Gashapon

All the words buried
in the weedy turf
as the reader aerates
the pages put down
as sheet mulching.

Again, the words detach
from the action
figure, or, twisted
about, change shape
into a device useful.

The whole contraption
comes apart, piece
by piece, word
by word, the garden
gone to seed.

The poem is a blind
box, surprise hidden
within, issued, usually
in sets, for collectors
of poetry.

It sits on a shelf
like a music box
you have to pull
it down and crank
the handle.

The Ritual

To writ in stone did
those two crows
alone appear each
morn to renew
our sacred vows.

Fell from the commute
of the daily murderous
drive we awake with
black oily coffee
the dew steaming

after the frost faced
nest broken open
hatching of bugs
flies about they
can’t be counted.

Good mates in
the end make
good poems
where hide
birds in trees.

What and where
thru displacement
here during the moon
of words dressed
in black feathers

this crow types
last night’s notes
its mate never far
emits the occasional
caw clawed to signify

I am here you there
in and out of our
respective shifting
stances first you
then me to gather.

A Missing Sock

The best means to address
a missing sock is found
in a poem, the home
of rhyme schemes.

For, in the first place,
socks need not match,
as we now know a poem
need not end in a plan.

But if not for mates
we won’t know when
one goes missing
or another is lost.

Then again, in this
morning’s laundry,
alas, two socks
in a mismatched

duo, and, instead
of looking around
for their mates,
decide to pair off.

To Be Clean

To be clean,
I mean
clean,
really clean.

Up to your eyeballs
in elbow grease –
not you,
the house.

That was my Mom’s
idea of how to spend
a day off from school,
Spring Cleaning.

To be fair, she outgrew
the phase, or dove under
the rising tidal wave.
The family was still

relatively small
then, only 4 or 5
kids, halfway
to the later two.

One day, having heard
me use a bad word,
she washed my mouth
out with a bar of soap.

I think that must
have been where
I got the idea
for poetry,

and that poems
live on the tongue
like germs.
Much later,

I learned not all
germs are bad,
and that soap
is so hyperbolic,

a usage correction
tape or fluid,
and that all words
play a role,

and that to be
clean, really
clean, is not the same
as to be in good health.

All that said,
some poems are bad,
like this one, where
some guy talks about

his Mom, poor thing,
struggling to keep
the house and kids
clean, and just wait

until your Father
gets home. Mama
don’t allow no
poems around here.

To Be Clear

no, thing
naught wight
if not clear
to the floor
who wears
no ears

who won’t talk
but the beer
makes void
the crooked path
down the page
to the sea

and to the critic
a still small voice
lives in a library
built of stone
nothing staged
untended

not what
can’t be
explained
in a footnote
“no symbols
where none…”

inflected
by tense
mood
a person’s
case
carried.

What I Write

Having addressed, as it were, most recently, Why and How I write, we now turn our attention to What. Yesterday, I said that when and where writing is written are not important. I rush now to correct that. When and where are maybe more important than why, how, or what. Consider, for example, Beckett’s Watt, written in double exile (from Ireland, his homeland, and from occupied Paris, hiding out in Southern France). But Watt does not seem to be about the war. But I don’t want to write about Watt this morning. I want to write about what. But it may not matter what’s intended; readers are notorious twisters of words, collecting twine into a ball, where to twine is to moan, complain, whine.

The problem lies with linearity. Where there are no straight lines. At the moment, I’m typing on the keyboard of a laptop computer. A MacBook Pro, circa 2010, so an old one, as these things go. Directly into a WordPress block. Such my brass. I watch the cursor flicker, waiting. I should slow it down, but I forget how that’s done.

When, yesterday, reader and old, old friend Dan commented regarding paper and pen, “it almost seems a quaint nod to a passing phenomenon,” I thought of McLuhan and his analysis of the printing press (see his The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man), also now a passing observable fact or event. A machine we understood how it worked. It made everything the same, uniform. Straight lines. Single point of view. That sort of thing.

