P R O S P E R O U S D E P A R T U R E S
Chronicling my search for poetry communities over five continents in the spring of 2014
May 10, 2014
The Negative Mirror: An Afterword
“Elsewhere is a negative mirror,” writes the late Italian novelist, Italo Calvino. “The traveler recognizes the little that is his, discovering the much he has not had and will never have.” Like a negative theology, our embarking to these elsewheres produces a sublime effect. One travels not only through space but also time to conclude that unless one is everything of what one sees, one can be none of it, isolated, deciphered of this world, maybe nothing at all. But it is through this necessary, initial isolation that we achieve a greater sense of belonging to everything. There is that great, early poem of Charles Simic's, which says it all:
Each day I forget how it is.
I watch the smoke mount
In great strides above the city.
I belong to no one.
Then I remember my shoes,
How I have to put them on,
How bending down to tie them up,
I will look into the earth.
Looking down into the earth evokes our wonder. To be a wonderer. To be a wanderer. However briefly, you see like the mystic sees. David Abrams, in his sublime, Spell of the Sensuous, claims that each place has a language—a vernacular, he calls it, of soil and sky. And each vernacular speaks to some part of us we had not known existed. “By acknowledging such links between the inner, psychological world and the perceptual terrain that surrounds us,” he writes, “we begin to turn inside-out, loosening the psyche from its confinement within a strictly human sphere…Intelligence is no longer ours alone but is a property of the earth; we are in it, of it, immersed in its depths.” In sudden fluency we converse with the world.
It was in the spirit of that world-intelligence that my mother came to Paris on May 1, 2014. Two months before she lay in her hospital bed, down to 70 pounds. With the help of good doctors she finds herself walking on cobblestone streets of St Louis en l’Ile, reveling not only in architecture and the bougainvillea glow after bursts of rain, but bread and coffee and deep breaths without struggle or pain. In the dark cold of the Church of St Severin in the Latin Quarter, we light candles; we light candles at the peak of Monmartre in the Sacre Coeur, our necks craned back to take in the gold mosaics of the domed ceiling. I feel ten feet tall. At our hotel on the island, a quick walk to Notre Dame, we sleep in, she on the first floor and me on the fourth. The crowds are thick outside but in the rooms it’s quiet. I bring her croissants every morning. We browse at Shakespeare & Company, the Abbey Bookstore, the shops along the Champs Elysees and the Rue de l’Opera, the Galleries Lafayette, and we eat in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower. We spend one full day among the Renaissance art of the Louvre. She loves a Little Boy Blue and I stand a long time in front of da Vinci’s John the Baptist, his finger raised in ideation. We wait in long lines under low hanging clouds at Versailles. We walk through wind and rain and warm weather. We linger at bridges, sing along to accordion jazz. And we eat and we eat and we eat. It’s all like praying, each part. Even the eating is like prayer. Real prayer can only be a way of offering thanks.
On one of those long sprawling days when it seems we’ve walked from one end of the city to the other, only to discern we’ve covered a small portion of one arrondissement, my mother and I slip away from the crowds at Sacre Coeur and began to descend on one of the windy roads leading back down to the center. We have lit our candles everywhere and stood over them complete in gratitude, asking for nothing. I have these photographs that will last me a lifetime: my mother standing in the glow of candles. Through the gates of the church lawn, the rooftops of Monmartre spread in collage outward and downward and to the east the shadow of the Eiffel Tower is visible through fog and the smoke of evening. On the rooftops are pointed antennae, and tiny chimneys, spouts, roman candle looking things, a boy’s erector set, a tinker’s city of messy aspiration. The tower a candle with its pointed top. The chimneys, candles. The spouts and antennae, too. Everything is pointing upward and outward, a thousand arrows saying “here! here! here!” There’s nothing to discover that isn’t everywhere. There’s nothing to learn if not simply that.
April 12, 2014
Once More to the Keats House
One of the first essays I read as a freshman in English Composition, and one of the first essays I taught as aninstructor a few years later, is E.B. White's "Once More to the Lake," in which White returns to a lake he hasn’t visited since he was a child. This time he has brought his son. In the course of the essay he breaks down his sense of the familiar from that which is strange—the sound of motorized boats, for example—and he begins to see, in a very real sense, the veneer of difference begin to disappear between himself and his child. Am I myself? Am I my son? He asks. His inability to distinguish himself from the boy comes close to something mystical: the borders between self and other are broken wide open.
Fathers and sons have this experience all the time. Even more often do mothers and their children, since in a very keenly experienced biological sense, the mother and the child, were one body, now mysteriously separated into two. Two people at the fiery entrance point of a love affair can briefly experience this melding together of consciousness, but it rarely lasts. It’s strong enough, though, and it can provide support for the whole rest of the marriage, a union that is bound to also include long stretches of loneliness and exile, with periods of return to that first encounter with the self: a self beyond you or the other but what the two of you become when you are very close.
Keats had two such loves in his life. One was Fanny Brawne, his fiancé, whom he’d met a Hampstead Heath when their families were sharing a home together. But shortly after Keats was diagnosed with tuberculosis, he left Fanny to get well in Rome. Keats came to Rome with another love of his life, his friend and traveling companion, Joseph Severn. Though there was nothing remotely sexual about Keats’ and Severn’s relationship, they are entombed side by side in the Protestant Cemetery just south of their one-time apartment in Piazza di Spagna. In the cemetery the two graves date apart over fifty years. Keats, a young man dead at 25 lies beneath his stone, and Severn, Keats’ contemporary while in Rome, lies in his an old man, having outlived his friend by half a century. He’s an elder, a grandfather, in his tomb just next door. Between the two graves is the smaller stone for Severn’s child, Arthur. The three together seem afamily.
Maybe it’s because I’ve lost my father since last visiting the Keats House. But I’m thinking today, as I pass through these tiny rooms where Keats spent his last days, of the love possible between humans, which is not romantic love. Even in Keats’ poems to Fanny, there is a furiousness, a feeling of desire so strong it conjures the pain of hell:
This Living Hand
This living hand, now warm and capable
Of earnest grasping, would, if it were cold
And in the icy silence of the tomb,
So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights
That thou wouldst wish thine own heart dry of blood
So in my veins red life might stream again,
And thou be conscience-calmed—see here it is—
I hold it towards you.
But in the recollections we have of Severn’s dedication to Keats, for example, there’s no such outrageous attachment to outcomes. There’s compassion, yes. But this is not mere agape, I mean Christian charity extended to everyone equally; this was a friendship for one unique insinuation of humanity. This was a love between great friends.
When my friend Fred Holliday was dying in 2009, after having been diagnosed with stage four cancer a few months before at the age of 39, he lay long hours in his small bed at the hospice off Wisconsin avenue where his wife, Regina, and his two sons, Isaac (then 3) and Freddie (a few years the elder), watched and waited. It had happened suddenly. Fred, a member of our department, hardly had time to explore his own sense of anger and loss and fear at what was unfolding. But he had just enough time to recognize the mad fact that he was dying, and there was no hope.
I came to visit him, first, because I felt it was my duty as his colleague and distant friend. I had only planned on one visit. But Fred, salient and active, his hands gesticulating in the blue gown, so entertained and excited my imagination that I found myself returning once, then twice, sometimes three times a week. Within a month he was sent home to a cot in his small living room surrounded by his books. On Tuesday afternoon, after a bad night, I came to visit shortly after he’d made the move. His face was sunken, noticeably more sallow than the day before, when he’d had us laughing doing imitations of Tom Cruise in Magnolia. That other Fred was completely absent. This one raised his head when I arrived, said, “Hey.” He died an hour later while I, and another colleague, Jeff, in amazement, shared this moment with him and his family.
I count it as a gift. Fred’s memory comes back to me often. I think of him again today when I walk into the side room where Keats slept. His bed (a reproduction—the original furniture was burned) is as small as a hospital cot. The ceiling remains the same as it was in late February, 1821, a hastily painted tromp l’oeil of slightly alternating patterns. And on the far wall hangs his death mask, which I meet again after having written a poem on the mask (and remembering now my experience in Melbourne with the Roman Soldier) in 2005’s The Clearing.
The mask is a paradox, the image of a man ridiculously young and incredibly old. The face is like Fred’s at the end, sunken, the eyes disappearing into the head. But the skin is smooth, unwrinkled, firm. Fred’s young-in-oldness and Keats’ old-in-youngness take me by surprise all over again. Coming back to this room, after having experienced losses, I mourn something beyond Keats and Fred and my father, or my mother's pain, and even myself. I mourn that I can’t spend every minute in the thinking I experienced at Fred’s deathbed, fully aware that death dies, and that I am not what I appear to be, never young or old or living or dying, but every possible manifestation at once.
Later that day I walk down to the graveyard and it’s all still there exactly as it was. The three graves, like the same soul in all its incarnations: a child, a young man, an old man. Even the cat I met in 2006, a brown and black tabby covered in ticks back then, sleeps lazily in the bushes near the entrance. I’m back there again, before the losses, and I'm still here. As White experienced it, returning to the lake, I’m myself and I’m my own son; Keats is more than two centuries old; and he's twenty years younger than I am now. I stand there completely still, and it almost happens, the feeling of being at home with who I am, exactly as I am. I’ve cherished these travels. But the wildest experiences are about coming home. You needn’t make a move to feel them flood the mind. They’re already here for the taking.
Postscript: Here follows my first essay about the Keats mask, dating back to June, 2006
From The Pari Dialogues: "Life on Life's Terms: Lessons from Keats"
What’s left when the drives of the personal unconscious—all the shit and worry and indecision, all the desire and the obligation and the feelings of guilt, regret, and fear—wash away? What is your life? All your masks are gathered up like toys at the end of a child’s party. Who are you without those masks? If anything is left, that is what’s untranslatable in your work, the essence of your poetry. Oedipus holds to his role of savior until he discovers the truth, when Kreon informs him, “Do not think you are in command here.” Oedipus lets go quite literally; he shuts out the world of appearances and goes into exile, blind. Blind, he’s able to sense with intensity “the unbearable lightness of being,” as Kundera termed it. You have to lose everything, traditionally, to gain that insight. Terrific stories have emerged from cultures of the oppressed. Music and hilarious comedy. Why also this dancing, laughing? Tiresius interpreted the configurations of birds. Dante and Moses climbed mountains. It’s the outsiders and exiles—and the dying—who perceive from their “sad height” what we cannot. Not yet.
