Monday, May 31, 2010

7. Huth Thought Not (Two Blue Curtains)

Writing is a nest
of words entangled in each other
the long leg of an R slipping
into the closed bowl of the O and a Q
appears upside-down on our minds
if not in the page.

Writing is a set of nets
thrown by hands up out over
the water
to sink and pull back
whatever they can: tin cans,
balls of tarry oil, an arm of coral,
possibly fish—writing as blind
attempts of grasping hands.

I’ve spent the day so far here
at the only lake where my presence at it
extends backwards for decades,
where every boat roars past and every
large wave is the edge of
a boat’s wake. I spent the day reading
and writing, two interlocking activities,
a nest of nets, push and pull,
the drawn out, the drawn on, resident
in the world of words,
words, words. What is the matter of it,
and why do we do it?

If you believe as you say,
that you write not for pleasure, I am
aghast and agree. Language

is little more than
clay, and there is
that joy in the feel
of it, cool against
the skin, between
the fingers, how
it pushes through
at just that point
you cannot expect,
how it can be moved
into place and shape,
the form you made
and meant or did
not, or would not
have except that
the word is clay
and takes our shape.

But writing is also always an act
of failure, the inability to find what way
you need to make sense not of but with
words, the need to find a thing to say,
and the stress is upon the need,
compulsion to expulsion, to get
the words out and down and onto
a page, binge by reading, purge
through writing, the pain of that
failure and the obsession to continue
to fail, for the word won’t work,
the word won’t work, the word won’t
work for us.

And to make a record that we were here,
that we had hands and wrote,
that we had tongues and spoke,
that we had hands and wrote,
that we had hearts and broke—
all said to a universe both silent and cold,
the stars twisting in unison above our heads.

I have been reading through
David Bromige’s selected poems, which, at their best,
are twisted roots of syntax that hold the poem
tight against the page, that burrow in,
extend, to the depths of us, that force me
back over their lines to grab hold
onto the muscular pull of that wiry
syntax, which tells and tells,
but doesn’t want to speak.

In one of Bromige’s poems, focused
on the stars, and recounting
astronomical discoveries, I found
a little phrase, or maybe just a word,
though arguably a short sentence
that caused me to jump:

Or are both debris of a former & a larger planet

Which exploded       Huth
Thought not     His mind was quite made up
Maybe he was right         I can’t decide


I had, until that moment, not
even known of the existence of the planetoids
Pallas and Ceres (their names so quaintly classical
as if to make them mythical), or of the
astronomer Hofrath Huth
who thought not,

though it seems that I, too, might not
think so, might be inclined towards skepticism,
more likely to know than believe,
or think so, at least. But the surprise
here is unrelated to astronomical bodies,
and I might not consider the differences among

an asteroid
a planetoid
a dwarf planet

might not care about filling in
the gaps between
the planets in our solar system
turning around their omphalos,
our sun.

The universe is indeed dark
and tending to silence. The poets
are left to talk into the void.

Later in the same poem
(not this one, which is a letter
to you), Bromige agrees with you
and says:

Writing is an act
Writing makes a kind of record


The human is the only animal
that can remember itself intentionally
into the future, and writing does
that. Even if our names are lost
but our anonymous words remain,
so we remain: Pearl poet, Gawain poet,
Homer. We are the encoding of
our DNA and the strength
of our words to continue.

We write to keep our fingers moving,
and there is a beauty in that simple
act: the fingers pressing against the keys,
how our hands slightly turn to face
the right spot on that body of keys. Watch
a person do something they do
unconsciously well, and see the beauty
in those movements: fingers moving
the collars, the sleeves and cuffs of
a blouse into place, those thousand
gliding moments, like the movement
of a pen across a page, the instant crossing-
out of an error, the seeping of ink into
paper, like a surgical incision,
the concision of words well placed and few.

