Thinking of Arjen, Vagabonding

Very happy to be off social media; but also very appreciative of the efforts going on there and everywhere to recognize, celebrate, and find Arjen. It’s been really nice to be with good people at Hack42, the fabulous hackerspace where he helped me get an artist residency in 2015, and think of him.

It’s the least of anyone’s worries, but I have felt like I should wait for him to finish my second poetry book, Vagabonding. Some of the poems are his, and part of the dedication. So he has an ownership stake in my work, although he’s not the owning type and would deny it gracefully…

But I also thought he would stumble out of the woods any day going: “Dudes! I was camping. What is wrong with you? Chill out.” And if that were going to happen, it probably would have happened. So maybe I should just finish the book.

Meanwhile, here are some more poems from adventures with my love R. Thinking of my favorite vagabonds.

***

“The Embassy”

Podgorica

Walking downtown for food at night,
we stumble across its ugly light.
Guards with semis and machine guns pace
outside the fencing around its face.

Projected up against a wall,
red, white, and blue enthrall
with missing stars and wrong-numbered stripes.
At least you cannot see the pipes.

But the half-empty bookshelves are plain to see
through open curtains. It occurs to me
this, too, is a display of power.
Some would hide their ignorance.

Never a country known to cower,
the bloated Merkan embassy
displays its dumb indifference.

***

“Irony”

Macedonia

The long arc of history bends black.
Austrian police are here where country ends
to help keep brown people back.

***

“Blood, wine, ticking time”

Hurghada

The Red Sea is not red.
The hope here is not dead.
It probably used to be,
from coral and algae,
dead kings and dead books.

But the reefs are dying everywhere
along with tourism here and there
where terror scares people away.
We saw it last summer in France,
the lavender fields swaying a yellow-brown dance
from too much rain,
and what if a truck should come again?

The wine-dark Mediterranean, too,
is no longer wine-dark,
though we couldn’t see through.
It was more like thyme honey
in how it looked darker, far away.

The world has no less blood in it now than then,
no less life. There are no fewer stories to write.
But we see differently as the waters change.
As we change them, and are changed.
Time now means disruption.

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More New Poems

Mere weeks ago, every day it seemed like my second poetry book was nearly ready. Then I started finding holes, places where I hadn’t quite told the story like I’d thought, like I meant to, like it lies whole in my heart. And other things happened in the world. In response to old holes and new events, I did what I do: I wrote new poems. Most of which are not good enough to post, and all of which will need time and rewriting before I can even decide whether or not to include them in the manuscript. So that finishing-the-book-by-September thing didn’t happen. But here are a few more new poems.

“If you should die”

If you should die while you’re away,
I’ll hunt you down and kill you.
“But I’m at peace!” your ghost will say,
grinning from the deep blue.
I’ll drag it up and string it out to dry in harshest sun.
I’ll stretch it out to wrap around the shivering none
of our knowing where you’ve gone and what you’re up to these days.
Don’t think I won’t do it. I have my ways.

If you should die while you’re away,
I’ll drive a stake into your heart.
Don’t think you won’t feel it from the start.
I’ll hammer out the gold in your soul
to make jewelry. Sand your bones to bowls.
I’ll bunch and twist your hair into brushes.
Sell your organs to the Russians.
You’d better come back, someday.

***

“Emptiness”

I left with three full back-up drives on me.
When I got away, they were all empty.
It’s just as well.
There’s no one to tell.
And perhaps always it is better
to start a blank letter
when events interrupt
in a manner abrupt
and what you were saying
is trumped by surveying
new terrain.
Let your mind deplane.
It’s a new Old World to join again.

***

“What if there were poetic justice?”

Would there still be police to address mere crime,
if we could get at the real thing all of the time?
Would blacklists even need to be found
for their authors to rot underground?
Would eagles descend like for Telemachus
to scratch out the faces of those who mock us?
Or would the world look much like this,
except some people just wouldn’t exist?

***

“Looking for Land”

Serbia

The painted waves surprise me
every time
with their steady pink and purple brush-strokes,
unmoving lakes of turquoise, yellow-green, and peach,
fields of water-lily likeness.

I look closer, quicker, out the window
as they fly by between wet wheat
and damp beige houses—
cabbage patches.

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Yet More Poems for Arjen

“Be Night”

Because the light in the sky sparkles with laughter,
it is impossible that you are dead.
Yet you’re more Democritus than Aristotle,
and would laugh just as brightly after
I said “red sky at morning, sailors take warning;
red sky at night, sailor’s delight.”
Be night, be night, be night.
Do not be the red sky of death over
a frozen body floating without breath.

It is quite impossible, although men fall,
that you should have paddled down a fjord
toward an Arctic sea and then toward
the bottom, a rush of water and all
the heaviness of life, the freezing pull,
the heft of a forced salt mouthful
too many and too fast
for even you to last.
Do not make your home in the sea
when you know your home is here with me.

