to it, about the fouling of the environment by industrial-scale pig farms. (All of these poems are addressing the existential crisis of our times from the perspective of the poet-activist)

In the interest of keeping this blog entry relatively short, I will conclude by saying that I have learned something from this review of which of my poems clicked with readers of this site. My readers seem to be less interested in quality than in the personality of the piece (the voice) and the content. Voice has to do with attitude and authenticity. All of these poems, regardless of the quality of the writing, were poems that I wrote out of the sincere need to express a true emotion or complex of feelings. I was not, in any of these poems, trying to promote myself. I was, as I hope I always am and will be, true to spirit of my art.

Truth was everywhere

This is the planet

And there goes the neighborhood

Your conscience

Going into change

Manure Cannon

 

 

On Leland Kinsey’s passing, and the real work of writing poetry

You know, with Leland Kinsey’s recent death, I want to say something in honor of the poet-as-laborer. Writing poetry is work, work just as much as  getting the homestead ready for winter or painting the house is work. It’s real work. It’s not what you do after work, in your down-time or, least of all, to relax or space. Poetry is something the world needs and hungers for as much as it needs oxygen and water. It’s not mind-candy. There is poetry that is like that. It dissolves on the tongue. There is nothing of substance to it, nothing to chew and digest. No fiber, no gristle, no bite. It’s all package and corn-syrup.

Leland was apparently a man who worked with his hands and muscles and his poetry was an expression of an Earth-based work-ethic, from what I gather. I picture him writing without washing all of the dirt off his hands or wiping all the oil off his fingers after chain-sawing. (Frost, another poet of the land, who I was aware of during his life, was a different sort of poet-laborer. He didn’t like farming even though he owned a farm. It’s just that he liked the work of farming more than hanging out in the ivory tower. He used the farm as a place to hide from academia.)

Nowadays, a phrase I find myself using a lot nowadays, we poets need to “get down”, we need to remember to write, not for the sake of writing, or to publish, or to impress each other but because we have the gift and we have an opportunity to say something that is true . . . to speak our truth, with courage, with Earth as our witness, proud of the work that we do that, if we don’t do it, won’t get done.

In my life (I’m 65), I can’t tell you how many times I hear of someone really amazing dying and I suddenly realize, now that they are gone, how important they were and I am left marveling at how I was barely aware of them!  And when I say I can’t tell you how many times, I mean it (!) and it happens more and more often, for obvious reasons. (A whole bunch of us are getting older, and I myself will sooner or later disappear.) Leland was someone that I wish I had known a lot more about. He was a true poet-laborer. I’m reading a book by Denise Levertov, a book of essays, The Poet in the world. That’s what Leland was – a poet in the world — a rare bird!

My poem “Woo and Onion” followed by a reflection

Wooo and Onion

Wooo wanted to get married.
But onion said it was a bad idea.
They would never agree on anything.

You want to live in a hollow tree
in New Zealand, said Onion,
and I want to live in a hollow tree in Central Park.

Wooo was unconvinced.
Let’s sleep on it.
Maybe we will find our answer in a dream

That night they both had a dream.
Onion dreamed she was living in New Zealand.
The Maoris were serving breakfast.

Wooo dreamed of waking in his hollow tree
in Central Park. He was very happy
but Onion was nowhere around.

I guess you are right, said Wooo.
We are doing fine living in these poems.
Let’s leave well enough alone.

Comment:

There it is, in the last stanza, the truth is out: Woo and Onion live only in my mind. But they are happy there, at least Wooo has learned that he doesn’t want to live in a hollow tree in Central Park if it means that he will be separated from Onion by a planet. These two need each other. And I need their innocence and spontaneity and their ingenuous silliness. I guess I haven’t figured out how to lighten up in my own life or they wouldn’t have appeared in this series of poems to call me out. Sure, the environment is going to hell and politicians are sorting us into baskets. (What’s your basket?) But Onion and Wooo are slippery. They are cartoon-like in that they can pass through things, they can say things that are accidentally true and rail about things that aren’t even real problems. The world is their oyster. What world is that? The world of unfettered imagination. Or at least I hope that is their world. The less fettered our imaginations these days the better, until we figure out how to be more like Wooo and Onion in our down time. Not to belabor a point but what is the use of an imagination if it isn’t free?

The poem “We can be forgiven” and a reflection

We can be forgiven
For not cleaning the cat litter today.
We can be forgiven
For leaving the bed unmade,
For leaving the car window open all night when it rained.
For burning the rice,
For not dating a check,
For hurting someone’s feelings,
For not remembering a birthday.
Even for running over a squirrel . . .
For breaking a favorite cup.
For forgetting someone doesn’t like onion,
For blaming someone for something they didn’t do . . .
For slamming a door
When someone is resting.
For breaking a promise,
For not remembering someone’s name.
But when the geese fly over, heading south,
Not to run out and watch them
And wish them well on their journey . . .
That,
That is unforgivable.