Just off the Spagna Metro stop in Rome are the Spanish Steps, where for centuries students have lounged in the spray of Bernini’s "Ugly Boat," a fountain whose sinking ship sprays water through its portholes. Overlooking it is the Keats/Shelley house, a thin and unassuming domicile with winding staircase ascending three floors. Here Keats and Joseph Severn lodged the last three or so months of the poet’s life. Sheer luck had drawn me to it, turned my head in that direction, though somewhere in my memory I know I’d heard of its existence. Opened to the public only in the last four decades, the house is preserved to a replica of its early 19th century charm. I charged at it as if I’d spotted an old friend across the piazza. Up the three floors and I was entering an antechamber leading to his room facing the piazza. I stood over the minuscule bed on which he had lain, miserable and sick. I found myself looking down from the very window Keats had watched these self-same unchanging faces of the young, of which he was one. When I turned I saw the original death mask made from plaster on the night he died, February 23, 1821.
First there is the youthfulness of the face; that's the initial impression. Following that is the heaviness like great age pulling back all the muscles, an ineluctable sinking in the eyes, the hard lines of the mouth. The museum provided maps to the grave site, the Protestant Cemetery very near the Pyramide stop on the Metro. I could see the grave in my head: those disturbing lines on his epitaph (“Here Lies One Whose Name Was Writ on Water”), dedicated anonymously, as he had requested, to “A Young English Poet.” Unlike Shelley’s epitaph, just above Keats’ on a hill in that cemetery, and which promises his transformation into “something rich and strange,” Keats’ grave offered no such assurances. It offered nothing but the fact. One life is short and mutable, dissolving. His death, though hard, also hardheadedly embodied the life of a man “capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.”
In Keats in Rome, Nigel a Brassard recounts Keats’ last days:
On February 12 Severn acknowledged Keats’ desire that “the hope of death seems his only comfort.” A sentiment which echoes Ode to a Nightingale “for many a time, I have been much in love with easeful Death.” Two days later Keats asked Severn to visit the Protestant Cemetery and requested that the unopened letters from Fanny, a purse made by his sister and a lock of hair given to him by Fanny, would be placed in his coffin. Keats asked that his gravestone should not have his name only the words “Here lies one whose name was writ on water.” That night, staring at the floral pattern on the ceiling, Keats said he felt the flowers growing over him.
Keats died in Severn’s arms. “Don’t breathe on me—“ he told Severn. “It comes like ice.” The grave sits next to Severn’s, who lived to 85. Like an old married couple, between them is the little stone remembering Severn’s young son. At 85 Severn must have thought of Keats a father and a grandson all at once. And that epitaph without a name! The reference to water. I thought of the fountain by Bernini, in the center of Piazza di Spagna, which Keats saw every day, a boat sinking in the spraying waters.
Like Dickinson who preferred distance from her beloved to strengthen her love, Keats’ legacy lies contained in those unopened letters and that nameless stone. How mysterious that Keats’ whisper has only compelled us to bend in more closely, to press our ears up to his dying face. For Keats, to know the soul is to dissolve all illusion about human life. In his essay, “Beauty, and/or Truth,” Philip Levine speaks of Keats’ concept, The Vale of Soul Making. “Through the agency of his letter to his brother George on the world as the Vale of Soul Making I felt myself becoming a religious person,” Levine writes. “He goes on to tell George and us that the world is the horn book from which each intelligence learns to read; that is, to become what it is capable of becoming, a singular identity, a soul; without the education our experience of this world can give us we remain less than a soul, merely a potential.” To gain a soul the cost is very great in Keats. You have to lose your worldly eyes, lose your illusions about life by entering life. That means recognizing that you are no more special than anyone else. Your name is writ on water, too. But there’s a twist. Keats’ grown up insistence we forget his name is exactly what made him renowned. A poem founded in hard-headed realism must accept life on life’s terms. Robert Bly has called this the necessary quality of “adult grief” which ultimately strengthens the writer’s authority. Poets reach their height in their sixties and seventies because that’s when the fact bears down. You’re really going to die. It happened early, much earlier, in Keats. But the outcome is the same.
Keats came to Rome a dying man. By early January he rallied, though, and even went for walks and, once, a ride into the city for some fresh air. But then the relapse came, and he was bedridden for the last month. He died in the single bed at Piazza di Spagna 26, on Pincian Hill, the Tiber River out to the west.
Others who came found the image of Keats, his grave, his life, a compelling commentary on The Vale of Soul Making. He was taken to the grave which now lies twenty yards from a busy intersection near Pyramid. For two centuries now countless writers have come to the Protestant Cemetery where, as the traffic raced just ten or so feet beyond the fences, this grave, with its lyre relief and encrypted epitaph, stands. And the skeleton boy just underneath, the last letters from his betrothed Fanny Brawne curled up in its skeleton fist, never opened. (He claimed he couldn’t bear to read them.) The grave and Keats’ life and the friendship with Severn, and Severn’s love for his friend, and the poetry, it was all art, fused beyond life and art and being both and neither. Keats at a very young age had found his way in. And all the poets who had come here had been seeking a way in. There’s the secret, right in front of you. Forget your name. Forget fame. Forget publishing. Life on life’s terms.
At the grave one of the tens of cats of the cemetery, a descendent of the very cats who lived here when Keats was buried that winter fluttered in and out between my ankles. It was purring so loudly I could hear it before I bent down. It was a scrappy thing. When I touched the cat, it went wild with delight—the purring exploded; the cat nearly fell over from pressing so hard into my ankle—and in that “theater of responses” I felt the mounds of ticks beneath its fur and saw that it bore a perpetually running nose, a puss-filled infection actually, which caused it to sneeze with nearly every breath. This cat, infested, infected, was sick. But what a welcome it gave. Merely to breathe through that pain was an offering. That alone was its gift.
April 10, 2014
Among "We Others": A Reading at John Cabot
To my great good fortune I have been offered the opportunity to read my poetry and meet students and faculty at John Cabot University, whose campus lies in the heart of Trastevere. The novelist Carlos Dews, chair of the English Department, tells me that the people of this neighborhood, which stands across the Tiber apart from the rest of the city, have always called themselves affectionately, “We Others." With this apartness they felt and embraced through the ages came also a strong sense of pride.
Odd, for me, since among the “We Others” I feel immediately at home. My audience is composed mostly of faculty, other writers from the neighborhood, and about a dozen students of creative writing who get me on the subject of translation during the question/answer period. Is it possible to translate poetry? One student asks. Octavio Paz once wrote that poetry is the realm of the “immovable sign,” in which, unlike in prose, the order of the words in the sentence and the break of the line make translation especially difficult. There's a story Donald Hall tells, which helps to illuminate this.
During his last days, James Wright was visited by Robert Penn Warren in the hospital. Wright was not able to speak, so used a small pad to write down his thoughts. The feeling in the room was very heavy. Penn Warren stood by the bed saying nothing. At one point, Wright scrawled on his pad, “I’m dying,” and handed it over to Penn Warren. The other poet nodded. Then Wright took it back, and finished the line: “For a bowl of ice cream.” The solemnity was shattered; they broke into laughter. Hall remarks, and he’s right, that this pause between the thought and its reversal is the source of genius in poetry. Such a syntactical device, if it’s essential to poetry, also makes the good stuff hard to carry over into new languages. The whole sense of a poem becomes more than just the words or the meaning, but how the words and meanings were engineered. The sign becomes “immovable,” and in the new language we fail to get the joke.
The great poems, too, remain “we others,” glimpsed only from afar through the binoculars of translation. When I read Dante, I’m reading Pinsky’s Dante. When I read Rilke, I’m reading Stephen Mitchell’s Rilke, and so on. The trick is, short of learning medieval Italian or German, to read as many of these versions as you can. Then imagine the real Dante, the real Rilke somewhere in the middle of the circle. And yet nothing but Rilke is the real Rilke. And I couldn’t know the real Rilke, even if I read German. The best poetry is supposed to maintain a distance. It’s why we keep going back.
April 8, 2014
Glimpsing What You Are
On the Aventine Hill in Rome there stands like at the top of a wedding cake the smallest country in the world. A courtyard, the Cavalieri di Malta, a principality even tinier than Vatican City, looks out over the old and new of Rome, surrounded by groves of orange trees and ruins along the Tiber. Rome has secrets. This we know. One feels the temptation, while staying here a week as I am, to bolt from one weird alcove to the next, one ancient alley to the next, one dome, one sculpture, one fountain to the next, to gather in one’s pocket all the cached decoder rings and monkey claws of Rome. It becomes a spectacular race from Piazza di Popolo to Trastevere, and at the end of the day you look down into your hands at what you’d gathered, and you see that it was not enough, not a fraction of what is to be found.
But if there were one little secret to discover the next time you’re in Rome, it would be this, the image of the Vatican caught in a keyhole on at the Cavalieri di Malta. At first I was disappointed that my camera—a spectacular point and shoot called a Luminex, given me by Anna before I left—couldn’t capture what my eyes could see in clear light. Now I’m glad there’s a bit of murky white light where the Vatican’s dome stood. Friends, you’ll have to see it for yourself. Under an archway at the end of the courtyard, seen through a keyhole at the gate, St. Peter's Basilica is perfectly framed as if the pupil of God. This vision of a gigantic world inside the tiny offers some intersection between science and faith we often deny or fail to acknowledge: how in theology and physics alike there exists an immense emptiness at the heart of all there is. And so the duty of science and the church becomes to deconstruct our sense of space. Darwin does it when he crafts a universe millions (now 13.5 billions) of years old. The great cathedrals do it by constructing a basilica that flattens you, humbles you into something as small as air. The universe is much bigger than we imagine, and we are very small, but there is no way to grasp any kind of spacial reality at all. Because, as I'm taught here in this keyhole, within the small lies the enormous, what in the East would be called Emptiness and in the West the Mind of God.
