Wandering Cemitério dos Prazeres

Like a previous poem, this was inspired by my time in Lisbon in 2015. It’s about feeling peaceful in a cemetery after being terrified.

“Wandering Cemitério dos Prazeres”

Something splendid about being surrounded by stone and natural death—
a peace, a slowness, a feeling of family and of rest.
The job that must be done matters less now, again,
than this togetherness with stones, bones, sun, kingfishers, and former men.
There is no job. There is no “I” who must and must. There is not one recorded line
echoing the violence that breaks the eternal mirror, tricking us into time.

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Make Tea Not Lists

“Make Tea Not Lists”

This appears to be a poem whose protagonist has suffered attentional problems, and that will (appropriately) not cooperate in becoming more dense and poem-like. I’m laughing at myself trying to edit it yet again while this week re-trying all sorts of list-making, mindful meditating, journaling, task-reorienting, yoga-procrastinating, mantra refraining-from-mocking, autogenic something things, and enjoying a really good book on organization called The Organized Mind by Daniel Levitin. And a really good Guardian interview with physicist Carlo Rovelli on the nature of time. While currently on a poetry book manuscript editing timer. God help me. Is this a poem or not? If I don’t know, then I guess it’s got to go… But I like it enough to blog it before taking it out of the book.

When I went in for shot attention to Mrs. Which and Whose, and Not-It, Frau Doktor asked why I couldn’t Just Do It—whether I kept stopping to have cups of tea. Now when I read Eliot, the tea is all I see.

When I told my office about the very important man’s very important hands and how I couldn’t sit still—they said to do nothing, if you will. Then my files were trashed, and it saved my ass—that needing to move, run, dance. That dashing far enough away at last.

And when I slept in our big red bed under the big blue sky in France, sleeping as much as I needed, eating and loving the same—I knew I needed this animal luxury, being my scatter-brained poet self, living in the wild in my rhythms, listening without acting through effect-minded prisms.

Then I don’t need to be invisible. Breathing is allowed, unmeasured—and dreaming.

Usually I don’t remember my dreams, and wonder whether they are civilized. Not in the sense of denying my most basic needs, for sleep and love more than money or a good life above. But in the sense of making more of my animal—cuisine of her hunger, love and sex from sex and love, delicious rest into some art, or the search for it. This feeds me. Feeding others sets me free.

***

If you could replace your unremembered dreams with prayers, in the Middle Ages, you probably would. If you could replace them with podcasts or books on tape today, you probably would. We always forget Luther, and intend to save ourselves—mostly with other people’s good works and none of our own faith. Faith in the brain, in the self, in the unseen rhythms poets and physicists point to quietly all our lives. Quietly because we are soft animals. We are not priests and presenters, though we may try on the robes and seem sometimes to sing out. Feels better to do without. Remember what happened to Galileo, and who knows why not to Copernicus. They don’t like us.

We know something now about how drinking three cups of tea a day cuts your depression risk. And coffee—diabetes. Miso—breast cancer. Or so we think. We see the substance and not the sigh, sit, drink.

What do we know about listening to birds and looking without seeing out the window? What do we know still about sleep, about our own lives when we let go? About the brain washing itself at night delicately, like a kitten, going over and over what has and has not been done, and what cannot be said or done, but must be imagined in secret and in silence? About the half-gone washings in-between, when we are doing nothing—and everything?

We know without it, our hands are drunken, our minds are dull, we start to hear things in the lull. What we call nothing and waste is sanity. And like sanity, sleep is not what we used to think—is not either-or. You can be part awake, and part on a different shore. Memory systems out. Attention and doubt in a drought. Sleep is a thief that takes what it can get. You don’t know it, because you forget.

***

Last spring, when my love bought me a full-sized electric piano, that feels and sounds like the real thing with its great wooden soul—I asked my first teacher for a few pieces, and learned new Bach and Chopin after twenty years. The headphones helped assuage my fears—that I would suck, or bother people. And my own brain and fingers clicked in ways I had forgotten, but they had not. I could do this, full stop. Then, when I napped, they kept playing Bach.

How lovely, dark, and deep the woods of our minds that when we play again, we play also in our sleep. I’ve never had such delicious rest.

I used to beat the others out for money as a kid. But then I quit and now I’m not on par with all the rest. Would it be better than my play and replay to be like Mozart, dreaming his own symphonies instead? Or Harry Potter waltzing into J.K. Rowling’s empty head? I never feel that I receive my own ideas, but something or someone else’s— the great creative self-deprecating moue. But when you’re in the flow, it’s true. Often I am not. I am in the way. It’s just what I’ve got.

Listen, I don’t know if there’s a force like God or the collective unconscious. I don’t like religion, homeopathy, or other frauds, though they have their uses—and yes, sure, abuses I have seen and known. I have a trippy artist brain wired for ecstasy, and it’s often lead, misled, deuced, and helped me. I just know Bach, being left alone by big fat chiefs, and drinking tea will do for me—and when I interfere, to enforce discipline and plans, it doesn’t work as well. I am not Mozart, and will never be a Potter. I come here into the blank space to see what happens. It is not impressive as a life. It is just what I need. I hope that in time, more work of worth will bleed from the leaves; but I need steeping still. When I can let myself make tea not lists. When I can rub the beads of a meaning that matters like this. Sometimes it boils down on its own. Maybe this one is not full-grown.

And if you let yourself do the same, we might meet here. Or nay. Neither invisible nor strident, unnecessary by necessity. That’s civilization. Playing the same old tune with new feeling. Sipping like old friends, knowing the time and not the leaves are revealing. This is where ideas pour into and not from you, without searching, out of the blue. This is where you are welcome, my dear, to find me. Although I am most me when I am here, which is to say, when I am not here. It’s on the tip of my tongue, so near. Yet entirely unclear.

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Doubting Tom

Two more poems relevant to #MeToo (previous ones here and here). That’s a section in my second poetry book that keeps growing and shrinking, because there’s always a new reason to write more about it. Now I’m fantasizing about writing a short story set in a dystopia where there is so much surveillance that abuse allegations can be more easily verified—and abusive men get branded on the face. So at least you know who has behaved badly toward other women in the past, since that’s probably the most useful heuristic for predicting future abuse… (Not that more surveillance results in better outcomes for crime victims, or that “believe victims” makes sense in the context of due process, or or or…)

“Doubting Tom”

“Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”—John, 20:29, NIV

Bagladykiller, shopping cart caddy, glad he
feels so sure that he can shuffle me out like that—
I am currently mentally homeless.

Shuffling along in my tattered thoughts,
replying to things long said or unsaid but present,
I would abide by conversations more pleasant.

But all the streets
and all the houses
are empty when one turns to enter.

The doors don’t open
and the intersections stop
at ends of the world.

If there were others here,
but there are not even cats,
we could find a way
out of the stranded fray.

Ways do not exist here.
What you want is rest
what you want is chaos
what you want—who knows?

What you want is to have known
before he showed you
that he was one of those.

***

“Men”

There are some tribes of men
who show themselves when
they have a chance to do
what they want to you.
And they do.

It is not all of them.
Their tribe may not be very many.
I have not counted.
This realm is always unaccounted.
Forgive, forget his moment’s whim.

But if there are any
left who are pretending to be a friend,
let’s skip the violation
and make our timely end.
Even rainbows run out of ways to bend.

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Walking to Mauerpark

Never finished, always relevant. I must have started writing this poem last fall on the way to Mauerpark here in Berlin—a now-vibrant park that on warm Sundays bursts with relaxing young people and families, busking musicians (some really amazing), graffiti artists, slackliners and slackers, food vendors and flowers, that was once part of the Berlin Wall and its Death Strip. Spring is almost here…

“Walking to Mauerpark”

Steel supports like blades of grass
stretch up to crane-cut clouds
on the old school’s rooftop. They look
like easel spines between paintings
like giraffes pointing noses at a changing sky
and like the steel supports in the field near Mauerpark
nearby, stretching up and back into history,
marking where the concrete chunks
were carried off, for resale or for memory.