Outside, through the second story window, I can see a Camelia, pink and white, just coming into bloom, and a weeping Cherry in full bloom, and some scraggly plums not boasting just saying bring us your bees, your flies, your birds, your squirrels. The plums are just over the back chain link fence, up against it, ignored. Occasionally a branch breaks, ice or snow laden, or heavy near the end of summer with fat purple plums that fall into my yard, more than I can eat. I should learn to make plum pudding, jam, or some sort of plum soup. Plum Clafoutis. That’s it.

There you have it. I would not have mentioned plums this morning had I not decided to write from the upstairs window instead of the downstairs nook where I usually set up.

How I Write

Most writing begins in Purpose, a very crowded city, with directions out unclear amid contradictory signs. North of Purpose is Poetry, South is Prose. East is essay. West is Uncharted Territory. It doesn’t matter which direction you choose; Purpose is surrounded by ocean. The easiest and most travelled conveyance out of Purpose uses words. Words come from Language, some say the oldest of cities. But not all languages use words, semaphore, for example. Other examples of language without words might include body language, talking drums, whistling, smoke signals, music. We might say that those languages are not written, but music is written, and without words.

But I do use words, and because I’m only an average speller, poor pronouncer, mostly monolingual, and usually lost in Purpose, I keep a dictionary open while I write, but also because individual words are like recipes; I want to know what’s in them. Sometimes I spend so much time in a dictionary nothing gets written. One easily gets sidetracked in Genealogy and never reaches far from Purpose.

That one uses words doesn’t necessarily mean that one writes. One might talk, achieve one’s purpose, no need for pen and paper. Others might commit what someone said to memory, and repeat it themselves for a ticket out of Purpose. Talking is not writing, but it is a kind of writing.

And I don’t always use words. I draw cartoons. But if the cartoon is an argument, it is at least a kind of writing.

Sometimes it’s enough to ramble around Purpose, maybe with a camera in hand, walking through the neighborhoods, down to the industrial section, out to the ballpark.

If writing were a sport, it might be baseball. The outfielders adept at prose. At third base and first, essayists. At shortstop and second base, poets. The battery of pitcher and catcher a thesaurus of pitches: location, intent, speed, deceit. Readers may want to put the Shift on here.

We might say our purpose is to entertain, so we give our writing twists and shouts, a preacher’s sermon. The purpose of most writing is argument, an attempt to persuade. Purpose should not be confused with occasion. The occasion of writing is an assignment: a query, a synopsis, a critique or analysis. And occasion should not be confused with form. A postcard (from Purpose) is form, not content, but we begin to see how one shapes the other: “Wish you were here!” “You should have come!” “Can’t wait to get home!” “Not coming home, ever!”

In short, how we write is not quite the same thing as what we write or why we write. When we write is not important, nor where.

But it’s very hard to get out of Purpose. You never know when you’ll be stopped by the Authorities and asked to present your papers. Documents, photographs, identifications, QR Codes. They might even want to draw blood or have you pee into a bottle.

Purpose can be a mean place, a town without pity.

So I mostly try to avoid Purpose, and that’s how I write, or try to.

The Oyster and the Crab

The oyster held a secret the crab could but guess.
The moon was full, the low tide pool fully exposed.
The empty blue bucket with orange plastic shovel
earlier lost in the surf now sat high on the berm.

The crab crawled from the bucket and paused,
the human midden not his problem.
The oyster he picked harbored a pea crab,
not the prize he was after, but its translucent

moonish nebula was a surprise, and, his
hearing aids firmly ensconced, he heard
the bell of the buoy marking the dive spot,
but why this crab, the oyster feverly wondered,

and what did the buoy have to do with oysters,
and with so many oysters and so much salt
and the sea always so deep in the ears, why,
and buried in the midden the answers steamed.




Why I Write

South Santa Monica Bay LA working class kid, father a plumber by trade. Big family. Catholic school. Guitar. Folk revival. On the radio we listened to Motown, pop, rock, surf. On TV were the dance shows, and the afternoon soaps my sisters and mom watched. Sock hops featured live local bands. I bought a pool table for the house, for $5, from a high school friend. We rode bicycles and homemade skateboards. I got into surfing and jazz and the Beats.

Nothing was annihilated. The writing temperament comes to light as a condition of being. If there was a point, it was learning to read.

