Saturday, May 21, 2011

362. The Birds in the Trees

I am coming, tired, into the day after so much traveling and so much making. I’ve been on the road for a month, almost constant traveling. First, three flights out to Montana, but the last of my flights kept me in Utah for the first night. I was surprised that the weather was about as cold as it was here in upstate New York. But that was a month ago, and the weather has moderated since then. The next week, I flew to England for a festival of poets and others who create art—maybe poetry, maybe sculpture, maybe videos—with text and language. For those four nights, I was up later than usual drinking and talking to friends from around the world whom I rarely see, and writing about my experiences until I finally went to bed around 3:30 most mornings, which was 8:30 in the world I had come from.

After this, I was home for only one day before driving to Virginia for a conference of archivists, which meant another four days on the road, yet on the way home I decided to spend a night in New York City so that I could attend the opening of an art show on a Sunday night. I drove home that night arriving just before midnight on what is always the busiest week of my work year. An almost frantic week, but I made my way through it. Even that week was a trip of sorts, with its own challenges, and similarly late nights talking with friends. I am just now back from a few days away to celebrate the graduation of my son and second and final child, so these past few late nights were spent with family, including Tim, who started a job today, the day after graduating.

So I’m home, brought back to my house after thousands of miles of travel, and a hundred hours or so of lost sleep, and I’m near the end of something else, near the end of a project I began almost a year ago, a project to write a letter in the form of a poem to a different person I know, half of them men, half of them women, some that I knew very well, and a few I knew less well, but whom I had wanted to write to. The first of these people was my wife, and I alternated between men and women for a year, and will end with my wife Nancy as well. This is a project to connect with the people I know, with those I share the connection of blood, with those I share certain interests (sometimes poetry, sometimes art, sometimes archives). I started this 365 ltrs project as a way to send gifts out into the world to celebrate this year that I have been fifty years of age—what seems like a half-way mark but which is probably better than two thirds through my life. I have written poems in many styles and forms, poems for children, poems for flarfists, poems for archivists, for visual poets, for conceptual poets, for haijin. And I saved the haijin for last because I can never quite write a haiku right, because this unexpected haibun from me will, doubtless, be askew as well.

This traveling ended with Nancy and me driving a few hours home in a car as full as it could be packed. This travel ended by taking a couple of hours to pack the car in the suddenly hot sun with my son’s personal effects from college and then by unpacking all of it at our house. I still wonder where we will store it all.

pulls itself up
buzzard by the roadside
so slowly it seems walking

I came into my backyard to enjoy a simple warm day and its solitary sun, and to listen to the birds. We live in a city and right next to a supermarket, but we have a large backyard, and it is almost sylvan at the edge of the dark-green darkness that is the shade of our giant backyard maple (two others in the front yard). The world is both gently cool and pleasantly warm for a moment, as we sit at the table we have just brought out of the garage. We have not yet prepared the yard for the summer because we have not been here very much since the snow has melted.

voices of birds
flight of voices of children
swimming

Nancy and I drink margaritas to appease our desire for taste, each drink made with a reposado margarita, so these drinks are even smokier and more peppery than usual. And they are filled with the flavor of fruit: the orange of the Cointreau, the fresh sour bite of the limes, their little capsules of juice occasionally bursting in our mouths. I try to read Jacques Derrida’s Archive Fever, which I had realized last week I had never read, but it is too dense for me to read this tired, this logy, with my body so worn out, and my mind carrying forward only because it does not know when to stop. It never knows when to stop.

we wait
for something to happen—
a leaf rustles

What I desire more than anything is action, simple action, something to happen. I am always writing or reading or watching because that gives me some sense of myself as a person, and because a person is here for experiences to flow through and for experiences to flow out of. We are all creators, we are all storytellers, we are all members of the audience accepting the action before us so we can remember it back into a story, a feeling, a poem. I know this even sitting at a table in the low sun, waiting for a feeling like sleep to overtake me, even though I won’t give into sleep, my nemesis, until the early morning. I have too much to do, or too much I have to do, too much I’ve forced myself to do.