Will you make your place
here in the new space
between knowing and not knowing
if you’re coming or going,
went well or badly,
died for helping dissidents tell the truth,
or slipped away to secretly relive some youth?
Delighting in travel, accounting for nothing to no one,
but still helping others in need on the rocky sea
when you stumble across each other having lost and won,
like I helped you and you helped me?

Do not tell me if you fought and lost,
if you were frightened or forced to pay the ultimate cost.
Because you’re in the light, so you’re with me in the day—
laughing, one, making fun.
But I still hope you’re the night, anyway.
Safe and warm, with someplace to stay,
having decided to rest and stay away.
Tell me, someday, if you can, how to help you there.
You know we can sit in stillness if you tell me where.

***

“Silver Tarp”

When we first heard you were missing, I lit a candle like we used to do,
and prayed and tried to talk to you. In my daydream that sleepless night,
you comforted me. You were resting, you said, on a soft bed
under a starry sky beneath a shimmering silver tarp.

And I thought leaves, thought we’d find you
half-buried with late summer silver and green
and a sharp hiking stick or something metal jutting up
shining through some non-lethal muck,
but surely with two simply broken legs and only just out of water.
Then they said you had bought a folding kayak.
Later a fisherman found your things just out to sea.

But now I think the shimmering silver tarp with which you comforted me,
its warm blanket enveloping your warm embrace and steady face
when I cried out shaking your shoulder to know where you were and come,
must be not water and its grave.
Must be only time rippling over,
time that shines warm even in Nordic nights,
time that you will take to come clearer,
to fight and fly through some awful danger, cold as death,
and finally then come nearer again to the friends
who would have wanted to get you warm and dry
if ever you should have fallen.
We believe in you.

***

“Limits”

You are not allowed to die.
You are just too good a guy.

 

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Red Third Eye

Oils on 40 x 60 cm stretched canvas.

This poem isn’t going in the book, but goes with this painting that is apparently going on the blog.

Both were inspired by that time I developed sphenoid sinusitis after pitching paintings that not a single gallerist in sub-zero Cologne would even look at this February, and subsequently: lost my wallet and stuff in the station right out of my hands cos I probably had blind spots I didn’t know about, cried all the way home on the train from the pain, went partially deaf, and generally had a medical emergency without it occurring to me I was having a medical emergency. (I thought it was a migraine, and then a cold, and then…) Then socialized medicine saved my life with a surgery that didn’t bankrupt me because I have subsidized health insurance as a freelance artist. (It was about ten euros. Germany is cool. Charité is awesome.)

Silly poem, silly story. Still, I liked the metaphor enough to write and paint it. I think we all have snakes inside us capable of striking when we don’t see them coming. And experiences or times when we need help but don’t actually have the expertise to convey what’s going on, to get it. It’s just a particular instance of one of those universal experiences that art is supposed to convey, in order to drum up empathy among humans for humans. (Humans are ok.) Not bad work, if you can get it. Better, perhaps, if you can’t… And do it as an outsider for its own sake.

“Sphenoid Sonnet”

The gravel road behind my face
leads to my red third eye.
The bucking snake there rises up
to strike and kill the sky.
What fire kindles behind my eye?

Days from dead
inside my head
sparks alive
with pain and dread.

Raising scales that throb and pound,
the rattle makes its warning sound.
Help—at last I cry and moan.
That was its poison, and my koan.

It was my voice it feared the most.
I killed the snake. I am its ghost.

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Arjen

40 cm x 60 cm gallery canvas with oils, gold leaf, mixed media.

This is (quite possibly a draft portrait of) my missing friend Arjen Kamphuis with his heart of gold. This is me back in the studio after months of illness and recovery; vacation and hunger to paint again; and a big box of medical-grade Lindt chocolate thanks to Arjen. Arjen who brought me home to the Continent, CCC, and Berlin. Arjen who took me to the grocery store when I couldn’t afford a protein bar. Arjen who read me right as a healthy artist and an injured transparency activist when I had left the U.S. due to massive retaliation and turned up at CIJ after couchsurfing London alone for a hard spell. Arjen who gets it. #FindArjen

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More Poems for Arjen

Here are a few more poems for Arjen, who may or may not see online things at the moment, being missing.

  • Lockpicking—a poem about how communication can be hard. Maybe it’s easy for some people, but it can be hard for me, especially when I’m overwhelmed. Some people just work that way, and Arjen has always been super tolerant and understanding of that. 
  • Walking along the Amstel—a poem about how none of us really knows what to do next in this crazy world. But when we go looking for answers to that question in a serious way, we find others who are looking, too.
  • Waiting for Wind and Trains—a poem about waiting and trusting your instincts.