Also along the way and easier to miss,
small bronze tiles break sidewalks
with names, dates taken, dates killed.
This one was the doctor who built the orphanage.
That one, his infant daughter.
His wife, her mother. His son, her brother.

Elsewhere, such steel spokes and small marked stones
silently sit and do not stir in walls and under dirt.
But here they are bare in the biting air
as if the past were present,
as if the Wall and Die Wende had been a dream,
and as if all rewritten stories are not what they seem.

Layers of trauma sift like this,
from the German traüme—to dream
and not know how to remember different times.
The steel spokes in the brain stand up,
lattices of memories we must make fiction to tell
and so cannot clear up with words—
are yet filled in. Marked stones filed and misfiled
scatter, cannot be secured on crumbling walls.
In this deconstruction, landmarks can comfort or alarm.

For some the spokes and stones are solace.
Remembered deaths were not in vain.
Remembering helps us rise again
toward something better—
the idea of freedom,
the possibility of better dreams,
the melting of old into new.
Not leaving the past to be true.

For others, sadness:
touching the cold plaques
caressing the bent shoulder of the past
with nothing whole there to retrieve
yet impossible to leave
as its distance closes in
as the empire cries sin
and as we wonder how long their warning will last.

For its part, all this steel and stone
wishes us neither solace nor sadness.
Our mementos will be another’s clues
as to our fatal madness.

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Compreensão

This poem is about staring out into the water in Lisbon with a dear friend around the time I first moved to the Continent a few years ago, wishing I could create more understanding through art.

“Compreensão”
Porto de Lisboa

The shoreline shunts contemporalis—
realist rocks rolling out to impressionist waves
before pointillist glints disintegrate into disjunct houses.

This is how the stories that can’t be passed on
get caught, snarled between their bearing minds and times, and beyond.
Buoyed away in bits from the farther shores of others’ hearts.

This is the port where artists work, in the not knowing
how to, with the, and then, although, perhaps.
What voice, which strokes, whose ship can carry care home to port?

The water points, laughs, holds; forgives, forgets, laps.
It is always, my love, the ship you tried to keep from open sea
that sails because it must, farther and freer than before—

carrying with it currency as well as cargo,
ready at last to spend the penny you have heard singing
all this time at the bottom of your own well,

but not yet flung up and tossed out to the world, to us, to me.

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Waiting for Wind and Trains

This is a poem about being in a liminal place and waiting for your instincts to guide you.

“Waiting for Wind and Trains”
Amsterdam

My hope is a kite.
Its string goes limp.
Still I can feel for the wind.
Wait for its turning.
Turn.

Late in the day, in the calm afternoon’s climax,
when the sky’s cerulean blue cools to cobalt
and many trains have come, some of them our own—
you can rappel instead of flying,
walking down the clouds like so many paths
to unlocked doors. The air warms as you descend,
the world welcoming you. Do you know what I mean?

I mean to wait
until things are
effortless,
lift is in force,
and taking off
just happens on its own.
You will know
when to go
because it is
a not doing.
To float not fly
is the greatest high.
We watch the birds
to know from their arrows
when it’s time to go.
They do it
every year,
without sensors
without degrees
without calculation,
knowing more in bones than books,
never getting trapped in clouds
or tripping from looking up
after a taste of sky.

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Lockpicking

Tech Inc.

Be a lily, don’t toil or spin—
that’s the way hackers break in.

The clicking you feel
when one piece gives way
is like the thought on a walk
when you know what to say.
Words you weren’t searching for flow.
The solution to the problem you weren’t solving,
when you stop hacking at it, can come and go.

The lock is never picked.
The cylinder does not know open
does not know closed.
Locks never lock
never unlock
don’t open
don’t close.

Only doors
and only when you make
an in and out
only when you fall alone
in the forest of a wall.

The problem does not know solved
does not know stuck.
A spinning coin does not know its last flip
does not change its luck.

And I know it’s easier for some
like relaxing into feeling the cylinder’s way
but speaking to me is sometimes like
a cylinder in a door
never the right words
never the wrong words
only the speaker opening and closing
finding out as she goes what for her is locked
checking door by door
feeling click by click
listening to hear if the pin has dropped
if the spinning has stopped
trying not to try so hard
to unlock
not the lock
not the door
but her own entrance
and exit.

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Painting on Southbank

This is a poem from the time I had left the U.S. with a backpack and was Couchsurfing London. Medically underweight from eating one meal a day on dwindling credit and not able to legally work or apply for public funds abroad, I went to paint by the Thames one day and got to have an interesting conversation.

“Painting on Southbank”

“Those are nice paintings. Do you sell them?”
A stranger with his friend asks with a grin.
It’s cold but beautiful under the bridge.
I’m hungry but I’m happy, and my smile lets them in.

“Well thanks, I guess I’d like to”—my unarmed reply.
“That would be a crime and we’d boot you,”
plainclothes security’s gold-toothed reply.
“What’s the threat that responds to?”

I can’t help but want to know.
“It’s the damn Gyps running cons here,”
says the one scratching below.
“So you kick out artists for fear of thieves?”

Quietly packing up my things
as the argument’s shaking begins.
London loves barbed wire and guards—
the England of my dreams in shards.

But while the Parliament burned over the Thames,
Turner sketched and painted gems.
When his specimen grew old,
Fleming paid heed to the mold.

Ours is a time of fire and of rot.
Time when the weird ones are needed,
get to use what we’ve got.
No time to mourn what it’s not.

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Is It Allowed

to be so happy without working for it?
I am not suffering anymore.
I made no great success, settled no great score.
I am just me at last, without performance.

You get it, who have struggled with conformance.
If you can keep the yoke, you can have some prizes.
But they all require you keep up disguises.
Father, if masks free men to tell the truth,
why did they cage me in my youth?

I hardly knew myself when I was acting,
replacing every wretched role with new refracting.
All one wants at that age is to see,
to speak and move invisibly,
observing, not unnerving—to become deserving.

It’s shocking when I hear younger friends now,
how much their insecurities were mine. They don’t allow,
without insistence, that this too is age,
the role you can’t leave though you move about the stage.

That it is always the case
we think we are lost
and must pay a heavy cost
just to live
until Time fluffs his feathers, taps with an olive
on the screen-door of the soul
saying “You must let me in now. You are whole.”

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Thoughts and Poems on #MeToo

This fall I blogged a Mary Oliver poem, “The Fire,” that is germane to #MeToo. I mentioned that  I couldn’t get behind the moment despite being in it along with everyone else. That remains true for several reasons.

One of the reasons #MeToo concerns me is that we are living in a global surveillance state, “social media” companies are surveillance companies, and a lot of people, especially vulnerable young people, gave up a lot of intimate information thinking it was to “friends” when it was really to these state-allied corporations. Taboo-smashing: good. Kompromat: bad. No Institutional Review Board worth its paper would have ever approved research asking the things people routinely disclosed, under the terms and conditions that these companies tend to handle this data. Facebook especially knew this, had an ethical duty to inform users of relevant risks, and was silent. Their legal duties in this context are an open question. (As mentioned in a previous post, I recently deleted my Facebook account.)

The longer poem in this set is about a completely different reason #MeToo concerned me. Namely, that there is no win. There is no winning a sexual harassment complaint in academia or in most workplaces, where complaining usually results in retaliation. There is no win in criminal justice. There is no win in restorative justice. There is no win in any conception of justice I can conceive. So #MeToo directs limited attentional resources toward an area where there is no win, putting the #MeToo speaker in a victim role with no obvious, empowered exit. This role can have significant psychological, social, and professional costs. One could argue the speaker was already there; but only privately, not publicly, and that matters.