I began this project because it would be difficult, and as a test for myself. I like challenges, and I like overcoming challenges. This writing, this daily writing, this incessant writing demands much of me. I like the sense I have that almost no-one would go through such a project, because they would not want to experience the suffering it requires. Even I am challenged by the need to think of some different way to make a poem, by the need to think of something else to say, by the realization that I cannot escape the trap of my own tropes. I am always encased in the tendencies of my writing. I am always restricted by the limitations of my meager thoughts. What I can’t do is more impressive than what I can do. Yet I believe that most people who might begin such a writing marathon would never end it, and I’m only three days from the end of this, so I’ll probably finish.

clouds slip southward
I don’t know
why

The small voices of these birds, smaller than the spring leaves of these trees, make the world seem alive again. It was a long winter this year with plenty of snow, and it’s been a dark and rainy spring, so this one warm day, with enough sun, gives us some belief that we are awaking into a new life, something green and burgeoning. For a second, maybe a few, I sit and listen, I feel the world around me. These small birds flit through the trees, but I think of them as streams of blood moving through the maples, the beating blood of the entire world. I look around the yard to see how the world changes as sunset approaches.

the sun is low
so the stockade fence
appears around me

Three more poems to write after this one, then maybe I will read this book of mine all at once. It will be about 1500 pages long. With that much length in that relatively short a time, I have to assume the quality of these poems is lacking. There is no way for a poet to write so many words and ensure quality all the way through. Despite my ability to string words together, I don’t necessarily have the ability to do anything interesting with them. In the end, this project may be of no interest beyond its conceptual qualities, its idea that a constraint in poetry, a prosody, might be physical, might be based on nothing more than physical and temporal restrictions. It is my only gift to poetry: to turn it into a marathon, a physical test as much as an intellectual one.

This year’s worth of poems, one for each day, make up a book so long that it will never be printed, it will never be a whole. It exists in boxes and on the Internet, but not between covers, never between covers. It includes poems in color, poems without words, poems out of written sounds that never form meanings. It is an experiment in the possibilities of poetry laid out over one year, and it is a book that will never exist. But it is still a book. I like to make books, even books that don’t exist.

why these mockingbirds
spreading their tailfeathers
in the black locust?

I don’t know anything.

None of us does. We move through our lives wondering but never quite knowing. During this year of writing, two of the people I have written to have died. Their deaths have become part of this project, for poetry is a project, a project against death, a project of making, a plan for making sense of the world, and making that sense out of words and fractions of words.

The first of the deaths was that of my aunt, my only blood aunt, my replacement mother after the death of my own mother in a car accident a dozen years ago. My aunt died slowly, of emphysema, a project years in length, which is just as my mother would have died, slowly, after the effects of years of smoking. She responded to my poem to her with a telephone call, telling me the letter was the best gift she had ever received. I was happy for that, happy to give her a little joy in a slow descent into death. When she died, my entire family, my wife, my daughter, and son, and I, flew out to California for her funeral. It was a sad occasion, but it was also a celebration of a life and a family reunion as well. We were all together again, on the coast opposite mine, but the coast of my birth, the very town of my birth, to be an extended family again, if only for a short time.

The second death was of a colleague who had moved away from here. He had resigned from his job and moved back to Connecticut to be a real estate agent again. When I sent him his letter, he wrote back to me explaining that he didn’t understand the poem but that he would work at it. There are poems of mine, like this one, that seem very simple to me, that say merely exactly what they are meant to say, but which people still cannot fathom. But my poem to Art (which is really his name, I am not using his name allegorically, I was not writing to the concept of art) was not such a poem. It was demanding and obtuse, written both in the broken lines of verse and then as prose. It required the reader to give up on the normal sense that writing makes. Art wrote me to tell me that it had him thinking.

Maybe that is the best a poem can do.

Art died last month, apparently by his own hand. He had had some financial problems, and I had discovered after his death that creditors had been calling my place of work every day looking for him. He visited his family, maybe as a last goodbye, and then he drove to New Hampshire, walked into the woods, and died. I don’t know how. Toxicology reports have not yet been released, but we assume he poisoned himself somehow. It is a sad story, but it ended as all stories about people have to end.

I don’t know anything.

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