Contradiction seems a healthy part of Roman life. Priests and nuns in clothing up-and-coming in the 13th century walk amid the Fiats and Vespas that weave, just at the last minute, out of their way. Christs in the agonies of their last suffering suspended over crowds of laughing Italians eating gelato with tiny spoons. At the Vatican this week, because it’s soon Palm Sunday, pilgrims press against each other underneath the welcoming figures of Bernini’s 17th century, hooded and cloaked gods and goddesses whose images come right out of Greece, Egypt, Mesopotamia. Worlds are folded together like a kind of origami trick, the little game I played as a boy in which my fortune was told by opening and closing a rose shaped paper in my hand. What am I? You are nothing. Who is my God? A breath in everything. Where’s the good gelato? Here in Trastevere.
My first day in Rome, I do what everyone does, I breathe in that breath. I walk along the Via Trastevere lost in my head, thinking of how Thomas Merton came here as a very young man, and discovered something he didn’t know he’d owned. A sense of the sacred. Imagine the young man, an agnostic, who would become a bridge between Eastern and Western thinking, bound for a life of solitude and contemplation, but also a writer of great skill—a voice of incredible amplitude—walking these streets, among ruins and churches, the contradictions laying a place for his particular path, which would be like nobody else’s. Merton’s path was a departure: he is said to have fathered an illegitimate child, he drank too much at Cambridge, he aspired to be a poet that we could liken to Frank O’Hara, but then turned inward to a journey of silence and books and remarkable self control. If it were a novel, you wouldn’t believe it. Because it was a memoir (called The Seven Storey Mountain) it sold millions. He was able to stand on both sides of reality, committed to silence, but write and reach the entire world, while at the same time remaining rooted to his Trappist monastery, the Abbey of Gethsemani, in Kentucky. I can see why Rome changed him. It embodies the contradictions that were brewing in that young man.
I am not a young man, but even I can feel the arrival of something when I am in Rome. As I come back to Rome, again now after 8 years away from it, Rome comes back to me. It is the only destination on my trip to which I’ve been before. But arriving in Rome, it feels as new as South Africa, Australia, or Japan. It would be reductive to say that Rome ignites the spiritual side of one’s thinking. For Merton it did, but that hearth was already full of kindling. What I want to say is that Rome ignites what you already are, or what you are ready to become. Rome is very quiet and Rome is very loud. That's what arrives in me this time. At night below my window the crowds will cheer, sing together, laugh boisterously, smash glasses and scream out until 3 am. And in the morning, in the great cathedrals, you can hear the footsteps of the janitor cleaning ashes from the little candle boxes, a hundred yards away.
April 3, 2014
Jens and I are driving in his rented car from South Winds to the Cape of Good Hope, where stairs take tourists to the top of an outlook at the very point, or just near the point that the Atlantic to the east meets the Indian Ocean at the west. Near the parking lot at the base of the mountain is a stopping place where clusters of travelers have gathered to take pictures around the sign proclaiming, “Cape of Good Hope” in English and Afrikaans. Whether I realize it or not – I’d say I don’t, though something in me may sense there’s an order here – I jump in front of the sign and pose for a picture that Jens quickly snaps, while a man beside him nods in my direction saying, “Hey.” Just, Hey. Such was the full expression of his outrage, more or less wistful albeit, at my dissent. I’ve leaped ahead of their impromptu line and, with that, ruined what could have been a nice photo.
At the Cape today, there’s only a flash of an upset. In the photograph above, the woman on the left (whose proper turn it is) has shifted her head away from the cameras and glared in my general direction. Afterwards, I feel a little bad. I cut in line, though more by ignorance than arrogance. I’ve spoken of this before. The Village Idiot Effect. The Fool in Tarot plays an important role. His symbol involves the breaking of rules by accident, and the ways that leads to keen discovery.
Dissent is a departure, but so is failure, too. Both mark a break from the chartered order of things. That break calls for an awakening, a bearing down of attention onto the rule or standard that provoked it. A questionless culture is like a poem wooden with metrical perfection. It is a technical masterpiece, but it says nothing, causes no disturbance, pushes against mere air. It's the world of Blake's "London," its chartered streets, squelching our joys and desires.
I’m leaving Cape Town in three days. There’s so much of it I want to take with me. Not of the place, necessarily, but of myself while here. It has taken me no time to do things here that I find difficult at home. Mostly, though, it is to smile and look directly into the faces of shop assistants, launderers, waiters, passers-by, even wave to drivers as they pass on the road. While we cultivate a reputation for such directness in the United States, in Washington, D.C. these practices are harder to maintain. To fight against the norm—which is to exist in a world driven by outcomes—is difficult, and I have been drowning in waters in which here, I swim. It’s the outsider’s position in which I feel remarkably aware, alive, my vocabulary attuned and my acuity at its height. I look at this world as if from a far off place.
I am no dissident. I have never been arrested or threatened and kept writing anyway. A dissenter must believe she will sink into the hands of the thought police; she must be willing to subject herself to their tender mercies. Conscious dissent, unlike the kind the lucky traveler engages in, requires a willingness to go to prison, to do real time, for the sake of an idea. And they have to expect the dissent to fail, in a way; I mean they have to expect their efforts to lead nowhere, so they can be pure in their actions and follow through without an attachment to the outcome.
Yet without its lesser heretics a culture is dead; and without its share of outsiders questioning the system, education is nothing. Jens and I return to South Winds, where Mette, his wife, and Olivia and Klara are waiting for us. The girls have grown up in schools in Switzerland, Vietnam, and now Bloemfontein. They will very likely go on and study elsewhere before they’ve finished high school. I see, though, that this outsiderness allows them to grab a bit wider, higher view of South African society. Danish is their mother tongue; but they speak English as if they grew up in the American mid-west. They have sitcom English, Jens says. No matter where it came from, it’s perfection. They spend hours alone, and then return to each other. As rich as their outer lives seem to be, they are also involved in mapping by torchlight the cave walls within themselves.
Philip Levine tells an interesting story. After having taught at Princeton and Tufts and countless other upper echelon schools, he concluded that his best students had come from Fresno State. It was there that Larry Levis, Herb Scott, David St. John, and many other skillful poets strolled into his classroom as wide-eyed freshmen. At Princeton he found the least talent. At Princeton the students actually cried during workshop. The Fresno kids, he tells us, understood failure. They were not at a top rate school and they knew it; Fresno was the Last Chance Texaco for them. The happy consequence to this situation was that they took criticism well. “We know that everyone who tries to write poems fails at first,” Levine tells us. “Keats failed, Rilke failed, Hart Crane failed. Why aren’t you going to fail?” I love Levine’s tough guy approach to this process. He tells you, basically, get over yourself and get writing. But no one of his generation has written poetry with more salience and love for it and pure joy than Levine.
Let me underpin his point with an experience of my own. In the fall of 2000 I took a job at a small university in southern Colorado, known affectionately by its detractors as “University of Second Choice” (the school was then called University of Southern Colorado, USC). Serious self-confidence issues plagued our largely Hispanic population, most of which grew up in that working class town. The kids themselves perpetuated these jokes about the university. They were outspoken, dissenting types. But I found my students there among the best undergraduate writers I have ever taught. They've won prizes, gotten PhDs, published books. They were not afraid to buck the system, nor to fail. We start with failure--the mother pushes us out of herself, against our efforts-- and we kind of end with it, too. The body fails to stay alive. Most of life, when you’re really living, asks you break from something fearlessly, and then to let it go.
March 31, 2014
Listening to History
During the first week of my trip I’ve scheduled meetings with two graduate poetry writing students at Cape Town University, as well as an ongoing informal talk with novelist and program director, Imraan Coovadia. Like the meetings with Kevin Johnson at Melbourne University, and with Carlos Dews, who has sponsored my upcoming reading at John Cabot University in Rome, the time with Imraan proves productive. My contact with one poet, Stephen Symons, is particularly pointed. Both in our mid-40s, we share some interests and influences. The following evening at a party at Imraan’s, just a few blocks from where I’m staying, I meet more of his students, delighted to find that they are not unlike those I left in Washington. They are bright, engaged writers of fiction, poetry and the essay, all ranging in age from 23 to 65. They’re a tight knit group of 20 or so at the graduate level. It’s a beautiful party at the antipodes, but I could be in Georgetown or Dupont Circle. Imraan has set out a banquet of sushi, sundry desserts, and bottles and bottles of South African wine. They are charmed by his easy way, his self-effacing quality that seems a mark of real humbleness. He asks lots of questions. He waits to hear the answers. He’s a good listener.
Not far from Cape Town is the little principality of Kalk Bay, a harbor village reminding one of Sausalito or Cape Cod. The sky has never been more blue, never more clear, so much it could be an extension of the ocean equally as azure in its holding of the light. Stephen has offered to bring me here, the morning after Imraan’s gathering. Together we’ll drive in an oval around the coast of the Cape, then cross over in the middle towards Camps Bay, where his children go to school. But before we do so, we stop here, have breakfast, and I take an hour or so to walk around the town, remembering something.
Czeslaw Milosz said once that a poet’s true vocation is to contemplate Being, but that sometimes “he is cornered by history.” I begin to sense the internal struggle of the South African writer, black or white, as I walk in a place of such serene beauty. At the back of such scenes, ready to burst through, is the awful cost of such an inheritance. Stephen and I spend a long time talking about it. He's a poet whose gift is to see the rippling effect of politics in the ordinary; though "political" is not a word he'd use to describe his own work. Later this week I will travel with a friend into the Townships and even until now, as we pass them on highways, I can’t believe they are but a museum of nightmares. But no, they haven’t even turned to scar, hardened into memory. Apartheid has ended and it’s 20 years since the rise of the ANC. Poverty and attitudes, I know from my own country, will not be changed by political upheaval alone. The wound is still here. This will take a long time.