Of course it is brave to face one’s vulnerability for greater good. Of course we must deal with the past so we are less likely to repeat its mistakes and patterns. Of course we must talk about sex and power. But I think in addition to very real and political privacy concerns—as well as due process concerns others have covered—something that has been missing from this conversation is a recognition that humanity must live with (most of) its monsters. We are incapable of solving the problem of evil, without becoming what we hate. So we have to love, if we want to nurture what makes us human social and political animals instead. And that has been missing in the pain and anger of the outcry, as it usually is, for completely understandable reasons. But people who heal get past that—once they are in the black cognitively and emotionally. And I hope society will, too.

“In the Black,” oils on 40 x 50 cm stretched canvas. 

 

“They Too”

1.

Not by pain
and not by pleasure
but by reliving
at your leisure.

So harsh at first,
and then more gently,
feel the thirst
to understand—
the agony,
to take no stand.

There is no win
in crying sin
to blue bishops with guns
who murder black sons.
They rarely believe you.
More rarely prove what’s true
for the value of proof
that for us too remains aloof.

Nor in asking a friend
to bring things to a talking end.
Monsters rarely apologize,
can’t look you in the eyes,
and are only men after all.
You might make them feel small.

If they were to apologize,
do you imagine the pain dies?
Words don’t undo deeds.
Pain creates needs.
From simple cruelty, complex misery.
But weren’t you always jittery?
No one wants to pay
for a pre-existing condition,
or has much to say
when he knows damn well
he didn’t have permission.

In a perfect world except for this,
where you are a rich princess
and he is a bum,
it would be dumb
to go after him for damages (savages).
So it is that only you have the gold
to fix your own cracks.
A powerlessness tax. Old.
Get out your kintsugi glue.
Forget him. Do you.

2.

All you can do
is reinvent the wheel,
puzzling out what you think,
how you feel,
until you know what’s true—
and then you know what you have to do.

You are not performing surgery on that scar.
You are only ripping your own skin ajar.
You don’t have to do it.
Scars don’t make you unfit
to live among others—
our scarred sisters, mothers, brothers.
They too are going to need someday
to simply put the past away,
and fail, and try again.
And fail better, worse, and better again.

There is no other way to live
and no point in dying young.
My love, that is the saddest mistake under the sun.
Wait awhile, whatever it takes.
Time does heal. Put on the breaks.

There is no better way to forgive
than accepting there is no win,
accepting the ones who sin
share this world and we can’t change that.
We too do wrong;
that is a different song.

We are not gods, nor should we wish
to wipe the earth of those who miss
some steps in how to live
among others
without always having their druthers.
It is no harder than that
although it is not easy.
Easier if you can love.
No one demands that, below or above.

3.

So wipe your face on the snotty matt,
leave your crossed and snarly old black cat,
don’t beat yourself up for looking back.
It happened and it happens.
We walk on when we can,
and choose to fight when we might win—
choose to take a different stand.

Last night I wrote more in my dream
that disappeared with morning light.
I see you. I hear you. Me too.
These defeats are bigger than they seem, I know.
It is because your body has this sacred gleam.
Its simple needs and joys can be most you
can be most used
can cause such fright
when so abused.
But the same might
can help you let it go.

There is no other way
to say no
than saying yes.
It is not said.
But you must find a place
where it feels right
to lift up your dress.
Run fast and far
until you can run no more
and at last rest,
quite accidentally,
on the right chest.
Stop hiding in shame
your beautiful hair, your face, your breast.

4.

It is not popular to say,
but they too need a way
forward to live.
It is not a gift
you must give.
Nor one you can withhold.
You don’t have to see him as a child
to feel part of the same wild.
Look at the crazed animal’s tired eyes.
Maybe being evil’s getting old.
There is no mending what was done.
We will wake under the same sun.
Look away. Breathe. Move on.


Don’t Think of a Pink Elephant,” oils on 40 x 50 cm stretched canvas. 

 

“Start from Starving”

I want to start from starving—
clean, with no touch of man.
Foraging for oysters and berries,
rising with the light,
drinking lake water and night.
My skin and bones will shine
with no softness and no shame.
And you won’t ever touch me again.

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The Reverse Antigone

This is a poem about paying the price for prioritizing justice over rule of law—dislocation by truth-telling.

“The Reverse Antigone”

Given a choice between law and family,
she chose family and death. What loyalty.
But I have done the reverse Antigone.

Tho you could say I wanted only
what she wanted. Lonely birds,
not leading but leaving our herds.

Everyone must break away.
Under enough strain, no stone can stay.
The spirit spits, startles its demands.

Breathing justice, not a book of rules.
Messy story, not spouting stands.
Faithless lovers, not faultless fools.

Sure, I’d rather have a standing city.
I’d rather have a standing army.
Not this choice between truth and home.

But I, too, know the king’s decree.
And I’m going to bury
who I’m going to bury.

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In and Out of Memoriam

Hedy Lamarr fled, and so did I—
the lucky ones left, still wondering why:
Whistleblowers welcome here, not there.
Refugees starting over, everywhere.

Hedy Lamarr fled, and so did I.
A bird sings in Berlin, kisses the sky.
He tells the truth without fear or desire.
When I try again, I feel a different fire.

Hedy Lamarr fled, and so did I.
Without a plan, or a kiss goodbye.
Flitting somewhere new to sing loud and free.
Will the world listen? To you? To me?

Hedy Lamarr ran right into her life.
Made new, imperfect love from strife.

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Nothing to Hide

Recently I left Facebook and Twitter. No better time to post this lovely poem by Gerben—along with these gouache paintings I made re-reading it before dawn.

“Nothing to Hide”
By Gerben

I don’t have anything to hide.
But I have something to lose.
I don’t want to lose
my freedom to hide something.

Whether I have something to hide
depends on who’s looking.
And whoever that is, or will be,
I can neither foresee nor control.

My loss of privacy
is another’s gain in power.
Where our data accumulate
this power will concentrate.

I thus claim my right to hide
not for myself, but for us all.
As data come to dominate,
the question we should contemplate:

To be a subject, or a citizen?

 

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The Reasoning Tree

After William Blake. H/t Rose McGowan.

I had a tangle in my head.
I had some tea, and went to bed.
When I awoke, a tree had sprung
where before, confusion stung.

Its branches flung out pros and cons
in lattices of rights and wrongs.
And I rested in its shade,
my decision all but made.

I had a tangle in my head.
I wrestled with it, full of dread.
And ripped out its seeds to sow
all around my bungalow.

Soon I was walled in by weeds
from too many idea seeds.
Reason quickly grows surreal
unless I first ask how I feel.

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One fish two fish dead fish new fish

Just when I thought
there was nothing more to say
about the past—

that placeless play
the protagonist of which has no place
in this world, cannot be located in psychic space—

and that I let fly so many times, far and away,
like a sedated bird collapsed around my neck,
come to and hot to migrate—

just then she boomerangs to my heat.
That must be it.
If I could just cool down,
she could get on with it,
fly on for good,
instead of coming back to roost—
just when I felt so safe and warm,
just when my brain could process the harm and move on.

Instead the broken surface of time
bubbles back out unbidden again—
not with the old ones, but yet another fish
hopping up from the water of the past.

And the albatross
collapsed around my neck
wakes and flies, ravenous,
to scoop up again and again—
one fish two fish dead fish new fish!

Each time the bird of prey
flashing from dead to starving
in an instant that insists rest was a lie,
she was always bird-dogging on the sly,
now laughing with her happy, hungry cry.