I don’t leave this nest
of words for you
as an exemplar of what words
might do, this is only a letter,
a few thoughts written from a blonde
but garrettlike room with
a view of nothing but the sky
and a single tree almost blocking
the sky and the two blue curtains
that bracket the sky. I write
these only because you are
a friend and a poet,
and I am certain you write
words in ways I could never write,
though I want to,
I want to, because I write for the joy of it,
for the sound of them, for their silence
on the page, for the beauty of them
when made right,
and I write them in the summer,
which begins now, and for winter, which
comes soon and lasts long,
I write

to keep warm, to build
a word of wool or wood.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

6. The Foot Broken at a Syllable

It seems that it comes down to night
before I can write anything down, even
anything on your birthday, which is the day
that you cannot, for the limitations
of your broken foot, dance, as if
you’d ever intended to.

I am sensitive to punctuation
and wonder if I should enshroud
that last clause within parentheses,
believing that those would provide
the most accurate representation
of what I was trying to say, but

I left it as a comma because
it allows for a little ambiguity, and a poem
should always allow for a little of that.
We don’t want a poem to be merely
clear, because that eliminates its power.
Obscurity alone is not a particular value,
but competing meaning is, because the poem
is an examination of the uses of linguistic meaning,
and we run our lives continually against
this grave inability to communicate our thoughts
accurately with words
or without them.

In this way, it doesn’t resemble
the television commercial, as you know, which
must send forward only one message. Only one
message but certainly the commercial can
repeat that message in a number of ways.
You must recognize this by now,
since you manipulate those messages,
as all of us manipulate the messages we make.

As I have finished my poems each night, I lie down
and sleep, and my dreams become occupied
with those I’ve spent the night writing to,
and the stories I dream of them are not
necessarily true, or clear, but they have
meanings that are somehow true. In one,
people were eating pears. They held the pears
vertically in the palms of their hands, biting
into them as if they were trying to
bite into the fleshy heels of their right hands
as if they themselves were the sensual fruits
they wanted to devour. In another dream, I ask
people with pears (pears seem unavoidable
at those times when they are least needed), but
none of whom would ever answer my question.

I have no guess what my question might have been.

If you walk slowly up the hill
from this camp, dragging your foot, itself
encased in something resembling a ski book,
you learn how small changes make large
differences, how the unexpected has always
the greatest effect on your life.

As you marry my daughter, and my only one,
this year, you will expect some changes
in your life, but those won’t be the ones
you will notice, in the end. Instead, you will
notice the ones you had never expected,
and they will occupy your life to such a degree
you will think you are living a second life
simultaneous with the first, until you realize that
your imagined life never came to be,
because whatever you expect is the least
likely to happen.

Life is a structure, but only after it happens,
the carapace of meaning holds in what it can,
for as long as it can, but it needs something
to hold, something to organize. You are
the great experiment of life, or one of them.
Everything happens to test you and to test
whatever assumptions you have.

Don’t expect anything
and nothing will happen.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

5. Versions of Light Projected onto a Page

The notion of their being
as we want them, and there being
what we want, might cause
exultation within us
in the form of breathing (at a
more rapid pace) or an insistent
beating of the heart, or at the end
the loss of control, the giving in, the giving over
to the final experience
of it. But, as we see,
as we see it, events never turn out as they
might but only
as they have.

So it is (in this manner that
I’m speaking of) that we came here today,
to the Adirondacks, to this camp, for a
quarter of a century now, to Still Point, a name
from a poem written, psalmic, in fours,
held in place by structure and
tradition. I am in a small bedroom
with sloping ceilings of knotty pine,
and the interlocking of wood, the pattern
of placement, holds this structure
together after so many decades
in these harsh and snowy woods.
Nancy sleeps beside me,
her breath steady, determined,
and living.