The students at CTU have all expressed a feeling of responsibility to reach down into these disparities, from whatever point of view theirs happens to be. My friend, the late Jake Adam York, was a white southerner who wrote about the murder of civil rights martyrs. He worked a long time to flesh out his attitudes on what he had to say, and his right to say it. He too was cornered by history. So am I, no doubt. Forché once told me, "all poems are political." Only in recent years have I begun to see what she meant. Charles Simic wrote that "the poets today write about nature and themselves in the most solipsistic manner, but they don't write about their executioners." But if I write about the stillness atKalk Bay, or Sausalito, do I neglect the violence threaded into the larger backdrop? I don't think so. Simic himself tells us in his interviews that he was criticized early on for writing about forks and spoons and stones. As a product of the backdrop, my language and my way of seeing are informing what I describe. The real work is to pay attention to that.
March 28, 2014: an aside
I’ve heard recently on NPR that Amtrak is now sponsoring a fellowship that offers free tickets from coast to coast to poets and fiction writers. This, to my mind, is an ingenious piece of marketing. For the price of a ticket that would probably go unused, they gain free advertising on NPR and a leg up for their reputation; they also now participate in one of the oldest and firmly established aesthetic traditions. Writers like trains.
Looking back over the last fifteen or so years of my writing life, I see that I’ve cultivated a love of trains, too, but more, the writing table in general. This blog and the travels described herein could be another way that I’ve designed for myself the view of a moving target, like a writer does when traveling on a train. In summer, sometime between late June and late August, I’ll take a month to travel abroad, renting a small apartment or a room in a place that has some literary or spiritual significance for me. In 2005 there was a tour through Dublin and Yeats' Sligo; in 2006 it was Assisi. In 2008, I traveled up through central Italy from Florence to Siena to Ravenna, visiting the homes –up to his final one, his mausoleum—of Dante. In 2009, I wrote on trains throughout Slovakia and Czech, spending a full day drinking and talking with the legendary Czech writer on the Holocaust, Arnost Lustig. Later that year I stayed in Viborg, Denmark, at an estate, where I and Carsten René Nielsen translated his House Inspections during two glorious weeks of Danish sunshine. In 2011 I stayed for a month above the enormous library at Saint Benoit Sur Loire, where the French symbolist poet Max Jacob spent many years after his conversion to Catholicism. In 2012, I lived in Crete near the mountain said to be the source image for the myth of Daedalus and Icarus. All but one of these I pilgrimages I made alone. Here marks another menagerie of writing tables.
How productive I have been in these, what I’ll call sacred spaces, I can't say. I haven't come to type and print out finished pages. I hardly ever do. I remember the first time I stepped into one of the great cathedrals of Europe, maybe twenty-five years ago. It was Notre Dame. I was overcome with the feeling of being very small and very large at the same time. Exactly as my ego was crushed by the history and genius and glowing, candlelit presence of the place, something else in me rose exalted by that spirit of which I’m a part. It was the human spirit that devised and built this place, all mapped into my own genetic code. I have since become less fearful of the Catholic tradition—at the time I was in the process of rejecting it—so the cathedral, back then, was something seen from the outside. It was not the fulfillment of Catholic ideologies, but an architectural masterpiece designed by human minds to awaken the spirit and crush the separateness right out of me.
I have chosen for my writing tables clear literary themes—though surrounding those, too, are spiritual themes connected to place. For example, is St Francis a spiritual figure or a literary figure to me? Saint Benoit sur Loire is home to the oldest basilica in France – St. Benedict’s. But also Max Jacob, a prose poet and “the father of my sound.” Are Greek stories religious texts or literature?
I like this crossing of genres. I like the sometimes cognitive dissonance they inspire. It’s in the moment of betweenness that my best writing arises. It's like riding on a train, where time speeds up and slows down, the world passing in its fury pace outside, but really it's you that's doing the moving, the changing, from your point of stillness.
March 28, 2014
A Thousand Arrivals
I have bought a one way ticket back to Africa, via Istanbul, to pick up my trip where it left off, and tomorrow I will arrive in Cape Town, amazed at my good fortune, the clouds hanging low over Table Mountain in the billowing white formation called "The Table Cloth." In Istanbul my wait is eight hours, just under the time required to race into town, check back in through security, and make my connecting flight. So I wander amid the other transients wasting time, reading, shopping, thinking about how the human animal has always been here, or at least it seems to me now, since the movement of people over great space. Just beyond the veil of darkness outside (the sun has set) are the lights of the ancient city. I ache a little for what I’m missing, like Joyce’s young boy in “Araby,” who waits impatiently for his drunken uncle to arrive and take him to the bazaar, where he will buy the as yet unfathomable gift for the girl he loves, win her affection, and rise into adulthood. That bazaar, that sense of the next thing being the actual thing required, the last ingredient for making gold, remains for me a familiar image.
I manage to sleep a little near my gate. I call Anna. I eat and drink and drink some more. By the time I step onto the flight I’m already sailing through another world of half-sleep and inebriation. It’s midnight here, but 6 pm or 7 pm in Washington. I left at midnight the night before. Unsurprisingly, I immediately fall asleep. After maybe an hour I look down through darkness and clouds and see lights – African cities lit up underneath me, all the cities of the ancient world I dreamed about as a child, Cairo, Addis Ababa, and long stretches, too, where there are no lights, just openings in clouds revealing the land underneath. We are traveling to Johannesburg, stopping for an hour, then carrying on to Cape Town. In about 7 hours, we’ll arrive.
What is the moment of arrival for you? Is it touching down? Is it being carried by taxi those first moments into the new city? Is it hitting the hotel bed with a flop, the first glass of wine, the first morning, throwing open the shades? Aren’t there a thousand arrivals? Certainly, in Africa, there are a thousand. The cabbie waves his arm toward Townships as we speed toward Cape Town, talks about the bad weather, says he has always lived here. He is a tall man who can’t fit properly into his own machine. His head is bowed a little, and all day long. My accommodation at The Bergheim, a guesthouse recommended by a friend at the UN, sits atop Constantia Street, just under Table Mountain. The wind is blowing. My room is full of wind and light. The mountain meets me at the terrace, where sunshine beats through a scrim of grey clouds. This is wine dark light. It flickers through shadows of leaves.
I stop for a haircut at the barbershop near my accommodation. I try to explain what the barber should do, but in the middle of my diatribe she cuts me off, “Excuse me? Give me a break?” She says in some unidentifiable Eastern European accent. “I’m going to cut into that mane,” she says, eyeing my hair like a lion does meat. Slowly I bring my hand away from my own hair and let her have it, and with that she lifts the razor.
By the third day the rhythms of daily living sink in. At each corner stands a “car god,” an immigrant who, in his own country, may have held a position of privilege, but who has come to South Africa to taste of its more prosperous economy. They wear vests, directing cars into parking spaces, but it’s a dance; no car wants or needs their direction. When drivers come back to the car, they’re waiting, hoping for some compensation. Everyone is dancing. The white and black communities all. In Athol Fugard’s Master Harold and the Boys, it’s Sam, Hally’s servant, who uses the metaphor of the dance, the way we invent communities despite violence and indifference, the way, sometimes, this coexistence can be like a dance. Hally believes that everyone is bumping into each other; but it’s Sam who says, “None of us knows the steps and there’s no music playing. And it doesn’t stop with us. The whole world is doing it all the time.” That’s arrival. The moment I can see, as the outsider, the audience of this play, this “life under a microscope,” this naturalism of moving through a new city, the beauties and dangers of the dance the others are dancing.
And which I’m dancing too. There’s such forgiveness for the traveler. Whether I know it or not, I’m stepping on feet all the time. But it leads to some of the most marvelous experiences. In 1986, when I first traveled abroad, I came to the home of my friend, Jens Christensen, who studied that year in my high school in a small town outside of Philadelphia. He had firmly embraced Americana of all kinds—played sports, wore a letterman’s jacket, had an American girlfriend—and now it was Jens’ opportunity to show me his side of the world. His father was the church gardener of a 500 year old chapel in a town called Rorup. Jens’ father was ill, so the responsibility had fallen on Jens to ring the church bell at noon. First day, he took me with him. Wearing our earphones and gloves, we climbed into the belfry. Jens took the rope. It was as thick and gnarled. He heaved it; the bell swung outward. Despite the earphones I felt the pelting of sound against my body. Then he gave the rope to me. It was soaring up and down with the swinging of the bell. I caught it with two hands, pulled hard, but didn’t let the rope run through—instead I just clutched. Instantly I was lifted, carried by the force of sound: and I kept clutching that rope. Let go, let go, Jens was calling. I swung up and back down three times before I let myself drop to the floor, laughing, terrified, almost dead, alive again.
It was the same Jens that recommended the Bergheim to me, who lives in South Africa, and who came down from Bloemfontein to stay with me on the fourth night. We see each other every six years or so. I’ve met him in Geneva and before that, Assisi, in recent times. Every new visit is an arrival, too. I know Jens like a brother. We have the steps memorized and no one bumps into each other. When he arrives, he calls out “Buddy!” (my nickname from high school).
Then it starts all over again. We spend our first day catching up, going forward.
March 12, 2014
A Very Fine House
The house that I grew up in, the only such home I can remember, we moved into in spring, 1971. I was three. I have a memory: I stand in the living room with its sunlit window watching my sister and parents enter by the front door. This may or may not have happened. The sunlit window becomes a reference point for everything. When I read Dickinson's "A Certain Slant of Light," I thought of those seemingly endless winter days before walking to the primary school down our street, chilly mornings of dense white light and the red of the carpet warm under my bare feet. The house is a maze of contraptions fashioned by my electrician father, doodads, whatnots, gizmos, bric-a-brac, all holding the thing in fragile balance. We find evidence of his handiwork in odd places. A lock hangs from one of the water pressure levers in the cellar, his work ID pasted on it, with the message "Don't open this lock. My life depends on it." Is this a joke? Or did he believe that the rhythms of the house and the rhythms of his body, his heart, his head, were somehow connected? That after 42 years one could not be extracted from the other. A love affair of a house. That's what this is.