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Cut It Here

This is a poem inspired by finally getting my soft, brown hair back years after being frightened into changing my appearance.

“Cut It Here”

Until it’s grown out
so you can order:
“Cut it here”—
it seems not your own,
like dyed and damaged hair.
You can’t see where the lines go,
like a messy ball of yarn.
With just a thread and needle,
it’s impossible to darn.

Maybe, you think,
it’s someone else’s job to do the work
of sensing what can go,
and what is more than just a quirk—
what to snip off in the sink,
and what is essential flow.

You know better.
Now that you can feel
your own, natural softness again,
and see your own, brown down;
now that you can pull it back
into a ballerina bun again at last—
you can tell the story better,
and leave it in the past.

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Praying to Coca Cola

Day 15 of a poem a day from Vagabonding, my second poetry book manuscript (this one from the “Back in the Colonies” section, near “Dialogue with an Angel“). This poem was inspired by my 2013 trip to Ghana with the Charlottesville-Winneba Foundation. So was “Gold Coast,” a poem in my first poetry book about being dragged out into the riptides by a group of men. This poem is about the equally impressive force of cargo cult, a phenomenon of seeking to explain, rationalize (albeit with religious rationale and ritual), and ultimately control the uncontrollable, foreign (even to us natives) military-industrial force of modern Western conquest.

“Praying to Coca Cola”
Winneba, Ghana

In the cargo cult of African Christianity
with its God Bless You Bank, Jesus Christ is King Laundry, and White
Smile 
Dentistry—
the initiated worship with their elect brethren. God judges; man pities.
Every week the power goes out (rations), every month a tourist drowns
(natural causes), and every year the politicians visit (sister cities).
It’s the big city—but it’s the same here as all the other big towns.

One day the children will read books in air-conditioning, and eat oranges.
For now cassava will do. Some already read—with their ears, it’s true.
One day the library will stand in this grove. Let us pray.
Soon enough, all the visitors will go home. Not today.
Let us pray for more donations. And more sisterly formations.

When one of the young ones complains, remind her it would look bad
for even a black American girl to disrespect her post-colonial dad.
Keep on joking about your wives, thrusting in air, drinking your cultural
beer.
Collecting money to break ground on the same library each year.
Putting on a ceremonial show to hunt, but never catch, the sacred deer.

But cargo cult lives just as much there as here.
American cargo cult is America First.
Napolean Hill, the best of the worst.
The Seven Habits of Highly Rich Bastards
to get your boots licked just like the Master’s.
Having faith is one of the greatest hazards.

Keeps you going to work, keeps your head to the grind.
It’s not new to say it’s the opiate of the mind.
If I can just learn how Andrew Carnegie brushed his teeth
and lie down when Oprah goes to bed,
then I can rest my wealthy head—
put the knife that cuts me while I wield it, back into its sheath.

What the more obviously conquered know
that the precariat will learn, fast or slow,
is that warplanes made of twigs turn out to bear neither candy nor
cigarettes.
Machine gunfire beats the best warriors sprinkled with the holiest water.
Half-coconut headphones, bamboo antennae, runways drawn in
unmeasured dirt—
all the magic papers and words will bring no roaring silver birds, only night
sweats.
The secret is never revealed. Should we have sacrificed the other daughter?
That the great delivery never comes is bound to cause a little hurt,
while we deny our foolishness and continue digging in the dirt.

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Flashback

Day 14 of a poem a day from Vagabonding, my second poetry book manuscript (this one from the “Back for Forwards” section, around “Don’t Think of a Pink Elephant“). This is a poem about the paradox of overcoming psychogenic amnesia, a component of PTSD that involves forgetting things one would wish to forget.

“Flashback”

Don’t disturb
the thick gray
slab of cloud
smashing into
the lost deer
of my head
darting across
the busy highway
of days and
what didn’t happen
at least
not this time
but the clouds
are caught
between mountains
a bowl of unreal
neither sky nor ground
and I am lost
the more
that I am found.

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Meeting Thomas Drake

Day 13 of a poem a day from Vagabonding, my second poetry book manuscript (this one from the “Finding Berlin” section, near “Publish and Perish“). This poem grew out of a snippet and then (unsung) song I wrote after the Logan Symposium, where NSA whistleblower Tom Drake signed the pocket constitution I left the U.S. with years ago. (The founding documents remain among my favorite works of fiction. Most of my songs remain unsung, because making noise is hard. Someday I will give up fiction because it is sentimental, and being embarrassed to make noise because embarrassment is an embarrassment.)

“Meeting Thomas Drake”
London and Berlin

His face is paler than you think,
and he smiles like it’s unusual, like it’s a treat
when I ask him to sign my pocket Constitution.
Paltry restitution
for losing your job, house, savings,
country, and wife
for telling the truth—
losing a life.

Tom Drake was number four at the NSA
when higher-ups threw Thin Thread away.
An executive spy,
he didn’t see why
they’d scrap the solution
(to the terrorist revolution)
that would have prevented 9/11,
try to roll a lucky seven
finding signal in much more noise
after collecting data on millions of American girls and boys
instead of being selective,
encrypting the mass.
Was rule of law elective?

They came after his ass.
He blew the whistle—
first up the chain—
giving the Inspector General
a chance
to throw him under the train.
Coincidence?
The evidence he gave them was destroyed.
The FBI raided his house.
After legal defense and a plea bargain deal,
his assets were null, his expertise void.
Pleading his innocence cost him a spouse.
How were onlookers within to feel?

In Hawaii, a young analyst looked on with fear:
blowing the whistle in this atmosphere
would require more daring, and more public aid.
People would have to know first why he had made
the decision to show them the secrets within
the war machine’s heart.
How to begin to grasp the gap between the Constitution
and the black art
of “collecting it all“—
the NSA motto?
The law promises due process.
The surveillance apparatus, much less
protection of names and dates and times.
Who you called—when. What you said—where.
They look back when there are crimes
on the mass of data we share
without consenting to have lost
our basic protections there
in everyday digital benefit and cost.

So Snowden went farther afield to cry foul,
calling out to the People, the world,
with his Constitutional howl.
And how he was hurled
from the country he served,
for learning from Tom:
don’t take your qualm
up the chain, or they’ll crush you.
Both men deserved
heroes’ thanks,
and the calm
of a whistle rightly blew.

What experiment are we running now,
in the land of wild experiments?
Can public scrutiny contain power’s arrogance?
Tom and Ed still believe in how
our fathers’ fathers made a deal
to dwell in hope, not live in fear.
Life, liberty, and pursuing happiness
require the audacity of hope, no less.
But I wonder, when their lawyers call me “dangerous”
and I leave my own country penniless
for being a scholar and activist
of some small, forbidden thing
(is this really happening?)—
does the whole load of laws and myths
mean anything at all? Did it ever?
For all the well-meaning American Flanders and Smiths,
how many apple-pie soccer moms and teen-fucking dads never
endeavor
to question cars, guns, and drugs, however
many deaths from shit air and bloody crashes they see or hear about.
No questioning climate denial despite this flood, that fire, one more drought.
No recognition that the drug war’s ignition
was always racial panic—and fear of the hippie left’s organic
power to overcome corporate capture.
But when Big Pharma is after
a law change, they get it.
So why can’t it just be time to hit it?

War pigs say it’s privacy or security—
and privacy is dead. They used to say
liberty, instead.
We’ve lost the war.
Now what’s worth fighting for
will require rest and bigger-picture dreaming,
not small-scale resistance scheming.
Although he is a little old and gray,
I wish to fall in love with Tom and sway
him Europe-way,
speed his getaway
from the Apple store where he wastes every day.
We roam freely here, veterans of the silent war,
information freedom fighters,
living now for more—
hackers, scholars, thinkers, writers,
in our ghetto of common mind,
all our future undefined.

