Elephant Garlic Honey and “Reflections on a Gift of Watermelon Pickle”

We’ve been growing more herbs these last few years. The Salsa Garden is lost, as well as most of the activities that used to surround it. Yesterday, walking with a beer through the brick bordered herb garden (used bricks salvaged from lost projects, saved from taken down chimneys – we’ve one clinker brick), I noticed three honey bees working the flowers of two elephant garlic plants. The flowers are round, purple and white balls of blossoms, about the size of a swollen baseball, blossoming one each at the top of five foot stalks.

It’s difficult of course to identify the plant a honey comes from, and these bees are foraging freely in urban wild yards up and down the block. And the elephant garlic is on its own, hardly a crop. I don’t know where the bees call home. The rampant peppermint growing up along the south facing wall will bloom soon, and will bring more bees, and butterflies, and hummingbirds. If our yard were a poem, it would be free verse.

I pulled out a prize find foraging in the neighborhood book box down on the corner this week: “Reflections on a Gift of Watermelon Pickle…And Other Modern Verse.” This is the 1966 edition that was welcomed in schools for a few years. It’s a textbook, but unlike most intro tos we see nowadays. There’s little discussion, and just one or a few questions for each poem gathered in a rear appendix. The title comes from one of the poems, written by John Tobias: “Reflections on a Gift of Watermelon Pickle Received from a Friend Called Felicity.” The book includes black and white photos scattered throughout. All of the poems are cast in italics, but not their titles.

This copy is a discard from “School District No. 1: Cleveland High School.” The “issued to” slip pasted on the inside front cover shows 10/15/71 as the first date, issued to a Donald Scott. There is a name ahead of Scott’s, Gene Brown, but no date. There are other dates and student names: Shirley Moe (undated); Felicia Tracy (undated); 4/6/76 Marie Dee. There are eleven names, one crossed out with blue ink such that it’s unreadable. The last date reads 5-15-2000. And seemingly out of place, “Iris Little 6th per” appears at the top of the slip, no date. There is a note “To the student:” which mentions how the book comes into the student’s hands, and includes a schedule of “charges” should the book be found damaged in some way upon return, including: “4. Defacing by pencil…1.00; and “5. General mistreatment (water soiled, burned, dirty, ink, lipstick, paint)…1.50.” This copy is in good condition, the only “defacing” done by school ink stamps: “Property of….” And the slip, pasted to the inside cover, which has so fascinated me I’ve barely looked at the poems yet. 160 pages.

Immigrants from Earth

The astrophysicists are in the ascendancy again. That’s our takeaway from a 03.2019 National Geographic article. The key is light. The scientific industry is working to build something that will travel close to the speed of light. Laser beams, solar winds, and microscopic kites. Another key is funding. They’re working on a go fund me tsunami. Government dough is drying up, but there appears to be enough interest in the private sector to fuel ever more comic book fantasy.

Surprisingly, for all our technological advancements and discoveries, not much is known about the universe. Part of what’s driving the current science buzz is a new generation of telescopes that will provide pics of the light reflecting directly off of exoplanets. That light will contain information about what’s happening on the planet. Information like who lives there, their address, what they do for a living, and other census like questions.

Meantime, back on earth, in that same 03.2019 National Geographic issue, an article on El Salvador violence, titled “No Way Out,” helps explain the immigration crisis on the US southwest border. A map of El Salvador, titled “State of Fear,” using dots to show “Homicides by municipality, 2017,” could from a distance be confused with the Milky Way pic used on the cover of the issue.

One wonders what makes scientists think there might be intelligent life elsewhere in the Universe when evidence of intelligent life here on Earth seems close to non-existent. And why would other life forms, presumably far more technologically advanced or in other ways superior to ours, be interested in us? One scientist interviewed remarks the question is similar to asking why would humans be interested in reaching out to a colony of ants.

Ah, but there’s the rub. Maybe the ants are the aliens.