Life seems limitless some days,
as if we could finish everything
we have started. We know we
cannot, as I learned today that Leslie Scalapino
has died, one of that meager palmful
of our best poets (and none of that number
men to my ear, though I greatly admire
the poetry of some men and disregard the poetry
of some women). I never knew her,
though you had published poems
of hers recently, and in those
I could hear her younger
voice again. I will often compare
my surprise
at the instant when I first became aware
of her death
to the first time I was able to imagine the inevitability
of my own. Although I do not
recall my own death.

The lake is dark now beyond my feet,
its water out of sunlight, but the moonlight
shines across it in a straight line,
a slim incision into the cold,
phthalocyanine blue water of the lake.
Loons call quietly
to each other across the darkness,
the warbling sound of their voices
a kind of water, as the voice of your poems
gathers and transmits a tumbling light
forward to some unknown location,
your voice repeating its fragmentary riffs,
which catch the light momentarily
so that the each poem is
a flickering mass of words,
of sounds.

But a man’s voice cannot have
the same character. Everyone’s is
a genital language, guided by the affinities
of gender, what the genitals require and what
the fact of these genitals cause to be. Scalapino’s
writing she carefully controlled, sometimes erotic,
sometimes political, and always the voice
of an observer. Even if speaking of
itself, it was a voice that repeated outlines
of her life, not an actor in a play.

We poets
may be relegated in life
to telling.

Yesterday, Nancy noticed
that the irises in our yard had bloomed,
the exaggerated vaginal flourishes
topping the erect stems of the violet flowers,
each surrounded by flat and sharpened
ensiform leaves. The iris, thus,
has the metaphoric characteristics of two
sexes, carrying off beauty
with resolve. The iris—which might also
be the muscle of the eye that reacts to light, that
shrinks the pupil to reduce
the light accepted, that
opens it to let light in—
resides in sunlight, which
doesn’t exist at this moment in this place.

This thought, the conceit
of believing in my own thinking, reminds me
that poetry is devalued because it offers
no solutions (a poem won’t stop a rupturing
flow of millions of barrels of oil into
the Gulf of Mexico, a poem won’t stop
a war in Afghanistan, a poem
won’t save a life) and because it is a feminine act
(an act of voice, the art of speaking). Give me
a frilly handkerchief sprayed with rosewater,
and I might be able to write a poem,
write against my genitals, find
the fictive voice that
makes the bearded throat
capable of song

(though I do not want
to sing as anyone else, I don’t want to sound
like anyone else, I don’t want to learn
to be like anyone else,

not even you
with your cultured voice
that plays each word
like a note
of the tenderest song
our ears might bear to hear).

I hear again
a solitary loon, its voice like darkness, a slow
undulating song, calm water rocking in a small lake,
a controlled wail, lament for the dead,
the spoken sadness of those
too cold to feel.

What is the loonsong you see?

Friday, May 28, 2010

4. These Woods, These Wooden

If in person is impossible,
we have to send words out
on their own. It is the only way,
it’s the way of writing,
and the direction of voice. I am
whistling now, but you can’t hear it
from wherever you are before
you realize I am telling you this.

There is music here
in The Nest, in Riverby,
John Burroughs’ version of wild
civilization. A little farther from
the road and this might be more than
a sliver of woods beside the Hudson.
Hardly matters, as we make
this percussive music in a room that
holds and deepens the dark of night.
Maybe there are no hemlocks
without this room, but the darkness of hemlocks
inhabits this space.

We come here
to make music because we are
half-tamed and we lack
a music that is a noise, that wanders,
that reminds us of water. What we make
slips between our fingers,
lingers only momentarily and disappears.
It seems to us that
what is most valuable is whatever
we cannot hold in place. The Hudson
flows south in darkness.

Riverby is the shadow across the river,
what holds the river back. It is a clutch of buildings
inside a stand of trees. This is where the humans live
down a steep incline and in the shadows, where
we try to disappear. Decay surrounds us. Decay
is the way of the forest, its deliberate urgency to dissolve into
soil, and this forest is occupied by buildings
of stone and wood and concrete
and collapsing slowly into themselves, the roof of one
opening into sky and trees out of it.
Nature doesn’t understand
the difference between nature and
anything else.