I recently put Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” to a country western chord progression and was about to give it a Johnny Cash voice when a neighbor asked did I not know what an asshole Robert Frost was, as if Frost’s being a mean man had something to do with stopping by woods. Maybe it does, and that’s biographical criticism. But the dismissal of a poem by virtue of its author’s personal failings is part of the naive notion that reading can make us better persons or that authors are somehow good people because they’ve written a good book. We should not judge a work by its author, and we should not criticize a work for not being the work it was not intended to be. An author’s circumstances, the predicament she’s born into, may or may not predict the work. Henry Green paid tribute to observation of others and in so doing pointed to them and not to himself. There are writers seemingly holy: Simone Weil, Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton. But writers don’t usually become candidates for sainthood.

I’m reminded of the jazz musicians of the 1950’s turning their backs on their audiences, trying to avoid deceiving themselves. But deceit is a way of catching one’s attention. I knew a woman who seemed to believe in a literal reality of her favorite TV soap opera characters. She talked about them as if they were real people. She gossiped about them. She might have made a good writer, but she didn’t know how to read. But maybe those soap characters are real.

From the Beats I got jazz and early on wrote a few poems intended to reflect the Beat influence, music, form. But I think of jazz as a form of folk music. But I was also influenced by John Cage, but more by his writing than by his music. My writing contains music, songs, folk in nature. Does my writing sing? And if so, what genre? I don’t know.

I am living now in a winter of writing. The sky is ironic, the ground frozen in satire. The words shiver and cling together trying to keep warm. I don’t know if this writing will see another spring. But writing survives and even thrives in winter.

I suppose we all have a bit part in the creation of the world. I might want to use Buckminster Fuller’s “Operation Manual for Spaceship Earth” as a guide:

Observation, reading, listening, imagination, suffering of all kinds big and small, in the mailroom and in the boardroom, empathy and love, experiment, epiphany I don’t remember asking for, failure, animal and plant life, dream world of sleep, ageing, work, play. Joyce chose Ulysses for his all-rounder character (husband and father, soldier and sailor, traveler and explorer, ruler and exile, cuckold and lover), but Bloom’s Odyssey is made from everyday experience.

It’s probably best not to idolize, the false or the real.

We need to know how to do things: build a bed using two by fours and plywood, with saw, hammer, and nails; plumb a toilet and change a flat tire; ride a bicycle; grow vegetables and herbs, in pots on a sidewalk if necessary; play guitar; help others; save a cat, dog, or elephant; walk, swim, relax.

My first guitar, an acoustic folk, was a gift from a neighbor who had picked up a better one. He taught me a few licks. Then, one day, my guitar was on the floor and my girlfriend at the time hopped off the top bunk and landed on the guitar. My next guitar I bought for $25 from an ad in the South Bay Daily Breeze newspaper. My favorite guitar now is a Telecaster I bought used in 1985. It was one of the first guitars out of  the Fender Japanese factory, the first built out of the US. It’s a good guitar, industrial. I have a couple of amps, an old Roland Jazz Chorus 50 that is too big for small rooms, and a small Crate. I also play a Takamine classical built in 1977. I have a Yamaha FG180 purchased new in 1970 for $100. It’s probably still worth $100. Great investment. I also have an Ovation acoustic electric, but I don’t play it often. I use flat wound nickel jazz strings on the tele and the Yamaha folk also, which has an after market pickup that fits into the sound hole. The FG stands for folk guitar. Now I’m playing a Gitane DG250M gypsy jazz guitar I bought used for $500. But I play it fingerstyle, without a pick.

I still favor folk, blues, and jazz. I like Indie and support the indie effort. I’ve mixed feelings about the changes in the music industry. But those changes have enabled much more experimental, original, less commercial, efforts to emerge. The self-publishing, online and text versions, have similarly disrupted the traditional publishing world, and the literary indie movement has also enabled more possibilities, though these efforts reach smaller audiences. But that’s ok. The age of the blockbuster book, driven by mass marketing and distribution, like the big stadium concert, is giving way to the smaller venue. It’s a bit like the difference between one of these so called mega-churches and a smaller gathering of searchers.