Coast Road Trip: Adage and Algae

The idea, now an adage, that a picture is worth a thousand words, seems to have come from early 20th Century advertising strategies. A picture might be worth more than a thousand words to an illiterate shopper, and advertising must be short and quick and hit hard enough to leave a brand image on the brain. The problem now for advertisers might be there are too many pictures. We are now uploading upwards of 2 billion photos daily to the Internet. If the early 1900’s advertising adage is true, that’s two trillion words, daily. It’s easy to see why a writer struggling to reach a goal of 500 words a day might resort to posting a pic or two. Or simply trade the blog in for an Instagram account. Digitized images are the algae of the Internet.

Mural in Harbor Zone, Crescent City, CA. Photo by Susan.

Coast Road Trip: Sans Pics

A perspicacious reader asked why I haven’t posted any pics from the road trip. I’m working on moving toward a new kind of blog, more like the one I started, back in December of 2007, which contained no pics, just short bursts of writing pleasure. I had in mind the kind of posts the venerable E. B. White wrote in the early New Yorker.

“From 1925 to 1976 he crafted more than eighteen hundred pieces for the magazine and established, in the words of editor William Shawn, “a new literary form.” That form was the magazine’s Comment essay—a personal essay that was, in White’s hands, light in style yet often weighty in substance. As White noted in a 1969 Paris Review interview, > I do feel a responsibility to society because of going into print: a writer has the duty to be good, not lousy; true, not false; lively, not dull; accurate, not full of error. He should tend to lift people up, not lower them down. Writers do not merely reflect and interpret life, they inform and shape life.

“Eighty-Five from the Archive: E. B. White,” by Erin Overbey, The New Yorker, June 7, 2010.

Not that I ever achieved anything everyone might call, “not lousy.” In any case, I drifted away, or off, and into a kind of academic stream, where I imagined I might augment my adjunct work at the time. And I tried to bring some attention to the books I was working on, both reading and writing. Then I began to work-in more slant, though never totally “false,” and found the proverbial bottom of the barrel when I started putting up some poetry. And I recently considered retiring The Coming of the Toads, leaving it to sink to the bottom of the archive abyss of the Internet, where some future crab scuttling along might find a few morsels to criticize.

E. B. White’s idea of the short, personal essay (note the importance of that comma) has been replaced in many blogs by the personal pic essay, with and without words, the latter like Beckett’s short play, “Act Without Words.” And I suspect more reading is done on phones these days than when I started The Coming of the Toads on a desktop computer back in ’07, and the phone and other smaller size formats encourage changes in aspect ratios of screen, pics, and writing. And thinking about that, I decided to remove this blog’s header pic, begin writing with a minimum of pics altogether, returning to the short, personal note or comment type essay. I even thought of a new tagline for the title space: The Coming of the Toads: No links, No likes, No comments. I know that sounds a bit anti-social, but what I’m aiming for is clarity, simplicity – a clean, well-lighted blog.

Besides, I don’t get many comments or likes, and many that I do get appear to be from spam and bots, and I lost all the pics I took on our recent trip, mistakenly thinking I had backed up my phone photos to Google Photos when I had not, in the meantime deleting all the photos from my phone, then crashing my Instagram account trying to retrieve what I had at least saved there. Seems poetic justice for an anti-social attitude.

Having at this point already exceeded my target word limit, not to mention having probably lost my target audience, those interested in hearing more about the Road Trip, I give you this portfolio of road trip pics, all taken by my sister Barbara and Susan as I was trying on the lighthouse keeper’s uniform jacket at the Yaquina Head Lighthouse, north of Newport, trying to strike poses I imagined a lighthouse keeper might have aimed at were he the subject of a live, on the job photo shoot:

Note: Comments On for this post. Have fun!

Notes on Jessica Sequeira’s “A Furious Oyster”

20180916_100653I was reading Jessica Sequeira’s debut novel, “A Furious Oyster” (Dostoyevsky Wannabe, 2018), when the 30 August London Review of Books arrived in the day’s mail. A book review should reveal something unexpected, but to do that the book under consideration must be heard in a whisper.