At least here we are together in a herd that feels right,
like African animals in Sigean
roaming by day, cuddle-piling by night.
They look so natural—lion, gazelle, bear, and all—
being with each other under blue skies, in thrall
to no cage bars and loneliness like in a zoo.
Resistors have here our own nature reserve, too.
Send for me by carrier pigeon,
and I’ll meet you at the dock.
How is it nearly six o’clock?

In the growing dusk,
all my hope becomes a husk,
except for small groups of us
who love each other and do good.
I wonder what Sapolsky would
have made of Jefferson’s experiment on Monticello—
his wife’s sister and slave his bedfellow.
Even baboons don’t pretend to own
their mates and children til they’re grown.
There are no bonobos in Virginia, but
experiments in sanctuary sometimes make the cut.
Although with dominance it’s easier to explain
blacks still slaving in prisons, the super-rich
unsoiled by poverty’s stain,
surveillance of every pre-crime itch.

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Secrets

Day 12 of a poem a day from Vagabonding, my second poetry book manuscript (this one from the “One Step Forward” section, around “Courage“).

“Secrets”

I told a secret
that I thought would explode!
But nothing much happened;
it merely fizzled by the road.

No one much cared,
or else no one got it.
Or maybe they were waiting
for a better secret—not it.

But it gave me a momentum,
and I kept on telling truths
that I had hidden in a holster,
shapeless to eyeing sleuths.

They had taken on my warmth
from being kept so near my skin.
They had grown a part of me,
their hard shapes pushing in.

Taken out, a strange thing happened
in the cold air and bright light
of other people looking,
fearless, at their might.

Their hardness melted
and with it, their power
to push in. Perhaps their only power
was in pressing through my skin.

I kept a secret
that I was meant to keep.
It did not weigh me down
or press into me deep.

I think it might be growing
in the darkness of my heart,
where if it should flame or flower,
it won’t tear me apart.

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Courage

Day 11 of a poem a day from Vagabonding, my second poetry book manuscript (this one from the “One Step Forward” section that I broke off to come after the “Backwards for Forwards” section of “Don’t Think of a Pink Elephant” and the rest).

“Courage”

Take the files, pass them on, find a plane, and get on.
Otherwise, they’ll kill us all.
A complex time. A simple call.
Snowden and Ellsberg urge you on.

And what of the smaller windows of that form of resistance
that tends to destroy the resistor’s existence?
Once I copied my own files
and mailed them to the paper
never thinking that I’d move 4,000 miles
to walk away from that caper.

I do not think it made a difference.
The papers ran
across the land.
Freeing the information did not touch the ignorance
that had made injustice king.
Only reopened the unhealed sting.

If you choose to speak
although it’s hard and hurts,
first commit to turn the other cheek
if no one in the crowd converts.

I do not regret trying.
Only that, as martyrdoms go,
mine was so unsatisfying.
I told a truth no one wanted to know.

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Zersetzung

Day 10 of one poem a day (… on days when I feel like it, apparently…) from Vagabonding, my second poetry book manuscript. Currently it’s in the “Finding Berlin” section. I’m thinking of moving it to the “Nuremberg 2027″ section envisioning future war crimes trials, and expanding on linkages between things like JTRIG (which the Snowden documents revealed as doing contemporary Zersetzung plus Internet), the Stratfor files (documenting the financial and sexual nature of some tactics in use in these psychological operations), and the old Stasi “science” of degradation. But then it’s a political essay instead of a poem.

Flash fiction is an in-between possibility, literally and figuratively—weaving between poems to make more of a contiguous set of worlds in the book. But it’s hard to orient people quickly in those worlds. And even when you take the book-length time to orient readers, they often think it’s science fiction when it’s about reality. (The Margaret Atwood problem.)

Then again, sometimes you want people to dismiss serious political critique as art, performance, or satire. The jester is protected. The Yes Men are on the loose, while Lauri Love is in court again today to hear whether he’ll be effectively sentenced to death for allegedly participating in digital protests on the anniversary of Aaron Swartz’s death (#OpLastResort). Some of what #OpLastResort did was funny, like making the U.S. Sentencing Commission website display a game with the alert message “PEW PEW PEW PEW PEW! End Prosecutorial Overreach!” and a missile-enabled Nyan Cat with which viewers could shoot text off the webpage.

But the satire frame is serious. Just as the power of the fiction frame is real. You have to claim them early and often, I guess. I learned that as a stand-up comic. (I should do that again sometime—it’s good for my writing, I like the people in that scene here, and it’s fun when I’m actually prepared. But I’m such a serious Stubenhocker—homebody.)

 

“Zersetzung”

Reports indicate that at a reading in early 21st century, pre-war Berlin, the author introduced the poem’s protagonist as a former lie detection researcher-turned-artist and American expatriate who had experienced what was public record but poorly recognized at the time about psychological operations against domestic dissidents in the pre-revolutionary U.S. This poem interweaves her story with an account of a contemporary survivor of similar tactics in the former East Germany, who was still continuing to recover even as the Berlin Wall was gone for as long as it had stood

According to Richtlinie Nr. 1/76,
the Ministry made itself a scientific niche.
To no longer terrorize through courts, resolved.
To go after opposition smarter, not harder, evolved
a new kind of torture to unleash.

I’m not here to argue. It’s my witness to bear.
What they used to do here, now we do over there.
Is that why the city took me in?
You degraded, undermined, corroded, decomposed, dissolved—
we have a home in Berlin.

***

The long arc of history took thirty-odd years
to bend toward Aunt Monica getting over her fears
of the Stasi rediscovering her wearing a dress,
taking pictures, touching, making her confess.
To be a woman but have been born a man
is already more than some people can stand.

And if we had a real lie detector,
could it have helped her?
It can be so hard to know
when it’s yes and when it’s no.
To know what you want requires learning to ask—
not something we learn at a school or work task.

But they knew it was a ploy,
an interrogation toy.
Knew from the Soviets, who had long known
spies are neither made nor discovered, but grown.
“The lie detector says, you a liar”—
more evidence on the chest-crushing pile.

***

Although we know it is only a game,
in Iraq and Afghanistan just the same,
American forces wrote home to complain
that lie detectors worked as hammers to send
sometimes probably innocent men
to be held and tortured at Abu Ghraib.

You could say that they were brave,
to raise the issue of abuse.
Or that they were stupid,
for believing in the screws
they turned, unsuited
by standards of science and ethics alike,
wanting only to better serve the Reich.

I do not care what you say about them.
In their judgment or defense, there is no great wisdom.
They lived as pawns—as pawns will die,
whether peacefully in their sleep
or by revenge, not knowing exactly why.
Them to whom judgment was definite and cheap.

I care about the truth—
that elusive, strange, and pulsing thing;
how just when you think you have it,
you pull up an empty string.
I care about Monica’s pain
that is also my own.
And Anna’s eyes fixed on the train.
And in faraway sands, the unidentifiable bone.

It was their job to pretend to know
who should stay and who should go,
who would walk free,
or not feel the wind blow.
It is my job to touch
the curtain of certainty,
pull it away to show
what we already know—
behind forms and scores personally
guaranteed objective,
there is always a frightened, little man,
some sweaty-palmed detective.

***

What happened is impossible to convey.
That’s part of the way
they make you think the gaslights’ flickering
and the unrelated bickering
are single stars in the sky of your fault.
The file says you said
The miscarriage… the assault.

In the famous movie on the actress
whom they accidentally killed
with one too many no-touch tactic,
there is a mole—
a man within who has a soul
and doesn’t want to see hers stilled.
He does not save her from the blackness
of despair that is the point of his whole practice.
But he tried, and helped a bit to mitigate
the damage he did to disintegrate.