Cage’s piece called “Water Walk” is entertaining and funny. I’m not sure it evokes more feeling than a comparable poetic piece might, but it seems to do so more efficiently and effectively. And it seems all of Cage’s pieces are conversational. What is his piece for piano titled 4′ 33″ if not a conversation? But what is “feeling,” and are we predisposed to “feel” a certain way given certain arrangements. Minor and major modes, for example, melodic or harmonic scales. Music might be more direct, an express bus full of party goers on the way to a sensorium, while poetry is a taxi stuck in traffic. Can an idea evoke feeling? Can a poem about ice cream produce the taste of a banana split? The sentimental often jars feelings, and some composers and writers seem to want to avoid the sentimental. Why? Rimbaud’s “Illuminations,” when I first read it, caused emotions in me I’d never experienced before, couldn’t understand, but I wanted more.

Dostoevsky’s Underground Man says “suffering is the sole origin of consciousness.” Seems a Christian sentiment. Soul origin. Kierkegaard. Tyranny alone seems totally destructive to the individual, while total freedom seems a utopian ideal. When Jesus said, “Come, follow me,” was it an invitation to a tyranny of one’s spirit or an invitation to free oneself from the tyranny of one’s birth predicament, from attempts to shame used to control and tyrannize? This much we might know: as writers we are interested in freedom from tyranny. But maybe writing is tyrannical, the writer a tyrant. Come, read me!

I believe in the freedom of speech, but to say that, the freedom of silence is also a beautiful thought.

What’s complicated is how we define good – a good person, a good book, a good war. In any case, I don’t think “good people” are somehow favored or graced. I don’t doubt many people who consider themselves good people are nevertheless in debt to bad habits. Likewise, many people who hold positions that presuppose good prerequisites are demonstrably not good at all. Moreover, we are most of us most of the time it seems irrational or non-rational – we don’t necessarily choose what’s good for us. We might not even know what’s good for us.

When it comes to understanding, most of the time I’m drowning, and the lifeguard critic is no help. You hope for an island in the stream.

A few writers might be ships, oil tankers, schooners, cruise ships, but most of us are paddling in the slop on surfboards, or fishing from the pier for words hidden in muddy water.

Maybe everything does have a beginning, but becoming can still take a long time. At least becoming has been a long road for me. My writing, or wanting to write, or thinking I might write something, began with reading, listening, the smell of paperback pages and ink. The smell of mimeo machine paper and ink, the dark purple ink-runny letters, those handouts in grade school. The acoustic sounds of the manual typewriter, the shapes of the letters engraved, you could feel them with your fingers on both sides of the paper. So it was physical and sensual this beginning, the feel and smell of books and paper and shapes of letters and the train-clacking of typewriters and the swirl of the mimeo barrel. And writing was and is dissent, argument, style, as well as something to do with your fingers and hands. In 8th grade, we had an Irish nun who read aloud long works to us: The Scarlet Pimpernel; A Tale of Two Cities; David Copperfield; Hamlet. And she read poems and speeches and stories. Everyone responds differently. My father was not a reader, other than the newspaper, and he read blueprints and showed me how to read a blueprint, but he was a talker. He was garrulous, because he liked people, he loved talking to people. He was a good listener. He couldn’t hear worth a damn, but he was a good listener. He wanted me to be a plumber, too, but I was a poor listener.

Thomas Merton suggests prayer without words is possible, and maybe preferable. Where is the poem without words? There might be a symbiotic relationship between the Word and the writer, the one who prays. We might have several different vocabularies, the one we talk with, the one we read with, the one we write with, one for poems, a different one for negotiating. How many words do we need? For what? Language is on the move, if not on the make.

Rewards are distributed randomly. Audiences are fickle. There’s not necessarily a connection between financial success and talent, skill, or intelligence, nor is there often any equity in amount paid for difficulty of task. What’s important is to follow one’s calling, if you can hear it amid the roar of the crowd, and avoid the traps of boredom.

Human nature over time has not improved. We are no better than our ancestors, however far back you want to go. Technology does not improve our nature. Nor does it make it worse. We are the same. In that sense, time has no influence. But when something new is written, we might read what came before it in a different light, and find that it’s changed.