My father died a year ago this week. We held his memorial on March 12, 2013. Tonight my sister and I stay at the house together for the first time in decades. We remark upon how strange it is to be here without the folks. My mother has survived a great violence to her body, committed by the body itself, itself only trying to regain its natural rhythms under the barrage of chemotherapy drugs and the drugs she is given to ease the very side effects of that chemotherapy. She is now in rehabilitation after a week of tough nights. She is 73. A year ago she'd been mistaken for a woman 20 years younger. Now she is tired, she says, and she never wants to be this sick again. We all know what that means. A year ago, when my father was dying, cooped up against the fireplace in my sister's house, her kitchen counter a drug trove, we sat around him one night talking to him through his passage from unconsciousness to death. If he heard us, he might have been thinking that he was missing a great party. The urgency of real death, real death that actually happens, that actually comes and sweeps away a personality, even one as strong as my father's, made us giddy. He died a few days later. We had our bon voyage.
Now we sit in the kitchen of this house of absences, doing it all over again. Same giddy drunkenness. Too much wine. Anna has come. She stands near us like our guardian, just watching. She has done this always - she is a good watchman. Now we are pouring more wine when the light fixture, a mock chandelier, in the living room slowly dims, slowly brightens as we witness this together, agog. Then a pause at the brightest point, then, as if a dimmer switch is being turned, the lights dim out, go low but never extinguish. Then bright again. And one more time it happens. There's no storm outside. These lights have never behaved that way. (Two days after this, another electronic mystery: explaining to Anna my father's love of the phrase "sonofabitch," I walk out of the upstairs bathroom and into our bedroom. She is just opening her ipad from its locked case. A website pops up, neither by the searching of Siri--we'll try for an hour to repeat this action by talking to the screen like to a switchboard operator--or by Anna's hand: it is the Merrian Webster definition of the phrase "Sonofabitch.")
They lived here together for 42 years before my father left the house behind him last spring. Since then, it has begun to fall to pieces. Since then, the basement flooded three times. The ballast holding florescent lights exploded like a firecracker, for no apparent reason. Sparks of pure snowy light showered down from it. The ivy that for forty years would not die, could not be controlled, and which creeps up one side of the front facade suddenly browned in huge patches by April, and now is almost all dead. For a while I imagined my father was doing all this--but now I think--truly I do--that the house somehow repairing itself at a level I can't get down with words. As if the house missed him. This is their very fine house. My parents had their rituals. They lived out many days here. So did my sister and me. Could the house not react, adjust, feel the imbalances, try to fix itself, send energy here where it needs it, steal from the ivy, or the plumbing, or the light fixtures, over there? This can happen in my mother's body, that's the nature of things, but can it happen anywhere? Aren't walls and wire nature too?
Listen, whatever this nameless energy, I can't help but welcome it again tonight. I can't help but find it beautiful. To make your space in this world among people and places. To settle in them so firmly, you are missed. And then the world's way of trying to readjust without your presence, without the space that you were, essential to the balance of everything. The thought of it could make you giddy. I come into this world: the landscape listens. Emily was right. Shadows hold their breath. I go: "'tis like the distance/on the look of death."
March 6, 2014
In an Open Boat
In the middle of my life’s journey, I found myself lost in a dark wood. That day, Gregor Samsa awoke as a miserable vermin. In Carver’s Cathedral, a blind man was coming to visit. Hamlet’s father suddenly died. Stephen Daedalus did not go to church. Bartleby preferred not to do. Elie Weisel boarded a train. It was all happening simultaneously and in different ways, in different eras and dimensions. Beowulf arrived on the far shores of England. The Green Knight entered Arthur’s court. So many arrivals! So many things going away, going awry, getting lost. Stephen Crane’s correspondent found himself adrift inside an open boat. Nora Helmer got a visit from her creditor. Gatsby sent an invitation out to Nick.
Tobias Wolf, or I think it was Wolf, said once that all good stories begin with an interruption of the routine. Why would today be the day the blind eyes opened? Why today, he tells us, is the ultimate question you have to answer to, because it's the first one readers ask. Something has got to get broken, for the heart to break open. In the Gnostic Gospels, the Jesus of those texts says poignantly, “I have not come to save you but to disturb you, and by disturbing you awaken you.” Good stories are like that; they instigate that crack in one’s mad plans.
From interruption comes confusion so deep, it may be the root of all anxiety, a fear engine, a turning, blazing thing that fuels the stories of our lives. I have worked so hard to mold an existence in which a maximum number of conditions maintain constancy. I fought tooth and nail for my first job, then for tenure, then I repeated the whole process again at another university. I save for a retirement I may never actually enjoy. I pay my bills, drive on the right side--which it happens in Kyoto, Melbourne, and Cape Town is the left side!--of the road. My life, frenetically changing all the time, resists its own physics. I have a friend who, before being incarcerated for possession of marijuana back in the 1990s, was a fellow in the department of physics at Penn State. He was working on the science that predicts subtle movement of particles in water. There's a part of a man that wants to find the way to steer through anything. He was crushed to lose his life and in the most unanticipated way. Like one of his own particles, he was diverted; he went on to become the founder of a lobbyist organization that has changed drug policy in America.
I can't help it, I keep paddling, a little lost inside an open boat. My plan was to write this blog, travel my imagined circle—DC to Japan to Australia to India to Africa to Italy to DC again – because I find a circle beautiful, uninterruptable – to depart from the ordinary and see what happens. When such a departure becomes itself a matter of a plan, an artfully chartered itinerary, you know that your life will step in, raise a finger, and say, “Yes, but…” March 5, I buy a ticket for Philadelphia. March 7th I'm at Einstein with my mother, who is waiting to see if the carboplatinum treatment will work. We're all waiting. She's 4'11'', now down to 85 pounds. Her face is luminous in her gigantic cathedral of a bed. She's crushed but enormous, and even now, as I'm describing this she has a convex quality like being under water--or like walking into Chartres that time, the altar with its crucifix ten times the size of my life. When my mother said, Come back now, it’s time, I heard the fateful knock. This is hard. I don't want to merely visit this world, Mary Oliver once said. I want what is difficult. OK, I want a good story. What could I do? I flew East, to light out for the West.
March 4, 2014
A Willingness to Change
"When solitude was a problem," writes Thomas Merton, "I had no solitude. When it ceased to be a problem I found I already possessed it, and could have possessed it all along." He might have deemed a pilgrimage in solitude to other continents a bit unnecessary. Solitude is never farther than the heart. My friend Kermit Moyer once told me that true listening requires a willingness to change. Those words never left me. In solitude you are basically entering into a chamber of listening. Unless you are willing to hear, it doesn't matter where you travel to, or what happens to you there. You've gained little from the journey. The idea is through journeys to learn to listen, to bring the centeredness found in solitude back into the living world.
Tonight my mom is admitted into the hospital again, this time for complications due to fluid from her last hospital visit. We're told that with a little nudge, she'll be back on her feet again. She begs me not to get onto a plane and come home. "What would you do when you got here," she says, "sit there and look at me?" She says I should stay where I am. She says she knows her body. She says, if it comes to that, she'll tell me honestly to return.
I believe my mother, and I believe my sister, who is now spending all her time with her. They're surrounded by a lot of caring friends and family--my uncle and aunt, who watched over her for a week, and long time friends, and Anna, who calls her and makes her laugh. I'm thankful for all of them. Suddenly I am in the middle of something, in which a conscious breathing thing--what is it?--is speaking to me. I'm trying to hear what it has to say.
Merton writes, "in solitude we remain face to face with the naked being of things." This nakedness has never been more apparent to me in all my life. I have five weeks before I return, but I honestly don't know whether I will be in Philadelphia this weekend. This deeply painful sense of being very far away, but never more close, leaves me in a state of awareness that's unusual, alive with possibility, and scary, too. When expectations and itineraries are erased the mind is left in a state of trust and abandon. You leave the matrix. Anything--good or bad--can happen now. Gravity defied. History is history. You begin to see things in their nakedness.
Yesterday at the National Gallery of Victoria, I found myself wandering among the antiquities from Egypt and Rome. There's a very small collection, more like an interlude, really, between the modern exhibits and the material from the late Renaissance. In a glass case stood a Pharaonic sarcophagus from the period during which Rome occupied Egypt. To the left were the remains of a cartonnage, a small coffin in the Egyptian style, made for lesser members of the court. On the surface of the front board was painted a face: my face at seventeen or eighteen years old.
I have seen this face before. Now in Australia to see it again. It is the portrait of a Roman soldier who died in Egypt and was buried there, farther than fathomable from home. Indicated on the placard, it usually resides in the Philadelphia collection, but is on loan here. The face which I saw as a little boy on a field trip to Philadelphia in the 1970s, I wrote about years later in a book called The Clearing. It was like coming across a welcoming friend. The hair on my neck stood on end. Last night I wrote a companion to that piece, before hearing word of my mother. Today, I'm in a listening situation. Willing to change. I don't know what will happen next.
March 3, 2014
Melbourne: A Tale of Two Readings
I arrive in Melbourne at the end of summer, and it is a city of students like the one I left, a DC at the antipodes, without the traffic. Down on Spencer street the backpackers, hobos, trainriders and the broke all-nighters wander alleyways -- I stay in the comparative lap of luxury in a room overlooking the railway yard and its misplaced statue of giant, sulking white eagle. Up Bourke street I find a bookstore selling everything for under ten bucks, bulk up, and ask the kid at the register about what's happening in town. We talk mostly about music. His name is Nick. He's a student in the Creative Writing program at University of Melbourne, the same department I'll be visiting later this week. Best advice he can give, is to attend the launch of The Lifted Brow magazine, one of the country's best known journals featuring fiction, essay, poetry, and cartoons.