Among other poems I haven’t blogged yet that he inspired, I’m digging in my manuscript… And often what I find that seems like his, is in edits to other poems that I’ve already blogged—and that it doesn’t make sense to repost a new version of when the book itself is almost ready.

Like in “Yearning for the Birth of Athena”—the new version’s bit about the gods watching cat videos online… That’s all Arjen, he would make that joke or observation about attention resource capture, while himself also watching cats. Cats are ok. But wait, I already blogged a rewrite with that bit, too. Guess I’ve been rewriting for a while.

Today I learned a relevant, untranslatable German word for this: Verschlimmbesserung—to keep editing until you’re making the thing worse instead of better. Hmmm. Probably best to write a new one quickly, then.

***

“Arjen???!!!!?!?!??!?!??!?!??!!?!?”

Where did you go?
What did they do?
Didn’t you know
we’d be worried about you?

You would have known, and cared, being you.
So something happened, so… So…
Tomorrow:
stew?

Show up at my door.
We’ll talk some more.
Or not, if talking won’t do.
I’ll still make (poems and paintings and papers and) stew.

I’m so worried about you.

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Poems for Arjen

Poetry keeps happening. Poetry that would not be possible without Arjen, my dear friend who found a stray transparency activist wandering the streets of London and brought me home.

Of Arjen-inspired poems, I previously blogged a few from our adventures in Lisbon:

As well as this one about what a great listener and friend he is: “Safe Space.” (That painting, too, was inspired by Arjen in—and needs to go home to—Amsterdam, one of these days…)

It also happens that Arjen was the one who helped me pour my first poetry book manuscript into Amazon CreateSpace for publication. As well as making multiple formats of e-book versions for me to put on my website for free. And getting me set up to put the illustrated version on my website, too. It was important to me—that the book be a book, that the art be CreativeCommons and free, that the finished thing be finished and out in all these forms. So it was important to him, and he helped me get it done.

Now my second poetry book is almost done. And it happens that Arjen seems to have gone missing.

This is concerning. I am concerned.

I would like to fix this. But I don’t know what happened, so I’m not sure what to do… More… Tonight. Maybe tomorrow it will become clearer.

In the meantime, I just want to give Arjen some of his other poems. And I’m not sure how, other than to try putting them here… Maybe he is vagabonding and offline, because the world is crazy. Maybe something else is going on or has happened… Because the world is crazy.

Poetry does not help. Except when poetry helps. Here are some more of Arjen’s poems, which I hope actually get to Arjen one of these days, soon.

***

“Searching in Bodø”

Norway

Gray mountaintops like fins slice the Arctic sky.
We retrace your outs and ins,
since you left without saying goodbye.
Did you, too, want to wander further?
To lie down alone forever under a blanket of clouds?

Away, the world’s noise recedes
as you gaze the seas,
as if to tether and untether
boats of breath and mind.

Stay. You own your time,
and so are rich. But could you lend
me a cup of tea and company
sometime and some place calm and free?
Tell me and I’ll meet you there.
The best minds of my generation leach despair.
You do that for me.

When I look again, the mountains are gone in the grip of sky.
Full of more questions than when we came searching—what happened, why?
What sharks rammed your ship?
What do you need? Are you finding it?

Hey! I’m talking to you.
Back in the wild Berlin blue.

***

“This Is Just To Proclaim”

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.—Robert Frost

That something
is a part
of us all

But something
there was
that loved
a wall
after all.
That something
survived its fall

Something else still
will be
persisting
when we think
we’re done resisting
for as long
as we’re existing.
Good too
can be banal.

***

“Travelers at Rest”

Split, Croatia

The bright orange finches
have followed us out
into the city
and are homesick
for the falls;
try to kill themselves
repeatedly
on the terrace.

The cats, kindly,
are here to assist
in all their mortal coil-shuffling needs.
Also to eat bread,
chase each other, brutally,
and regard dogs with suspicion,
people with apathy.

Geography does not change nature,
human or otherwise.
They, too, are homesick,
but for Egypt, and the days
when people better knew their place.

We are all longing
for somewhere else,
except while in motion.
Here on the road,
we are home.

***

“Picnic in Vondelpark”

Blurry leaves sway over birch tribes, and they are
how there is no time—only lighter and darker moments,
and the wind that moves their weaving orbits,
and the owl’s anthem announcing that they’re mine.

My throat is growling again at the world.
Although I trust in your goodness in my head
and in my heart, something in my animal softness
needs to be apart, bows its head, kicks at the dust.

Half a forest away from the blanket and your question,
a husky field with chirping frogs infringes. I must walk further.
Nothing is wrong. But I would like to wander now, deep into the dry grasses,
and lie down alone forever under a blanket of clouds.

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