Lots of ways to look at literature, ways to think about it. Literature reshapes experience. That is how dreams work. Experience reappears in literature in different form. We can’t know what it’s like to be a cat or a dog or an elephant or a snake. We might not know what it’s like to be a human. Literature is a way of explaining or illustrating what life is like – for the other, for a pencil, for a bird or a tree. But notice how indirect it is. But certainly literature is art and art communicates. Literature is also a business, and like all human enterprise seeks to grow itself, advertise and market, compete in the marketplace.

Drama is literature in action, as well as a kind of literary criticism in action, since each performance interprets the work in question. Penelope Fitzgerald wrote a wonderful book about an acting school. The title is “At Freddie’s.” I like small theatre work. Awhile back I sat in the front row in a very small theatre, the last seat by a stage door. An actor would open the door and it would hit my chair. I almost felt like I was in the play. It will give you an idea of the size of this theatre when I tell you its name: the ShoeBox Theatre. But they do everything, and you get acting, sounds off, settings, lighting, music, and a live audience to share the experience. The audience is literary criticism in pause mode. Drama includes all of the characteristics of literature – narrative, plot, characters, setting, language, metaphor, symbol, plus costumes.

Huxley in “Doors of Perception” argues that the five senses act as much to keep reality out of the mind as to let it in. Blake says the same thing – that our senses limit our awareness. They seem to be saying that if the scales of the senses were lifted, we would be overwhelmed by reality. This is what Rilke suggests with his angel. And Norman O. Brown suggested that without language we’d still be living in paradise. But I don’t think words as we have them necessarily disable us. They are what we have to work with. They are part of us, part of our body reaching out to grasp the world.

I have recently started to voice text on my phone, instead of typing. The result can be confusing. For one thing, I’ve not figured out how to punctuate, or how to capitalize or not. But we could be heading toward a future without a written language, without retail. Or a written language that attempts in a bureaucratic way to avoid confusion entirely. This would be a purely mechanical writing, with no overtones, suggestive meanings, subjective implications. It would also be a dead language, all conventions fixed for once and all into one. (Let’s hope it’s neither MLA nor APA). Kafka’s writing is often perceived as confusing, dreamlike, yet his writing is very specific, very clear.

The poem written on a napkin at the table on a cafe sidewalk. I try writing to someone else, for someone else. That is the most difficult way to write, and I seem unable to do it. You must be able to see your writing as a reader might see it. We don’t see ourselves the same as others see us. That is why face recognition technology is doomed to failure. We must be able to see the other side of our faces.

We must learn to overcome boredom. Most jobs today are intrinsically boring, not what we were made for. We have to find ways to keep ourselves interested, even in the bureaucracy, the factory, the office, the restaurant, the mine, the school, the attic, the streets, whatever prison we happen to find ourselves locked within. There is no way back to nature. The concrete block is as much a part of nature as a forest of wildernesses.

Wherever we go, whatever we do, we are nature, a stew of stuff hard to define or understand in part or whole. We come and we go, but we are always here, in one form or another, never alone, always about, in tatters.

The post “Why I Write” is part of “end tatters” (Jan 2020).


Moonglow

It must have been moonglow
drop these words down to me
must have been moonglow
I’m up in the old oak tree.

Your supermassive hug
your stellar eyes of blue
I can’t get out and away
I’m disappearing into you.

It must have been moonglow
high up in the old oak tree
that night you said those words
and held me so close to you.

It’s Only a Paper Moon

The astronauts cardboard cutouts suspended
by gossamer string theory, the Space Station
an elaborate Tinkertoy. Night comes when
you turn their backs to the sun, day when
they face the solar wind, wait for a swell,
come about, and paddle into a soft shoulder
breaking away from a night full of mind
fulness, full of white paper plates skipping
across the space of the waters, rising
with the trough, riding the crest
parallel to the edge of the universe
so going nowhere in time or space
(for the time being)
and paddle back out to the firmament
of no land, no waters, no herb or grass
of any kind, only a dead moon
giving light to the night below,
a lesser light, in which the humans
hold hands, dance in circles, sing songs,
and paint shadows on their walls.