We live in
anything else, as anything else. We
are anything else, yet
there is no such thing.

My friends here are poets and artists,
creators. They do not try to live in the world.
They try to create it. We come here
to make music because we want to
disappear into the sound of water,
we want to return to the chaos.

We are sending messages out
into the world. And we send messages back and forth,
trading one message for another, telling our stories,
imagining the world forth. If you were here,
you would be a poet, you would be a musician,
you would be someone who could do
65 miles per hour in first gear,
you would be the king of Powerglide,
the tendency of everything
to fall apart, to return to formlessness,
and you would be the last
sound the forest made
before we ever woke.

Riverby sits on a running bed
of Esopus shale, layers of brittle grey
rock, breaking into grey rectangles
and ovals, wearing down into sand. We sit
upon the sloping face of the earth,
beneath a dark beadboard ceiling, sinking
into the left side of the river, every star
going dark, and the only voice
we hear is
our voices vibrating,
slowing down
back into silence.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

3. Our Own Air

I am up not yet late
but soon to be so because
I have plenty to write,
plenty to do, and my life is a series
of words and actions associated with them.
I speak, I write, I even draw words
to make myself exist,

and it almost works.

So I write to you because
I don’t write often to you
yet you are so important to me,
so important to us, the motherless Huths
and even the younger children.

“Younger children” because
we are all your children, we cannot grow up out of
that initial childishness. To our minds
you are always Auntie Nini,
a sense of security in a world now long past,
but we hold onto it, tightly.

I think of you, we think of you, often,
because you are invisible to us, left behind
in the place of my birth, the only marker to where
we once were, to where we are from,
a cool peninsula teeming with life. I am always
a Californian, and you live that into fact
for me. Where I once was, you are.

You might not know this, but I wake up
throughout the night gasping for breath. I don’t know this
except that people tell me it is so. I think I sleep
through it, but I awake dozens of times each hour. I never
have a good night’s sleep, I awake tired but ready
for whatever day it is. So you and I
both yearn and reach, as if with our hands,
for that most basic substance of life, oxygen, and our hands
cannot hold it and it slips away,
and maybe we fall back to sleep and dream
we are who we once were, who we always ever
will be, because we can’t change who we are. It is like skin
over bones, that sense of who we are that holds us in,
that gives us shape, and meaning.

We found once a movie of your high school graduation,
and you watched it and said, “I was beautiful. I was
beautiful. Why did no-one ever tell me I
was beautiful?” And you were beautiful,
and you were beautiful, and no-one told you
because it was too obvious a fact to bother mentioning.
Just as no-one mentioned the need to breathe.
Everything that is obvious is secret,
unspoken, held inside the heart, which sits
between two expanding and contracting lungs.
We do not want to say
what we already know. We talk instead
only about what we are ignorant of.

And you are still beautiful and you
are still beautiful. Because you are who you always were,
you are purely yourself, a person of joy
and kindness, a woman surrounded by
her boys, and the rest of us know
you are not our mother, though you are the only mother
we have. And we know you are there
for all of us.

In a family always dominated by a matriarch,
you are that powerful woman who
holds us together, who makes us a family,
without whom we would simply be
a collection of people, centerless,
pointless, floating away. You are the one
who is left. My mother is dead. Your mother
is dead. Your grandmother, my great-
grandmother, that tiniest woman I met but
never knew, is dead. And we leave it
to you to make us who we are,
Californians for a century and a half, descendants
of ’49ers who never found gold,
people brought by great and powerful desires
to an alien and unwieldy land, but the only
land we know.

My home is cool in the morning
and suffused with the scent of eucalyptus.

My home has a view of the water
but it isn’t the nearby sea.

My home has a cuckoo clock
for time, and we live within its workings.