Reflection:

I heard the geese go over. I was already outside so there was no running involved. I just waited for them to pass over the gaps in the canopy. Such haunting voices that, without anything to obstruct them, can be detected from quite a ways off. And there are always the stragglers. Cheering in the Spring, bitter-sweet in the Fall, same language, same phrasing, same haiku: In the Spring it’s We’re back, we’re back, we’re back . . . In the Fall, we’re leaving, we’re leaving. So it’s really an echo of a feeling of longing, longing for the promise of summer, longing for . . . wings? The freedom to take wing? To be among time’s chosen tribes. An echo? Who knows what the geese are saying or calling out. We only know, if we search our hearts, what it is their call evokes in us that longs for expression. Whatever it is, it’s ancient, it’s poetry and I need to hear it on both sides of Winter.

Waking or dying in the bed we made for ourselves

I just got back from a 3-day workshop with Joanna Macy at the Rowe Center in Massachusetts. It was very intense with lots of exercises (one-on-one and group exercises) for experiencing the grief associated with what she calls “the great unraveling” (the end of the industrial / consumer age) and the dawning of the “great turning” when people one-by-one, begin to embrace the new values that will result in the continuation of some form of civilization and life on Earth, minus a growing number of life forms that won’t make it. So we are all experiencing this shift on some level. And our experiences range from ecstatic realizations to a sense of going down with the ship depending on where we are at, our core values, what forces and belief-systems we identify with. The work is transformative and now I wish I had stayed for the rest of the week like my wife, Shirley did. It is clear that, to the extent that people cling to the unraveling, trying to slow or reverse the great disintegration of unsustainable structures and systems, they will experience the reality of no future and no solution and no viable context for their dreams and goals. There is plenty of cause for despair if one identifies with the unraveling.

Soul loss is a common malady these days but since we don’t typically equate soulfulness and mental health or well-being except in the most general way or metaphorically, it might help to think of soul as our quotient for how alive we feel, so soul-loss might be experienced as loss of meaning, lethargy, long-term apathy or depression, profound withdrawal from things that used to be enjoyable. Is depression even avoidable, and should we avoid it? As we live our lives we are moving through our own stages of life, but the Earth is moving through stages of change on a planetary scale and that definitely ups the ante. There is very little wiggle room, and unfortunately, less freedom of choice to shift or not to shift, evolve or not evolve. The strait for clear passage is narrowing. That is a hard thing to admit or to swallow, but I have come around to accepting that as our reality. It is the reality our way of life has created over the last few centuries, the bed we either die in or wake up in, the bed we made for ourselves.

The industrial age of exploitation of people and resources can’t be reversed. The best scenario is, it has to unravel and fall apart and we must prepare ourselves to step clear into a different way of living. The change is inside out. It was such a relief being with 60 people that I didn’t have to explain myself to!! We all wanted to “turn” or were “turning” or had turned to a different way of living or seeing things or of being in community. Of course the challenge is finding support back home . . . for staying focused on the turning; the workshop helped us manage to do that and to learn how to do that. A lot of the exercises were geared to encouraging us to acknowledge and experience our grief and rage but not as emotions that take over and shut us down, but as emotions that we honor in ourselves in passing, the way a deep diver passes through levels of the sea to gain the surface.

“Monsanto and the EPA — How are they doing?” comments on the writing of this poem

Comments: Remember the Beatles’ lyrics: “Life is very short and there’s no time, for fussing and fighting my friends . . .” It’s easy to imagine that the EPA and Monsanto have special feelings for each other but it must be hard for them as a couple, with the public turning toward organic products and reading labels.

This poem picks up on is how the EPA has been procrastinating (since 2009 when Obama came into office) on whether to sign off on Monsanto’s (carcinogenic) glyphosate, tradename: Roundup. Monsanto, in this poem, is worried “his” relationship with the EPA is souring or on the skids. If a Democrat is elected in November the tide may begin to turn against environmentally harmful, humanly carcinogenic herbicides like Roundup, that, incidentally, kills every little thing with a mucus membrane. Change is in the air, but here the EPA reassures Monsanto that it is only appearances that matter. . .hence “her” reference to her hair. I chose the (classic) male gender for Monsanto and (classic) female gender for the EPA. That choice was a no-brainer.

Monsanto and the EPA – How are they doing?

Monsanto is walking
With his best friend-with-benefits, the EPA:
So why are you dragging your heels
Signing off on glyphosate?

EPA: Oh, we’re having such a nice walk,
Do you really want to ask me that?
I thought we were going to have a nice time.
Why don’t you just say how pretty my hair looks.
I had it done for you.

Monsanto: Please don’t change the subject.
I’m serious. I have huge plans and
You are holding things up.
We should be better at this game by now.

EPA: Listen to you.
You seem to have forgotten I am an “environmental” agency.
You know I love you
But the public believes in me.
P is for “protection”
(snort-laugh).
Monsanto: Right.
But can’t you just wind things up
And rubber-stamp this one?

EPA: Things are changing, love.
Look around.
Appearances are everything these days.
The best I can do is stall.
You are killing off your customers, you know.

Monsanto: I’m giving them what they want
And they want results sweetheart.
Like a cowboy roping a steer,
Or a football player making the touchdown.
You’re not even listening to me!

EPA: Once people hear the word “carcinogenic”,
As in “Roundup is carcinogenic”. . .
They turn green.
I’ve got an idea.
Just add some vinegar to the formula
And call it something with “green” in it:
Call it “Round-up Green”.

Monsanto: Are you breaking up with me?
EPA looks hard into Monsanto’s eyes,
Leans in and kisses him long on the lips.
They continue, hand in hand.