I turned to the review of Zadie Smith’s latest collection of essays; the LRB reviewer, Thomas Chatterton Williams, quotes from Zadie’s foreword:

“‘I have no real qualifications to write as I do. Not a philosopher or sociologist, not a real professor of literature or film, not a political scientist, professional music critic or trained journalist … My evidence – such as it is – is almost always intimate. I feel this – do you? I’m struck by this thought – are you?’”

Later in the review, we might recall that quote and think Zadie is telling us something more, but on the slant, that where she comes from, who she is, who her parents were, the various markings often used for identity, also don’t necessarily serve as “real qualifications”:

“‘Who am I to speak of this painting? I am a laywoman, a casual appreciator of painting, a dilettante novelist, a non-expert – not to mention a woman of lower birth than the personage here depicted … I am still the type of person who will tend, if I am in a public gallery, to whisper as I stand in front of the art.’”

That ‘whisper’ is often precisely both unexpected and unheard. The whisper follows no code of style. The whisper comes after the existence of the writer, and describes her essence, her choices, her existential leanings, what she has decided to follow. The whisper is the writer’s breath. The whisper might also be how something is said, and is often paradoxical. The whisper breaks the piece, ruins the lecture, calls from the pit, stops the show. The whisper might be a prayer of praise or a heckle in time with popular opinions.

There’s something else, too, about the whisper; it’s what most of us do who have no real qualifications. And out of all those whispers (the all but silent blogs, the self-published and distributed broadside, the furious but funny poem in the on-line lit-wall), which ones should we home in on? And why would someone whisper when already no one’s listening?

Sometimes, of course, the whisper “goes viral,” bounces and echoes off walls, scampers up trees, drifts through subway tunnels. But who or what is the host for that sometimes poison, at times the scent of lavender? And it’s well known, though often not accepted, the virus does not respond to antibiotics, the stubborn use of which weakens the resistance.

All noise dissipates into whisper, so it should not surprise us that John Cage’s 4’ 33’’ goes briefly viral upon each new discovery. We realize even the Big Bang was a silent singularity. Not only might the world end not with a bang but a whisper, as Eliot almost said in “The Hollow Men,” but the world probably began with a whisper.

A whisper is not a whimper. A whimper is what comes out of a giant mouth at the end of a rant. A whisper is a careful timing of breath, a largo escape, patient. The whisper goes easy and around.

“Although that isn’t quite right either: how to describe something like the voice of a person just out of sight?” (A Furious Oyster, 92).

Hilda Mundy’s voice was far out of sight when Jessica Sequeira brought it back: “I don’t want them to punish me with comments” (Mundy, Pyrotechnics, trans. Sequeira, We Heard You Like Books, 2017, 17). “Them,” the “three-dozen readers laughing at the pages of my failure” (17).

The whisper never fails: “I began to hear people whispering things to help me, advice. I don’t know whether those voices were really there or not, but they brought me serenity. They helped talk me through my situation, suggesting new paths, pointing out what I needed to do” (A Furious Oyster, 92).

“I have great respect, in contrast, for the metaphor. This is that” (118). So when we are told Pablo Neruda has ridden a wave of energy from an earthquake or the ocean or some great storm to enter the realm of the living, we believe. “This is my body.” This voice, this word. The metaphor transfigures.

Sequeira’s “A Furious Oyster” is diary, memoir, investigation, document, thesis, mystery, love story. Let’s “be clear,” there are “other realities” (55). The reality of the metaphor, for example. “Strong wills work even in the shadows of the afterlife” (Mundy, Pyrotechnics, 29). Does every word contain its erotic origin? “How pleasant and suggestive a couple in love is!” (Mundy, 34). “Would I want to live forever in this particular moment, this precise patch of time?…Her kisses alternate, soft and hard. I wrap my arms around her, but already her shoulders feel less firm; our time is nearly up. We must go back now, I know, I know. I know, and how I wish I did not” (A Furious Oyster, 38).