But I am merely from that place,
not of it. As wind passes through the open windows
of my house, I follow it away, down
the Hudson, out over the night’s black Atlantic,
to Portugal, my other home, down to Morocco,
further to Ghana. Harmattan, harmattan,
and I am bound for Somalia before I am lost
over the formless Indian Ocean.

What home I have I have
because of you.

So I thank you, so late
in my life, now certainly more than half done,
for giving us a family. We all love you
more than we love the obvious fact
of the sun or the air. When we are with you,
we realize who we are. And we love you
for that as well.

This is an awkward life,
and awkward letter written after a full day
of chaotic work and hours toiling
in the yard until the evening slipped
into place. In situations like this,
we mumble because we do not ever
want to say what is obviously so. We do not
ever want to tell you how important you are
to us, how you make us possible, even
though we never see you enough, and don’t cross
this wide continent just to see you, even though
that is what we always want.

I apologize for all of this, for my inability
to express the sense of this life of ours, of yours,
to share the secret of our blood. My excuse
is what it always is:

I am reduced to words.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

2. Interruptions in the Usual Workings of a Life

The night came quickly
tonight, and we’re only a few weeks from
the longest day of the year.

Time isn’t time but our experience of it.
So work today was followed by commuting
then by purchasing and finally
by planting: a blueberry into the stony earth,

mulch everywhere to fight
the drying sun, and my hands deep in the dirt.
Even showering didn’t remove
the soil beneath and beside my fingernails.
I carry the moist scent of earth
everywhere I don’t go.

I showered out the dirt and sweat.
Still, grit remained in my eyes. Some dirt
won’t wash away. Blood stains forever.
Leaving the shower, I was glistening, water
replacing sweat. Naked before the mirror
I saw what I was, and the air surrounded me again,
the heat closed in
on me.

Descending the stairs in the dark of early evening,
I found Nancy’s old friend Alexis unexpectedly in our house,
missing from our life for at least ten years.
Sometimes, interruptions take over a life,
so Alexis sat down and talked to us as he always had.

The man could hardly find us, after all
these years, and in the dark, but here he was,
and was who he was, maybe a little
greyer, but otherwise unchanged.

From this long silence, our conversation grew
as it always had: tales of Alexis’ girlfriends (never
had a wife), his translations from the Portuguese
(my mother written tongue), and literature. Maybe
I had forgotten that Auden had been a friend
of his family’s (many of his papers left with Alexis’ mother
before his death) or that Alexis had met Salinger
a few times (after Salinger’s divorced wife
had taken up with Alexis), or that he had traveled
South America with a beautiful woman
he didn’t love. A life lived but not found,

something like yearning had befallen him,
but deeper and permanent, something
irretrievable. We never live
the lives we mean to. We never are
the people we plan to be. (You
know that.)

Lives interrupted by
the intersection of other lives, or abandoned
by fear,
which guides us all.

If this were a real account of an evening’s words,
you would not have this sense that it was
an evening of sorrow. I spent the night making
wisecracks, and Nancy tried to remember
the teachers she’d had at Alexis’ college. We spoke
of writers who moved us. I tried to convince him
to add Flannery O’Connor to his course
on the short story. “If I were teaching
the short story,” I said, “I would start with
Flannery O’Connor, then add anyone
else. Only O’Connor is essential.” He said
that she was too difficult, that she made him
uncomfortable, though he understood her
genius, little crazed devout southern Catholic
girl. (But don’t say “girl.”)

That, I told him, was the reason for teaching her.
We need to be uncomfortable and confused.
How else can we be human?

Alexis is a man of deep insights,
and he suggested that O’Connor tricks her readers,
because those bourgeois readers always believe,
deep where their souls might have been stored,
that they are better than the semi-literate characters
occupying O’Connor’s imagination. “Whom is better than who;
I is better than me,” he said, suggesting the symptomatic
blindness of hypercorrection.