Sometimes I’m so sure someone saw it happening and helped me get out,
that I’m afraid to say so because they could still be inside, acting the lout.
Thank you, stranger.
Let my little fiction cause no danger
to the lives of others.
Know that if I had my druthers,
I’d never go back,
nor unmake the choices that led to the attack.

Especially if you were not helping after all,
but only convincing me that leaving was my only choice
because you wanted me gone—one small,
troublesome person with a soft, persistent voice,
removed in a new Palmer Raid
where it seems to the subject it’s her own idea
to get the fuck out of here—
and those doing the hurting, seem to offer aid.

To be as honest as your average bundle of lies
and contradictions, all bustling head and slippery thighs,
whether and to whom I owe thanks
for helping me leave the targeted ranks
doesn’t keep me up anymore.
The dark bird stalks me nevermore.

What they did to me is done,
and proof would require someone
who did it to say so,
or produce documents to show.
Otherwise, I just sound mad
trying to piece together how I was had,
which was half the point.
The past is a cleared checkpoint.
It interests me less and less
than the open road,
my new home and happiness,
regaining weight at last to bear the future’s (for now) lightening load.

But if I were to ring out a warning,
some eloquent defense of freedom and of living,
of decency and forgiveness after mourning
what has been done,
giving what peace can be given
under the irreversible sun—
it would be that we are too late
to linger long in despair,
too late to abdicate
attention to ads and Kabuki,
too late to stay to fight when we’re not safe there,
and far too late to believe in magic boxes and Washington’s cherry tree.

We have time for triage,
because we must,
and to love each other well.
Time to enjoy the voyage
even with no trust
in our return,
no Athena guiding us through hell,
and no certainty that the tides of history will turn.

When everything was dissolving including myself,
I left my research in boxes on the shelf.
Some was destroyed; some I could save.
And so, finally, I’m releasing these tapes.
We don’t have a word for what kept me from it, yet.
I’ve only told you a story—don’t forget.
Maybe dead men cannot talk,
but they have talked to me.
Sometimes even blind men
get a second chance to see.

And if I were to ring out a confession,
you must excuse my poetic expression.
You may have come for my old life,
but I am no good, Christian wife.
Do you know who I am?
I have been a lover in your house of spies,
and you will never expunge
the heat between my thighs.

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Don’t Think of a Pink Elephant

Day 9 of a poem a day from Vagabonding, my second poetry book manuscript.

About this illustrating and blogging a new poem a day experiment… The drawings aren’t working. I’m sorry. They suck, right? And I know it, but I keep doing them anyway. Why? I’m on the road, I’m making some sketches I could go back to later and play with layering on an iThing to add color, modify composition, and incorporate text (I’m excited to try this, someday, soon-ish)… But I’d probably rather just illustrate properly (analogue) in my studio under less (as usual) arbitrary, self-imposed, not particularly helpful pressure. So maybe I’ll ditch them for now, or just do them when I feel like it.

Today I feel like it because I don’t hate what I had already made for this poem. Tomorrow I don’t think I can do the poem I’ll probably blog justice, since it’s about a beautiful woman and I haven’t done her justice. She’s very beautiful. It’s possibly not possible. So that’s an easy decision point or moment to change the way I’m doing things over here. Bye-bye drawings. Experiments are experiments because they can fail.

About this poem. It’s from the “Back for Forwards” section, after “The Living Murder,” “Snake and Not Snake,” and “Like a Moth to Flame.” It’s about the battle of ironic process theory in which flow or sweetness beats intrusive thoughts. On a lot of these poems including this one, I could write an essay (or a book); but generally I agree with the emcee rule that the most you can say about any bit is two sentences or get off the stage.

“Don’t Think of a Pink Elephant”

Don’t think of a pink elephant
with crushed mauve eye shadow
blending into the gray of her knees
neon blue powder caking off her back
as her daughter nuzzles the back of her leg
there in the room with your mother
who you will never nuzzle like that again
because she cannot face the truth.
Not out of principle—motherhood
is about raw need, the crush of blood
and love, the flickering pulse under
talk of right and wrong that says only
is is is is is is
but out of equal and opposite necessity
to feel the way you feel
to have the real be real.

Don’t think of a polar bear
lunging, back arched toward sky,
nose aimed at seal, and wet hair freezing
in haywire strands descending from his belly
so long and low it looks as if he’s floating
on a tumbleweed, when really
he’s lunging suddenly in another direction
eating not the seal but your brother
who after all is more terrified of emotions
than anything in the world,
and so the best candidate
for being eaten by a polar bear.

Don’t think of the black snakes
their dark, sharp arrowheads shooting
the flowing ribbons of their bodies forward
just past instead of into you,
don’t think of the black snakes
that come back out of dark branches
when you are walking by the bushes alone,
don’t think of the black snakes
that live everywhere
in every forest and suburb
near every lakebed and basement
that seem to press themselves
onto and into everything
and we were too ashamed to say
but now everyone admits
it happened to me too.

You cannot stop the polar bear,
but you can try to feed him some snakes.
The elephants, having been discussed,
are no longer your concern. Rest now.
You are not your brother’s bear’s keeper.
Think of the icy sea that takes him back,
embraces him with a chill he knows as home
and how your brother will be warm and safe
churning in his stomach, without fear or intimacy.
Think of the oceans flowing from that sea
as the icecaps melt and the water rises
over Bangladesh, where pink mother and daughter
elephants carry the poorest family in the world
to safety, or at least up to India’s electrified fence.

Think of the man, warm and asleep
in the floating bed of gossamer and music
that glows with his welcoming heat
and how it is a spaceship
you have tethered to while going for a walk
where there is no up and down
to see what aliens you can meet.
But you find what you have always found—
dumb rocks and faraway stars,
too bright to think of anything else
when you look to the horizons,
but too far to touch as if your hands
would know how to nuzzle them
this star is my mother
this star is my brother
this star is my man
smoothing out the covers over my exhaustion
slowing my racing heart with his smell
insisting that I rest and let life be sweet
and hunt for my own happiness as well.

 

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Like a Moth to Flame

Day 8 of a poem a day from Vagabonding, my second poetry book manuscript (this one, too, from the “Back for Forwards” section, after “The Living Murder” and “Snake and Not Snake“).

“Like a Moth to Flame”

1.

We do not know
why go they go
into the light
burning them bright.

It is a cheat
to call it heat.
The pheromonal draw
cannot explain it all—
not only male moths
drawn to not only
infrared lights
seeking not only
female mothly delights.

The Mach band, then.
Bright light, when
you stare at it,
gives off a dark hit.
Moths fly to it,
circling the light,
seeking cover of darkness—
getting reality’s opposite hardness.

 

2.

You can’t see
what it means to me.
Why I must go back
to the scene of the attack.

I will tell you why
the hardest things
call to my wings.
A far cry
from self-destruction.
The moth knows
the flame is real—
wants to live, fly, heal.

I do not know
if it is courage or cowardice,
the opposite will to letting it go.
To know the pain of fire,
the wounds of its burning,
and return to this.
You think it does not matter
as long as I live.
Sometimes I flatter
myself that I might have
something more than living
to give.

 

3.

It is the moon, they used to say.
The moth is navigating by the biggest light.
Then is confused by electrics at night.
It’s nothing to do with heat—
just a mistake in navigating flight.

Like a moth into flame,
I used to navigate by pain.
I have to learn again and again
that getting back to work
doesn’t mean doing things that hurt.

Just because it’s hard
doesn’t mean you need to use more force
against your own wings that are charred.
Although the older moths may have said
to navigate by the bright light overhead,
you have to listen first to what feels right.
Do not fly into painful light.