“A Furious Oyster” is a story of two famous poets in Chile, Pablo Neruda and Pablo de Rokha, literary adversaries, it seems, but both driven by the sufferings and loves of the people of a place, a land, a geography, a structure, to reach out, to reach. The geography of Sequeira’s book reveals her interests in shapes: “Sometimes at night, I dreamed of these theoretical shapes – the rhombuses, the ovals, the diamonds, the ellipses of sub-arguments within the prose. I kept only one notebook, and the diary of my personal life merged smoothly into the most abstract of notes on these Chilean poets, here and gone before my time” (55). “A Furious Oyster” is also the story of a writer researching, composing, working, in a relationship, watching, listening. And it’s the story of a place, Santiago de Chile.

Sequeira possesses that most unique of minds, the one able ambidextrously to move easily from the hard academic to the soft poet (or is it the soft academic to the hard poet?) within the same shape. The flow of “A Furious Oyster,” its style, is redolent of the Duras of the “Four Novels,” or Lispector’s way of creating mystery while unveiling surprises. I also thought of the modernism of Djuna Barnes and Anais Nin. Jessica Sequeira is a translator, a scholar, a writer. She both understands and comprehends literature. For those of us who can only comprehend, but feel we are indeed also “struck with this thought,” we can only whisper in her shadow that you really should read “A Furious Oyster.”

The Bananafish

A popular fish in some schools the deep
sea swallower called the bananafish:
Sansjawdsalumpigus.
Though it lives on the floor of the aphotic zone,
it is not bioluminescent; in fact, it’s invisible.
Rising to the surface with changes of tide, mind,
and mood, it’s worse by tens than the burbling
Jabberwock. A bananafish is never caught;
it slips you, and you are capsized.

The bananafish sees without eyes things
that disappear, hears sounds in the depths
of silence, lives on even when squished
or peeled or baked into bread or spread
in undigested seeds. They live in clusters,
but it only takes one to upend your plans
for a day, a week, or a lifetime. Nevermind
the Jabberwock; beware the brilliant
brainy glare of the bananafish.

What bites but has no teeth?
What smells but has no nose?
What swims without fins,
goes loopy if left to shelf,
barmy as the froth of beer?
Ans: the double-dealing
bluff bunko, the sly hoax
of Sansjawdsalumpigus,
commonly called the bananafish.

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Words of Love

Honey,
I’ve looked everywhere
for the lost words
telling your love for me
in the kitchen compost bin
in the basement of my heart
in the attic of my ass (what
a Fantastic Voyage that was!)
through the crawl space
between my breasts
in the curls of my hair
in the fishnets between my legs
between my toes and under my nails
Alas! nowhere to be found,

she said, subtle armpits open
to the heat of the night

Baby, she went on,
I can’t love you if I can’t
find the right words of love
come back tomorrow or next week
I’ve got the College Dictionary
here and the Bible
and a stack of noir paperbacks
I’ll find your words of love
if it’s the last thing I do

Up my nose, under my eyelids
around and around my ears
maybe stuck in earwax I’m thinking
his words of love where could they be
could someone have stolen them
who would want them
someone else’s words
could they be buried
in the cushions of the couch
lost in the halo of my navel
tangled in the curlers tossed
across my dresser in the old
35 millimeter slide box
in the china cabinet in the corner
(which has not been opened
over a decade of Thanksgivings)
in the medicine chest upstairs
in the hall closet
in the glove box of the Buick
under the rug
in the dirty clothes hamper

Maybe, Sweetie, you told them
too slant, or to another
words of love must be true
if they are to come back to you.

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Around the point at high tide

…picking up somewhere we left off…

The past is not enough to live on
to make ends meet.

what test passed avoids stays
to wheedle this incessant urge
past the tinnitus still sings proof
below like wave bounce go easy
under the sheer cliff and around
the mossy point to the bay
where the dolphins play

but the past is not enough to live on
you say and you say things like
anyway the sea is calm tonight
and you need to calm down
and relax we are past all that
pother the rigmarole accoutrements
impedimenta odds and ends
ins and outs no you need
to cool off i’m sorry if you are
disappointed but you see
how tranquil this palaver
becomes us as we unbend
and are made drowsy
not dreary but like
drizzle after a wave breaks.

South of Refugio