And he proposed that J.D. Salinger,
Bobby Fischer, and Glenn Gould were afflicted by
a sense that their work was too good
for this pale world. That Salinger believed
his work ruined by the paucity of his readers’
intellect. That Fischer didn’t want to play against
mere humans but wanted a match against God.
That Gould could not imagine people
capable of appreciating his talent.

And maybe Alexis was right,
or maybe these three people were
men, and believed too deeply
what they shouldn’t have
believed at all.

Alexis reminded me that I had
disapproved of some relationship of his, but
I’ve forgotten the details. Maybe
he abandoned a woman or let a woman he didn’t love
care for him. (I remember one of them
crushing his pills for him.) We have all abandoned
people. We all have discarded lives we had once
held carefully in our hands.

It seems that maybe I have pushed you
when you weren’t ready for pushing,
seems that I’ve wanted you so much
to be the poet you are that I forgot the man
you are and the man you want to be, maybe
even forgot that I can’t even write a poem,
just break prose into lines, just
fall into the trap of the cute linebreak, not
a poet but a player with words. Just remember
that my forcefulness and my disregard for
the norms of human interaction come from
a passion for your work, for words so carefully wrought
and painful in their revelations. (I stood
naked in front of my mirror, this evening, but
I couldn’t see myself. Water covered everything
there was.) I am a loiterer among the words
where you toil.

Last week, I tracked down four of your books,
and bought each so that they arrived on my fiftieth
birthday (yesterday), and I would have read
these books tonight, but Alexis arrived, and I talked instead
about writers I rarely focus on now.

Talk is the converse of everything we say.

When this evening ended (with the grilled salmon
and the steamed broccoli, and Nancy’s delicious bean salad
with chopped red onions and two kinds of olives
eaten and the conversation paused), I walked Alexis
out into the warm darkness and directed him east
so that he could eventually drive the dark and dangerous
Taconic south to New York City, where he will dismantle
the remains of his mother’s life. A woman dead
for five years. He seems to have kept her alive for
this fingers’ grasp of years. Maybe for love.

I didn’t wear a shirt in tonight’s heat,
so Alexis saw the scar in my chest, that persistent
evidence of surgery on my heart. As he left,
he looked again at the scar, asking me
if I’d be okay.

“I’m fine for now,” I said, “but everyone’s only
fine for now. That’ll end sometime for all of us.”

It occurs to me that some of these stories
are secrets, that I shouldn’t send them
to you, or let others see them, but
it’s too late to start over.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

1. Leaving Alive

I come from
half-way to somewhere,
you were there for most of it, and

concerning half-way we can never be secure
being is better than disappearing
or what the midway is
between a life and its ending.

Not that I think of death, not
that I’m incapacitated by that thought,
even though it adheres to me.

Things adhere to us
that we cannot shake off, that fill
our thoughts, our veins, our lungs.
What we do not want become
us. It is a burden, almost a fear.

Working in the yard today the sun
was furious against my bald head,
and I could imagine myself
collapsing
with the right wrenching of the spading fork out
of the ground.

The heat and effort reminded me
of a cold February snowshoeing,
pushing myself hard and sweating enough
that I could feel the burning of life,
though I didn’t know
all it was was arteries filled with plaque,
the squeezing of all that heated blood
through my constricted veins.

We are structures of being, bodies
that function without a word from us, interpreting
minds resisting the urge to sleep,
and all we have is time
to make, to do, to love.

There is something I must do.

Tonight, I write you
a letter, and I pretend it’s a poem,
though it’s a poem I wouldn’t otherwise write,
something only the requirement of correspondence
could pull from me. I question everything:

What a poet is, whether I ever
was one, how I ever came to believe
I could do something with words. That
is everything. Except that it isn’t.

The other day I was driving, somehow alone,
and I realized a simple fact: the only point
of this life is to experience joy. That is our purpose.

And as I drove, the car seemed to slow,
to stop, becoming the concept of a car rather
than a car itself, and I realized that joy could be
the littlest part of the day,

and the most important,
for that fact.