 

4.

The modern moth enjoys more equality than ever.
The empowered moth is both fashionable and clever.
The agile moth reaches her goals with grace and speed.
The evolved moth reports high life satisfaction and low need.
The independent moth is successful in career and family.
The feminine moth is strong and independent, but not manly.
The surviving moth is focused and productive while alive.
The ambitious moth flies directly into the flame and dies.

 

5.

When you’re flying, sometimes you can’t tell
if you’re heading up or down.
It’s how many pilots fell
to the accidental ground,
or into the ocean and drowned.
When you’re doing something hard
and perhaps well worth doing,
sometimes you can’t tell there’s heat
until you’re already charred.
A cigarette falls on you, and it’s the hole
that brings you back to greet
the body in your soul.

Sometimes you can’t feel it at first,
can’t tell if you’re hot or you’re cold.
At that moment pulling away is the thirst
and every touch is too bold,
but you can’t tell which way is away
and anyway, insisting gets old.

I need to be alone with the night.
I need to try to grasp the darkness
and beat it with my wings
while also dancing in the light.
Mark this:
moths are not delicate things.
Moths do not need your protection
(although moths enjoy your company).
Moths do not exist for your dissection
(although moths may enjoy showing off, when they feel free).
Sometimes I lie, but always with the truth.
(I only feel safe when your shoulder gives me proof.)
There is no animal so full of wonder
as a poet, except a moth.
No one so willing to fight
existence itself for the light.

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Of the Surviving Family

Day 7 of a poem a day from Vagabonding, my second poetry book manuscript (this one from the “Relations” section). In this poem, the newly normal winds, fires, and storms refer to both literal forms of climate weirding and figurative forms of contemporary weirding phenomena (e.g., rising autism rates, the growing precariat, and other difference and instability). One of the reasons I love poetry is because it lets me use literal, autobiographical references (like my brother and I both changing our names) that people would never guess are true—with multiple meanings.

“Of the Surviving Family”

Of my family there were four known survivors,
only one of whom could be reached for comment.
Thus I am up all night, writing and rewriting the story.
I am pained that I cannot change the world.

Scientists say the wind events were unlike any they’d ever seen,
but may become the new normal. In my motherland, other scientists say
the winds are fine, but the fuel is dry: blame the forest for its burning.
The house where I grew up until the fire is still standing.

Insurance brokers projected the sea level rise decades ago,
and refused to underwrite the marriage. Other salesmen claimed
the market is absolutely stable and responsive to demand.
My mother still keeps the waterlogged ring and name she never liked.

Stronger storms come every year—hurricanes, rains, and floods.
My father who I met again after a lifetime, a smart and funny man,
could not withstand them. Turned into a tree and was broken.
One of his arms smashed into the attic and was thrown away.

At night I think of the world in flames, whether a weird new wind blows,
why my father builds a new house on the most-doomed coast,
inviting with his remaining arm wide open a newly normal storm.
My brother and I both changed our names and blew away.

We have survived each other, but only as ourselves.
Not as a family. My brother became a feather, light and easy to flight.
My mother became a mouse, stealing crumbs and ready to bite.
My father who was a laughing tree became an acorn; and, for now, a tree again.

I became what I have always been. A wolf hunting for prey and kin.

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Two Poems on Autism

Day 6 of a poem a day from Vagabonding, my second poetry book manuscript (these two from the “One Step Forward” section that I made out of the second half of the too-big “Back for Forwards” section). On Saturday, Ian McKellen celebrated his 30th anniversary of coming out publicly as gay in a BBC interview, saying:

I’ve never met a gay person who regretted coming out – including myself. Life at last begins to make sense, when you are open and honest. Today is the 30th anniversary of the BBC radio discussion when I publically said I was gay. So I’m celebrating!

What a brave and beautiful truth! Being bisexual certainly matters and has been important for me to be open and honest about with family, friends, and in my art/work at various points. But it does not make my whole life make sense in the way being autistic and coming from a family with autism does.

Sometimes the first response I get to saying this is disbelief, because most people don’t actually know what autism is. It presents differently and is less common in women. I didn’t know it when I was younger, but have the genetic disorder in my (broken) nuclear family, as well as other familial risk factors. So everybody including me—the lifelong “little professor” diagnostician bookworm who’s read all the studies since being nicknamed Encyclopedia in elementary school—in other words, a typical autist—missed it. It sounds weird to be happy to have an incurable disorder, but it’s really helpful to have a name for how I’m different—and to accept that difference. Life at last begins to make sense when I talk about autism. 

So here are two poems about that.

***
***

“Welcome Home”
After Mary Oliver’s “Members of the Tribe.”

You said when at last I lit my fire
on the dark planet
of our tribe.

Should I name it?
The name makes a basket of shadows.

Pour them out.

***

Look again.
They are not snakes
slithering closer and closer
in the light.
We are not aliens
whether or not
you like our planet.
And there is no asylum
for the different.
We cannot be cured.

But most of all
for me it matters
that the reason I could not mend
the reason I failed again and again
in that good and human work
was that
I am different.

And if you persist
in trying to cure me
until I am like you,
you will kill me.

***

That time
I should have died
someone
held my hair
held my hand
prayed with me
in bed
as I waited.

It was Plath
who preferred
the library.
It was Millay
who wanted all of the fuck
and none of the fuss.
It was Dickinson
who stayed home.

In the study
a man with no more manhood
was painting an apple
with cyanide.

***

Later,
on the level red shore,
by riverbeds long dry
of blood and tears,
the others were waiting;

and when they found me
or I them—
I no longer pretend to know which;
it was my own planet,
but I was lost—
there was such dancing.

The savages,
they took me in.
They fed me,
the brutes,
and laid me down
to rest
at home at last.

This was the work of being seen.

This had nothing to do chess
or memorizing π to 27 digits
because e begins so beautifully 2.718…

Meanwhile,
Jefferson, looking away,
kept revising Monticello;
Carroll stammered, it is said,
only with adults,
preferring Alice’s company.

On that other dark planet
of the past that is an asylum
locked to us
and holding
some
of our kin
whether they will or no,
a young father who couldn’t love well and knew it
was scrubbing the smokey bar
from his sure and drunken hands
to save life after precious life.
You know that
often when we are very stupid
we are also very smart.

***

It is not for me to forgive
the shock therapy,
the vibrator,
or the castration.

But as I grow milder,
having put down the scissors
and let my hair grow long again
to see its natural shapes
that I was only frightened
into cutting,

as I grow wilder,
and the forest grows around me
along with the fire
and its shadows,

I forgive
what is mine
to forgive.

***

And Oliver,
whom I come behind
listening
for advice

but who did not know
the name
of Mozart’s strange faces,
the long-unwanted love of Yeats,
or how Michelangelo
would finally pull off
his own skin
along with
his dirty dogskin stockings.

She knows many things.
How to love the world, for example.
How to breathe each day a poem in thanks.

May she live to be a hundred years old.

***
***

“Love Poem”

You are a dog
and I am a cat.
You do not understand
my reticence,
and I do not care.

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Dialogues with Angels

Day 5 of illustrating/blogging one poem a day from Vagabonding, my second poetry book manuscript (this one from the “Back in the Colonies” section). Spacing doesn’t work exactly the way I want it to in WordPress, so some of that is lost (grrrr). My road-idea illustrations are frustrating me in their sketchiness, so here is an even sketchier road-idea illustration (GRRRRR). This poem came out fairly complete already one night/morning as the writing demon was upon me, but now reminds me of an old favorite. So I’ll include both.