That night, I attend the opening, held at the famous Victorian Trades Hal at Bella Union and people watch among the guests, mostly creative writing students or contributors, guys like Nick, aspiring writers and editors who've taken part in the production of the magazine or have appeared in its pages. A friend runs a similar kind of reading series back in DC; and as I look around, I see many of those same faces, the late twenty something crowd of Betty Pages and their consorts. I love those faces. I was once one of them. At 45 I'm now, by a good ten years, the oldest guest present. How have I changed? It's a full hour before the first reader appears onstage, with a long intermission following. The event is hosted by a man in stilettos and a red evening gown. He wears a bright aquamarine wig. I get his humor. It's like home. But how have I changed? In his sidelong glance and in the irony I can't help notice a faint sadness, something like apathy or elsewhereness. I stick around until the break, and then I wander outside.
By the side door where I exit there's a chalk board sign set up on the street. Downstairs, tonight, a tribute show honoring the late Pete Seeger, who died on January 27. The event is introduced by way of a reading on Pete's work and life, written by Janey Stone, an activist who has been involved in the folk movement in Melbourne since Seeger himself appeared at Trades Hall in the early sixties. Some of her introduction is dedicated to memories of that event. "My own outstanding recollection of the Melbourne concert is Seeger singing "Take This Hammer" (a black work song) while actually chopping wood on stage." This stage stands at the far end of a spare and slightly battered meeting hall, with shabby tables and fold up chairs for the guests. They'll be no woodchopping, but the room designed in the same style as for the 1963 show. Kids sitting on the floor. Wine in plastic cups. Pamphlets passed around. No glamor, no subtle irony. Here too, I'm home again, but I'm surprised.
Seeger himself was surprised his songs transcended American politics and spoke so directly to the Australians. "Take This Hammer" especially. Some members of this audience had participated in the protests against the Vietnam War, "sitting for hours outside the American consulate," Stone recalls, "singing this song..." What a contrast this was. After the lonely glitz upstairs at the launch, this room welcomed me. I did not feel out of place at the Seeger tribute, though the celebration involved at its core the recollection of an event that preceded my birth by five years. In my circle, at the back of the room, at least four generations were represented, the youngest an infant, gurgling away, singing his own sounds. We joined in for Tom Paxton's "Rambling Boy", each as if to ourselves: "Here's to you my Rambling Boy,/May all your rambling bring you joy." So far, it has.
March 1, 2014
The Tiger and the Tyger
Of all the gin joints in the airport of Kuala Lumpur I end up in this one, a transient's cafe, and nursing the one beer I have time to drink before my connector. I order a Tiger and pour it straight into the glass, the head expanding from about halfway up, then near overflowing at the top. "You got to tilt the glass, mate," I hear someone say at the bar just to my right. Who is this lumpy jogger in sweatpants and t-shirt, this red haired, mustachioed disco man, drinking a Jack and Coke against a humid Malaysian forest in the window behind him? "In Australia they'd say you can get one of those at the ice cream shop." Lying, I tell him I drink all my beer this way, thanks to two years in Eastern Europe. He only takes another drink, eyebrows raised, the whole move implying, Not.
I'm not the type to start conversations in bars. But OK, I'm a bar guy; so was my dad. My father just had a way addressing that passion or concern the other guy--eternal patron with his neat pile of ones and a Schmidt's beer--shared with him, the stranger's common denominator, and then he would build a little small talk, a little back-and-forth. But the conversations, such as they were, were choir preaching, or they were all out brawls. I have broken up fights with Dan Keplinger at the bar, and I have cried with him there. His were not lingering conversations on the in-betweenness of things. They involved long spaces of silence, a turning away and a turning back again to the volley. It was never about what you said or what you found out. It was about good timing.
My friend here in Kuala Lumpur works on a rig one month at a time. He spends alternate months at home on the Gold Coast with his wife and two kids. His name is Bruce. He's in a mood, he says, because this trip they lost a man. A young Malaysian was killed after one of the older technicians took the cap off a massive pulley that was overwound. It didn't happen immediately, but only when the Malaysian man tried to activate the pulley: it went off like a grenade in his face. "That was a young man, and I knew him, and that young man lost his life," Bruce says. There's something about his expression that is always on the verge of tears. Rheumy eyed, even. He says he's disgusted by the shipping company's response, unfeeling as it was and focused on culpability, punishment, and the fear of litigation. He says he's broken-hearted.
"In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare sieze the fire?"
from William Blake's "The Tyger"
The wind is blowing outside making the giant palm trees in the window sway. The windows are hazed in hot, white fog. A storm on the way. Bruce isn't worried. Bruce is ordering another drink. Bruce orders me one too. I'm going to Australia because it was the one place my father, in his later years, expressed any desire to visit. He told me this in his last days when he would camp out down in his basement in front of the television but not watching anything, just listening to country music, on the fringes of sleep. He couldn't sleep and he wanted to sleep. He was stuck in full awareness between what he wanted and what he was. But Australia! A former sailor, he wanted to see the Southern Cross again. First time was in Santiago. He'd reached the equator in 1956, an electrician on the USS Pawkatuck, going through the weird Rube Goldberg "line-crossing" ceremony that transforms a (Slimy) Pollywog into a (Trusty) Shellback, a rite of passage that dates back to the time of the Romantics. The sailor undergoes a transformation, being at this moment neither quality, and both. I have a film of my dad on that ship, twenty five years younger than I am now, shooting a pistol out into the open sea. A guy with a clean shot at anything, at everything, and time to spare.
The bartender serves the beer. No glass this time. Bruce tells me, showing me the tattoo on his forearm, that his father died in September, "my right hand man," he says, slapping the arm. Both of our fathers died after a long decline. His was 76. Mine was 78. I have a tattoo--William Blake's "Tyger"--on my left arm, gotten on my 42nd birthday. My father got an anchor on his forearm that day. Two grown men we are, slapping our arms like idiots. "Funny thing," says Bruce, "I haven't cried," which really is funny, though not ha-ha, because it looks like he's been crying all evening. But he's not been. He's the Man on the Verge of His Tears. We toast our fathers, say we're brothers now. What a talk at the bar, how about them apples (it's something I say to myself), but in my way as always--because I'm not my father. My way is finding the talk in the interstices, between Tokyo and Melbourne, at the eve of a storm, on the verge of tears. A few hours later I'm rising into the stratosphere again, closer to the Southern Cross, very nearly there.
February 28, 2014
Places Seen Once
Once, about two years ago, I spent an evening with the poet Yusef Komunyakaa at the Guggenheim after Bruce Weigl and Brian Turner read their poems. Komunyakaa, who teaches at NYU is like Weigl and Turner a war veteran; he attended to support the poetry of his friends. His work has turned decidedly away from the subject of physical combat in recent years, and more toward the psychological combat of dualities in consciousness, also the mystic's goal of uniting them. He and I have a mutual friend, though we had never met before. How strange to read the star charts of a writer's inner universe for twenty years then meet him in person. He, of course, has no idea who you are. You operate under a false sense of intimacy, a sense of knowing the other that isn't really earned, isn't actually there. What I know is his work. That's all.
At dinner we got on the subject of our affection for the poet James Dickey, the Pulitzer winning writer of "Buckdancer's Choice," and author of "Deliverance." We both owned the same battered edition of "Poems 1957-1967," a green paperback with Dickey's face on the front in grainy black and white. It was in this collection that Dickey's achievement was best represented. There one finds the famous poem, "Falling," in which he describes the perspective of a flight attendant who, as the New York Times reported, fell from a jet to her death when the emergency door blew open, mid-flight. The poem goes on for five or six pages, single spaced, a stream of consciousness alive with great imaginative power and confidence and pathos. Her final words, as she falls frozen in place and hits hard into flat face of the prairie lands, are: "AH GOD--" Dickey pulls it off. Only he could. I remember sitting hunched over the book in Pattee Library at Penn State more than 25 years ago. It was already an old text by then, smelled old, its pages yellow, but to me nothing felt more alive in words, more exalted on the wings of attention into song. He was the first poet who, reading him, made me want to write.
I have been thinking of Dickey again as I leave Japan, of his poem, "Faces Seen Once," in which he describes the haunting quality of remembering faces one will never see again, anonymous faces on busy streets or in the blurry rooms through which we are conveyed by incessantly passing time. I don't know if I will come back to Japan, but I have fallen in love with it; I mean like I fell for Dickey's world; thus I feel my own future absence as deeply as I do my presence in these rooms, these busy streets. I am, very probably, a face they will have seen once.
Soyo's son, Ren, has met me at the train station and with my bags in tow we tour the Imperial Palace and the neighborhoods of Tokyo. It is mid-morning and the first bright day, even temperate. My jacket keeps me warm for the 10 kilometers we will have walked before the end of day. At his home that evening, we eat "shabu-shabu," boiling our strips of meat in a large roiling pot filled with vegetables and, after, I sit on the woven tatami mat in my room, catching up on correspondence. Next morning, Ren drives us to the Tokyo Fish Market which is closed for the day. He apologizes, but I like it better this way. It is like a dead bee hive; the blur of activity has left a faint hum behind, carried on the motionless fish scales and the empty vats in the hawkers' stalls. One restaurant stands open, which, by 9 am, is filled with passersby eating dishes completely strange to me, from blowfish to whale meat to raw fish intestines in rich, white sauce, wrapped in seaweed.
If I come back, the strangeness of it all will give way to another feeling: even the kind of false intimacy I feel when I sit with writers whose work I know and love. Traveling and reading are the same that way. I read Dickey a hundred times, until his poems began to breathe inside like an an extra lung, an organ attuned to the rest my body. "Absolution?" He asks himself of his writing in the great poem, "The Firebombing." Why travel distances? Why write? Can we know these places, or even ourselves? It doesn't matter, he says. "The thing itself is in that."
Yes, it would take years, many returns until I felt the ease these early risers feel within their place and time and among these other faces. They eat quietly, sometimes going a long time without saying a word.
February 26, 2014
I was a little girl that took the spring train ride every year with her mother.
And the highlight of the trip was the purchase of the gardenia from the vendor on the street.
That was more exciting than the clothes, the small beret, the leather shoes they showed us in the windows.
I loved the gardenia, a little corsage, I loved when gardenias came out, white, flat flowers and the petals spread open, and they are nothing like a rose.
Annette Keplinger, Christmas, 2013
Somebody Loves Us All
My last night at Muryoko-in, the young monk brings me my evening meal, entering my space with no recognition of the change in temperature. He's the "eagle scout" of the younger monks, I mean the oldest of the younger crew. The leader of the morning prayers is probably seventy. Or more. He stands out in the cold, facing the courtyard, chanting in his robe and slippers for a long time just after sunrise. I have only been here two days but I have a sense of the ritual of this place. And I know that wherever I go from hereon, I can think back to the young monk and I will know that he is still here in this small community, living the life he has chosen. But has he chosen it? Did it choose him? In the afternoons there is a little school for the young boys--I mean five or six or seven--who study here under the direction of a kind teacher who smiles at me in the halls. She's not in habit, but she seems to play a central role. The children come downstairs from their warm classroom and race in the long hallway of hollow plywood flooring on their way home. There's a lot of running out there. The young monks run, too. In their slippers they race and race past my room, banging away on the floor. At first I wondered what they were doing. I think they're sloughing off the cold. I think this is part of their rigorous practice. I am told, only a precious few will stay on and adopt this (to me) most difficult way of life. The young monk is one of them.
The practice bleeds into every part of their lives. When the last meal comes, I find in a dish a piece of mochi wrapped in something like a bay leaf. I know this time not to eat the leaf (Anna and I made this mistake in Nara, to the delight of our servers), but when I go to unwrap it I hesitate, the way my grandmother would hesitate when opening her gifts at Christmas. She would careful undo the bow. She would break the tape away from the paper. She would unfold the paper as if she were changing a baby. Then she would fold the paper up and place the bow in a bag for safe keeping. The whole package, that was the gift to my Italian grandmother.
And so here I notice that the leaf has been folded into a square, and the stem of the leaf has been tied into a little bow of its own. I undo the bow, unwrap the leaf, and what is inside, whatever the gift, is all the sweeter for it. This is just an ordinary dinner, this is just a foreigner's meal, no spiritual lama, no one who expects anything but sustenance. Nevertheless, the mochi has been wrapped like a Christmas gift, the details all part of the practice, down to the smallest, almost unnoticeable stem. There is something I recognize in that. When I'm writing I don't think about my audience, at least not in the journalistic sense. I'm just thinking about this stem, that line, this image. I'm just trying to practice the practice all the way through, detail by detail. It's this way a writer enters mindfulness through the side door.
In his collection of journal writing, "Thoughts in Solitude," Thomas Merton writes the through line to my entire journey: "One cannot enter meditation...without a kind of upheaval. By upheaval I do not mean a disturbance, but a breaking of the routine, a liberation if the heart from the cares and preoccupations of one's daily business." I wanted to come as far away from my circle as possible by beginning in Asia, but it was here that I began to see my real subjects at home with clear vision. My departure has already been prosperous, I mean to say. Back in Osaka, I return to the home of my friend Soyoko Higaki, whom I met several years ago through my connection to Kermit Moyer, the eminent fiction writer I replaced (replaced? Ha!) at American University. Kermit's wife, Amy Gussack, has known Soyo since the early '60s. It was at that time her family sponsored Soyo as an exchange student. Soyo has three sisters and one brother. Amy has three sisters and one brother. Soyo's father was a businessman in ball bearings looking to make connections in the West. Amy's father was a businessman in ball bearings looking to make connections in the East. Having shared one letter of interest, Amy's father forged the connection that brought these two eerily similar families together, now fifty years and running, and me into Soyo's living room in 2014. This sublime net of connections in which all the parts are reflecting (sometimes like mirrors, other times, like negatives) the other parts is what I begin to take note of when I depart from the ordinary. In Soyo's home, that same care is marked everywhere, the same treatment and gentleness given me by the monks, but also a closeness that comes from our friendship and familiarity. She is certified in ikibana, a floral arrangement style whose premise is spareness, as Hopper is to painting, or Picasso's bulls, in which a sweeping line or two can really offer the impression of a massive charging animal. In that spirit of a few beautiful things that reflect an enormously varied and coincidental universe, I spend these days with Soyo.
The Japanese and Americans have more in common than we might sometimes admit. One of the Osakans' great heroes is Hideyoshi Toyotomi, a shogun who came to control all the warlords of the country four hundred years ago. His story is like one of ours, a Henry Ford type who began as a son of a poor farmer but through his own cunning and hard work achieved greatness. He was the Steve Jobs, the corporate genius of his time. His is a typical story of the capitalist spirit (early in his career he tripled work productivity by pitting construction teams into competition against each other), though it predates our mythology by 100 years. Americans may feel at home here. Yet there is something else that permeates this aura, something we don't have at all. I think it's that feeling of care behind the impersonal world of commerce. That practice, coming down from high on Mount Koya and elsewhere, has become part of the Japanese soul. It's part of Soyo's welcoming spirit. No matter the next generations' revolt from the traditions, that old way of life seems planted in the earth of them already. For two fine weeks I have been the honored guest; I have been the lucky recipient for these gifts, this practice.
It's the very same practice Elizabeth Bishop observes in her great late poem, "Filling Station," in which, describing a dilapidated garage, she notes a strange feature among the crud and chaos of the smelly front office. There are small embroidered doilies all around the place, now covered with soot and fingerprints, but meant to decorate an otherwise hapless universe. Why the doilies? She asks. It's meant for a laugh, but that's a good question. Why any attention to detail in a landscape that could hardly care less? These doilies, in their small way, save the whole world. Somebody sewed the doilies, she says. Somebody loves us all.
February 23, 2014
"In Dreams Begin Responsibility"
Our week in Kyoto has ended; now Anna leaves for Narita Airport. We have been a couple a little more than eighteen months, but through that time we have galvanized a real partnership. We’re two of a kind. Two drifters, off to see the weird, to riff on Henry Mancini. There’s such a lot of weird to see. Anna has long blond hair; she's all West out here; but she shares with the Japanese that same gentleness I'm describing; there’s an open expression written on her face. When you ask Anna a question, her eyes widen; she makes you feel it was a good one. The more I get these hints of her kindness and intelligence, the more beautiful she is. She has a habit of turning one toe in when waiting for a bus. It’s that pose of expectancy I really like. Anna expects things to go well, and then they pretty much do. For about a hundred more reasons, I’ll miss her. We’re to catch up with each other at the end of May when she returns from a retreat in Virginia. That’s three months away.
But here I go. My first trek into mountains brings me to Koyasan, a twelve hundred year old settlement founded by a Japanese monk who was influenced by Chinese esoteric Buddhist practices. The town and its fifty-two temples are situated to the south of Osaka in a klatch of jagged mountains that make the shape of a lotus flower. I have been thinking about the dream of Buddhism, that by prayer and chanting and minding this moment we can contribute to peace prevailing on earth. I have been thinking that it’s not just a noble idea but a mad fact. The air is richer here. I want to look folks in the eyes, smile, say hello. The gates are thoroughly wide and high.
And I have been thinking about Delmore Schwartz’s elegant and, no question, genre-defining story, “In Dreams Begin Responsibility,” an imaginary leap back to his parents’ courtship, a helpless study of these two mismatched souls at the moment of their unfortunate engagement. You’ll do terrible things to each other, Schwartz’s speaker yells from the dream theater in which he watches them, but of course they can’t hear a word of it and get on with this business of ruining each other’s happiness forever. At the same time, they create the conditions that will give birth to our speaker, sealing his existence. So he can’t really argue that he’d prefer things otherwise. He feels at once desperate and relieved. Out of this dream comes immense responsibility. It’s not guilt, but recognition of the suffering that was a necessary pre-condition for his life.
Recognition is what I have been feeling, too, as I ascend Koya mountain by cable car. The driver tips his hat; I’m one of his only customers. We’re traveling straight up with a sheer drop on both sides. Recognition is what I’ve been feeling because my mother has been ill for some time now. Two years. My father died last year after a long illness. These experiences contributed in part to what brought Anna and I so close. More, a host of friends and family have been helping me to keep track of my mother’s condition, which, for all I know, may soon get better (Anna knows so, that's her way) or, if not, may alter my plans. My mother insists I stay. My friends and family insist she’s right. Hesitantly I take another step; the next; another. A sabbatical is more than a gift of free time, but an opportunity to go back down and rediscover what excited you about your subject matter in the first place. It’s a sacred rest (a Sabbath) and a renewal. I want to keep traveling, but I can’t help looking back.
When my father was dying last year, he spoke frankly to me about how his life would have been different, had he stayed in the Navy in 1960, stayed in San Francisco, a city he loved. He came back to Philadelphia and married my mother, whom he also loved; and I exist in light of that. Do you happen to believe, he asked me at his birthday party a month before his death, that I would have you (meaning, his two children) if I had stayed in San Francisco? If I wouldn’t have you, he said with tenderness—my wild man father—then I affirm everything. What Schwartz insinuates about how loss actually made necessary space for his life seems to be a universal story. We spend so much time thinking about the nature of our death, but the greater mystery is our birth, the unbelievable lotto we all won at the cost of others’ lives—including those who never got born. That my father recognized those losses as part of a weird—unlikely is the word Elizabeth Bishop used—love story stands among one of my strongest memories now.
On my arrival I find my way to temple Muryoko-in. The weather is below freezing, and the doors of the monastery stand open. In the words of Frankenstein, openness good, frostbite, bad. I’m a little worried. In the halls there are toilets and Japanese style bath stalls but there are no people. February is not high season here. The sinks have frozen mid-drip. The basins in the baths are filled with water, glazed with ice. I am greeted by a young monk, nineteen or twenty, who speaks no English but knows who I am, my name, and smiles to me despite my confusion. He instructs me to leave my shoes, step into the red slippers, and follow him.