“Dialogue with an Angel”

Years ago, in the darkness of my youth,
a brush-fire destroyed everything I owned.
The flames licked my home hollow.
At first, for the moment that the hollowness felt clean,
I thought they were my sisters.
Awakening from that moment
of false beauty was the hardest part.
I ran away and rebuilt.

But another disaster followed
swiftly on the last.
This time it was a tornado,
roaring from the sick, green sky
like a train
like a lion
and like an angel of some terrible judgment.
I could not look the angel in the eye and,
knowing my home would again soon be hollow, left
again
to make anew a better life.

The caravans I followed seemed friendly enough,
until they disappeared one night
as the snows began to fall
and the wind began to rip
at the fabric of all things.
At last, I was alone.
It might be peaceful to die like this,
I thought, and lay down to sleep.
A pack of wild dogs encircled me then,
barking their
“Now-now, now-now, now-now”
alarms.

Then, I knew it was really time to leave—
a greater leaving
than I could yet imagine.
“Go with God,”
my blanket-holding brain suggested,
bullied down that plank by pranksters, programmed ecstasy, and force of need.
And I did, the ghosts of the brush-fire sisters still licking my skin.
Sometimes, at night, their beautiful faces flash back at me,
with the shock, the stab, and the jolt
of realizing the false friendship of their warmth.
“Get on,” says the conductor.
“Stay back,” says the lion-tamer.
“Now be still,” says the angel,
as the world I left already ashen, burns.

In my new life, I am not a brush-fire victim.
You are not my beautiful sisters,
sipping air and letting slip your torn stockings of combustion.
The storms that grow stronger as the climate grows weirder
are not trains we can ride into the city
are not lions we can watch roaming from the car
are not angels of some terrible judgment.

“Don’t be so sure,” says the angel,
salting a hole in the sky with his tears,
not of remorse, guilt, or shame,
but of anger.
The tide rises,
the tides rise,
the rising tides sighed and sighed.
“Why,” I ask the silence where the angel last stood,
“am I being still?”

***

This lovely image seems to be from Shoestring Press’s recent Little Dutch Books edition, but I don’t see an artist credit…

A Man and an Angel, studies for a poem

By Toon Tellegen, trans. from the Dutch by  Judith Wilkinson

A man said:
I can’t live
and he lived long and meticulously

then he stood still and said:
but I can’t love
and he loved women and peace
and unspoken shyness

and an angel fought with him –
I can’t fight, said the man
and he fought like a tiger, like a hare,
and like a bag of bones

the sun went down
and still they fought on,
the man and the angel,
and the man said,
with a melancholy note in his voice:
now I know,
I can’t lose.

Believe me, said an angel, I will save you.
No, said a man, I don’t believe you.
You have to believe me, said the angel

and he drove away the ambition of the man
and his painful omniscience,
gave him peace
and large quantities of a rare,
resilient happiness, such as had never been described.

Do you believe me now, the angel asked
and he looked at the man with unparalleled love
and tenderness
and the man whispered: I don’t believe you.

A man searched for his conscience
and an angel saw him and asked:
might this be it?
showed him a large and orthodox conscience

that is yours, said the man,
but the angel shook his head:
we don’t have a conscience,
we are too light,
we would fall,
we would lose from everyone,

and with a nonchalant gesture
he struck the man down and dragged him away

and the man felt ashamed.

In the end,
if we just wait long enough,
if we have seen beauty change shape
and justice bend over backwards,
if we have cherished hope,
if we believe we have believed in something true
and feel we have loved until we withered
and could not go on,
so help us our self-knowledge –
in the end,
out of everything that was
and could have been and should have been
in heaven as on earth
there only remains
a man fighting with an angel,
night falls
and the angel strikes him down.

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Snake and Not Snake

Day 4 of a poem a day from Vagabonding, my second poetry book manuscript (this one from the too-big “Back for Forwards” section that I just broke in two, adding a new “One Step Forward” section that now comes after). My liebe Schwesterchen (dear little sister) Eva K. said she loved “The Living Murder“—enjoyed exploring the rich and beautiful dark side, knowing that I’m in a good place now. This gives me a convenient, other party on whom to blame my decision to continue for now in that vein.

It’s also germane to this week’s Nassar sentencing and the general din—the for-now white noise of news about violence against women, and the wave of sometimes small, sometimes Pyrrhic victories, but nonetheless victories over it. So far I feel good about the poems, and bad about the admittedly sketchy road illustrations. (Shrug.) I’m an artist. I make messes. MESSES ARE MY LIFE.

“Snake and Not Snake”

Something dark, glistening, and fast moved through my life.
I could tell you it was a snake.
Or describe the shock of making sense of the slither only after it was gone.
The shock is so much more like the experience
than a neat story that knows from the start
who is moving where, and who is cold-blooded at heart.
The not snake of not knowing what dark thing moves
wears its own uniform of death, its own fear-brain grooves.

I could focus on the bright city around me now.
Or remember the dark woods I ran through to get here.
Sometimes I’m in both places at once.
The dark branches of night reach out to me in the living room.
I run back to shiver in your arms,
and you warm me instantly.
My shivering melts into purring,
and although I want to cat you like a radiator until dawn,
and my body wants to wake your body up to play—
we go back to sleep
at least
until the break of day.

Snake and not snake still come back to me.
I don’t know who to give them to,
to set myself more free.
There and not there
make me here and not here,
but I won’t fly back into the fire,
won’t live in the old fear.
Will not fly back into the fire
that calls me still, my dear.

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Publish and Perish

Day 3 of illustrating and blogging one poem a day from Vagabonding, my second poetry book manuscript (this one from the “Finding Berlin” section). Although it is an early draft and I’m not sure… The point of this exercise is to get over it, put some imperfect new work out there, and move it forward (somehow) that way—editing, visualizing, sharing, learning from what people like or say, learning from how it feels if nothing else.

This poem seems especially topical today, since WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange’s doctors yesterday protested in the Guardian that his indefinite detention continues to violate his human right to his now badly-needed medical care.

“Publish and Perish”

  1. When I’m a man with men,
    they say you have blood on your hands
    and I say,
    Good. At least he has acted.

 

2.

When I’m a man with women,
they say you have
at least
dishonored a woman’s wish
and I say,
What,
are we living in 1800?
Let due process
roll along,
as I suppose
that is what
due process
do,
like buffalo lumber and gazelle leap—
or let him go.

 

3.

When I’m a woman with women,
I grow quiet,
wishing you had listened.

 

4.

When I’m a woman with men,
as it sometimes is,
I notice
that I am a woman
and you are a man;
but that this
is not
what I want
to notice.

5.

When you are less
the silver lion
of a child’s perfect dream
and more
the human man
I’ve heard
you to be;

and I am myself
away
from the beautiful bluebird
singing
in his short, distracted bursts;

then
I like to imagine
the other two boxes
in the spread.

In one, I am me
and you are you.
We are alone
together
and we are not
alone together.
We are home,
among friends,
somewhere
the nightmare ends
and life
at last begins again.

In the other,
in the life
that is more real
sometimes
than in real life,
it may be
that you are trapped
forever.
The me that reaches
the you that remains there
does not care.
I tell you
the secret,
dark and precious,
and you do not see me
and you do not hear me
and you do
what keeps secrets
what keeps secrets worth telling
what keeps secrets worth telling out loud.

It is not the right thing.
It is a right thing.
It is a listening,
your telling and retelling—
imperfect,
short,
and distracting
bursts
of
song
and
all.
You
must
walk
free.

7.

Due process do not roll along, lumber, or leap.
I am not sure they are alive.
But in the open air of witnessing, they seem to oxidize.
The mint patina that covers what was a beautiful gleam
of what might have been blind or seeing eyes
decorates the skyline of my now-faraway shore.
It is not a degradation to ignore.

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