But then we come to my space which—beyond that freezing entryway—is the most comforting and comfortable I’ve yet entered in Japan. There are robes for a bath, fresh towels, a tray for tea, a writing table, a lamp, and a futon set beside a churning heater. The room glows like a hearth. At six pm my dinner, a five course vegetarian meal of tofu, three kinds of fruit, sweet potato, black beans, rice, miso soup, chopped mushrooms and beets, and a selection of mochi are served at my door. He sets the tray down saying nothing. I can barely get through so much food. Later, I fall asleep, almost forgetting where I am. Am I in the guesthouse in Kyoto? Philadelphia, under the snow? DC, surrounded by traffic? But I don’t really forget; I know about the chanting that will start at morning just beyond those sliding doors, and the monks here who have given their one wild precious life to praying for welfare and compassion, which they do each dawn in the Otsutome ceremony, which all the monks at all the Shukobo temples are praying. It’s unlikely. It’s weird. How did we get here at all? Nevertheless, here we all are, sharing this dream. I want to do something well with my life, or the best I can.
February 20, 2014
Learning to Bow
In Kyoto, where Anna I have been staying for nearly one week, there is a district called Gion famous for its Geishas and all night hangouts, the one-room pubs and public baths, and in this neighborhood a line of steak houses and bars along the still water of canals. Kyoto is a dream, an ancient, known to be “spiritual” city some two hours south of Tokyo by bullet train. In Gion, we live in a small apartment rented us by Jackie and Dia, whom we have never met, but who leave us copious supplies of towels, travel guides, and one deep teacup of a tub. I sit there a while each morning, letting the water from the hand held spout pour over my head. This is February. There is hot water. The directions are in English. Taxis everywhere. We are completely spoiled. From our balcony you can gaze out upon the bric-a-brac of thatched houses and flat-top tenement roofs, miniature row homes, their clotheslines, the telephone wires, the all night cafes, a cluster of temple roofs, and the occasional pagoda poking up through it all, the nose of a swordfish caught in this net. But it’s a fish that stays calm among the tangle; it’s an old fish with lots of hooks in its craw. The pagoda stands unfazed, holds here. The haphazardness of it all reminds me of Assisi, that same holy brew of church and alcohol, of spirits high and low.
I have been learning how to bow. Anna says that she imagined it would be hard to do with any kind of confidence, a forced obsequiousness that would make us feel at the same time gigantic, goofy, a tad bit sarcastic, even. First night, our waiter, also chef of the restaurant at which we are the only patrons, follows us downstairs to the alley, waiting and waving goodbye as we step into a cab. We’re so shaken, what might have felt comic at home impresses us with an undeniable, undeserved gentleness. From our taxi window, we just wave; last we see him, he bows deeply as we veer away. Still, we can’t help looking, scanning for the discontent we expect to see from the corners of our eyes.
Today, we meet one man who has spent the night in prison, a writer and poet named Hideo who sells us his novel for 1000 Yen. Hideo is ill, wandering the streets raising money so he can finally leave Japan, but Anna remarks later that he wears clean clothes, new shoes, and for a man of 70, he is well cared for by someone. He’s outspoken about the mindlessness, as he calls it, but none of the cops on their beat interrupt his rant. Maybe they would, if they understood. It would be safer—simpler, I mean—to identify here what William Blake termed the “mind forg’d manacles” of the industrialized society. Japan’s an easy target: the theme of obedience, the bowing multitudes. Conforming sheep. But I am learning to bow; and now I see that it is a natural gesture, coming from within. Sometime in my 20s, my mind began to teach me not to bow. So thinking of Blake is useful here, too; and this bow I study undoes the manacle, at least for a short while. This bow is a mixture of humbleness and gratitude and wonder. It is a clear gesture, but one borne out of my own childhood.
Halfway through our week, we walk to the Imperial Palace at the center of town, a site architecturally impressive, but far more remarkable for its use of empty space—a long entry road wide enough to fit two family houses, and at least a mile long. The road is flanked by gnarled trees—a strain I don’t know— whose branches have naturally found their relation to the sun over what could span centuries. It’s quiet and empty and the sky is blank except for the passing crow now and then. Snow weather. It’s so silent as to be disquieting, here at the center of a busy town. The message is, this is a power center, the eye of a storm. But down the main drag as we walk home, we happen on a small bar with two tables and five or six seats along the bay; the whole room is used up by a large grand piano. The proprietors—who, learning our names, call us David-chan, Anna-chan—welcome us like they have been waiting for our arrival. We have Japanese whiskey, some snacks, and within a half hour we are joined by two other patrons, a young man, a regular, who has brought a bottle of Talisker scotch to share with the folks behind the bar, and a businessman with a heavy limp, in late middle age, a sad expression overtaking his face. Within a short span of time I’m singing as part of a trio by the big microphone near the piano, “Unchained Melody,” unmanacled, not quite drunk, but gesturing with my arms pasionately. The anonymity of it all; the woman playing the piano, eyes closed; her husband tending bar; it is rending in a peculiar way. I sing eight or nine songs with my trio. The woman plays a song she wrote herself a long time ago, she says, and it is a piece of ranging emotion and genuine authenticity. The businessman sings a Japanese torch song; the kid sings “Sukiyaki.” I haven’t felt exactly this strain of happiness in years. Night’s end, they charge us what amounts to $40, though the whole affair cost twice that much. We all have stories; this one’s mine: it was the highlight of my visit to Kyoto. A few hours of unencumbered joy.
The bow continues the circle. It sends the gesture of thanks back into the world. I see it because I come from the outside, unattached to the historical Japan with its honor codes, classical ideas that restrict one’s choices, lock hold of one’s destiny, to bind together a society threatened from all sides. You will play the role you’re born to play, the old codes teach. Not to romanticize that obviously problematic approach; nor to disparage what is wonderful about modernity—but the vestiges of servience (minus the “sub” part) pervade the all night coffee shop and the sushi joint. On the mountain in Nara, one of the holiest sites in this region, we are led through the ancient gate to the wooden structure housing Japan’s largest Buddha figure. There we are met by two thirty foot demons with flaming swords. One with mouth open, one with mouth closed, they guard the realm of non-duality beyond the gate. Then the “Buddha house” beyond them where the immortal abides. It is a brief return to the tree of life, and, the spiritual side of my thinking reminds me, it is exactly this source we are all bowing to, whether we’re conscious of it or not. It is the “namaste,” the soul in me greeting the soul in you.
January 22, 2014
The Secret Life of Poetry
This blog is dedicated to my travel over four continents, investigating the secret life of poetry communities in Asia, Australia, Africa, Europe, and my own experiences with such groups in the United States. The title of the travel journal is taken from Shakespeare, who, as Paul Fussell once explained it, felt that departures from meter were useful to create subtle emphasis and energy in the work. The strictest work is well made but empty of life, making no errors but taking no dangerous leaps; I see journeys outward as such bending of the usual for emphasis, disturbance, even awakening.
For seven years I have lived in Washington, D.C., directing for most of that time a small but vibrant MFA Program at American University. The program is 30 years old, and, while it hosts students from all parts of the country and abroad--in the last five years we've graduated students from Palestine, Chile, India, China, Canada, and the UK--it is known best as a school whose place in the DC community is firm. We are the only such program in the city, attracting students of all ages, a very wide, diverse demographic.
Outside of my work in academe, I have had the rich opportunity to work with poets and lovers of poetry in the homes of those who are less interested in pursuing an advanced degree than to establish a regular writing practice in which to share work and appreciate the writing of others. This is the secret life of poetry, as I've experienced it. It's been my pleasure to facilitate three such communities over the last seven years in Washington, D.C. The group we call "Chevy Chase Poets" has met twice a year for eight week semesters since fall 2010. On Wednesday nights, at the home of one of our participants, we meet sometimes for three hours to talk about poems by established masters of the craft and then hunker down into the work of reading and reacting to the poems in workshop. At the university, the style operates strictly according to the Iowa model -- the writer reads their work, then sits back silently and hears the response--but here there is a more extemporaneous air, where the writer may ask a question, or direct our attention to a particularly troubling phrase. Not to say these writers are without the ambition of the graduate students. In fact, two from this group have, since joining more than three years ago, published manuscripts with nationally known presses.
A markedly different kind of air pervades the workshop called "The Washington Grove Poetry Community," which we founded in the early months of 2008. The Grove is a small community hidden in the woods near Gaithersburg, MD, a town without a traffic light and, in a few cases, a jumble of grassy, unpaved roads. I lived there for a time when first settling in the city. On my leaving, it was suggested I come back to give a talk about craft at the Women's Center in town. I did, and the practice has continued monthly for six years running. On Saturdays throughout the fall and spring, the group, facilitated in a rotating fashion by different members, meets at the home of one of the participants. The class size always varies; there are sometimes as many as 15 present, or as few as 10; among the community there are 25 or 30 altogether. Where the model of an introductory, sample poem is used here, too, the workshop, as it were, is less extensive than in Chevy Chase. This is a forum for writers to share their work and their presence, and in a remarkable way. More than once I've been told that the workshop community has brought together people who would never (or rarely) share space socially. The business of these meetings comes down to poetry, and attention to detail, and to the other. The gatherings last three hours, regardless of the numbers of participants. All bring a dish and there is a lengthy break mid-session. Essentially, after this practice, my overall impression is deep gratitude.
Of course, these groups are not the only ones of their kind in the Washington, D.C. area, and, I'm willing to bet, beyond. In Bethesda, Maryland, the Writers Center has been hosting such gatherings for decades, and, as one of the preeminent local havens for poets and writers, its league of faithful supporters is immense. While teaching a course at the Writers Center in early 2012, I met Henry, a man of 95 who had taken upon the work of writing his first poems. His work has since appeared in numerous publications, including Nimrod, and he is at work on a full length collection. This is to say that I have become curious about the role these societies play within the greater society, and I have a hunch that they are the "unacknowledged legislators" of such towns and cities and villages that engender them. In my travel across the globe this spring, I am out to discover whether, as I suspect, the burden of responsibility that comes of living in groups predisposes us to create sacred spaces in which we can be heard and hear the others without judgment. If social media serves to create our "best face," a projection of our ambitions and desires, then it is the role of poetry's secret life to show us ourselves without apology or adornment, and to say yes to that.